Monday, May 30, 2016

The Invisible Club, Part One

Sharon Marmont held a Montblac pen from Bloomingdale’s in one hand as she stood up to greet me. Fancy pens were ones of her vices, and I didn’t want to know about any others.
            “Thanks for coming, Tom.” We shook hands. “Phil Kemp, this is Tom Jurgen. He’s a private detective. Phil is a person of interest in a murder.”
            This was Marmont’s River North office. She was a lawyer. I’d met Marmont as a reporter, and I’d worked for her after becoming a private detective. She called me for what she termed “the WTF defense”—arguments that she can’t bring into a courtroom without being charged with contempt of court, or being sent for a psych evaluation.
            She’s tenacious and smart. I’d helped her defend a vampire on a murder charge (he was actually innocent), and coached her on introducing evidence from a ghost. I was getting a certain reputation for this kind of thing. Not one I enjoyed, but it helped pay for breakfast cereal.
            Phil Kemp stood up. He was short and stocky, with a gray crewcut and a blunt nose. His handshake was tight and tense. “Tom. Nice to meet you.”           
            Marmont folded her arms and sat back in her chair. “Phil, why don’t you tell Tom what happened?”
            Kemp sat down with a grunt. “Well, I work for a company called RoundTen. It’s a software company. I’m head of Human Resources. We have a lot of proprietary products, and we’ve had a lot of trouble with employees quitting and then going to work for competitors. Kacey Shields, she’s one of our top programmers, she got an offer from JRTech two months ago. They’re good, not the best, but they offered her a lot of money—”
            “Phil?” Marmont clicked her pen. “Back to the point?”
            “Sorry.” Kemp sighed. “This sounds crazy.”
            “Don’t worry.” I’d heard that before. “I have a high threshold for crazy.”
            Kemp rolled his eyes. “Well, I was sitting in my office, and Jim Carr walks in. This is two days ago. He’s one of our top salespeople. He sits down and says he’s got to talk to me about this other company, JRTech. I already figure he’s leaving, so I start thinking about how much we can afford on a counteroffer, and then . . .”
            Kemp paused to look at the floor. “See, I keep this baseball bat on a shelf in my office. It belonged to my dad, he played semipro ball—”
            Marmont clicked her pen again.
            Kemp rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. Anyway, all of a sudden, the baseball bat—it just sort of came up in the air, and then it came down on top of Jim’s—on his head. And there was blood all over the place, and Jim sort of slumped over, and, and—then the bat just fell on the floor. I called 911, but when they got there Jim was dead. I didn’t touch the bat! I swear I never touched it. I told the cops, but they thought I was crazy. But it happened in my office, and no one else was there, and . . .” Kemp lowered his head and reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief.
            Marmont and I looked at each other. We’d both heard stories that were stranger. The fact that I was in her office meant she believed him. And his embarrassment at crying in front of us made me believe him too.
            I nodded. Okay.
            Marmont leaned forward. “Phil? Tell him about the door.”
            He blew his nose. “Yeah. Right. It’s just that Jim came in and sat down, and then a minute later the door opened again. Nobody was there. I don’t know—I figured somebody must have seen us in there and decided not to come in, but—I didn’t see anybody outside. The door just opened, and then it closed. And then well, like I said—the bat, and Jim was dead, and I called 911.”
            “Right. Tom, look at this.” Marmont turned a laptop computer to face me and pressed a button. “There aren’t any cameras inside any office, but the hallways have them. The company is kind of paranoid. But they did turn over the video pretty fast once I talked to their CEO.” She smirked. “This is outside Phil’s office.”
            I leaned forward. The camera looked down a typical corporate hallway, bland beige carpeting and walls painted in eggshell white. The video was blurry, but I could see a door with a nameplate that read “Phillip Kemp, Human Resources.”
            A tall woman in a blue pantsuit hurried down the hall. She stopped to talk to a man in jeans and a necktie, apparently angry about something. Then they headed off in opposite directions, out of the camera’s sight. The hallway was empty.
            Then Kemp’s door opened. All by itself. A moment later it closed. With no one in sight.
            I stood up to look closer. “Can you run that again?”
            Marmont stroked the laptop’s touchpad. “As many times as you want.”
            You can’t really magnify or “enhance” videos the way experts do on TV. I had to squint and ask for another replay before I could be sure.
            The doorknob turned. With no hand on it.
            This was more interesting than tailing cheating spouses. So I sat down again and looked across the desk. “So how are we going to convince a judge that the murder was committed by an invisible killer?”
            Marmont smiled. “That’s your job.”

So the first thing I did after reading Marmont’s case file was call my friend Rachel. She lives upstairs from me, and she’s psychic—at least a little. She’s also my girlfriend. Again, at least a little. She’s useful on cases involving the supernatural. And she’s got some connections.
