Sunday, October 2, 2016

Out of the Box

Tom Jurgen’s search for answers behind a mysterious death lead him and Rachel into a dangerous encounter with an angry force . . .

Out of the Box, Part One

As a private detective I’ve met prospective clients in their homes, at diners and coffee shops, and even once in a library. But this was the first time I’d ever done it over Skype.
            So Rachel had to help me set it up. The clients were Todd and Leslie Gunderson, a couple in their fifties living in Toronto who had sent an email about hiring me. Todd Gunderson had thin, grizzled cheeks and thick hands that looked like he’d worked with heavy tools all his life. His wife Leslie was a short woman with round glasses and a sad smile.
            “Mr. Jurgen.” Todd’s voice was low and heavy. “Thanks for talking to us.”
            I nodded. “What can I do for you, Mr. And Mrs. Gunderson?”
            “Our son Charley went to Chicago two months ago for a job interview there,” Leslie said. “He was staying downtown at the Bradford Hotel. It’s just off Michigan Avenue.”
            “I’ve walked past it.” A tall building with lots of glass and steel.
            “He . . . he disappeared.” Todd’s voice cracked. “They found him ten days later, , naked, in the basement. He’d starved to death.”
            Oh, god. “I’m so sorry.”
            “When Charley didn’t answer his phone we called a friend he was visiting, and then the hotel.” Leslie seemed to be less emotional than her husband, but I could see the tension in her face and shoulders. “They checked his room, but he wasn’t there. We called the police. They looked at the security videos from the elevators and stairwells, and they found one video.” She pressed some keys on her computer. “Here.”
            The image was grainy and full of shadows, but I could make out a young man in his twenties with long hair standing next to elevator door. He seemed to be talking to someone—then shouting. But no one else was with him. The timestamp at the button read 3:37 a.m.
            Then Charley turned and started pushing buttons. Every button. The elevator didn’t stop, though. He kept yelling over his shoulder, finally hitting one button over and over again.
            The doors opened, and Charley fled.
            “That’s all over the internet now.” Leslie sighed. “We couldn’t do anything about it. But there’s one of him running down a stairwell.” Leslie wiped her eyes with a tissue. Todd patted her knee. “Nothing else. They searched the hotel and the streets around it—”
            “Why they didn’t find him in their own damn hotel . . .” Todd growled. “I don’t get it.”
            “At any rate . . .” She adjusted her glasses. “We came to Chicago, and eventually someone at the hotel did find him. The police said it was a suicide. I don’t—I don’t know, but there just isn’t any explanation. Who was he talking to? What was he so scared of? Why did he run away and stop eating?”
            “We called one of the detectives we met, and she gave us your name. She said you specialize in—what did she call it? Unusual phenomena.”
            That was probably better than “weird shit.” “Elena Dudovich?”
            He nodded. “That was her.”
            “Well, I have investigated some pretty strange cases.” Involving vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts, but I didn’t think they wanted to hear that. “I’m willing to help, but I can’t make any promises.” They probably didn’t want to hear that either.
            But they both nodded. Todd patted his wife’s knee. “We’ll send you a check for your retainer.”
            “Thank you.” I took out my notebook. “Let’s start with some questions.”

I started by calling the Bradford Hotel. Not surprisingly, the top executives weren’t eager to talk to me, but they also wanted to avoid a lawsuit from Charley’s parents. So in the end a lawyer agreed to let someone show me around the hotel the next morning.
So then I called Rachel to ask her to come with me. “What time? I’ve got to work late on this project.” She does graphic design when she’s not helping me. “And do I get paid?”
Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend (she doesn’t get mad when I say that lately), and kind of psychic. Which comes in handy on my paranormal cases.
“Nine o’clock? And I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Ten. And you make me breakfast.”
So we got to the Bradford at ten, after waffles and grapefruit. The guy at the front desk eventually figured out what I wanted, and in a few minutes a young woman emerged from a door behind the check-in counter.
