Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dead Man Stalking, Part One

Unlike most detectives in books and on TV, I don’t have an office or a secretary. They’re expensive. So I usually meet my clients in coffee shops or their workplaces. Sometimes at their homes. Like today.
            I met Becky Osher and her husband Ryan in their small house north of Chicago. Their 8-year-old son was at school.
            “We need to show you something.” Becky led me through the house. She was short and plump, with brown hair tied back in a ponytail. “Ryan! This is Tom Jurgen. The detective.”
            Ryan came out of the kitchen and shook my hand warily. “Thanks for coming. Coffee?”
            I let him bring me a big mug from the kitchen and sat down as Becky hooked a laptop into their DVD player.            
            Ryan picked up the remote. He was thick and husky, with a thin beard, but he looked like he wanted someone else to take control of things. He pressed a button. “Okay. Yeah. This is it.”
            In a big sunny park, Becky threw a Frisbee with a small red-haired child. He wore loose shorts and a Chicago Cubs cap two sizes too big for his head. He jumped up for the big disk sailing through the air.
            “That’s Stevie.” Becky plopped down next to Ryan on the couch. “This was last Saturday.”
            “Catch it, mommy, catch it!” Stevie laughed. The Frisbee hit the ground. Becky ran up and snatched it off the grass, and then she grabbed Stevie up in a hug and whirled around, laughing.
            “There.” Ryan paused the video. “Next to that tree.”
            A red-haired man in jeans and a dirty sweatshirt, peering around the thick tree trunk. His face wasn’t very clear, but I saw a bony jaw and wide ears.
            “That’s Kirk Hess.” Becky’s voice was tight. “He’s Stevie’s father.”
            I stared the plasma screen. “You’re sure? The picture’s not very clear.”
            “She’s positive.” Ryan turned off the video.
            “Stevie doesn’t know yet. I’m afraid . . .” She shivered. “I don’t want him in my life.”
            Child custody . . . absent father . . . I thought about the angles. “So he hasn’t tried to contact you?”
            “No.” She shook her head. “That’s the first time I’ve seen him in nine years.”
            I thought about people I hadn’t seen in decades. My first editor, my high school journalism teacher, the kid who beat me up in 5th grade. Would I recognize any of them today? Maybe. This wasn’t the time to argue.
            “Okay.” I nodded. “I can probably locate him. You’ll want a lawyer to handle the rest, but I’ll need—”
            “Here.” Becky picked up a manila folder from the table in front of her. “This has everything I know. His last job, his mother’s address—he was living with her when we broke up. And . . .” She dropped the folder on my legs. “I’ve got pictures. A few. If you need them. I can email them to you.”
            “You still have pictures?” Ryan rocked back on the couch. “Geez. I thought—”
             “I couldn’t just burn everything!” She closed her eyes, fighting tears. “Stevie might want them. Someday.”
            “Yeah. Of course.” He patted her arm. “It’s all right.”
            I felt like I should go wait in another room. But after a moment, Ryan looked up at me.
            “It was at Leafview Park,” he said. “A few blocks from here.”
            “I appreciate your being organized.” I picked up the folder and stood up. “I’ll get right to work.”
            “Oh, and there’s a check.” Becky wiped her eyes and managed a smile. We’d discussed fees on the phone.
            “Thank you.” I wrote out a receipt. “I should be able to get back to you in a few days. Like I said, you should have a lawyer ready.”
            Child custody cases are messy. But I’ve had worse. Vampires, homicidal shapeshifters, demons . . . I was almost happy to have a normal human case for once.

Becky called two days later, out of breath and scared. “I just saw him again.”
            “Okay . . .” I gulped my coffee. “What happened?”
            “This morning. I was driving Stevie to school. He was two blocks away from our house! Have you found anything?”
            I was in my apartment, my laptop on the dining room table as I double-checked the information I’d gotten. Looking for some hole. But there wasn’t one. “There’s a problem.”
            “Oh, God. What?”
            “Kirk’s dead.”
            A short pause. Then: “What the hell?”
            I clicked on a brief newspaper article on a local news website. “It was a car accident, seven months ago. Did Kirk have any brothers, or a cousin—”
            “Just a sister. And I know it was him! I lived with him almost two years. Damn it! Are you sure?”
            I had PDFs of the obituary, the police report, and the death certificate. Everything lined up with the information Becky had given me. Which meant something was wrong. And very strange.
            So this wasn’t a simple stalking case. Damn it.
            “I’m going to check out a few . . . alternatives.” No point in freaking her out yet. “In the meantime, be careful.”
            “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” I heard her pound something with her fist. “What are you talking about?”
            I leaned back in my chair. “Well, it’s possible he faked his death for some reason.”