            “Invisible people?” She laughed. “Not as crazy as you think. Let me make a few calls.”
            I wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad. But we agreed to meet later for drinks. And whatever.
            Then I drove downtown.
   was in loft building in the River North neighborhood. I took the elevator to the 3rd floor.
            A young African American woman at the front desk looked at my business card. “I’ll have to call someone. Is it Jurgen or Yur-gen?”
            I get that a lot. “Jurgen, as in just call me Tom.”
            “Okay. “ She picked up the phone and punched a button. “I hope—I mean, I just can’t believe Phil would do something like that. If you can help him . . . uh, yeah, it’s Simone. There’s a detective here to look at Phil’s office. What?” She picked up my card. “His name’s Tom Jurgen?” She looked at me. I nodded. “He says he’s working for Phil’s lawyer. What? I don’t know . . .”
             I left Simone while she was still arguing on the phone.
            Open cubicles filled one side of the office, employees tapping at keyboards or whispering on their phones. Offices on the other side had their doors closed. Fluorescent lights hummed overhead and security cameras dotted the ceiling every 20 feet or so. The place felt like a factory, manufacturing software instead of building cars or slaughtering cattle. No one looked happy.
            I found Kemp’s nameplate and tried the doorknob. Locked.
            “Excuse me?” A woman walked down the hall—the tall woman in the blue suit from the video. Today she wore a blue blazer and gray slacks, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.  “I’m Jessica Finlay. I’m the CEO here. Who are you?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I pulled out another business card. “I work for Sharon Marmont, the attorney handling Phil William’s defense.”
            She peered at me, not the card. “Anyone can print up a card.”
            “Good point.” So I pulled out a copy of my state license that I kept in my wallet, along with my driver’s license. “This is me. Can I go in?”
            Finlay shoved my card in a pocket. “You can’t take anything with you.” She unlocked the door.
            Kemp’s desk sat on one side of the small office, facing the wall behind the door. Strips of masking tape made a circle on the floor, indicating where Carr’s body had fallen. A smaller circle of tape on the desk probably showed where the baseball bat had been found.
            “What are you looking for?” Finlay crossed her arms.
            I didn’t really know, so I didn’t answer. Mostly I just wanted to get a feel for the office, and the company.
            She watched her, arms crossed, as I sat down at the desk. It had the typical accessories: a computer, photos of a wife and daughter, loose paperclips, a phone with a red light blinking steadily with waiting voicemail, a stack of unopened mail, and a pair of earbuds not connected to anything.
            I opened a drawer. “So do you think Phil Kemp killed Jim Carr? Right here in this office?”
            Before she could answer, a new man appeared in the doorway. “Hey, what’s going on?”
            “Blake.” Finlay took a short breath, annoyed by the interruption. “This is Tom Jurgen. He’s working for Phil’s lawyer.” She showed him my card, looking at me. “This is Blake Griffin. He’s head of sales.”
            Griffin was in his early thirties—younger than Finley and me by ten years or so. His blond hair was short, and a thin beard hid his chin. Griffin glanced at the card, handed it back to Finlay, and glared at me like a wolf trying to establish dominance over a cub. “What do you want here, Jurgen?”
            I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with people who don’t like me doing my job—cops, lawyers, demons. A sales manager? Not very intimidating. “I’m trying to find out what happened to your employee. Jim Carr worked for you, right?”
            Griffin snorted. “He got hit by a magic flying baseball bat. At least that’s what—”
            “Shut up, Blake.” Finlay planted her hands on Kemp’s desk. “Mr. Jurgen, I’m horrified that Jim Carr is dead.” Her wrists shook. “And I really want to believe that Phil didn’t murder him. But I have to think about the safety of everyone in my organization. And that means not letting strangers run around in my workplace. So unless you have something specific to do here . . .?”
            My time and her patience were running out. “I have a few questions. Did Phil Kemp hate Jim Carr for some reason? Killing him in his own office just to stop him from quitting seems like an extreme retention policy.”
            “You don’t know anything about our business, do you?” Griffin jabbed a finger at the door. “Jim knows—knew—all about every project we’re working on here. It sounds crazy, but this is like the Mafia. You can make people sign all kinds of NDAs, but enforcing them legally is hard as hell. We’re all under a lot of stress here. Phil, well—he could have snapped. Right, Jessica?”
            She grimaced. “I don’t think we should be talking to this guy.”
            “I’ll go.” I’d heard enough to make me suspicious of both of them, even though I had no idea how the murder could have been carried out. I pushed the chair back and stood up.
            “So one more question.” I looked at Griffin like I was channeling Peter Falk on those old Columbo TV movies. “Did Carr tell you he was thinking about quitting?”
            He blinked. “No. Why would he?”
            “Because most people who are going to quit tell their boss first. Why would he come here to talk to Phil Kemp before you?”
