Saturday, March 11, 2017

Assassin's Prey

Chicago P.I. Tom Jurgen is on the track of a mysterious assassin killing off members of a wealthy family one by one—a murderer who can walk through walls.

Assassin's Prey, Part One

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.”

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.”

Assassin's Prey, Part Three

Six hours later we were back at Marilyn Toller’s mansion.
            Mrs. Toller was flanked by two big guards in bulletproof vests watching the driveway “Elias! Oh my god . . .” She wrapped her arms around her nephew’s shoulders, even though he flinched in pain at her hug. Then she stepped back. “Hello, Meghan.”
            “Hello, Marilyn.” They didn’t hug. “Long time.”
             Halloway greeted us in the foyer. “Glad you’re okay. And you . . .” He nodded to Rachel. “This seems to be getting complicated.”
            We sat around the same table in the dining room. A guard in black stood near the door. At least he wasn’t armed with an assault rifle. A maid served drinks—wine, beer, and Halloway had a scotch. Allan came down to join us, scowling, and ordered a whiskey neat. Mrs. Toller’s niece Janice grabbed a Coke and ran away. Elias drank soda water.
            “Mr. Jurgen.” Marilyn Toller looked through her dark glasses. “What can you tell us?”
            I sipped my beer. “Like I said before, the killer is some kind of ninja named Asha. We managed to escape her in Grand Rapids, so she’s not invulnerable. But—”
            “I can’t believe this!” Meghan pounded the table. “After all this time? I was making a good life on my own. I don’t need your money, Marilyn! I sold a house today. I sold two this year, and I’ve got a good line on two more—”
            “Mom.” Elias grabbed her hand. “Just chill out. All right?”
            Marilyn Toller sighed. “Meghan, I’m sorry about . . . about everything. But this is a crisis. Can we please just concentrate on the problem? I don’t want to watch everyone in my family die before I . . . before it’s too late.”
            The maid marched in from the kitchen. “Mrs. Toller? Should I serve dinner now?’
            Marilyn lowered her head, “Yes, Sadie. Please.”
            Dinner was a choice of steak and fish. Rachel’s a vegetarian, but she ate the salmon and didn’t glare at me for choosing steak. Marilyn and Meghan were civil, and Elias chatted with Allan about video games. Janice came late and mostly played with her tablet.
            Sadie served coffee with a dessert of raspberry cheesecake. Then Halloway nudged Rachel’s elbow and looked at me. “Can we talk?”
            “Uh, sure.” Marilyn and Meghan were suddenly laughing together. Allan was drinking more whiskey, and Elias was helping Janice with whatever game she was playing on her tablet.
            In the living room Halloway pulled a chair over to the couch. “So what do you think?”
            I’d had six hours in my Honda to think through the case. “Here’s the thing—Asha’s taken out the younger members of the family, one by one, starting with Brent two months ago. Randall was killed three weeks ago. Dean, two days ago. And she came after Elias today. So . . . .why is Asha speeding things up?”
Halloway lowered his head. “Mrs. Toller is dying. She has stage four cancer. Two months, maybe three.”
            Oh god. Rachel and I looked at each other. “I’m so sorry.”
            Halloway nodded. “Yes.”
            We were silent for a moment. Mortality. It hits everyone.
            But I had more questions I had to ask. “You said that Marilyn Toller’s estate is worth, what? Something like 20 million dollars? What if someone wanted all that money, and started getting everyone out of the way? Starting with the youngest, then going up the tree. So nobody’s left when Marilyn Toller dies? Her sisters, her nephews, until nobody’s left.”
            Halloway shook his head. “No. This can’t be right.”
            A scream burst from the dining room.
            Oh hell.
            Usually I run away from trouble, but I couldn’t just now. I headed for the dining room, Rachel right behind me. “Don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
            It might be too late for that. But I appreciated the support.
            The dining room was a bloodbath.
            Allan was on the floor, clutching his stomach as blood seeped out across his shirt. Elias slumped over the table, gasping.
            One security guard was clamping a linen napkin over a gash in his wrist. The other flailed a black baton around, then dropped to the floor, bleeding from a wound in his leg.
            Meghan leaned over her son, screaming. Emma sank back in her chair, her arms slack, waiting for whatever was coming.
            Asha stood in the center of the room, spinning like a dancer again, her blades flashing around her body.
            Marilyn Toller sat in her chair, her arms stiff.
            And Janice—12 years old—waited in her seat with a smile on her face.
            “Wait!” I plunged into the room. “Asha, no!”
            The assassin turned. “You are not my target.”
            Thank god. “You don’t have to do this!”
            Her eyes glittered beneath her black hood. “I have a contract.”
            “From who? Just tell us? Who hired you?”
            Janice giggled.
            Halloway staggered in behind us. “What’s going on? Is this . . . her?”
            “Janice . . .” I glanced up at Asha, trying to keep my voice steady. “Did you do this?”
            “Well, yeah.” The little girl laughed. “How else am I going to get the whole trust fund?”
            “Oh my God.” Marilyn Toller clutched the edge of the table. “Janice? You?”
            “I’m sorry, auntie.” Janice giggled again. “But not really. I would have waited, but then your doctors came and I didn’t have that much time. And your will is so complicated.”
            Asha stopped twirling. “So who first? Remember our agreement.” She had knives in her hands, ready to kill. “Fifty percent.”
            Janice nodded. “That’s fine. Start with—”
            “Wait!” Marilyn Toller reared up. “No more! Peter!”
            Halloway looked ready to drop from terror. “Y-yes, Mrs. Toller?”
            “I want you to draw up a new will for me. Right now.” She gazed at me and Rachel. “You two will witness it.”
            I nodded, staring at Asha. “Okay.”
            “I leave my entire trust fund to Janice. Every fucking cent.” She leaned down on the table. “You can have it all, you little bitch. Just leave the rest of my family alone.”
            Janice jumped up. “Yay!”
            “Marilyn . . .” Emma pushed her chair back. “You can’t mean that! You can’t—She killed Brent! She killed Dean—”
            “I want this to end!” Marilyn Toller jabbed a finger at Asha. “When it’s done, you will go away and leave my family alone!”
            Emma dropped back into her chair, sobbing. “No . . . no . .  .”
            Halloway ducked out, then returned a moment later with a yellow legal pad. “Here.”
            Asha looked at Janice. The young girl nodded. Then Asha sheathed her knives. The wall behind her shimmered. Then she was gone.
           
