A tall chain link fence surrounded the research facility. One small, square building, and two long greenhouses stretching out toward the horizon. Steel gates blocked my Honda.
I pulled up to the speaker and lowered the window. “Hello?” I shouted. “Tom Jurgen? I’ve got an appointment? Hello?”
“Pull forward, please.” The gates pulled apart slowly.
I was in Winnetka, a northern Chicago suburb, not quite in the middle of the Midwestern prairie—such as it is—but 20some miles from downtown.
A tall African-American woman in jeans and a leather jacket met me just outside a pair thick glass doors. “Thomas Jurgen?”
“Just Tom. Nice to—”
“I’m Shereece Crowley. Head of security here. Come with me.”
The door opened automatically. I followed Crowley inside.
A white guy in a blue jacket and a skinny necktie watched security cameras behind the front desk. I had to sign in, and Crowley had to okay my signature. The guard nodded and waved us through. I was pretty sure he was checking out Crowley’s butt as we headed back.
Crowley plunged down a long hallway running through the middle of the building. I hustled to keep up.
“So what kind of research do you do here?”
“We’ll discuss that.” She pointed to a door. “In here, please.”
A small office. No windows, but a desk, two chairs, a computer . . . Crowley closed the door and sat down behind the desk. “You’ll need to sign this nondisclosure agreement before we can discuss the case.” She dropped a pen on top of a sheet of white paper with a lot of legalese.
I looked at the pen. It was a blue Bic, nothing special. “What’s going on here?”
She leaned back in the chair. “I called you because you have a certain reputation for discretion about—unusual cases.”
Vampires, demons, shapeshifters . . . she had that right. I nodded. “I’ve kept my mouth shut about a lot of weird things. I’d tell you about them, but then I wouldn’t be known for my discretion, right?” I dropped the pen on the desk. “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but maybe you want someone else.”
She stood up, annoyed. “Fine. Follow me.”
Crowley led me to the center of the building, past a few curious researchers in lab coats and one woman pushing a cart with sandwiches, a coffee urn, and assorted sodas. Crowley slid a security card through a slot, then pressed a code on a keypad. Then she pushed down on the handle and shoved the heavy door open.
The odors hit me right away. The room inside smelled like a dog kennel, with the heavy aroma of disinfectant a hint of kitty litter. “What is this? Animal testing?”
Crowley led me forward. A slender white woman in a lab coat looked up from her computer, then went back to her data. A young Hispanic guy hurried past us, gazing at his iPad. The nametag on his coat read Rodrigues.
Cages lined the walls of the room. Most of them were empty, but a few held monkeys jumping up and down. Except . . . they weren’t really monkeys. Or even gorillas.
In the center of the room stood a tall gray-haired man, bending to stare at a computer terminal. No lab jacket, just a business suit that looked as if it needed a good dry cleaner.
“We need to do the blood work again.” He was talking to an Asian woman with a long black ponytail and SMITH on her nametag, working at a computer. “Check all the—” He spotted us, and straightened up, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Shereece, what are you doing here?”
“Doctor Whitmer, this is—”
“Tom Jurgen.” I held out a hand. “So what is this place?”
“We’re doing research.” Whitmer blinked as if everything was obvious.
“We need to see A3.” Crowley gestured toward a cage in the corner.
Suspicious, Whitmer examined me. “This is all confidential.”
“I went through that with Ms. Crowley. As long as you’re not doing anything illegal here, nothing I see here has to go anywhere else.”
For a moment I was sure he was about to throw me out. Then his jaw clenched. “Just make it quick. Don’t get them upset.”
“This way.” Crowley pointed.
The thing in the cage had a human shape, but it wasn’t human. Or at least it wasn’t anymore. Its clothes were rags. The face was covered with long scars and thick blotches, and I could see only two or three teeth in its mouth. Its eyes were yellow and bloodshot. Each breath was a gasp of pain—and anger.
