Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Nearly Naked and the Dead

Tom Jurgen's latest case takes him to a nightclub with exotic dancers—and a dangerous beast lurking in the dark.

The Nearly Naked and the Dead: Part One

Sitting outside the back door of a strip joint at 3:30 a.m. isn’t as exciting as it sounds.
            A bright red “NO ENTRANCE” sign above the doorway glared at the darkness, the only light up and down the alley. A broken streetlight hung over the sidewalk outside the club’s entrance. The trash bins crammed up against the walls were locked and rusted. Graffiti stained the brick walls with shapes and symbols I couldn’t decipher. I thought I saw a rat dart down the side of the building, but it may just have been a wad of paper blown by the draft. 
            At 3:45 the door opened. The woman I was supposed to drive home stepped out. “Tom? Is that you?”
            I opened the door and stood up. “Hi there. Everything okay?”
            “Yeah. It’s just . . . come on, come on!”
             Her name was Alexa Spring—or at least that was her working alias in the Tiger Club. I’d met her in the manager’s office that afternoon. Alexa had been getting some disturbing text messages, so the manager—a woman named Kyra—had hired me to make sure she got home safely. I’d tried to tell her that I wasn’t much of a security guard. I carry a Taser sometimes, but mostly I run when things get weird. But someone had recommended me, and Kyra insisted I was the guy she wanted.
            Alexa had a nose that slanted left, long black hair, and shoulders that looked like she worked out a lot more often I did. She’d been wearing a skintight black tank top and leggings when the three of us talked, but right now, in sweatpants and a gray T-shirt, she was somehow even sexier. 
            But Alexa wasn’t alone. Three other women stumbled behind her as Alexa trotted around to my front door.
            "I'm sorry." Her voice had traces of a Russian accent. “I know it’s only supposed to be me, but can you drive my friends home? All their rides bailed. And getting a cab . . .” She squeezed my arm.
            I shrugged. “Sure. Your chariot awaits.”
            “Thank you.” Alexa twirled around like a—well, like a dancer. “Hey, girls, this is Tom Jurgen! He’s the PI Kyra hired. He’ll drive us all home.”
            “Hi, Tom!” A long-legged blonde in red shorts waved at me. The rest just crowded around the doors.
            They managed to cram themselves into the Honda’s back seat. Alexa rode in front next to me. She bent over, her breath against my ear. “Dawne just lives a few blocks away. Take her home first.”
            “Which one is—” It didn’t really matter. “Everybody in?”
            A foot pushed at my seat as I started the car. “Sorry,” someone grunted behind me. “I’m Nikki.” She patted my shoulder.
            “Hi, Nikki.” What could I say? “Okay, ladies, let’s roll.”
            I was pointed into the alley away from the street, so I backed up slowly as I turned on my headlights. I heard struggles with the seat belts in back.
            “Hey, get your hand out of my crotch, you whore!” The dancer in the middle laughed.
            “You love it, bitch!” I heard the seatbelt click. “There. I got it. Deep. You want me to help you down there?”
            “Hey!” Nikki kicked my seat. “What the hell?”
            Alexa clutched my arm. “Tom?”
            I gripped the wheel. “Yeah. I see it.” Holy sh—
            The beast lurched from the darkness in the back of the alley. Eight or nine feet tall, it had claws in its fingers and spikes of sharp bone jutting from its wrists. Red fur, burning eyes, yellow teeth, and thick legs that looked like it could hop over my car to the far side of the street.
            It reared back on the pavement, arms raised over its thick hairy shoulders, and then it charged forward.
            I kicked the accelerator. The Honda shot backward, and I could only hope that at 4:00 in the morning no pedestrians were walking down the sidewalk behind me.
            I got lucky—or everyone else did. I didn’t hit anything, and I managed to twist the wheel, swing the car around, and shift into drive, all pretty much at the same time.             Yee-hah! I hit the accelerator again and raced down the street, feeling like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I even ran a red light.
            The creature didn’t follow. I checked the rearview mirror and saw only streetlights and empty sidewalks. I eased off the accelerator, my heart still pounding. “Everyone okay?”
            The back seat was silent. What the—? I glanced over my shoulder.
            All of the women were suddenly passed out. Heads on each other’s shoulders, eyes closed, snoring softly. As if they were drunk. Or in shock.
            But Alexa was still awake next to me. She grabbed my leg. “Tom?”
            My fingers were tight on the wheel. “Yeah. What the hell was that thing?”
            “I don’t know. But I can’t—we can’t just go home. Can you . . .”
            The blond dancer moaned as if she was having a nightmare. Another one murmured a sleepy prayer in Spanish.
            “Okay.” I looked for the right intersection. “Don’t worry. They can all come back to my place. And then we can talk.”

So I had four drop-dead gorgeous dancers in my apartment, and none of them remembered why they were there—except for Alexa. I offered them all the beer in my refrigerator, along with soda and pretzels, and found an all-night pizza place in my collection of delivery menus. “Pick whatever you want.”
            “Tom—it’s Tom, right?” It was Nikki, the woman who’d kicked my seat. A tall black woman in jeans and a dark sweater, dreadlocks dangling over her shoulders. “What are we doing here?”
            “You’re completely safe.” I made sure to stay far from the door so none of them would think I was trying to stop them from leaving. “But something happened when you were leaving the club. Tell them.” I looked at Alexa for help.
            “There was this big monster.” Alexa looked from one dancer to the next. “Don’t you remember?”
            “Oh, I know!” Dawne was the tall blonde in shorts. “It looked like King Kong. And Godzilla. Rolled into one. But I thought I was just having a bad dream or something. What are you talking about?”           
            “I don’t remember anything.” Marta was short and busty, with black hair tied in a long braid. “I want to go home now.”
            I lifted my hands. “Fine. I’ll drive you, or call you a cab—”
            “What thing?” Nikki narrowed her eyes at me. “I don’t remember anything after we got in this guy’s car.” 
            “I hired Tom to take me home.” Alexa swung her head from Nikki to the rest of the dancers. “None of you had rides, remember?”
            “Oh, right.” Dawne crunched a pretzel. “Yeah, my boyfriend’s an asshole.”
            Marta looked confused. “Wait—what time is it?”
            A knock on the door. I hadn’t even ordered the pizza yet. I checked the peephole and stifled a groan. “Hi, Rachel.” I almost would have preferred the beast.
            Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor. Kind of psychic. Kind of my girlfriend. Which made the presence of four strippers in my apartment—even with all their clothes on—kind of awkward.
            “I sensed a disturbance in the Force.” Rachel’s hazel eyes scanned the living room. “Hi. Am I interrupting a party?”
            The women just stared at her. Marta muttered a Spanish curse.
            “Tom was driving us home.” Alexa came up next to me. “We’re dancers.”
            “Oh.” Rachel stared at me. “Dancers. That explains it.”
            “I was being threatened.” Alexa put a hand on my shoulder. “My boss hired him. And then we were attacked.”
            “Attacked.” Rachel stared at Alexa. And me. And then at the dancers.
            “It was big and ugly and—” Her hand dropped away. “Tom, who is this?”
            “Rachel, this is Alexa.” I expected. “Rachel’s my friend.”
            Rachel snorted.
            I tried to explain before one or the other slapped me. Or both. “She helps me sometimes—”
            “Shut up.” Rachel reached out and planted a hand on Alexa’s arm.
            “W-what?” Alexa tried to back away, but Rachel’s hands are strong.
            Her eyes flickered, and Alexa flinched. But after a moment Rachel let her go and patted my hand. “Okay, I get it.” She shrugged. “Can I have a beer?”
            “I think I’ve got one left.” I fled to the kitchen.