“Mr. Jurgen? I’m Linda Palmer.” She looked to be in her late twenties, black hair tied back in a tight ponytail, and she wore a nametag with her name and the words ASSISTANT MANAGER on the lapel of her blue blazer.
“Tom.” We shook hands. “This is Rachel. She’s my associate.”
            Rachel’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. She looked Palmer over as they shook hands. “Nice hotel. I usually just stay at the Super 8.”
            “I’m just working here for the summer. I started school again in a few weeks.” She lifted a hand. “This way?”
            We took the last elevator Charley used up to the 29th floor—where his room was. I didn’t ask Rachel outright if she sensed anything because I didn’t want Palmer to think I was crazy. When I shot a glance at her in the elevator she just shook her head. Nothing. But two months had passed.
            We couldn’t go into the room, naturally, so Palmer took us down to where they’d found Charley’s body.
            The sub-basement was small and cramped, but not as messy as the one I’d explored with Rachel on vacation in Wisconsin a few months back. Bright fluorescent lights illuminated the clean tile and tall steel lockers lined the walls.
Palmer led us to the rear of the basement and pointed to a tall locker. “He was behind there. I didn’t see him, but that’s what they told me.”
            I grabbed a handle and tried to push it, but it weighed like an armored car. Or I just needed to work out more. “How’d he move it?”
            Palmer shrugged, staring at the metal. “No idea.”
            Rachel put a hand on the door. “He was scared.”
            Palmer blinked, surprised but willing to listen. “Of what?”
            Rachel shook her head. “I don’t know.”
            “Is it still here?” I stepped away a little too quickly.
            “No. Just the—residue. It’ll be here for a long time.” She smiled at Palmer. “I’m kind of psychic.”
            “Oh.” She nodded as if Rachel had told her she was an Aries. “I have a friend like that. Doesn’t help her in Vegas, though.”
            Rachel laughed. “I haven’t tried that yet.”
            I was glad Palmer wasn’t telling us to get out. “What’s in there?”
            “Nothing, right now. It’s just heavy. They emptied it out after—after they found him. It had uniforms and cleaning supplies. Nothing important.”
            I couldn’t think of any more questions. “Well, thanks for your time.” I looked at Rachel. “You okay?”
            She shivered in her jacket “Yeah. But let’s get out of here.”

I’d called the company where Charley had his interview—Benson Gaynor, a small mortgage bank looking for an IT manager—and made an appointment with the manager who’d interviewed him.
            I also contacted Charley’s friend: Miles Lerner. He worked at Benson Gaynor too. He invited me to his apartment in Bucktown. Rachel had to work—she does graphic design—so I drove over later that morning.
            Miles was about Charley’s age. He had blond hair and a sharp nose, and he wore a short-sleeved shirt with a red necktie yanked loose. “Hi! You want a drink?”
            “Just water, thanks.” His apartment was small and tidy. Hardwood floor, ceiling fan, a big screen TV, and a bookshelf crammed with computer manuals and think Stephen King novels on the bottom shelf, anchoring it down, and rows of DVDs at the top. The DVDs indicated a fondness for horror movies and Japanese anime, with a few romantic comedies in the mix based on the works of Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steele. A small box shaped like a four-sided pyramid sat on the top of the bookcase, between pictures of—I assumed—his parents.
            “Here.” Miles handed me a glass of water and ice. He held a glass of red wine. “I don’t know what to tell you. Charley was my best friend. We met in college—U of I—and we kept in touch. I just can’t understand what happened.”
            “You helped him get the interview with your company?” That’s what Charley’s parents had told me. They didn’t know Miles very well, but he’d visited them for Thanksgiving once. Todd liked him. Leslie wasn’t so sure.
            “Yeah.” Miles nodded. “I’m an IT manager there, but they’re setting up a new unit. It’s a complicated business. There was a job opening, and I emailed Charley. It was perfect for him.”
            “So what happened when he got here?”
            “Well, he had the interview.” Miles sipped his wine. “I guess it went fine. Then we went out that night to celebrate. This little bar in Lincoln Park where we go sometimes. We all had a little too much to drink.” He grinned and lifted his glass. “You know how that goes.”
