The frail chain reached its limit behind the hotel room door. “Who are you?”
“Dean Toller? My name’s Tom Jurgen.” I shoved a business card through the gap. “Your mother’s attorney hired me to find you.”
“Jesus Christ.” A hand jerked my card away. “Hang on—how do I know my mother hired you? Who the hell are you?
I hadn’t actually met his mother. “The attorney’s name is Peter Halloway, Halloway and Associates. You can call him.” I stepped back. “It’s okay. I can wait.”
The door closed. Then it opened wide. “Okay. Quick.”
Dean Toller was older than me, a man in his sixties with a balding scalp. He wore sweatpants and a gray T-shirt, and the whole room smelled as if he hadn’t slept or showered for days. “My mother, you said? Marilyn?”
“You disappeared. Ignored her calls. She was concerned. What’s going on?”
“Concerned?” He snorted. “Right.”
It was a standard hotel room—king-sized bed, two long dressers, a big flatscreen TV, and a chair that Toller sank down into with a sigh. A bottle of red wine sat on the table near his elbow, half empty. Or half full, depending on your perspective.
Toller peered at my card, then dropped it onto the desk. “Who are you again?”
Tom Jurgen. Ex-reporter. Now a private detective. Marilyn Toller’s attorney had called me this morning. He promised my usual hourly rate to locate Dean Toller, who’d dropped out of the family’s sight a week ago. He offered a bonus if I could find Dean within 24 hours.
With enough information from the attorney, I’d managed to track Dean’s credit card to a hotel in downtown Chicago. Whatever he wanted to get away from, he apparently wasn’t willing to endure less than a four-star hotel. So this looked like an easy job, except that the family wanted me to make contact first. Marilyn Toller didn’t necessarily want to talk to her son. She just wanted to know where he was.
I could put up with a little bit of family drama for the sake of my internet bill.
The sheets on the bed smelled like day-old nachos. “I’m a private investigator. Your mother’s attorney hired me to find you. I’m only supposed to request that you call her. So I can go now—”
“No.” Toller jumped up, as if ready to race me to the door to keep me there. “You don’t—she doesn’t understand. If you found me . . . oh god.”
My feet shifted. “Is there a problem? I can’t—I mean, I have to report that I’ve talked to you, but I can’t force you to do anything. I can communicate a message, but—why are you hiding?”
“It’s happening.” Dean filled his glass. “First Brent, then Randall. I don’t know who’s next, but I don’t want it to be me. Just tell my mother—I don’t know. Just get out.”
“Fine.” I was happy to go. “Have a good night.”
He gulped his wine. “Yeah.”
Then the floor began to vibrate beneath my feet. What the hell? The wall behind one the dressers started to shimmer, a mixture of silver light and black clouds.
Toller dropped his glass. “No. Wait. No !”
The wall dissolved, and then . . .
A ninja. Shaped like a female, dressed and hooded in black, she walked through the wall—and through the dresser, as if it didn’t exist. Or she didn’t.
She whirled around like a dancer, and then she stopped, facing Toller. She held a slender white blade in one slim hand.
Dean Toller shook his head. “No. No, please don’t—“
She thrust her blade straight into Dean Toller’s chest.
Someone screamed as I ran for the door. Maybe Dean, maybe me. But as I grabbed for the lock I forced myself to look back over my shoulder.
Dean was sprawled on the carpet, rocking back and forth, his blood mixing with the red wine on the floor. The ninja waited until he stopped moving, and then she leaned down to yank her dagger out of his body.
Dean was dying. Her work was finished.
The ninja gazed in my direction. “Who are you?”
I pressed my back against the doorknob. I’m a P.I., not a superhero. But I had to ask—“Who are you?”
“They call me Asha.” The killer slipped the dagger back into her black robes. “Don’t get in my way.”
“Absolutely not.” I waved a hand. “I’ll stay far, far away, okay, Asha? Is that what you said?”
“Just stay away.” The wall shimmered, and then she was gone.
I’m not Sam Spade, lying to the cops about the Maltese Falcon. I spilled my guts to the Chicago PD, and eventually they let me go.
They didn’t believe my story about a ninja who walked through walls, of course, but they had no reason to think I was the killer. The attorney backed up my story, insisting that I’d never had any previous contact with Toller or his family. And I was obviously too shaken up to do a good job of lying.
So they cut me loose and I drove home.
Rachel was waiting in my apartment. I’d called her, because he’s my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, and she helps me on my cases. And she’s at least somewhat psychic. “Tom, you idiot! What the hell?”
I opened a beer from the kitchen, sat down, and told her everything. I’ve seen murders and their aftermath, but it never gets easy. I was shaking by the end. “It was just—he was scared. And then he was dead. And all I could do was run.”
Rachel squeezed my hand. “Good for you. I want you to run as fast as you can when stuff like that comes up.”
She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she usually punches or jabs me, but tonight she was worried. And curious. “Through the wall, huh?”
“Yeah. Ever heard of anything like that?”
Rachel has lots of contacts in Chicago’s psychic/paranormal/supernatural community. “I can ask.”
