A seemingly harmless wand is found next to the bodies of people who have died for no obvious cause. Can Tom Jurgen uncover the secret of its power—before it kills him too?
Friday, January 19, 2018
The wand looked as if it had been made by gluing white string in a winding stripe around an ordinary No. 2 pencil, up to the eraser, then wrapping the end of the string around the top like a crown.
“It was next to him when I found him dead.” Catherine Yount lit a cigarette.
I moved a saucer across the table. I don’t smoke—anymore—but I like clients to feel comfortable when we meet in my apartment. “Your husband?”
Richard Yount. He’d died of unexplained causes a week ago.
She blew smoke into the air and pushed the wand across my dining room table. “I’ve seen those before. But we never had one in the house. He left that group a long time ago.”
She stared at me. “They say you specialize in . . . unusual cases.”
I managed not to sigh. If I had a nickel for every client who led off with that, I’d have—maybe not enough nickels to retire on, but enough to pay my cable TV bill for a month.
Me? Tom Jurgen, private detective, ex-reporter. And yeah, my cases do cover territory that includes the supernatural and the paranormal. It’s a living.
“It’s called New Sun.” Catherine Yount, in her forties, had silvery-blond hair and a blunt nose. “They dabble in . . . magic.” She seemed embarrassed. “I was never involved in it, but Rick was when I met him. That was 10 years ago.”
“What kind of magic?” Making wands out of pencils didn’t sound particularly ominous.
She shook her head. “I don’t really know. He talked about levitation and alchemy, but I wasn’t really interested. He did manage to lift a cup of tea once with his mind, but then it fell and broke, and I got mad. It was an heirloom.” She bit her lip and looked ready to burst into tears. Not because of the heirloom.
I picked up the wand. “So you think this is somehow connected to your husband’s death?”
“I don’t know.” She pulled a handkerchief from a skirt pocket and blew her nose. “There just wasn’t any reason for—that to happen. He was in good health, worked out, ate healthy—the doctors couldn’t come up with any that might have—done it.”
A meaningless death with a connection to magic—yeah, that was up my alley, for better or worse. “May I keep this? I’d like to show it to someone.”
Rachel lives upstairs from me. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she’s my girlfriend. She’s also psychic, which comes in handy on my cases.
“Can you get anything from this?” I held out the wand.
She tilted her head to stare at it. Three seconds passed.
Then she knocked it out of my hand. “Get that thing out of here!”
I’ve seen her angry enough to slap demons and determined enough to swim Lake Michigan from one side to the other, but I’ve never seen her scared. Not like this. I picked the wand up. “What is it?”
“I don’t know, but it’s evil. Burn it, lock it in a box, throw it in the lake—just get rid of it.” She shuddered.
“Okay.” I reached for the door. “I’ll call—”
“Wait—where’d you get it?”
“A client. Her husband’s dead. This was near his body.”
Rachel clenched her jaw. “Okay. Stay here. Just keep that thing away from me.”
I left it near the door, Rachel brought coffee. I wanted a beer, but my anxiety medication wouldn’t let me drink. I’d have to talk to my doctor about that.
I told her what I knew. Which wasn’t much.
She sipped her coffee. “Okay. I’ve never heard of New Sun. But I’ve never heard of a lot of fringe groups and wannabes. But that thing . . .” She pointed a long finger. “It’s radiating something. Bad.”
I nodded. “I’m not sure what to do. I’ll have to ask the client if I can destroy it.”
“Whatever you do, don’t keep it too near you.” Rachel shivered again. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”
I called Catherine Yount, and she gave me permission to destroy the wand. “I don’t ever want to see it again.” Her voice trembled.
So I took a few photos of the wand, and then broke it into little pieces and dropped them down the garbage chute. I hoped that would end whatever power it had.
Then I ran a search on New Sun.
I found two companies with the same name, along with half a dozen books with that title on Amazon, two punk bands, and four movies. Then I found what I was looking for. I hoped.
“NEW SUN: Take Charge of Your Destiny.” The banner made it sound like a self-help website, with an image of a fiery sun and a long heavy sword—but in the corner I spotted what looked like the wand next to Rick Yount’s body.
The site didn’t offer much information to outsiders, though. There was an email link to a membership page, where you could apply for access. Other than that, nothing.
Using some tech tricks Rachel had taught me, I saw that the site hadn’t been updated in two years. That didn’t necessarily mean the group was dormant, of course—membership might send me to an active site.