Like I said, Rachel’s at least a little bit psychic. Her powers aren’t all that consistent or dependable, but she can usually see things other people can’t. It comes in handy for me. Sometimes.
            The dancers all let her touch their hands to read their recent memories. Nikki groaned, skeptical and suspicious, but Dawne giggled and Marta sat still, chanting the rosary.
            The pizza came by the time I’d sorted everyone out. The carrier looked at me, looked at the women, and looked like he wanted to stay, so I tipped him extravagantly and hustled him out as fast as I could.
            “Huh.” Rachel sat down at my dining room table with a frown as the dancers attacked the pizza. “Their memories are sort of shrouded, but what I could get was all pretty consistent.” She sipped her beer. “I could call Carrie. She knows a lot about creatures from other dimensions.”
            “Other dimensions?” Nikki laughed. “What’s that all about?”
            Rachel’s friend Carrie had helped us on other cases. She was smart and tough—and she didn’t like me at all. “Call her,” I said. “When the sun comes up.” I leaned close. “Does this mean you believe me?”
            “More than I believe you could entice four women back to your apartment  at the same time for any other reason.” She punched my shoulder.
            “Ouch.” I looked at my watch. Pushing 6:00 a.m. “If anyone wants to go to bed . . .” Oops. I had only one bedroom. The couch supposedly pulled out, but I’ve never actually done it, and I eat a lot of chips there, so anything could be waiting. The bathroom was through the bedroom.
            I sighed. “Or we could just watch TV until you’re all ready to go home.”
            After a quick discussion Rachel agreed to take Nikki and Dawne upstairs to her place. Alexa and Marta could share my bed, and I’d sleep on the couch.
            Rachel kissed me before she left. She likes to pretend that she barely tolerates me, but she gets territorial where other women are involved.
            “Are you and her . . .?” Alexa nodded at the door when the others left.
            I sighed. “It’s complicated.”
            “I know how that goes.” She kissed me—on the cheek. “Thanks for doing all this, Tom. I’ll tell Kyra to make sure you get paid extra.”
            “No problem.” I smiled. “Trouble is my business, right?”

I drove them all home starting at noon. Nikki thanked me. Dawne kissed me. Marta waved as she ran from the car. Alexa gave my arm a squeeze in front of her building. “Thank you, Tom.”
            I watched her walk up the steps to her door. Yeah, I’m a guy. But I was waiting to make sure she got inside. Really.
            Then I drove back to the nightclub. It didn’t open until 6:00 p.m., but Kyra would be there. And I had to talk to her.
            Kyra was the Tiger Club’s manager: a short, squat woman with clipped black hair. I had the feeling she could have run a five-star restaurant or an infantry battalion with the same no-nonsense attitude.
            We sat at the empty bar. “Yeah, Alexa called me after you dropped her off.” She lit a cigarette. “I got nothing. As far as I know, nobody’s ever seen a monster in our back alley. Rats, panhandlers, drug deals, yeah. Even people screwing behind the dumpsters—yuck. No monsters.”
            “Alexa said she’s been getting threats?”
            “Some weird texts.” Kyra showed me her cell phone. “Take a look.”

            @slutalexa: Get away. The beast is waiting. #runrunrun
            @slutalexa: That place isn’t safe. I’m watching. #watching
            @slutalexa: You don’t want to stay there. #I saw you last night
            @slutalexa: Beware the beast. #I’m coming.

The texts had all showed up within the last four days. “Beware the beast” was from yesterday—two hours before Kyra had called me. “Okay.” I handed the phone back to her. “I get why you couldn’t call the cops.”
            “They wouldn’t do anything.” She tapped her cigarette into a plastic cup. “Take a report, tell us to be careful, all that. They think we’re all just whores who like to get raped. Assholes.”
            I knew a few cops who didn’t think like that, but she was right. Too many probably did.
            “I’m glad you got them all home okay.” Kyra rubbed her face, looking as tired as I felt. “Can you do it again tonight? I’ll double your fee.”
            “S-sure.” The prospect of another attack terrified me, of course. But the double fee helped. Mostly, though, I wanted to find out what was going on. Before some young, beautiful dancer got hurt.
            Okay, I know what that sounds like. But I have a problem. I can’t stop asking questions.
            “Maybe you should hang around inside.” Kyra stood up and walked around behind the bar. “Keep an eye on everybody. Watch for the—the beast. That sound good?”
            I tried to think of how I’d explain this to Rachel. Spend an evening in a strip club watching hot young women take off their clothes—for work? But Kyra was right. It could be my best chance to spot whoever was threatening Alexa. And the rest of the dancers. Half-naked, writhing, moaning . . .
            I stood up. “Of course. What time?”

