Saturday, April 30, 2016

Portal-2, Part One

The office looked like Tokyo after a visit from Godzilla.
            I saw high-tech computer equipment crushed into Lego-sized blocks, a worktable in splinters, a folding chair torn apart, a deep gash in the drywall, and a long crack down the reinforced window. 
            Clark Glendon—the guy I was looking for—lay sprawled on the carpet, his torso ripped and bloody as if wolves had feasted on his flesh.
            I tried not to throw up. Cops don’t like crime scenes contaminated by vomit if it’s not their own.
            A laptop computer lay on the floor next to the dead body. It was the only object in the room that hadn’t been completely destroyed. A blue light blinked on its side.
            And then something peered around the edge of the bathroom doorway.
            Its face was covered in gray fur. Two long yellow teeth rose from its lower jaw, and its ears drooped down to its shoulders.
            “Christ,” I muttered. “Why can’t I ever have a normal case once in a while?”

Clark Glendon had been working on a consulting project for Lauren Moore, CEO of a small tech firm in downtown Chicago. I’d done some work for her before. When Glendon stopped showing up at her office with a deadline approaching, Moore called me.
            None of Glendon’s friends knew where he was. A sister in Oregon hadn’t heard from him in months. A few hours on the Internet got me the address of an office an Evanston building. The rent was being paid by a company called Tera Systems LLC.
            So when I got there I just knocked on a door marked GLENCON. But the outer door was unlocked. I figured I couldn’t get charged with trespassing if I just peeked inside.
            An outer office was sparsely furnished with a metal desk and a few chairs, and a calendar nailed to the wall, two months behind the date. So I pushed on the inner door behind the desk—and found Glendon, gutted and dead. And now this . . .
            The creature inside the bathroom didn’t attack. It just stared at me, trembling behind the door. As scared of me as I was of it.
            I’ve seen lots of strange and supernatural things—and gotten a reputation for handling problems straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—but I didn’t recognize this creature. And neither would any cops who came in to check out the scene.
            And their reaction might be, well, negative.
            “Hello?” I held up a hand. “My name’s Tom.”
            “Tommm . . .” It whimpered. “Tommm?”
            “Right. Tom. Tom Jurgen. I—”           
            It ducked back into the bathroom.
            Fighting the impulse to turn and run, I took a deep breath and stepped carefully through the office, careful not to get close to the body or nudge any of the wreckage as I approached the bathroom door.
            The creature crouched next to the toilet. Its body was round and covered with gray fur. It had a short thick neck, two long, gangly arms, and two short, stubby legs. It blinked at me, as if it was trying to stay calm while it figured out what I was. Frightened.
            So we had that in common.
            “Hi there?” My voice shook and my throat was hoarse. I held up my cellphone. “I’m just going to take a picture, okay? Picture?” I felt like a tourist in a foreign land trying to communicate by talking too loud. But the creature didn’t argue or attack me. It just blinked again, and scratched its butt.
            Three pictures. I sent an email and then called Rachel.
            Rachel’s my girlfriend. At least sometimes. She lives upstairs from me, and she helps me out on my cases. She’s psychic, and she has some unusual abilities that come in handy when I’m handling supernatural cases.
            She picked up right away. “Hi, this is Rachel. I’m not here right now, unless your name is Brandon, and you’re calling to take me to an expensive restaurant or maybe buy me jewelry—”
            “Rachel? Shut up and check your email.”
            “What?” She sighed. “Is that any way to talk to me? No ‘Hello, how are you, I’ve missed you, what’s new’? I was thinking about letting you—”
            Shouting at Rachel never ended well, so I just cut in fast. “So I’m in the middle of a crime scene. There’s a dead body, and I need you to identify something. Please look at your email.”
            “Dead bodies? We talked about this, didn’t we? Hang on . . .” I heard the clicking on her keyboard. “Oh, wow. What’s that?”
            I sighed. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
            “Wait a minute, you just took me by surprise. Let me zoom in.”
            I held the phone to my ear and tried to breathe slowly. The creature cocked its head, watching me, curious but calming down.
            “Okay, here it is. That little fella is probably a wheesling. They live in another reality. How did it end up in a bathroom? Where are you?”
            “Evanston. No idea what it’s doing here. Can you tell me anything about them?”