We had a hard time explaining everything to the paramedics and cops. Allan needed surgery, but Elias was only suffering from a fresh wound in his arm. The two security guards seemed more embarrassed than hurt.
            Janice played a game on her tablet as everyone tried to deal with the mess.
            An hour later Rachel and I sat in the living room with Emma and Mrs. Toller. Meghan had gone to the hospital with her son.
            Halloway looked at the new hastily-scribbled will. “I should get this notarized. But it will stand up. Do you really want to do this?”
            Mrs. Toller groaned. “No. But what else can I do? I needed to stop this. I just never thought . . .”
            Emma patted her knee. “You did the right thing. To make it stop.”
            “But I . . . I’m sorry, Emma, you deserve so much more . . .” She slumped over. “I’m so tired.”
            “It’s okay.” She glanced up at Halloway. “I wasn’t depending on the trust fund anyway. Let her have it.”
            The door opened. Janice stood in pink pajamas. “Auntie? I’m going to bed now.”
            Marilyn Toller pulled herself up. “Janice? Let me tell you something.”
            Janice cocked her head. “What?”
            “Pretty soon you’re going to learn things.” She took a deep breath. “For the rest of your life you’re never going to know if anyone likes you or loves you. You’re going to be lonely. And you’ll always have to live with knowing what you did to get this money. That might not seem like much now, but I can promise you, you’ll wish you hadn’t done this.”
            Janice giggled. “But I have the money."
            Marilyn Toller sighed. “Go to bed, Janice.”

# # #

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Face to Face

Tom Jurgen is hired by a pop superstar who's being menaced by a deadly stalker with the power to take on any face he wishes . . .

