The Rossini versus the Raen—two families locked in a centuries-long battle for supremacy. Tom’s job is to rescue a kidnapping victim—but who’s really been kidnapped?
Saturday, January 12, 2019
“Her name is Nerina. She’s been kidnapped by the Raen.”
I groaned. The last time Andrew Russo had hired me, I’d been attacked by dragons, bats, and flying horses on a wild drive downstate toAll for some ancient feud between the Raen and the Rossini—two families locked in combat for centuries.
The Raen were some kind of doomsday cult. The Rossini had split off from them a long time ago, and they’d struggled for control of mystical resources ever since.
I wasn’t eager to get back into their family politics. But Andrew Russo had paid me three times my normal fee last year, so that was all right. Still . . .
“You know, the police and the FBI investigate kidnappings for free,” I mentioned.
“We can’t go to them. You know that. Nerina is important.”
Everyone’s important, I wanted to say. I doubted Russo’s primary concern was the girl’s safety. So I sighed. “What have you got?”
Nerine Ariane. Nineteen years old. College student at DePaul University, studying photography. She had a Lincoln Park apartment. I started there.
No sign of forced entry or struggle. I found a suitcase in a closet. The dresser was full of clothes and underwear—yes, I looked, because I’m a detective—as was the laundry hamper. No obvious signs of anything missing.
A plump black cat complained with loud meows as I searched—another sign that Nerina hadn’t planned to be gone this long. I filled the cat’s food and water bowls and scooped out the litter box. I petted it a few times. It rubbed against my leg, then went back to the dry food.
My next step? Nerina’s boyfriend, obviously.
The Rossini were a mite overprotective, but they were smart enough not to forbid a 19-year-old woman from having a life, even if they did their best to track her day and night. Nerina’s boyfriend was Ben Ajasic, a grad student in philosophy who lived a few blocks away. She’d gone out on a date with him the night she disappeared, and hadn’t been heard from since.
I’d run a background check of my own on Ben back in my office and found two traces: He was from Lafayette, Indiana, where the current patriarch of the Raen lived; and he’d attended a private high school where a lot of Raen were educated.
Pretty thin, but it kind of supported Russo’s insistence that the Raen were behind her disappearance.
In my Honda I called Russo. “I’m going to have to talk to the boyfriend. Have your people had any contact with him?”
“Carole called him, pretending to be her aunt.” Carole Rossigna lived in Urbana. I’d met her briefly last year after tearing up her lawn in my Honda. Long story. “Ajasic claimed he hadn’t seen her in days.”
Pretended? “What about her real family?”
“We are her family.” He sounded offended.
“I mean, her parents? Siblings? Aunts and uncles and cousins?”
“Her parents are dead. She’s an only child. She’s alone, except for us.”
Wow. “So who were her parents?”
He hesitated. “It’s too complicated to go into over the phone.”
Of course. “I’m going to talk to Ajasic now.”
“Don’t mention us.”
“Of course not.”
I called Rachel next. She’s my girlfriend, a graphic designer, and at least slightly psychic. I always to try let her know where I am when I’m working a case, so she knows where to start looking if something bad happens. “I’m going to see the missing person’s boyfriend. Wish me luck.”
She snorted. “Okay. Be careful. I’m making ratatouille for dinner, and I don’t want to have to eat it all by myself.”
“Love you too.” I hung up.
I parked my Honda down the block from Ben’s building, walked up, and buzzed his apartment.
“Hello?” The voice was scratchy through the intercom.
“Mr. Ajasic? My name is Thomas Hale. I’m a private detective looking for Nerina Ariane on behalf of her family. She’s disappeared. Can we talk?”
A few seconds passed. “I’ll be down in a minute.” He didn’t buzz me in.
Ben Ajasic was tall, with short black hair and a thin beard. Jeans and a gray T-shirt. Reasonably attractive, I guessed. He opened the door, and we stood in the small lobby inside.
“What’s this about?” He crossed his arms. “Who are you again?”
“Thomas Hale.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie. My name is Thomas Hale Jurgen. I gave him a business card with the same name and a phone number that matched a burner phone and one of the email addresses Rachel sets up for me to preserve some semblance of anonymity. Neither were perfect protection, but they’d stop the casual seeker.
