Saturday, November 19, 2016
So I have the dream every few months, usually when it’s raining:
I’m standing in an alley, cold rain drizzling over my scalp and shoulders.
An eight-year-old boy lies silent and motionless in a black puddle.
He’s wearing Pink Panther pajamas, ripped and soaked and stained with blood. His fingers and toes are curled up tight, like he’s sleeping. But he’s not breathing. He hasn’t in a long time.
I know I should grab my camera and take pictures. But I can’t do it. He’s just a little boy. I wipe my eyes against the rain and lean against the house behind me. I’ll have to report on this. Write a story for my newspaper. What do I say? How can I—
Then a shadow rears up at the corner of the alley.
It’s tall and black. I can’t see its eyes or its face, but its body is huge, monstrous, misshapen, like a beast out of H.P Lovecraft. It rocks back and forth as the rain pours down.
I want to take a picture. Or run. But my hands and legs are paralyzed with fear. I can’t even blink. Oh god, oh god—what is that?
Suddenly the creature leaps up into the air. It looks like it’s wearing a long black coat, its tails whipping around in the wind. Wings?
The creature—whatever it is—spins around above the house and looks down at me, like a circling vulture looking for prey. Is it coming for me now? What do I do? How can I . . .
Then it disappears up into the dark clouds over the house.
Then it disappears up into the dark clouds over the house.
And now I’m surrounded by cops yelling at me.
I point. “He’s up there! He flew away! Get him!”
The cops look at me as if I’m crazy.
I stare down at the little boy. His mother is right behind me, screaming his name, and the cops have to hold her back.
I look up at the black sky. Rain stings my eyes.
Then I wake up.
* * *
I sat at my dining room table on a rainy Tuesday morning in late November, drinking coffee and running background checks on my laptop with 1980s classic rock on the radio for background noise. Yeah, I grew up on Talking Heads, U2, and Journey. I may be a private eye, but I never claimed to be cool.
My client had six candidates for a bookkeeping job, and I had to make sure none of them had a prison record for embezzlement, or any outstanding parking tickets, or anything in between. I ran the usual checks, hoping for some classic David Bowie.
The 10:00 newsbreak reported on two shootings on the south side, along with mortal combat between City Hall and the Chicago Teacher’s Union and schoolyard insults from the Illinois governor and the speaker of the house. In other words, a typical day in in the city of Chicago. My kind of town.
Rain from last night’s thunderstorm was still tying up traffic on the inbound Kennedy Expressway, and an accident on the Dan Ryan was keeping cars to a crawl. The rain was likely to fade away in the morning but come back in the late afternoon. Unusual lightning overnight had struck a church in Old Town, a 300-year-old tree in a cemetery on the west side, and the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier.
My cellphone buzzed. Hoping for Rachel, or a more interesting client, I hit “save” on my laptop and looked at the screen. Uh-oh.
Detective Elena Dudovich, Chicago PD.
Dudovich and I have run into each other more often than either of us would like, because some of my cases have an unfortunate tendency to involve, well—vampires, monsters, demons, and other entities that most people, especially cops, don’t like to think about. But I have to, because I’ve seen them. And I used to insist on talking about them.
So Dudovich is on my speed dial. I call her from time to time. Sometimes she actually picks up. She seems to have a reluctant respect for me—something she’d never admit to my face. She even steers clients my way once in a while. We aren’t exactly friends, or even allies, but we sort of understand each other.
But I’m usually in trouble when she calls me.
I took a deep breath and pressed the “Answer” button. “Good morning, detective! What can I do for you today? Am I in trouble?”
“Not yet, but it’s only ten o'clock.” Dudovich’s voice was raspy, as if she hadn’t slept. “You remember the Rain Killer?”
Oh hell. My body went stiff. “That was—10 years ago?” When I was still a reporter.
“Yeah. I need you to pull everything you have on the story and bring it down to Central. You think you do that?”
“Wait, what?” I did still have files from those days, copied to disks. “What’s going on? Aside from the obvious First Amendment issues—”
“He’s back.” She lowered her voice. “And if you tell anyone I said this, I will follow you and plant parking tickets on your car until the end of time—but I think maybe you were right.”
Oh god. “I’ll be right there.”
So here’s the thing:
My dream? It happened. No one believed me about the dark shape flying into the sky. Not the cops, because they didn’t see it. And not my editors, because they got leaned on by the cops. The superintendent and the mayor got involved.
The cops and my editors had two problems with my story: One, I was crazy; two, even if I wasn’t crazy, a shadowy black monster who killed children and then flew away would only create panic and false speculation in the city.
And three, I was crazy.
So I was stupid. I wrote my story, insisting it was accurate, and then I called my editor a coward and an asshole—and okay, maybe I threw a box of chicken-fried rice across the newsroom.
I was supposed to report the facts, wasn’t I? But in the end the main fact was that I was out of a job.
I picked up a job with another paper. That didn’t last long, mostly because my marriage was falling apart and I refused to stop working on stories my editors didn’t want. I was starting to find weird angles in everything: A throat wound looked like a vampire attack, and bodies dragged into the sewers meant that some kind of monster lived beneath our streets. Sometimes I got evidence, but it was never good enough. So I was arguing all the time, at work and at home. Eventually I got fired again, and the same day I came home to find divorce papers on the kitchen table.
After a few months I got a job as a legal researcher, but that didn’t work out so well either. The lawyer I worked for was smart and tenacious, but unfortunately her ex-husband was an actual vampire—with issues. And sharp teeth. I managed to stake its heart with a shard of plywood from a damaged bookshelf, and then I quit.
Eventually I managed to finagle a license to be a private detective. Reporters and P.I.s basically do research and ask questions, right? It seemed like a good fit. And I was making a living at it.
But I never forgot that little boy. His name was Justin Bennett. And I never forgot the creature that had killed him.