Face to Face, Part One

I usually meet clients in coffee shops and diners, sometimes their houses. But this was the first time I’d met an international pop star in her dressing room.
Allison Gentry—known her 21 million Twitter followers as AG—was one of the biggest singing sensations in the world. Failed marriages? Check. Drug rehab? Check. Internet feuds with Kanye, Nikki, and Britney? Check. Nude photos on the internet? Yeah, I checked those out too.
But lots of money to write a lowly private detective a check for whatever she wanted to hire me for? Yeah. I’ve got an internet bill to pay.
            AG was in rehearsals for a concert in her “Coming Home” tour at the United Center in Chicago tomorrow night. Today she and her crew were working at a gym up in Northbrook. I’d had to fight with the security guards at the front door, after battling my way through a horde of paparazzi hoping for a shot of AG walking in or out. Fortunately they didn’t find a 40ish guy in a blue windbreaker worthy of their attention.
So I was waiting in a dressing room that looked like a hotel suite—long couches, a mini-fridge, a big-screen TV in one corner. The music boomed under my feet.
I checked my phone for messages. Deleted the spam. Texted Rachel: “Hi, I’m waiting for my client, how’s your day going?”
She texted me back a minute later. “Boring. Any hot half-naked male dancers hanging around?”
The music had stopped. I was in the middle of a response when the door opened and—
            Allison Gentry marched into the dressing room like she was in a hurry to a more important meeting. She wore skintight yoga pants and a loose red tank top, her long blond hair tied back. “Goddamn it, why can’t they find me some dancers who know what they’re doing? It’s tomorrow night, and we’re still working out the moves? I don’t believe—”     
Then she stopped, staring at me. “Kaz? Who the hell is this?”
I stood up. The guy who followed her into the room wore a dark jacket and a thin red necktie hanging loose around a black T-shirt. “AG, this is Tom Jurgen. The private detective?” He turned to me, looking nervous. Hi. Kaz Peters. We talked yesterday? I’m on AG’s PR team.”
            “Sorry.” AG collapsed in a chair, catching her breath. “Kaz, can you get me some water? And where’s my phone? I need a salad. Dressing on the side.” Her voice was high-pitched and squeaky, but her throat sounded hoarse.
            “Got it.” Kaz grabbed a water bottle from the mini-fridge, dropped a cell phone on the table in front of her, and went for the door. “Anything for you, Jurgen?”
            “I’m, uh, fine, thanks.” I sat back down. I’ve met some minor celebrities—football heroes and local actors—but never anyone who’d been named Maxim magazine’s No. 2 hottest female celebrity (Katy Perry was No. 1). “Nice to meet you, Ms. Gentry.”
            “It’s Allison.” She gulped down half the water. “Thanks for coming.”
            I perched on the edge of the couch. “So what can I do for you?”
            She groaned. “I’ve got this stalker.”
            Hundreds of them, probably. “Don’t take this wrong, but don’t you have security for that kind of problem?”
            “Yeah.” She ran her hands over her face. “But Kaz said you handle—weird shit. Like people who can change their faces?”
            Of course. “Well, I’ve dealt with shape shifters, vampires, ghosts, zombies, and even the occasional workers comp case where the employee in question wasn’t actually faking an injury.”
            AG giggled. Then she gulped some more water. “About a year ago I started getting these emails from a guy named BrandonX. At first it was just the standard pervert stuff, so I sent them to Intertext/PR—they handle my IT stuff. Miley suggested them.”
            Miley? I didn’t ask. “What did they find out?”
            “They were coming from an email account owned by a guy named Brandon Toth. He actually went to my high school—I mean, I went to high school in Orland Park, and we graduated the same year, but I don’t remember him. Anyway, they stopped for a while, and then about four months ago they started up again. The thing is—” She took another long drink. “He’s dead. A car accident. A month before the emails started coming.”
            “Someone could have just taken over his account.”
            “Yeah, but . . .” She rubbed her forehead. “Okay, this is where it gets weird?”
            I shrugged. “Well, like you said, I handle weird shit.”
            She giggled. “Anyway—”
            The door opened. Kaz walked in. “Hey, AG, you need anything?”
            She blinked. “Yeah, I said I wanted a salad. Dressing on the side, like always.”
            I’m not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but I try to notice details. Like the fact that Kaz was wearing the same dark jacket as before, but now his necktie was knotted tight around the collar of a white shirt.
            People who can change their faces . . .
I stood up again. “Hi. I’m  . . . Pete Cogburn.”
            He held out his hand. “Hi, Pete. Nice to meet you.”
            “Oh shit.” AG lunged for her phone.
            “Kaz” suddenly darted forward. I didn’t quite block him, but I managed to give him a shove that sent him stumbling against a chair. “You son of a—”
            AG pounded her phone. “Update! Update! Come on, hurry!”
            I shifted around, trying to stay between them even though every instinct in my body told me to hide behind a couch and call my mother. “Slow down, Brandon.” I tried to keep my voice low and calm. “Are you Brandon? You’re not Kaz. How do you do that?”
            “Bitch!” He jabbed a finger at AG. “Slut! Sing it for me! You know you want to sing it!”
            Then a security guard ran through the door, brandishing a heavy black baton. The stalker swung around, laughing, and somehow ducked down and then rammed a fist into his stomach, strong enough to force a grunt from him. And fast enough to run through the door.
The guard cursed, straightened up, and ran after him.
            I looked at AG. My chest was pounding. “Was that . . .?”
            She dropped her phone on the floor and leaned down, her head between her knees. “Oh god, oh god, oh god . . .”
            Chasing the fake Kaz would only add to the confusion. So I crouched next to her and picked up her water bottle. “Here.”
            “Th-thanks.” She sat up and grasped the bottle, her shoulders twitching. “Okay, you saw that? This is where it gets—oh, no . . .”

