Saturday, July 8, 2017
Carole Mann and Nic Reitner walked down the street, holding hands in the moonlight. The second date was going well.
“We could watch a movie at my place.” Nic squeezed Carole’s hand. “Or is that too fast?”
“I’d like that.” She reached for her phone. “Let me just call my roommate. Let her know I might be late.”
Late? Nick grinned.
A dog barked. Nic tensed and glanced over his shoulder.
“You okay?” Carole looked around.
“I’m fine. There’s just some wild dogs running around here lately.” Nic peered down the street. “People just let them out, I guess. Idiots. I’ll walk you back to your car later if you want.”
Later? Carole stifled a giggle as she pressed buttons on her phone. “Give me a minute. Hi, Becca? It’s me. I might not be home until . . .” She glanced at Nic. “Late.”
Nic reached for her hand.
Then the beast sprang out.
It had a long snout, yellow teeth, red eyes. It reared on its hind legs and lunged forward, snarling with rage.
Nic pushed Carole back. “Wait—hold on—”
The creature pounced, its jaws wide. Nic fell back, his skull slamming against the sidewalk. He lifted his arms, desperately trying to push the beast off of his body. No, no, no . . .
Carole dropped to her knees on the lawn and shouted into her phone. “Becca! Call 911! Call somebody! Call—”
“They don’t believe me.” Carole Mann sat at my dining room table with her roommate Becca, trying not to cry. “It wasn’t a gangbanger. It wasn’t a coyote. It was a monster. And it killed him and then it ran away.”
I nodded. “I’m very sorry.”
Becca looked skeptical. But she seemed willing to listen to whatever Carole had to say. “The police aren’t doing anything. Nic’s parents are willing to help pay your fee. But can you do anything?”
I looked at my coffee. “I can’t make any promises. But I have some experience with—unusual cases.”
Yeah, that’s me. Tom Jurgen. Vampires, zombies, demons? I’m your guy. I used to be a reporter. Now I’m a private detective. And I get more calls about monsters than I do for cheating spouses and workers comp fraud.
It’s a niche, I guess. Not one that I like, but it keeps me in Cheetos and beer.
I looked at my laptop. “I have some resources the police don’t have. But I can’t make any guarantees. There’s not much to go on.”
“I’ve got this.” Carole brought up her phone.
I peered at the image. Shaky, blurred, but it did seem to show a creature with blood dripping from long fangs. A second photo showed it running away, head down, butt high.
The third image had her second-date boyfriend on the sidewalk, his face ripped apart and his stomach bleeding.
“It was just a date. A second date.” She set the phone down. “It was going pretty good, and then . . .”
“Okay.” I didn’t want her to start crying again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Carole pulled out a checkbook. “Tell me how much.”
So I started by checking the media reports.
Local papers had covered the story, describing the creature in vague terms. None of them mentioned the beast lunging forward on two legs. The police described the thing as an animal, possibly a wolf or a coyote that had strayed into the city. Carole Mann wasn’t quoted, but some of the neighbors were. They reported hearing growls and screams, and one of them had seen the creature fleeing into the darkness on four legs.
Then I called the Chicago Police Department.
“Jurgen?” Detective Hawkins barked through the phone. He was one detective who’d still speak to me. “I’ve got a drive-by shooting and an old man dead in his house, so I don’t have time for a magical mystery tour. What the hell do you want?”
“Nic Reitner.” I checked the address of the killing on my laptop. “Killed two nights ago on a date. What can you tell me?”
“I don’t have to tell you anything, asshole.” But I heard him tapping keys. We weren’t friends by any definition of the word, but we’d worked together fighting vampires before the recent truce.
“Hang on. Here it is.” Hawkins snorted. “Reiter. Killed by a dog or a coyote. Witness was a girlfriend, panicked. Unreliable. What is it with you and dogs, anyway?”
I’d met Hawkins a few years ago, on a case involving dogs from another dimension. Yeah, I know how that sounds. I’ve been nervous around dogs ever since.
I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anything useful. Cops tend to tag witnesses as “unreliable” if they can’t immediately arrest a suspect. “I’m more into goldfish now. Thanks for your help, detective.”
“Anytime. Wait—No, I mean never again.” He laughed. “Good hunting, asshole.”