So here’s the thing: Kyra’s nightclub, the Tiger Club, wasn’t actually a “strip joint” in the full frontal nudity sense. In Chicago, a club can either have booze or naked dancers. It’s a choice. A few clubs within city limits do actually feature all-out nudity, but they sell soda and juice drinks and non-alcoholic beers.
            Kyra’s nightclub was the other kind. It offered a full bar to make money off of drunk customers who wanted to gaze at hot young women as close to naked they could get away with: tiny bikini tops, tight g-strings, and six-inch stripper heels that no one can realistically walk in, let alone dance with.
            Of course, what goes on in the VIP rooms in back is supposed to be secret. But I wasn’t planning to go in there. Unless my work called for it. Really.
            At 8:30 the music in the Tiger Club was booming. Tables around the main stage were crowded with men—and a few women—watching Dawne climb a brass pole in the world’s skimpiest bikini. I took a stool at the bar, unbuttoned my jacket, and ordered a beer.
            I spotted Kyra standing in a door behind the bar. She nodded to me, but we’d agreed not to talk while I was working. Two bartenders kept an eye on the patrons as they served drinks. One was a big guy with a shaved head and a friendly smile. The other one was shorter and skinny, with thick black hair and long arms. He joked and laughed as he served beers to the customers, but he watched everyone with sharp, narrow eyes, just like his partner.
            Two other beefy men stood near the front door, and guy who looked like an NFL linebacker crossed his arms next to the dancers’ dressing room door.
            I sipped my beer. Rachel’s friend Carrie hadn’t come up with anything on the monster. That was probably good news—it suggested that a creature from some other dimension hadn’t crashed through the walls of reality to invade our world. It didn’t solve the problem of who—or what—had attacked my car. Which left all other possibilities open.
            Shapeshifters? Mad scientists? A deranged costume shop owner? My head hurt thinking about it.
            Dawne dropped from the pole and bowed to scattered applause while waitresses in corsets and panties took drink orders. Then Alexa came through a door next to the stage in a black silk robe. A slow rock song came on.
            As the music got faster, Alexa dropped her robe and spun around on the stage with her arms and legs wide, smiling as if she was having more fun than anyone else in the nightclub. She wore the kind of lingerie you see in a Victoria’s Secret catalog before hiding it in your bottom drawer—red and clingy, designed to entice.
            Alexa danced like a ballerina, jumping high, sliding across the stage, arching back, then leaping up to do it all again. Sweat dripped from her skin as she twirled around, stretched, bent back, and kicked her legs high. She kept a dazzling smile plastered on her face as dropped down to the stage and rolled over, letting everyone get a good look at her butt.
            Her third song was slow again, and she knelt at the edge of the stage, swaying back and forth on her knees as she gazed up at the ceiling lights. Men crowded around her, eager to fondle her legs as they slipped dollar bills into her velvet band around her thigh.
            My throat felt dry. I waved for another beer.
            Nikki mounted the stage as Alexa finished. She wore flat sandals and a peach-colored robe. She waited a moment, tapping a heel as the music came back up, and then flung her robe open, revealing a tiger-striped bikini and a fierce smile. The music roared around her, and her long yellow hair flew free to the cheers of the audience as she took a swing around the pole.
            Alexa sauntered across the floor, taking more tips and exchanging kisses with men and some of their girlfriends as she made her way to the bar. “Franco! Give me a drink!”
            The bartender with the shaved scalp squeezed her butt with a grin and squirted some water into a plastic cup. Alexa leaned back, gulping it down, letting some of the water drip down her neck and shoulders. Then she threw the cup toward a garbage can and kissed the bartender’s ear. “You’re the best, Franco!” she shouted as Nikki’s music pounded everyone’s ears.
            She winked at me. Then she winked at the guy next to me. I tried not to feel jealous. She was working, after all.
            Alexa spun around and made her back through the crowded tables until she reached the door next to the stage. She waved an arm, and a few people cheered in drunken response, and then she disappeared into the back as Nikki finished her second song.
            I turned my stool and tried to concentrate on business.
            I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Dawne. Her lips brushed my ear. “Buy me a drink. Hey, Tony?”
            The bartenders were apparently trained to respond immediately to the dancers. Tony swung around with a smile, brushing his thick black hair back across his face. “Hi! Buying the lady a drink?”
            “Uh, sure.” I wondered how much it would cost, and if I could put it on my expense account.
            Dawne leaned close, holding my shoulder. “I heard them talking.”
            What? I tried to remember why I was really there. “Who?”
            “Sigmund! He’s one of the owners. He said . . . Sorry. I have to make this look good.” She ran a hand over my leg.
            Tony brought over something that looked like a Mai Tai without the pink umbrella. Dawne leaned forward, rubbing her body against me as she gulped it down, ice and all. “Ohh, that’s good. I get so thirsty up there.”
            I was pretty thirsty myself. “What about Sigmund?”
            Dawne set the glass down. “He was talking to someone. He was saying, ‘You’ve got to do it again, tonight.’” She rubbed a hand over my shoulders.
            I tried to remember what why I was here. “So who was he talking to?”
            Tony slid her glass away. “Another drink for the lady?” He winked at me.
            “Oh, I’m giving him a dance.” Dawne laughed and nudged my knee. “Hey, meet me up in the VIP room. I’ll be right there. Tell Pablo it’s okay.” She kissed my ear.  “Hurry,” she whispered. 
            Never argue with a hot, almost-naked woman. I left my beer and headed over to the steps leading up into the VIP room.
            The bouncer—Pablo?—stopped me at the top step. “Not without a dancer.” He had the build of a boxer.
            I grabbed the short metal handrail and looked around. “That girl—Dawne? She said she’s coming.”
            At the bar Dawne was chatting with another customer. Tony handed Franco a bottle that looked like an energy drink, with green and yellow stripes, and they laughed as Franco chugged it down. Then he poured another drink for Dawne and grabbed cans of beer from the cooler.
            Dawne saw the bouncer staring at her and waved a hand.
            “Okay.” Pablo stepped aside. “Three minutes until she comes up.” Then he grinned. “Maybe five.”
            I won’t claim that I’ve never had a lap dance in a strip club. Or even that it’s always been for professional reasons. I will say that this room was better than most, with couches along the walls that weren’t held together by duct tape and chairs in the center that didn’t look as if they’d break if a customer leaned back too far. And the bouncers stayed in the shadows, not obviously intimidating the clientele or the dancers with their big muscles but ready to strike.           
            I saw Marta on her knees between the legs of a big man who held his arms behind his neck, staring down at her. On the other side of the room a busty redhead bent down and pushed her butt against a young guy with dazed eyes who was breathing hard. He reached out for her hips, then let his hands drop as if he’d already been warned against fondling a dancer.
            I found an empty chair. Pablo kept an eye on me, arms crossed, and I figured if Dawne didn’t show up in two or three minutes he’d kick me out. I looked at the floor, wondering how much I’d be expected to pay Dawne, and whether I’d get reimbursed. I didn’t think I’d be able to get a receipt.
            Nikki came up with a young guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked drunk and nervous, a college kid trying to stay on his feet, overwhelmed by the music and the sight of so many hot half-naked women around him. Nikki led him to a chair and began swaying to the music, her arms above her head as the kid gazed up at her, his eyes dazed.
            Pablo waited a good five minutes, but then he turned to shake his head at me. I nodded and stood up. Maybe Dawne had been waylaid by a fan, or just forgotten about me. I’m used to being forgotten by beautiful women. Sometimes Rachel goes days without calling me.
            Then a scream rang from downstairs.
            I lurched to my feet as the dancers and customers around me stared up and down, puzzled but not scared. Not yet. But Marta stood up her knees, her face flushed with sudden terror, and Nikki whirled around at me. “What?”
            The red and white EXIT sign over the door in back told me to run. But the shouts and the crashing from downstairs reminded me that I was getting paid to be here for a reason.
            I’ve never claimed to be very brave. But I had to see what was going on.
            Nikki was right behind my shoulder as I leaned out of the VIP room. I gripped the metal handrail as she gasped. “No. No!”
            The beast from last night was inside the club.
            It swung its claws wide, slicing flesh and bone as it kicked over tables and chairs and people with its huge hairy legs. Its fur was already stained with blood and dripping with sweat as it lurched around the floor.
            A bouncer tried to herd people toward the nearest exit. Another one panicked and joined the bottleneck, pulling a dancer out of his path and slamming into short a Hispanic guy in front of him as another dancer yelled and pounded on his back.
            I looked for Alexa, but the nightclub was dark and chaotic. Maybe she was outside. Or hiding behind the bar.
            Then I saw Dawne.
            She stood near the stage, her legs trembling as if she was trying to run but petrified with fear. She tilted her head back, looking for help or somewhere to hide.
            The beast lunged forward, swiping its claws through the air. Dawne whirled around, heading for the door next to the stage, but her foot caught the edge of the bottom step and she tumbled flat on the hard floor.
            The beast roared and dove forward,
            Dawne kicked a heel backward, crawling in desperation. But the beast was too fast. Too big. And too angry.
            Dawne screamed again. I closed my eyes.
            “Oh god.” Nikki moaned behind me. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
            Yeah. “Let’s go.”
            The creature reared up from Dawne’s body and jumped away from the stage, prowling the club like an angry grizzly in search of new prey.
            A guy in a red necktie crawled backward across the floor, his girlfriend yanking on his wrist. The beast lurched toward them.
            “Come on, Ron, come on . . .” The girlfriend froze, and then let go in panic as the creature trudged toward them, its claws dripping with Dawne’s blood.
            The girlfriend scampered away in panic. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry—”
            The beast rammed a heel down on Ron’s chest. Then it yanked him up, shook him like up and down like a broken toy, and flung him to the floor. Ron groaned, blood leaking from his skull. The girlfriend didn’t look back as she fled. I couldn’t blame her.
            I had to get out. I looked for Nikki, but she was already heading for the exit in the back of the VIP room. I followed, my heart pounding louder than the music that was still beating the walls.
             The exit took us down a short hallway past the dancers’ dressing room, and then another door that opened on the opposite side of the building that I’d waited in last night. Several dancers and bouncers were already outside on their cell phones.
            I grabbed Nikki’s shaking arm. “Where would Kyra’s office come out?”
            She blinked as if I’d spoken in Klingon, then shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s a window . . .”
            Damn it. I turned around, trying to figure the building’s layout. Two stories. Kyra’s office was in back, behind the bar. I remembered steps going up. Would she and Alexa be able to get out? Or at least barricade the door?
            I tried to talk myself into going back inside. I had my Taser in my jacket, but I wasn’t sure an assault rifle could stop that thing. I told myself Alexa would be safe. The cops would be here soon. They’d take care of everything—
            Then the door opened and another dancer slipped out. So I grabbed the knob and darted back inside. Nikki shouted at me, but the closing door shut her off before she could change my mind.
            I made my way back up the hallway, telling myself I was crazy. I didn’t have to worry about being quiet—the music still blared from the speakers behind the stage, but that meant I might not hear the beast before it was on top of me. So I went slowly and cautiously, half-hoping I’d lose my nerve and run before we came face to claw with each other.
            The VIP room’s chairs and tables were knocked over, drinks on the floor, but it looked more like ordinary panic than the monster’s destruction. I crept along the wall to the edge of the wide doorway, leaned over, and took a cautious peek.
            A beer bottle rolling across the floor was the only movement I could see. A guy in jeans and a sweatshirt lay groaning under a table. I counted two others, unconscious or . . . dead, aside from the man on the stage next to the pole.
            And in front of the bar lay one of the bartenders. Franco, the guy Alexa had kissed. No shirt. Pants ripped. Barefoot. Like the Hulk after a major tantrum.
            Alexa stood at the end of the bar, her eyes wide. Kyra stood behind her, one hand on her arm. We looked at Franco, motionless next to a crashed-over bar stool, the three of us thinking the same thing.
            Then the SWAT team burst through the front door. 