So I used an alternate email address and a fake name on a different web browser to apply for membership. Then I switched back to my main browsers and used my real name and email address to ask for more information—mentioning Rick Yount name.
After a cup of coffee, I had a response to my first email—the one I’d used a fake name for. Holding my breath, I clicked on the link it offered.
The link took me to a questionnaire. I had to type in my (false) name and (alternative) email address, and then answer 30some questions, like:
Have you ever felt the presence of a force beyond your control?
Has that power ever controlled you?
Have you ever controlled it?
Did you ever lose consciousness while in the grip of a power beyond your control?
Have you had a near-death experience?
And so on.
I clicked “yes” to most of them. I didn’t claim to have used any power to influence other people, and I checked “no” to the question about whether the power had affected my sex life. I also pleaded “no” to questions about aliens and demonic possession, even though I actually had experienced both. I figured those were there to weed out people who just said “yes” to everything in hopes of joining a cool club.
They didn’t ask for my address, and they didn’t ask for money. I figured that was coming next. So I hit “submit” and went to get myself a Coke.
Then I spent the rest of the afternoon on normal detective work. No vampires or werewolves, just employment background checks and identity searches. At least I didn’t have to tail any cheating spouses right now.
Late in the day Rachel came down for dinner. We were in the middle of a tofu stir fry—Rachel’s a vegetarian—when my phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Mr. Jurgen? This is Michelle Garfield. I’m the website administrator for New Sun.”
That was fast. “Hi! Thank you for calling back.” I waved to Rachel to stir the wok. “I just had some questions about one of your former members, Richard Yount? He died recently, and his wife found some materials related to New Sky that she’d like some information about.”
“What kind of materials?” I heard her tapping a keyboard.
“A wand. I can send a picture if you’d like.”
Long pause. “I don’t see that name on our membership list.”
“This was maybe 10 years ago.”
“Our list doesn’t go back that far. I’m not sure what I can tell you—”
“Is the wand valuable? Does it have any kind of special significance?”
She hesitated. “I’d have to talk to Mrs. Gore before discussing any of that with you. She’s taken over the leadership of the group since Kenneth.”
“Ken Gore. He passed away two weeks ago.”
I resisted the temptation to ask if a wand had been found near his body. “All right. If you could pass the message along—”
“I’ll do that.” She seemed in a sudden hurry to get me off the phone. “Thanks for your interest.” She hung up.
“You’re going on with that wand thing?” Rachel added some vegetables and curry to the stir-fry.
I looked at the picture I’d taken of the thing. “We’ll see.”
The next morning I got a call from Mrs. Gore. Her voice was guarded. “I’m not sure how much I can tell you. Information on our members is confidential.”
“Can you tell me anything about the wand?” I sipped my coffee. “I sent a picture to Ms. Garfield.”
“Some of our members make them as hobbies. They’re harmless.”
“I see.” Rachel said otherwise, and I trusted her more. “Well, thank you for your call. By the way, I’m sorry for your loss. Ms. Garfield mentioned—”
“Yes, that was a—a shock.” Her voice quavered. “Very unexpected.”
“Had he been ill?”
“No. Nothing like that. It was . . .” She hesitated, remembering that she knew nothing about me. “That’s all, Mr. Jurgen. Have a good day.”
I was getting nowhere. I’d spent some time looking for New Sun across the internet. No disgruntled ex-members, no legal issues, no new stories. New Sun ran a tight operation.
But not that tight. Two hours later I got an email inviting me to a preliminary meeting for prospective members. Tonight. 8:30.
The interview would assess my “potential.” If I was approved for membership, though, the initiation fee would be $2,000. Monthly dues after that were $700.
I supposed it was one way to keep out the riffraff. I called Mrs. Yount.
She was understandably hesitant. “Do you really think there’s anything about them?”
I chose my words carefully. “I know that there was something wrong with that wand. Beyond that—I can’t really say. It’s a fishing expedition, but I if I don’t find anything out at the first meeting, I can drop it.”
Mrs. Yount sighed. “I really want to know. But . . . all right. Tell me if you find anything.”
I called Rachel to Then I went back to work.
At 5:30 I knocked off for the day and called Rachel. She was working and she couldn’t come down for dinner, so I let her know where I was going and promised to call her when I got home. Then I made myself a sandwich and sat in front of the TV to watch the latest episode of Black Mirror. Rachel didn’t like it, so it was safe to watch without her.