“Same to you.” I hung up.
So now I had nothing left to do but check out the neighborhood.
I parked my Honda a block away from the site of the killing.
The afternoon was warm and sunny. I rang the bell at the house nearest the scene of Reitner’s death. After thirty seconds a young African-American woman in jeans and a sweater looked through the screen door suspiciously. “Yes?”
“Hi.” I held up my card. “My Name’s Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s about the, uh, the killing that took place outside—”
“Oh god.” She seemed ready to burst into tears. “I heard it—the man screaming, I mean. I didn’t see anything. I called 911 right away.”
I nodded. “The girlfriend described something like a large dog leaping up on its back legs. Have you seen anything like that around the neighborhood?”
She glanced down at the door handle, as if wondering whether she should lock it against the crazy guy on her porch. “No. I mean, there are a lot of dogs. The people next door have a poodle. But it’s not like we have coyotes on the streets after dark. Even so . . .” She glanced past me, down at the sidewalk. “I’m not letting my kids out after dark for a while.”
That sounded smart. “Could I leave my card? In case you see or think of anything?”
She opened the door just wide enough to snatch my business card from my fingers. “Is there a lawsuit or something?”
“Not that I know of. The girlfriend is just looking for some answers.”
She closed the door with a shudder.
I knocked and rang all the houses up and down the block. The life of a private detective isn’t always so exciting. About half the houses were empty—or at least no one wanted to answer. Most of the folks I did talk to her were reasonably polite, although no one knew more than the first woman did.
No strange dogs, no weird occurrences, nothing. One old man did complain about raccoons in his garbage cans, and a teenaged boy offered to sell me some weed, but I came up with nothing pertinent until I got to the second to last house, down on the corner.
A middle-aged woman talked to me through her screen door, like most of the others. She didn’t know anything about the killing, but when I asked her about dogs, she shook her head. “Just a few. There’s a cute little beagle someone walks in the morning, and someone has a poodle. And then there’s that animal clinic a few blocks away on Ventnor.”
“Animal clinic?” That sounded interesting.
She pointed. “Ventnor.”
I left my card. “Thank you.”
Back in my Honda I called Rachel. She’s my girlfriend, my upstairs neighbor, and sort of psychic. She also helps me out with my cases. I’d told her about Carole Mann and Nic Reiter. I like to check in with her whenever I’m out. Mostly so she has a starting place to look if I don’t come home.
“What is it? I’m working here.” Rachel’s a graphic designer when she’s not helping me with my cases. “Sons of bitches keep changing the copy on this brochure. I swear, the next speaker bio they send me is going to read, ‘Ray Headshot is an annoying asshole who can’t make up his mind about anything.’ What’s going on?”
“I’ve been knocking on doors all afternoon. I just needed a break.”
“Oh, right. The second date murder? How’s that going?”
“Well, a blonde woman answered the door in her panties and asked if I could fix her sink. The rest is confidential.”
Snort. “Riiight. You home for dinner? I’ve got tofu.” Rachel’s a vegetarian.
I looked through the windshield. I was tired and hungry. “I have to check out an animal clinic on Ventnor. If I’m not home by 8:00, it’s probably because I went back to fix someone’s sink.”
Rachel grunted. “Fine. I’ll save some tofu to throw in your face.”
I drove around a few blocks before finding Ventnor Avenue. The north side of the street was lined with shops, a diner, a bar, and a tattoo parlor. I spotted the clinic as I turned a corner.
MURROW CLINIC. A low gray building on the corner next to a fish taco restaurant. I parked half a block away and tried to ignore the steaming aroma of fried shrimp as I walked to the front door. I was hungry, and all I had waiting for me was tofu.
The front door had clear windows reinforced with dark wire. It slid open automatically, but inside I had to press a buzzer to get through a second door.
In the waiting room a young man whispered words of comfort to a cat meowing in a carrying case. A big dog sat on its haunches like a soldier at attention as a middle-aged woman leafed through a magazine.
A heavyset woman with long white hair sat behind a counter.
I pulled out a card. “Hi. Tom Jurgen. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m a private detective—”
She looked up. “Do you have a pet that needs attention?”