He peered at the card, then shoved it into his jeans. “I haven’t seen Nerina since Sunday. We went out on a date, and she went home. Sometimes she doesn’t call for a few days.”
“Why not? Did you have a fight?”
Ben scowled. “Of course not. She’s busy with classes. Me too.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Dinner.” The answer seemed obvious to him. “Then we came back here and then . . .” He shrugged. “She left a little while later.”
“What time?” When I was a reporter, I liked to give people lots of time to think about my questions. Now I felt like a cop on one of the Law and OrderTV shows. But even as a reporter, I knew how quick questions could sometimes goad people into telling me more than they meant to.
“I don’t know!” He shook his head. “One o’clock or so.”
“You let your girlfriend walk home alone at one in the morning?” This was Chicago, after all.
“Nerina is very—independent.” He glanced over his shoulder at the elevator. “Is that all? I’ve got work to do.”
So did it. “Thanks for your time. Call me if you think of anything. Or hear from Nerina.”
He walked to the elevator and punched the button. “Yeah. Sure.”
Back in my Honda I called Rachel again. “I think he was lying. I wish you’d been here.” Rachel’s kind of psychic. She can usually tell when people are hiding something.
She laughed. “You’re a reporter and a detective. You don’t always need me.”
“Maybe I just like having you around.”
“Jerk. I’m busy with a big landing page.” Rachel’s a graphic designer. “Call me when you’re in real trouble.”
Ben was my only lead so far, so I decided to wait a few minutes in case he went anywhere. I knew what kind of car he drove from my background check—a red Hyundai—and I was parked across the street. I listened to classic rock on the radio, sipped a little water, and kept my eyes on the apartment building.
Patience pays off, sometimes. Twenty minutes into my little stakeout I saw Ben emerge from the apartment building and hop into his car. Maybe I’d spooked him. Or maybe he had a dentist appointment.
We drove a few miles until he parked on the street and headed into a small office building on Lincoln Avenue. I kept my flashers on while waiting for a spot to open up, getting plenty of angry honks and pointed middle fingers from the cars forced to go around me. I texted the address to Rachel and waited.
Just as an old gray Impala began edging out to the street to give me a spot, Ben and another man burst through the doors. Instead of getting into Ben’s Hyundai, the man—fiftyish with graying hair and glasses, heavyset in a long jacket—led Ben down the block. I saw Ben open a car door—a black Subaru—and I veered around the Impala to reach the vehicle before it pulled away. The driver gave me a honk and the bird. I was making friends all over today.
It was late afternoon, and the sun was headed toward the horizon. We headed north on Lake Shore Drive into Evanston, north of Chicago, and turned away from downtown into a residential area. Eventually the Subaru parked in front of a small, two-story house on a darkening street.
I parked and used my smartphone to research the location. It would have been easier back in my office—my fingers kept hitting the wrong keys—but eventually I got the name of the owner—Elliot Barsch, a real estate developer with an office in the building I’d tailed Ben to earlier.
His firm, Barsch and Associates, LLC, was involved in three projects around the city. Not Trump-styled towers, but modest commercial properties. No obvious connection to the Raen, but I could check with Russo on that.
My phone buzzed. Incoming call, forwarded from the phone set up for the “Thomas Hale” number. I answered.
“Mr. Hale? It’s Ben Ajasic.”
Did he know where I was? “What can I do for you, Mr. Ajasic?”
“You can come up to Evanston and see Nerina for yourself. She’ll tell you nothing’s wrong.” He gave me Barsch’s address.
Oh-kay . . . “It’ll take me an hour or so.”
“We’ll be waiting.” He hung up.
Now what? I peered at the house. A porch light came on.
I called Russo. “Ben Ajasic says Nerina is in a house in Evanston. He wants me to see her to make sure she’s all right.”
He laughed. “Great. I’ll send some people to extract her—”
“Wait a minute. You can send some people, fine. But I’m here right now. I’ll wait for you, but then I’m going in to talk to her. If nothing’s wrong, we all leave. I don’t want to be in the middle of a SWAT team swarming the place.”
Russo hesitated. “No one will get hurt.”
“Fine,” he growled. “What’s the address?”
Forty-five minutes later my phone buzzed again. “We’re in a black minivan at the corner,” Russo told me.