            We all? “Just you and Charley? Or people from work?”
            “Oh.” Miles looked embarrassed. “No. Me and Charley and my girlfriend. Sharon.”
            “Was that the night he disappeared?”
            “Yeah. I tried calling him the next day, but . . .” He shrugged. “I never heard from him after that.”
            I sipped my water. “Did anything unusual happen while you were out that night?”
            Miles leaned back on his sofa. “Unusual . . . how?”
            Monsters, ghosts, texts from aliens . . . “I don’t know. I’m fishing around here. Did Charley seem scared of anything?”
            “N-no.” Miles shook his head. “Nothing at all. He was on top of the world.”
            I nodded. “So you were all fine when Charley went back to his hotel?”
            “Yeah. I didn’t think anything was wrong. I wish . . .” Miles shrugged. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
            “Have you seen the video?” I had to ask.
            “Yeah.” He looked guilty. “I just don’t get it. Why would someone put that out on the internet?”
            “So.” I put my glass down. “Is there any reason you can think of for why Charley barricaded himself behind a heavy steel locker and stayed there until he starved to death?”
            “What? No!” Miles leaned back. “What is this? Charley was my best friend! I couldn’t believe—I can’t believe he’d do anything like that! I just . . .” He took a breath. “I don’t know. It’s all so crazy, you know?”
            “Could I talk to Sharon?”
            Miles flinched. “We broke up.”
            “Sorry to hear that.” But still . . . “I’d like to get her take on that night.”
            “Well, I, uh . . .” Miles looked trapped. “I guess. But I deleted her number from my phone.”
            “What’s her last name? Where does she work?”
            “She’s, well . . .” He leaned forward. “Look, Mr. Jurgen, it wasn’t a good breakup. I just don’t want you poking into anything. All right?”
            I had a bad divorce, years ago. “Of course. I’m only interested in that one night.”
            “Well, uh—” Miles looked nervous. “Her name’s Sharon Young. She works at a car dealership in Oak Park, it’s called Mike’s Deals. But really, you can’t ask her any questions about, you know, us? Please?”
            I stood up. “Don’t worry. I have no interest in anything except for what happened to Charley.”
            “Okay. Good.” He shook my hand. “I hope you can do that. Except—I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s any chance of figuring that out. Right?’
            I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll be in touch if I have any more questions.”
            “Right.” He walked with me to the door, a distance of about eight steps. “Good luck.”
            I sat in my Honda, making notes on my laptop: Best friend, no idea, IT manager, new unit . . . and Sharon Young. Mike’s Deals. Miles didn’t want me to talk to her.
In the afternoon I went downtown to Benson Gaynor. Their offices were halfway up a building on Madison and LaSalle—half the floor and a lot of busy people.. I checked in and the front desk and the receptionist made a call, and three minutes later I was one floor down, where the technology lived.
            A young blonde woman named Becky Immas met me at the elevator and led me to a small conference room where she sat down and opened her laptop next to an office phone. “I conducted the interview with Charles Gunderson. But I’m not sure what I can tell you. It went well. We were getting ready to make him an offer. But then . . .” She rolled her eyes. “I heard all that on the news, about how he disappeared. I’m sorry. I wish I knew what more to say, but that’s it.” She seemed eager to get out. “What can I tell you?”
            I looked at my notes. “Miles Lerner recommended him for the job?”
            “Miles suggested he apply. We have a referral bonus plan—if someone refers a friend or colleague and that person gets hired, there’s a cash payout.” She seemed defensive. “But we interviewed Charles based on his résumé and an initial phone interview.”
            “Right.” I nodded. “How did he seem that day?”
            “Uh, fine.” Immas peered at the laptop. “Relaxed. A little nervous, but that’s typical. Like I said, it was a good interview. He asked about working with Miles—they’re friends, and he seemed concerned about competing for promotions. But the teams are separate. I don’t think that was a problem.”
She frowned and closed her laptop. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Miles works for me, and he’s a complete professional. He didn’t try to influence me in any way.”