The officer at the front desk of CPD’s Central District station on State Street gave my ID a skeptical look, but she picked up her phone. “Detective Dudovich? I’ve got a Tom . . . Yurgen here? He says—yes, ma’am.” She handed my ID back. “Third floor.”
Dudovich was waiting when I got off the elevator. “You—over here.” She
yanked open a door, and we sat in a conference room. No one-way glass, so I wasn’t being interrogated. Yet.
“Okay.” Dudovich perched on a chair. “What do you remember about the Rain Killer?”
That’s what they called him—or it. The killer always returned the bodies in the rain, like a crazed meteorologist.
“Like it was last night.” I closed my eyes, and I could see the rain pouring down on Justin’s pajamas. “Three kids were kidnapped. It was the same pattern—they were taken from their homes and then found dead, close to their homes, two or three days later, always when it was raining. A kid named Justin Bennett was the third one, I was there when they found him. I was interviewing the parents. They were hoping a newspaper story might spook the killer into making a mistake. Or changing his mind.” I shook my head. “Obviously that didn’t work. There was another one after Justin, a little girl, and then . . . it stopped.”
“But you saw something.”
“You’ve got my statement in your files somewhere.” I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I saw something rise up into the sky and then fly away. After all these years, someone’s going to admit that I wasn’t crazy?”
Dudovich glared at me. “I don’t care about your precious feelings, Jurgen. I told you, it’s happening again. Two days ago. A little girl, same pattern. Karla D’Angelos, age 11. We found her last night. And her father says . . . he saw something fly away.”
So, yeah, I felt a small twinge of victory. Someone else saw it too. Finally. Maybe now they’ll believe me. That lasted half a second before the horror of the crime sank in.
Oh god. It was happening again.
The First Amendment was one thing, but kids getting killed? I pushed my disks across the desk. “So what else can I do?”
Dudovich stared at me. “Are you willing to talk to the parents?”
What? I’d felt like a media vulture interviewing Justin’s parents ten years ago—even though they’d asked for an interview, desperately hoping they could somehow get through to the kidnapper by talking to a reporter.
I wasn’t sure I could go through that again. But if it would help catch that monster—“Fine. Can I bring Rachel?”
Dudovich groaned. “If you can control her.”
I snorted. “You’ve met Rachel, haven’t you?”
Dudovich actually smiled. “I can’t even believe you’ve got a girlfriend, Jurgen. Just don’t let her talk to the press. You know what I think of them.”
Ouch. But I could see her point. “Speaking of which, how isn’t this all over TV and the internet?”
“It will be. We’re trying to keep the whole ‘flying away’ thing out of it.”
“So people won’t think you’re crazy?” I couldn’t resist it. “Yeah, that would suck.”
Her glare could have melted steel. “Are you going to help or make smartass comments?”
“Fine. I’ll want to look at everything you can show me on the other cases.”
She shrugged. “Dozens of real detectives have been looking at those files for years.”
“None of them believed in a killer who could fly away.”
She stood up. “Some of it’s computerized, but you’ll have to do it here. I don’t want anything leaving the building.”
“No problem.” I stood up too.
“I’ll set it up with the parents.” Dudovich sighed. “God, I hate this.”
Kelly and Dean D’Angelos looked exhausted and heartbroken.
“Can I get you anything? Water, or . . .” Dean had grizzled gray hair and the rough face of a guy who hadn’t shaved in days and might never shave again.
His wife slumped in an armchair in their living room. She managed to look up, her shoulders shaking and her eyes as raw as a zombie. “What—what was your name again?”
“Tom. Tom Jurgen.” I turned, feeling awkward as hell. “And this is Rachel.”
“Hi.” Rachel stepped forward to shake Dean’s hand. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she’s my upstairs neighbor. Yeah, she’s also my girlfriend, at least sometimes, but she helps me on my cases.
She’s also psychic. Sort of. She can pick things up—emotions, lies, paranormal phenomena. I didn’t think the parents were lying—although years as a reporter and P.I. have taught me to be skeptical—but I wanted her to read them as they spoke.
Also I just wanted someone with me who believed me.
Dudovich was with us, but she was staying back. Just watching and listening.
Kelly D’Angelos clutched her hand. “Thank you for coming.”
“I just wanted to say . . .” Rachel sat next to me on the couch. She’s usually pretty calm—except when she’s mad at me—but right now her dark hazelnut eyes were trembling. “I . . . I know it’s a cliché, but I’m so sorry for, you know . . . your loss.”
“Everybody says that.” Kelly gave a bitter laugh. “Everybody. Goddamn it . . .”
“Kell.” Dean squeezed her arm. “They’re trying to help.”
“I know, I know!” Her laughter turned to low sob. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”
Dean looked at us as his wife wept quietly. “You’re—detectives?”
“Private detective.” I glanced back at Dudovich, who nodded. “And Rachel is my associate. Thank you for meeting with us.”
He crossed his arms. “What can we do for you?”
“I used to be a reporter. I covered the, uh, original crimes 10 years ago.” How to ask this? I’d been trying to phrase the question in my mind for the last half hour. “I only want to ask about what you saw. Flying away.”
“What?” Dean shook his head. “They all think I’m crazy.”
I knew the feeling. “I saw the same thing. Ten years ago.”
Dean glanced at his wife. “What did you see?”
I hesitated. “Maybe you’d better tell me first.” I didn’t want my story to influence his.
He took a gulp of water. “We were here—right here. Waiting for a call. There was a cop there.” He shot a glance at Dudovich. “He was very nice, ma’am. And some in a car outside. I was falling asleep on the couch, and then there was this sound—like something falling out back. So I ran, and the cop came with me. And . . .”
Dean’s voice cracked. “Karla was—right there. At the bottom on the steps. I sort of froze, and then there was this thing . . . this thing. It turned around and looked at me, and then it just—I don’t know—flew up into the air. And it was gone. And Karla was—oh, god . . .”