“Not yet. I hope I’m not going to—”
My phone buzzed. Peter Halloway. Damn it. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Mr. Jurgen? Peter Halloway. Look, we’re very sorry about what happened tonight. We didn’t—I should have told you about what . . . had the potential to occur.”
Yeah, you should have. “You mean you knew someone might walk out of a wall and kill Dean Toller?” My voice might have risen a little.
“Two members of Marilyn Toller’s family have been, well, murdered in recent months. Under strange circumstances. That’s why Mrs. Toller was concerned. And why we hired you. You have a reputation for, uh—”
“Strange circumstances.” Like vampires, demonic possession, invisible assassins, and the occasional dragon? “Yeah. Well, you’re right. You should have told me.”
“I apologize. And I understand if you don’t agree to this, but Mrs. Toller would like to meet with you tomorrow to discuss the case.”
I stifled a groan. I wanted to finish my beer, maybe drink some of the whiskey that I keep for special occasions and emergencies, and go to bed.
I’m not very brave, but I’m persistent. Some people say stubborn. I looked at Rachel. “Fine. What time and where?”
Marilyn Toller lived in a mansion in Arlington Heights, a posh suburb north of Chicago. Peter Halloway met us at the front door at 11:30 the next morning.
Halloway was tall, balding, and wore thick glasses over big ears. “Mr. Jurgen. Thank you for coming. And you are . . .” He smiled at Rachel.
“This is my associate, Rachel Dunn.” They shook hands. “She also has experience in, uh, strange circumstances.”
“And keeping Tom out of trouble.” Rachel nudged my shoulder as we walked into the front hall. “Sometimes.”
The air smelled of candles and incense. A young girl, 11 or 12 years old, sauntered down the stairs in jeans and a T-shirt. “Hi, Peter.”
“Hi, Janice.” He smiled. “We have to talk to your aunt now, okay?”
“Fine.” She was tying hair back. “I need some breakfast.”
“It’s in the kitchen.”
“Okay.” She headed off down a hallway. “Sorry about Dean.”
“Her niece,” Halloway murmured. “Good kid, though.”
Marilyn Toller waited for us in the dining room. She had long silver hair and wore dark glasses, even though the sky outside was cloudy. Her son had died last night. She nodded silently as Halloway introduced everyone.
Her grandson Allan, in his twenties, looked up from his phone and nodded at me, looking both resentful and nervous. Mrs. Toller’s sister-in-law Emma stared at the table, her arms trembling.
A maid served coffee. Mrs. Toller took her glasses off and rubbed her sleepy red eyes. “Mr. Jurgen. And Rachel? Is that your name? I’m—going to be as brief as I can, and Peter can fill out the details later. Suffice it to say . . .” She took a breath. “My son is dead. I can’t even talk about that right now. But two months ago my brother Brent was murdered in his home. Late at night, alone, the doors were locked—”
“I was out of town.” Emma blinked, her eyes watering. “New York. I should have . . . I don’t know.”
Mrs. Toller patted her hand. “It’s okay, Emma.” She cleared her throat. “The police couldn’t find any evidence of forced entry. Or anything left behind. Brent was—” She glanced at her sister-in-law. “I’ll let Peter fill you in on the details. In any event, three weeks ago my nephew Randall disappeared.”
“Not my son.” Emma spoke quickly. “I mean, it’s horrible enough, but—”
“My sister Angela’s child.” Mrs. Toller sighed. “She died of cancer several years ago. At any rate, Randall was found in a motel on the south side of Chicago, again locked up, no struggle to get in.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Weak words, but all I had. “Did the police make the connection? I’m sure they will now.”
“I’ve communicated with the Chicago police.” Halloway nodded to me. “Last night, as you know, and since then. They’ll be sending detectives up here this afternoon to discuss the case. Because the circumstances are so, uh, mysterious, we wanted to get your take on it first.”
Everyone looked at me. Rachel nudged my leg under the table.
“I’m not sure how much I can contribute.” I sipped some coffee. “The killer—” Mrs. Toller flinched. “I’m sorry. But it was a woman, dressed in black like a stereotypical ninja from the movies. She walked straight through a wall to get into the room where your son was hiding. She . . . she said her name was Asha.” I tried not to shiver. “She let me go.”
Mrs. Toller adjusted her dark glasses on her face. “I’m very glad you’re all right, Mr. Jurgen. Peter? You’ll send him a check with a large bonus right away. Regardless of what we decide today.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Halloway made a note on his phone.
Rachel had pulled her laptop out. “I did a little research. It’s what I do.” She swung the computer around. “The name ‘Asha’ pops up on the internet as a sort of assassin for hire, but it’s not one person. More like a group of them, using the same name.”
I leaned over her shoulder. Mrs. Toller peered at the screen.
ASHA—The Guild of Assassins. A cartoon ninja dominated the top of the page. Drop-down menus were headed “About Us,” “History,” “Warnings,” “Equipment/Gear,” and “Contact Us.”