“Uh, no.” I held out my card. “I’m just looking into a killing a few blocks away. It might have been a dog or a coyote or something else—”
“Take a seat.” She punched a button on her phone. “Mr. Montgomery? When you have a minute . . .”
I sat down next to the young man with the meowing cat. “He’s a good doctor, right?” I asked.
The man didn’t answer. He was too busy shushing his cat.
The older woman leaned over my shoulder. “Dr. Murrow is the best. I’ve lived here for 20 years. No one takes better care of Goliath.”
A young woman in a white lab coat opened the door. “Cleo?”
The young man stood up, hoisting his case. “It’ll be all right, baby.”
“Come on in.” She held the door. The cat meowed as the carrying case shook.
Before the door could close a man looked out. My age—mid 40s—with a thin beard and slender arms. “Mr., uh, Jurgen? I’m Montgomery. Dr. Murrow’s business manager.”
He led me into a small office of walls lined with books and pictures of animals. “What’s this about?”
I tried to choose my words carefully. “A man was killed a few blocks away by a strange dog-like creature. I’m just scouting around. Maybe you’ve seen something like that?”
Montgomery’s eyebrow twitched. “That’s not much to go on. But we don’t have anything to do with it. I can tell you that.”
I shrugged. “I know. I just thought you see a lot of animals in here.”
“Of course. Dr. Murrow is a very experienced veterinarian. But nothing like this monster you described.”
I hadn’t described anything. But I stood up and dropped a card on his desk. “Well, thanks for your help. I can find my way out.”
He followed me anyway, probably to make sure I didn’t ask any more questions.
I didn’t. I got in my Honda and drove home. The sun was going down.
Back in my apartment I did a quick preliminary search into the Murrow Clinic. Dr. Benjamin Murrow, D.V.M, had graduated from the Rossum College School of Veterinary Medicine in Vermont in 1998. The website included a list of places he’d worked, but there was a gap between 2012 and 2015.
I dug a little deeper, and found something interesting: In 2014, animal rights activists had broken into an animal testing clinic run by a cosmetics company and freed a few dozen dogs. A newspaper article quoted a Dr. Ben Murrow calling the break-in a “terrorist act” and complaining that a gang of thugs had interrupted important research.
Murrow opened his clinic in Chicago the next year.
James Montgomery was indeed listed as “Business Manager,” and the staff list included two other vets and six assistants. Its hours were 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. It offered care for dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, and other household pets.
No complaints had been lodged against the clinic. It paid its taxes and contributed to the local chamber of commerce.
Rachel called. “I burned the tofu, so I’m making ravioli. Want some?”
We don’t live together or eat together all the time, but we did cook for each other once or twice a week. “Darn. I was looking forward to tofu.”
“Liar. Fifteen minutes.”
My phone buzzed while I was walking up the stairs. Hawkins. “Am I in trouble again?”
“When are you out of it? There’s another killing like the one you were asking me about. Some animals on two hind legs, according to witnesses.”
Oh hell. “Where? When?”
“Half an hour, 45 minutes ago? About six blocks further west from, who was it, Reitner?”
“Who’s got it? You?”
Great. Detective Mario Beach hated me even more than Hawkins did. “Okay. Thanks for the heads up.”
“Don’t mention it. I mean that.”
I let myself in to Rachel’s apartment. We share keys.
“Hi!” Rachel set plates on the table. She’s got hazelnut eyes and red hair, and she was wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt from a band called Tricky Pixie. “I lied. It’s tofu. Sit down. Eat.”
I sighed. “Fine. Just bring me lots of ketchup.”
“Jerk.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
I tried to find reports of the new killing on my phone, but it was apparently too recent for the media to pick up. I looked at Beach’s number on my contacts list. With a deep breath, I pressed “call.”
“Jurgen? What the hell?” Beach was annoyed. “I’m kind of busy here.”
“Another animal killing, right?”
“Not your business. Hey, get out of the way there!”
“It is my business. I was hired about the killing a few nights ago—”
“I don’t care! I hope you get paid for it, but stop bothering me when I’m working!”
“Wait!” I pushed the phone to my mouth. “The Murrow Clinic. It’s an animal hospital. You should check it out. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake . . .” Beach groaned. “Fine. Don’t call me again.”
Rachel came out two beers and a bottle of ketchup. “What’s going on?”