I sipped a Coke and lay back. It looked like an interesting episode.
I woke up on my couch with a splitting headache. My phone was buzzing. The sun was streaming through my blinds. “Uh . . . hello? Tom Jurgen—”
“What happened to you?” Rachel’s voice was like a punch in my ear. “You didn’t call me!”
“What?” I lurched up, rubbing my head. “What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t pick up when I called you! You scared me to death!”
“I was . . .” What time was it? I looked at the clock over my kitchen door. 8:30 a.m. Oh, hell, did I fall asleep? All night? “I don’t know. I must have . . .” I leaned over, feeling nauseous. My mouth was dry as a desert.
“I’ll be right down.”
Two minutes later I was gulping down water from a bottle when Rachel opened the door. “There you are! You were going to that meeting. New Sun. You didn’t drink anything, did you?”
“No.” At least I didn’t remember having a drink—but then I didn’t remember anything. Could my medication cause blackouts? I’d have to ask Dr. Neral.
She sat down next to me and put a hand on my forehead. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
My brain felt fuzzy as I searched my memory. Cereal for breakfast yesterday, phone calls, the invitation. Mrs. Yount. Calling Rachel, eating a sandwich, sitting down to watch TV. After that—nothing.
Mrs. Yount. I picked up my phone. “Hang on a second—Mrs. Yount? Tom Jurgen here. I just have one question, and it’ll sound kind of strange, but—did I call you last night?”
“N-no.” She sounded suspicious. “We talked yesterday afternoon. You were going to that meeting. What happened last night?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t remember.”
I expected her to fire me on the spot. Instead, she took a deep breath, as if lighting a cigarette. “When will you have something to report?”
So I wasn’t fired? “Soon. I hope.”
“Very good.” Mrs. Yount hung up.
I set my phone down. “I think she believed me.”
“I think they wiped your memory.” Rachel lowered her hand and then slugged my shoulder. “Jerk.”
“But I don’t remember . . .” Oh Yeah. I stood up and staggered to the dining room, where I opened my laptop. “How would that even work?
“Magic. Witchcraft. They made that wand, didn’t they?” She followed me and leaned over my shoulder. “What are you looking for?”
“The address.” I logged onto my alternate account and found the email invitation. “Did you have breakfast?” I was starving.
“I’m not a good detective on an empty stomach.” I pushed my chair back. “Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms?”
“Yuck.” She made a face. “Don’t you have Frosted Flakes like a normal guy?’
It was a big house on a north side street full of big houses. I parked the Honda and stared at the wide lawn and the steps leading up to the front door.
I would have bet one of my credit cards that I’d never seen the place before.
Rachel and I got out. I was in my windbreaker and Rachel was in her denim jacket on a cool fall day. We walked up the steps and rang the doorbell.
I rang again, over and over for five minutes. No one was asleep. Maybe they were ignoring me. Or maybe they’d left.
If I were a real private detective—meaning one on TV—I would have picked the lock and gone inside to search. In real life, a nosy neighbor would call the cops and I’d go to jail.
Speaking of nosy neighbors . . .
“Now what?” Rachel put her hands on her hips. “Do we break a window?”
I shook my head. “Now we talk to the neighbors.”
She sighed. “At least I had breakfast.”
I told the woman next door, plump and fortyish, that I had an appointment at the house but that no one seemed to be answering—both true statements, though not at the same time. “Have you seen anyone leave this morning?”
“No.” She seemed relieved that Rachel and I weren’t Mormons or vacuum cleaner salespeople. “They had some kind of party last night. There were a lot of people coming in and out. They have them every other week or so. But I haven’t seen any of them today.”
“What kind of parties?” Rachel asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I really don’t know Ms. Gore very well.”
Mrs. Gore. I remembered her, at least. “It’s sad about her husband.”
“Yeah.” She put her hand on the door. “I’m sorry, I’ve got a lot of work to do . . .?”
“Thank you for your time.”
The other neighbors—those that were home—told us pretty much the same thing. No one had seen Mrs. Gore or anyone else leaving the house last night or this morning.
But the house was definitely deserted. So after an hour we got back in the Honda and headed back.
“Thanks for coming with me.” I turned left at the corner.
“I’m not letting you out of my sight.” She punched my shoulder, but not hard enough to interfere with my driving. “What now?”
Rachel brought her laptop down to my apartment and we teamed up. I checked real estate records, and she looked up everything she could find on Kenneth Gore.