He grabbed a tissue while Kelly held onto his arm, weeping softly. I waited for Dean to blow his nose and take a gulp of water. “I’m sorry, but could I ask a few more questions?”
He blinked at me. “Yeah.”
“I only saw a shadow. You said it looked at you?”
Dean nodded, his neck wobbling. “I didn’t see a face. It backed away, and then it was gone.”
“Did it just jump up? Or climb something?”
“It, uh—I guess it jumped, and caught the other house for a moment. And then it, you know, flew away.” He shrugged. “Then the police were out there. I couldn’t—couldn’t think . . .”
“I was right behind him.” Kelly’s voice choked. “We both got soaked. But we didn’t feel anything. Just . . . just . . .”
She shuddered. “In the sky. Against the clouds. Sort of floating. It turned around and then—there was this big red thing all around its chest. Like a snake. Then it was gone. All I cared about was Karla. You know?”
“Of course.” Big red snake? That was different. The thing I’d seen had been black all over.
I looked at Rachel. She nodded. “Did you see the red mark, Mr. D’Angelos?”
“No.” He gulped some water. “Maybe. It was so dark. For a moment I couldn’t see anything. But I saw it fly up. I swear I saw it! They didn’t believe me!” He jabbed a finger at Dudovich. “Your people didn’t follow it! No one believed me!”
Dudovich stayed quiet. I almost felt sorry for her. Cops have a hard job, and she was a good one. Tough, but honest. She didn’t like me, but she’d always been straight with me.
I leaned forward. “Detective Dudovich doesn’t believe me most of the time. That’s how I know she’s good at her job. But she asked me to come here. You can trust that she wants this thing as much as you do.” Or me.
Dean’s head drooped. “Sorry. I’m just . . . I know you’re all doing the best you can, but Karla is dead. My daughter.”
Rachel clutched my hand. Red snake, her lips said silently. I nodded.
Dudovich caught it. She doesn’t miss much. But she didn’t say anything.
I stood up. “I’m very sorry to upset you. And for—everything.”
“I just want my little girl back.” Dean was sobbing, and Kelly held his shoulders. “Please—can’t someone bring her back?”
“So what’s with the red snake?”
We were back in my Honda. Rachel looked out the window at the house. Dudovich was in her own vehicle. The sky overhead was gray.
She shrugged. “I felt something when she mentioned it. Nothing I can describe. She’s telling the truth, I’m positive. But it made a big impact on her.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
“You didn’t see it? That time?” I’d told Rachel about that night. More than once.
“It was dark, and I only caught a glimpse.” I shook my head, helpless and frustrated. Should I have seen it? Ten years ago? Did I miss something that could have stopped the Rain Killer in its tracks?
Maybe only women could see it. Or maybe it had changed over the years. Or maybe I was just clutching to some desperate hope that I could somehow turn things around and make everything right.
I’d still be a reporter. I’d still be married. I’d never meet Rachel.
But the kids would still be alive.
I started the car. “I’ll drop you off. I need to go back downtown and go through the police reports. It might take a while.”
Sometimes Rachel punches my arm. Now she squeezed it softly. “Are you all right?”
“I’m . . .” Yeah, I was fine. Super. Never better. But Rachel wouldn’t need any psychic powers to know I was lying. “I just have to work on this. I’ll be okay.”
“Right.” She fastened her seatbelt. “I’m going to look into this red snake thing. I’ll call you.”
I pulled away from the curb. Dudovich flashed her lights at me—even though it was the middle of the afternoon. “I’ll need all the help I can get.”
Back at the police station Dudovich had an IT tech set me up with a computer in a second-floor room crowded with cops. Clouds hung down in the sky outside the windows. The IT tech, Dorrie, was a young Latina who looked like she could construct a working computer with one hand using a handful with components from Walgreens.
“Use this password.” She scribbled on a Post-It note. “Go to the J drive, and click on this file.” Another scribble. “Use the same password. That’ll get you to the files you want. You click on anything else, the computer freezes, an alarm goes off, and you get shot.” She smirked. “Maybe.”
I was officially scared. “Thanks. What about the paper files?”
“I’m Tech Girl. You have to ask someone else about the Dead Sea Scrolls.” She walked away.
So I logged on, following her instructions with nervous glances at the detectives around me. I have a lot of respect for cops—some of them are assholes, and worse, but most, like Elena Dudovich, just want to help people and go home at night. But most cops don’t like reporters—or private detectives.
I can understand why. We ask questions. Sometimes we’re assholes. And we have to deal with the police to do our jobs, but cops don’t always think they should have to answer our questions—or take us seriously. And reporters and P.I.s don’t usually trust them to tell us the truth. It makes trust and cooperation difficult.
Still, all the cops around the room were working on the Rain Killer case too—probably looking at some of the same files I wanted to see. They might think I was crazy, and thought some of them were jerks, but we all had the same goal.
So I dived into the electronic records. I’d show them that a good P.I. could do their jobs better and faster, and in style.
Two hours later my brain felt fried. I staggered to the coffee machine. Empty. I picked up a paper cup, hoping to get the water from the sink hot enough to brew some lukewarm tea, when a tall African-American detective walked over and picked up the carafe. “Give me a few minutes. My name’s Hawkins.”
“Tom Jurgen. Thanks.”
He peered at me. “Hey, you were with that weird dog case a couple months ago, right?”
I blinked and then recognized him. I wasn’t sure what to say. The case had involved dogs from another dimension, and at least two people had died. I’d lied my way out of it, but I was pretty sure the cops didn’t believe me. They just didn’t have any reason to lock me up.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Thanks for your help that night.”
“I’ve seen some crazy stuff too.” He shrugged. “Coffee’s coming.”
