I’ve never liked hospitals, even though private detectives and reporters have to visit a lot of them. The elevators are slow, the floors stink with disinfectant, and the bright lights always remind me of my own mortality. Plus, the coffee in the cafeteria is usually awful.
But Rachel had asked me to come. And she sounded upset.
“Hey!” Rachel’s voice barked as I walked through the door. “Okay, I called for a nurse three minutes ago and—” She turned. “Oh. It’s just you.”
“Just me.” I sipped my coffee. “What’s going on?”
Rachel stood next the bed, one hand clutching the rail tight enough to snap it. “I mean, oh good, you’re here!” She leaned back. “Anya, this is Tom Jurgen. He’s the friend I told you about. He’s a detective.”
Rachel’s got red hair and big hazelnut eyes. She’s also a little psychic—which helps sometimes with cases that involve more than unfaithful spouses and workers comp cheaters.
“Hello, Tom.” Anya wore the standard green gown every hospital puts you in. She was older than Rachel, with gray hair and skinny arms. Half her head was shaved bare, and a thick bandage covered her right eye. IV tubes dangled around her body like spider webs. “You’re . . . Rachel’s boyfriend, right?”
“Sort of.” It was complicated.
Rachel squeezed my arm. “Anya’s a friend of mine. We met in a support group. For psychics.”
“Okay.” Rachel wanted my help. As complex as our relationship is, that’s all I needed to know. I squeezed her hand back. “So what’s going on?”
Rachel turned around. “Anya, tell Tom what happened.”
Anya sighed. “I got hit by a bus. How cliché is that?”
“Tell him about the dogs,” Rachel said.
She closed her eyes, tired. “Bring me my perfume.”
Rachel opened a purse and handed her a small bottle of perfume. She sprayed some on her cheeks, a citrus smell that helped blot out the other odors in the room. “Yesterday morning.” She reached for the cup of water on the table next to her bed and slurped through the bent straw. “I’m standing at the bus stop to go to work. This man walks around the corner. He’s got two big dogs. One’s black, and the other one’s kind of chocolate colored. They’re just walking, and then the black dog comes up and sniffs me. He growls, like he’s angry or frightened. Then . . .”
She rubbed her eyes. “It’s a different sky, and there are dogs all around. Big ones, little ones. and they’re all barking and running around this big stone pillar. It’s huge, and it blocks out the sun. Then one of them jumps up at me, and then another one, and they’re all round me, trying to push me down, trying to hump my leg . . . my leg.” Her eyes shot wide with panic. “Oh, God, I can’t feel my legs!”
“I’ll call the nurse.” Rachel grabbed for the all-purpose control and hit a button. “Oops. TV. Hang on. Uh, hello? The patient in here needs help.”
I leaned over. “Is there much pain?”
She caught her breath. “There’s a morphine drip. It’s kind of a nice buzz.”
I smiled. “Can you tell me more about what happened?”
Anya closed her eyes. “I was back on the sidewalk, and I’m confused, but the bus is coming, so I’m going toward it and my foot slips on the curb. And then one of the dogs runs into my butt. He’s big, he’s heavy, and I lose my balance. The bus . . .” She opened her eyes and shook her head.
“What did the man look like?”
Anya took another sip of water. “Short, kind of pudgy. White. A beard, not a big thick one, but kind of a goatee. I think I’ve seen him around the neighborhood.”
“Do you want me to try and find him?” I glanced at Rachel.
Anya hesitated. “It’s not like I want to kill his dogs or hurt him. But . . . yeah, I want to know who did it.”
“Okay.” I squeezed her hand. “I’ll scout around the neighborhood. Maybe somebody knows the guy.”
“Okay.” Anya smiled. “He’s nice, Rachel. Try not to screw this one up.”
“What?” Rachel glared at me. “I treat him like a prince. Right, stupid?”
“Yes, your highness.” I bowed. “I’ll be going. Hope you feel better.”
Rachel followed me out into the hall. “There’s something weird about this.”
I waited as two nurses walked by. “Yeah. That business about another sky and the stone pillar?”
“Uh-huh.” She rubbed her nose. “And every time she mentions those dogs, I get—a funny feeling.”
“Well, you’re not a dog person.”
She slugged my arm. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” Rachel’s psychic powers are quirky. “Okay. I’ll be careful. Where does she live?”
Rachel gave me the address. “One more thing,” I said. “Find out about that perfume.”
“Huh?” She glanced at the half-open door.
“Dogs don’t like the smell of citrus. I’m not saying that caused the attack, but it might be something the guy could use in a lawsuit. We just ought to be ready.”
“How do you know what smells dogs like?”
I shrugged. “I had a dog when I was a kid.”
“You were a kid?” She leaned back to peer at me. “It’s hard to picture you that way.”
I squared my shoulders. “Because I’m the model of a mature, responsible adult?”
She snorted. “Yeah, right.” But she gave me a kiss on the check. “Thanks for helping Anya.”