I groaned. “I’m in a red Honda across the street from the house.”
“I know. I’m sending someone—”
The knock on my passenger side window made me jump. I unlocked the door.
A woman slid in next me. “Hi, Tom. Remember me?”
Georgeanne. She’d been with Carole Rossigna in Urbana last year. That time she’d been in a black T-shirt and tight white shorts. Not that I remembered her vividly or anything. Now she wore a skintight black turtleneck and dark slacks like yoga pants. She looked like a theater stagehand, or a would-be ninja, except for the heavy belt cinched around her slim waist that held a long dagger, an assortment of black pouches like Batman’s utility belt, and a massive handgun.
“Uh, hi.” I tried not to stare. “Nice to see you again. You’ve been all right?”
“I’m good.” She giggled. Then she reached into a pouch. “Take this.”
It looked like a pen. “So what is it?”
“It’s a transmitter.” She clicked it on top. “We’ll be able to hear everything. It writes pretty good too.” She tucked it into my shirt pocket. “Don’t zip up your jacket. I’m supposed to stay here. The others are around the house. The safe word is ‘pineapple.’” She kissed my cheek. “Nice to see you again, too, Tom. You’re looking good.”
Oh boy. I gripped the door handle, glad Rachel wasn’t anywhere around. “So, uh, ‘pineapple’? Wait! Just a test! Don’t come in! Just testing!”
Georgeanne laughed. “Relax. You’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” I nodded. “See you soon.”
I crossed the street, walked up onto the porch, and pressed the doorbell.
The door opened. Elliot Barsch stared through the screen door. “Mr. Hale.”
“Call me Tom.” I pulled on the screen door. “May I come in?”
Ben stood behind him. Another guy—big, with shoulders like a linebacker—leaned on his heels, arms crossed. “I’m Andre.”
Okay. I felt duly intimidated. “Where’s Nerina?”
“Right here.” The voice, soft and shy as a lark, floated down the stairs behind Barsch.
Nerina wore jeans and a pink T-shirt with a kitten on it. She stopped on the bottom step and grabbed Ben’s hand. “Is this—what you said?”
“You just have to talk to him.” Ben squeezed her fingers. “Just for a minute.”
“Nerina?” I smiled. “My name’s Tom.”
She nodded. “H-hi.”
“Are you all right?”
“What? Sure.” She looked at Ben, and then at Barsch. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
I sighed. “Your family is worried.”
Her shoulders tensed. “This is my family now.”
Barsch stepped forward. “Are we done here?”
I shook my head. “Not even close. I want to talk to Nerina outside. You can watch through the screen if you want, to make sure I’m not—grabbing her away, but far enough so we can talk. Otherwise I’m calling the cops right now.”
“No!” Nerina stomped a foot on the floor. “I’m here by myself! I won’t let anyone—”
“Neri . . .” Ben stroked her shoulder. “You’d better just talk to him. Then he’ll go away. Right, Tom?” He cocked an eyebrow at me.
I shrugged. “Sure. Is that okay with Andre?”
The big guy chuckled. “Whatever.”
Nerina grimaced. “Okay. Fine.”
Outside she crossed her arms and glared at me. “Who are you? What do you want?”
I started with the basic question: “Were you kidnapped?”
“No!” She looked back at Barsch through the screen. Then she dropped her head. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I hate them. I had to get out.”
“Away from your family?”
She closed her eyes. “You don’t know what they’re like.”
I had an idea. “You left without saying anything, or taking anything. Your suitcase was still in the closet.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You searched my place?”
I shrugged. “You disappeared. People were worried.”
“It was . . .” She glanced away from me. “Sort of an impulse. I just got tired of them. Anyway, I’m fine here.”
“You’ve been staying with Barsch? Why?”
“He’s Ben’s uncle.” She planted her hands on her slim hips defiantly. “I’ll find a job.”
I nodded. “Okay. So what happens next?”
“I don’t know. Look . . .” She leaned against the house with a sigh. “Ben’s nice, okay? I don’t exactly love him, but he’s a good guy. But I can’t go back there.”
“Okay.” I held up a hand. “I’m not here to kidnap you. Your family thought . . . anyway, I just need to do one thing.” I handed her a Thomas Hale card. “Call me if you need anything.”
