Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Our Midst, Part One

The VP looked at my business card, then at me. “Private detective?”
             “That’s right.” It was right there in black and white: Thomas H. Jurgen, Private Investigations. I guess I don’t look much like Humphrey Bogart—more like Steve Buscemi on a bad hair day. “It’s about Cyrus Newell. He works in your Tech Support department.”
            The VP—Bob Kenzie—blinked, as if he only vaguely recognized the name. “Well, I don’t know if I can tell you much about him. It’s been pretty crazy around here. Our CEO was murdered over the weekend, you know.”
            I knew. The murder had been in the newspapers and all over the Internet. Christopher Martin, founder and CEO of PKCom, a software design firm, had been shot to death in his office sometime on Saturday night. The Chicago PD hadn’t arrested anyone yet, but they were assuring the media that they were on top of the case.
            That didn’t matter to me. Or my client. “The thing is, his partner Jason hasn’t heard from him since Saturday morning. He’s not answering his cell phone or texts or emails. It’s Monday morning, and Jason’s getting frantic.”           
            “You’d have to ask them in Tech Support, then.” Kenzie leaned back in his chair and glanced at his computer screen. “I’m trying to keep an eye on everything around here, but—”
            The door opened without a knock. An African American woman leaned through, tall and imposing, with black hair in thick dreadlocks. “Bob, is there any news about—oh.” She spotted me. “Hello. Sorry. Bob, I was just wondering—”
            “No, Emily.” Kenzie inhaled sharply. “I haven’t heard anything from the family. They’ll deal with it after the funeral.”
            Emily stood her ground. “But you talked to them, right?”
            “I mentioned your interest. And your qualifications.” He crossed his arms. “But they really aren’t ready to make a decision yet.”
            “All right.” Emily frowned, unsatisfied. “Please let me know, okay?”
            Kenzie frowned as the door closed. “There’s a certain amount of jockeying going on for Christopher’s job. He hasn’t even been cremated yet.”
            I stood up. Kenzie clearly wanted to be left alone with his computer. “So would it be okay if I talked to your Tech Support people?”
            “Just don’t interrupt them if they’re on the phone.” Kenzie waved a hand, happy to be rid of me.
            Outside his door, another woman confronted me. She had long blond hair and violet eyes, and legs like a supermodel. “Is he alone?” she demanded.
            “Unless he has a secret passageway.” I smiled. “Hi. I’m Tom Jurgen.”
            “I’m in sales.” She smiled, in case I turned out to be someone important. “Candace Randall. Sorry, I have to . . .”
            She grabbed the doorknob. “Bob, have you heard anything about—”

The Tech Support team was located in a cluster of cubicles at the back. Two women and three men, all ignoring me as they peered at their monitors, tapping their keyboards or talking on their headsets. I waited until one of the women sat back and yanked her headset off with a groan of disgust, took a gulp of coffee, and then glared at it for being cold.
            “Hi.” I dug in my pocket for a card. “I’m Tom Jurgen. Cy Newell’s friend Jason Schmidt hired me to—”
            “Yeah, Jason called me on Sunday.” She was a young African American woman in jeans and a University of Chicago sweatshirt. “I’m Kathy. I’m the Tech Support manager. As much as you can manage a bunch of yahoos like these guys.” She looked at my card. “A private detective, huh? You carry a gun?”
            “Just a Taser. Sometimes.”
            “Well, don’t Tase me, bro, but I don’t know much I can tell you about Cy.” She shoved her chair back.
            I followed her to the coffee maker. “Look,” Kathy said. “I was talking to cops all weekend after Chris got—you know.” She filled her mug. “Cy is a good guy, smart and all that. But he just cut out on us. He was supposed to be working the weekend shift, but he never checked in with his keycard. So he wasn’t here. That’s what I told the cops. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
            “Could he have gotten in without his keycard?”
            She shrugged. “Only if someone opened the door for him.”
            Jason had talked to the cops but he didn’t have the feeling they were looking for Cyrus as a suspect in the murder.

Then he shows up at seven thirty this morning for five minutes, and that’s it. I can’t have someone I can’t depend on.”
            “Wait—” This was new.  Jason hadn’t heard anything from Cyrus since Saturday morning, “Cyrus was here today?”