Kaz was dead. They found him in a stairwell with a broken skull.
            The cops found his jacket and necktie in the parking lot. The stalker, whoever he was, had gotten away. The ability to change his face probably had something to do with it.
            AG’s afternoon rehearsal was cancelled.
            We met again in an office overlooking the gym floor. Allison Gentry was dressed—slacks and a blue T-shirt—and she was drinking more water. “Oh my god.”
            “C-can I get you anything, AG?” Jamie Yamada was in her 20s, an Asian woman who had apparently been Kaz’s assistant. Her eyes were bleary and bloodshot.
            AG threw her bottle on the floor. “Just some more water.”
            I leaned against the window and folded my arms, mostly to keep them from shaking. I’d seen Kaz’s body.
After a moment I said, “Maybe you should tell me the rest of it. Unless you’ve changed your mind about hiring me, I mean.”
“Oh no.” She took the bottle from Jamie and twisted it open. “Okay, this was about a month ago, in Miami? I’m doing a residency at a club there, and one night after the show I’m back in my dressing room with a couple of friends, and there’s a knock on my door. The guard says it’s my ex-husband. Freddie?” She made a face. “I thought it was strange, but anyway, I said let him in. So he comes in, and it’s Freddie, but he doesn’t really say much, just says he liked the show and wished I’d sing a song for him, and then he tries to kiss me.”
Another grimace. “But there are people there, so after a few minutes he leaves. And I still think it’s strange, so I send a text. It turns out he’s in Las Vegas! He sends me a picture in front of a casino with his latest bimbo—I mean, girlfriend?” She tittered. Then her head dropped down. “Sorry. But it was so weird, I didn’t even think about it.”
Lots of people ignore strange happenings—until they can’t anymore. “So what else?”
“Then last Wednesday I was in New York. Staying with my mother.” She ran her hands over her hair, still pulled back in a tight ponytail. “She has an apartment in Brooklyn. I like to visit her when I have a few days between shows. Anyway, we ordered Thai food, and then the doorman buzzed. A minute later there’s a knock, and when I open the door, it’s . . . this guy from high school. Mark Kirkenstock.”
AG laughed. “We went on a few dates. Movies, nothing serious.” Then her face got serious again. “But he’s standing there, saying ‘Hi, do you remember me?’ And I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any bodyguards around. So I keep my hand on the door. I’m like, ‘Hi, Mark, what are you doing here?’  And he’s like, ‘I just wanted to see you.’“ She shuddered.
“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“He tried to push through the door.” AG clenched her hands. “But I pushed back, and it hit his face. Then he’s screaming. Calling me a fucking whore, and a dirty little piece of . . .’” She closed her eyes. “But then he said, ‘Sing it for me! Sing it right now, like you want to!’” She glared at me, like it was somehow my fault.
I gave her some slack. It had been a tough day for her.
She took a breath. “My mom screamed, and he ran away. The Thai food guy came two minutes later. We called the cops, but they couldn’t find the guy. My mom yelled at the doorman and I think she got him fired, but it probably wasn’t his fault.”
AG stood up and started to pace. “That was last week. And now today? Kaz is dead, but all I can think about is I’ve lost half a day of rehearsal. And I know I’m supposed to say I don’t care what happens to me. But I’m scared.”
Jamie brought her another bottle of water. “Your safety is what’s important. Don’t worry about other people. We’ve got lots of help for that.”
“Yeah.” AG took the water and looked at me. “So, can you help?”
I straightened up from my perch at the window. “Can you send me everything you’ve got on BrandonX from this InterTech place?”
“Sure.” Jamie picked up an iPad and started pressing the screen. “What’s your email address?”
I handed her my card. “Right there. Call or email me with anything.”
AG put a hand on my arm, and then stood on her toes to kiss my cheek. “Thank you.”
I managed to keep my feet on the floor. “No problem. I’ll be in touch.”
“Jamie?” AG slumped down on the couch again, exhausted. “Make sure to get a retainer check to Tom?” She closed her eyes. “And maybe a salad for me.”

