Saturday, March 11, 2017

Assassin's Prey, Part Two

Back in my apartment I made myself a sandwich and then called Meghan Knowles’ number. No answer. I left a message.
            Rachel was upstairs, checking her email. So I followed the link she’d sent me to the Guild of Assassins website.
            It looked like a promo for a video game. A couple of cartoon ninjas in black with buttons at the top. I clicked “History.”
Since time immemorial, rulers and merchants and their families have needed assassins. Professionals skilled in the art of death. An assassin moves unseen, leaving no trace. Often their work is undetected. An enemy falls—is it poison or a natural death? A dagger in the night—murder or suicide? Vanishing—is the victim dead, or just missing?
            Assassins serve a just purpose, ridding the world of those who are not worthy to lead. Look at our rich history . . .

The Guild took credit for the death of Alexander the Great, Rasputin, President McKinley, and Steve Jobs. I was surprised David Bowie wasn’t on their list.
But as Allan had shouted at the table, it was all bullshit. Rachel had told me this morning she was going to display the website just to show that Asha had a presence on the internet—that I wasn’t completely making her up. But the website had more.
             A thin black line lay at the bottom of the page. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking closely. But Rachel had spotted it. I clicked.
            A black screen came up. One word: ASHA. And then a password field.
            I stared at the screen. Did I really want to go forward with this? I’d watched Asha—whoever she was—kill a man in front of me. Now I was searching for a killer who could walk through walls and apparently strike anywhere she wanted.
            Of course, I didn’t have a password. Unless . . .
            I called Rachel. “What? I was going to take a bath!”
            At 1:30 in the afternoon? Whatever. “Sorry. Any chance of getting a password for Asha?”
            “What?” I heard water running in the background, but that wasn’t why she was pretending not to hear me. “You really want to meet her?”
            “No, but . . . I have to do something.”
            “Really?” She groaned. “Look, I’m trying not to be one of those girlfriends who’s always telling her hero boyfriend to stop fighting crime and become an accountant or something before they get killed, but . . . your funeral better not be on a Thursday, because I have a pottery class that day.”
            “Today’s Thursday.”
            “I haven’t signed up yet.” Rachel dropped her phone, and the water stopped. “Let me get dressed and I’ll be right down.”
            I tried not to let the image of Rachel naked by the bathtub distract me. Tried and failed. “Uh, take your time.”

Twenty minutes later Rachel was tapping at my computer. She was in a fresh T-shirt and yoga pants. I tried not to stare.
            “I have friends you don’t want to talk to.” She tapped at my keyboard. “This might work. Don’t ask me.”
            The black faded to gray. The word ASHA stayed in the same place on the screen. Beneath it lay another field labeled simply REQUEST.
            “You have some interesting friends.” I tried to keep my fingers from trembling as I typed one word: “Information.”
            Another field opened beneath it: EMAIL.
            I used one of the accounts Rachel helped me set up to send emails at least somewhat anonymously. The screen went to black.
            “So, okay, I guess.” I shrugged. ”You can go back to your bath. Or take one here if you want.”
            “You wish.” She punched my shoulder. “Don’t call me unless it’s an emergency.”
            “Got it.” I switched over to check my email. No response.