Four others were confined in tight cages bolted to the block wall. One paced back and forth as far as it could in the six-by-six space. Two slept. The other one—a female—tapped a fist on the bars of the cage in a slow rhythm.
The floors inside the cages were strewn with straw, and a hose from above dripped water into bowls below. Trays of food pellets were scattered around. This place was a kennel. For . . .
“Zombies?” This was new. And creepy.
“His name was Larry Bennish.” Crowley’s voice was quiet as we looked at A3. “He was working for us in Costa Rica when he and three members of the research team developed the same sort of disease spontaneously. They passed it on two other members of the outpost before they could be—restrained. He was brought here to try to find some sort of treatment.”
We were back to my first question: “What kind of research are you doing here? What were they doing?”
“Our work is in bioengineering.” Crowley looked at her boss. “Doctor Whitmer is one of the top experts in the genetic structure of the plants of Central America.”
“They were extracting DNA from a series of previously undiscovered jungle flowers,” Whitmer said. “One of them shows promise in halting infection by strengthening the immune system. The team was examining it to see if they could enhance its effects.”
“Is that what caused . . .” I looked into the creature’s yellow eyes. “This?”
“No.” Whitmer responded automatically, annoyed by the implication. “We’re looking for—”
“We don’t know for sure.” Crowley was cautious, as if she didn’t want Whitmer to say too much. “The samples we have here are in isolation. So far we can’t find a link, but we have to handle them with extreme care.”
“You’re not just a security guard.” I looked at her. “You’re a scientist, too. Right?”
“I’ve got two Ph.Ds. “ She smiled. “Stanford and UCLA. And I was on the basketball team four years at Duke. It all comes in handy.”
Spit dripped from the creature’s teeth. I stepped back from the cage. “Who else knows about this? The CDC, or . . . ” I tried to keep my voice from shaking with fear—and my legs from taking me out of here as fast as they could.
“We’re trying to keep the government out of this until we have a treatment.” Whitmer stood right behind me. “Didn’t you read the nondisclosure agreement?”
I sighed, wishing for a nice simple runaway kitten case. “What kind of treatment is there? The only one I can think of comes from Night of the Living Dead.”
Crowley stared at A3. “Larry has a brother named Adrian. Right now, Adrian’s blood seems to be the best method of slowing the progress of his disease, but we can only make the transfusions every eight weeks.”
“We’re close to developing a synthetic substitute.” Whitmer peered at A3’s face. A3 glared back. “But until it can be thoroughly tested—”
“What about the others?” I saw four more creatures in different stages of—decomposition.
“Three of them have relatives capable of making the same donation.” Crowley rubbed her forehead. “The fourth does not. She’s our control.”
I looked at the female. Her skin looked as if someone had razed it with a vegetable peeler, hanging off her body in strips curled, twisted strips. Her eyes glowed like shooting stars, staring through the bars of her cage as if she couldn‘t process the colors in front of her. Her hair was gone, and her skull was bony and blotched. She gazed back at me, tapping her bars, rocking back and forth as she crouched in the soiled straw. A chain was clamped around one skinny bare foot, and sores oozed pus around her ankle.
I turned away. “So I’m here because . . .?”
“Adrian didn’t show up yesterday. He’s not at home, not at work, isn’t answering his cell phone, doesn’t respond to email or text.” Crowley looked at her wristwatch. “If we don’t get him in here for the transfusion soon, A3 will start to regress. We’ll lose all the progress we’ve made.”
“He was . . .” I looked again at A3. Larry. “He was worse than this?”
Crowley nodded, her eyes flickering. “Lots worse.”
I didn’t want to imagine it, especially looking at the “control” right next to him. “Okay. Show me what you’ve got on him.”
The secret to find a missing person isn’t looking for him (or her), but looking for the friend who knows where he or she is. For right now, my best bet was to go through his contacts. He’d listed his parents and a cousin. Crowley gave me a cubicle with a phone and a computer terminal, and I started punching numbers.
