Saturday, April 30, 2016


Tom Jurgen must handle two creatures from another reality—a cute little wheesling, and a vicious voarkla that attacks humans through the Internet. Can he get the wheesling safely home while taking down the voarkla before it kills again?

Portal-2, Part One

The office looked like Tokyo after a visit from Godzilla.
            I saw high-tech computer equipment crushed into Lego-sized blocks, a worktable in splinters, a folding chair torn apart, a deep gash in the drywall, and a long crack down the reinforced window. 
            Clark Glendon—the guy I was looking for—lay sprawled on the carpet, his torso ripped and bloody as if wolves had feasted on his flesh.
            I tried not to throw up. Cops don’t like crime scenes contaminated by vomit if it’s not their own.
            A laptop computer lay on the floor next to the dead body. It was the only object in the room that hadn’t been completely destroyed. A blue light blinked on its side.
            And then something peered around the edge of the bathroom doorway.
            Its face was covered in gray fur. Two long yellow teeth rose from its lower jaw, and its ears drooped down to its shoulders.
            “Christ,” I muttered. “Why can’t I ever have a normal case once in a while?”

Clark Glendon had been working on a consulting project for Lauren Moore, CEO of a small tech firm in downtown Chicago. I’d done some work for her before. When Glendon stopped showing up at her office with a deadline approaching, Moore called me.
            None of Glendon’s friends knew where he was. A sister in Oregon hadn’t heard from him in months. A few hours on the Internet got me the address of an office an Evanston building. The rent was being paid by a company called Tera Systems LLC.
            So when I got there I just knocked on a door marked GLENCON. But the outer door was unlocked. I figured I couldn’t get charged with trespassing if I just peeked inside.
            An outer office was sparsely furnished with a metal desk and a few chairs, and a calendar nailed to the wall, two months behind the date. So I pushed on the inner door behind the desk—and found Glendon, gutted and dead. And now this . . .
            The creature inside the bathroom didn’t attack. It just stared at me, trembling behind the door. As scared of me as I was of it.
            I’ve seen lots of strange and supernatural things—and gotten a reputation for handling problems straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—but I didn’t recognize this creature. And neither would any cops who came in to check out the scene.
            And their reaction might be, well, negative.
            “Hello?” I held up a hand. “My name’s Tom.”
            “Tommm . . .” It whimpered. “Tommm?”
            “Right. Tom. Tom Jurgen. I—”           
            It ducked back into the bathroom.
            Fighting the impulse to turn and run, I took a deep breath and stepped carefully through the office, careful not to get close to the body or nudge any of the wreckage as I approached the bathroom door.
            The creature crouched next to the toilet. Its body was round and covered with gray fur. It had a short thick neck, two long, gangly arms, and two short, stubby legs. It blinked at me, as if it was trying to stay calm while it figured out what I was. Frightened.
            So we had that in common.
            “Hi there?” My voice shook and my throat was hoarse. I held up my cellphone. “I’m just going to take a picture, okay? Picture?” I felt like a tourist in a foreign land trying to communicate by talking too loud. But the creature didn’t argue or attack me. It just blinked again, and scratched its butt.
            Three pictures. I sent an email and then called Rachel.
            Rachel’s my girlfriend. At least sometimes. She lives upstairs from me, and she helps me out on my cases. She’s psychic, and she has some unusual abilities that come in handy when I’m handling supernatural cases.
            She picked up right away. “Hi, this is Rachel. I’m not here right now, unless your name is Brandon, and you’re calling to take me to an expensive restaurant or maybe buy me jewelry—”
            “Rachel? Shut up and check your email.”
            “What?” She sighed. “Is that any way to talk to me? No ‘Hello, how are you, I’ve missed you, what’s new’? I was thinking about letting you—”
            Shouting at Rachel never ended well, so I just cut in fast. “So I’m in the middle of a crime scene. There’s a dead body, and I need you to identify something. Please look at your email.”
            “Dead bodies? We talked about this, didn’t we? Hang on . . .” I heard the clicking on her keyboard. “Oh, wow. What’s that?”
            I sighed. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
            “Wait a minute, you just took me by surprise. Let me zoom in.”
            I held the phone to my ear and tried to breathe slowly. The creature cocked its head, watching me, curious but calming down.
            “Okay, here it is. That little fella is probably a wheesling. They live in another reality. How did it end up in a bathroom? Where are you?”
            “Evanston. No idea what it’s doing here. Can you tell me anything about them?”
            “I only read an article on them once a few years ago. Let me see . . . Okay, they’re smart, peaceful, mostly eat leaves and veggies. I like that.” Rachel’s a vegetarian.
            “So are they intelligent? Can you talk to them?”
            “They’re as smart as you or me. Or me, at least. But the wheesling language . . . Okay, do you remember Carrie Burke?”
            Carrie . . . I thought I’d met her once. “She’s your friend who doesn’t like me?”
            Rachel snorted. “That doesn’t exactly narrow it down, but yeah. Actually, she likes you fine, she just thinks I can do better. The thing is, she speaks wheesling.”
            Rachel could do better than me? Maybe, but that wasn’t a discussion I wanted to have right now. “So, will she try to talk to it?”
            “I’ll send her a text.” She hung up.
            I crouched in front of the little creature. “Wheesling?”
            Its ears fluttered. “Wheesling!”
            My cell phone buzzed. I just hoped it wasn’t a telemarketer. “Tom Jurgen, how can I—”
            “Tom? Carrie Burke. Rachel’s friend?” She sounded annoyed. “I just got Rachel’s text. What’s going on?”
            “I’ve got a—a wheesling here.” I leaned against the door. “Rachel said you might be able to talk to him. Or her. I can’t explain it right now. Would you do that? Please?”
            “A wheesling?” Her voice thudded against my eardrum. “Where did it come from? Wait—what do you want me to say?”
            “I don’t know.” I tried to think. “Just find out its name. Tell him I’m a friend. Can you do that?”
            “I’ll try. Give me a second, I need to find the Wheesling database. . . okay. I hope I’ve got the right accent.”
            I hit the speaker phone function and held the phone out. “Go.”
            Carrie spoke. The language was musical, full of short sounds and high pitches. The wheesling stared at the box, then jumped up, its mouth wide open, and answered with what looked like relief and joy.
            They chattered for a few moments. I thought I caught my name in the flow of strange words. Then Carrie said, “Okay, Tom?”
            “Tom!” The wheesling pointed at me. “Tommm!”
            I nodded. “Tom. Yeah, Carrie?”
            “His name’s Pontoavallian. He’s very scared.”
            I rubbed my face. “That makes two of us.”
            “I told him to go with you, that you’d take care of him. That’s right, isn’t it? You aren’t going to sell him to a zoo or make a pelt from him, are you?”
            Did all of Rachel’s friends hate me? “I need to get him away from a crime scene before the cops show up. I’m taking him home. Will he come with me?”
            “Yes. And I’ll be right over too.”
            I groaned with relief. “Thank you.”
            “Thank Rachel.” She hung up.
            I looked at the wheesling. “Pontoval?”
            His arms stretched toward me like a frisky orangutan. He sprang forward, and I teetered back as I caught him, grunting as my shoulder hit the wall. “Yeah, yeah, we’re good, just . . . okay, Pontoval? We’ve got to leave?”
            Uh-huh. I staggered, my legs shaking as I lugged him out of the bathroom. Pontoval weighed 50 or 60 pounds, and I hadn’t carried anything heavier than a large take-out meal in years.
            Pontoval clutched my shoulders. His fur smelled like long grass on a hillside, with some flowers in the background. His breath needed some mouthwash. I took careful steps through the room to evade the corpse and anything on the floor that looked like evidence the cops might want. I felt like I was playing Twister with a bag of rocks on my back. Pontoval squealed as I rocked on one foot, and patted my head as I lurched through the broken door to the front office.
            I paused, catching my breath. Out in the hall we might run into anyone. Maybe I could convince any office dwellers I met in the elevator that the wheesling was a pet from New Zealand or somewhere.
            “Tommm?” He sounded scared again.
            I patted his arm. “Pontoval.”
            “Mmm.” He rubbed his head against my shoulder.
            “Okay.” I hoped my legs would hold out. “Let’s go, Ponto.”

