Palko’s text sent us to a hotel downtown. I parked in their garage, and we took the elevator to the 23rd floor. I had my Taser in my jacket. Rachel wore a charm bracelet with mild magical properties.
Room 2302. A Do Not Disturb sign hung on the handle. I knocked. No answer. So I knocked harder. “Hey there, Mr. White?”
Rachel smirked. “Is this where you break down the door with your manly shoulder?”
The door looked solid. It had the standard slot for a key card, and a strong lever underneath.
I shook my head. “This is where I call Palko and tell him—”
“What’s going on?” It was Palko himself, coming out of the elevator down the hall. “Who is she? Why did you bring another person into this?”
What the hell? “This is Rachel. She’s an associate.” Mentioning that we were sort of dating didn’t seem appropriate right at the moment. “Brian Palko. My . . . client.”
She shot a look at me. “Is this—”
“He’s the one.”
She rolled her eyes. “I see what you mean about him.”
“Why are you just standing out here?”
“He’s not answering.” I knocked again. “Why did you send me here if you were coming too?”
“What do you think?” His face was red. “I hired you—”
“Are we going to argue all night about who’s the bigger jerk here?” Rachel snapped her fingers next to the slot. “Okay, open the door, Tom.”
I pressed the lever. The door opened.
Oh, God. I half expected to find White dead on the floor, with bullet holes in his stomach or a knife in his chest. Or worse.
He was alive. And pissed off.
“Who are you?” White demanded. “Where’s—Brian! What the hell is going on? Where is my daughter?”
One of his wrists was clamped to the bed with a metal handcuff. He’d kicked his wingtips across the room, but he still wore a striped necktie, loose around his throat. His blue shirt was streaked with sweat, but his silver hair still looked perfect. His suit jacket lay on a chair.
Dried blood covered his wrist where the cuffs gripped his skin.
“Looks like we’re going to need a hacksaw.” I looked at the chain. “My name’s Tom Jurgen, and Brian here hired me to—”
“The key’s over there on the dresser, goddamn it! Get me out of this!” White’s face was red with frustration. “Brian, I swear to God, once I get back to the office—”
“I’ve got it!” Palko rushed to the dresser. “Where is it? Okay, I’ve got it.” He held up a key. “Just a minute, sir!”
The door banged open, slamming against the closet. I was sure it had closed and locked behind us. I fumbled for my Taser.
“Kirsten!” White instinctively tried to rise, then tumbled back to the carpet. “What the hell?”
Palko backed away. “Mrs. White? What—how . . .” He swallowed, one eye twitching in fear.
“Okay,” Rachel whispered. “Who’s she?”
“She’s . . .” Kirsten stalked to the center of the hotel room. She had long blonde hair tied back, and she wore tight black jeans and a loose gray sweater. Her eyes were bloodshot with fury.
“The ex-wife,” I said.
“Oh, good.” Rachel patted my shoulder. “I keep telling you to get more regular ugly divorce cases.”
“Elena!” Kirsten jabbed a finger at White. “Where is she?”
Oh shit. “Brian?” I almost pointed my Taser at him. “You said—”
“Wait a minute!” Palko shook his head, confused and terrified. “You told us—I mean, you sent the message! You said you had Elena, so we could come pick Frank up! That’s what Diane told me, you had the baby!” He was pleading for his job—and maybe his life.
“I did.” Kirsten stalked forward. “Elena was asleep. In her brand-new crib. And then she was gone!”
Palko backed away. She swung around, her eyes on Rachel and me. “Who the hell are you?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I moved in front of Rachel. “I’m a private detective. Brian hired me, but—it’s a long story.”
“Forget it.” She whirled on White and pointed a long finger in his face. “Frank, I swear, if you don’t tell me where Elena is right now—”
“Me?” White kicked a frustrated heel on the carpet. “Christ, Kirsten, I’ve been stuck here for hours, thanks to you! Brian, get me out of these goddamn handcuffs, will you?”
Kirsten waved her finger in a circle, and the cuffs opened. “Now let’s talk.”