I went back to my computer. I’d read enough police reports to get through the euphemisms, abbreviations, and jargon. Nothing in the files surprised me or changed what I remembered about the Rain Killer. He (or she, or it) grabbed children without being seen, and then delivered their bodies close their house one or two days later—always during a rainstorm. I found my own statement, with the notation, “Witness unreliable.”
But I also discovered two similar reports, one from a parent and another from a homeless woman. Both mentioned a shadowy figure leaping up into the air. And the homeless woman had seen the red snake. She’d been around when the second victim was found, a five-year-old kid named Antwan Purvis, behind a family-owned restaurant on the west side.
Her statement was also marked, “Witness unreliable.”
So then I went to the medical reports. They were mostly beyond my comprehension, but I recognized a few terms. Mostly relating to blood loss.
The first two children had been almost drained of blood. Justin had lost blood too, but not nearly as much. The fact that no blood had been found near their bodies meant that they’d all been taken elsewhere—for whatever the killer did with them.
A vampire? I could imagine how Dudovich would respond to that theory.
I picked up my phone to call Rachel. Then a tall African-American man in a police commander’s uniform stalked into the room. “Heads up!”
Everyone stopped. I’d seen him in the newspapers. His name was Daniel Hughes. He had a trim mustache and broad shoulders, and a reputation as a tough cop. But a fair one.
Hughes made sure all eyes were watching him. “It looks like there’s been an abduction.”
Someone cursed. Someone else slammed a fist on a desk.
“A little boy. Nathan Black. We don’t know yet if it’s the Rain Killer again. But the weather’s getting worse.” He glanced out the window. A light rain pelted the glass. “Do whatever you have to do. I want to get this bastard.”
About half of the detective followed him from the room. The rest went back to their phones and computers with new, grim determination.
I looked for Dudovich, and eventually found her at a desk in the corner, talking on the phone. She glared at me, kept talking, and then finally slammed the phone down. “You got anything?”
“A theory. Half a theory. Okay, not even a theory, just an idea. And you won’t like it.”
She scowled. “I don’t have time for long exposition. Talk.”
“Blood. The victims were drained in diminishing amounts. The witness to the second victim saw the same red mark—”
“She was homeless drunk.”
“Actually, she was just getting out of rehab and selling newspapers. It’s in her statement. My point is . . .” I knew how this sounded. “I think maybe this thing was feeding. It got enough blood and then it quit.” After Justin. The last little girl had lost a small amount of blood—as if the killer finally got full.
“And then what happened? Why is he back now?” Dudovich grabbed her jacket. “I need more than another vampire story, Jurgen.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I tried to keep my voice low. “You called me, remember? I’m still working on this, and I’ll give you everything I can. Whether you believe it or not—”
“Christ, Jurgen.” She lowered her head. “I’ll take anything I can get right now.” She checked the handgun at her hip. “I have to get out there right now. Just don’t tell anyone else about this, and don’t screw this up, all right?”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
I called Rachel from a sandwich shop. “So I had a thought.”
“First time for—” She giggled. “Okay, that’s too easy. And I’m on a caffeine high. Hit me, lover.”
Lover? How much coffee had Rachel been drinking? I shifted my mind back to other important topics. “Blood. Ten years ago, the creature drank lots from its early victims and less from the later . . . the later ones.” I hated referring to the dead kids as “victims,” but it was the only way I could get through this. “So maybe the red snake thing shows up when it’s really hungry, and fades as it’s feeding.”
“Huh.” I heard Rachel’s fingers on the computer. “Well, time to Google ‘monsters that eat blood.’”
It wasn’t much, but it was something the cops probably run down. “And I’ve got to find a homeless woman.”
The only other person to see the red mark was a woman named Lillian Fraser. Her statement mentioned a homeless shelter she sometimes stayed at. I called and talked to a volunteer.
And then I got lucky. “Yeah. She’s here.”
I felt stunned. As if I’d won the lottery—or someone was playing an unfunny practical joke. “She’s still staying there?”
“No, she’s a volunteer. Like me. She’s been here for three or four years.”
“Is she there now?”
“She’ll be here in a few hours.”
I made sure of the address, then hung up.
The Archway Center was a shelter for homeless women, and the short Latina woman at the front desk gave me a skeptical look through her steel-rimmed glasses.
Being a man was one strike. Being a private detective was the second. What if an abusive boyfriend had hired me to track his victim down? I didn’t blame Ms. Martinez for her hostility. “I can meet her anywhere she wants, or just talk to her on the phone. Wherever everyone’s comfortable.” I didn’t mention the Rain Killer, figuring that might spook her even more. “It’s important.”
She took my card with a frown. “I’ll see if she’s even here.”
Ten minutes later she returned. “This is Lillian. Lillian, this is Tom Jurgen. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to.”
Lillian Fraser was in her 50s. Gray hair, slightly plump, with a hard look in her dark blue eyes. “What’s this all about?”
I handed her my card. “I’m a private detective. It’s about what you saw in an alley 10 years ago. A creature flying away from the body of a child.”
Lillian Fraser flinched. “No one believed me. I was drunk.”
“I saw the same thing. No one believed me either, and I wasn’t drunk.”
She looked at my card again. Then she sighed. “It’s okay, Rina. I’ll talk to him.”
Ms. Martinez glared like she’d made a huge mistake letting me in. “Fine. Use my office. Remember, intake starts in half an hour.”
The office was small and cramped. Lillian sat behind the desk, next to a computer that looked 20 years old. She hunched over, her body shaking.
“He—he’s back, isn’t he?” Her voice trembled. “It was on the news.”
“It might be.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how much I can tell you. I don’t remember much about that night.”
Maybe I could ease her into it. “Tell me what you did before it happened.”
“Well . . .” Lillian closed her eyes. “I was selling newspapers, but I got fired a few days before for being drunk. Rehab—it didn’t take, not that time.” She sighed, embarrassed.