The Nearly Naked and the Dead: Part Two

“ATTACK AT NIGHTCLUB!” It was all over the news, print and internet. A madman had stabbed and killed at least three people and wounded six more. Police were still searching for the weapons—knives, maybe swords.
            Most of the news media websites played up the strip club angle, using stock photo images of half-naked dancers and neon lights. A local Chicago news site actually quoted two of the dancers, using photos that blurred their faces but not their bodies.
            Of course the cops didn’t believe that a huge Bigfoot-like creature had invaded the club, especially since none of the survivors could describe what the attacker looked like. They tried to convince us—and themselves—that in the darkness and noise someone had terrorized everyone with knives and swords. When I asked where the knives and swords were, the lead detective told me to shut up.
            At least they didn’t drag me downtown to Chicago CP headquarters, even after I mentioned that I’d seen the same creature in the alley last night. Alexa backed me up, but she was a stripper and I was a PI. Our credibility with the cops was somewhere below crackheads and Star Wars cosplayers. They didn’t listen, because we were obviously crazy.
            But Dawne was dead. So was Ron, the red necktie guy. Three others were in the hospital with broken bones and internal injuries. Franco was dead too, but no one knew for sure why. I didn’t see any wounds during my brief glimpse of his body on the floor, but one cop questioning me was pretty sure that it had to be drugs. “It’s always drugs with assholes like this.”
            In the end we huddled around my car at 2:30 in the morning—Alexa, Kyra, Marta, and Nikki. None of them wanted to go home again. Alexa went with Kyra. We agreed to meet in the morning.
            Last night had been almost fun—four attractive young women stranded in my apartment after I’d saved them from a monster. Tonight was about shock and trauma. Nikki cried in my car and on my couch. I found a bottle of rum in the rear of the cupboard, and Marta drank half of it as she rubbed Nikki’s shoulders, her eyes drooping until she couldn’t lift the bottle anymore. So I helped them into the bedroom and left them alone.
            When I was a reporter, everyone told me to forget about the things I’d seen. But I couldn’t. Dawne was trying to make a living there. Ron, the red necktie guy, only wanted to get away. His girlfriend wanted the same thing. Ron had ended up dead, and the girlfriend had run. She’d try to forget all of it. Maybe she could.
            I thought about Dawne. And I didn’t want to forget.
Rachel called me at 6:32 a.m., waking me from a nightmare of the beast charging me as Dawne shrieked for help. “You idiot! Why didn’t you call me?”
            I staggered up from the couch. “Uh, I didn’t want to wake you.”
            “You’re allowed to wake me when you almost get yourself killed! What the hell happened?”
            I grabbed a bottle of water. I was thirsty, exhausted, still trembling—but I felt a little better hearing the worry in Rachel’s shaking voice. “I think one of the bartenders at the club transformed into the beast. He—it—killed one of the dancers here last night.”
            “Oh, god.” Her voice dropped low. “Do you want me to come down?”
            “No. I, uh, don’t want to wake anyone.” If Nikki and Marta had actually gotten to sleep.
            “Oh. You mean—”
            “Yeah. I had to bring two of them home. They’re in the other room.”
            “I don’t care. Look, call me in the morning when they’re gone. Or I’ll call you. And don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
            I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the dancers or the monster. I didn’t care. “I try not to.”

“Marta’s still asleep.” Nikki staggered out of the bedroom at 8:30 in the morning.
            The cops last night wouldn’t let any of the dancers back inside the club while they were examining the crime scene, so Nikki wore one of my T-shirts. It barely reached her hips, and I wasn’t sure she was wearing anything at all underneath.
            I closed my laptop and tried not to stare at her long legs. “Do you want a bagel or something? Granola? Stale Doritos? Hang on, there’s coffee . . .” I hurried into the kitchen.
            “Thanks.” She sipped the coffee and pulled at the bottom of the T-shirt. “I had to borrow something to wear. I’ll wash it.”
            “Keep it.” I forced my mind to focus. “Can we talk about last night?”
            “You mean . . .” Nikki groaned. “I don’t remember that much. It was like the night before. A bad dream, and I couldn’t wake up. Everyone was screaming. Wait—” She rubbed her eyes. “Did I give you a lap dance?”
            “No, it was another guy.” I sat back. “Do you know a guy named Sigmund?”
            “Oh.” She gulped some more coffee with a grimace. “There’s four or five guys who own the place, and he’s one of them. He hangs around a lot. He doesn’t bother us, much. But he’s kind of creepy. I think he’s a gangster. You know, the Outfit?”
            I’d heard of it. “Dawne said she heard him talking to someone.”
            I shook my head. “Maybe Franco.”
            Nikki kicked the table leg. “I like Franco. Liked him. Everyone did.” She groaned. “It doesn’t make sense.”
            “No.” It didn’t.
            The bedroom door opened. Marta, in another one of my shirts, leaned against the bookcase. “Is there coffee?”

I took them both home.
            Nikki kissed my cheek when I dropped her off. “Thanks, Tom.” She headed up a short sidewalk to the door of a small house, unlocked the door with a key hidden under a plant on the porch, and turned for a wave as I drove away.
            Marta didn’t talk. When I got to her building she jumped out, slammed the door, and ran up the steps, my second-best blue shirt blowing under her legs. I waited as she hit the door buzzer.
            I sat at the curb, tired, irritated, and confused. So I called Kyra. “Can we meet? Or are we done?”
            “Finished? Oh, hell no.” Kyra sounded as feisty as ever. “You get everyone home okay? Here’s my address.”
            “Okay, twenty minutes. Wait—” Marta was trudging down the steps, breathing hard. She stood on the sidewalk in bare feet, pulling my shirtsleeves down as she shivered in the morning air.
            I reached over to open the door. “Get in.”
            Marta sat next to me, wiping her eyes. “He won’t let me in. Bastard. Two nights, he said. Bastard!” She pounded my dashboard, sobbing. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You’re so nice, and he’s just a son of a bitch.”
            “Here.” I reached in my back pocket for a handkerchief. “This is—well, it’s mostly clean. I’ll take you back to my place. Or anywhere else you want.” Maybe to a Target to buy some clothes.
            Marta blew her nose. “Thanks. Sorry.” She wiped her sleeve across her face. My sleeve. Then she looked down, as if just remembering she had no pants. “Oops. Can I borrow your phone?”
I dropped Marta at a girlfriend’s house. After watching her walk her up to the door to make sure she was safe—the girlfriend looked me over as if I was some kind of spider, but hugged Marta and rushed her inside—I went back to the Honda and made my way to Kyra’s apartment.           
            Alexa answered the door in gray sweats. “Are you all right? And the others?”
            I smelled fresh-ground coffee inside. “Everyone’s fine. I took them home.”
            Kyra and Alexa sat together on a snug couch in her small living room. Kyra poured Irish whiskey into her mug and then pointed the bottle toward me.
            I shook my head. “So, was it Franco?”
            Kyra lit a cigarette. “You’re the detective. You tell us.”
            I’d only gotten a quick look at the body in the dim lights before I was down on the floor with a cop on top of me. More naked than the dancers, Franco hadn’t looked mauled or bloody as if the beast had attacked and killed him.
            So what did kill him? No idea.
            I told them about Dawne. “Any ideas what Sigmund might have been talking about?”
            “You think he was talking to Franco?” Alexa shook her head. “No. Franco’s the best.”
            Yeah. “How long did he work there?”
            “Since we opened.” Kyra closed her eyes for a moment, as if searching her memory. “Sigmund recommended him, actually.”
            That raised the question I really wanted to ask. “So who is Sigmund?”
            Kyra sipped her coffee, and then glanced at Alexa. “You or me?”
            “All right.” Alexa sat forward. “Tom, you can imagine that you don’t go to the bank to borrow money to run a nightclub like this. So we had to do business with whoever was willing.”
             We? I looked from Alexa to Kyra. Of course. “You two?”
            Alexa nodded. “I don’t let on that I’m an owner. It’s easier to work with the other girls.”
             I shrugged. “Sorry. I guess I just always pictured nightclub owners as big sweaty guys in bad suits.”           
            Kyra laughed and poured more whiskey into her mug.
            “I’m an owner.” Alexa held up one hand and counted down on her fingers. “The club is 40 percent mine. Sigmund has 25 percent. Another guy owns 15 percent, and Kyra has 20.”
            “You always mention me last.” Kyra kicked her ankle.
            “I’m saving the best.” She patted Kyra’s hand.
            “So what about Sigmund?” I asked.
            “I met him at a bar I used to hang out at.” Kyra light another cigarette. “The Witches’ Brew. It’s for, well . . . witches.” She puffed. “That doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to, now that we’ve got monsters outside my bar. Anyway, he was an investor there, and he was always talking about looking for a deal.”
            Alexa stood up and stretched her arms, looking tired and stressed. “He’s a real estate developer. I think he only bought in because he wants to tear the club down and put up a big new building, and then take over the whole block. He has mob connections. But that’s the only way to do business when you run a nightclub.”
            “He wants to buy us out.” Kyra tapped a foot on the floor. “He’s been after us for weeks. So far it’s only been money. But now . . .” She stared into the air. “I don’t know.”
            “What’s his full name?” I pulled out my phone.
            “Sigmund Schuyler.” Kyra sat forward and grabbed her own phone. “I can send you his information.”
            “What do we do now?” Alexa sat back on the couch, exhausted. “I mean, if Franco was the monster, and he’s dead—is the club safe?”
            “Not if Sigmund is behind this somehow.” I looked at Kyra out of habit. “Are you going to reopen? Sorry.” I shook my head. “I’m still thinking of her as the boss.”
            “Oh, she’s the boss.” Alexa smiled.
            “I don’t know.” Kyra lit another cigarette. “We have insurance. But if anyone’s willing to come back and work there after last night . . . that’s the problem.”
            I thought of a different problem. “Alexa, what happens with the club if, you know, something happens to you?” It was maybe a tough question right now, but asking questions is my job. “Sorry.”
            Alexa leaned back. “It’s a fair question. Kyra has a power of attorney if I’m in a coma or something. But if I die . . .”
            Kyra glared. “Didn’t you read the damn contract, bitch? Your shares get split evenly. So Sigmund gets 38 percent, Henry gets 28. And I’m left with 34, depending on how they do the math. But if you’re not here . . .” She kicked the side of the couch. “I might as well sell out the day after the funeral.”
            “And if we sell out to Sigmund now . . .” Alexa frowned. “After last night he’ll probably cut down his offer. Tell us he’s doing us a favor.” She shook her head. “No. I won’t do it. Not after people died in my club. Our club.” She nodded to Kyra.
            I stood up. “Let me see what I can find out about Sigmund. And Franco. Did he have any friends at the club who might be willing to talk to me?”
            “I’ll get you some names.” Kyra reached for the whiskey again.