By the time I reached my apartment in Rogers Park, the late afternoon sun was fading, and Pontoval was sound asleep. I tried to carry him as gently as I could up the stairs to my apartment.
            I dropped him on the couch with a grunt. My back ached, and my mind was a mess. A dead body, a creature from another dimension, and a wrecked office. One plus one plus equals—what?
            I couldn’t really believe that Pontoval had killed Glendon and destroyed the office. His fingers didn’t have claws. And his two yellow teeth were long but blunt. Pontoval might be from another dimension, and he could have attacked Glendon in a confused rage. But he didn’t seem equipped to rip his body to bloody shreds.
            And he was sort of cute.
            I unscrewed a water bottle from the fridge. Back in the living room, I nudged the bottle against his thin lips like a father trying awkwardly to feed an infant for the first time.
            Pontoval grabbed the water bottle, leaned back, and sucked the water down with a single gulp. Rolling back and forth, he rubbed his chest and then emitted a loud, satisfied burp. “Tommm.” He threw the bottle onto the floor. “Tommm.”
            “Yeah . . .” I stroked his head. “That’s me.”
            A knock on the door startled me. “Tom?” Rachel. “It’s me. Us. Are you home?”
            I patted Ponto’s head. “Just a minute, okay? Okay?”
            “Ohh-kayyy!” He panted like a puppy. “Tommm.”
            I opened the door. “Hi—”
            “Hiii!” Ponto shouted from the couch. “Hiiii . . .?”
            “Hello!” Carrie was an African-American woman, tall and solid. “I’m just here to do a favor for Rachel. And to see . . . oh, hi there!” She circled around me and headed for the couch. “Pontovallian? Eeks som anti van pol arand . . .”
            Rachel came in behind her and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You okay?”
            I sighed with relief. Rachel has red hair and wide hazelnut eyes. I held onto her arm for a moment. “Oh, you know, a dead body, and a creature from another dimension—just another day at the office.”
            Ponto and Carrie were already chattering like old friends. Carrie sat on the floor, her legs crossed, and Pontoval bounced up and down like a puppy begging for treats. The couch had come from a resale shop, and I wasn’t sure how much pounding it would take, but this didn’t seem like the time to tell an alien from another reality to settle down.
            “How can she speak his language?” I asked Rachel.
            “She collects books. There’s this one manuscript from a 17th-century monk that she stole from . . . well, you don’t want to know.” She winked at me.
            Carrie and Pontoval were still talking. So I went back to the kitchen for some more water and a few cans of beer. “So what do wheeslings eat?”
            Carrie grabbed a bottle of water. “Greens. Vegetables. Just like a lot of us here. Ponto, alla van uto marre?”
            My phone buzzed. Lauren Moore. My client. “I have to take this.” I took a deep breath. “Tom Jurgen here.”
            “Tom? Hey, I just got a call. From the police. Clark is dead.”
            “Yeah. I know.” I hesitated. “It’s complicated.”
            Moore had led her company through two recessions. She was smart, and she knew me. “What’s going on?”
            I looked at Pontoval. He was still talking to Carrie, but his eyelids were drooping. She stood up and asked Rachel something, then headed into my bathroom.
            I leaned down. “What exactly was Glendon working on for you?”
            “It was just a website application! A . . . a shopping cart thing. What does that have to do with Clark getting killed?”
            I tried not to picture his corpse on the floor. “Maybe nothing. Look, do you know anything about Glendon working for Tera Systems? They were paying for his office in Evanston.”
            “Tera Systems.” Moore’s voice got quiet. “That’s Ray Antonias.”
            Antonias. I’d heard of him. Venture capitalists thought he was brilliant, and he’d had two cover stories in Fast Company on quantum computing. But his last two startups had crashed and burned.
            “Do you know he was working on for them?” I asked Moore.
            “Everybody’s got some kind of outside project, you know?” She sighed. “Shit. I’ve got a deadline coming up. Do you know any computer wizards?”
            I looked at Rachel. She did graphic design, and she knew more about technology than anyone who didn’t work for Google or Microsoft. “Maybe. I’ll get back to you.” I hung up.
            Carrie emerged from my bathroom. “Men,” she muttered.
            “Sorry.” I kept my voice quiet to avoid waking Pontoval. He was snoring softly. “Can you tell me what happened?”
            “I’m working with vocabulary from a book 400 years old, just so you know.” She grabbed a bottle of water from the table. “Anyway, it sounds like he was with his clan by a river, and they were attacked by something called the—” She struggled with the pronunciation. “The voarkla. Ponto was running, and the voarkla was right behind him. Then there was a bright red star right in front of him, next to the water. He fell—not into the water, but it was dark and cold. Then he was in a strange place, full of strange things. He was scared.”
            I couldn’t get the image of Glendon’s bloody body out of my mind. “I found him in an office in Evanston. There was a man there. Dead. Ripped up, blood all over the carpet.” I took a breath. “I need to know if Ponto killed him.”
            “What?” Carrie looked ready to slap me. “The wheeslings are peaceful. They’re not even carnivores.”
            I glanced at the small creature. Big fangs, yeah, but he looked kind of helpless, especially with his eyes closed. “So if Ponto didn’t kill him, what did? Did he see anything once he got . . . here?”
            “He heard screaming, but he was too afraid to look. He says he hid behind a big white statue over a well filled with water—”
            I nodded. “That would be a toilet.”
            She glared at me. “Right. It was big and shiny. Then he saw a red light again outside the door. Like the red star. Everything got quiet, and it was gone. He stayed there until—well, you.”
            So if the voarkla followed him to our dimension, where was it now? I hoped back home. If not . . .
            Carrie took one last swallow of water. “I have to go. I don’t know how he got here, but you have to find some way to get him back.”
            I wished I knew the answer to both questions. “Thanks for coming.”
            Rachel gave her a hug. “Tom’s not a bad guy. Right?”
            “Ponto likes him. That’s something.” She left.
            Rachel looked at me, hands on her slim hips. “Now what?”
            I rubbed my eyes, stressed out and exhausted. “No idea. Maybe I’ll think of something in the morning.”