“I managed enough money for a bottle of vodka. I drank most of it in the park before it closed and they kicked me out. I didn’t—I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. I guess that made me even drunker.” She rubbed her eyes. “So I carried my bottle and I was going to search through the dumpster behind a restaurant. They weren’t locked yet. It was raining, and I was cold, so I kept drinking. I guess I fell asleep.”
She rubbed her eyes. “I woke up, and there was something moving at the end of the alley. I was starting to feel sick, and I tried to get up, and then there was this big—thing in front of me.”
“What did it look like?”
“He was big, in black clothes.” She grabbed for a tissue from a box on the desk. “I couldn’t see his face, he had some kind of a hood. And below his waist, he looked like a snake. Or a dragon. It almost looked like he had wings down there.”
I waited as she cried. Without wanting to lead her, I asked, “Anything else?”
“His chest was red. Glowing, kind of . . . pulsing, you know? Like I could see his heart. He just stood there. I don’t know if he was looking at me, or if he even saw me. Then he just—flew up into the air. And then I threw up.” Her face turned red, ashamed. “Then there were cops all over. I told them what I saw, but they just . . .” She shrugged. “I was drunk and dirty, and they didn’t believe me. I wasn’t sure I believed it myself.”
Witness unreliable. I knew the feeling. “So what happened after that?”
“I was in the hospital for a while.” She tossed her tissue into a wastebasket. “Then I came back here, because I was here before, but I couldn’t hack it that time.” She looked around the room. “I went back on the streets, and then—I don’t know. I went in the hospital again, and then I came back here—again—and they let me in. And they helped me get back into rehab, and after that . . .”
Lillian groaned. “I don’t know how I did it. It’s not like I found God or anything. I hated rehab. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. Somehow I got through that, and they helped me get a job. And somehow . . .”
More tissues. Lillian was sobbing now. “I’m clean. For eight years. But I can’t stop thinking about him.”
Damn it—what could I say? “I saw it too.” I leaned forward. “I believe you.”
“What difference does it make?” Her voice was a screech. “It was 10 years ago! What was I supposed to do?”
The door burst open. Ms. Martinez jabbed her finger at me like a dagger. “Get out! You’re upsetting everyone.”
“Okay, okay!” I stood up. “Lillian, I’m very sorry for bothering you—”
“I’m okay now.” Lillian Fraser shook her head, gasping for breath. “I’m . . . it’s just so hard, every day . . .”
Ms. Martinez marched me through the waiting room. A young woman at the front desk was talking to a woman holding a baby. Other women waited—young, old, all races. Some hopeful, some desperate. They stared at me, some nervous, others curious. And others angry.
A box for donations hung on the wall beside the front door. I stuffed most of the cash in my wallet inside before leaving.
I called Rachel from my Honda and told her Lillian’s description of the killer.
“That sounds like . . . wait . . .” Again I heard tapping keys. “It sounds like a Lamia.”
“So what’s a Lamia?”
“It’s a type of vampire from Greek mythology that feeds on human children. In some accounts she has a serpent’s tale and wings below her waist.”
I shuddered. “She?”
“That’s right, you sexist pig. The original Lamia was a mistress of Zeus, and Zeus’s wife Hera got jealous, killed her children, and turned her into a child-eating monster.”
“Yuck.” But maybe it made sense. The Rain Killer always delivered the bodies of its victims back home. A mother might do that. Even a homicidal, mythological maniac of a mother. “Anything else on Wikipedia?”
“This isn’t Wikipedia, it’s . . . you probably don’t want to know. Anyway, later sources call them the lamiae. Maybe they’re descended from her, or maybe people made up to myth to account for them. It goes both ways with this sort of stuff.”
Rachel has friends in the witch/wizard/wiccan communities around Chicago, but her familiarity with this kind of stuff still shakes me up a bit. “So how do we find this thing?”
“You’re the detective. I’m just your humble research assistant.”
“Assistant?” I chuckled. “You’d punch my stomach if I called you that.”
“I’ll keep researching, MacGuyver. You hit those mean streets. Just don’t let them hit back.”
I sat in the car, processing the information. I could hardly drop this on Dudovich’s desk. Even if she was struggling to keep an open mind, she couldn’t very well present it to her hard-nosed commander. Besides, I didn’t even have enough facts for a theory.
So I went back to the police station and sat down at my computer. Around me cops answered phones, filled out tip reports, drank coffee, cursed, and ignored me. I drank coffee and ignored them.
I reviewed all the witness statements again, but I didn’t spot anything new. The bodies had been spread around the north and northwest side of the city, but nobody had found any kind of pattern to the locations. The murders had all taken place for about a month and half before stopping.
So why had the killer stopped? And why was he starting again?
I went back to the local papers ten years ago. I started with the date of the first murder and went back and forth, searching for some link between then and now. An unexpected death? A devastating fire? The Chicago Bears winning three games in a row?
I felt like I was looking for Waldo in a wet haystack twenty miles wide. Anything could be a clue. I leaned back and closed my eyes, trying to think. Then trying not to think.
I dozed in the chair. Rain sprinkled down on the windows. For a moment I was back in the alley, cold rain drizzling down over my scalp and shoulders.
Rain. I jerked forward.
I searched the weather reports for the days around the first killing. Sunny, then cloudy. Then scattered rain. Then a thunderstorm—
I zeroed in. The story was just a small item: Lightning had struck a tree in a cemetery on the west side. A very old tree—300 years. The photo showed a deep scar in the bark.
I opened a new window and looked at today’s news.
I’d heard it this morning, waiting for a David Bowie song. An Old Town church, the Navy Pier Ferris wheel—and an ancient tree in a cemetery. Struck by lightning.
I cross-checked the stories. Same cemetery. Ten years apart.
I grabbed my cell phone. “Rachel? I think I’ve got it.”
“What? Wait—” She gulped a drink. “Okay, what are you talking about?”