            Becky snorted. “Oh, please. He’s not that smart.”
            “Then . . .” I had to say it. “Listen, I’m not a kook, but I’ve had some experience dealing with supernatural stuff. If Kirk is really dead—”
            “Are you serious?” Becky’s voice rose. “I mean . . .” Then she seemed to absorb the idea. “Okay. He’s dead. A ghost, a zombie, whatever. What do I do?”
            I used to be a reporter. I’m used to editors, cops, and lawyers telling me I’m crazy. But once people accept impossible things, they sometimes listen. “Like I said, you need to be careful. I just need to check out some possibilities. Don’t get close to Kirk if you see him again. ”
            “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Just—please call me when you know something.”
            “I will.”
            “This is a nightmare.” She hung up.
            I’ve been called tenacious. Also a stubborn asshole. But part of being a good reporter—or a detective—is knowing who to call when you need help.
            So I called my friend Rachel. “Are you home? Can I come up?”
            “What?” She yawned theatrically. “Sure. Just let me just get this handsome, muscular sailor dressed and out of bed. Go away, you! Scat!””
            Joking. I hoped. “I’ll be right up.”
            Rachel’s a graphic designer. She lives in the apartment upstairs in my building.
Red hair and hazelnut eyes, she’s psychic, at least a little. And she’s my girlfriend—at least a little. Also a vegetarian.
            It’s a complicated relationship.
            I knocked. Rachel opened the door right away. “Hi, Tom. What’s going on?”
            She was in cargo shorts and a camouflage sweatshirt, her feet bare. I tried to remember the case I was working on. But I’m a professional. “I may need some help.”
            She smirked. “You got another weird case?”
            “You know me too well.”
             “Okay, come on in. I’ve got that coffee you like.”
            Inside she poured me a cup of coffee and then sat down on the floor, crossing her feet in some kind of yoga position. “So? What’s the deal?”
            The coffee was strong and hot. I tried not to stare at Rachel’s legs. “It could be just an insurance scam, but there are other possibilities.”
            She shifted around on her oriental rug. “Do tell.”
            I hesitated. “Do you know anything about necromancy?”
            Rachel giggled. “I love it when you use big words.”
            “I’m talking about being people back from the dead.”
            She leaned back, stretching her arms. “Just sleepy boyfriends in the middle of the night when I’m not, you know, finished.”
            “That was one time.” Unless she was talking about someone else. But that wasn’t anything I needed to know about right now. “I meant—”
            “Yeah, dead people.” She sat forward, serious for the moment. “It’s bad magic. Hard to control. Are you talking about zombies, or what?”
            “I’m not sure yet.” I still wanted to hope this was all just an insurance scam. But that hadn’t always worked for me before. “There’s a guy stalking my client. He’s supposed to be dead. I’ve got a few leads, but I want to hit all the bases.”
            “Uh-huh.” Rachel patted my leg. “And you want me to do what?”
            I’d been thinking about this for the last few hours, ever since I’d realized that Kirk Hess was supposed to be dead, “Tell me about it. How could he come back? And what I’d have to do to send him away.”
            “Huh.” Rachel picked up her cell phone. “It’s not exactly my area of expertise, you know? I guess I can talk to a few friends.”
            Rachel has friends with even weirder lives than mine. I slurped the last of my coffee and set the cup down. “Thanks. I have to go make a visit.”
            She paused in mid-scroll. “Right now?”
            “I’ll buy you dinner later.”
            “It better not be pizza again.” She gazed at her list. “Okay, she might help. Hey, where are you going, anyway? A graveyard?”
            “Scarier.” I stood up. “The dead guy’s mother.”
Lulu Hess’s small west side house was surrounded by a narrow lawn thick with dandelions and weeds. A small battered Subaru sat in a driveway next to the side door. I walked up two steps onto the porch and rang the doorbell. And waited.
            Two more rings. Maybe the doorbell was broken. I knocked.
            The door opened right away.
            Tall and skinny, in jeans and gray T-shirt, Kirk’s mother looked me over with a grimace on her face. “You’re Tom Jurgen?”
            I’d called ahead. “Yes, ma’am. Thanks for seeing me.”
            Her living room was filled with candles. Also photos of her son. I recognized Kirk from the handful of photos Becky had emailed to me, but the room was filled with framed images of him.
            One white candle burned in front of a large photo of Kirk in the corner, like a shrine, surrounded by some personal items: a belt buckle, a pocket knife, and a silver ring.
            Lulu sank down onto a couch. A long table held a stack of true crime paperbacks, a pack of cigarettes next to a full ashtray, a half-empty jug of red wine, and a stained glass. “Oh, I’m sorry. Drink?”