I slurped my beer and told her about the latest killing. “I don’t know the details. Yet. Beach isn’t likely to talk to me. But . . . I don’t know.” I shook my head. “I’m hungry for whatever”
She patted my arm. “Coming up.”
Rachel listened as I told her about the Murrow Clinic. “I don’t have any evidence. But something about Montgomery makes me suspicious.”
“You want to go check it out tomorrow?” She spooned more tofu onto my plate. “I can borrow a cat or something.”
“Tonight. I just want to watch it for a while.” I finished my beer. “Good tofu, by the way.” This one had scallions, broccoli, carrots, and a special sauce. I tried not to eat too fast.
Rachel kicked my leg under the table. “You’re not going without me.”
We’d had this argument before. Too many times. “Fine. It’s not going to be very exciting.” But maybe she could pick something up. Like I said, Rachel’s kind of psychic
“Great.” She hopped up. “You do the dishes. I have to change.”
“Did Sam Spade do the dishes?” I picked up my beer.
“He would have done better with a hot girlfriend.” Rachel headed for her bedroom. “Don’t forget the wok!”
A tall wire fence surrounded the yard at the rear of Murrow’s clinic. A few small dogs wandered around, rolling in the dirt, playing with each other, and sipping water from troughs near the door. I could see security cameras on the top of the building.
Rachel leaned forward. “They’re hungry. That’s all.”
I killed my headlights. “Let’s wait.”
“You’re not going to ask me to make out with you to pretend we’re not watching this place, right?” Rachel jabbed my ribs. “Not that I’m against making out with you, but . . .”
Nice idea. “Actually, could you open the glove compartment and hand me that pack of cigarettes?”
“What? You smoke?” She tossed the pack of Winstons at my chest. “I’m breaking up with you right now.”
The cigarettes were at least three years old. I hit the window button. “Smoking gives you an excuse to hang around a building. There should be a lighter in there.”
Yeah, I used to smoke. I was a reporter in my twenties. It took me years to quit. Fortunately the cigarette was so stale I wasn’t even tempted to inhale.
A door inside the fence opened. A man in a long black coat came out, clapping his hands. “Who’s hungry? Who’s hungry, huh?”
The dogs rushed toward him, barking and jumping. The man poured food into dishes. He looked up through the fence at the car. Then he turned and went back inside.
Rachel shook her head. “They’re all happy here. They like that guy.”
“Because he’s feeding them?” I threw the cigarette out the window and started the car. “Let’s go.”
“Wait!” Rachel pointed.
I was at the corner, ready to head home. “What?”
“There.” She jabbed her finger.
I peered through the windshield. On the opposite side of the street stood a three-story storage facility. An orange sign on the top story read CLOSED. A heavy corrugated door hung down over the garage entrance. Next to it another red CLOSED sign was pasted to a doorway.
“There’s something inside there.” Rachel closed her eyes. “They’re in pain.”
What the hell? I glanced in my mirror at the back of the clinic, then rolled forward and parked in the building’s loading zone.
I opened the door. Rachel grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?”
“Having a cigarette.”
I stepped out, lighting up and trying not to cough. Unlike the rear of clinic, the facility didn’t seem to have any cameras watching. I walked over to the door and leaned back on the wall. Rachel glared at me through her window.
I tilted my head back, close to the door. Listening. Was a dog barking inside?
I could go home now. Call Beach. He wouldn’t listen. But I’d be home. And safe.
But two people were dead. I’m not brave. But you can’t be a reporter or a private detective without being curious enough to ask more questions. Even when they’re dangerous.
So I let my elbow slip down to press the button next to the door.
Rachel reared up, waving her arms. I could read her lips. Mostly they said Crazy? And Jerk!
I waved back, hoping she’d take my hint to duck down. Then the door opened behind me.
It was Montgomery. “You . . . what are you doing here?”
“Just having a cigarette before I go home.” I dropped it on the pavement and stomped it out. “I was just walking the neighborhood. You know, there was another killing tonight.”
Montgomery peered up and down the street. But my Honda’s lights were off, and Rachel was hiding.
He grabbed my arm. “You want to see what’s going on? Come on in.”
Oh hell. I looked past him at the open door. “What’s inside?”