            “I only read an article on them once a few years ago. Let me see . . . Okay, they’re smart, peaceful, mostly eat leaves and veggies. I like that.” Rachel’s a vegetarian.
            “So are they intelligent? Can you talk to them?”
            “They’re as smart as you or me. Or me, at least. But the wheesling language . . . Okay, do you remember Carrie Burke?”
            Carrie . . . I thought I’d met her once. “She’s your friend who doesn’t like me?”
            Rachel snorted. “That doesn’t exactly narrow it down, but yeah. Actually, she likes you fine, she just thinks I can do better. The thing is, she speaks wheesling.”
            Rachel could do better than me? Maybe, but that wasn’t a discussion I wanted to have right now. “So, will she try to talk to it?”
            “I’ll send her a text.” She hung up.
            I crouched in front of the little creature. “Wheesling?”
            Its ears fluttered. “Wheesling!”
            My cell phone buzzed. I just hoped it wasn’t a telemarketer. “Tom Jurgen, how can I—”
            “Tom? Carrie Burke. Rachel’s friend?” She sounded annoyed. “I just got Rachel’s text. What’s going on?”
            “I’ve got a—a wheesling here.” I leaned against the door. “Rachel said you might be able to talk to him. Or her. I can’t explain it right now. Would you do that? Please?”
            “A wheesling?” Her voice thudded against my eardrum. “Where did it come from? Wait—what do you want me to say?”
            “I don’t know.” I tried to think. “Just find out its name. Tell him I’m a friend. Can you do that?”
            “I’ll try. Give me a second, I need to find the Wheesling database. . . okay. I hope I’ve got the right accent.”
            I hit the speaker phone function and held the phone out. “Go.”
            Carrie spoke. The language was musical, full of short sounds and high pitches. The wheesling stared at the box, then jumped up, its mouth wide open, and answered with what looked like relief and joy.
            They chattered for a few moments. I thought I caught my name in the flow of strange words. Then Carrie said, “Okay, Tom?”
            “Tom!” The wheesling pointed at me. “Tommm!”
            I nodded. “Tom. Yeah, Carrie?”
            “His name’s Pontoavallian. He’s very scared.”
            I rubbed my face. “That makes two of us.”
            “I told him to go with you, that you’d take care of him. That’s right, isn’t it? You aren’t going to sell him to a zoo or make a pelt from him, are you?”
            Did all of Rachel’s friends hate me? “I need to get him away from a crime scene before the cops show up. I’m taking him home. Will he come with me?”
            “Yes. And I’ll be right over too.”
            I groaned with relief. “Thank you.”
            “Thank Rachel.” She hung up.
            I looked at the wheesling. “Pontoval?”
            His arms stretched toward me like a frisky orangutan. He sprang forward, and I teetered back as I caught him, grunting as my shoulder hit the wall. “Yeah, yeah, we’re good, just . . . okay, Pontoval? We’ve got to leave?”
            Uh-huh. I staggered, my legs shaking as I lugged him out of the bathroom. Pontoval weighed 50 or 60 pounds, and I hadn’t carried anything heavier than a large take-out meal in years.
            Pontoval clutched my shoulders. His fur smelled like long grass on a hillside, with some flowers in the background. His breath needed some mouthwash. I took careful steps through the room to evade the corpse and anything on the floor that looked like evidence the cops might want. I felt like I was playing Twister with a bag of rocks on my back. Pontoval squealed as I rocked on one foot, and patted my head as I lurched through the broken door to the front office.
            I paused, catching my breath. Out in the hall we might run into anyone. Maybe I could convince any office dwellers I met in the elevator that the wheesling was a pet from New Zealand or somewhere.
            “Tommm?” He sounded scared again.
            I patted his arm. “Pontoval.”
            “Mmm.” He rubbed his head against my shoulder.
            “Okay.” I hoped my legs would hold out. “Let’s go, Ponto.”

By the time I reached my apartment in Rogers Park, the late afternoon sun was fading, and Pontoval was sound asleep. I tried to carry him as gently as I could up the stairs to my apartment.
            I dropped him on the couch with a grunt. My back ached, and my mind was a mess. A dead body, a creature from another dimension, and a wrecked office. One plus one plus equals—what?
            I couldn’t really believe that Pontoval had killed Glendon and destroyed the office. His fingers didn’t have claws. And his two yellow teeth were long but blunt. Pontoval might be from another dimension, and he could have attacked Glendon in a confused rage. But he didn’t seem equipped to rip his body to bloody shreds.