I nodded again. “Is there a video of the interview?”
She looked down. “Actually, yes. But I can’t show it to you. It’s proprietary.”
That made sense. Lots of companies did it, and it probably wouldn’t show me much anyway. “So that was the only time you met with Charley? Charles, I mean.”
            “Well . . .” Immas looked at the door behind me. “I went out with some friends that night, and we went to a bar in Lincoln Park where some of us go after work. I didn’t—I mean, Charles was there with Miles and another woman, his girlfriend I think. But I didn’t talk to them. Everything seemed fine. They were having a good time. But that’s it. I don’t think that counts.”
            Probably not. I’d left messages for Sharon Young at Mike’s deals, and I’d managed to track down her cell phone. She hadn’t called back yet. “Have you filled the job?”
            Immas crossed her arms. “That was two months ago. We hired a woman from a publishing firm. She had all the right credentials.”
            “What’s the job like?”
            “It’s technical.” She hesitated. “Dealing with the servers and making sure everything runs smoothly. We handle a lot of confidential data, so we have to protect the firewalls. A few minutes of downtime can cost thousands of dollars. And the usual stuff—fixing computers, tech support. The position actually calls for someone who can deal with customers and also our staff with problems. It’s a pretty demanding job.”
            “So what does Miles do?”
            “Well . . .” Immas shifted, uncomfortable. “He’s in charge of a programming team. It’s a completely separate function, like I said. He supervises three people, and he’s very good at his job.”
            “He’s working from home today, I take it? I met with him this morning.”
            “Actually, I think he called in sick. But he does work from home often.”
            He’d seemed fine to me. But “calling in sick” sometimes means you just don’t want to work today. Not that I ever did that when I was a report. More than a few times.
            I stood up. “Well, thanks for your time.”
            “I hope you find out what happened.” She lowered her voice. “I saw the video on the internet. He looked so scared.”

            “Yeah.” I shoved my notebook into a pocket.

Out of the Box, Part Two

I called Miles from my car. He didn’t pick up. I left a message.
            I swung by his house. It wasn’t really on my way back home, but I was curious. I rang his buzzer, called again, and thought about pestering the neighbors to get inside. But I didn’t really have any reason to knock on his door if he wasn’t answering his phone, and I wasn’t ready to commit illegal entry yet.
            Not that I’ve ever done that. More than once or twice.
            Back home I ate an apple and called Sharon Young again. No answer.
            I wasn’t sure what else to do. I didn’t have any answers—or questions. Charley had been scared. He disappeared. He starved himself to death. But why?
            Sometimes the only thing to do was start over again. No preconceptions. But where did the story begin? Charley being born? Coming to U of I? Or traveling here for the interview?
            The only hard evidence I had was the video. So I pulled it up on my laptop.
            I recognized Charley now. The Gundersons had sent me dozens of pictures. He had long brown hair and a gold stud in his left ear. He was shouting. His parents had tried to get a lip reader to figure out what he was saying, but she’d only come up with a few words—“God,” and “No,” and maybe “Away!”
            But no one was in the elevator with him. Maybe he was hallucinating. Or the other person had someone had managed to stay below the range of the camera.
            Maybe Charley was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. But I’d asked the Gundersons if they were aware of any mental health issues, and to my relief they didn’t get angry. Like they’d had to answer that question before, too many times.
            I worked a case once where I met a guy with a charm that could make him invisible, and he had a bunch of friends with the same charms and abilities. But he swore they didn’t commit any crimes more serious than sneaking into the movies.
And this seemed different. Charley wasn’t just spooked by an unseen voice. He was terrified.
            I watched the video again, trying to slow it down. There was Charley, pounding the buttons. The elevator didn’t stop. Why not? That was a new question to ask. I wrote it down.
            And then Charley was pounding one button, his finger stabbing the lighted number. I tried to zoom in.
            You can’t really “enhance” images or videos the way they do on TV. The closer I got, the more the picture broke up. But I could still make out the shapes of the numbers.