I woke up the next morning with Pontoval next to me on the bed, breathing in a steady, sleepy rhythm. At least he was on top of the blankets, not snuggling me between the sheets.
            I slid out of the bed carefully and staggered toward the bathroom. Waking up next to a monster—whether the monster was Pontoval or me—was no way to start a tough day. 
            I’d fixed up a bed of sheets and pillows for him—on the floor!—while Rachel went to the store for mixed greens and vegetables. Then we ordered pizza. Then Rachel left, leaving me with a wheesling I couldn’t talk to, but who seemed to trust me. We were both exhausted, so we collapsed in the bedroom by 10:00.
            In the bathroom I turned the radio on to NPR to brush my teeth, keeping the volume low. The local news was predictable: more problems with the public schools, corruption in the governor’s office, and then—
            “Chicago Police are investigating a string of animal attacks spreading from Evanston and Rogers Park down toward the Lakeview neighborhood. Two customers at an Evanston CompUniverse store were severely mauled last night by an animal described as a large coyote or wolf, which disappeared before authorities could capture it. A woman in a Morse Avenue coffee shop was also injured early this morning by a creature that witnesses said resembled a large rabid dog which somehow got inside the shop and leaped up from underneath a table, or as one witness put it, striking from behind the screen of the victim’s laptop. Once again it got away before officers arrived. Police are advising citizens to be wary of possibly rabid stray dogs. The Chicago Bulls won another game last night against the—”
            Oh hell.
            I washed my face the sink as fast as I could, then dashed back to the bedroom for my phone.
            “What?” Rachel groaned. “Oh, it’s you. Hang on while I push Chang and Julio out of the way, they always hog the bed—”
            “The voarkla’s still here.” I pulled a drawer open looking for pants. “It’s on the radio. Check out the news sites, will you? They reported attacks in Rogers Park and Lakeview, just like—”
            “Voarkla?” Pontoval sat up. “Voarkla!”
            “Got to go.” I dropped the phone. Pontoval jumped off the bed, and completely forgot any instructions I’d tried to give him on the use of the thing called a “toilet.” Fortunately I’d put lots of sheets down on the floor. Even so, the cleanup wouldn’t be fun.
            I waved my hands, but Pontoval only danced back and forth, squealing like a frightened child.
            “Pontoval!” I kneeled down in front of him. Why didn’t I ask Carrie to teach me some words? “It’s me! Tom! You’re safe! Tom?”
            He squatted down, panting. His gray furry shoulders shook, and then he leaned forward to grab me in a hug. “Tommm,” he murmured. “Tommm.”
            “Yeah, that’s me.” I held him close, hoping he was finished. He shuddered, moaning, and I felt his lips licking my shoulder.
            I try to be open-minded, so I let him take a few minutes to calm down. Then I gently pushed him back. “Stay?”
            “Tommm.” He looked up at me, his jaws wide in a smile. Then his eyes flicked down at the mess on my rug. “Toy-lett?”
            I patted his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
            He scampered toward the bathroom. I sighed. Then, still in my boxers, I searched the Internet on my phone to find the number for Tera Systems.