So back at my apartment I opened up my laptop and started looking for data on Sigmund Schuyler. But Rachel came down before I finished typing his name on the keyboard. I was beginning to think she had my place bugged.
            First she hugged me. Then she punched my arm. “Don’t scare me like that again!”
            “I love you too.” We sat down.
            I was done with coffee for a while, but Rachel got herself a Coke from my fridge while I filled her in on what I’d learned—such as it was. “Great.” She grimaced. “It’s not enough you've got monsters. Now you’re getting mixed up with the Outfit?”
            I sighed. “I hope not. Maybe Franco was just a rogue shapeshifter with a fixation on Alexa? And Sigmund was talking to someone else about something completely different. But it’s better to find out, right?”
            “Right.” She’d brought her laptop. “You find out what’s on the internet about Sigmund. I want to know more about this girl Alexa. Not that I’m jealous, or anything!”
            “Of course not.” It might be useful. I’d investigated my own clients more often than I like to think about.
            We played computer nerds for an hour or so. I made sandwiches, and we compared notes.
            “Alexa Spring, real name Irina Nikova,” Rachel read from her screen. “Parents born in the Ukraine, she was born in Milwaukee. Studied dance at University of Michigan. Arrested in Florida for indecent exposure, two counts, arrested in Nashville for prostitution, charges dropped all three times. A couple of traffic tickets. Opened a nightclub in Detroit six years ago. It lasted two years. Opened the Tiger Club here six months ago. It’s not exactly clear what she was doing in the meantime. I could try hacking her credit reports, but you probably have some squishy ethical thing about that, don’t you?” She smirked at me.
            “Kind of.” I sipped some water. “Sigmund Schuyler is indeed a real estate developer, but he seems to make more money suing his partners than building or developing anything. Although he was named in a suit by Donald Trump in a hotel deal that fell through. He’s partnered with people with ties to the Outfit, but he’s never been indicted for anything criminal. He’s been sued a lot, almost as much as he likes suing other people.”
            Rachel swallowed some Coke. “First positive thing I’ve ever heard about Donald Trump.”
            “We don’t know he’s bad. Sigmund, I mean, not Trump.” I shuddered. “You didn’t happen to check up on any of the other partners, did you?”
            “A little. There’s not much on Pablo Nelson, he looks pretty legit. The other one, Kyra Madison?”
            “She’s the manager.”
            “She did two years in Kentucky for writing bad checks. Divorced, no kids. Possibly gay.” Rachel shrugged. “Someone named KyraM did show up on a website for witches, looking for a spell that would make her ex-husband, uh, impotent.”
            Yeah, we’ve dealt with witches before. And there was definitely bad magic floating around this case. “Check that out.”
            “You’re the boss. Not literally!” Rachel shot me a warning look. “What are you going to do?”
            I sighed. “I hate to say this, but the next step is to talk to Sigmund. Wait, no.” I checked my email. Kyra had sent me a list of dancers to contact. “First I have to talk with some hot women.”
            Rachel groaned.

So I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to dancers. On the phone. They all loved Franco. I heard that he was “the best” so often I started marking it off on a pad. Not that Franco was a saint—one dancer told me they’d hooked up three or four times—but he’d never gone over the line to outright offensiveness. Or stalking.
            I also asked about Sigmund. The few who said anything would only admit that he’d creeped them out with the occasional leer.
            I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I called Sigmund’s office to make an appointment. A secretary told me he could see me at 5:30. Two hours.
            “Am I coming?” Rachel looked up from her screen.
            I hesitated. Rachel can be stubborn when she wants, which is most of the time. “I’d rather he didn’t get to know you. At least until we’re sure the Outfit isn’t involved in this.”
            To my relief, Rachel nodded. “Just me when you go into his office, and then call me as soon as you’re done.”
            “You really do care.”
            She snorted. “Hah. I need someone to feed my fish when I’m out of town.”
            I called Kyra next and told her about my meeting with Sigmund. Then I looked at Rachel. “Anything on Kyra?”
            “Well, she shows up on a couple of witchcraft and magic forums, but . . .” Rachel rubbed her eyes. “Nothing that looks suspicious. You did say someone recommended you, right? Maybe this is how she got your name.”
            I do have a reputation in some unusual local communities. For better or worse, although it got me some business. “Okay.” I stood up and stretched. “I need to take a break before I visit Sigmund. You can go home. Or whatever.”
            “Oh, you idiot.” Rachel shoved her laptop back until it bumped mine and stalked around the table. “Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Except maybe now.”             She kissed me. This didn’t happen very often.
            She ran a hand across my shoulders when we both came up for air. “Don’t get too used to this, Tom Jurgen.”
            I licked my lips. “So does this mean you like me?”
            Rachel pulled at my shirt. “Just shut up for a few minutes. All right?”