            Charley was pushing the number six. Over and over again. Even with all the other numbers lit, he kept punching the same button. Six, six, six . . .
            Then the door slid open. Charley fled.
            I started the video again. Charley was talking, then shouting, then pushing buttons. When they all lit up and the elevator didn’t stop, he stabbed the same button over and over again. Six. Three times, then a pause as he yelled in terror. Then three more times.
            Oh, hell. Rachel says I’m not that quick on the uptake, but I could figure this out.
            I picked up my phone. My hand shook. I didn’t have all the answers, but at least I had a few new questions.
            “Bradford Hotel, Linda Palmer, how may I—”
            “Hi, it’s Tom Jurgen again. We met yesterday?” I tried to keep my voice steady. “I just have one more question. Does anyone know why the elevator didn’t stop when Charley Gunderson hit every single button?”
            “What?” She kept her voice low. “I don’t know. I mean, we shut down that elevator and brought in inspectors. All they could say was that it was maybe a circuit failure. But I don’t know. Listen . . .”
            “I shouldn’t tell you this.” She gulped. “But I’m going back to school in a few weeks, so it doesn’t matter. The thing is, this maintenance guy I talked to, one of them who found the, uh, the body downstairs? He saw something. On the wall behind the locker.”
            “What was it?” I thought I knew. But I knew I could be wrong.
            “The numbers, 666. In big black letters. Like from that movie The Omen? I saw it on TV when I was seven. I couldn’t sleep for three nights.”
            I remembered the movie. Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and a creepy little kid who was the Antichrist. And a guy getting his head sliced off, which was when I walked out. I never saw the end.
But I knew the number 666, and not just from the movie or Charley’s frantic jabs at the elevator buttons. It came from the Book of Revelation. The number of the beast.
I’ve met a few demons. They’re not nice.
But I didn’t want to spook her. “It was only a movie.” I tried to sound reassuring. “I don’t think there’s any danger. Just—be careful.”
            “Okay.” Palmer giggled. “I mean, I can make it a few more weeks. I don’t have to go down there again/”
            “Where are you going to school? What are you studying?”
            “DePaul. Journalism. I want to be a reporter.”
            I stifled a groan. “Well, I used to be a reporter. I should tell you to find another career in something more practical, like taxidermy. But call me if you need any advice.”
            “Thanks! I will.”
            Now what? I called Miles again and left a message. I called Sharon Young and again got no answer, so I left a message.
            I had an address for Sharon. I’d already gone to check on Miles in his apartment, so I figured I ought to do the same with her. Of course, Miles knew who I was, so I’d have to be careful approaching his girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.
            I left a message with Rachel. It’s a habit, so someone knows where I’m going in case I run into trouble. Then I finished my apple and went down to my car.

Sharon Young lived in Cicero, a suburb near her job in Oak Park. I got there at about 5:30. Her building was three stories high on a quiet street. I parked and made my way to the door.
            I pressed a buzzer and waited. No answer. Just like Miles. So I called her number on my cell phone.
            This time she picked up. “Who is it?”
            “Ms. Young? My name’s Tom Jurgen. I’ve been trying to contact you. It’s about Charley Gunderson?”
            “Wait a minute. Oh, god. There’s someone buzzing my door—”
            “That’s me. I apologize, I don’t mean to bother you. It’s just that I have a few questions. Could I come up?”
            Sharon Young didn’t know me, and she didn’t have any reason to let me into her apartment. But after a moment the door buzzed. “Second floor,” she whispered.
            No elevator. I climbed the stairs. She was waiting for me in the hallway, a young blond woman in cutoff shorts and a blue T-shirt. “Hi. Who are you again?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I handed her my card. “I can show you my ID if you want. I’m a private detective, working for Charley Gunderson’s parents. I only want to ask you a few questions. We can talk out here in the hall if you want.”
            Her hand shook as she peered at the card. She glanced back at her door. “No. I recognize your voice from the messages. Sorry I didn’t call back.”
            Inside the apartment Sharon slammed the door and locked the deadbolt.