            She filled her mug. It had a PDCom logo. “Like I said, seven thirty or so. I was on the phone with a condo manager who couldn’t open an app, but I think Brian talked to him for a minute. Damn it!” She’d finished the pot. “Now I have to make more.”
            “Which one is Brian?”
            She pointed to a heavyset older man in a sweater vest talking on a headset. “You can talk to him, I guess, but don’t bother him too long, you know?”
            I waited ten minutes until Brian’s call was finished. He was a balding middle-aged white guy, and instead of asking me if I carried a gun he wanted to know about taking pictures of cheating wives. He seemed worried when I told him most of my jobs involved catching employees cheating on their workers comp.
            Eventually I got to the point. “So Cyrus Newell was here this morning?”
            Brian nodded. “Yeah. Just for a minute.”
            “What for?”
            He shook his head. “He picked up a book. Then he left.” His phone buzzed. “Damn it. I’ve got to answer this.”
            I sat down at Cyrus’ desk. It was typical: a phone and a headset, scattered pens, a legal pad filled with unintelligible scrawls, a stapler, and a pack of wild berry bubble gum. Pulling open the drawers I found blank legal pads, boxes of paperclips, staples, tape, and tissues, along with a black T-shirt still wrapped in plastic.
            I stood and opened the shelf above his desk. Books, mostly about programming and computer maintenance, plus a guidebook to Chicago restaurants—and a gap next to a book titled Demons: In Our Midst, Vol. II.
            So where was Volume One? I pulled it down. “Did the book look like this?” I asked Brian.
            He glanced over at me, still on the phone. With a quick nod, he whispered, “Maybe. —Right, Mr. Connors, what I’m going ask you to do is . . .”
            A dozen page corners or more were turned down. I opened to one of them.
            “. . .  in which case the demon will resist. To force compliance, assemble the following objects—”
            I snapped the book shut. Demons? Cyrus’ boyfriend Jason knew about my reputation for dealing with the supernatural—not a career path I would have chosen on my own—but he hadn’t given me any reason to think that his boyfriend was involved in anything out of this world.
            “I’m going to borrow this,” I announced, though no one in the IT crew was paying any attention to me. I wrote out a receipt and left it in Cyrus’ desk with my card. “Thanks for your help.”
            Kathy waved as I left.

In my Honda I called my client. Jason worked at a shoe store, and he sounded out of breath when he answered his cell phone. “I’m between customers. What have you got, anything?”
            “Nothing yet.” I knew that would be his first question, even though I’d just taken the case this morning. “I just need to know, is Cyrus involved in anything like . . .” I hesitated, trying to think of a way to ask the question that wouldn’t immediately freak Jason out. Or make him question my sanity. “The occult?”
            Jason laughed. I tensed, ready to get fired, until he said, “Oh God, yeah. He’d be doing séances every night if I let him. It’s mostly harmless, but every once in a while some weird stuff happens.”
            Weird stuff. “Like what?”
            “Oh, just—wait, is he mixed up with Satanists or something?”
            A serious question. No trace of disbelief or sarcasm. Which only made me more nervous.
            “Not that I know of. What made you ask me that?”
            “Just—sometimes he tries to do spells to draw spirits and stuff, and there are weird noises and things falling off the shelves. And some of his friends who come over are just—weird.”
            Terrific. “I’ll want their names, but later. Did he say anything about the CEO of his company dying all of a sudden?”
            “Chris Martin? Yeah, it was in the news when we got back from Michigan. He never knew Martin all that well anyway.”
            “Okay.” I tried to think. “He’s got a book at work called Demons In Our Midst. Do you know anything about that?”
            Jason laughed again. “I gave it to him for Christmas last year. Both volumes. He took them to the office for something to read at lunch. Why?” His voice dropped. “Did he get possessed or something?”
            “He had it at work, and he took volume one with him when he left work, after getting a phone call. Do you know anything about the books?”
            “No, I never read that stuff. It’s Cyrus’ thing. I got it because a friend of his—hang on, I’ll be with you in a minute, okay? It was Victoria Sorenson. I can text you her number, all right?”
            “Fine. Thanks. I’ll call when I know something.”
            “Thank you. Yes! How may I help—” Jason hung up.
            I adjusted my butt on the car seat, took a deep breath, and waited for Jason’s text.