The Nearly Naked and the Dead: Part Three

So I felt refreshed when I stepped into Sigmund’s office on Ashland. But still nervous.
            The suite had three cubicles, one private office, and a secretary in a short skirt. She looked my business card over and lifted her phone. “Sigmund? Your 5:30 is here. All right.” She handed my card back. “Just one minute, sir.” She winked. “I’m Sheila.”
            Ten minutes later Sigmund emerged from his office. He was tall, with white hair and a jagged nose, like a polar bear who’d been punched in the face. But his suit probably cost more than my car. He stuck a hand forward. “Jurgen? Come on in. I don’t have much time.”
            Inside his office Sigmund sank down behind his desk. “What’s this all about, Jurgen? I’ve got another appointment in 20 minutes.”
            As nervous as I was, I recognized the usual techniques—using my last name, telling me he didn’t have time for questions. Not inviting me to sit down. Sigmund was a guy who liked to establish dominance up front.
            Maybe it worked on other people. I’m not very brave, but I’m stubborn when I’ve got questions to ask.
            So I pulled a chair over and settled into my reporter mode. “Were you at the Tiger Club last night?”
            “What?” Sigmund shook his head. “In the afternoon, yeah. I had a meeting with Kyra. The manager. You know she’s a lesbian, don’t you?”
            I shrugged. “Did you talk to Franco? The bartender?”
            “I might have said hello. I was busy.”
            I nodded. “So, one of the dancers said she heard you saying sometime like, ‘You’ve got to do it again, tonight.’ Do you remember that?”
            I expected an angry denial. Instead Sigmund just rolled his shoulders. “Maybe. I might have been on the phone setting up meetings. Who told you that?”
            “Her name was Dawne. She’s dead.”
            “Oh, hell.” Sigmund shook his head. “That’s too bad.”
            “You want to buy out the other owners of the Tiger Club. Is that right?”
             “So what?” He leaned forward, a hand on his desk. “I could do a lot with that property. It’s why I invested there in the first place. What are you getting at?”
            “I bet. Did you recommend Franco to Kyra?”
            “I might have. I knew him from another bar, and he was a good bartender.” Sigmund frowned. “Look, Jurgen, does this have a point? Because I have a meeting coming up.” He glanced at his phone for the time.
            “Yeah, you mentioned that.” I stood up. “That’s all I need for now. Thanks for your time.”
            “You know, I feel bad about what happened.” Sigmund stood to walk me to the door. “Even if I can’t really believe all this talk about monsters inside the club. Or back in the alley. Maybe someone’s on drugs or something. I just want to do business. Sheila? Call my car for twenty minutes, all right?”
            “Sure thing.” The secretary lifted her phone. “Hello? Mr. Schuyler would like his car soon.” She winked at me. “Okay.” Then she leaned back in her chair. “Anything else, Mr. Jurgen?”
            Sigmund’s door was closed. I stood by the edge of her desk. “Do you know a guy named Franco?”
            “Franco?” Sheila giggled. “Yeah. Nice guy.”
In my car I called Kyra. “Was Sigmund at the club for a meeting yesterday afternoon?”
            “Just for some financial stuff.” She coughed, as if she needed a cigarette, or she’d had too many. “He talked about buying us out again. But I put him off.”
            “Was Franco around?”
            “It was around three or four. He usually comes in early to set up.”
            “So did you tell Sigmund about what happened in the alley?”
            “Hell, no!” Kyra coughed again. “He’d think we were crazy.”
            Or back in the alley. “He knew about it when I talked to him just now.”           
            Kyra let out a long, low breath. “Are you sure? I didn’t . . . how would he know?”
            One of the dancers could have told him. Or told Franco. If he was secretly working for Sigmund  . . . “Maybe we should talk.”
            “Okay, we’re at the club.” She sighed. “The cops just released it, and we’re cleaning up.”
            I tensed. “You’re not there alone, are you?”
            “No, we’ve got Tony. He’s a bartender. And Pablo. He used to be a boxer.”
            I started the car. “I’ll be right over.”