Portal-2, Part Two

Ray Antonias peered at me across a long black desk. “What was your name again?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I tried to keep my focus. “I’m a private detective. I wanted to talk about Clark Glendon.”
            “Well . . .” Antonias wore a blue turtleneck and tight wire-rimmed glasses. The muscles in his arms looked as if he worked out every day. “I’m not sure how much I can tell you about his—his murder.” He shuddered.
            “It’s not like that. I was just hoping you could tell me what he was working on.”
            “Well.” Antonias sipped coffee from a tall black mug. “Some of that’s proprietary. Lawyers, you know. And I’ve already talked to the police about—what happened.” An eyebrow twitched. “If you’re looking for something to pin on my company—”
            “I’m not here about liability. And I appreciate your time. But it’s important. Can you just give me some idea of the project?”
            “Look, I’m sorry Clark is dead.” He set his mug down like a chess player announcing check. “But I’m not going to just tell you all about our projects for some fishing expedition. If that’s it, then we’re done and I have work to do.” He swiveled around to his computer. “That’s all.”
            “Can I ask you just one question?”
            “I was here all day yesterday, if that’s what you’re after. You can ask anyone.”
            I took a deep breath. This might sound crazy to Antonias. But the problem might be worse if it didn’t. “Did the project have anything to do with breaking the barriers between dimensions?”
            He stared at me. Not as if I was crazy. More like I’d guessed his aunt’s maiden name on the first try. “What the . . .”
            “I’ve got some experience in things like this.” More than I wanted. “I’m not trying to squeeze money out of you. I just want to stop something bad from happening.”
            “You son of a bitch.” Antonias took a gulp of coffee and lifted his phone. “Kate? Could you come to my office right now?”
            “Kate” showed up a few minutes later—a lanky woman with dark hair in jeans, sneakers, and a gray University of Illinois sweatshirt. “What do you need, Ray?”
            “Kate Asbury, head of IT special projects. Tom Jurgen, private eye.” He tossed a skeptical look at me, even though I’d shown him my business card. “Could you describe Clark’s project to Tom, please?”
            She narrowed her eyes at me, then shrugged. “We’re looking at ways to transfer data faster across the Internet. Clark had some ideas about shooting data packets using a different kind of protocol. Some form of quantum computing. He called it Portal-2.”
            “Did it go through a different universe?”
            Kate’s eyebrows twitched. Antonias nodded. “Go ahead.”
            “It’s something . . . like that.” She looked me over. “What do you know about it?”            “Nothing about quantum computing. Here’s what I think happened.” I tried to sound as rational as I could. At least they seemed to be listening. “Glendon managed to open a gateway for sending data, but something else came through. It’s called a voarkla, and it killed him. I think the voarkla is still here, and it’s attacking people.” I waited for them to declare me crazy.
            “Oh my God.” Kate stared at me. “How do you know all this?”
            “I found Glendon in the office you were paying for. The door was closed and the room was wrecked, everything except for his laptop. I think the voarkla got out through this Portal-2 thing, but for some reason it didn’t go back to his world. Have you listened to any of the news this morning?”
            “Ray, I need to check the server logs.” She stood up. “There might be something there—”
            “Take him with you.” Antonias pointed toward the door. “Let me know as soon as you find anything.”
            I didn’t know anything about server logs, but at least they weren’t calling the cops to drag me away. I followed Kate past a row of cubicles to a door in the rear of Tera’s office suite. A sign warned: “SERVER ROOM 2/AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” Kate punched a code into the panel and opened the door.
            The room was chilly. Large mainframes stood against the four walls.
            “You don’t seem surprised by any of this.” I stood behind her, my hands in my pockets.
            She sat down in front of a wide monitor and began tapping at a keyboard. “Clark tried to explain Portal-2 to me.” The monitor started showing a stream of numbers and symbols. They might have computer code or ancient Etruscan as far as I was concerned. “I don’t understand the software or how he developed it, but the idea was to send huge files back and forth seamlessly. I know email seems instant, but this was even faster and more secure. Clark was adjusting the settings yesterday, and I was in a meeting, but we lost contact with his server up in Evanston right around—you know, the time the police said he’d probably been killed.”
            “Did you know him very well?”
            “I only met him a few times. He was—okay. I wish . . .” She rubbed her nose. “Okay, here’s a weird thing: We’re still in contact with a Portal-2 interface.”
            “What does that mean?” I leaned over her shoulder.
            “It means the software is still running on a machine somewhere.” She clicked a key.
            “His laptop was still working. Something on it blinked.”
            “It wouldn’t be able to run the software, but it might have a connection to a hard drive that’s still working offsite.” Kate bent down, peering at the screen.
            I thought about the CompUniverse victims. And the woman in the coffee shop, where consultants and would-be novelists with their laptops are practically a cliché. “Could the software migrate to other computers somehow?”
            Kate looked at my reflection in her monitor. “Why would it do that?”
            “Because I think the voarkla attacked people in a computer store and a coffee shop using the Internet, and then vanished before anyone could catch it or kill it.”
            The door opened behind us. It was Antonias. “How’s it coming?”
            Kate looked grim. “I’m trying locate the Portal-2 software on another server, and then we can shut it down from here. Maybe.”
            Antonias twitched. “What if we just delete the software off our system? Get rid of it so no one can—”
            “It’s not as simple as dumping it into the trash!” Kate pointed to the lines of code running across the monitor. “If it’s still running on at least one other hard drive, it could have spread across the Internet.”
            This was getting worse and worse. I felt cold sweat under my shirt. Killing the program could strand Pontoval here—along with the voarkla. But keeping it online so we could send them back might mean bringing other wheeslings and voarklas from Ponto’s world here. Or accidentally sending humans over there. “There must be some way to control it.”
            She glared. “I don’t know the ins and outs of the program code. Do you want to find the documentation and read through it?”
            “I can’t figure out GPS on my cell phone.” I stepped back. “Just do whatever you can.”
            “I’m trying.” She clicked her mouse. “Maybe if you all just—”
            “What’s that?” Antonias pointed toward her screen. “That doesn’t look like—”
            The monitor screen was glowing like a fiery red flare. No more numbers and programming symbols, just a halo of crimson light, swirling around and growing bigger with each turn like a hatch in a submarine.
            “Oh shit!” Kate shoved her chair back.
            I reached for the door, but Antonias already had his hand on the knob, and Kate was swinging around in her chair. I grabbed for her arm, and then—
            The voarkla emerged from the halo of energy in the computer screen with a roar that shook the walls.
            I hadn’t seen it before, of course, but the creature couldn’t be anything else. The voarkla looked like an oversized wolverine, with wide jaws, two long jagged fangs, and matted gray fur covering powerful muscles. Curved claws extended from its thick paws. Its breath smelled like a swamp, and its second roar burned my skin.
            The voarkla’s eyes were shiny and yellow as it searched the room for prey. I ducked, pulling Kate down with me as the voarkla lunged forward. I wasn’t really trying to shield her with my body—the terror wouldn’t let me think that clearly—but we ended up on the floor, my shoulder over her head, as Antonias fumbled with the doorknob.
            Maybe his frantic movements attracted its attention. Whatever, the voarkla ignored us and leaped straight for Antonias as he finally pushed the door open.
            He stumbled out into the office, but the voarkla was already on top of him, its claws thrashing as it growled viciously. Antonias screamed again, and someone nearby shouted in panic.
            I saw one set of claws rip through his shoulder as the voarkla twisted around, pinning Antonias beneath its body. Then its head shot down and it clamped its jaws around his neck.
            Its fangs cut the scream off.
            I looked over my shoulder at the red halo above the computer. It flickered, growing wider and then shrinking, a pulsing light without heat floating in the air. I could hear the voarkla’s snarls as its teeth tore into Antonias’s body.
            “What the hell?” Kate whispered.
            “Voarkla.” If we could shut down the computer, would it disappear? Or just be trapped here with a human smorgasbord to sample one Internet connection at a time?
            Abruptly the creature’s head rose. Its shoulders heaved as it gasped for breath, and then it twisted back around to head back into the room. With us.
            I thought about Rachel, and my parents, and my brother in California. And Pontoval. But the voarkla wasn’t thinking about us. Instead, as if listening to a signal, it jumped across the room and then hurled its body back through the glowing halo.
            With a loud snap! the halo closed up and vanished, taking the voarkla with it. The monitor was smashed, and the computer next to it toppled over, lights winking out. Kate groaned.
            Then she pushed me off of her. “I’m fine, damn it!” She wiped the sweat from her forehead. “But thanks.”
            “Any—anytime.” I didn’t feel like confessing that I’d only been trying to keep out of the monster’s path.
            “What the fuck was that?” This came from a tall guy with a beard and a long ponytail, standing over Antonias’ dead body, shaking with shock. “Kate? Who’s that guy?”
            “T-Tom Jurgen.” I got unsteadily to my feet as Kate clambered up on her own. “And that was a demon from another dimension.”
            “I think I know what happened.” Kate looked at the crashed computer, breathing hard.
            I tried to catch my own breath. “Is that good?”
            “Maybe.” She nodded slowly. “Maybe.”

Detective Elena Dudovich didn’t like me very much. Mostly because my explanations never fit her definition of crime. 
            “Come on, Jurgen.” She leaned over Tera’s conference room table, her arms tense. “You know I can’t put that in my report.”
            I gulped lukewarm coffee. My hand shook. “So it’ll sound better if you say a coyote took an elevator up to the 7th floor and snuck into the server room? And then left through the rear exit?”
            She wanted to slap me. But Kate Asbury was in the room. She’d backed up my story, but otherwise stayed quiet.
            “Get out of here.” Dudovich jabbed a finger at the window, as if hoping I’d leave that way. “Call me when you've got something that doesn’t sound like a Friday night SyFy movie. You . . .” She waved an arm at Kate. “If you’re smart, you’ll stay away from this guy.”
            Kate stood up, her arms stiff. “Ray was my boss.”
            Dudovich groaned quietly. “Yeah. Sorry.”
            “I know.” She looked at me. “We’ve got work to do.”
            “Right.” I opened the door for her. “Just keep an open mind.”