The house was 80 years old, and it was held in the names of Kenneth and Lorraine Gore since they’d bought it 16 years ago. Property taxes were high. They had a permit to run a business out of it—Suncorr LLC, 14 years old. So I looked up Suncorr.
As an LLC, there wasn’t much available on it. The license identified it as a private investment agency, without saying what it actually invested in. Its officers were Kenneth Gore (president and CEO), Lorraine Gore (VP and COO), Fletcher Mason (chief financial officer), and Joseph Leeds (secretary).
But when I looked at past filings for the permit, I found a familiar name: Richard Yount, secretary.
A dive into the internet turned up very little on Suncorr itself. It was listed on the usual websites that rated investment services, but without any comments from users. I did find a notice from nine years ago that Yount was no longer associated with the firm. Nothing about Leeds, whoever he was, coming on board.
I emailed Karl Leary, a lawyer who handles my business issues, I sent attachments and asked him if he could tell me anything about Suncorr that wasn’t obvious from the documents.
I poured more coffee. “Anything?”
“Oh, lots.” Rachel snorted. “Starting with his obituary.”
She switched screens. “Age 64. Cause of death, unknown. No kids. Worked for CNA Insurance and Aon Consulting before starting his own company, Suncorr, in 2003. The thing is, it looks like he got fired before starting Suncorr. There’s an old press release online that just says he’s no longer there, referring clients to some other guy.”
I nodded. “I’ve got some stuff on Suncorr. What else?”
“He married Lorraine Ogilvy in 1998. She has an interesting history.” She sipped her coffee. “Her parents died in a fire when she was 17. I found their obituaries. Lorraine inherited a lot of money—more than a million dollars.”
“Did she kill her parents?” It was an obvious question. I’m a detective, after all.
Rachel cocked an eyebrow at me. “They said the cause was faulty wiring in the house. Lorraine was at a friend’s when it happened. So . . . could be.”
“Studied finance at Northwestern, got a job as a loan officer at a bank. Except . . .” She turned her screen toward me. “According to her LinkedIn profile, she took a gap year building houses in Africa. Here are a few pictures.”
The young woman in the photos had long black hair and a sharp chin. She wore shorts and a vest over a gray T-shirt, and her skin was tanned. She carried a hammer, smiling at the camera.
“Stop gawking at her legs.” Rachel shifted to another picture. “I just found this.”
Lorraine was sitting by a nighttime fire, her legs crossed, talking to a young African man. He was holding . . . “Can you zoom in?”
Rachel tried, but the image didn’t get much clearer. Still, the object looked familiar. “So, do you think it’s a wand?”
It looked like a short tree branch, with yellow cloth tied around the tip. Rachel nodded. “Could be.”
I made grilled cheese sandwiches while Rachel did more research. “I think I found something.”
“We’ll make a detective out of you yet.” I sat next to her and nudged my knee against her leg.
“Stop it.” She slapped my knee and picked up her sandwich. “Anyway, 11 years ago, this girl named Angela Percy was found dead for no apparent reason in her apartment on New Year’s Eve. The article lists her employer as Suncorr.”
I looked. The New Year’s Eve angle was the news hook. Friends of Angela Percy, 29, had come to pick her up for a party. When she didn’t come to the door or picked up her phone, they got a landlord to do a safety check.
They found Percy dead in a chair, the TV on. No cause of death was found. The article said that she’d been employed at a company called Suncorr as an IT specialist.
The article had a photo. Angela Percy had been blond, cute, and way too young to die for no reason.
“So.” I bit into my sandwich and wished for a beer. “Could be completely unrelated.”
“Could be.” But Rachel wasn’t convinced. “There’s not much on her. This was 11 years ago. If she had a Facebook page in those days, it’s been taken down. I’ve got a possible number for her parents.”
Great. Calling grieving parents was lower on the list of things I enjoyed than stalking vampires.
But it was my only lead right now. And after 11 years, maybe the parents wouldn’t be hostile.
So I called the number.
“Hello?” A woman answered.
“Hi, ma’am.” I plunged right in. “My name is Tom Jurgen. I’m a private investigator doing research on an organization called Suncorr. I believe that your daughter Angela once worked for them?”
A long pause. “My daughter’s dead.”
I sighed. “I know. And I’m sorry for your loss—”
“Just because it was 11 years ago doesn’t mean it goes away.” But she sighed too. “What do you need to know?”