I parked and called Rachel. “I’m at the Tiger Club. Just so you know.”
            “Right. That’s just what a girl wants to hear.” I could almost feel her fist punching my arm. “Listen, I was checking up on Sigmund some more. Guess what? He’s part of a bar that caters to witches.”
            Witches. Well, anything’s possible in Chicago. “Okay, that’s—”
            “And Franco used to be the bartender there. Until about six months ago.”
            Six months. Just when Kyra had hired him—at Sigmund’s recommendation. “That’s interesting. Good work. I’ll add you as an item on my bill.”
            “Just take me out to dinner. Someplace where I don’t have to carry my own tray.” She hung up.
            I knocked on the front door. No answer. I pounded harder. “Hello?”
            The door opened. “Hi. I’m Tony.” He was the black-haired bartender from last night. “You were here yesterday, right?”
            “Tom Jurgen. Glad you’re okay.” I handed my card over. “Is Kyra here?”
            “I’ll get her. Kyra!”           
            The nightclub looked smaller with the late afternoon sun streaming through the blinds. Last night the lights overhead had been dim and shadowy. Now they were turned on high—bright and blinding.
            “Hi.” Kyra picked up an overturned bar stool and wiped her hands on her jeans. “We figured we could get the place in shape to open tomorrow night.”
            “It was a crazy night.” Tony wiped a hand across his forehead. “But we can get it all cleaned up, and then—”
            “Just get the blood out!” The boxer from last night—Pablo?—stood up in the VIP room with Alexa. “Who’s this guy?”
            “Take a break, Pablo.” Kyra rubbed her eyes. “Hey, Tony, get us some drinks, okay?”
            “What do you need?” Tony headed behind the bar. “Beer? Energy drink?”
            “Just water. Kyra, maybe we should talk in your office?”
            Tony poured Kyra an Irish whiskey and squirted some water into a plastic cup for me. Alexa came down from the VIP room and took a bottle of club soda from the fridge behind the bar.
            Inside her office Kyra slumped behind the desk and lit a cigarette. “So what have you got?”
            I took off my jacket and told them what I knew—including Rachel’s information. “There’s obviously a direct connection between Sigmund and Franco. And magic.” I had to look directly at Kyra. “You’ve been involved with witches’ groups.”
            Alexa pointed her eyes at me. “Wait a minute, you’re not accusing Kyra—”
            “I’m not accusing anyone.” I held up my hands. “I’m just reporting what I know.”
            “Hang on.” Kyra stabbed her cigarette into an ashtray. “I know that bar you’re talking about. The Witches’ Brew. Yeah, I went there a few times, and I saw Franco there, so when Sigmund said he was looking for a job, so I hired him. Figured it would make Sigmund happy.
            “Maybe Sigmund wanted him here when he decided to make his move.”
            “That’s not . . .” Alexa swung her face to Kyra. “Do you think?”
            “I don’t know.” Kyra opened her drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. She had a stack of plastic cups on her desk, and she poured another drink. Then she lit another cigarette. “I hate to think about it. He was always great. But maybe . . .”
            “It’s all conjecture,” I admitted. “There’s nothing we can prove, even in a civil case. But if you could get out from under Sigmund somehow—”
            “But Franco’s dead.” Alexa stood up. “If he was really the monster—”
            “There could be another one.” Kyra leaned back in her chair. “Maybe Sigmund can create more of them. Keep them coming until we get tired of it. God, I knew he was an asshole, but I never thought—”
            “But how is he doing it?” Alexa looked ready to break something. “Is there sopme kind of recipe for—”
            A knock at the door interrupted her. “Visitor,” Tony announced, smirking at me.
            Rachel walked into the office. “Thanks, Tony.” She winked at me, waved to Alexa, and held out a hand to Kyra. “Hi, I’m Rachel.”
            Kyra laughed, and then shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you. Whoever you are.”
            “I remember you.” Alexa glanced at me. “You’re Tom’s girlfriend, right?”
            I stood up. “Rachel works with me. Sometimes.” I shoved my chair toward her. “She must have a good reason for being here. Right?”
            “I just always wanted to see what a strip joint looked like.” Rachel sat down in my chair. “Honestly, it’s not as exciting as I pictured.”
            Rachel was in jeans and boots, with the shoulder bag she carried her laptop in. Kyra looked her up and down. “Come back tomorrow night when we’re open again. We might even have a job opening for you.”
            I didn’t want to picture that possibility too long. I bent down behind her. “You could have called,” I whispered.
            “What’s the fun in that?” Rachel opened her laptop on Kyra’s desk. “I wanted to show you something. Did Tom mention about Franco working in that witches’ bar?”
            Kyra groaned. “We’ve been over that. Yeah, I know that bar. I used to hang out there. It’s how I met Franco. And Sigmund.”
            “Any of these guys?” Rachel turned her laptop around. “It’s a partial list of employees for the last two years from their website. No names, just pictures, but I thought maybe you’d want to see if you know anybody else from there. You know, just in case Franco wasn’t the only sleeper agent here.”
            Kyra pulled the laptop toward her, and Alexa slipped behind her, one hand on the desk as she scrolled down. “I knew her,” Kyra said, peering at the screen. “And him, he opened in the afternoon. That girl, she was weird, but harmless. I only hung out there because I was pissed off at the world. It was around the time I met you.” She put a hand on Alexa’s wrist. “Look, there’s Franco. He was—”
            “Wait a minute.” Alexa pointed a finger. “Is that . . .”
            “Tony.” Kyra blinked. “I don’t remember him working there.”
            “Is he the guy out there now?” Rachel stood next to Alexa behind the chair.
            “Yeah, him and Pablo.”
            She leaned down. “Him. I got a weird vibe from him.”
            Alexa cocked an eyebrow. “Like—a disturbance in the Force?”
            She looked up at me. “Like something bad.”
            As bad as the monster? I grabbed my jacket. With the Taser in a pocket. “I guess I’ll go talk to him.”
            “I’ll come with you.” Rachel headed around the table.
            Kyra stood up. “Me too.”
            “Let’s not gang up on him.” I held up a hand. “You three stay here. But keep the door open. I’ll give a manly scream if I need help.”
            “He’s an excellent screamer.” Rachel winked at me.
            Tony was rearranging bottles behind the bar and wiping everything down. “We might be in shape to open tomorrow. If anyone shows up.” He stood. “Beer?”
            “Just water, thanks.” I leaned against the bar. The nightclub looked different from this side. And with all the lights on. “So, do you know Sigmund?”
            “Yeah, he’s one of the owners.” He squirted water into a plastic cup.
            “Before you worked here?”
            That stiffened him up. “I worked at a bar called the Witches’ Brew. Weird place. He used to hang out there. So did a lot of, uh—well, they talked about witchcraft and magic and stuff. And dating.”
            “What was he doing there?”
            Tony shifted his feet. “I think he was trying to buy the place. He buys and sells. I don’t know.”
            “Franco worked there too, didn’t he?”
            “Yeah. We didn’t know each other that well. But he was good.”
            “The best?”
            “I don’t know about that.” He shrugged.
            “You saw the beast last night.” I sipped my water. “What do you think happened?”
            “I don’t know, man.” Tony stepped back. “It was crazy.”
            “What’s going on?”
            I managed not to jump. Pablo was right behind me. “Just talking to Tony.”
            “It’s all right.” Tony yanked a green and yellow bottle out of the cooler. “Have something to drink.”
            Pablo grinned and pulled unscrewed the top. “Thirsty work. You think we can open tomorrow?”
            “Maybe.” Tony pointed at my cup. “More water?”
            I remembered Tony handing Franco another bottle last night. One with green and yellow stripes. Right before the beast showed up. “Wait—”           
            But Pablo gulped half the bottle down in one swallow before I could yank it from his fist, spilling most of the rest across the floor. “What the hell?” Pablo yelled.
            “What’s in this?” I held the bottle up in Tony’s face. “Rachel?”
            Tony backed away. “What are you talking about? Who are you again? I don’t know—”
            Rachel burst through the door behind the bar. “Tom? Tom! Are you—” She slid in the puddle and grabbed the edge of the bar. “Whoa.”
            I handed the bottle to her. “Anything from this?”
            She took it, then looked at the floor. She lifted up one foot, checking out the sole of her boot. Then she flung the bottle across the bar. “We’re in trouble.”
            Rachel’s psychic powers can be a little hit or miss. But I’d learned to trust them. Especially when she was this firm.
            Kyra and Alexa stormed forward. “What’s going on? Tony?”
            “I don’t know!” Tony jabbed a finger at me. “This guy—”
            I darted from behind the bar to pick up the now empty bottle. Aside the green and yellow stripes, it was blank. No name, no brand. “What’s in here, Tony?”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He sat up on the bar and swung his legs over to the other side. “I’m out of here.”
            “Wait a minute.” I didn’t know if I could physically stop him, but I had too many questions left. “Tell us more about—”
            “Tom!” Rachel shrieked. And she doesn’t shriek often.
            I turned. Kyra and Alexa were staggering back toward the door. But Kyra leaned down and grabbed a big bottle of whiskey. “Get out of my bar!”
            Pablo was gone. The monster lurched forward, growling.
            Not again. “Rachel! Get them back upstairs!” Mostly I wanted to get Rachel as far away as possible, but I figured she might run if she was helping someone else.
            Kyra hurled the whiskey bottle at the beast just as I flung the empty can of—whatever it was. My can bounced off its chest. Kyra’s bottle hit it in the neck, and it howled in fury as Rachel pulled on Alexa’s arm.
            “Get out of my club!” Kyra pulled another bottle from behind the bar. “I’ve worked too long—”
            “Kyra!” Alexa ducked as the bottle flew. “Come on!”
            Damn it. Rachel was still too close to the monster. I plunged a hand into my jacket for my Taser. “Hey you! Ugly!” I waved an arm, my fingers shaking as I fumbled with the Taser. “Take this, you bastard!”
            The first dart hit its arm. It swung around roaring, the liquor from Kyra’s bottle dripping down its neck. I fired my weapon again, a straight shot at the thing’s chest. It slammed a thick fist down on the bar, and then leaped forward. At me.
            “Run!” I dropped the Taser and backed away, pushing bar stools at its feet. I knew I couldn’t outrun it to the door, but all I cared about was making sure Rachel got away.
            Okay, I cared about getting away myself. I’m not a hero. But the monster was too big, its hairy legs too long. It claws looked too sharp. It had killed Dawne. Or at least the beast last night—just like it—had slashed her and sliced her.
            I tripped and fell flat on my butt. Scrambled back as the beast lumbered toward me. I grabbed for my cell phone. Maybe the cops would show up and shoot it before it found its way to Rachel.
            Tony kicked the cell phone out of my hand. “Sorry, Tom.” He shrugged. “It’s just business.”
            The beast loomed over me.
            “Pablo!” I held my arms high. “Pablo, it’s me! And you’re—you! You don’t have to do this!”
            The monster roared.
            Kyra pitched a bottle of vodka. She hit the beast in the back, and it stormed toward her. She spun around herself and leaped through the door behind the bar, slamming it hard enough to rattle the mirror over the liquor bottles.
            No sign of Rachel. Good.
            I rolled over and pulled myself up. Tony was blocking the door, a worried look on his face.
            I’m not much of a fighter, but I was scared and desperate. So I charged him, swinging my fists as wildly as a six-grader in a playground scuffle.
            I surprised him—or Tony wasn’t much of a fighter either. I hit him in the stomach and he staggered back with a grunt. Then I had my hand on the door.
            Tony tried to pull me back, swearing, but the monster had turned again, looking for something to lash out against. Suddenly Tony was pulling at the door too, pushing me through.
            I confess I thought about trying to push him back inside with the monster. After all, he’d tried to kill all of us. And last night’s beast had killed Dawne and the others. But I couldn’t just leave Tony in there to get ripped to shreds. Plus, I wasn’t strong enough to hold the door against him.
            He stumbled against me on the sidewalk. Streetlights and the moon cast shadows on the concrete as a man walking two dogs veered around us, staring with suspicion.
             I patted my pocket, then remembered that Tony had kicked my cell phone away. I grabbed his arm. “Give me your phone!”
            To my surprise, he held it out. “The monster—it won’t stay long.”
            “Shut up.” I’ve got Rachel’s number on speed-dial—and in my memory. I punched the digits as fast as my trembling fingers could move. “Is Pablo going to die?”
            “I don’t know.” He backed away from the door. “I didn’t think—”
            “Tom? Hi.”
            My chest unclenched at the sound of Rachel’s voice. “Where are you?”
            “Right behind you, dummy.”
            I turned around. Rachel and the other two were running around the corner of the building.
            I put Tony’s phone in my pocket. “Where did you get that stuff?”
            “S-Sigmund.” Tony swallowed. “I think he got the mixture from someone at the Witches’ Brew.”
            I rolled my eyes. “Why the hell didn’t he send a couple of thugs over to beat people up?  Like a normal gangster?”
            Tony leaned against a garbage can, still gasping for breath. “He figured it would be better if it was something no one would believe it. Or remember. Not everyone has a clear memory of the thing. That’s what he said.” He bent down, groaning. “No one was really supposed to get hurt! Just scare people.”
            “Well, we’re scared.” I backed away Kyra stalked toward us. “And really pissed off.”
            “Tony? Goddamn it!” Kyra planted her feet on the sidewalk. “That thing is wrecking my nightclub! You’re fired!”
            Rachel grabbed my hand. “Are you—you know—all right? Not that I care or anything.” She kissed my cheek.
            I hugged her shoulder. “I’m fine now. I think. I just have to . . .” I looked at the door. “We need to check on Pablo.”
            “Oh god.” Alexa grabbed Kyra’s arm.
            I stepped to the door, ready to dash if it suddenly burst open. Rachel bent over my shoulde.
            We listened and waited together. Even Tony. After five minutes, Rachel put her hand on the door. “It’s quiet.”
            “Okay.” I put my hand on the door handle. My throat felt dry. “Stand back and I’ll—”
            “No.” Alexa nudged me out of the way. “It’s my club. And Pablo works for me.”
            I sighed with cowardly relief. Kyra stood behind her as she sorted through a set of keys and then shoved at the door.
            Pablo lay on the floor, still breathing, his clothes shredded like Franco’s. Rachel followed the two women in and knelt besides him, checking his pulse and respiration. She’s not a nurse, but she’d taken a few lifesaving classes. “I think he’s fine. If he doesn’t wake up in a few minutes, we should call an ambulance.”
            “I should maybe go.” Tony stood in the doorway. “I mean, I’m fired, right?”
            “Shut up.” I pulled Tony into the nightclub and shoved him toward a chair. “Sit.”
            Tony sat. Wow. No one ever listened to me like that. I felt like Batman. “Uh, Kyra?”
            “What?” No one ever snarled at Batman like she did, so I was back to feeling like Tom Jurgen again. “So I’ve got sort of an idea of what we could do . . .”