“The Arcadia Park Cemetery. It’s right across the road from the Irving Park Cemetery. A tree got struck by lightning there ten years ago—right before the Rain Killer got started. And lightning hit it last night—” Christ, had this all started just today? I tried to remember what I’d been working on before Dudovich had called me.
I lowered my head. “What if it’s been there all this time? Hiding—or hibernating. Until the lightning woke it up again?”
“Damn it.” Rachel took a breath, “So what are you going to do?”
I sighed. “How do we kill it?”
“You idiot. The same way you kill any vampire. With a wooden stake, if you can get close enough before it kills you. Or cut its head off. Tell me you’re not going after it? Please?”
“Not on my own, if I can get—oops. I’ll call you back.”
Commander Hughes was looming over me, tall and menacing. “Who are you and what the hell was that?”
Where had he come from? I’d figured he’d be in his office, talking to the mayor or yelling at reporters. Not out on the floor. But I didn’t have a choice now.
I pushed my chair back. “Tom Jurgen. Private investigator. Detective Elena Dudovich asked me to assist in your investigation. I think I’ve got—”
“You’re talking to me now.” Hughes crossed his arms in front of his chest. I could feel the fear he put into any gangbangers who’d ever tried to defy him.
“You’re saying there’s a monster hiding out in a cemetery?”
“Yeah.” I stood up. He still towered over me, but I managed to speak. “It’s called a lamiae. It’s a type of vampire that hunts children. And yeah, it’s there in that cemetery. The lightning strike woke it up. It happened ten years ago, and it happened last night. And today a kid got snatched. So if you want to stop this thing—”
Hughes jabbed a finger at the door. “Get out.”
Goddamn it. “They called me crazy before, you know? But it’s back! You say you’ll listen to anyone—all those tips on the phone?” I swung my arm. “How many of those calls are crazy? How come you’ve never caught this thing? How does it always get away? Hey, you!” I zeroed in a hard-faced cop sitting at a desk. Just trying to do her job. “Do you really want to stop this thing? Or are you just afraid of looking crazy like me?”
I was sure Hughes was going to hit me. And it would hurt. Instead he just turned. “Hawkins? Escort this asshole out.”
I lifted my hands. “Fine. I’ll go peacefully, officer. I’m crazy—not stupid.”
Hawkins grabbed my elbow. “Come on, asshole.”
“I’m going, I’m going.” I let him push me through the door. Then he leaned down, his face inches from mine. “Hughes is a good cop. He’s just doing his job.”
“I get that.” I heard a door slam. “So am I.”
Hawkins shrugged. “Yeah.”
I took the elevator down and walked back to my car. Mad at Hughes and scared of what I was about to do.
But mostly I was tired of people telling me I was crazy.
Rachel was waiting in her Prius inside the gates of the Arcadia Park Cemetery. Rain was starting to fall hard as I dashed to her car.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” She looked ready to slug me as I slammed the door slid into the seat next to her.
“You can stay back here if you want.” I caught my breath. “Did you bring the stuff?”
She grimaced. “I was saving three stakes for a special occasion, like your birthday. And I bought a big jar of garlic and a sack of salt from the store. And that sword you keep under your bed. Why do you even have a sword, anyway?”
“My father got it during the war.” It was a long curved Japanese sword. “I thought we were going to have to fight the voarkla with it, remember? And besides, you have to cut off a vampire’s head to make sure it’s really dead, don’t you?”
Rachel groaned. “Sometimes you scare me.”
A car pulled up behind us and flashed its lights. My cellphone buzzed.
“Jurgen?” Dudovich sounded annoyed. “I’m putting my job on the line here. You’d better be right.”
“Thanks for coming, detective.” I pointed forward. “Just follow us.”
I’d figured out the location of the tree, based on the gravestone mentioned in the news stories from a few local news outlets. Rachel drove slowly through the cemetery, following the GPS directions, wipers flaring across her windshield until she found the proper turn.
She stopped. “Right there.”
I lowered the window. A hundred yards away I could see a tall tree, branches drooping down in the rain. A dark scar across its wet bark.
I stared for a long time, trying to get my nerve up. Then Dudovich honked, and Rachel jabbed my shoulder. “Hey, close the window! You’re getting my seats wet!”
“Sorry.” I raised the window and opened the door. “Pop your trunk and wait here.”
“Oh, no.” She got out. “I’m coming too.”
I didn’t have time to argue. And she’d probably win anyway. So I grabbed the sword and the wooden stakes from her trunk, and she carried the salt and garlic.
Dudovich parked behind us and slammed her door. She walked up, the rain pouring down on her CPD cap. “Hey, is that a sword you’re carrying?”
I slung it over my shoulder on a strap I’d bought a few years ago. “Do I need a license for it?”
She shook her head, probably wondering what the hell she was doing here with me. Then she looked through the rain at the tree. “Is that it?”
“I hope so.” If not, she’d never believe me again. And I wasn’t sure I’d ever believe myself.
The ground was flat and wet under my sneakers. Rain streaked down over my windbreaker, and my wide-brimmed hat was already soaked. The sword was heavy. I’d never actually used it on anything, but I kept it sharpened. Just in case.
We reached the base of the tree. Between its thick twisting roots, a wide hole reached down into the earth.
Maybe I should have been relieved. I wasn’t entirely crazy. But I was definitely scared now.
“Oh god.” Rachel staggered back, a hand to her forehead. “She’s down there. Lamia.”
Dudovich looked at the hole. “So what do we do?”
I looked at Rachel. “What about Nathan?”
Rachel wiped the rain from her red hair. “He’s crying for his mother.”
Dudovich pulled off her leather jacket. “I think I can get down there.” She reached for her handgun.
For a moment I hesitated. Yeah, I could wait here. This was her job, not mine. But I had the sword.