“I think parts of the program mimic a magic spell,” Kate told Rachel and me back at my apartment. Ponto was on the floor at my feet, watching the Teletubbies on my TV and slurping apple juice from a big jug.
            I was sitting next to Rachel. “When I told her to keep an open mind, I wasn’t expecting her to catch on this quick.”
            Rachel’s eyes darted between the two of us. “You know he’s my boyfriend, right?” She gets possessive. Sometimes. I squeezed her arm.
            “I don’t care about that.” Kate was exasperated. “When I was in college I was part of a coven. We did the usual magic, but I remember how the spells worked. I think there’s a spell in the program that’s holding the voarkla—is that what you called it?—in this world, somehow stuck in the network that Clark set up between his computer in Evanston and the one in our office downtown.”
            She pointed at Rachel’s laptop. “But the program runs through the Internet, so sometimes it must pop up on a random computer, and that’s when the voarkla gets out. But it pulls him back. I—I actually summoned it when I was running the program on our server, and . . .”
            She closed her eyes.
            “It wasn’t your fault,” Rachel said firmly. “That guy Clark brought the voarkla here in the first place. Anyway, we have to focus on getting rid of the thing. Right?” She shot a look at me.
            “And getting Pontoval back home,” I said.
            He looked up from the TV. “Hommme?” Ponto was starting to pick up our language.
            I stood up and scratched his ears. He seemed to like that.
            “We can’t take the program completely off the Internet,” Kate said. “So the only thing we can do is find the last server that’s running it and shut it down. The server at our office burned out when the voarkla went back through, and the one Clark was using probably did the same thing. But it’s still active on at least one other computer in the city.” She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “We’ve got to find it.”
            I rubbed my head. “I might have an idea.”
            “Hommme,” Ponto purred.

Lauren Moore usually trusted me. I’d done other jobs for her. One of them involved a background check that had turned up a vampire. (She didn’t hire him.) But she was legitimately annoyed when I told her we needed the computer Glendon had been using at her company. And that she might not get it back.
            She overcame her reluctance when I directed her to an online news report about Tera Systems. She even helped me disconnect the machine and load it into my Honda.
            Ponto was jumping up and down on my couch when I got back to the apartment. Partly because he knew he was going home, but mostly from terror of the voarkla. I couldn’t blame him.
            So I tried to calm him while Kate and Rachel set the computer up on the dining room table. I felt grateful that Ponto seemed to have mastered the use of the toilet, and that he didn’t break anything while he danced around with growing anxiety as the computer booted up.
            “Okay.” Kate tapped some keys, biting her lip. “The Portal-2 program is partitioned off. And it’s . . . password protected. Damn it. I could override that on our server, but—”
            “Move over.” Rachel nudged her aside. “And don’t watch what I’m doing. Trade secrets.” Her fingers moved fast.
            Kate smiled. “You’re a hacker?”
            “Sometimes. Plus, kind of psychic. You’re not the only one who used to be in a coven. No smartass comments, Tom!”
            “Who, me?” I handed Pontoval a handful of lettuce from a bowl on the table. “Just let me know when we’re ready.” Not that I was in any hurry to confront the voarkla again.
            “Okay, we’re in.” Rachel stepped back.
            “We have to talk later.” Kate crossed her arms and examined the screen for ten seconds. “Okay, you’d better get ready.”
            “Battle stations!” Rachel blew me a kiss and headed for the bedroom.
            We had a big cardboard box in the corner for Ponto. I picked him up, whispering some wheesling words that I hoped would keep him calm if I pronounced them right, and carefully pushed him into the box. Out of sight. We hoped.
            I picked up my Taser from the table and made sure it was fully charged. Then Rachel walked out of the bedroom, lugging a sword with both hands.
            Kate’s eyes got wide. “Wow. Is one of you compensating for something?”
            “Talk to him.” Rachel hefted the sword. “Just call me Xena the Warrior Princess. And no jokes about chain-mail bikinis, all right?” She gave me a wink.
            I forced a smile. “Never entered my mind. Mostly because I’m terrified right now.”
            “All right.” Kate hit a key. “I’m opening the program. This might take a few minutes—”
            She jumped back as the halo burst into existence above the monitor. Pontoval squealed. The halo flared bright red, pulsing like a heartbeat.
            Rachel stood next to me, her arms trembling from the weight of the sword. I clutched the Taser with both hands. The voarkla moved fast. I’d probably get only one shot. I didn’t expect the Taser to bring it down, but it might scare or shock the thing long enough for Rachel to—
            “What are you doing? Put that thing down before someone gets hurt!”
            A human emerged from the halo. She was tall, dark skinned, and wore a long gray robe with grass stains at the bottom. Her feet were big and bare on my carpet.
            Oh hell. “There’s a voarkla!” I pointed over her shoulder toward the portal. “Be careful! It might . . .”
            Pontoval surged from the box with a happy snort and jumped up into the woman’s arms. She laughed and hugged him as he snuggled against her chest. “Pontoa! Pontoa arkla u mando! Yi asla n . . .”
            Ponto wrapped his long arms around her neck. “Yeeha. Yeeha, linooo.” He closed his eyes. “Lionooo . . .”
            The woman shifted him around in her arms. “Who’s in charge here?” she demanded.
            I took a cautious step forward. “Tom Jurgen. So who are you?”
            “My name’s . . . let’s see, what would you understand?” She stroked Ponto’s fur. “Just call me Lionna, is that all right?”           
            “Lionnnnna.” Pontoval lifted her head and turned his face to me. “Tommm? Tommm!”
            I smiled. “Ponto. You okay now?”
            His head bobbed up and down. “Yesss.”
            Lionna gave us a look as stern as a disappointed nun. “I don’t know how Pontoval got here, but it’s about time he came home. I’ve been looking for him for seven years.”
            Seven years since yesterday? Well, it was another dimension—time probably moved differently there. “But the voarkla—”
            “We’ve taken care of that. He was harder to find. This world is so confusing.” She slid a foot back and forth on the rug. “The thing you call Goo-goo? It’s a road without an end. And that Yahooo thing makes no sense at all.” She lifted one lip in what looked like a smile. “But I—we—are grateful that you took care of Pontoavallian.”
            “Well . . .” Suddenly I realized that he was leaving. “He’s a good friend. I hope—I mean . . .” Damn it.
            “We need to close this world off.” Lionna glanced back. The halo behind her was shrinking. “It’s too dangerous for us. You won’t need to worry about us any more.”
            “But—” Of course. “Yeah. I get it.”
            “Thank you.” Lionna stepped back, and the halo expanded to catch her.
            Pontoval twisted his head to look at me. “Tommm! Tommm?”
            I waved. “Bye, Ponto. So long.”
            He waved back. “Soo looong . . .”
            The halo collapsed, taking Pontoval and Lionna out of our world and back to their own.
            Kate dropped into a chair as the monitor went dark. I set the Taser on the counter and looked at Rachel.
            The sword lay at her feet. “He was cute.”
            “Yeah.” At least he was safe.
            “At least they didn’t destroy another computer.” Kate tapped the keyboard and began uninstalling Glendon’s program from the hard drive. “I’ll help you take this back when I’m finished.”
            “Thanks for your help.” I looked at the images rolling across the computer screen. “Sorry about your boss.”
            “Yeah.” Kate rubbed her forehead. “Does your other client need any IT help? I may be looking for another job right away.”
            My fault. At least partly. “Lauren Moore needs someone to take over Clark’s project. I’ll give her a call.”
            “Let me finish this first.” She stabbed at the keys, her eyes fuzzy. “Just give me a few minutes.”
            Rachel picked up the sword, and I followed her to the bedroom with the Taser. We stowed the weapons safely away.
            “I didn’t think I’d miss him.” I rolled up the sheet I’d used to protect my floor.
            Rachel patted my shoulder. “We could get a cat. Or maybe some fish. Or a Chia pet.”
            We? I shook my head. “Right now I’d settle for some Chinese food.”
            “Good. I was joking about the cat.” But she kissed my cheek. “I’ll find the menu.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Baby don't cry

This is the first Tom Jurgen story. I was still working out aspects of his character and his relationship with Rachel, but I think it works pretty well and I'm happy with it. Broken into two parts to make it a little less bulky.