            And he was sort of cute.
            I unscrewed a water bottle from the fridge. Back in the living room, I nudged the bottle against his thin lips like a father trying awkwardly to feed an infant for the first time.
            Pontoval grabbed the water bottle, leaned back, and sucked the water down with a single gulp. Rolling back and forth, he rubbed his chest and then emitted a loud, satisfied burp. “Tommm.” He threw the bottle onto the floor. “Tommm.”
            “Yeah . . .” I stroked his head. “That’s me.”
            A knock on the door startled me. “Tom?” Rachel. “It’s me. Us. Are you home?”
            I patted Ponto’s head. “Just a minute, okay? Okay?”
            “Ohh-kayyy!” He panted like a puppy. “Tommm.”
            I opened the door. “Hi—”
            “Hiii!” Ponto shouted from the couch. “Hiiii . . .?”
            “Hello!” Carrie was an African-American woman, tall and solid. “I’m just here to do a favor for Rachel. And to see . . . oh, hi there!” She circled around me and headed for the couch. “Pontovallian? Eeks som anti van pol arand . . .”
            Rachel came in behind her and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You okay?”
            I sighed with relief. Rachel has red hair and wide hazelnut eyes. I held onto her arm for a moment. “Oh, you know, a dead body, and a creature from another dimension—just another day at the office.”
            Ponto and Carrie were already chattering like old friends. Carrie sat on the floor, her legs crossed, and Pontoval bounced up and down like a puppy begging for treats. The couch had come from a resale shop, and I wasn’t sure how much pounding it would take, but this didn’t seem like the time to tell an alien from another reality to settle down.
            “How can she speak his language?” I asked Rachel.
            “She collects books. There’s this one manuscript from a 17th-century monk that she stole from . . . well, you don’t want to know.” She winked at me.
            Carrie and Pontoval were still talking. So I went back to the kitchen for some more water and a few cans of beer. “So what do wheeslings eat?”
            Carrie grabbed a bottle of water. “Greens. Vegetables. Just like a lot of us here. Ponto, alla van uto marre?”
            My phone buzzed. Lauren Moore. My client. “I have to take this.” I took a deep breath. “Tom Jurgen here.”
            “Tom? Hey, I just got a call. From the police. Clark is dead.”
            “Yeah. I know.” I hesitated. “It’s complicated.”
            Moore had led her company through two recessions. She was smart, and she knew me. “What’s going on?”
            I looked at Pontoval. He was still talking to Carrie, but his eyelids were drooping. She stood up and asked Rachel something, then headed into my bathroom.
            I leaned down. “What exactly was Glendon working on for you?”
            “It was just a website application! A . . . a shopping cart thing. What does that have to do with Clark getting killed?”
            I tried not to picture his corpse on the floor. “Maybe nothing. Look, do you know anything about Glendon working for Tera Systems? They were paying for his office in Evanston.”
            “Tera Systems.” Moore’s voice got quiet. “That’s Ray Antonias.”
            Antonias. I’d heard of him. Venture capitalists thought he was brilliant, and he’d had two cover stories in Fast Company on quantum computing. But his last two startups had crashed and burned.
            “Do you know he was working on for them?” I asked Moore.
            “Everybody’s got some kind of outside project, you know?” She sighed. “Shit. I’ve got a deadline coming up. Do you know any computer wizards?”
            I looked at Rachel. She did graphic design, and she knew more about technology than anyone who didn’t work for Google or Microsoft. “Maybe. I’ll get back to you.” I hung up.
            Carrie emerged from my bathroom. “Men,” she muttered.
            “Sorry.” I kept my voice quiet to avoid waking Pontoval. He was snoring softly. “Can you tell me what happened?”
            “I’m working with vocabulary from a book 400 years old, just so you know.” She grabbed a bottle of water from the table. “Anyway, it sounds like he was with his clan by a river, and they were attacked by something called the—” She struggled with the pronunciation. “The voarkla. Ponto was running, and the voarkla was right behind him. Then there was a bright red star right in front of him, next to the water. He fell—not into the water, but it was dark and cold. Then he was in a strange place, full of strange things. He was scared.”
            I couldn’t get the image of Glendon’s bloody body out of my mind. “I found him in an office in Evanston. There was a man there. Dead. Ripped up, blood all over the carpet.” I took a breath. “I need to know if Ponto killed him.”