Adrian’s parents lived in Washington State. They didn’t quite believe my story about trouble at work—he was a sales rep for a printing company—but they sounded sincere when they told me they had no idea where he was, and that he hadn’t answered any of their messages or emails. They’d already gotten one phone call from his employer—why didn’t I talk to that nice woman Sherry who called yesterday?
I had better luck with his company’s office. For one thing, I could tell his co-workers that Adrian’s brother was sick. Alarming his parents might have brought them out here on the next plane, but his cube mates only expressed mild sympathy while explaining that they had no idea where he was, he didn’t call in sick, and there’s a meeting in five minutes . . .
I talked to six people at the company, including Adrian’s boss, before hitting someone who’d talk about the girlfriend.
“Gina, uh, Hailey, I think?” This came from a woman named Michelle. “I don’t know her number or, or anything, but I think she works for a place called New Earth. I think it’s some kind of environmental group or something. In the city.”
I thanked her, then turned to the terminal to look up New Earth.
Its website described the nonprofit as “an environmental monitor—keeping eyes on big business, bioengineered food, animal testing, and other potential threats to our health and our environment.” It featured lots of stock footage of smokestacks polluting the air, wide fields of (presumably) mutant corn, oil spills in the ocean, and cute little rabbits in cramped cages. An “About Us” page named a Board of Directors, none of whom were Gina Hailey, but she was listed as office manager with a phone number and email address.
I punched in a number—not hers. “New Earth Chicago,” a deep male voice answered.
“Is Gina Hailey in this afternoon?”
“She sure is. Can I connect you?”
A few moments later, a woman’s voice picked up. “Hailey?”
“Ms. Hailey?” Quick, come up with a name, and—something else. “Hi, I’m John Bengstrom, from, you know, Citywide Insurance. Is this the Regina Ann Hailey who attended Lane Tech High School from 2001-2004?”
“Uh . . .” I could hear the suspicion in her voice. Besides, no one wants to talk to insurance agents on the phone. “I think you might have a wrong number.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I hung up.
The “About Us” page gave me the place’s address. I went to find Crowley.
“New Earth’s not as bad as some of the other groups.” Crowley walked me to the front door. “They mostly just want to post news stories on their website and try to get media attention. I’ve talked to their people.”
But the connection was there. It was my best lead. “Are they dangerous?”
“Just misguided.” She sighed. “None of these groups ever understand the science. They just want to ignore our work making food safer, looking for medicines and vaccines, and improving everyone’s quality of life. I get what they’re all saying, but …” She stopped as we reached the front desk. “I still eat hamburgers.”
“Now I’m hungry.” We shook hands. “I’ll call when I know something.”
New Earth’s office was in a South Loop building. I parked in a nearby garage that charged $17 for the first five minutes and twenty bucks an hour after that, and reminded myself to get a receipt.
I stopped in a coffee shop to get a sandwich and make a call.
“Tom Jurgen Fan Club.” Rachel yawned. “We’re closed for the day. Please call back during normal business hours, which don’t exist.”
Rachel’s my downstairs neighbor. She’s sort of my assistant, and sort of my girlfriend—sometimes. She’s got some unique skills, not all of them related to computers. “I need you.”
“Ooh, a dirty phone call? Let me turn on the recording machine in case I fall asleep in the middle.”
“You’re gorgeous, but I need your awesome computer skills, actually.”
“Oh, that’s what every girl wants to hear.” She coughed. “Okay, What’s the case?”
“What can you find out about a scientist named Dr. Charles Whitmer? He does bioengineering research at a facility in Winnetka.”
“Do I get paid for this?”
“I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Do you have to be there?”
“Nice.” We hung up.
The afternoon sun was sinking over the skyline as I found the address on the south side of the Loop, I parked on Van Buren and dodged cars to dash across the street. Inside the tall office building I took the elevator to the 4th floor, where I found a marketing firm, a small law office, and a door marked NEW EARTH.