White’s eyes flicked toward me and Rachel, then darted at Palko. “Then let’s do it alone. Without the hired help. All of you, get out.”
Fine by me. I grabbed Rachel’s hand. “Come on—”
“Wait a minute!” Rachel pulled her arm away from me. “For Christ’s sake, don’t any of you people get it?”
White frowned at her. “Who are you again?”
I wanted to go. But I’d played enough Monopoly with Rachel to know that she never backed down once she had the dice, no matter how far she was in the hole. “She’s with me. You should let her talk.”
“That baby is scared.” She snapped her gaze from Kirsten to White. “That’s why she’s doing this—zapping herself all over the city, maybe all over the world. You’ve got to stop scaring her!”
“You’re the one who kidnapped her!” Kirsten jabbed her finger at White again. “She was perfectly fine until you decided you wanted full custody. She had her toys, her crib, she was sleeping through the night—then you took her away from me.”
“You were doing magic right in front of her! The nanny told—”
She grimaced. “Heating the bottle, you asshole! Cleaning the poop!” Her eyes got narrow. “How did you get Carmen to snitch on me, anyway? Were you paying her all along?”
“I was just . . .” White stopped and looked at Palko. “I gave her to Olivia. What happened to her? She was supposed to keep her safe!”
Kirsten snorted. “Oh, that cute young intern you were so cozy with at the Solstice party?”
He stomped a foot. “There’s nothing going on! There never was! I told you that, and you never—”
“She’s dead.” I said it because Palko wasn’t helping.
“Olivia?” White’s face went pale. Even Kirsten looked shocked.
“A shapeshifter crashed through the window and killed her.” I fought to keep my voice steady. “I was there because Brian hired me to find her after you were kidnapped and she disappeared.” I glared at Palko, but he said nothing. “I didn’t know anything about the baby then. She died trying to defend the kid. She killed the shapeshifter, but when it changed—right before it died—she knew him. His name was Joaquin. So he probably worked for you.” I turned to the door. “I’m leaving. You’ll get a report—”
“You sent Joaquin after Olivia?” White looked ready to strangle his ex-wife. “When she had our daughter with her? I don’t believe you! I can’t—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Kirsten blocked the door and targeted me with her eyes. “I never sent anyone to kill her. I sure as hell wouldn’t ask anyone from your firm to go after her.” She glared at her ex. “I didn’t know where she was!”
“You couldn’t find her using your magic?” Rachel asked.
She blinked. “Who did you say you were?”
I groaned. Didn’t anyone pay attention? “This is Rachel. She’s—”
“I’m Tom’s senior associate crimefighter.” She grinned. “Plus, psychic powers, a little witchcraft—”
“She also makes a great Caesar salad,” I added.
Kirsten looked her up and down, not exactly the way men do at bars. “I can feel it.”
“I can feel yours.” Rachel giggled. “That sounds a little R-rated, doesn’t it?”
She sighed. “Okay, I still don’t know why I should talk to either of you, but I did try using magic to find Elena. It didn’t work. Something was blocking me. I suppose it could have been her. If she was scared.” She glared at White like she was summoning snakes to bite him. “After you had your girlfriend take her and hide her!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Kirsten!” White groaned. “Why won’t you ever believe me?”
I was beginning to imagine what their last fights had been like.
“Let’s ask a new question.” My heart was pounding hard, but I had to go on with this, or else run away. I’ve got nothing against running away, but I wanted to impress Rachel with my tenacity.
“Brian?” I shoved my Taser back into the pocket of my jacket. “Tell me again who told you to hire me?”
He looked puzzled. “Diane told me to. She said—”
“Yeah.” I looked at White. “That’s Diane Shelby. One of your partners.”
“Diane.” White sat down on the bed. “Of course.”
“I never trusted that bitch.” Kirsten ran her hands through her hair. “You thought she was brilliant.”
“You should have seen her—I mean, her résumé. And listened to her references.” White groaned. “But goddamn it, you’re right. She’s too ambitious.” He stood up. “Brian?”