Inside, Barsch smiled as Nerina hugged Ben. Andre watched me with suspicious eyes.
“Are we done?” Barsch glanced at the doorway.
“Just one thing.” I pulled my phone out. “Do you have a copy of today’s paper?” I’d seen this in a movie.
Andre found this morning’s Tribune. I had Ben hold it up so I could snap an image with him and Nerina. “Okay. Thanks.”
Nerina shook my hand. “Tell them I’m okay.”
Back in the Honda I looked at Georgeanne as I called Russo. “Call off the hounds. Nerina hasn’t been kidnapped. She’s there under her own free will.”
Georgeanne lifted an eyebrow.
“She can’t.” Russo sounded angry. “She knows how dangerous the Raen are.”
I wasn’t sure the Rossini were that much better. “She seems fine. You heard everything, right? There’s really nothing more for me to do.”
“Fine.” Russo made it a two-syllable curse. “Send me your bill.” He hung up.
I gave Georgeanne her pen back. “Good to see you. Love to Mika.” She’d been in Urbana too.
“She’s in the van. I’ll tell her.” She patted my hand. “Have a good night.”
She closed the door gently. I watched her disappear into the darkness. Okay, I was watching her butt, but it was gone too soon.
I decided not to tell Rachel about her.
Rachel’s ratatouille was excellent, and she’d made enough for three nights. On the other hand, I had to clean up a messy kitchen—my punishment for working late.
“So the case is done? That was fast.” We sat on the couch looking for something to watch on Hulu.
“What can I say? I’m good.” I kissed her. Rachel’s got short red hair and hazelnut eyes. We’d been living together for nine months or so, and sometimes it still felt like playing house.
My phone buzzed on the table in front of us. I wasn’t going to answer, but it was the Thomas Hale number. Russo again? I groaned. “This will just take a minute.”
Rachel punched my arm. “You lose your vote in what we watch. It’s going to be a chick flick.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hello, Tom—Thomas Hale speaking.”
“Mr. Hale? It’s Nerina. I need—help.”
Crap. I leaned forward. “What’s going on?”
“They—they killed Ben!” Her voice was a harsh, terrified whisper. “Andre—he shot him, and then there was this . . . monster. It killed Andre. I’m at . . . a bar. Can you come and get me?”
She sounded like she was hyperventilating. “Of course. Just breathe. What bar?”
“It’s called uh . . . Angelo’s. I think. In Evanston. Not far from Elliot’s house.”
“I’ll find it. Stay there. Make sure people can see you.”
“Now what?” Rachel turned the TV off.
“I’m glad I didn’t send the invoice right away.” I stood up. “Nerina. The kidnap victim. Something happened, she’s in trouble, and I have to go back up to Evanston. Where are my shoes?”
“Uh-uh.” Rachel stood up. “Over by the door. I’m coming too.”
“There was a monster involved.”
“Then I’m definitely coming.” She pulled on her boots, and managed to look sexy doing it while I tied my shoes. “Let me get my Taser.”
“Let me make a call.”
Angelo’s was quiet for a Thursday night. Hip-hop played on a jukebox, and a Black Hawks game played on the TVs over the bar.
Nerina sat in a corner, a windbreaker zipped up to her chin, nursing a Coke while keeping an eye on the door. She looked Rachel over as we approached the small round table.
“This is Rachel.” We sat down. “She works with me.”
“I’m his girlfriend, too. Just FYI.” She winked. Rachel tends to get possessive when other attractive women are involved.
“Hey!” The bartender was a skinny blond woman. “You guys want something to drink?”
“Two Heinekens.” I walked over the bar and paid for two heavy mugs of beer. I set them down in the middle of the table. “So what happened?”
“Elliot tried to—rape me.” She hung her head. “It just—right after you left. He just said, ‘It’s time,’ and then Andre was holding my arms behind my back. Ben tried to—stop him, and then Andre pulled out a gun and, and . . . shot him.”
I shuddered. I was glad I hadn’t known Andre was armed back at the house.
Rachel put a hand on Nerina’s arm. “But you got away. Good for you.”