Montgomery grinned. “You’ll see.”
Montgomery slammed and locked the door behind me.
Long fluorescent lights glowed from the ceiling. All the storage lockers I could see were empty.
I reached into my pocket. “I have to call someone.”
He swung around. “Fine. Make it quick.”
I called Rachel. Out in my car. “I’m going to be late for dinner. Save me some tofu.”
“Jerk.” I could almost feel her kick. “Call me again.”
“Sure thing. Love you.” I dropped the phone in my jacket pocket. But I didn’t hang up. I hoped she’d be able to hear me yell for help. “My girlfriend, you know. I’ll have to call her back.”
Montgomery nodded. “Fine. This way.”
He led me to a wide freight elevator. Inside he pushed the button for the second level. The elevator lurched before rising, and shook as the doors open.
“You have to understand something.” Montgomery led me through another row of lockers, all empty like the ones below. The lights overhead were dimmer up here. “Dr. Murrow is a genius. Most people don’t understand him. But his work here is crucial. To the race. The human race.”
Oh god. I wanted to run. “What’s going on here?”
“Here.” He stopped at a door in the corner of the building. “Give me a minute.”
The door was thick. Montgomery knocked hard.
After a moment the door opened. “Yes?”
“This is Tom Jurgen. The private detective I told you about?”
“Oh.” The man looked me over, then glanced over his shoulder, stripping off a pair of surgical gloves. “Adrian, finish that up, can you?”
“Sure thing, Dr. Murrow.” The guy sounded young and eager. I didn’t get a good look at him. But I could hear something moaning in the room before Murrow closed the door.
He looked at me. “I’m Dr. Benjamin Murrow. And you are . . .?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I held out a card.
Murrow was tall, with gray hair and wide sideburns. He looked like he could lead an African safari, kill a wild boar with a crossbow, dress it out with a Bowie knife, and then roast it over a fire built with a single match.
“Mr. Jurgen.” Murrow glanced at my card and then dropped it on the floor. “Montgomery, why is he here?”
Montgomery’s eyebrow twitched. “He’s asking questions. About Lotus.”
Murrow blinked. “Go check on him. Come on, Mr. Jurgen.”
Montgomery scurried away. Murrow led me down a row of empty lockers to
another corner office. He unlocked the door and switched on a light.
Murrow sat behind a square metal desk, opened a drawer, and pulled up a bottle of whiskey and two dirty glasses. “I’m having a drink. Would you like one?”
I don’t drink liquor very much, but accepting seemed like a way to build some kind of rapport. “Sure.”
Murrow poured. “Who are you?”
“I’m a private detective.” I choked down a sip. “A man was killed a few nights ago by a dog walking on two legs. Someone else was killed tonight near here by something else like that. I was hired by a friend of the first victim.”
“And you think it has something to do with my clinic?”
I gestured at the office and the warehouse beyond. “What do you do at this clinic?”
He swallowed his whiskey. “My work here is very experimental. It would be very controversial. And I’ve suffered from controversy. And worse.”
“You worked in animal testing.”
“To help people.” He poured himself another drink. “And to help animals too. Help them grow and evolve into something better.”
“More intelligent. More like humans. Maybe more than human.” He smiled. “I sound like a mad scientist, right?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t met that many.”
Murrow frowned. “I’m trying to make things better. For everyone. But people don’t understand that. If they just knew—”
Montgomery opened the door. “Dr. Murrow? You’d better get up there.”
Murrow stood. I stood up too. But Montgomery shook his head. “Not you.”
I sat. “That’s okay. I’ll wait.”
Montgomery was so agitated that he didn’t realize that leaving a private detective in his boss’s office might not be the best idea. And Murrow seemed to be in a hurry.
So they left me alone, the door half open.
I fished the phone from my pocket. “Rachel, are you getting anything from this?” No response. “Hello?”
The signal was blocked now. Great.
I thought about leaving. But what kind of detective would I be if I bolted at the first sign of trouble? A living, breathing one, sure, and I won’t say that’s overrated. But what kind of detective would I be if I didn’t follow my curiosity? Living, breathing, and probably unemployed.
So I sat behind Murrow’s desk and tapped a key on his computer. It was password protected. Of course. I started opening drawers.