Palko trembled. “Yeah?”
“You’re fired. Come on, Kirsten.” He flicked a glance at Rachel and me. “You guys too, I guess. Let’s straighten this out right away.”
“Wait a minute.” Kirsten planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t care about your office intrigues, Frank. I want to find my daughter.”
I turned to Rachel. She wouldn’t like this, but—“Can you find her? You took care of her for a while. Maybe she won’t be scared of you.”
“I only had her for a few hours. But . . .” She shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll need something with your DNA.” She brightened and looked at the unhappy couple. “Pull out some of your hair.”
“Who are you again?” White demanded.
“Oh, just do it, Frank.” Kirsten leaned over and pulled her hair free. “Here, take it. Whatever gets my daughter back.”
That’s when Palko made his break, or just lost his nerve. He ran for the door, face red and sweaty, arms pumping. White cursed. Kirsten turned, her eyes burning with dark fire, but I grabbed Palko’s shoulders as he reached for the door handle.
His forehead hit the door with a bloody smear. With a grunt, he rolled over on the ground and kicked at me.
I’m not an action hero. I jumped back, fumbling again for my Taser, but Kirsten stepped forward and spoke a few syllables in no language I recognized, and Palko stopped moving. One leg raised for a second kick, eyes wide, mouth open in a silent shout.
She nudged his hip with one foot. He didn’t shift. Paralyzed, frozen. Dead? I backed away.
“We’ll deal with him later.” Kirsten looked at her ex-husband. “Agreed?”
He nodded. “Later.”
“Tom?” Rachel waved an arm. “Get me one of those wrapped cups from the bathroom. All these high-class hotels have got them.”
Wondering when she was at a fancy hotel last—and who with—I headed to the bathroom. I just hoped I’d get to yank a few hairs from White’s scalp before we left.
White insisted on taking a cab back to the law firm’s office, so I gave my car keys to Rachel and left her in the hotel room to figure out the spell she’d need to find Elena. I sat in the cab’s front seat, next to a driver from the Ukraine who chatted on his cell phone all the way down Wacker Drive. Kirsten and her ex-husband sat in back, keeping as far from each other as they could while remaining in the car.
The security guard at the front desk recognized White, but Kirsten and I had to sign in. Beyond the turnstile, White tapped a foot on the tile until an elevator door opened and we marched in. White and Kristen took separate corners. I was surprised they didn’t take separate elevators to avoid breathing the same air.
We all watched the numbers as the elevator ascended. I’d noticed before that the floor numbers skipped from 12 to 14, but until right now I hadn’t thought about the fact that the office was located on what was really the 13th floor. Now it made sense. But I didn’t mention that as the doors opened.
White led the way past rows of cubicles and conference rooms to Shelby’s office. Light burned beneath the door. He raised his fist to knock.
“Jesus Christ, Frank.” Kirsten pushed the door open. “She works for you, right?”
Shelby was standing behind her glass desk as if she’d heard us coming. Still in the same tan pantsuit, the same gold necklace dangling over her blouse. “Frank! And Kirsten? I’m so glad you’re both—”
“Diane!” He marched inside. “Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Screw that. Just tell me where my daughter is, bitch.” Kirsten pushed past White and planted a fist on the desk’s glass top.
Shelby leaned back. She looked at me. “Tom Jurgen, right?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “We met a few hours ago, remember?”
“Of course.” She gave me a smile, then turned her face to Kirsten. “I have no idea where Elena is. Maybe you ought to ask your husband.”
“Ex-husband.” Kirsten stretched her long fingers. “Maybe I ought to—”
“Hold on, Kirsten.” White leaned over the glass desk. “I’m the goddamned CEO of this firm, Diane. Now are you going to answer the question?”
“CEO?” Shelby shook her head like a judge overruling an objection. “Maybe that’s going to change.”
“The hell with you.” White shook his head. “You’re fired. Get out now.”
“I don’t think so.” Shelby stepped back from the desk. Not a retreat, but a strategic withdrawal. “There’s an emergency board meeting tomorrow, Frank. This whole custody battle is an embarrassment to the firm. We’re going to discuss the whole matter, but you won’t have to be there.”