“Anything about her employers—Kenneth Gore and his wife Lorraine? Or Richard Yount, Fletcher Mason, or Joseph Leeds?”
Hesitation. “Ken. He was her boss.”
“What about him?”
“I can’t . . .” She groaned. “She told me not to say anything about him. But then she was . . . gone.”
I waited. Pushing too hard could go wrong. I looked at Rachel, eating her sandwich. Then I took a deep breath and went forward.
“Ma’am? Anything you can tell me might help. Kenneth Gore is dead. I can’t tell you much about the case—”
“Good.” Her voice was harsh. “I’m glad—I shouldn’t say that, but good. He—he hurt my daughter. He was a bastard.”
“Okay.” I held my voice steady. “So can you, uh, elaborate on that?”
“He . . . gave her drugs, and then he . . . raped her. Many times.”
Oh god. “I’m so sorry.”
“She quit. Just before New Year’s. She told me she was going to get a lawyer. And then . . .”
I waited while Rachel stared at me. Finally I said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Percy, but I have to ask one more question and then I’ll leave you alone.”
“That’s okay.” I heard a sniffle. “Go ahead.”
“In your daughter’s personal effects, was there anything like . . . a pencil with some string tied around it?”
“A pencil . . .” She sniffled again. “Yeah, I think so. I wondered what it was. My husband—I couldn’t clean out the apartment, but my husband and some of our friends packed it up. When I asked him about it, he said it was next to the chair where she . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“All right. Thank you for your help.”
“Can I ask . . .” She coughed. “What’s this about?”
I hesitated. “I can’t tell you right now. But if I get the answers I’m looking for, and permission from my client, I’ll call you back.”
“Okay.” She sighed. “Please do that.”
I told Rachel what I’d gotten. Her face grew grim. “Okay, I can see killing Gore for revenge, but what about Yount?”
“He left New Sun around the time that she died. Maybe . . .” I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
So I called Catherine Yount again.
“Yes?” She sounded tired. “I’m in the middle of dealing with documents and lawyers. Do you have something to tell me?”
“Questions.” I took a breath. “Did your husband ever talk about—”
Rachel jabbed my arm. “Put me on.”
I winced. “Mrs. Yount, I’d like to bring my assistant, Rachel Dunn, into the conversation. She can help.” I hit the speakerphone.
“Hi, Mrs. Yount.” Rachel leaned forward. “I work with Tom. Can we talk?”
“Sure.” She laughed. I heard a cigarette lighter flick. “What is this all about?”
I tried to straighten out my thoughts. “Okay. Kenneth and Lorraine Gore. Have you heard those names?”
“Ken? Yeah, He was part of New Sun. Lorraine? I don’t know.”
“What abut Angela Percy?”
“No. I never—what’s going on?”
“I don’t exactly know yet. But . . . maybe I should explain the reason for my odd question this morning.”
She inhaled. “What are you talking about?”
“I was supposed to go to a New Sun meeting last night. But I don’t remember anything at all about what happened. I think that somehow my memory was erased. I know that sounds weird, but—”
“No.” Her voice was sharp. “Rick said—when I said that he didn’t talk about New Sun much, it was because he said he didn’t remember a lot of it. So I didn’t push it, because it didn’t matter to me when we met. At church. But he had nightmares and headaches for a long time.”
“What kind of nightmares?” I still had a headache from this morning.
She hesitated, “Maybe you should come here. I don’t think I can talk about this over the phone.”
I looked at Rachel. She nodded. “We’ll be right there.”
“Three o’clock, please? I have yoga in half an hour.”
It was only 1:15. Where had the morning gone? “We’ll be there. Thanks.”
Catherine Yount lived in a condo overlooking Lake Shore Drive. Sailboats swerved on the waters of Lake Michigan. She poured white wine into two tall glasses and coffee in a big cup for me. Then she lit a cigarette.
“I met Rick at church.” She was wearing sweatpants and a long black sweater. “We had coffee, and then we went out for coffee. Then we—well, we didn’t actually fall in love, but we decided to get married. We had . . . some of the same baggage. Divorce. Kids. He seemed . . . damaged, and I guess that attracted me. I thought I could help him.”
“What do you know about Kenneth Gore?”
“Not much.” She sipped her water. “I met him once or twice. Before Rick and I got married. He had . . . I didn’t like the way he looked at me.”
“What about your husband?” I had to ask. “What did he know?”