Baby don't cry, Part 1

The hallway was long and empty, and every other door had been the wrong apartment. So I knocked on the last one. Come on, come on . . .
            “Go away!” The voice inside was low and fierce.
            I leaned forward. “Hello? My name is Tom Jurgen. I’m a private investigator. I’m looking for Olivia Munroe, from the law firm of Chandler White. Is that you?”
            “Hang on.” The lock clicked. A woman’s face stared at me through a flimsy chain. “Who sent you?”
            “Brian Palko.”
            “Brian?” She snorted. “He’s an asshole.”
            I really couldn’t argue with that. “Okay, yeah. But Brian said to tell you that your middle name is Elizabeth. It was your maternal grandmother’s name. May I come in?”
            She slammed the door at my face.
            I waited. I used to be a reporter, and I’d learned pretty fast that patience was a virtue in both jobs.
            The door opened again. “Okay, inside.”
            “Thank you.”
            Olivia Munroe slammed the door. A short dark woman with big eyes in a gray T-shirt and loose sweatpants, she looked tired and angry, as if she’d been awake for two or three nights. “Who are you and how the hell did you find me?”
            It was a small studio apartment, with a wide window looking west toward the late afternoon sun. A ceiling fan swung lazily above us. A futon was stretched out across the hardwood floor, blankets tangled in a blue sheet. A gallon bottle of Sprite sat on a small square table, next to a small wooden bowl with a spoon dangling from the rim.
            I moved away from the door, to show her I wasn’t preventing her from leaving if she wanted to. “Tom Jurgen.” I reached slowly into my pocket. “Here’s my ID.”
            It had my full name, Thomas Hale Jurgen, with an Illinois state insignia, complete with a picture from four years ago that still looked like me with a bad haircut.
            I shoved the ID back into my pocket. “You used an ATM card yesterday at the drug store two blocks away. The card was issued by your employer for your paychecks. So I spent most of today looking for you up and down the street, and then I spotted you at the grocery store down the block.” And then I’d knocked on every door in the building.
            “Damn it.” She sank onto the edge of the futon. “I thought I was being careful, but I needed supplies.”
            “Look, Ms. Munroe . . .” Private detectives on TV and in books are supposed to be tough. In real life making friends usually works better than yelling at people. “Sometimes people want to run away, and it’s nobody’s business. Is that’s what going on here? I only promised Brian Palko that I’d ask you to call him—”
            “No.” Her eyes got wide. Suddenly she was afraid. “I can’t.”
            “That’s fine.” I tried to smile reassuringly. “So maybe I can tell him something? Have you got a good reason for hiding out? Like someone’s harassing you at work or at home?”
            She grimaced. “That’s not it. You don’t understand. Just tell him—”
            Then the window shattered. Shards of glass flew across the room. The afternoon sunlight was gone—eclipsed by the broad shadow of something flying through the broken window like a vengeful falcon.
            Munroe crouched down, her face dark with fury. “Get out!” Her eyes blazed like stars. She rose up, spread her arms, and hissed like a snake.
            And then a sheer, sharp bone burst from her hand like a bloodstained railroad spike.
            The thing in the window landed on the floor with a crash that shook the table. It had wide leathery wings, long thick arms that ended in jagged claws, and a snout like a crocodile. Its breath smelled like a mixture of incense and swamp water.
            Spikes jutted from both of Monroe’s wrists now. Her face was wider, and her eyes burned with a fiery light. She lunged forward with a growl, jabbing her fists like a boxer.
            It dodged and opened to expose yellow fangs dripping with saliva. Then it darted forward, snapping at Munroe’s throat.
            She sank down, growling like a rabid Doberman. She wasn’t exactly human anymore—her skin was covered with scales, and the muscles in her arms had swelled up like a bodybuilder on steroids. The other creature leaned in, trying to get its jaws around her neck, but she squirmed and fought, and then she reared up and thrust a spike into its chest.
            The creature shuddered and roared, but it didn’t drop. Munroe couldn’t yank her arm free, so she leaned in and shoved her other blade into the monster’s chest as it jabbed its claws at her stomach.
            Munroe turned her face toward me, groaning. Do something!
            I don’t own a gun. I try to avoid jobs that might call for a firearm—jealous lovers, disgruntled employees, and stuff like that. I did have a Taser. It was down in my Honda.
            The door was right behind me. One grab at the knob and I could be out of here. The monster probably hadn’t even seen me . . . 
            Damn it. I darted forward.           
            I slammed the plastic Sprite bottle at the creature’s face.
            But then Munroe was rearing up, her arms twitching and ready to rip at anything in her way. She seemed nine feet tall, and her ceiling fan knocked against her head as she loomed over both of us.
            “Who are you?” She kicked at the monster’s neck with feet like a T-Rex. “What did they—”
            The creature lunged upward, its jaws wide, and sank its fangs into her leg. It didn’t quite tear her leg loose, but it crushed bone and shredded muscle.
            Munroe shrieked in pain and rage, and then thrust a spike down into the monster’s throat. It leaped back, arms and legs flailing. “Nooo . . .”
            Then, like a jump-cut in a movie, they were both human again.
            Munroe’s clothes were torn, her sweatpants covered in blood. The other creature had turned into a young Hispanic man in jeans and a black sweatshirt, lying on the rug with a long gash in his heaving chest.
            She rolled over. “Hey, is that you, Joaquin? Is that . . . ?”
            “Yeah.” He was a young Hispanic man in jeans and a black sweatshirt, lying on the rug with a long gash in his heaving chest. “Sorry, Liv.”
            “Yeah.” Munroe closed her eyes. “Me too.”
            Too late for help.
            I fumbled for my cell phone. Maybe some EMS people could—
            That’s when I heard the baby’s cry from the closet.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Rachel peered suspiciously at the sleeping baby in my arms.
            Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor. She’s an artist and a graphic designer. She’s got short red hair and hazelnut eyes. Plus, she’s psychic.
            Also, she’s sort of my girlfriend. It’s complicated. But she’s definitely not the motherly type.
            “Girl. Just like you.” I dropped two big plastic bags full of disposable diapers and infant formula on the floor. “I thought diapers were different for boys and girls. Who knew?” I set the baby on her couch.
            “You’re not giving her to me!” She backed away. “I was drunk that one time I said I sort of liked you. So if this is—”
            “She’s not mine.” I locked the door. “I found her working a case.”
            Rachel rolled her eyes. “Riiight.”
            Here’s the thing: I tend to attract clients and problems outside the normal realm of reality, ever since I got fired from my job at Chicago newspaper after covering a string of murders that my editor and the police didn’t want anyone to know about.
            I’d met Rachel a few months ago. The landlady here had offered me a break on three months’ rent to investigate all the weird people coming and going from the apartment upstairs. Rachel turned out to be running a support group for victims of vampire attacks, which would have been fine except that one of her members turned out to be an active vampire scouting for fresh blood. We killed it, and then Rachel let me take her out for Thai food.
            What happened after that is, well, private.
            “Why is it here?” Rachel bent over the couch. The baby rolled back and forth in the pink blanket I’d grabbed from Munroe’s apartment. “Hi there, little thing. Don’t you dare poop on me.”
            The baby opened her eyes and giggled.
            “She likes me!” Rachel glared. “This can’t be happening.”
            “I need to call my client.” I pulled out my cell phone.
            One ring. Two. Then a chirpy female voice picked up. “Chandler White, how may I—”
            “Thomas Jurgen, and I need to talk to Brian Palko right away. Tell him it’s about Olivia Munroe.”
            A gasp. “Oh, Olivia! Is she—sorry, wait just one minute—”
            Five seconds, actually. “Jurgen?” Palko sounded as if he’d been waiting on an overdue pizza delivery. “It’s been three days, man. What have you got?”
            Rachel was counting the baby’s toes. “One little piggy went to market, two little piggies, uh, did something else . . .”
            I closed my eyes. “Olivia Munroe is dead.”
            Rachel looked up. What?
            “Oh, goddamn it.” Palko swallowed audibly. “Okay, what about the baby? Did you find her?”
            I looked at the giggling little girl on the couch. “What baby?”
            Rachel swung her face at me. Oh, no. She shook her head silently. No no no . . .
            I waved a hand at her and tried to keep my voice steady. “Listen, Brian, a homicidal shapeshifter killed Munroe right when I found her. As far as I’m concerned, this job is over. I’m sending you an invoice.” That usually got a client’s attention.
            It worked. “No! Wait.” Palko took a deep breath. “Can you come to the office? Right away?”