“Oh, no.” White shook his head. “Don’t you dare threaten me with a board meeting.”
“Maybe you don’t know the board as well as you think you do.” She crossed her arms with a steady gaze. “Lots of us agree that it’s time for new leadership.”
White straightened his necktie. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Maybe you should all leave right now.” Shelby tilted her head toward the door behind us. “Both of you, and that rent-a-cop with you. Why is he here?”
“You were the one who picked me.” I stepped between White and Kirsten, my throat dry. “You told Brian to have me find Munroe, so you could get the baby. But you had Joaquin track me while I looked, and the minute I found her, your shapeshifter came in and killed her. Munroe knew him.”
Shelby shrugged. “Come on, Jurgen. What kind of a detective are you if someone can follow you like that, without you ever seeing him?”
“A shapeshifter could. I don’t notice every pigeon on the street.”
She shrugged. “You know you can’t ever prove that. Frank you’re a lawyer, you tell him.”
White’s voice was hard as gravel “You’re fired, Diane. And you’re delusional if you think the board is going to pick you over me. That’s not going to happen.”
“Like I said—” Shelby lowered her arms and shook them. “You don’t have to be there.” Her body began to shake.
Oh, no. I looked at the door. Could I make it in time? Maybe Kirsten would slow her down while I ran for the stairwell. Maybe she wouldn’t follow me. Maybe . . .
Maybe I should do more than I’d done for Munroe.
“She’s shifting!” I grabbed my Taser as the fangs sprouted from Shelby’s face. White jumped back, colliding with a chair and almost falling. Jagged claws lanced from Shelby’s fingers as she grew taller than she had in her demonstration to me. Her blouse ripped, and her shoulders rose and spread like a hawk’s wings.
Kirsten raised a hand, palm out. A bolt of blue lightning surged through the air as White scrambled toward me. It exploded in a small cobalt fireball, but Shelby—or the monster she’d become—stood her ground, no more injured than if Kirsten had spit in her face.
Her long red tongue whipped from her throat. “Do not fffight me now. This is over sssoon.”
“Bitch!” Kirsten lifted both her hands now, and fired twin bolts of flame straight at her chest.
Shelby picked up the desk in her broad arms as a shield. The glass top blackened as she hurled it forward.
Kirsten stumbled backward. White caught her arm and held her up. “Do something!”
“I’m trying!” Kirsten closed her eyes. Instead of unleashing another storm of energy directly at Shelby, she aimed her arms up at the ceiling. Chunks of plaster—or drywall or whatever the ceiling was made of—dropped down on top of her. They weren’t large or heavy enough to hurt her, but they forced her back toward the window in a cloud of dry, choking dust.
Then more fire flew from Kirsten’s fists, scouring the carpet around Shelby’s now massive horned, clawed feet. The flame-resistant carpeting smoked and smoldered, refusing to catch fire but destroying what was left of her designer shoes.
With a roar of fury, Shelby—or the creature she’d transformed into—lowered her head and launched herself at Kirsten.
White dropped to the floor and covered his head. Kirsten brought her arms together in a cross, her face darkening. Shelby hit some kind of invisible barrier like a psychic force field, but Kirsten staggered backward, shouting curses as her legs buckled and she tumbled to the carpet.
By now Shelby’s blouse and slacks were in shreds, like the Incredible Hulk with a better fashion sense. Her body was pulsing with power. Her head looked like a gargoyle, with long ears and sharp fangs jutting from her cheeks, and claws rising from her arms like the teeth of a great white shark.
Shelby growled with menace. Then she leaped at Kirsten with her arms stretched and her jaws open wide.
Me? I was too scared to breathe or see straight, but I forced my legs to push forward. Two feet away, I fired the Taser at Shelby’s thick neck. The dart jabbed her mottled skin.
Shelby roared in pain and rage. Kirsten pressed her hands against her chest, and fire burned the creature’s flesh. I kept my finger on the Taser’s trigger, sending jolt after jolt of electricity into the monster’s nerves until the juice ran out.