            I’d learned a long time ago, working as a reporter, never to turn down a cup of coffee, a glass of water, or anything else that a potential source was willing to offer. I perched on the edge of a chair. “Whatever you’ve got.”
            “Just a second.” She hopped up and darted into the kitchen. A moment later, she returned with a tiny juice glass. “This is clean.”
            “Thanks.” I watched her fill my glass. I sipped the wine cautiously and restrained my gag impulse. “Nice.”
            “Nice and cheap.” Lulu poured herself a drink and sat back. “What can I do for you, Tom Jurgen?”
            “Like I said, it’s about your son.” I wanted to phrase this carefully. “There have been some questions about his death.”
            “I hope they’re going after those asshole friends of his.” She lit a cigarette. “They’re why he got killed.”
            “What friends?”
            “Martin. And Pablo. And their gang.” She exhaled smoke. “Not a ‘gang’ gang, I guess, just a couple of punks. I told Kirk not to get in with them, but he started up with them when he was ten or twelve. Breaking into houses, stealing liquor, all that stuff. At least he never got caught. His sister Lori was a lot worse. Hanging out with, you know . . .” She leaned forward, her voice a raspy whisper. “Those black kids.”
            I kept my face neutral. I wanted Lulu to talk to me, and an argument wouldn’t get me anywhere. “Is she here? Kirk’s sister?”
            “She’s down in Florida. With some weird friends.” Lulu poured some more red wine into her glass. “Look, I don’t mean anything. I’m not a racist or anything like that. It’s just . . .”
            She hung her head down. “Their father—he ran off, and then he got stabbed in a bar somewhere. I’m on my own here. I did the best I could. It wasn’t easy, you know? You know?” She gulped the wine down. “What’s this all about, anyway?”
            I gazed at the white candle. “Can you tell me about Kirk’s accident?”
            “Well, he was out doing something with those morons.” She shook her head. “You got kids?”
            I shrugged. “No.”
            “Well, you know what they’re like. Even when they’re grown up. They never listen.” She stabbed her cigarette out. “You want to find out how he died? You go talk to Martin. Martin Castille. He’s the crap running that gang. You want drugs? He’s the guy to go see. Pot, meth, all that stuff. I tried to keep my boy clean. Lori too. She’s okay now. She calls me mostly every Sunday, and she comes home for Christmas and Easter. Some years.”
            I looked around the room. Lots of images of Kirk, but none of a sister.
            Lulu lit a new cigarette and looked up at the ceiling. “Kids. You do your best. At least I still got my Lori.” She sat up and stared at a big photo of Kirk on the TV. He looked sort of handsome, with thicker dark hair than I’d seen in any of Becky’s pictures, and dark eyes like an owl in the night. “I just want him back.”
            The smoke was making me nauseous. I stood up. “I’m sorry about all this. And I appreciate your time.”
            She took a big swallow of wine. “No problem. Hope it’s a help. You need anything else?”
            She looked ready to fall asleep, or maybe just pass out. She didn’t want more company, and I’d learned all I could from her. Except . . . “Can you tell me where I could find Martin Castille?”

“There are all different ways of bringing people back from the dead.” Rachel was on my phone as I sat in my Honda, parked in the small parking lot in front of the convenience store where Martin Castille worked, about five miles from the Osher household. “That’s what my friend Missy says, anyway. Are we talking about ghosts or actual bodies?”
            The sun was getting low in the sky. I rubbed my eyes. “This one was picked up on video. Does that make a difference?”
            “Maybe. It used to be you couldn’t get pictures of vampires because of the mirrors, but digital cameras changed that. Are you getting anywhere?”
            “I don’t know.” I could see Martin at the cash register—or at least, I could see a man who matched Lulu’s description. Tall guy with a gold earring and the thick arms of a bodybuilder in tight T-shirt. But he seemed cheerful as he rang up customers with cases of beer or big bags of Doritos. Watching them me hungry. “I’m following a lead.”
            “Dead people don’t have anything to lose.” Rachel’s stereo played Black Sabbath in the background. “You be careful, all right? I want you back here sometime. Don’t be stupid.”
            “Me? Never.”
            The store was open 24 hours, so I couldn’t wait until it closed to confront Castille—who might be running a gang that sold drugs, and wouldn’t want to talk about it. I took a deep breath, checked the Taser in my windbreaker, and pushed the car door open.
            Maybe I could just saunter into the store and buy some Doritos. And a six-pack of beer. And ask Martin how long he’d worked there, and what else he did in his spare time, and if he knew a guy named—
            Kirk Hess.
            He was standing next to a garbage container. Red hair, jeans, and a dirty sweatshirt. Just like in the video. Staring through the window into the shop.
            Okay. Ghost or zombie? A ghost couldn’t hurt me, right? And a Taser would shock a zombie—I hoped—if that’s what he was.