I groaned. “You and me. Take this.” I thrust a stake at her.
Dudovich stared. “I think my Glock is going to be pretty convincing.”
“You’ll need to stake it once it’s down. And cut off its head.” I jammed the second stake into my back pocket and handed the last one to Rachel. “Once we’re inside, shake the salt in a circle around the hole. It keeps vampires out. In case—”
Rachel slapped me.
I took staggered back in the dirt, more afraid of her than the Lamia. Rachel had punched me and jabbed me, but she’d never actually hit me. “What?” I rubbed my face.
“Just go.” She slammed the bag of salt at the ground. “When you come back, we’re going to have issues.”
“Uhh . . . sure.” I didn’t know what to say. But I couldn’t back away from this. Not after ten years. “I’ll be all right.”
“You idiot.” Rachel kissed me. For a moment I was on the verge of changing my mind again. What the hell was I doing? I’m not a superhero, just a guy—
Then Rachel shoved me away. “Here.” She tossed the jar of garlic at me. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
I nodded. I wanted to remember her face, her eyes, her red hair in the rain. “Whatever you say.”
“Yeah, right.” She punched my arm. “Go.”
“Hey! Kids!” Dudovich was peering into the hole with a flashlight. “Come on, Jurgen! Are you coming or not?”
I leaned down beside her. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
I’m not very brave. Just stubborn. I wanted to see this thing. But I was scared.
Dudovich bent over and pushed herself down the hole, head first. Her thick shoes kicked back at me. I gulped, made sure my sneakers were tight, and followed.
I pushed down through the dirt and mud, checking to make sure my sword was secure on my back. Dad would never forgive me if I lost it in the muck. I heard Dudovich grunting ahead of me. The walls of the tunnel shook, and just when I was sure I’d panic from claustrophobia and basic terror, I felt my body falling. I managed not to scream.
I landed in a shallow puddle of cold water with a wet plop. Thrashing around, I saw Dudovich on her knees, casting her flashlight right and left. “You okay there, Jurgen?” Her voice was a raspy whisper.
“F-fine.” I staggered up. “What’s going—”
“Mommy!” A little boy’s voice. “Mommy?”
We were in a dark round pit. The air smelled rancid, like compost gone bad. Roots crawled up and down the walls as Dudovich flashed her light around. “Nathan? Where are you?”
“Mommy . . .” His voice was weak. “Mommm . . .”
Dudovich crawled forward. “Nathan? I’m coming, son. Keep talking. I’m—”
“Wait!” I saw a shadow shift against the back of the pit. “Dudovich, over there!”
It rose up on a long thick serpent’s tail, laughing like a rabid hyena. A black shape, with a red glow twisting in the middle of its torso. Black leathery wings whipped around its hips
I whipped the sword from behind my back as Dudovich crouched and fired. The handgun boomed like a bomb, shaking the foul air.
Even one of the lamiae couldn’t take a full clip from a Glock in the chest without suffering the impact. The thing staggered back, the scarlet coil shuddering as black blood dripped down its skin. Its mocking laughter churned into a high-pitched screech of fury.
“Jurgen!” Dudovich ejected the clip from her handgun and slammed a fresh one in. “Give me that sword, and get the kid out of here!”
The Lamia roared. Dudovich poured more bullets into it as I tossed the sword in her general direction, hoping she could find it in the muck under our feet.
I stumbled toward Nathan and pulled him to my chest. “Come on, Nate. Hang on to me.”
Nathan whimpered. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Tom.” I staggered toward the hole, my feet sloshing in the water. “I need you to climb up here. Can you do that?”
Dudovich cursed behind us. “Jurgen, hurry up!”
Nathan flinched. “I’m scared.”
“Me too.” I hoisted him up. “Get in there. I’ll help you.”
Nathan was crying. “No. I can’t do it.”
“Jurgen!” Dudovich shouted. “Get him out of here!”
I shoved Nathan up into the hole. He screamed, but he scrambled up, his little legs pushing dirt down over my face.
I looked back for just a second. Dudovich clutched her flashlight in one hand while she swung my sword with the other. Then Nathan began falling back, and I had to jam one wet foot against a root and force my body up into the hole after him.
I had no idea how far down we’d fallen—or how far up we had to go. It felt like I was crawling up the side of a skyscraper, an inch at a time, my shake fingers and damp feet trembling with every step. Nathan was crying, and my shoulder hurt as I pushed it against him. I heard Dudovich swearing beneath us.
“Come on, Nate.” I tried not to let him hear the panic in my voice. “Just climb. It’ll be okay.”
“I’m—I’m trying.” He squirmed around, fighting to hold on to the loose earth around him. I dug my shoes into the dirt, pushing up at him.
Then Nathan was gone. And I could see faint light over my head. Not stars, exactly, but not the unrelenting darkness below me.
I lurched up and pulled my shoulders out of the hole. Rachel was holding Nathan, patting his back as he coughed dirt out of his throat. I climbed out, gasping, and rolled over, letting the rain pour over my face.
“Tom!” Rachel kept Nathan in her arms as she crouched down. “Are you okay? Where’s . . .”
I scrambled away from the hole. “She’s—right behind me.” I hoped.
“Mommy,” Nathan moaned. “I want my mommy . . .”
“I’ll get her.” Rachel grabbed for her cellphone. “You’re okay now, Nate—”
“Nathan!” He screamed. “My name isn’t Nate, it’s Nathan!”
Nathan wore a dirty T-shirt and tattered pajama bottoms. He was crying. Blood dripped down from a wound on his neck.
“Okay, all right.” Rachel fumbled with the keys. “Hello? I’m at Arcadia Cemetery, and I have that little boy who was kidnapped, Nate—no, Nathan Black. He’s all right, but there’s an officer down . . .”
“Jurgen!” It sounded like a shout from the grave. Maybe it was. I stood on shaking legs as Dudovich’s head emerged from the hole. “Little help?”