Nothing except a spare necktie, a bag of almonds and a box of Band-Aids. I might need those later.
I tried my phone again. Still nothing. I stood up to take a look at the books on his shelf—
And something ran past the door.
I turned. What the hell? It was too fast to be Montgomery or Murrow. And although I didn’t see it, I caught the distinct impression than it was scurrying on all fours.
I leaned out the door. Nothing.
But I heard noises above me. Shouting. Pounding. And howling.
The hell with curiosity. I was getting out.
Then Montgomery ran from a stairwell door. “Get out!” he yelled. “Get out!”
He darted toward me, then stopped, his face sweating. I swung a look over my shoulder.
An animal was lunging toward us. It loped on two legs, eyes gleaming in its small skull, sharp teeth hanging from its jaws.
Then another creature pushed through the stairwell door. This was bigger, thicker, more like a chimpanzee on steroids. It howled and rushed down the hall after Montgomery.
I ducked back into the office, and Montgomery made it inside just before I slammed and locked the door.
Just a doorknob lock. The door wouldn’t hold against a heavy assault.
Montgomery sank into the chair I’d been sitting in a few minutes ago. “Oh shit,” he breathed, his head in his hands. “Oh shit, oh shit . . .”
I pulled on one arm. “What the hell is going on?”
“They’re loose.” He leaned forward to grab the whiskey. “Lotus stole my keys a few days ago. He gave them back when I asked, but he must have—” He gulped a drink.
Montgomery set the bottle down, his hand shaking. “He killed Dr. Murrow.”
Something banged at the door. It shook on the frame.
I’m not a violent person, not even when I’m scared. And I’m scared a lot. Right now, especially. But I clamped a hand on Montgomery’s wrist and squeezed. “Is this what I think it is?”
Montgomery nodded. “He’s turning animals into . . . something different. Human hybrids. Surgery and—and human DNA. The first ones didn’t live long. But the second and third batches started showing signs of intelligence. Low-level IQ. After we disposed of those—”
“Disposed?” I eat hamburgers and steaks as often as I can withstand Rachel’s withering glare, but I like dogs and cats and other animals too. “You just exterminated them?”
“After—after extracting the relevant tissues and DNA samples. The next generation . . .” He shuddered. “It’s upstairs. On the third floor.”
The door thundered again.
“And Murrow is dead?” My stomach felt like a deep pit of fear.
“I don’t know. They were beating him. Tearing at him. I ran. I just ran . . .” He drained half the bottle.
I yanked the whiskey away from him and sat down behind Murrow’s desk. “What’s his password?” If I could send an email to Rachel’s phone—
The door cracked. Another blow broke a gash in it, and then a hairy arm reached through and grabbed the doorknob. Twisted it back and forth.
Then the door burst open.
Drool dripped down the creature’s long chin as it stepped through the ruined doorway. It dropped down on its front paws for a moment, then reared up, running its long red tongue over its teeth.
“Monty . . .” Its voice was hoarse and low. “Monty come.”
“Lotus.” Montgomery held his arms up. “We’ve always been friends, right? I fed you, I gave you water, I let you walk around—”
The creature had long sharp claws. It slashed them across Montgomery’s face. Montgomery screamed, clutching his cheek, blood dripping down onto his shirt. “No. No. Please, no . . .”
Then Lotus looked at me. “Who? You?”
Who, me? I sat back. “T-tom. Tom Jurgen. Private investigator. I’ll just be going now—”
“Tom. Come.” Lotus looked back into the hall and barked words I didn’t understand. But he grabbed Montgomery’s shoulders and hauled him through the door.
Then the other creature darted in. It looked like an oversized puma, stretched out and slender. Feminine, but still dangerous.
I staggered around the desk. “No need to hurt me. I’m coming.”
A chuckling sound from the puma’s throat made me want to run. But I had nowhere to go. It grabbed my arm and pulled me through the door.
The third floor of the warehouse smelled like the zookeepers had gone on strike. That wasn’t as bad as the noise, though—creatures howling, roaring, screeching and jumping around like teenagers at a rave party.
Lotus shoved Montgomery onto the floor. “Stay. Stay!” He laughed like a hyena.
I watched Montgomery crawl across the floor. Murrow sat against a locker door, blood soaking his chest. Still breathing.