            The apartment was small, one bedroom, and it looked like she hadn’t left it in days. Dirty clothes and towels lay scattered on the floor, along with empty pizza boxes and crushed cans of Pepsi. And a mostly empty bottle of tequila on a bookshelf.
Sharon dropped my card on the floor and collapsed in a chair, pulling her legs up in front of her chest. “It’s about Charley, isn’t it? I saw that video.”
“Yeah.” Where to start? “Well, you and your boyfriend were two of the last people to see him alive—”
“No!” She screamed at the ceiling. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
I’ve been yelled at before, but this was different. I lifted my hands, ready to run. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“No . . . no. I wasn’t talking to you.” Sharon took a deep breath. “Well, partly I was. Miles isn’t my boyfriend. Not anymore.”
“So who were you talking to?”
She shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’d believe. Let’s start over.” I perched on the edge of a couch. “I’m looking into Charley’s death. I just want to ask a few questions.”
            She pressed her hands against her ears. “Shut up! Shut up! Stop talking!” She stomped a bare foot on the hardwood floor.
            I stood up. No one else in the living room. I peered toward the kitchen behind Sharon. No movement. No sound except her hoarse breathing and my pounding heart.
I tried again. “Who are you talking to?”
            She leaned down, her had between her knees as if she was about to throw up. “The devil,” she moaned.
            And me without a crucifix. Or my Taser. “Sharon.” I kept my distance so she wouldn’t feel threatened. By me, anyway. “Can you tell me what happened?”
            “What?” Sharon looked up. She seemed surprised I was still around, like she’d fallen asleep for a moment and I was just part of a bad dream. She sat back and coughed. “That’s easy—Miles got Charley an interview at his company. Charley came in and aced it. I mean, Miles said he was sure to get the job. So we went out to celebrate, and Miles got drunk, so we took him home to sleep it off. And then . . .” Sharon seemed to curl up again. “I went back to Charley’s hotel with him.”
            Oh. “So you and Charley . . .”
            “He was cute, you know?” She giggled. “And Miles was drunk. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But I wasn’t that drunk. And Miles and me . . . it wasn’t going that great.”
            “So what happened? Aside from—you know.”
            “Crap.” She glanced around the room. “I’m thirsty. Get me that?”
            The tequila. “Okay.”
            She took a swig. “Miles called me in the middle of the night. I guess he heard Charley in the background. No, we weren’t doing it!” She shouted at the ceiling. “It wasn’t like that! He was in the bathroom! It was just . . .” She planted the bottle on the floor. “I can’t take this much more.”
            I paced the room. I had part of a theory that almost made sense. Not that anyone would believe it. “So what did Miles do?”
            Sharon closed her eyes. “He went crazy. Yelling, calling me a slut and a whore, saying he was going to destroy me. And Charley. Charley came out of the bathroom and heard him screaming over my phone. He grabbed the phone and they yelled at each other. Charley threw it across the room. I got dressed and I left.”
            And then later that night—morning, actually—Charley took the elevator down and disappeared. “So did Miles do something?”
            “He said he was going to open the box.”
            Huh? “What box?”
            “The box, it’s like a Mayan pyramid, it’s got four sides—oh, hell, shut up, shut up, make it stop talking!” Sharon grabbed the tequila and took another long swallow. Then she jumped up, and almost fell over. “I can’t take it anymore. Shut up!”
            She ran to the kitchen, sobbing. I got there just in time to see her pick up a long sharp knife. Her face was red, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Make it stop, make it stop—”
            I grabbed her arm. She twisted and sank an elbow into my ribs. Rachel slugs my arm sometimes, but it’s usually pretty mild. This hurt. But I managed to get hold of her wrist as I staggered back. “Sharon! Sharon!”
            “No!” She jabbed the point of the knife at her wrist. Blood spurted over her arm, red and pulsing. Some landed on my shirt.
            I hit her in the shoulder. Okay, I don’t like hitting people, women especially, although at times I’ve done it all. And I’m not very strong. But I got her hard enough to make her drop the knife.