Face to Face, Part Two

I got past the reporters and paparazzi out front and drove back to my apartment. Jamie’s email was waiting on my laptop, containing an attachment with roughly 122 kabillion gigazots of data from Intertext/PR about BrandonX.
            So I called Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor, a graphic designer who knows more about computers and the Internet than most MIT scientists. Plus, she’s kind of psychic. She also admits to being my girlfriend, at least some of the time.
“Allison Gentry? AG?” I could almost hear Rachel’s shriek from upstairs without the phone. “I hate her! I hate her music! I hate everything about her! Did you really meet her? What’s she like? Wait a minute, I’ll be right down.”
            Two minutes later she was standing in my apartment. “What’s she like? What was she wearing? Did she have any of her hot male dancers around? All the details, Jurgen, now!”
            “She’s got a shape-shifting stalker. And he killed someone today.” I told her the story. Leaving out the face-tingling kiss. Rachel sometimes gets territorial.
            “Oh god.” She reached for my hand. “Are you okay?”
             “Fine. I guess.” I squeezed. “Anyway, he may be related to an emailer named BrandonX. Her IT firm tracked him down, but it turns out he’s dead. Can you take a look at these files and tell me what they mean?” I forwarded them to her computer.
            She opened her laptop on the other side of the table. “Get me a beer.”
            I got two bottles of Heineken from the fridge and sat down. Rachel was hunched over, her hazelnut eyes glazed as she tapped at her computer as if we were playing Battleship against each other. I sipped my beer and got to work.
Mark Kirkenstock was easy to find, and I figured he’d be easier to get hold of than AG’s ex-husband Freddie. He was a carpenter in Naperville, married with three kids according to his website—which included his phone number. So I called him and left a message.
I looked over the top of my screen at Rachel. “Anything?”
            “Well, it’s pretty solid that the mails came from an account owned by a guy named Brandon Toth. And I looked at them. They’re pretty disgusting.” She swallowed some beer. “It starts out relatively tame, just ‘I love you and I want your body’ sort of stuff. Then he starts sending pictures—some of her nudes that were leaked on the internet, and some dick pics Photoshopped on them. They stop around the time he died, and then they start up again, only now he starts demanding that she dedicate a song to him at one of her concerts, but he never says which one.” She shrugged. “This Intertext place did a good job, I have to say.”
            I nodded. “Miley recommended them.”
            Rachel rolled her eyes. “Yeah. She’d know.”
My phone buzzed. “Hang on—Hello, Tom Jurgen speaking.”
            “Hi, this is Mark Kirkenstock, returning your call?” He sounded nervous. Lots of people do when a private investigator rings them up. “Am I being sued or something?”
            “Not at all.” I tried to sound calm and reassuring. “I’m working for . . . let’s just say a celebrity right now. You can check out my website if you want to confirm that I’m legitimate.” Yes, I have a website. Rachel set it up for me. “Or we can meet in person.”
            He hesitated. “I guess you can’t reveal your client’s name?”
            “If it becomes necessary, I’ll check. I really just need to confirm a few facts. It would be a big help.”
            “Well . . . okay, I guess. What do you want?”
            “Can you tell me where you were last Wednesday?”
            “Wednesday? I was . . . oh, yeah, I was working at a customer’s house all day, putting in new floors. Keisha Vaughn. I guess you can call her if you want. Hang on, here’s her number . . .”
            “Thanks. All day?”
            “Until six. Then I had to go to a school council meeting. I got home around 9:00. Lots of people were there. I think the minutes are posted on the school’s website. I’ve got three kids there, second grade, fourth grade, and kindergarten.” He sounded proud.
            “Thank you.” I’d have to check out the details, but he didn’t sound as if he was hiding anything. “Now in high school, did you know a student named Brandon Toth?”
            “Brandon . . .” He groaned. “Oh. I know what this is about. Allison Gentry, right?””
            “I’m afraid I can’t confirm—”
            “Brandon had a huge crush on Ally. Hell, a lot of us did. She was a cheerleader in those days, and she was pretty hot even then. I managed to get a date with her, but it didn’t go anywhere.” He chuckled. “But Brandon was a little . . . over the top.”
            “In what way?”
            “He wouldn’t talk to her or anything. He just sort of followed her around. Not like stalking, really. I don’t think she ever noticed. He’d rearrange his schedule so they had lunch at the same time, but he’d sit three tables away. That sort of thing.”
            “Can you—”
            “Okay, before we go on, can I just tell you some things?” He didn’t sound angry. Just firm. “Brandon was a good guy. He took advanced algebra just so he could be in her class. He almost flunked, but Mr. Durr gave him some breaks. He wasn’t dumb, you know? He just didn’t know how to get a girl to go out with him.”
            I was careful to keep my words neutral. “Have you been in contact with him since high school?”
            “A few times. I think he was working at a bar the last time I saw him. That was about six months ago.” He paused. “You know he’s dead, right?”
            “Yes. Can you tell me anything about his death?”