She stabbed her cigarette into an ashtray, “What exactly are you asking?”
I leaned forward. “Kenneth Gore started a company called Suncorr, which appears to be related to New Sun, 14 years ago. Angela Percy worked there in an IT capacity. Gore drugged her and sexually abused her, and after she quit, she was found dead in her apartment for no reason, with one of those wands next to her.”
I paused to sip her coffee. It coffee had a strong nutty taste. “Your husband quit New Sun right around the time she died, 11 years ago. So, did he know anything about what happened to her?”
I braced myself. I was basically accusing her husband about colluding with a sexual predator. Once again, I expected Mrs. Yount to fire me on the spot.
Instead she lit another cigarette. “I didn’t know much about New Sun. I was never interested in it. I didn’t even ask why he left. But a few months later, I did ask him.”
She exhaled smoke toward the window. “He couldn’t remember.”
Rachel and I glanced at each other. “What else did he forget?” she asked.
“He didn’t remember any of the magic he showed me. Lifting the teacup? Gone. He didn’t remember most the people he knew there. He did remember Ken Gore, and a few other people. He didn’t remember where they met. For a few months he had . . . nightmares, and then headaches the next day. Eventually they stopped, and I stopped asking.”
“Did he ever mention Gore’s wife, Lorraine? Or two people who were involved in Suncorr—Fletcher Mason or Joseph Leeds?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Fletcher Mason . . . maybe. The other two—I didn’t even know Ken Gore was married.”
Then she opened her eyes again. “Where does this leave us?”
“I must have found out something last night that they’re scared of.” I looked at Rachel. “Do you know anyone who could get my memory back?”
She sighed. “Maybe. I’ll call around.” When Mrs. Yount stared at her, she said, “Iron Sun aren’t the only people who play with magic. I know some people who do more than play.”
Mrs. Yount picked up her wine. “Don’t do anything dangerous. Really. This is just—I want to find out what happened to Rick, but it’s not worth it if anyone gets hurt.”
I couldn’t agree more. I finished my coffee and stood up. “We’ll be in touch.”
Rachel spent the drive home calling her friends. She does know a lot of people in Chicago’s paranormal community—wizards, witches, psychic advisers and the like.
“My friend Gaile can do it tomorrow afternoon.” She slid the phone back into her pocket. “She’s a telepath.”
“I just hope she won’t steal my passwords.” I stopped for a red light. “Or talk about my browsing history.
She slugged my arm with a laugh. “I know all about supermodelsinbikinis.com, Tom.”
Rachel had work to do—she’s a graphic designer when she’s not helping me—so she went upstairs for dinner. I ate a sandwich, did some work, and watched TV until 9:30. By then I was too sleepy to keep my eyes open.
I can stay up all night if I need to, or go to bed at 8:30 if I don’t. I assumed the memory erasure was knocking my out.
I brushed my teeth, took off my shoes and my shirt, and started unbuckling my belt. I reached for the bottle of water next to my bed—
And found a wand sitting next to it.
I dropped the water, grabbed my shirt and my shoes, and ran.
Upstairs I pounded on Rachel’s door with one fist while calling her on my phone. “Let me in—please!
“You’ve got a key.” But I waited until she’d pulled her two deadbolts and chain. “What’s the—”
“You’ve got a key.” But I waited until she’d pulled her two deadbolts and chain. “What’s the—”
“There’s a wand next to my bed.” I pulled my shirt back on.
“Oh Christ.” Rachel pushed past me. “You stay here. I’ll—”
“No!” I put a hand on her arm. “Stay away from it. We don’t know how it works.”
She wanted to argue, but after a moment she relocked her doors. “Okay.” She walked into her bedroom where her office is set up and came back with her phone. “Hi, Gaile. I know it’s late, but this is an emergency. Is there any way you can come over tonight? . . . I know, I know, but Tom’s in trouble. . . . Not that kind of trouble. Someone’s trying to kill him.”
I winced. But it was true. I’ve faced vampires, demons, and angry ghosts, but the simple threat of the wand had me rattled more than ever before. At least you could fight a monster. I had no idea how the wans worked. How close did it have to be? Would it kill me if I tried to destroy it? Would it kill Rachel?
“Okay, thanks.” Rachel hung up. “She’ll be here in 45 minutes. It’s going to cost extra.”
“I left my checkbook upstairs.”
She laughed. “That’s okay. You’ll owe it to me.”