She lurched back. “He ripped my shirt. That’s why—I grabbed a coat from the door and ran. Then this monster—I don’t know, it just came from nowhere. Elliot was shouting, and Andre was shooting at it, but it just kept coming. It had claws, and it, uh . . .” She rubbed her eyes. “There was blood, and Elliot was shouting, and Andre was on the floor, with his chest just—” She bit her lip. “I just . . . ran.” She grabbed a small napkin and started to cry.
“Good for you,” Rachel said again, squeezing her arm. “You’re all right.”
“What did it look like? The monster.” The Raen had sent monsters down the highway after me on my death race to Urbana.
Nerina blew her nose. “Like a—a white gorilla. Almost up to the ceiling. Heavy fur, and long, long claws on its hands and arms. And legs too, maybe. I didn’t get a good look . . .” She gulped her Coke. “I need a drink, but I don’t have the right ID.”
I pushed my beer toward her, hoping the bartender didn’t see. “We have to get you somewhere safe.” I slipped my phone out. “I know you don’t want to go back to your family, but—”
“Whatever.” She gulped half the beer and stood up. “Let’s go.”
I left some money next on the table and tapped my phone. “We’re coming out.”
“We’re right outside.” Georgeanne. “Look for the black van.”
Yeah. I’d called Russo. I didn’t want to face the Raen on my own. “Right.” I pushed through the door. All we had to do was get to my Honda and—
But Barsch stood there on the sidewalk.
A monster stood behind him.
Not the giant white gorilla with claws. This one looked like a dinosaur, seven feet tall and covered in gray scales, with wings, long arms, and spikes jutting from its huge hands. Fire blew through its lips—or it might just have been bad breath in the cold air.
“Come on, Nerina.” Barsch held out a hand. “It’s time.”
“You asshole.” She pushed at Rachel’s shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
I looked over Barsch’s head and spotted the black van. Come on, come on . . .
Several things happened at once:
The doors of the van burst open. Georgeanne and Mika, both in tight ninja outfits, jumped out. Georgeanne held her big handgun in her fist. Mika was smaller, but the long assault rifle in her arms made her look ten feet tall.
“Go home, Elliot.” That came from Georgeanne. “And get rid of your little playmate, too.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
The dragon sprang forward, roaring and waving its spikes wide.
Mike and Georgeanne fired their weapons. No effect. Their bullets might have gone straight through the creature’s leathery body.
I pulled at Nerina. “The red car. Run!” Maybe we could make it. Maybe . . .
And then a large white gorilla with claws all over its arms and hands dropped down from—where? It was just there in front of us, howling like the Incredible Hulk on an angry rampage. It raised its thick white arms and then it attacked the dragon, driving its claws through its thick gray scales. The dragon roared, twisted . . .
Barsch wheeled around, panting. “She belongs with us! Not with you! Not—”
The assault rifle pumped bullets at the dragon. Nerina dropped to her knees. Georgeanne turned to point her handgun at Barsch. Ready to shoot him down—
And then Rachel jammed her stun gun into Barsch’s arm.
“Yahhh!” Barsch fell to the sidewalk, twitching and moaning.
“Good job, babe. Hi, Tom.” Georgeanne grinned at me. Then she planted a boot on Barsch’s neck. “Stay down, asshole.”
Rachel nudged me. “Do you know her?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
The gorilla and the dragon were still slashing each other, roaring like, well, monsters. Nerina lay on her knees, covering her head. Gunfire crackled as Georgeanne and her friends kept shooting. How long until the cops showed up?
Then the gorilla leaned up, roaring. One long claw stabbed at the dragon’s chest. Blood whipped out, black and thick. The dragon roared in agony and anger, its arms flailing, and sank onto the pavement. Its head reared back as the gorilla jabbed a claw into its throat.
—and suddenly they were gone. No flash of light—it was more like a door sliding shut, locking them away in combat in some other dimension.
Barsch threw up on the pavement. Georgeanne stepped back. but kept her weapon trained on his back. “Mika? We clear?”
“Looks like.” Mika circled, keeping her weapon low. “Check the girl.”
“I’ve got her.” Rachel dropped down and wrapped an arm around Nerina’s shoulder. “It’s all right, kid. Calm down.”
“Are they . . .” Nerina peered around. “Gone?”
I looked around. “Maybe.”