Victoria Sorenson owned a coffee shop in Lincoln Park called the Rare Bean. We met a few hours after the lunchtime rush. I’d purchased a large cup of the “Rare Roast,” and she sat across from me with an espresso.
            “Yeah, I brought the books to Cy’s place a few times.” She wore round glasses and a gold earring. “He really liked them. Jason asked me where he could find them. They’re not on Amazon.”
            I sipped my coffee. Hot. And strong enough to keep me awake all night. “What’s special about the first volume?”
            She glanced over her shoulder as a customer entered the store. “I don’t know. Not like part one is for beginners and part two is for advanced. Except part one is more about summoning, and two is maybe more about controlling. Wish I could use that on the people who work for me.” She twisted toward the counter, where a barista was checking her cell phone.
            “Tell me about summoning demons.” I’d met a few in the business, and survived without the help of any exorcist, but I wanted to know what the book said.
            “Well, all we did was try to bring one through and then send it back right away.” An eyebrow twitched. “Takes a lot of power to capture one and control it. And we didn’t really want to wreck anyone’s apartment. Just a game—get a look at one before it went back to, wherever.”
            Victoria swung around in her chair, but the barista was filling the customer’s order. She sighed. “The book named a bunch of demons and gave spells for bringing them. We picked minor demons, like one who just howled and flung poop like a monkey. Jason didn’t like that—” she laughed—“but we could send it away quick.”
            It sounded as fun as running with scissors. “Do you know why anyone from the group would have called him on Monday morning?” Right before he left work with Volume I.
            “No idea. I haven’t talked to most of them in weeks. Hey, Meg!” She called to the barista. “Check the cream!”
            Meg nodded, but her smile turned into a snarl when Victoria turned back to me. I managed to hide my smile.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a different coffee shop, calling everyone on Jason’s list of Cyrus’ friends. None of them could tell me any more than Victoria Sorenson, although two of them told me stories about the different demons they’d tried to summon, including a skeletal horse with the tail of a scorpion and a beautiful nude woman who emitted a pink mist that drove the males crazy and pissed off all the women.
            I had a few more calls to make, but at 5:30 I decided to go home. I was hungry and tired—an afternoon of phone calls can tire a person out no matter how much coffee is involved—but before going to my apartment I went upstairs to Rachel’s place.
            Rachel has curly red hair, hazelnut eyes, and psychic powers. She’s sort of my girlfriend, sort of my assistant, and frequently a pain in the butt. Our relationship is complicated.
            She opened to my knock and glared at me. “If you’re looking for dinner, I’ll open another can of Spaghetti-Os. If this is a booty call, I’ll have to check my schedule. There’s a clown convention in town, you know.”
             She wore a loose T-shirt and tight yoga pants that I tried not to pay too much attention to. “As much as do I dream about your booty, this is business.”
            She pouted. “You suck.”
             I held out the book. “Ever heard of this?”
            Rachel took the volume from me. “ ‘Demons, colon, in our midst.’ It’s the colon that gives it that seal of credibility. Volume II? You know I hate sequels.”
             “Volume one is missing. Along with its owner.”
            She grabbed the book. I followed her into the apartment. “I’m looking for the guy who owns both volumes. He took the first one right before he disappeared. And he and his friends like to play games with demons. So I’m hoping—”
            “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Rachel plopped down in her favorite fluffy armchair and started leafing through the book. “You want a beer? You can get me one too. And maybe make me a salad.”
            Tired, I gazed at her legs curled up under her body for a moment, and then headed for her kitchen. Just as I came back with her Heineken, my cell phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen.”
            “Tom Jurgen? It’s, uh, Brian Winston. From Endcom? It was this morning.”
            One of Cyrus’ tech support friends. I set down both beers on a table. “Yeah, Brian, what’s up?”
            “I kind of need that book back. The one you borrowed?”
            I looked at Rachel as she flipped through the pages. “Sure, I can bring it by tomorrow. What’s the—”
            “Can you bring it back to the office tonight? Cy needs it.”
            I sat down. “You talked to him?”
            “He called me here just a couple minutes ago. On the help line. I forgot you took the book, but then I found your note and your card. He’s coming right down. I don’t know why, but he seemed to want it right away.”
            I looked at the clock on Rachel’s DVR. “I can be there in twenty minutes or so. Keep him there, all right?”