Two hours later Sigmund walked in to Kyra’s office with a self-satisfied sneer. His grin faded somewhat when he saw all of us crowded in: Kyra and Alexa behind the desk, me and Rachel in a corner, Tony and Pablo at the door.
            Pablo had woken up after five minutes. No memory of his transformation. But when I told him what Tony had given him to drink, we barely managed to stop him from beating Tony to a senseless pulp. Alexa gave him a T-shirt sporting the Tiger Club logo, and Kyra found some sweatpants that would fit him.
            Now he looked at Sigmund as if he just wanted five minutes in the ring with him. No gloves, just fists and anger.
            “What’s going on?” Sigmund leaned against the door and crossed his arms. “You said you were ready to make a deal.”
            “We are.” Kyra tilted back in her chair. “We’re going to buy you out.”
            He chuckled. “That’s not what you want to do.”
            Alexa leaned forward. “Last night a monster killed one of my people. And a customer! And sent three more to the hospital. And you did that, you asshole.”
            “You can’t prove I had anything to do with that.” Sigmund laughed. “A monster in your bar? Who believes that?”
            “Let’s see.” I stepped forward. “Why don’t you take a look at the deal?”
            Kyra slid an envelope across her desk. “Here’s our offer.”
            Sigmund snapped it open. He laughed again. “This is a joke.”
            “Is it funny?” Alexa sauntered around the desk. She looked as sexy in jeans and a sweatshirt as she had in her red lingerie last night. “That’s our offer. Take it or leave.”
            Sigmund ripped the envelope up and threw it on the floor. “Screw both of you bitches. This place is going down.”
            “Watch your language, punk.” Pablo folded his muscular arms across his chest.
            “Oh, for god’s sake—” Sigmund stood up. “Are we done here?”
            “So you deny any knowledge of the monsters here.” I looked around the room, making sure everyone heard me. “Is that right?”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He stood up. “Is that all? Or are we—”           
            “Then let’s have a drink together.” I held out a hand. “And then you can decide.”
            He chuckled. “A drink?”
            Tony coughed. He held out a bottle, green and yellow stripes.
            I took it from his hand. “Everyone out of the room.”
            Rachel stared at me. “What are you doing?”
            I unscrewed the cap. “Everyone out of the room. Except Sigmund.”
            Tony and Pablo made their way to the door. Kyra scowled, but she followed Alexa. “Are you coming?”
            “Hell, no.” Rachel perched her butt on the edge of the desk and glared. “I can’t believe we didn’t talk about this.”
             “Rachel?” I clutched the bottle with both hands. “Come on. Please leave.”
            She looked ready to slap me. But then she stood up and marched to the door. “See if I do any more favors for you, Tom Jurgen!” The door shuddered as she slammed it.
            Sigmund shook his head. “You can drink all of that. It doesn’t prove anything.”
            “Scared?” I grabbed two plastic cups from the stack on Kyra’s desk. “Let’s try this.”
            He watched as I poured the drink into both cups. “Count of three?” I smiled. But my heart was pounding as usual.
            Sigmund glared. I stared back. For a moment I like felt like I was in the final standoff in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Was I Clint Eastwood? Or Lee van Cleef? Or the other guy? One of them ended up dead. I couldn’t remember which.
            “Screw you.” Sigmund grabbed his cup. “I only wanted to scare you people, but I guess you don’t even know what’s good for you.” He drank the liquid down.
            I gulped mine. “How long does it take?”
            “Not long.” He pushed his chair back and stood up, pulling his necktie off and dropping his coat on the floor. “Two, three minutes after you drink it. Then you’ll be a monster, so full of rage and pain you’ll destroy everything in sight. These sluts, your girlfriend—”
            “Godzilla vs. the Thing, right.” I pushed my chair back. “Where’d you get it?”
            “This witch I knew. I didn’t believe it at first, but then I mixed some up and tried it on a cat. It got crazy. And then it died.” He whipped his belt off.
            “A cat?” Bastard.
            “I guess Tony gave Franco too much. The idiot.”
            “Yeah.” I could feel the stuff boiling in my stomach. I had to do something before Sigmund dropped his pants. So I stood up.
            “Speaking of idiots—” I pulled my Taser from my jacket, loaded with two fresh darts. “Did you really think I’d drink that stuff? I don’t even like regular Red Bull.”
            Sigmund froze in the middle on unbuttoning his cuffs. “What?”
            “Guys!” I raised my voice. “Come on in!”
            The door opened. Kyra and Alexa marched in, smirking. Rachel punched me. “I’m never pretending you can tell me what to do again.”
            “Noted.” I grinned.
            Tony and Pablo stayed out in the hall as Kyra sat down and opened her desk. “Do you want to take another look at our offer?” She dropped a second envelope in front of him.
            Sigmund looked around the small room, glaring at all of us. “You haven’t proved anything.”
            “Except that you were lying when you said you didn’t know anything about the monsters.” I picked up the bottle and set it down again.
            “So what? No one’s going to believe—”
            “We’ve got it recorded.” Kyra pressed a button on her desk phone.
            “—three minutes after you drink it. Then you’ll be a monster, so full of rage and pain you’ll destroy everything in sight, these sluts, your girlfriend—”           
            Kyra shut it off. “So are you ready to deal? Or should we play this for your friends? Some of them will think you’re crazy. The rest won’t want to do any kind of business with you.” She opened her drawer and pulled up a second envelope. “This is our new offer.”
            He scowled. “You think this is going to stand up in court?”
            “We both know this isn’t going to end up in court, Sigmund.” I put the Taser away. “So you lost. Get used to it. Move on.”
            He looked ready to punch me. Maybe the warning in Rachel’s eyes changed his mind. Instead he snatched the envelope. “The hell with all of you.”
            Kyra slid a pen across the desk. He signed the documents and stuffed the check into his wallet. Then he picked up his cost and necktie off the floor and stomped to the door. “Losers.”
            Kyra sighed. “I guess we’re not re-opening tomorrow night. Hey, Pablo! You can take off. Tony?”
            He peeked through the door. “Yeah?”
            “You’re still fired. Get lost.”
            His shoulders drooped. “Okay.”
            I stood up. “I’d stay and help clean up, but Rachel will tell you my cleaning skills leave much to be desired.”
            “Just send me your bill.” She stood up and shook my hand. “Thanks.”
            Alexa hugged me and kissed my cheek. “Yes. Thank you.” Then she hugged Rachel. “You too.”
            We walked down the narrow steps. “So it actually worked.” I felt tired. “Good for us.”
            She punched my arm. “I can’t believe you drank that stuff. Even if it was just Sprite with extra sugar.”
            “Yeah. I hope she gets rid of it. All of it.” I swallowed. I needed a drink of water.

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