I grasped a wrist and pulled as she clambered up onto the wet ground. She still held my sword, stained with blood.
I grasped a wrist and pulled as she clambered up onto the wet ground. She still held my sword, stained with blood.
I helped her up. “Did you—is it . . .?”
“I don’t think I got its head off all the way.” She dropped the sword onto the grass. “But I staked it, and then I just slammed that jar of garlic at its mouth. It wasn’t feeling good when I got away.”
She peered over my shoulder. “How’s the kid?”
“He’s okay.” He’d need a lifetime of therapy, probably, but he was alive.
“Damn it, I lost my gun down there.” Dudovich looked at the hole. “They’ll make me pay for a new one. Because no one’s ever going to believe this, Jurgen.”
We looked each other over. Covered in mud, shaking with exhaustion, the rain on our faces and shoulders . . .
Then Dudovich laughed. “You’re crazy, Jurgen.”
“Yeah.” I staggered on the loose, wet dirt. “Thanks for bringing the sword back.”
CPD squad cars started rolling up almost immediately. Two cops wrapped Nathan in a blanket and took him straight to the nearest hospital. The rest of them brought Dudovich and me downtown, where we got coffee and paper towels to dry off. Rachel followed in her Prius, raising holy hell until Commander Hughes finally got tired of listening to her and let us talk alone for a few minutes.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” Rachel punched my arm. Hard. “You know I’m no good with little kids!”
“Sorry.” I gulped some coffee. Somebody had forgotten to brew a new pot. “I’m just glad Hughes isn’t locking you up for creating a disturbance.”
“I think the rest of them are afraid of me.” She leaned down and peered at my face. “You’re filthy.” Then she kissed me.
“You’re pretty hot yourself—Ow?” She punched me again.
“You deserved that.” She straightened up as the door opened. Hughes walked in with Hawkins.
“I need the room.” Hughes sat down. “You can wait outside. If you don’t make trouble.”
“Me? Trouble?” Rachel smirked. “He’s the troublemaker. But you already know that.”
I waited until she closed the door. “Can I get some dry clothes soon? Sir? Or at least some fresh coffee?”
Hughes glared at me. So did Hawkins.
Hughes sighed. “I’ve spoken with detective Dudovich. She tells me you’re a stubborn, sarcastic asshole.”
And here we’d been getting along so well. “Did she mention I’m crazy?”
Hawkins laughed. Hughes ignored him. “Detective Dudovich does, however, tell a story we can’t ignore. Not one we can release to the media, you understand. But she’s a competent professional. If she says you two fought and killed a vampire from Greek mythology—and she’s not obviously drunk or high, although believe me, we’ll test her pee and her blood for that, and yours too—I’m stuck accepting that.”
I nodded. “So can I go?”
Hughes dropped a printout on the desk, along with a blue pen. “Once you sign this.”
I scanned the document. Everything was in there. Some of it was even true.
I knew that the police, the press, city hall, and the FBI would never admit that supernatural forces were a danger on the streets of Chicago. Or any city. I’d figured that out 10 years ago. Fighting them would just end up with me in a hospital, or a homeless shelter.
I hated to go along with a coverup. But I didn’t have much choice if I wanted to keep working. And see Rachel without an overseer watching over us.
“You need to do something about its lair.” I picked up the pen. “Cut down that tree, pull out its roots as best you can, and fill the hole up with something that will keep that thing down there at least as long as nuclear waste.”
Hughes shrugged. “Not my call. But I’ll make the recommendation.”
Great. “If nothing else, watch the weather reports for the next lightning strike.” I signed. Anything to get out of here. “Oh, by the way—can I get my sword back? After you’ve tested it for blood and everything?”
He grimaced. “Any blood on that sword was washed clean by the dirt and the rain. You can pick it up tomorrow.”
So they weren’t even going to bother to test it. Fine. I signed. “Am I free to go?”
“Please do.” Hughes stood up. “Right away.”
Rachel was waiting for me. “I guess I’ll have to take you up to get your car.”
“Unless they towed it.” I rubbed my face. “Let’s just go home.”
“Wait a minute!”
Dudovich walked up behind me. Her clothes were still caked with mud and blood.
Now what? I was tired, cranky, and desperate to get out of there before someone thought of an excuse to lock me up. But somehow I managed to stay civil. “You okay, detective?”
“They made me sign some bullshit statement about an anonymous tip.” She shrugged. “But that’s the way it goes.”
“What about Nate?” Rachel looked at me. “I mean, Nathan?”
“No serious blood loss. He’s in the hospital with his parents, and nobody will believe he was kidnapped by an evil creature with a tail and wings.” She shook her head. “Probably go home tomorrow.”
I nodded. “That’s good.” Saving a kid’s life made the whole coverup a little easier to take. I looked at the elevator. “Well, good night, detective.”
Then—oh my god—Dudovich hugged me. An actual hug. “Thanks, Jurgen.”
“Uh . . .” This was unexpected. And awkward. I patted her shoulder. “Thanks for believing me. This time, at least.”
“Oh, this doesn’t change anything.” She shoved me away. “I still think you’re crazy. And annoying.”
I smirked. “I like to make an impression.”
Rachel groaned. “You see what I have to put up with?”
“You have my sympathy.” Dudovich shook Rachel’s hand. “Take care of him. He doesn’t deserve you.”
She nodded. “I tell him that all the time.”
Oh god. “You guys aren’t going to start going out for coffee together, are you? Because that would be—”
“Elevator’s that way, Jurgen.” Dudovich pointed. “Get lost.”
Rachel pulled on my arm. “Come on. Let’s get sushi. After you take a shower.”
Yeah, I was hungry. And I needed clean clothes. But it was the best plan I’d heard all day.
The Rain Killer was gone. At least for now.
I hoped I wouldn’t dream tonight.
# # #