            “Just what I read in the papers. A car accident? Four or five months ago. He was speeding, maybe drunk. That’s all I know, really. It’s not like we were close pals. We were just in a few classes together.”
            “Anything else?”
            “I don’t . . . No, wait, there was one weird thing.” He hesitated. “I thought I saw him on the street, but he didn’t recognize me, so I figured it was just a coincidence. That was before I heard about the accident.”
“All right.” So someone had taken over Brandon’s email account—and his face? “Thanks for your time, Mr. Kirkenstock.”
            “Sure thing. And say hi to Ally for me, okay? I still remember her kiss goodnight, and that was nine years ago.”
            My face still tingled from her kiss on my own cheek. “Without confirming or denying anything, I will attempt to pass that along.”
            He laughed as he hung up.
            Okay. I rubbed my eyes. “That was Kirkenstock. He was friends, sort of, with Brandon Toth.”
            “But he’s dead. Is he a zombie or something?” Rachel shuddered. “I hate zombies.”
            “Forget that for now. I need anything you can find on face-changing. The stalker, whoever he is, just changed his face and put on the guy’s jacket and necktie. That’s got to be a different kind of magic, right?”
            “Get me another beer.” She drained her bottle. “Are you making dinner or ordering out?”
            I brought two more beers, and then I called Keisha Vaughn, Kirkenstock’s customer last week, to confirm that he’d been in her house all day. I found the elementary school his kids went to, and checked that he was listed in attendance in the minutes of the school council meeting.
            So he was out of it as a suspect. I hadn’t really suspected him of flying to New York just to get into AG’s mother’s apartment, but as the old reporter’s saying goes, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.
            Rachel sifted through the files while I ran some searches on Brandon Toth. His car accident seemed legitimate. Like Kirkenstock had said, he’d been speeding when he hit a parked pickup truck at 2:30 in the morning, and police had found five empty beer cans in his car. He’d worked as a bartender, and before that at a grocery store. Unmarried, survived by his parents and a sister.
            I didn’t want to call them. Not yet, and not unless I had to. I’d interviewed enough grieving family members as a reporter.
            So I went to the website of AG’s Orland Park high school. The home page featured a wide image of the school, with students pouring in and out of the front doors. I scanned the links: faculty, programs, enrollment, volunteer . . . and a page featuring OUR MOST FAMOUS GRADUATE—ALLISON GENTRY! The headline sat above a photo of AG, about 17, in her cheerleading uniform, holding her pom-poms high with the same smile she flashed these days in all her videos and concerts.
            A link called “History” took me to a website for high school yearbooks. I had to register as a student, but Rachel showed me a hack around that. Then I was scrolling down the pages, looking for Brandon, and Kirkenstock. And of course, Allison Gentry.
            She showed up dozens of times, in classes and team photos—cheerleading squad, of course, but also the gymnastics team, choir, and a production of Brigadoon, in the chorus.
            Rachel peered behind my shoulder. “Cute. Can you email me that cheerleading picture for my dartboard? I hate cheerleaders.”
            “You don’t have a dartboard.”
            She poked my back. “I’m thinking of getting one.”
            I hit “save picture.” Then I found Mark in three photos: soccer team, science class, and in a cafeteria shot, next to a student identified in the caption as Brandon Toth.
            Brandon showed up only in a single senior picture. He had bushy eyebrows and a long chin. The three-line profile next to his photo listed his interests: Partying, football, and music.
            “So that’s BrandonX?” Rachel leaned down.  
            “Maybe. You know better than I do how easy it is to take over someone’s email account.” I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
            “Yeah, The stalking emails didn’t start coming until after his accident. I just wondered what he looked like.” She tilted her head. “Poor kid.”
            “Yeah.” Whatever else was going on, he’d died too young. “Did you get anything on face changers?”
            “Well, you know most of it by now.” Rachel leaned back, and I tried to keep my mind on business as she stretched her arms over her head. “Some shape shifters are just born that way, but they usually keep a low profile. There are potions that turn people into monsters, like that thing at the Tiger Club. By the way, do you ever hear from any of them?” Her hazelnut eyes narrowed waiting for my response.
            Careful, Tom . . .“Uh, Alexa called me a few months ago to do a background check on a guy who wanted to invest in her new venue.” Alexa and her girlfriend—now her wife—were partners in various clubs around Chicago. “That’s it.”
            Rachel smirked. “Anyway, doing a simple face change is easier. In some ways. You don’t need any hair or bodily fluids, just a good picture. But the illusion doesn’t last very long, and there are ways to break it up. Like a mirror. You can find the spells on the internet, but they’re complicated, like high-level algebra.”
            Algebra. I’d almost flunked that subject in high school, but Kirkenstock had mentioned that Brandon took the class to be close to Allison Gentry. Did that connect?
            Rachel closed her laptop. “I’m hungry. Are we going to eat?”
            It was almost 7:30, and I was starving too. “I’ll make ravioli. Let me call my client.”