So, not dead. Not yet. But he didn’t look too good. He leaned against Montgomery’s shoulder, gasping.
The puma shoved me to the ground next to them, snarling. “Tom. Tom?”
I tried to sit. “Yeah, that’s me. Tom. What’s your name?”
He, or she, or it seemed confused. As if nobody had ever asked that basic question. “Twillith. I am four gen. The best.”
I nodded. “I can see that.”
Montgomery pulled on my arm. “Don’t talk to them.”
“Shut up.” I didn’t want to hear from him anymore. The animals were dancing around—a potbelly pig on thick legs, a goat with twisted horns on two unsteady feet, and a red fox, darting in zigzags around the room.
Two wolf-like creatures circled each other, barking, until the bigger wolf darted forward to bite an ear. The smaller wolf laughed—a human laugh, tinkling like a song—and then they rushed at each other. They wrestled around on the hard concrete floor, and then the larger wolf mounted the other one from behind. “Yah . . . yah!”
“Yah!” The smaller wolf shuddered. “Yah . . . yah . . .”
Lotus—the big creature—barked. Abruptly the shouting and howling died. Even the two wolves slowed their mating. They sank down on the floor, breathing hard.
Lotus stalked toward us. His face was covered with dark hair, but his eyes were bright as stars. He planted one fist on the floor and reared up on his back legs.
“What is the rule?” His voice was clear.
Silence. All the animals were gazing at us.
Murrow lurched up. “Obey. The rule is—”
“Obey.” Lotus slapped a thick hand across Murrow’s face. “What is the second rule?”
“Stand on two legs.” Murrow lurched up. “I taught you that. Eat your feed. What we give to you. I fed you. Stay in your pens. That’s for your safety . . .”
The animals around us growled.
“Third rule!” Lotus lifted his arms. “Quiet!”
Silence. The creatures shifted, murmuring impatiently.
Lotus crouched in front of Murrow. “What is the rule?”
Murrow wrapped an arm around the wound in his chest. “Obey! That is the rule!”
Lotus reached out, grasping Murrow’s neck. “Obey.” His fingers tightened around Murrow’s throat.
“No . . . no . . .” Murrow’s voice shuddered. “Help me . . .”
“Don’t kill him!” Montgomery kicked the floor, watching Murrow gasp for breath. “We’ll help you! We’ll do things different! Tell us what you want!”
The pig-man darted forward. Montgomery screamed as it chomped on his leg. Lotus pushed it back, scowling, but the pig scampered back into a corner and chewed on the fresh flesh it had ripped from Montgomery’s leg.
“Lotus . . .” Murrow coughed, fighting for air. “I only wanted to help you. Lift you up. Can’t you understand that?”
Lotus growled. “No. Never say no. That is a rule. But I say no. No!”
Then Lotus pounded Murrow’s head on the floor, over and over again until blood gushed across the concrete.
I looked away.
The animals behind him jumped up and down, barking and growling and howling in bloodthirsty glee. The pig-man rolled on its back, an ugly chortling noise rising from its throat. The two wolves rushed at each other, laughing. The goat danced in a circle, throwing its head up and down as its hooves slipped along the floor.
Only Twillith, the puma, stood silently. But even she licked her lower jaw at the sight of Murrow’s blood spilling from his broken skull.
Lotus reared up and roared. “Murrow! Murrow! Murrow!”
I looked at Montgomery. His eyes were closed, his face pale as a shroud while blood dripped from the gash in his leg.
I tried to concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply. I’ve faced vampires, demons, and dragons, and somehow I’ve always managed to get out alive. So far. But this felt like the time I wouldn’t get lucky.
Rachel was going to be so mad at me.
Montgomery’s question was right, though: What did they want? They hadn’t asked to be born, vivisected, experimented on, and then locked up in cages.
But what could I offer them? They couldn’t run wild on the streets. Vampires were bad enough, but at least they slept during the day and kept a low profile at night. The creatures here couldn’t be controlled. They’d been brutalized too long, like pit bulls trained only to fight. The pig-man had already tasted blood.
And Lotus had killed Nic.
But I had to do something. Say something. If I was going to die—and I really didn’t want to—I wasn’t going to go without talking one last time.