Gaile wore a scarf over her head and bronze bracelets on her wrists. She hugged Rachel and kissed her cheek, and then looked at me. “Hi. I’m Gaile.”
“Tom Jurgen.” We shook hands. “Thank you for coming.”
We sat down in front of Rachel’s TV. She poured steaming tea for Gaile as I sipped from a water bottle.
“What’s going on?” Gaile sipped her tea.
“I was supposed to go to a meeting of some kind of magical society last. But I don’t have any memory of it.” I glanced at Rachel. “She believes I got my memory wiped.”
“You’re sure you went?”
It was a reasonable question. “I don’t have any memory of last night past late afternoon. And no, I wasn’t drinking. I take medication for anxiety, but it’s never caused blackouts before.” I’d called Dr. Neral.
Gaile nodded. “I want you to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and relax. Don’t speak. I’m going to hold your hand. You may fall asleep.”
I closed my eyes and nodded. Rachel patted my shoulder. Usually she slugs it. I hoped it was a good sign.
I felt Gaile’s hand on mine, and listened to her breathing. I tried to relax. Think calm thoughts. The waves on the beach at Lake Michigan . . . Rachel lying next to me . . . a full moon in a midnight sky . . .
I rang the doorbell, repeating, “John Burton . . . John Burton . . .” under my breath. It was the name I was using. I’d picked it because it sounded a little like “Tom Jurgen,” so I hoped I’d respond to it quickly.
I’m not used to going undercover.
The door opened. A short man looked up at me. He wore a tuxedo, like that creepy butler on The Prisoner. “Name?”
“T—John. John Burton.”
He checked an iPad. “Burton. Okay.” He ushered me inside.
He led me into a large dining room lined with folding chairs. About twenty people sat in a semicircle. Three people sat at the desk in the corner—two men, one woman.
The small man pointed to a chair in the front row. “There. For the initiates.”
Feeling like the new kid in first grade, I sat next to a middle-aged woman in slacks and a sweater. “Hi. I’m John.”
She ignored me.
After 15 minutes three more people arrived and sat down. The short man closed the dining room door and stepped up behind the desk.
The woman poured herself a glass of red wine and stood up. “Well, welcome. For the new people, I’m Lorraine Gore.”
Mrs. Gore. In her fifties, with black hair and a sharp chin, wearing a gray silk blouse and a long dark skirt.
“This is Fletcher Mason.” She nodded to the man on her right, balding, in his forties, wearing a maroon cable-knit sweater and jeans. The man on the other side was Joe Leeds, younger, in a herringbone jacket and a loose necktie.
“We are the Triumvirate of New Sun.” Mrs. Gore sat down again. “That means we decide who is invited to join, and who stays with us. Our decisions are final. Nothing that happens here leaves this house, this group. The penalties are—severe.”
Fletcher Mason nodded. Joe Leeds looked bored.
Mrs. Gore sipped her wine. “For the newcomers, this group was founded by my late husband, Kenneth Gore. Since his recent death, I’ve taken the lead, with help from Fletcher and Joe. We practice magic—some of it dangerous.”
A man behind me laughed.
Mrs. Gore smiled. “Tonight I’ll be teaching our members a new spell. In the meantime, you initiates will be interviewed upstairs. Good luck to all of you.”
The short beckoned from the door. The women next to me and two other men stood up and followed out of the room and up a flight of stairs.
I’d gotten lucky. Mrs. Gore didn’t know what I looked like, but she might have recognized my voice from our phone conversation.
A row of chairs sat outside a door. The short man looked at his list and then arranged us—the middle-aged woman first, me last. Then he left us alone.
A moment later Joseph Leeds opened the door. How had he gotten up here? Teleportation—or maybe just a back seat of stairs?
Leeds looked at the woman. “Ann Jarson?”
The woman stood up and followed him into the room.
I turned to the man next to me, a young Hispanic man. “Hi. I’m John.”
“Nick.” He rubbed his hands together. “Man, I can’t wait.”
“What do you suppose they’ll ask?”
“They’ll want to see what we can do.” The other man, a Caucasian in his 30s, folded his arms. “A friend of mine went through this. He didn’t get in. He wouldn’t talk about it much, but that’s what he told me.”
What we can do? Well, I couldn’t do any magic, so that meant I wouldn’t be offered a membership. At least I wouldn’t have to decide whether to ask my client to spend that kind of money.
