Randall Russo was dying.
“Uncle Rand?” Andy Russo buttoned his uncle’s sweater and pulled a thick gray blanket up over his shoulders. “This is Tom Jurgen. The private detective.”
“Mr. Jurgen.” Russo’s lips curled in a crooked smile. “Excuse me for not rising.”
I nodded, nervous. “Hello, Mr. Russo. So what can I do for you?”
“Andrew? You explain.” He wrapped his arms around his shrunken chest and closed his eyes.
Andy took me into the small apartment’s kitchen. Dirty dishes and empty fast food containers littered the sink and the counter. He poured me a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. “It’s cancer.”
“I’m sorry.” It sounded lame, but that was all I could think of.
He sighed. “He’s 91 years old.” He blew his smoke up toward the fan on the ceiling, twirling slowly under the lights. “I got your name from a friend. Diane Ness?”
“Sure.” I’d helped her a few months ago. She’d thought her ex-boyfriend was trying to scare her. Instead, the ghost of her jealous first husband had been trying to kill her.
These are the kinds of cases I get, aside from the usual cheating spouses and workers comp fraud—magic, the supernatural, demons, vampires and the like.
Who you gonna call? Apparently me.
“So what can I do for you?” I asked again.
He sighed. “I have to stay with my uncle. I need you to take something down to Urbana by midnight.”
I looked up at the wide clock hanging over the door. 7:30. Urbana was about 120 miles or so southwest of Chicago. I could make the drive by midnight easily. “What is it?”
Andy dropped his cigarette in an ashtray stuffed with dead butts. “Here.”
He led me across the narrow hall into a cramped bedroom that smelled like faded flowers. Bending down, he reached under the four-poster bed and pulled a metal box across the floor. He paused to wipe a hand over his forehead.
I leaned against the door frame. “What’s that?”
“Just a minute.” Grunting, he bent down and grasped two handles mounted on the sides of the box. Gasping, he lifted it up and then dropped it onto the bed.
The mattress sagged. “Okay. Here it is.”
The box was dull gray, with symbols engraved on the top in a language I didn’t recognize. “What’s in there? I can’t take anything illegal.”
“It’s not illegal.” He flipped a latch and opened it. Inside was a leather-bound book with a picture of a dragon on the cover.
I opened it up and flipped through the pages, making sure nothing was hidden between them—drugs, daggers, tiny little dragons ready to spring forth and burn the world. But it was a complete book, filled with the same strange language from the lid. Or maybe a different one. I’m a detective, not a linguist.
I closed the book. “That’s it?”
Andy latched the box again. “It moves between members of my family. My aunt—my father’s sister—is next in line. Maybe someday I’ll be stuck with it.” He patted his pockets, looking for his pack of cigarettes.
“Okay.” I wouldn’t make much money, but it was just a few hours’ drive.
Back in the kitchen Andy lit anther cigarette and wrote me a check. “You can spend the night down there if you want. Just send me the receipts and whatever more I owe you. And here’s the address.”
We exchanged cell phone numbers. He went to check on his uncle, but Russo was still asleep. Breathing shallowly, but still alive.
Andy helped me carry the box down to my Honda on the street. After we put it in my trunk, he shook my hand. “Thanks. Drive safely.”
Before starting the car I called Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, and sort of psychic. “Want to drive down to Urbana with me? It’s for a case.”
“Ooh, an all-expenses paid road trip to beautiful exciting downtown Urbana, right in the middle of the prairie?” Rachel sighed. “No thanks. I’ve got this website to design, and it’s all your fault I’m behind because I had to help you with the witches’ coven case last week.”
That had taken days. “Okay. Sorry. I’ll call you.”
I could feel the box weighing down the car as I pulled away from the curb.
I’d visited Urbana a few times during college and once when I was a reporter, so I remembered the route. Long flat roads, a few rest stops, lots of exits for fast food, flat farmland on either side of the highway, and a porn shop somewhere. I turned the radio to a classic rock station, hit the cruise control, and sat back, humming along to Jackson Browne, checking my rearview mirror every few minutes.
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels . . .
The miles passed. I gulped some water and thought about stopping for coffee at the next exit. This was going to be easy.
Then I spotted a shadow in the rearview mirror.
A bird, maybe. A big bird. Or a plane off course from O’Hare?
Long and dark, soaring over the highway on wide wings.
No cars behind me. I hit the accelerator and shot into the left lane. It followed me.
I twisted the wheel and shifted back into the right lane. It rose up and veered off, circling out of my sight.
What the hell? I kept my speed up. Ninety miles an hour. Fortunately the highway was almost empty. Except—
I saw a truck behind me. Coming up fast.
I flashed my lights and slowed down to let him pass. He honked his horn and headed forward, flashing his lights back at me.
I looked up into the sky over my windshield. Scattered clouds obscured the stars. I saw the moon overhead, a quarter-million miles away.
A long black wing flew across the sky.
My mouth dried up. I wanted water, but I didn’t dare take my hands off the wheel.
The tires bumped across a rough path of pavement. I kept control, checking my mirrors, looking up into the sky. Lights were sparse at this stretch of the highway. Only my headlights gave me any hint of what was coming my way.
On the other side of the highway a Megabus zoomed north, followed by another truck.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I wanted to call Rachel. But she was working. Still, she’d be mad at me if I got killed on the highway.