            “What?” Carrie looked ready to slap me. “The wheeslings are peaceful. They’re not even carnivores.”
            I glanced at the small creature. Big fangs, yeah, but he looked kind of helpless, especially with his eyes closed. “So if Ponto didn’t kill him, what did? Did he see anything once he got . . . here?”
            “He heard screaming, but he was too afraid to look. He says he hid behind a big white statue over a well filled with water—”
            I nodded. “That would be a toilet.”
            She glared at me. “Right. It was big and shiny. Then he saw a red light again outside the door. Like the red star. Everything got quiet, and it was gone. He stayed there until—well, you.”
            So if the voarkla followed him to our dimension, where was it now? I hoped back home. If not . . .
            Carrie took one last swallow of water. “I have to go. I don’t know how he got here, but you have to find some way to get him back.”
            I wished I knew the answer to both questions. “Thanks for coming.”
            Rachel gave her a hug. “Tom’s not a bad guy. Right?”
            “Ponto likes him. That’s something.” She left.
            Rachel looked at me, hands on her slim hips. “Now what?”
            I rubbed my eyes, stressed out and exhausted. “No idea. Maybe I’ll think of something in the morning.”

I woke up the next morning with Pontoval next to me on the bed, breathing in a steady, sleepy rhythm. At least he was on top of the blankets, not snuggling me between the sheets.
            I slid out of the bed carefully and staggered toward the bathroom. Waking up next to a monster—whether the monster was Pontoval or me—was no way to start a tough day. 
            I’d fixed up a bed of sheets and pillows for him—on the floor!—while Rachel went to the store for mixed greens and vegetables. Then we ordered pizza. Then Rachel left, leaving me with a wheesling I couldn’t talk to, but who seemed to trust me. We were both exhausted, so we collapsed in the bedroom by 10:00.
            In the bathroom I turned the radio on to NPR to brush my teeth, keeping the volume low. The local news was predictable: more problems with the public schools, corruption in the governor’s office, and then—
            “Chicago Police are investigating a string of animal attacks spreading from Evanston and Rogers Park down toward the Lakeview neighborhood. Two customers at an Evanston CompUniverse store were severely mauled last night by an animal described as a large coyote or wolf, which disappeared before authorities could capture it. A woman in a Morse Avenue coffee shop was also injured early this morning by a creature that witnesses said resembled a large rabid dog which somehow got inside the shop and leaped up from underneath a table, or as one witness put it, striking from behind the screen of the victim’s laptop. Once again it got away before officers arrived. Police are advising citizens to be wary of possibly rabid stray dogs. The Chicago Bulls won another game last night against the—”
            Oh hell.
            I washed my face the sink as fast as I could, then dashed back to the bedroom for my phone.
            “What?” Rachel groaned. “Oh, it’s you. Hang on while I push Chang and Julio out of the way, they always hog the bed—”
            “The voarkla’s still here.” I pulled a drawer open looking for pants. “It’s on the radio. Check out the news sites, will you? They reported attacks in Rogers Park and Lakeview, just like—”
            “Voarkla?” Pontoval sat up. “Voarkla!”
            “Got to go.” I dropped the phone. Pontoval jumped off the bed, and completely forgot any instructions I’d tried to give him on the use of the thing called a “toilet.” Fortunately I’d put lots of sheets down on the floor. Even so, the cleanup wouldn’t be fun.
            I waved my hands, but Pontoval only danced back and forth, squealing like a frightened child.
            “Pontoval!” I kneeled down in front of him. Why didn’t I ask Carrie to teach me some words? “It’s me! Tom! You’re safe! Tom?”
            He squatted down, panting. His gray furry shoulders shook, and then he leaned forward to grab me in a hug. “Tommm,” he murmured. “Tommm.”
            “Yeah, that’s me.” I held him close, hoping he was finished. He shuddered, moaning, and I felt his lips licking my shoulder.
            I try to be open-minded, so I let him take a few minutes to calm down. Then I gently pushed him back. “Stay?”
            “Tommm.” He looked up at me, his jaws wide in a smile. Then his eyes flicked down at the mess on my rug. “Toy-lett?”
            I patted his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
            He scampered toward the bathroom. I sighed. Then, still in my boxers, I searched the Internet on my phone to find the number for Tera Systems.

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