Jamie was calm. “So it’s not Mark? And Brandon is definitely out of it?”
            “That’s how it seems.” I stirred oregano into the tomato sauce, the earplug from my phone dangling in my eyes. “I should say that Mark asked me to tell Allison that he still remembers her kiss.” A little basil . . .
            Jamie giggled. “I’ll tell her. I think she’s sleeping now. I mean, in the suite. I’m downstairs.” As if she was afraid of starting a lesbian sex scandal for AG. Another one, anyway.
             “So here’s the thing.” I grabbed the garlic. “I think I need to contact Brandon’s family to ask some questions. And keeping AG’s name out of it could be . . . complicated. I’ll do my best, but—”
            “Yeah.” Jamie sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask her. And check with the rest of the PR staff. I mean, I’m sort of in charge right now, but I haven’t ever really handled something like this. Kaz was so confident, and I’m just . . . scared.”
            “Look, I used to be a reporter.” I’d dealt with PR people all the time. “Just stick to the facts. If you don’t know what to say, just tell them—”
            “Hey, don’t start mansplaining on me, okay?” Her voice shocked my eardrum. “God, I hate that. I know what I’m doing!”
            “Sorry.” I backed away from the stove as the sauce bubbled. “I didn’t mean anything. Just tell me how I should proceed. That’s all.”
            “Yeah.” She sighed again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”
            “No problem.” Rachel’s fist had caused permanent bruises on my chest. Getting yelled at by a client? No comparison. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
            “Sounds good.” She hung up.