            “I’m going to be here ‘til midnight, at least. See you soon.”
            I snatched the book from Rachel’s hands. “Hey, I was reading that!” She jumped up and reached to take it back.
            “I might have just found my missing person.” I kept the book out of reach while veering around her for the door. “This is what he wants. I’ll be back.”
            “Fine.” She popped open her beer. “Hey, where’s my salad?”
The Endcom offices still buzzed with work at 7:05. I made me way through the maze of cubicles. Candace Randall was on the phone at her desk, annoyed with her call but still more glamorous than any sales rep I’d ever bought anything from. Two guys were putting a golf ball down the aisle. A woman with orange hair was cursing her computer.
            Brian was at his desk, frowning at a diagram on his computer screen. Two other tech support workers were on their phones. I dropped the book on his desk.
            He looked up with a blink. “Oh. Things are getting crazy around here.”
            “Crazy how?” I pulled Cyrus’ chair over and sat down.
            “Software problems. This stuff worked a week ago, and now it’s full of bugs. That’s why I’ll be here all night.” He sighed. “Thanks for the book.”
            I stayed in the chair. “When is Cyrus coming?”
            He glanced at his phone. “He said he can’t come up here. He’ll call me when he’s downstairs. I’ll get him the book.”
            “So I’ll wait.” I sat back.
            This made Brian nervous. He tried to fix something in his diagram, then took a gulp from the can of Pepsi next to his mousepad. “I’m not sure you can see him.”
            Reporters and private detective sometimes have to be assholes. Polite, but still assholes. “He’s been missing for three days. His friend is worried. I’m going to talk to him.”           
            Before Brian could think of something to say, his desk phone buzzed. “Thank you for calling—oh. Yeah.” He looked over at me. “Okay.”
            He hung up. “Bus stop,” he told me. “Come on, I guess.”
            The street outside was quiet now that most workers were back home. I zipped up my jacket and followed Brian down the block. Across the street a man stood under a bus stop shelter, wearing a long coat and a baseball cap jammed down over his ears. A canvas messenger bag hung over one shoulder.
            Jason had sent me photos. It was Cyrus.
            He watched us as we crossed the street. Brian held out the book.
            “Thanks.” Cyrus grabbed it. “Who’s that?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I held out a card. “Jason hired me to find you. He wants you to call him.”
            Cyrus stared at the card. He was tall and broad, with long blonde hair in a ponytail and a ragged beard. He shook his head. “I can’t.”
            “Why not?”
            “It’s dangerous.” He took the card and tucked it into the book. “Thanks, Brian.”
            “Dangerous how?” I asked. “Is it about demons?”
            His jaw tightened. “You don’t know anything about demons.”
            “Actually, I do. But all I want is for you to tell Jason you’re okay.”
            “All right! I’ll call him.” He peered over my shoulder. “That’s my bus.”
            He fumbled with his messenger bag. As he shoved the book inside, I caught a glimpse of a laptop computer.
            I took a random shot. “Is that your computer?”
            Cyrus looked down into the bag. “It belonged to . . .” He closed the bag quickly. “I have to go.” He lifted an arm for the approaching bus. “Look, don’t tell Bob you saw me, all right?” He swung his head toward Brian. “Okay?”
            “F-fine.” Brian nodded, shivering. Maybe from the night air, maybe not.
            The bus stopped and the doors swung open. Cyrus hopped onto the first step.
            Then Brian crumpled to the sidewalk.
            The doors of the bus closed before I saw the blood on the back of his shirt. He tried to roll over, but then he collapsed, flat on the concrete. The bus rolled away with a burst of exhaust.
             I stared at Brian’s body and suddenly realized he’d been shot. And I was standing right next to him.
            My brain spun like an out of control car. I was going to get killed! Call 911. Where was the shooter? I was going to get killed . . .
            I was down on the sidewalk, my hands shaking as I fumbled with my cell phone. I tried to look for the shooter, but my eyes refused to focus on anything beyond Brian’s body. I still smelled the bus’s fumes.
            Rachel’s name came up first on my list of contacts. I resisted the urge to call her one last time—if it turned out that way—and forced myself to punch 911. “Shooting,” I grunted. “A guy’s been shot. Bus stop at Dearborn and Madison . . .”

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