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.”