The newspapers and websites were on fire with Kaz’s murder the next morning. “Pop star’s assistant found dead in rehearsal facility,” was the headline on page three of the Chicago Tribune. “AG’s PR guy killed!” was on the front page of the Sun-Times. And “AG IN SHOCK AS TOP PR FLACK IS STABBED TO DEATH!” from the Daily Mail, right above a story about Lindsay Lohan cavorting on a yacht somewhere.
            In other news, the new president was still talking about building his wall. I chugged some coffee and started hitting numbers on my phone.
I started with Brandon’s parents. His father answered. He listened to me for a moment, and then handed the phone over. His mother wept in my ear. “My son is dead! Don’t do this! I can’t . . .” She hung up.
I felt like garbage. I‘d had to do it when I was a reporter, but I’ve never liked it. I gulped more coffee, then gritted my teeth and called the other number I had. Brandon’s sister, Bridget.
            She lived in Cincinnati. I left a message. Then I moved on to another case, an executive who was possibly embezzling money from his employer. I checked credit records, loans, real estate purchases, and everything else. Then my phone buzzed.
            “This is Bridget Lane.” She sounded annoyed. “What is this about?”
            “Thanks for calling me back.” I switched screens on my laptop. “Like I said in my message, I’m—”
            “Yeah, I know.” Her voice was raspy. “My parents just called me about you. What do you want?”
            “It’s about your brother Brandon. First, I’m very sorry for your—”
            “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I heard a flicking sound, if she was lighting up a cigarette. “Get with the questions.”
            I tried to phrase it carefully. “There have been a series of emails from Brandon’s email address. Someone else might have sent them after his accident, but—”
            “Oh, god, this is about Allison Gentry, right?” A bitter laugh. “God, he never got over that bitch.”
Okay, so much for being cautious. “Did you know her?” 
            “Sure, I saw her. I’m—I was two years older than Brandon. And I was a cheerleader too.” She coughed. “I remember Ally. I tried to tell him to forget her, but he wouldn’t listen. I even tried to set him up with some of my friends, but . . .”
She slowed down. “That doesn’t matter. He was doing good, you know? Not great grades, except in math, but enough to get by. He went to community college for a semester—business classes?—but then my parents kicked him out.”
“What for?”
Bridget sighed. “Dad wanted him to take over the business—he ran a hardware store, but Brandon didn’t care about it. He worked there for six months, and then he dropped out of college. He packed his clothes in plastic bags and left, and then he got a job in a grocery store.”
I tried to think through the timeline. Eight or nine years since they’d graduated from high school. “What happened after he moved out?”
“He stayed with me for a couple of weeks until my boyfriend got tired of it, but then Mr. Durr took him in for a few months.”
Wait—what? Kirkenstock had mentioned that name: Mr. Durr gave him some breaks. “The math teacher?”
“It wasn’t like that, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Bridget groaned. “Brandon sucked at math. He only took the class to be close to her. But Mr. Durr always paid attention to the kids who weren’t doing so good. Like Brandon. And you, know, Ally Gentry. I don’t know how she got through any math at all. If you know what I mean.”
            “So what are you saying? That Allison Gentry and Mr. Durr, and maybe some other teachers—”
            “I said it wasn’t like that!” She sounded ready to hang up on me. “Ally was a slut. Everyone knew how she was getting it on with half the football team, and there were rumors about how she got an A in chemistry. Even though the chemistry teacher was Mrs. Andrews.” She laughed. “But it was more like a father-son thing. Mr. Durr just let him stay at his place. He helped him get back on his feet, find a job, set up an email account, and helped Brandon get his own apartment after a couple of months. I visited Brandon there a few times—actually, I helped him move in, and I would have noticed if Mr. Durr was acting strange.”
            “How did he act?”
            “Fine. It was a nice place. Clean, lots of books. Not just Stephen King and crap like that. Books about math, and magic, some D&D manuals, that sort of stuff. Believe me, Brandon would have told me if anything weird was happening.”
            Books on magic? I took a breath, but I didn’t want to go there with her. “What about Allison Gentry? Did Brandon try to keep in touch with her?”
            “He was hard to talk to sometimes. But I went over to his place every few months, and he did have her posters over her walls, and played her music kind of nonstop until I told him to turn it off. Her first album, the one she won all the awards for? And then after she was on the MTV Awards, dancing with a tiger?” She coughed again. “We didn’t talk about it much. I thought he was starting to get it together, especially after he got that job bartending. Then . . .” She halted. “I can’t talk about this anymore. I’ve got to get back to work.”
            “I’m sorry to bother you.” I felt bad, but it was part of the job. “You’ve been a big help.”
            “I don’t want to help.” I heard her cigarette lighter flick. “My brother is dead. You and Allison Gentry can go to hell.”
            You try not to let it get to you, but it still hurts. Not as much as a dead brother, though. I made a note to call mine. Then I drank another cup of coffee and looked at cat pictures on the internet for a while.
            Then I looked up Mr. Durr.
Ryan Durr was retired. He’d taught math in the high school for 25 years. Divorced, one son. The son lived in Texas. His ex-wife lived in Arizona. She’d put a restraining order out on him seven years ago.
No social media profile, but that made sense for any teacher who wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
But I had to talk to him. So I called Rachel.