The front door of the van popped open. Russo stepped down onto the street. “Thanks, Tom. We’ve got this.” He looked down at Barsch. “Go home, Elliot. Stay away.”
Barsch coughed and rolled over. “It’s not done.” He hauled himself to his feet. “She belongs with her own people.”
But he turned and stalked unsteadily away, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
Georgeanne holstered her pistol, but kept her hand close to her waist.
Russo held out a hand. “Come on, Nerina. Let’s go home.”
She flinched. “No. I don’t . . .”
Rachel held her shoulders. “Take your time, kid. Catch your breath.”
“We have to get out of here.” He pointed at Barsch, stumbling toward the corner. “He was shrouding the street so nobody saw the creatures, but he’s gone now. People will see—”
“Just hang on a minute.” I held up a hand. “First, thanks for staying in the car, Andy. While us and your squad were risking their lives out here fighting monsters.”
Georgeanne and Mika looked at each other. “Just doing our jobs,” Mika said.
Russo shook his head. “We don’t have much time—”
“I’ve just got a goddamn question!” The terror was fading, and I was feeling grumpy. “The Raen can create monsters, right? Like the ones last year?” I looked at Nerina. “Can the Rossini do that?”
Russo blinked. “What?”
I glanced at Georgeanne. “You two have got enough weapons there for an action movie with The Rock, Bruce Willis, Arnold, Vin Diesel, and the next Charlie’s Angels movie. You can’t make monsters, though, can you? That’s a Raen trick.”
“Monsters? No.” She patted the butt of her handgun. “But this works pretty good.”
“Yeah.” I looked at Nerina. “That gorilla—it showed up to help you at Elliot’s house. Didn’t it?”
“I don’t . . .” She cowered in Rachel’s arms. “I was so scared.”
“It’s all right now.” Rachel glanced at me. “Where are you going with this? Oh . . .” She smiled. “I get it.”
“Yeah.” I turned again and crossed my arms. “Nerina’s not Rossini, is she? She’s Raen. That’s what Barsch meant. They didn’t kidnap her—you did.”
Nerina pulled away from Rachel. “Wait. What?”
Georgeanne and Mika stepped back, ringing Russo defensively.
Russo leaned back against the van. “No. Nerina, we didn’t kidnap you. We found you—in a raid on a Raen compound. You were just a baby. Everyone else was . . . gone. My uncle Randall led the search. We were looking for scrolls, but all we found were a few burnt books. But we found . . . you.”
Nerina pulled her arms tight around her chest. “G-gone? Did you kill them?”
Russo tensed his shoulders. “Only the ones who resisted. We gave everyone a chance . . . most of them ran away.”
“Oh god.” Nerina choked. “Then I’m . . . who am I?”
The street was silent. Maybe Barsch’s shroud was still intact.
Russo held out a hand. “Come on, Nerina. It’s time.”
The wrong words. Nerina flinched. “No. No!”
“No way, asshole.” Rachel crouched, holding her stun gun. “Come on and get it, big boy. If you want.”
Wow. I’d never seen her look so sexy. Okay, maybe once or twice . . .
“Georgeanne!” Russo’s voice rasped. “Mika? Get her!”
I stepped in front of Georgeanne. “No.”
She laughed. “I like you, Tom, but—”
I shook my head. “We’re going home. You want to shoot me?” I hoped not. My life had flashed before my eyes more times than I liked to think about. “Let it go. Please.”
She glanced at Russo. After a moment, he nodded. “Fine.” He stepped toward the van door. “Take care of her, Tom. Protect her from the Raen. We’ll be in touch.”
Georgeanne kissed me again, on the lips this time, and hopped after Mika into the van. The doors slammed. The van roared away.
Rachel helped Nerina to the Honda. I got behind the wheel, my hands trembling. Rachel sat in the back, helping Nerina with the seatbelt. I started the car.
“You can stay with us tonight.” Rachel patted her hand. “You’ll be safe. I’ve got an ax.”
“I don’t know . . .” Nerina shivered. “I just don’t know anymore . . .”
“It’ll be okay.” I wasn’t sure I could promise that, but I had to say something. I started the car. “We’ll figure something out.”
“Right.” Rachel leaned forward, breathing on my neck. “Then I want to know what that kiss was about.”