Allan laughed. Mrs. Toller’s grandson. I’d almost forgotten he was there. “This is bullshit! Do you know how many sites like this there are on the internet?” He held up his phone. “You can find hitmenforhire.com and everything like that in two seconds! These people are scamming you!”
“Allan . . .” Mrs. Toller scowled. “I’m sorry, but—”
“No, he’s right.” Rachel closed the laptop. “Not that we’re scamming you. The ‘Contact Us’ link takes you to a porn site. But Asha is a thing. Whoever, whatever she is, you’d better pay attention to her. And Tom.”
Rachel is so hot when she’s working. But I couldn’t tell her that now. “My best advice is to notify everyone in your family about the danger. Nobody should be alone. That’s going to be difficult, obviously—”
Allan lurched up. “I’ll be in my room. With the door wide open.” He stalked away.
Mrs. Toller and Emma glanced at each other. Then Mrs. Toller stood up. “I’m sorry. I need to rest. Peter? Will you please talk to Mr. Jurgen about—about everything else?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
Everything else? I glanced at Rachel. She nodded, letting me know that she’d picked up more than anyone was saying.
Rachel and I moved into the living room. Broad with a high ceiling, bookcases lined the walls filled with books that looked like they’d actually been read at least once, not purchased from a dealer to make the owner look literary.
Halloway opened a folder filled with the details that Mrs. Toller hadn’t wanted to talk about. “This is about the murders. They were both stabbed to death, but no knife was found at either scene. I have pictures—”
“No thanks.” I’d seen too many crime scenes as a reporter and as a P.I. I hadn’t liked it then, and I hated it now. “I have to ask, though: Why was Dean hiding out? What made him scared?”
Halloway sigh. “I don’t really know. Brent—Mrs. Toller’s brother—did send an email right before he dropped out of sight. He sounded paranoid and confused. He was sure someone was watching him. Dean . . . I just know that Mrs. Toller was concerned. She’s not in good health.”
“Okay.” Maybe that would come up later. “Let’s talk about the money.”
Halloway blinked. “Whatever your rates are, I’m sure—”
Oh hell. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I mean.” I hesitated. But Halloway seemed to know my reputation. “Look, vampires want blood. Zombies want brains. Some people just want their dead children back.” I stifled a shudder at that memory. “But that’s not what these murders are about, right? I imagine Mrs. Toller is at least somewhat wealthy. So who stands to inherit?”
“Sorry.” Halloway opened a new folder. “You’re right. Mrs. Toller’s estate stands at about 20 million dollars. The money is held in a trust. Since her husband Arthur’s death 12 years ago, her brother Brent was the chief beneficiary. They didn’t have children of their own, so there are various codicils spelling out how the funds are to be distributed between her sister and her sister-in-law and nephews and her one niece, Janice. You saw her just now. She’s been living here since Randall’s death. The other one is Elias Knowles, the son of her sister Meghan Milhouse. They live in Michigan, but she’s been out of touch with the family for some years.”
I’m a not hard-boiled detective, but I used to be a crime reporter, and I learned the Woodward and Bernstein rule: Follow the money. So I had to ask the question: “So—and I’m sorry to ask this—if Mrs. Toller died today, where would the money go?”
Halloway flinched. “Uhh . . . well, right now, the majority would mostly go to Meghan, and then to her son Elias, although the other codicils would remain in effect.”
I was going to need a family tree to keep all of this straight. “Have you contacted her?”
“I’ve left messages.”
Damn it. I was going to have to go on a road trip. “Where in Michigan?”
“Uh, Grand Rapids?” He scrawled out an address and phone number on a Post-It note. “Here.”
“Thanks. The other thing . . .” I tried to phrase this diplomatically. “So what’s the problem between Mrs. Toller and her sister Meghan?”
Halloway’s back grew stiff. “I don’t know if I can discuss that. I only hired you—”
“Fine.” I stood up. “Let’s go, Rach.”
“Can we get lunch somewhere?” She straightened her jacket. “I’m starving.”
“Wait! Wait . . . “ Halloway groaned. “All right. Marilyn’s husband Arthur was once married to her sister Meghan. They divorced. What happened . . . I don’t know all the details. Suffice it to say, they’ve been estranged for twenty years.”
Shades of Ross McDonald. Of course, the Lew Archer novels I’d read as a teenager never featured ninjas who could walk through walls.
A maid knocked on the door. “Mr. Halloway? There’s lunch.” She nodded at Rachel and me. “Mrs. Toller says you can stay in you want. Nothing fancy.”
I glanced at Rachel. Her head shook just enough.
I stood up. “If it’s all right, I think we’ll just get going. I’ll be in touch.”
Halloway shook my hand, then Rachel’s. “All we really want is to understand where this . . . the threat is coming from. We don’t expect you to confront it. Mrs. Toller is, well—she may appear calm right now, but she doesn’t need any extra stress.”
I nodded. “Me neither.”
In the car I glanced at Rachel. “Did you get anything?”
She snapped her seatbelt. “There’s something funny going on around there. I don’t know exactly what it is, but there was energy in that house. And it’s . . . struggling.”
I turned the key. “Are they safe?"
Rachel gazed out her window. “I think so. For now.”