Brian Palko had thick black hair and a chin like a turtle. He looked as if he couldn’t believe he’d spent three years in law school, gone into thousands of dollars of debt, and endured a dozen internships just to meet with someone like me after hours.
            We sat in a conference room in the firm’s 14th floor suite. No windows. No other lawyers. Just me, Palko, and the empty cubicles outside. Not a good sign.
            I’d worked for law firm as an investigator after quitting—or possibly getting fired, depending on who you ask—my last job as a reporter.  In a law firm, empty desks at 6:30 p.m. meant either a major slump in business, or a crisis no one wanted to get caught up in.
            I stayed on my guard. Palko seemed harmless, but had so Munroe—before she sprouted spikes from her arms. I wondered what kind of work this law firm specialized in. And what kind of people they hired. I hoped their lawyers were just bloodsuckers in the metaphorical sense.
            “Okay.” Palko leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Here’s the thing: Our CEO, Francis White, is involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife over his daughter, Elena. It’s getting bad, and we’ve been through cases that make Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin sound like Father of the Year. I don’t mean—I mean, Frank’s fine, it’s his ex-wife, she’s . . .”
            “Yeah.” I knew the name. Francis White was big in the Chicago legal community. Generous to charities and active in community groups—and at one time a dangerous adversary in the courtroom. “So what does this have to do with Olivia Munroe?”
            He groaned. “Frank didn’t come to work on Monday. But we know he sent a message to Olivia asking her to take Elena—his daughter—and hide.”
            Great. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this up front?”
            Palko squirmed. “We were hoping you could get this done quietly. There were— issues—that we wanted to keep under the radar.”
            “Like the fact that Munroe was a shapeshifter?”
            Palko’s back got stiff. “Yeah. Plus the fact that Frank’s apparently been kidnapped. By his ex-wife, Kirsten.”
            I wanted to stand up and walk out, but I couldn’t. I had the baby. And now she had a name. Elena.
            “Here’s an issue.” My voice might have risen a little. “I watched her shoot spikes out of her hands. She got nine feet tall. Then she took on a creature with wings and a crocodile face and claws like a grizzly. I wanted to run the minute I saw both of them. But Munroe managed to kill him, and when it was all over, right before they both died, he called her Liv. And she called him Joaquin. So I want to know what’s going on.”
            “I don’t know!” Palko pushed his chair back. “I was told to hire you.”
             “Who told you to hire me? Why?”
            He squirmed a little in his chair. “One of the partners. Diane Shelby. She seemed to think you had some sort of—special experience with things like this.”
            Special experience. Yeah. When I said I’ve seen strange things? Shapeshifters are barely in the top 10.
            But that didn’t mean I wanted to meet more of them after this afternoon. “If this is a kidnapping case you want the FBI, not me.”
            “Like . . .” Palko drummed his fingers on the table. “What you need to know is that Kirsten, uh—she’s a witch.”
            Shapeshifters and now witches. Terrific. “Just to be clear, you don’t mean she’s cranky at certain times on the months, do you? Because that would be sort of sexist.”
            “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Palko glared. “At our Solstice party last December? Kirsten was eight months pregnant, and she levitated a table full of hors d’oeuvres and smashed it through a wall because she though Frank was flirting with—one of the  paralegals.” Palko shuddered. “They split up a month later.”
            Oh no. “Who was the paralegal? Was it Munroe?”
            “There was nothing going on with them!” Palko pounded the table. “I’m in charge of the department. That’s why this is my mess. Olivia hardly ever talked to Frank. But Kirsten had the baby in January, and for a few months it all seemed peaceful. Then—it all blew up. They were getting divorced. It was terrible.” Palko shuddered. “Frank was bringing Elena right here to the office every day because he didn’t want to leave her anywhere else. So we all had to babysit. Change diapers and sing Raffi songs. Oh, God.”
            “So who’s got actual legal custody?” Even with witches and shapeshifters involved, I wanted to know where I stood with this baby.
            “That doesn’t matter.” Palko rolled his chair back and forth. “Kirsten could burn this whole building down to get her daughter back. But we can’t let Frank get killed. If we’ve got Elena, we can negotiate.”
            I could have told him that I had Elena safe and sound. But I still didn’t trust that he was telling me everything. Some days I miss covering school council meetings.
            “I’m not sure what I can do.” But I definitely didn’t want to hand a baby off to Palko to turn over to an angry witch. “Let me talk to this partner. Diane Shelby.”