So the next morning—Friday—I called Halloway to confirm that he’d pay for my expenses to drive to Michigan.
            I half-wanted him to turn me down. But he said okay, even when I told him I’d be taking Rachel and maybe staying overnight. He sounded nervous, but not because of the expense. “Mrs. Toller is on bed rest. The doctors are concerned, but I think she’s fine. She only wants—yes, Janice, just a moment! She only wants answers. But be careful. If this Asha is real—”
            “I’m a total coward. If anything comes up, I’ll run away and then call you.”
            Rachel met me at my Honda with an overnight bag in her hand. “Road trip! I brought all the CDs we need.”
            “Just help me with the GPS.” I started up, and we were on our way.
            Three hours and four Johnny Cash albums later, I parked half a block down from Meghan Milhouse’s house. “I never knew you liked country music that much.”
            “Johnny Cash isn’t country, he’s classic.” She unbuckled her belt. “Don’t worry. I’ve got lots of Elvis for the trip back.”
            “Can’t wait.” I stretched on the sidewalk and then headed up to the house. I just hoped someone was home.
            The door opened right away. A guy in his thirties in a blue T-shirt and cutoff shorts peered out through the screen door. “If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormons? Sorry.”
I showed him my card. “Elias Knowles? I’m working for your aunt, Marilyn Toller. This is Rachel, my associate, May we come in?”
            Elias peered at the card. “You’ve been sending us all of those emails, right? You and Halloway?” He tossed the card on the floor. “Go to hell.”
            I glanced over my shoulder. But the sun was bright and the front yard was clear. “We need to talk. Really.”
            He looked past me at Rachel. In her leather jacket, tight jeans, and boots.
 “Uh, who are you?”
            “I’m Rachel.” She smiled. “Can we come in?”
            It worked. I tried not to feel too jealous as Elias led us into the kitchen.
“Look, I know Dean is dead.” Elias slumped in a chair. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Mom and Marilyn haven’t talked in years.”
            “I know some of the story.” I sat down. The kitchen smelled like fish and frozen pizza. Rachel perched on a chair next to me.
            “Then you know. . .” He looked up. “Wait a minute. Why should I talk to you at all? I don’t know you.”
            I nodded. “Yeah. So all I can tell you is that I’m working for your family to try and find out what happened to Dean. And Brent. And Randall. You can call Peter Halloway, or your aunt if you want. Mostly I’m just here to warn you that whoever killed them might be after you and your mother next.”
            “What?” Elias jerked his chair back. “That’s crazy.”
            I stifled a laugh. “Sorry. I’ve been accused of being crazy too many times to count.” I leaned forward. “So I don’t know what to tell you. Someone seems to be targeting your family, though, and I’m trying to figure out how to stop her.”
            “Her?” He blinked. “What are you talking about?”
            Oops. “I just mean—I saw the killer two nights ago, and—”
            A voice bellowed from the front door: “You saw who killed Dean?”
            I whirled around. Rachel clutched my arm.
            Meghan Milhouse stood in the kitchen door. She looked like a younger version of her sister Marilyn, her hair shorter and her shoulders tense. She wore a white pantsuit and had a thick briefcase slung over one shoulder.
            She dropped the briefcase on the floor. “Who the hell are you? Elias?”
            “He’s the guy trying to email us!” Elias jumped up. “He’s some private detective from Chicago, he says he’s working for Marilyn—”
            “Get out!” Meghan pointed at the door. “I don’t want to hear from Marilyn! I’m sorry about Dean, and Brent, and . . .” She leaned against the refrigerator. “Oh god. I can’t talk to her.”
            I looked at Rachel. She shrugged. No psychic signals.
            I was on my own. So I stood up. “Ma’am, I’m Tom Jurgen. I am a private detective, like your son said, and I’m investigating the murder of your nephew in Chicago. I only came here to talk.”
            “About what?” Meghan opened the refrigerator and yanked out a bottle of wine. “I sold a house today! I don’t need Marilyn’s money!”
            “Mom . . .” Elias opened a cupboard and pulled out a glass. “Just sit down. Let me help you.”
            Meghan glared at us. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need Marilyn getting into my life.” But she sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. “Why are you here?”
            “You may be in danger.” I sounded like a TV private eye. “It appears that someone is targeting members of your family.”
            “And you’re going to protect us?”
            God, I hoped I wouldn’t have to. “Like I just told your son, I’m basically here to warn you. I’ve seen the killer. And, well, you’re going to find this hard to believe, but she can walk through walls.”
            Meghan Milhouse rolled her eyes. “You’re right. I don’t believe it.”
            I was used to that. “Just be careful. Call me or Peter Halloway if anything . . .”
            I stopped. The same high-pitched hum was shaking the floor. Rachel and I looked at each other.
            I grabbed her arm. “Run.”
            Meghan laughed. “What are you talking about?”
But Elias looked nervous as the hum got louder. “Mom, maybe we should—”
Then the refrigerator door started to shimmer. Just like the dresser in Dean Toller’s hotel room. I pointed. “It’s her. Run!”
Meghan stared as Asha walked into the kitchen, all in black.  
Asha’s eyes zeroed in on me from beneath her hood. “You again.”
I managed a nod, my heart hammering inside my chest as Rachel and I backed away. “Who are you working for?”
She silently drew a knife.
Elias and his mother were already running for the front door. Rachel was there first, holding it open for them. I was behind them—not because I’m brave, but because they looked like they’d run me down if I got in their way.
A knife flashed by my head, close enough to slice some hair off my scalp. I ducked and ran, slamming the door behind me. Maybe going through another barrier would slow Asha down.
Rachel had the Honda’s doors open. I darted around the front and slid into the driver’s seat like I was trying to steal second base. Rachel pushed Meghan and her son into the back seat as I started the engine.
We were racing down the street before Rachel had her door closed. “Slow down, you idiot! You’re not James Bond on the Autobahn!”
No. Daniel Craig wouldn’t worry about soiling his underwear. I tapped the brake, trying to catch my breath. We’d only reached the end of the block. I looked in the rearview mirror.
“No sign of her.” Rachel was twisting around in her seat, trying to buckle in while checking out the house behind us. “Maybe she can’t operate without walls.”
I fastened my own belt. “Everybody okay back there?”
“Where are we going?” Meghan’s face was pale.
I didn’t know. Back to Chicago? Was anyplace safe?
“Uh, Jurgen?” Elias was breathing hard. “I think I’m bleeding.”
I swung my head back as far as I could. Yeah, blood all over the upholstery. Apparently Asha’s blade had caught Elias in the shoulder. Damn it. “Does anyone know where—”
But Rachel had her smartphone out. “Siri, where is the nearest hospital?”