Inside, a young African-American man looked up from his laptop. “Hi!” He leaned back in his chair. “If you’re looking for the restroom, it’s down the hall. I can lend you the key.”
I hesitated. “I’m actually looking for Gina Hailey. My name’s Tom Jurgen. It’s sort of private.”
He looked me over and apparently decided I was harmless. “Over there, I guess.” He pointed to the room behind him.
Posters on the walls showed a mixture of picturesque nature scenes and images of forest devastation. I looked at the name plaques hanging on the cubicles until I found one named Gina.
She scowled in front of a computer. Long black hair, thin eyeglasses, and a sharp chin. She wore a blue denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her bony elbows. “Damn it, why won’t this . . .” She looked up. “Oh, hi. Can I help you?”
“My name’s Tom Jurgen.” I dropped one of my business cards on her desk. “I’d like to talk to you. It’s about Adrian Bennish.”
A chunky white guy in an orange T-shirt reared up from the next cubicle. “Anything wrong, Gina?”
Hailey stared at my card. “I don’t think so. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
Out in the hall she turned on me, hands on her hips. “What’s this all about? What about Adrian?”
“Have you heard from him recently?”
She glared at me, as if memorizing my face for a future police lineup. “How is that your business? I’ve got a job here—”
“I’m sorry. But his brother Larry is sick.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Larry? Where is he?”
I had to be careful. “He picked up some kind of infection in Costa Rica. Doing research. He needs a blood transfusion from Adrian, but no one can find him.”
“Well, I haven’t heard from him in . . .” Her voice trailed off. “Huh.”
She leaned against the wall. “Costa Rica?”
“Yeah.” I waited.
Hailey turned back toward the New Earth office. “Meet me downstairs in the coffee shop.”
“Should I order you something?”
She hesitated. “A latté, extra foam.”
Ten minutes later she had her latté, I had a regular coffee, and we had her laptop open on the small table. Hailey’s initial suspicion seemed gone, but she still kept the screen away from my eyes. “I still don’t know who you are. Except that your name is Tom.”
Private eyes on TV flash their licenses, but that doesn’t mean anything in the real world. I showed her my drivers’ license. “That’s me. Thomas Hale Jurgen. I am a private detective. I got hired to find Adrian Bennish when he didn’t show up for his latest appointment at a clinic.”
“A clinic.” Hailey leaned back in her chair. “Not Northwestern or Loyola, right?” She seemed to know part of the story already.
I nodded slowly. “Charles Whitmer. Winnetka.”
“Shit.” Her lower lip jutted forward angrily. “Do you know what they do there?”
“Some of it.”
“Okay.” She turned the laptop toward me. “Here. It’s an email from Adrian. You don’t have to read all of it, just the beginning.”
The message was from last August, eight months old: “G: Out of town for the weekend. Back Monday, and then we can . . .” Yeah, that part was personal.
She turned the computer back. “And then there’s another one from . . . last November. Going out of town again. He never told me it was about Larry.”
“Have you met Larry?”
“Of course.” She reached for her latté. “I knew Larry before I met Adrian. I used to be a pharmaceutical sales rep, before I couldn’t take it anymore, and Larry did research. We met at a cocktail party at a trade show about two years ago, and Adrian was there.” She took a sip. “We started dating a few months after that.”
Love, exciting and new . . . “So what do you know about Costa Rica? And Charles Whitmer?”
Hailey shrugged. “Just rumors on the Internet. They’re working on bioengineered plants. We’ve been trying to get info on them for months. That’s what . . .” She bit her lip. “I can’t talk about it.”
“Is that why you’re dating Adrian?” I needed to ask.
“No!” The question apparently made her think about slapping my face. Hard. “Adrian and I are—that’s none of your business, but I don’t even do any of the research on Whitmer because of Adrian. Conflict of interest? We are ethical like that, unlike some other groups.”