            I crossed the parking lot, my feet feeling like wood. “Kirk?”
            His head jerked toward me. His eyes were gray and blank, as if he didn’t really see me. I had Becky’s pictures on my phone. Kirk was younger in them—smiling, laughing, scowling. Now he looked gaunt, like a scarecrow. Confused. But the same guy.
            “I’m a friend of Becky.” I peered at his eyes, looking for some flicker of recognition. “You remember her? Becky?”
            He blinked. Just once. “B-b-beck . . .”
            I stayed back, ready to zap him with my Taser and run. But I had to at least try talking. “Why are you here?”
            He leaned back. “You—you . . .”
            Me? That didn’t make any sense. Until I started to turn around, and a fist hit the back of my head.
            I staggered forward, red stars swimming in my eyes. “Uh, what . . .” The big glass window in front of the door was slick, but I managed to stay on my feet and turn around, grunting as I tried to keep my stomach from lurching upward. “Hey, I’m trying—”
            I shut up. It was Castille. “What the hell is . . .”
            Then he looked past me. “Kirk?”
            Kirk stared back. Still no sign that he recognized his friend. Or even really saw anything.
            “Martin!” A man ran up behind him. He wore a leather jacket and a black baseball cap. “Who’s this guy?” He shot me a glare that said he’d had no problem mashing my face into compost.
            “M-Martin.” Kirk’s lips curled in a grisly smile. “Mar-tin?”
            “Oh, holy . . .” The leather jacket guy reared back. “Is that—”
            Castile ignored him. “Yeah, Kirk, it’s me.” He took one step forward.
            I tensed, waiting to duck behind the garbage container. But Castile stopped. He looked Kirk over like a pit bull realizing it couldn’t take down a grizzly
            “Okay, Kirk.” He backed away, as if he’d suddenly decided diplomacy might be smarter than fighting. “Just tell me where it is.” He lifted a hand. “Come on, Kirk, tell me!”
            “Martin?” My voice shook. “You know he’s—”           
            “Shut up!” Castille lurched forward and grabbed Kirk’s sweatshirt. Kirk looked confused, but Castille clung to the collar, his arm shaking. “Come on, you son of a—”
            Kirk moved faster than any of us expected, slamming his big left fist against Castile’s jaw.
            Castille yelped and tumbled against me, knocking me against the shop window.. Kirk wheeled around, almost falling over, and then he lumbered around the corner of the store, his feet clomping on the concrete like a rampaging bull.
            “Goddamn it!” The leather jacket guy chased him.
            “Son of a bitch.” Castille spit on the concrete. “Get him! Get . . .” Then he remembered me. “Who the hell are you?”
            Lots of answers flooded my mind, but I didn’t think he’d listen to any of them. So I said the only thing I could think of that might make him slow down before he took out his frustration on my face. “You know Kirk is dead, don’t you?”
            Castille rubbed his hand across his cheek. A bruise was already darkening. “Of course I do. Pablo?”
            The leather jacket guy—Kirk’s friend Pablo, apparently—returned from the behind the store. “He’s gone. Again.”
            “Goddamn it.” He wiped a hand on his jeans. “Get this guy out of here. I still got to finish my shift.”
            “Come on, asshole.” Pablo yanked on my windbreaker.
            I let him pull me across the parking lot until I saw Castille back inside the store. “Wait a minute.  Can we just talk?”
            “About what? Who the hell are you, anyway?” He shoved me against a random car. “You ought to just get out of here now if you’re smart.”
            I did want to leave, right then. Courage is not my middle name—it’s Hale, actually—and nobody’s ever accused me of being smart. Stubborn, yeah, according to any number of editors and cops. And Rachel too, for that matter. Although I like to think it turns her on.
            “I’m a private detective.” I didn’t think my business card would convince him, so I kept my hand clear of my back pocket. “Tom Jurgen, I’m trying to find out what’s going on with Kirk Hess.”
            “Kirk’s dead.” He glared at the corner of the building. “You just said that. I told you to get out of here.” He lifted his fist.
            “Wait! Let me ask you a question.” Sometimes that worked. Sources would hesitate before throwing me out—or hitting me—if they thought I was ready leave them alone.
            Pablo lowered his arm. “What?”
            “Why was Kirk here? What’s Martin talking about? And why is he stalking his old girlfriend?”
            Pablo blinked. “He has a girlfriend?”
            That was one question too many. “A long time ago. What does Martin want from him? Why is he back?”
            Pablo shoved my chest. “Get out.”
            I may be stubborn, but I’m not stupid. Still . . . I reached for one my business cards. “Here. You might want to get in touch with me sometime.”
            He snorted. But he took the card.

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