So Asha wasn’t perfect. That was good news.
            And Elias was okay. Aside from some blood loss—and he actually apologized about the blood all over my back seat—Asha’s blade hadn’t done any serious damage. He’d need some rehab for his shoulder, but he’d recover.
            Meghan Milhouse was furious.
            “How could you lead her to my house? What are we going to do now? Can she get in here? How are we going to be safe?” People in the waiting room were staring at us. “This is a nightmare.”
She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, sighed at the inevitable NO SMOKING sign, and put them away. The whole room smelled of lemon-scented air freshener. 
            I glanced at Rachel. “Any ideas?”
            “How should I know?” She was just as shaken as me, but she did a better job of hiding it. “It looks like she can’t go outside, but we can’t all live in the park. And she probably won’t hit a target in a public place. Maybe the family can hang out at the mall.”
            Great. “What about your friend? The one who gave me Asha’s password.”
            She tapped a finger on her knee. “She’s not actually a friend. I’d owe her, and I’m not sure I want to.”
            Meghan looked ready to leap forward and throttle her. “For Christ’s sake, she tried to kill my son! And you’re worried about owing someone a favor?”
            Rachel’s worst glares can melt glass. “You don’t know what kind of favors she asks.”
            Before I could warn Meghan to back off for her own safety, Elias walked slowly into the waiting area, his left arm in a sling. “Hi, mom. They gave me some . . . “ He grabbed a chair, his legs shaking. “Some painkillers. Can we get out of here?”
            Meghan jumped up and grabbed him in a hug. Rachel and I went out to the hall to give them some privacy.
            Rachel sighed. “I can try. At least I can find out if she’s going to ask for my soul or anything.”
            “Don’t do that.” I grasped her hand. “I’m thinking about taking a pottery class.”
            I expected Rachel to punch me. Instead she laughed. “Don’t worry, asshole. We’re not getting rid of each other that easy.”
            My phone buzzed. Halloway. “I got your message. What’s going on?”
I leaned against a wall, suddenly tired. Driving all morning, plus the terror of another attack. “So the assassin tried to kill Mrs. Toller’s nephew Elias. He’s wounded, but he’s okay. Meghan Milhouse is pissed. And we don’t know where to go.”
            “Bring them here. We’ll protect them. Mrs. Toller has hired security guards. You’ll be safe.”
            I doubted that. But I didn’t have a better option. “I’ll see if I can talk them into it.”

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