Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Our Midst, Part Two

Only Sam Spade gets away with ignoring questions from the cops. I told them everything I could think of, over and over, from Cyrus’ interest in demons to Victoria Sorenson’s coffee, and for some reason my crush on Gretchen Ames in the fifth grade. They kept a straight face when I mentioned the demons, and smirked when I described Gretchen’s bright blue eyes. But in the end they let me sign a statement and told me to stay in Chicago and out of trouble, so by 3:00 in the morning I was free to leave.
            I called Rachel. She took a cab down to the State Street headquarters, helped me find my car near the site of the shooting, and drove us home.
            She didn’t speak to me behind the wheel. But as we walked into our apartment building, she punched my arm. “You jerk.”
            “Ow! I know, I know.” I was too tired to fight back. “Thanks for coming to get me. In the middle of the night.”
            “Oh, I was still up.” We trudged up the stairs. “But I need my sleep! And you know . . .” She groaned, stopped in the stairwell, and gave me a kiss. “You moron. I’d miss you if anything happened.”
            I leaned against the wall. “I will attempt to avoid bullets at all costs.”
            “You do that. You want to come up?” She lived above me. “To sleep, I mean. I’ve got a job in the morning.”
            I wasn’t going to get any sleep, but I didn’t want to be alone. We went up to her place and made coffee. Then Rachel went to bed, leaving me alone on her couch.
            I sat dozing over lukewarm coffee and trying to get a handle on the problem. I needed to call Jason, but I thought I should wait until at least 7:00 to let him know that I’d found his boyfriend and lost him. And that someone might be trying to kill him. Because I didn’t think Brian was the target.
            Despite the coffee, I fell asleep on Rachel’s couch until my cell phone woke me at 9:30.
            Jason. “The police were just here!” He sounded out of breath. “He said someone killed Brian, and Cyrus was there, and—what’s going on?”
            I told him the story of last night. “Like I said, I told Cyrus to call you. The good news is that you probably don’t need me anymore, because the police are going to be looking for Cyrus now.”
            “Because they think that guy was trying to murder . . .” I heard Jason swallow. “He was really after Cyrus?”
            “Well, maybe Brian was enough of an asshole for someone to assassinate him, but I didn’t get that feeling from him. But what’s going on, I don’t know.”
            That wasn’t the whole truth. I had the beginning of a hypothesis, but I didn’t want to share it with anyone. They might laugh at me.
            After Jason hung up, I looked for Rachel. She’d left for work—she’d picked up a design job at a marketing company in the suburbs—but I found a note and a bag of bagels, both of which made me happy. Or happier, at least. Then I went downstairs for a shower and fresh clothes.
            Then, because I was a reporter too long to give up on a good story even when I had other chores, I headed back downtown to visit Endcom again.