“Lotus?” I lifted my voice. “Lotus!”
Twillith heard me. Her upper lip curled in a snarl. The rest of Murrow’s animals kept dancing and howling until Lotus whirled around, saw my mouth move, and then suddenly sank down on his haunches, licking his lips. “Speak. Speak!”
The animals went silent. Except for the two horny wolves, growling at each other in a corner.
Now what? I coughed, wishing for a sip of water. Or one last beer. “You don’t have to kill us.”
Lotus laughed. “Why?”
Montgomery groaned. “Don’t. Please don’t.”
I struggled to sit up. “You can be better. Better than them. Run. Far away. Outside. Get away. Live. Leave us. But live. You can do it. Be better.”
Lotus leaned forward. I flinched as he grabbed my neck and yanked me close, peering into my face. His eyes glowed like red stars at twilight.
“Tom.” His voice was low.
“T-tom.” I couldn’t nod. I couldn’t even breathe.
Then Twillith was behind him, her eyes gleaming. She crouched and planted a paw on Lotus’ shoulder.
“Run away,” she whispered. “We run away.”
Lotus grunted. I closed my eyes and wondered how much this would hurt. Maybe if it was over fast—
Then Lotus stood up and raised his arms, his mouth split in a demonic grin.
“Yes!” His voice was a roar. “Run away! Run!”
I looked up at Twillith and tried to smile. “Run,” I murmured. “Run fast.”
The puma nodded silently. “Yes.”
Then the lights went out.
And the shooting began.
I sat in the Honda with the door open, staring at a cup of coffee that someone had given me. Rachel sat next to me.
“This guy named Adrian ran out the front door.” She ran a hand through her hair. “He sounded—crazy. And I couldn’t call you. So I called the cops. Was that all right?”
Adrian. Some guy working with Murrow on an experiment. I’d forgotten all about him. I sipped the coffee. “You did the right thing. Thank you.”
“I didn’t think they’d send a whole SWAT team, but when Adrian started talking—I mean, the patrol guy listened, and then there was all this shouting and howling from the top floor, and they decided to call in the cavalry. What the hell happened in there?”
I closed my eyes. I’d almost had it under control. Murrow’s creatures could have escaped, run away. Even Lotus, who’d killed two humans. And Twillith. She’d tried to help me, in her way.
But the cops had killed the lights and come in with night goggles, firing at everything that moved. I hit the floor, hands over my head, heart pounding, more afraid of dying than I’d been with Lotus’ hand around my neck. Screams, howls, and gunfire burned my ears.
I heard Lotus roaring and Montgomery cursing. A hoof pounded my arm as the goat tried to flee from the bullets. Sparks flew as bullets ricocheted off the cages. The pig-man screamed.
I lay on the floor until the lights came back on. I stayed there until I was sure the shooting was over, and then I lifted one hand. “Hello? Don’t shoot. Harmless.”
The cops yanked me up, asked me a few questions, then took me downstairs.
Montgomery was dead. All the animals were dead. Murrow . . . I saw a body bag being carted into an ambulance.
Damn it. I sipped some more coffee. But right now I wanted some more of Murrow’s whiskey. “He was . . . trying to build human-animal hybrids. That’s what killed Nic. His name was Lotus. He was—they were . . .”
I dropped the coffee outside the door. “Goddamn it.”
Rachel patted my arm. “I’ll get you another coffee. There’s an all-night place around the corner.”
I wiped my eyes. “That’s not what I meant. But—okay, fine.”
Just then a big cop in body armor marched to my door. “Mr. Jurgen? If you’re all right, we’d like for you to come down and make a statement.”
“Sure.” I stood up. “Rachel, can you drive? I think—”
Across the street, in the alley, something flickered. Two eyes. I leaned against the car. “Give me a minute, all right?”
“Just follow that vehicle.” The cop pointed to a flashing van.
I narrowed my eyes. Was it—? Not Lotus. Too tall, too slender.
Twillith raised a hand. Her jaw dropped, flashing her teeth. Then she turned and ran down the alley.
“Run, puma.” My throat felt raw and hoarse. “Just—run.”
# # #
[Author’s note: Knowledgeable readers will recognize this as an homage to the classic H.G. Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Go read it. And watch out for strange animals in the night.]