Palko knocked once. “Diane?”
            “Brian? Just a minute . . . Okay, come in.”
            He pushed the door. “Don’t say anything stupid.”
            Diane Shelby stood behind a glass–topped desk, the blinds pulled down over the tall windows behind her. A tall slender woman with short blond hair, she looked like a model in a catalogue targeting the best-dressed modern lawyer. A slender gold necklace dangled over her throat.
            “Uh, Diane Shelby, this is Tom Jurgen.” Palko stayed near the door, ready to make his escape. “He wanted to speak with you about the situation with Frank.”
            “Nice to meet you, Mr. Jurgen.” She held out a hand. “You have quite a reputation in some circle.”
            “Just not the circles I want.” We shook. She didn’t invite me to sit.
            “What can I do for you?” Shelby asked.
            “Olivia Munroe is dead.” I was too tired and annoyed to clean it up. “She was murdered by someone named Joaquin who worked here. I’d go the cops, but they wouldn’t believe me. What I want to know is, why did you pick me for this job?”
            “Joaquin?” She looked at Palko. “Isn’t that—”
            “He’s one of the paralegals. I don’t know what—”
            “That doesn’t matter now.” She waved dismissive hand, as if Joaquin were less important than someone she’d laid off last week. She looked me over like a potentially hostile witness. “We hired you because you have experience with the supernatural.”
            I shrugged. “Mostly I try to avoid it. I haven’t been too lucky with that.”
            “You do need to understand something about this firm.” Shelby smiled and closed her eyes. “Brian, help him if he needs it.”
            “Just stay right there,” Palko warned.
            Shelby rubbed her face with a low growl, her fingers shaking. After a moment she grunted in pain.
            Fangs rose from her cheeks like a wild boar.
            Her hands dropped to the glass table, arms twitching as her fingers grew thick and bony and stretched forward in dark stalks. The growl turned into a low laugh rumbling from deep inside her lungs.
            Shelby lurched forward and rose to her feet. Her face was long and narrow, like a hatchet, and red tongue twisted from her lips. She gasped for breath, then speared me with sharp diamond eyes.
            “Thisss . . . isss . . . what I am.” Her shoulders shook. “Do you . . . underssstand?”
            “Does that answer your questions, Jurgen?” Palko’s voice was a hoarse rasp. “Listen to her! Do what she says.”
            I tried to breathe slowly, like a hiker confronting a grizzly bear. I’ve dealt with vampires and demons and creatures from other dimensions. I was scared, but I knew my only bet was to stay calm and push back. Just not too hard.
            I looked at Palko. “I only want to finish this up and get paid. Is that all right with you?”
            He smirked, like a prison guard who enjoyed the little power he had. “You’ll get paid if you do your job.”
            “Ohh . . .” Shelby dropped down into her chair, and in a moment she was human-shaped and smiling again. She rubbed her cheeks. “That always hurts. Brian—a glass of water, please?” She coughed.
            “Coming.” He filled a glass from a big pitcher near the door.
            She tilted her head back for a long swallow. “Ahh  . . .” Then she wiped a hand across her lips. “Now that you know who I am, maybe we can talk about the real problem.” She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Where is Elena?”
            “I’ve got some questions first.” My instincts as a reporter took over—against my impulse to answer her and then run. “Is everyone here is a shapeshifter?”
            She frowned, but apparently decided to indulge me. “Not everyone. Maybe half of our staff can change shape at will. It’s useful, at times. Frank, on the other hand—he’s a skilled trial lawyer, or at least he used to be, but Frank got chosen by the board because of his management skills.”            I shifted on my feet. “What’s going to happen to Elena?”
            “She’ll go back to her mother. Where she belongs.”
            “What about your CEO? Won’t he be unhappy with you?”
            Her eyes twitched. “He’ll get over it. I have some support on the board of directors.”
            “How about your employees? Olivia Munroe worked for your firm. And someone from here killed her.”
            “I’m sorry about Olivia.” Shelby took another sip of water. “But Kirsten is a threat to this firm. She’s kidnapped Francis and threatened to kill him. She may be behind Olivia’s murder, for that matter. We have to take care of the firm. That’s my priority.”
            The good of the firm. I wanted to make a bad lawyer joke, but Shelby might take offense and turn into a monster again.
            Maybe I could still sort this out somehow. “Okay.” Time to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. “I’ve got Elena.”
            “What the hell?” Palko swung around the chair to confront me. “Why didn’t you—”
            “Brian.” Shelby lifted a hand. “Not now. Let’s focus on priorities.”
            He stepped back, unhappy and frustrated. “All right. Let’s just see what’s on your invoice when this is over.”
            “I’ll bring her here.” I was speaking to Shelby, ignoring Palko. “But if any more shapeshifters show up and try to kill me? She’s going right to Child Protective Services for them to take care of. If you or Kirsten want to deal with them and let everyone know who and what you are, that’s fine with me.” The paranormal beings I’d deal with preferred to keep a low profile. It was safer for them. Only people like me believed in them.
            And people like me were usually easy to get rid of.            “Fine.” Shelby’s lips tightened. “Please hurry.”
            I left as quickly as I could, before either of them decided that Palko should come with me. The office felt like a mortuary after hours. The elevator took a long time to open.
            My cell phone buzzed as the doors closed. Rachel. “Hi, don’t worry, I’m on my way back—”
            “Yeah, that’s just great.” Rachel sounded as if I’d just stood her up outside of a bar. “I was just starting to get used to her, you know?”
            “Umm—you’re talking about . . . what?”
            “She’s gone.”


Rachel stood in the middle of her living room, staring down at the pink blanket the baby had been sleeping on when I left.
            “What happened?” I looked around. No broken windows, and the door was undamaged. “Did something get in?”
            She shrugged. “One minute she was there, just playing with a pillow, and then she was gone.” She sighed. “The pillow too. It was my favorite. Nice and soft and—”
            “Damn it.” I sank into a chair. “It’s a mess.”
            She glared at me. “You want to talk about it? Who is she?”
            “Her name’s Elena.” I looked at the empty blanket. “Her father’s Francis White, he’s a lawyer, and the mother’s his ex-wife Kirsten. The whole law firm White runs is staffed with shapeshifters, apparently. Kirsten’s got witch’s powers. They’re all afraid of her. She apparently kidnapped the CEO to get the kid back.”
            Rachel started to pace the floor. “You think she zapped the kid away?”
            “No. Maybe. I don’t know. My client’s expecting me to bring her right over.” I tried to visualize how Shelby would morph again when I told her Elena was gone, fangs jutting through her face. “Do you have any kind of spell that might find her?”
            Rachel paced faster. “The only personal items we have from her are a few dirty diapers. Yucky, but they might—”
            My cell phone buzzed. Goddamn it. “I’ve got to take this. Hello, this is—”
            “You son of a bitch!” Palko shouted loud enough for Rachel to hear him across the room. “You lying asshole! How much did Kirsten pay you to turn her over? Have you been working for her this whole time? Do you have any idea what a law firm can do to someone who screws them over?”
            “What are you—”
            “Kirsten has the baby! We’re screwed! And you—”
            “Shut up for a minute.” I held my hand over the phone. “She’s all right,” I told Rachel. “Elena’s okay.”
            She stopped pacing and leaned forward, breathing hard. “Thank you, gods and goddesses.” She gulped, rubbed her hand over her face—was she crying?—and then she straightened up. “So where is she?”
            “Just a second.” Palko was still yelling in my ear. “Brian! So take a few deep breaths, all right? What’s going on?”
            Palko gasped, catching his breath. “You just need to go get Frank. Kirsten gave us an address, she said to come pick him up right away. I’ll text it to you. Maybe we’ll pay you for that.” He hung up.
            “Well?” Rachel waited.
            “I need to go pick up the kidnapped husband.”
            “I’ll come with you.”
            Not exactly what I’d had in mind. But I’d never won an argument with Rachel in two years. Rachel snagged her backpack, checked the peephole, and opened the door cautiously. “Are we going now?”