But before I could punch her number the thing swooped down across the road in front of my car.
I got one good look, and managed to keep my hands on the wheel as my heart thudded in panic.
It was a dinosaur.
I’m no paleontologist. I read dinosaur books as a kid, and I saw Jurassic Park and all the sequels. But what I saw in the dim night sky was clearly a reptilian creature with wings. And it was about to dive-bomb my car.
I twisted the wheel left. The creature rose up, wings flapping, and disappeared from my sight as it circled around in the sky. Presumably for another run.
Oh god, oh god. I wanted Rachel. I hadn’t talked to my mom in weeks. And now I was going to die on Highway 57?
I hit the pedal. On the side mirror I caught a glimpse of the thing zooming behind me. Jaws open wide. A long mouth. Rows and rows of sharp jagged teeth.
We’re going to need a bigger boat. Or car. Whatever.
A sign beside the highway promised a rest stop in two miles. Maybe I could make it. But what then? Could I hide from the dinosaur in a smelly restroom? Did this thing breathe fire? Would it burn me and every other car away? What about the box in my trunk?
Then I saw an overpass across the highway. Maybe, just maybe . . .
The flying dinosaur was right behind me. But the overpass was only a few hundred yards ahead. If I could do this . . .
I pushed on the brake, slowing down, letting the creature drop lower and draw closer. Come on, come on—
Right at the last minute, I floored the accelerator.
The creature came on, shrieking so loud it rattled my windows. I ducked down, my fingers locked on the wheel. This would either work or—
I raced under the overpass.
The dinosaur, or whatever it was, hit it full on.
Oh, no. What about the cars on top of the pass? I hadn’t even thought. Would they—
A cloud of smoke bloomed up behind me. The creature—dinosaur, dragon, whatever it was—dissolved in the night air. The overpass was intact.
The rest area sign made me hit the brake. I was going 110, but I managed to turn off and slow down enough to pull into the lot without running off into the grass or hitting anything.
I leaned over the steering wheel, catching my breath and letting my heart slow down. But I kept the car running.
After five minutes I sat back, gulped some water, and started punching numbers on my phone.
Andy Russo answered after one ring. “Mr. Jurgen? Are you there yet?”
“A flying dinosaur just dive-bombed my car!” My voice shook. Generally I try to stay calm when talking to clients, but my heart was still thudding inside my chest. “What the hell is going on?”
“Oh shit.” I heard Andy gulp. “I was afraid of this. There are—powers that would like to get hold of that box. I thought if someone else took it, it would be safe. So I called you.”
I looked up at the sky. “Safe from what? Who sent that thing?”
“It’s complicated.” Andy sighed. “Look, there’s a war going between my family and a group called the Raen. It’s been going on for centuries. All I can tell you is that it’s vital that you get that box to Urbana before midnight. One o’clock at the latest.”
A war between families? Great. “Who are the Raen?”
“It’s too complicated to go into right now. They only want the box. That means they won’t try to kill you. If you go fast enough—”
“I’m a private detective, not Vin Diesel!” I’d thought this would be an easy job. “That flying dino didn’t seem interested in pulling me over and popping my trunk with its teeth. Why shouldn’t I just dump it on the ground and go home?”
Andy didn’t answer. For a moment I thought he’d hung up. That would have been fine. An excuse to quit this job.
Then Randall Russo’s voice rasped in my ear. “Mr. Jurgen?”
Okay. The old man was at death’s door. At least I could listen to him. “Yes, sir?”
“That box needs to get to my sister. If it doesn’t . . .” He coughed. “If the Raen get hold of it . . .” He coughed again, almost choking. “The world could end. Soon. Maybe tonight.”
Andy’s voice came back on. “I’ll double your fee. Triple it. Whatever you want. We have resources. But this has to be done before midnight.”
For Christ’s sake. “You could have told me.”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t do it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You might have been right.”
I stared at the sky. Turning back now probably wouldn’t do any good. “Okay, I’m already on the road. What else do I have to look forward to?”
“Like I said, they don’t necessarily want to hurt you. They don’t want to risk damaging the box in any way. They’ll try to force you to give it over. Don’t do it. Don’t stop for anything until you get there.”
I swallowed. The end of the world? Someone had been watching too many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Fine. We’ll talk about my fee later, I guess.”
I hung up. My motor was still running. I wanted coffee and a bag of Doritos, but I didn’t want to risk getting out of the car. At least my water bottle was mostly full.
So I called Rachel. “This is more interesting than I thought.”
She grunted. “Well, I’m still working here, so—”
“A flying dinosaur tried to kill me. It’s got something to do with a group called the Raen.”
“Oh hell.” Rachel groaned. “I can’t let you go anywhere, can I?”
“I’m going to call you again in a few minutes, on the road.” I looked out at the highway. “You don’t need to talk if you don’t want to. But I’m going to need to hear your voice and know you’re hearing me.”
“Goddamn it.” I could feel her eyes blazing. “What are you into now, you idiot? I swear, I don’t know—”
“A few minutes. I love you.”
“Oh no you don’t! You can’t—”
I hung up and pressed another number. It was late, but she’d probably answer.
“Hi, mom.” I hung the phone on its dashboard perch. “Sorry I haven’t called in a while . . .”