I forced myself to stand at the bus stop for fifteen minutes. First, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid to return to a spot where I’d seen a man die. I needed ten minutes to start breathing normally again and get my pulse back down to a reasonable level.
            Then I looked around to confirm something I’d started thinking about early this morning: Someone standing in the entrance to Endcom’s building would have a pretty clear shot at anyone lingering at the bus stop. I knew the police would think of this too—very few of the detectives I’ve met have been completely stupid. And I didn’t have any illusions that I was going to catch a murderer before the police. I just like to have all the facts I can get.
            So I crossed the street to go back to Endcom again.
            The police were leaving by the time I got up to the office. I recognized one detective from a previous case, and she glowered at me but didn’t slow down on her way to the elevator. Two other cops followed her, but they ignored me.
            Apparently word had gotten around that I was with Brian when he’d gotten killed. Emily, the woman with dreadlocks, looked at me as if I were carrying the Ebola virus. I heard my name whispered as I walked through the office toward Tech Support. A woman in blue jeans, walking toward me, turned abruptly and headed away.
            I gritted my teeth and kept walking, reminding myself that if I wanted everyone to like me all the time, I’d be better off driving an ice cream truck.
            A small wreath of roses sat on Brian’s desk in front of his dark monitor. Kathy Monroe stood in the center of the Tech Support area and crossed her arms as I approached, like a sheriff from an old western ready to draw six-guns.
            Two of the staff turned to watch. The rest kept their heads low.           
            I met Kathy’s face. “I’m sorry about Brian.” Then I bit my lower lip, nervous. What else could I say? I wasn’t getting any Christmas cards from these people no matter what. “I wanted to ask you a question.”
            She took a deep, calming breath. “Okay.”
            “What the hell are you doing here?” Kenzie’s voice, behind me. I managed to turn around without tripping.           
            “I’m really sorry about Brian,” I said again. “But Cyrus Newell is still missing.” Which was true, even I wasn’t sure Jason needed me to keep looking for him if the cops were on the hunt.
            “I want you out of here. Don’t make me call the police.” He glanced around the room, looking for support.
            “Was Christopher Martin’s laptop stolen after he died?” It was the question I wanted to ask.
            Kenzie’s head jerked back. “What the hell?”
            “Cyrus had a laptop computer in his bag. And Emily asked about a missing computer. Was that Martin’s computer?”
            “It was wiped remotely.” Kenzie looked at Kathy. “Right?”
            “Ye-es.” She leaned against her desk. “I deleted everything I could.”
            “Then that’s it.” Kenzie waved a hand. “You’re done.”
            “Wait a minute.” I peered at Kathy. “Everything you could?”
            “I ran the deletion app. That’s standard procedure.” She spread her hands. “But Chris never let any of us service it, so there could be stuff on there that was protected. It’s possible.”
            “Whatever.” Kenzie shook his head. “It’s not your business, Jurgen. You need to leave, now.”
            I could take a hint. “Yeah. Sorry to bother you. Thanks for your help.”
            Kenzie followed me to the elevator. As we waited, Emily with the dreadlocks came around the corner. “Bob, have you heard—oh.” She shut up again when she saw me.
            “For Christ’s sake, Emily, the family isn’t making any decisions on the next CEO until next week!” Kenzie’s voice shook.
            She planted her hands on her hips. “Well, just so you know, the Kazam app keeps crashing and it’s only six months old, and the update to Karla 1.2 is weeks behind. We won’t make the launch date.” She wheeled around and headed away.
            The elevator doors opened. I stepped inside before Kenzie could shove me.            I watched the numbers count down. So everyone at Endcom hated me. Okay, fine. The emotional turmoil probably wasn’t unusual in a company after a co-worker’s murder. But the tech problems seemed to be mounting. My hypothesis was beginning to turn into a theory. I needed to call Rachel, even though she was at work.
            But in the lobby I saw Candace Randall in a corner near the stairwell. I heard her, actually, shouting into her cell phone “Look at my numbers! Do you really think—that’s not the point, is it? It’s about—but my numbers are solid! Does that even matter to you? Especially now?” She leaned back against the door, her face red with frustration.
            She was wearing a black blazer over a white blouse, with a skirt short enough for the blazer to meet the hem. The lone security guard just leered at her legs as she argued with her phone.
            I dropped my cell phone into a pocket and watched her from across the lobby until she swore one more time and hung up. Disgruntled ex-employees are sometimes my best source of information.
            She shot me a hair-trigger glare. “What do you want?”
            I kept a respectful distance. “Looks like you’re having a bad day.”           
            “I just got fired.” She looked out at the street. “Bastards.”
            “So do you want to talk about it?”
            Candace groaned, ran her hands through her long blonde hair, and then flashed a smile that had probably sold a lot of whatever Endcom made. “Buy me a drink?”

So I sat in a bar at 11:30 in the morning, sipping a Pepsi while Candace slurped her gin and tonic through a tiny cocktail straw. “Ahh.” Her eyes were closed. “Ahh. Rat bastards.”
            I opened with the obvious question: “Why did they fire you?”
            Her eyes popped open as if she’d forgotten I was there, and she shrugged her way out of her blazer. “Oh, I knew it was going to happen. I just thought I’d get a little more time. At least until after the funeral.” She grimaced. “Chris’ wife hates me. His kids hate me. And everybody there at Endcom hates me.”
            She leaned forward. “Look at me. Do I have to draw you a diagram?”
            The obvious conclusion slapped me across the face. But I could hardly ask her point blank if she’d been having an affair with the CEO. Could I? “You and Christopher Martin . . .”
            She snorted and sucked on her drink. “Me and Chris. Chris and me. You can ask anyone there! Candy Randy, that’s me. They’ve all got their version. Some of them are almost close. Except for Carter. He never saw me in my panties on top of the photocopier. Jerk.”
             “So he’s—gone, and you’re fired.” Master of the obvious, that’s me.
            “But I was really doing my job, damn it!” She bent down to whisper. “Second in sales last quarter! I’m in charge of two of our biggest accounts—and I earned it the right way, whatever that bitch Nikki says. Like she never played kissy-face with a customer to get a sale.” She waved to the waiter for another drink.
             I needed to refocus the conversation. And my imagination. Her blouse was sleeveless, her shoulders were bare, and I could see her bra strap. Bad Tom! “The customers seem to be unhappy lately. That’s what everyone’s talking about there.”
            “Yeah.” Candace sighed. “Chris always said that if he ever took a day off, the place would fall apart. I guess he was right.”
            Lots of CEOs don’t know how to delegate. I didn’t think that was Endcom’s problem right now. “What did he think would happen?”
            “He said something once about keeping everything in balance. I don’t know.” She sniffled, and then blew her nose on a cocktail napkin. “It was part of what I liked about him—the way he took it so seriously, checking his computer all the time. He took that goddamn laptop everywhere, everywhere! Even that time we went down to—” Her face flushed. The waiter brought her drink, and she gulped half of it down without the straw.
            The laptop again. “What was so important about his computer?”
            “He never let it out of his sight. Changed the password every day. Wouldn’t let anyone touch it, not even me. Not that I wanted to. I wanted . . .” She swirled the tiny straw in her glass. “I’m good at my job. I can do it. I just have to find another company. Then everything else . . . it won’t matter.”
            Was she really in love with her boss, the CEO? Or just hoping for a payout for keeping quiet about it? Except it didn’t seem to be much of a secret to her co-workers and Martin’s family, and she wasn’t keeping very quiet about it now.
            I was trained to ask questions and be skeptical of the answers. But I didn’t think she’d be this angry about losing her job if she’d really just been aching to become a trophy wife.
            I went back to my question before: “What about the laptop?”
            “I don’t know!” She slammed a hand on the table, shaking our drinks and drawing stares from nearby. “He’s dead, and no one—nobody—cares.”
            “I’m sorry.” I said it loud so the two women at the next table could hear. “It’s missing, like Cyrus, and it might be important.”
            “Cyrus . . .” She shrugged. “Who’s he again?”
            “He works at your company. Tech support.”
            “Oh, I don’t know those people back there.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m in sales. Or I was.” She drained her glass and waved again for the waiter. One of the women next to us glared.
            We were on a downhill slope, and I needed to get away before Candace crashed and I had to pick up the pieces. Not very gallant of me, but she had problems I couldn’t help with right now. I stood up as the waiter made a cautious approach. “I’ll take care of this,” I told Candace. “But thanks for your help.”
            “I’m sorry.” She rubbed her forehead. “It’s just been a bad couple of days.”
            The waiter ran my credit card at the register and told me he was going to stop serving her. I didn’t argue. Candace was upset, yeah, but I had a feeling she’d come out of this on her feet. Eventually.
            I was out on the sidewalk again when my cell phone started buzzing in my pocket. “Tom Jurgen.”
            “Yeah.” The voice sounded hoarse and tired. “It’s Cyrus Newell. I need to talk to you.”