            Screaming, she sagged to her knees. I kicked the knife into a corner and looked around the kitchen until I spotted a roll of paper towels. I snatched a half dozen and pressed them down on the wound as Sharon squirmed and moaned. I didn’t think she’d gone too deep, but more blood was flowing from her wrist than I ever wanted to see.
            With one hand I managed to get my cell phone out and hit 911. “There’s a woman who’s had an accident with a knife,” I told the dispatcher. I struggled to remember the address but I got it right. “Send an ambulance right away. Please?”
            “Shut up,” Sharon moaned. “Shut up, shut up, shut up . . .”
Rachel met me at the local ER. “Have I ever mentioned that I hate hospitals?” Then she saw my shirt. “Is that blood? What the hell?”
            “That’s why I asked you to bring me a shirt. Don’t worry, it’s not mine.”
            “Good.” She slugged my arm. “I don’t want to visit you in a hospital bed.”
            “You and me both.” I told her what happened. She lifted her eyebrows when I mentioned the Devil.
            A nurse pushed the curtain back. “You can—wait, are you family?”
            “I’m Sharon’s brother. Tom. I called the ambulance.”
            She looked me over skeptically for any sign of a family resemblance. “Okay. Five minutes.”
            We went inside. Sharon was sitting up, her eyes dazed, a wide bandage on her wrist and an IV in her arm. “Oh. Hi.” She shook her head. “Sorry about that.”
            “How do you feel?”
            She gazed up at the ceiling. “I can’t hear it now. I hope it doesn’t come back.”
            Me too. “This is my friend Rachel. She helps me out. Can she talk to you for a minute?”
            “Sure.” Sharon blinked at Rachel. “Wait, are you his girlfriend?”
            I expected another punch. But Rachel just smirked. “It’s complicated. Look, Sharon—it’s Sharon, right? Let me just . . .”
            She reached out and took Sharon’s hand, the one without the wound. Sharon looked at her, puzzled but smiling. I figured the painkillers were helping her relax. She giggled again and closed her eyes.
            Rachel dropped her hand. “There’s something. You know I can’t pick up definite images or anything like that, but there was a presence, and she’s been scared. Really scared. I think it’s fading. But I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just because she’s out of her place.”
            I didn’t like to think of her going back home if she was going to try to kill herself again. I also didn’t want to worry that this was my fault—that if I hadn’t asked her questions, she would have been fine. Frightened, but not suicidal.
            Sharon opened her eyes. “Oh, hi. You’re still here.”
            “I’m sorry.” I glanced at the curtain, not sure how much time we had. “You said Miles was going to open a box? A pyramid?”
            “What? Oh yeah.” She shivered. Then she looked around and sat up. “Huh. It’s gone.”
            “What’s gone?” I glanced at Rachel.
            “The voice. The devil.”
“You’re not scared anymore?”
            “Spiders and hornets, insurance salesmen, yeah. The other thing?” She tilted her head and rubbed an ear. “I can hear again.”
            “What about the box?”
            The nurse pushed the curtain back before Sharon could answer. But she didn’t kick us out. “Listen, honey, we want you to stay the night. We’ll take you up to a room in a few minutes.”
            “Okay.” Sharon shrugged. “Wait—do you need my insurance card or anything? I don’t think—”
            “Your brother brought your purse. Everything’s fine.” She smiled.
            Sharon blinked at me. “Oh. Thanks, bro.”
            “Anything for my sister.” I’d managed to grab it when the paramedics came. “Could we have another minute?”
            The nurse nodded and left.
            Sharon laughed. “My brother?”
            I grinned, more in relief than anything else. “I had to get in to see you somehow. So look, Sis, what about this box? The pyramid?”
            Her face paled. “Miles used to joke that he had a demon trapped in there, and if anyone pissed him off, he’d let it out. He said his uncle gave it to him when he died. I thought he was just joking, but now . . .” She shuddered. “I guess maybe he was right.”
            A box. “I don’t suppose you still have a key to his apartment?”