I bowed. “Yours to command, my princess.”
She slugged my shoulder. “Get to work.”
Anya lived in the Edgewater neighborhood, up on Chicago’s north side. I spent the afternoon walking around, talking to shopkeepers, gas station workers, and the occasional valet parker, asking the same question: Did they know a short, bearded white guy with two dogs?
I told them he was a witness to an accident. Nobody wants to get a guy in trouble. A cashier in a restaurant thought she’d seen someone with a pit bull. The owner of a fish store was sure he’d seen a tall black man walking a large Doberman down the middle of the street at noon—way past the time of Anya’s attack. A barista in a coffee shop was positive he’d seen a fat guy tie two big dogs up outside his store and come in for a latté. She pointed through the window. “Then they went into the park.”
So I crossed the street. The park was surrounded by a fence, with a sign warning that it was closed and locked at 8:00 p.m. Inside the gates a jungle gym rose high into the air—higher than I wanted to climb—planted next to a set of swings. Children scampered back and forth, climbing up the bars, pushing themselves on the swings, and running in circles around the crushed plastic tracks in the ground. Mothers and nannies watched them from benches around the perimeter as they laughed and shrieked and cried. Some of them pushed baby carriages back and forth, chatting with each other. Every few seconds someone got up to help a weeping child get back to his or her feet. Some of the mothers or nannies helped push the littlest kids on the swings.
The mothers and nannies looked me over silently. I was obviously a child molester looking for targets. Why else would I be there?
But I spotted an old man on a bench near the trees in the back, petting a small dog.
Dog people talk to each other.
I walked over, ignoring all the eyes on me. “Hi.”
The old man groaned. “I’m not doing anything. Are you a cop?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I sat down. “I’m a private detective. What’s your dog’s name?”
He pulled the dog up onto his lap. “This is Kelso. He’s a corgi. Good dog.” He scratched Kelso’s neck.
“Of course he is.” I let Kelso sniff me. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I just like coming here to watch the kids.” The old man sighed. “I didn’t ever have no kids of my own. That’s all. The wife and me—it didn’t happen. So I just like coming here sometimes, to watch the kids. Is that a goddamn crime?”
He seemed old and sad and tired, and I hated having to bother him. “I just wanted to ask about dogs, actually.” I saw one little girl crawl up to the top of the jungle gym and lift her arms in triumph. “Since you have a dog, I thought you might have seen the guy I’m looking for around here.”
He set Kelso on the ground. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know his name. He’s got two big labs, black and chocolate, and he’s a little short with a beard, and—”
“That’s Tobias.” He nodded. “I don’t know his last name. Or maybe that’s his last name, I don’t know. But I know his dogs, they’re Archer and Dragnet. Archer’s the chocolate one. They’re big. They pull him around more than he walks them.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
He gestured toward the fence. “Somewhere over on Cleveland, I think. He’s got to have one of the houses there, no one would let him have two dogs like that in an apartment.”
“Well, thank you.” I scratched Kelso one more time and stood up. “What’s your name?”
“Samuel Benson. Hey, I’m not getting this guy in trouble, am I? I don’t want to get nobody in trouble.”
“I just want to ask him about an accident he might have seen.” Which was true, technically—although it might lead to trouble. “Thanks again.”
So I walked over to Cleveland Street for a look around. A block of small houses, trees, garbage cans on the curb, and tight driveways. Up and down I walked, looking for any sign of the two dogs, but I knew the odds were too long to count on finding them except through the kind of luck I don’t usually have.
A woman came out of one house pushing a baby stroller. I asked about Tobias and the dogs, but she had no idea what or who I was talking about. And she wasn’t eager to spend more than thirty seconds talking to a stranger.
I checked my watch. 3:32. I could bring my car over and wait for people to start coming home to walk their dogs, but that would keep me trapped for hours in my Honda, and someone would inevitably call the police about a strange car parked in the neighborhood. I could start knocking on random doors, but probably get the same result.
Both were strategies I’d try if I had to. Right now, I had other cases that needed my attention. And Tobias probably wasn’t going anywhere anyway. So I went home.
Rachel called me the next morning. “Anya’s dead.”
She wasn’t crying, or fighting back tears. Her voice was quiet and tense. More angry than mournful.
I turned away from my laptop. “What happened?”
“Internal injuries. She went into cardiac arrest, I guess, and her heart just didn’t come back. She was gone when I got here. Damn it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I never do. “What about her family?”
“She’s got a sister in Kansas. I talked to her, she’s coming up. I’m surprised the nurse told me anything. I think she thought we were lovers.”
I let the silence linger. I’d questioned widows, widowers, lovers, and children whose parents had died. “I am sorry.”
“Yeah.” She blew her nose. “That dog killed her.”
I thought about Cleveland Street. “Can you get free today?”
Rachel works as a designer for websites and stuff. “Yeah, I already told my client I wasn’t coming in today. What have you got?”
“Maybe a shortcut.”