“So can you tell me where Adrian is?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she started tapping keys on the laptop, still not letting me peek at the screen.
My cellphone buzzed inside my windbreaker. Rachel. “This is Tom Jurgen.”
She recognized the guarded tone in my throat. “You’re with someone? Female? Is she hot? Are you both naked and sweaty?”
“Yes, yes, reasonably, and not right now. What have you got?”
“Your friend Dr. Whitmer has had a long and glorious career. If ‘glorious’ means getting fired, and ‘long’ means it happens a lot. He got kicked out of Northwestern seven years ago for falsified research. University of Indiana, 12 years ago, for misallocation of funds. University of Michigan, denied tenure for improper research. Somehow he keeps getting jobs and funding, which makes me think I picked the wrong major in college.”
“You and me both. Thanks.”
“What time is dinner? Can we eat inside this time instead of zipping into the drive-thru?”
“I’ll get back to you.” I dropped the phone into my jacket and looked up at Hailey. “So, what do you know about Charles Whitmer?”
“He’s an unethical creep.” She was tapping keys on her laptop. “The woman he’s got, Crowley? She’s all right.”
That was good news. I only hoped Crowley was the person in charge of paying me. “So can you find Adrian on your computer, or are we just playing Angry Birds?”
“I can’t talk to you.” Hailey picked up her latté. “You work for Whitmer.”
“I’m trying to help Larry. He’s—very sick.”
“Yeah.” She sounded skeptical. “They brought something back from Costa Rica, didn’t they?”
I picked up my coffee. “I can’t talk to you. You work for New Earth.”
Hailey glared at me. Then she laughed. “New Earth is kind of amateurish, but we’re not eco-terrorists. Our operating budget doesn’t even pay for coffee.” She lifted up her latté. “We just want to raise media awareness on environmental issues.”
I nodded. “I saw your website.”
“But there are other groups.” She turned her computer to let me see the screen again. “This is one that we have some unofficial contact with.”
Animated flames flickered around the edges of the screen. In the center stood a man in a black ski mask, flanked by a man and a woman, all in black. Beneath the image ran a stream of text:
People of Earth! You are being polluted . . . ravaged . . . destroyed by the powers of big corporations and big government! Resist! Stand tall! Join us in our crusade. Together we can rid the world of mutant crops, stem cells, dangerous pesticides, cloning, and all other forms of harmful . . .
“These guys sound officially scary.” I sipped my coffee. “Scarier than New Earth, anyway.”
Hailey stiffened. “They’re extreme, yeah. But they’re trying to protect the environment. Just like us.”
“So what does this have to do with Adrian?”
“He got an email from them.” Her face flushed, angry. “He told me, but I didn’t think it was anything important, just a random message looking for new recruits. That was a week ago. He doesn’t call me every day, so I didn’t think anything was wrong, but now you say he’s disappeared—”
“You think they convinced him not to help his own brother?”
“No.” Hailey shook her head. “Not in a million years. But—they might have kidnapped him.”
Oh, hell. “They’re that crazy?”
“Some of them are.” She bit her lip and clicked to another section of the website. While we waited for it to download on the café’s Wi-Fi, she said, “We know they’ve been trying to get into Whitmer’s facility for a long time, but Crowley is good at her work. She’s actually talked to us once or twice—mostly to warn us away from them. Here.” She swung the laptop around again.
CONTACT US. Words in red letters on a black screen, with an email address below.
“Messages go to an inbox on a server in Denver, and that’s as far as anyone we know has gotten. No idea where they are, except a lot of them are here in Chicago.” She sipped her latté. “Do you know anyone in the NSA?”
“A few FBI agents have tried to arrest me. Nobody owes me a favor like this.” I pulled out my cellphone again. “But I’ve got a friend who’s pretty good at this stuff.”