Maybe I could get information out of it, though.
Ann Jarson emerged from the room 15 minutes later, looking happy. Mason held the list this time. “Norman Klein?”
The other man got up and followed him inside.
Nick looked nervous. I wished for a magazine as we waited.
Nick stood up, still rubbing his hands, and flashed me a grin. “Wish me luck.”
I nodded. “Good luck.”
I passed the time reviewing my story. John Burton, heard about the group from—
After five minutes Nick came out, shaking his head. “Oh, well.”
“Better luck next time?”
“There isn’t a next time.” It was Leeds again. “All right, John Burton?”
I almost didn’t respond, until I remembered that I was “John Burton.” I stood up. “That’s me.”
Inside was an office that had probably once been a bedroom. Leeds and Mason sat behind a short black desk. A laptop computer sat on one corner. The short man stood behind them, hands behind his back.
Mason leaned back in his chair. “So, Mr. Burton.” He smiled. “How did you hear about Iron Sun?”
I remembered my story. “A friend told me about it. He was never here, I mean. He heard about it from some guy named Yount.”
Mason blinked. “Rick Yount?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t remember. Anyway, I tested positive for ESP in college, so I thought this might help me get better at it. What kind of dangerous magic do you guys do?”
“Maybe you’ll find out.” Leeds tapped a key on the laptop.
“Let’s try a test.” Mason leaned down and opened a drawer under the desk. “Look at this.”
It was a wand. White string wrapped around a long pencil. Just like the one I’d destroyed. The wand Mrs. Young had found next to her husband’s body.
“Wow.” I sat forward. “What is that?”
“Lift it.” Mason set the wand on the desk. “Two inches.”
Oops. “Do I get in if I do?”
He smiled. “It’s a start.”
“Okay.” I leaned forward and stared at the wand, wondering how long I could draw this out. At this rate I’d be home in time for the 10:00 news, with nothing to show for it.
I frowned, creasing my forehead, trying to look as if psychokinesis was only slightly harder than algebra. Okay, come on, you can do this . . . you can do it . . . come on . . .
Then the wand rose into the air.
I blinked. Did I do that? I leaned further forward, holding my breath.
“Very good.” Fletcher tapped some keys. The wand dropped.
I sat back. Okay. I was starting to see it now.
I hadn’t lifted the wand with my mind. One of them had—Mason or Leeds. Or maybe the short man behind them.
Which meant that this whole setup was a scam. Draw people in, convince them they have psychic powers, and then get a whole lot of money from them to keep them coming.
Some of them obviously did have the powers, though. There were no wires lifting up that wand. Which meant that these guys could be dangerous.
Dangerous magic. That’s what Mrs. Gore had promised.
But what did this have to do with Richard Yount? Had he threatened to blow the deal? Or was something worse behind his death?
“All right.” Mason backed his chair up. “Mr. Ying?”
The short man stepped forward. “Hello, Mr. Burton.”
“Would you object if Mr. Ying held your hand for a moment?”
The short man stepped forward. Mr. Ying, presumably. “I suppose not.”
He walked around the desk silently and held out his hand. I put mine in his palm.
Immediately I felt queasy. Mr. Ying gazed into my eyes like he could see past them into my brain. Uh-oh. I felt my body go slack.
I heard them talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. Except for Mason at the end: “All right. It’s time.”
Mr. Ying let my hand go. “Thank you.” he smiled.
I sat up. “So? Now what?”
Leeds slid the wand across the desk. “You’ll be in if you do this.”
I sat up. “Do what?”
“It’s a test.” Mason tapped two fingers on the desk. “Listen to me.”
“Okay.” My voice sounded far away. “I’ll be in, right?” Suddenly being accepted into Iron Sun was the most important thing on my mind.
“Yes.” Mason slid the wand toward me. “I want you to pick this up and take it two doors down on the right. Then I want you to put it into the nightstand next to the bed. Then you can leave. Don’t talk to anyone. Just go home and forget.”
“F-forget?” My head swirled. This wasn’t right. Was it? “I have to . . .”
“Just do it. Everything will be fine.”
I stood up, suddenly dizzy, as if I’d been siting for a lot longer than 10 minutes. I reached out and clutched the wand. “O-okay.”
Out the door. Down the hall. Second door to the right. The floor spun under my feet.
What was I doing? I felt like I was watching myself from a distance, and at the same time I could only see directly in front of my eyes.
I turned the doorknob.