Sunday, October 2, 2016

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.

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