Forty-five minutes later I was pulling into a motel parking lot on the west side, my heart pounding with impatience. I forced myself to sit in the car and look around for snipers until my neck hurt. Eventually I decided to risk a run to the bottom of the outdoor steps. I kept my head down as I dashed from the car.
            The second floor looked down over the half-filled parking lot. No shots rang out. I knocked on door 217.
            “Hi.” Cyrus peered over my shoulder to make sure I was alone. “Okay. Thanks for coming.”
            He wore jeans and a dirty gray T-shirt, his feet bare and his beard tangled.            He locked the door once I was inside, and then he held up the business card I’d given him. The one that emphasized my experience with vampires, ghosts, shapeshifters, and things that go bump in the night. Rachel had designed it for me. I’d given it to Cyrus on purpose.
            “Yeah, that’s me.” I leaned my shoulder against the locked door. “So what’s going on?”           
            Cyrus slumped on the unmade bed. “Is Brian—is he . . .”
            “He’s dead.” Yeah, I could have been more delicate. But I needed to find out the story. “Sorry.”
            “Damn it.” Cyrus looked at the floor and closed his eyes. “Damn it.”
            I looked around the room. The heavy curtains were closed. No suitcase or spare clothes, just a case of Mountain Dew next to the TV. Based on the state of Cyrus’ hair, loose now instead of tied back, I figured he hadn’t changed or showered in a few days.
            The laptop sat on a pillow near the headboard, screen open and dark.
            I sat down in one of those uncomfortable motel chairs placed around a small round table next to the window. “Cyrus?”
            He looked up, frightened. “What?”
            “What happened?” It was the kind of question I’d been asking for years. “Just tell me.”
            “I didn’t see.” He rubbed his neck. “But it had to be Kenzie.”
            “Bob Kenzie?” The VP.
            He sank down on the mattress, staring at the ceiling. “Here’s what happened, okay? He called me Monday morning. He wanted me to hack into Christopher’s laptop.”
            “The one that was stolen.”
            “Yeah. Yeah.” He tugged at his beard. “I knew that, but I didn’t think—he offered me a lot of money. And I had an idea about what was on it. In it. Whatever.”
            “So that’s why you took the book.”
            “Right.” He stood up abruptly, then dropped back down. “I figure he just grabbed the laptop when he had a chance. We all knew about it—Christopher never let it out of his sight. There were all kinds of rumors, you know, porn or secret files or blackmail. I’m surprised he didn’t have it handcuffed to his arm.” He snorted. “That would make his affair with Candy Randy kind of tricky, though, unless she’s into handcuffs.”
            I looked over at the computer. “So did you get into it?”
            “It was mostly wiped, but part of it was protected. The part Kenzie wants.” He sighed, stood up, and grabbed a can of Mountain Dew. “You?”
            “No, thanks.” I didn’t need to get more wired by sugar and caffeine. “So why did Kenzie try to kill you last night?”
            “He wants the laptop back. I told him I wasn’t going to help him—I told him I was going to throw it in Lake Michigan—and he went crazy.” He swigged his soda. “But I can’t let Bob have it. I can’t let anyone have it.” He shuddered.
            “Because of what’s still inside?”
            Cyrus nodded.
            I looked around and spotted the two books on the nightstand next to the bed. “Are those helping you?”
            “Not yet. I’m still trying.”
            “So the demon is still there? Inside the computer?”
            We both stared at the machine. Finally Cyrus sighed again. “Yeah. There’s a demon stuck inside there.” 

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