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?” 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.”
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?”
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?”