Shelby reared up on her tree-trunk legs like an angry Godzilla. She tore the Taser’s dart from her neck and shot her long tongue at me like a whip. I ducked my head. White screamed. Kirsten shot a bolt of lightning at her foot.
Shelby rocked to one side. “This isss . . .”
I threw the Taser at her face. She turned, flicking her tongue at me again, and then Kirsten’s entire body erupted in flames like a bonfire. I could see her body inside, trembling as the energy swirled around her, her teeth clenched fiercely as she tried to turn Shelby to ashes.
Shelby’s shriek of pain was almost girlish, but she stomped on the floor hard enough to rattle the window blinds. I looked around for something to throw.
White sat up on an elbow, desperate. “Do something! Do—”
A crack of thunder interrupted him. I blinked, half deaf, and rubbed my eyes.
Rachel stood in the middle of the office, panting. She held the baby in her arms. “Tom?” She looked around. “What the hell?”
The flames abruptly vanished. Kirsten sat up. “Elena?”
Elena was crying. Howling, really. White crawled on his knees toward her.
Shelby lunged forward with a cry of triumph and dug her claws into Kirsten’s throat. She twisted Kirsten’s neck, laughing as Elena screamed and struggled in Rachel’s hands. Kirsten pulled at Shelby’s arms with moan of anguish that had nothing to do with the pain of her slowly collapsing windpipe.
Rachel looked at me, helpless and confused. Then the baby kicked, and started to fall.
“No!” White shouted.
Halfway to the floor the baby shifted.
By the time Elena reached the carpet she wasn’t a baby anymore. At least not a human baby. Maybe a dinosaur baby, or a child dragon. With weak, dangling wings but long sinewy arms and thin, stiletto claws.
The creature darted across the carpet like a greyhound and leaped up onto Shelby’s back. Shelby staggered back, losing her grip on Kirsten’s neck and roaring in rage once more.
Elena jabbed her claws into Shelby’s neck. Kirsten shot fire at her chest. White pushed his body to his feet and kicked Shelby in the leg.
Rachel and I looked at each other. I shrugged, helpless.
Shelby was waving her arms furiously. Elena slashed at her throat and shrieked. One sharp claw stabbed deep, and blood spurted in thick black plumes, pouring down over her body.
Kirsten rolled onto her knees, gasping, and unleashed another bolt of fire into Shelby’s torso, charring the leathery flesh as Shelby choked on her own blood. Elena clawed her again and again, howling and thrashing, a pint-sized monster as violent and dangerous as a swarm of angry wasps.
Shelby collapsed to the carpet with a groan. One moment later she was human again. And dying. Blood soaked into the carpet around her.
And Elena was a crying baby once more.
Still weak, Kirsten reached out and grabbed her. White stumbled forward, and for a moment I worried that they were going to get back to their custody battle all over again with a tug of war for the kid. But White just placed his hand on his daughter’s head and stroked her scalp.
“Kirsten?” His voice was hoarse. “Are you all right?”
“F-fine,” she croaked. “Now that she’s here.”
“So you found her,” I said to Rachel.
She gave me a “Well, duh?” look. “The DNA spell brought her right to me. Then all of sudden I was . . . here. Like she could sense that her parents were in danger.”
“We need to stay with her,” White said. “Both of us.”
Kirsten nodded. “I guess so. Damn it.”
“I never want kids.” Rachel grabbed a slice of pizza. “It’s going right at the top of my dating profile.”
“You have a dating profile?” I tried not to look hurt. We were splitting a pizza and a six-pack with a 1950s detective movie on her TV. “I thought—I mean, what picture do you use? I like the one of you as a dominatrix.”
She snorted. “Like I have time to date.”
“At least Francis White and his wife seem calm.” I sipped my beer. “Children change people.”
Rachel punched my arm. “Don’t get any ideas, Thomas Hale Jurgen.”
“Who, me? Never.” I reached around her shoulder. “Let’s just watch the movie.”