            Griffin’s face hardened. “Nobody knows what he was thinking. He’s dead.”
            Finlay was tired of the conversation. “Stop it. This is tearing my company apart. I don’t want any more disruption around here. We’re done here.”
            I got the hint. “I’ll find my way out.”
            Griffin followed me down the hall, but he turned back when I reached the front desk. I hesitated at the door, then looked at Simone, who was typing at a keyboard.
            “People seem to like Phil Kemp around here.” I smiled.
            “He’s a great guy.” Simone didn’t look up.
            “What about Blake Griffin?”
            She stopped typing. Looked over her shoulder. “Everyone’s scared of him.”
            I could see why. “Thanks for your help.”
            She shrugged. “I better get back to work.”
            I headed for the door. “Me too.”

Rachel knocked on my door at 7:30. “This isn’t a date,” she reminded me as she started her Prius. “But you’re buying the drinks. And maybe dinner. And, okay, I might give you a kiss later. Just don’t embarrass me there.”
            “Never,” I promised.
            Rachel’s got red hair and eyes the color of hazelnuts, along with a sarcastic mouth and a mean punch. But she also has a lot of contacts in the psychic and magical community around Chicago.
            The bar was called the Rodeo Royale, so its décor featured horses, cowboy boots, and lassos, but the jukebox played the Carpenters when we walked in. Quiet—at least for a Wednesday night at 8:00.
            Rachel pointed to a man at the bar. “That’s him. Hey, Danny!”
            Danny was African American, taller than me, with arms that looked like he’d worked out more in the last week than I have in the last ten years. We shook hands, and then he kissed Rachel on the cheek. I told myself not to be jealous. Several times.
            We moved to a table and ordered beers. Danny looked me over. “You’re a private detective?”
            “That’s right. Rachel’s a friend.” I tried not to overemphasize “friend” too much, one way or the other. “She helps me out sometimes. So what do you do?”
            “I’m a video producer. Corporate training films, mostly. Rachel helps with the graphics. So what do you need to know?”
            I glanced at Rachel. She grinned. “Go ahead. I told him.”
            It wasn’t even the strangest question I’d ever asked—by a long shot: “So you can turn invisible?”
            Danny nodded casually, as if I’d asked him what his birthday was. “It’s not that hard. There’s a couple different ways.”
            He reached under his sweater and pulled out a small ring on a chain. “I’ve got this thing. I just hold it in my hand and no one can see me as long as I’ve got it my hand closed.”
            “My precious,” Rachel whispered.
            Danny groaned. “Yeah. I never heard that before.”
            “It must come in handy getting into the movies.” I sipped my Heineken.
            He laughed. “I don’t do that. We’ve got rules.”
            “Rules? We?”
            “There’s a group of us. Like a club. Just a bunch of us who know how to do it.” Danny gulped some of his beer—a Harp, along with a shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey. “We like to talk about how it works, what we do. There’s some who use spells, others have charms like me, there’s one guy who says he learned it in the Orient, like Lamont Cranston.” He laughed again.
            “What do you guys do mostly?”
            “We don’t steal. I mean, okay, yeah, sometimes I do sneak into a movie.” He shrugged. “Mostly we play tricks on people. One guy’s a magician, uses it a little in his act, but it doesn’t help with cards tricks or stuff like that. We move things around in stores, make funny noises in museums, pester con artists playing three-card monte on the subway, stuff like that.”
            “Investigate the shower room at the gym?”
            Danny shook his head. “That’s one of the rules. Won’t say it never happens, especially when people figure out how to do it first. But at least in our group, we try to—” He looked embarrassed. “Use our powers for good. We’re not superheroes or anything, but yeah, some of us try to stop crimes and stuff. It’s a thing.”
            I liked the idea of invisible crimefighters. But I had to ask him: “Have you ever heard of someone using it to kill people?”
            “No.” He stiffened in his chair. “No way.”
            “Sorry. It’s a murder case.” I told him the story.
            Danny listened. Then he took a deep breath. “Anything’s possible. It’s not like I know everyone in the world who can do it. But nobody I know.”
            I tried a different angle. “Do you know anyone with this ability who works in the software industry? Maybe at a company called RoundTen?”
            He shrugged. “Software? Maybe. I never heard of that company, but we got people all over. I could ask around.”
            “Is there any way to tell if there’s someone invisible around?” This came from Rachel.
            Danny thought about that. “No way I know of. But it’s never really been a problem.”
            “Or any way to turn someone visible?” I asked.
            He shook his head. “Spray paint, maybe?”
            I made a mental note. “Okay. Thanks.” I couldn’t think of any more questions. I reached for my wallet. “Let me pay for—”
            Then my Heineken bottle slid across the table. It dropped over the edge, spewing beer over my pants, and rolled across the floor.
            I grabbed a napkin. “Sorry about that. I don’t know—”
            And then Rachel’s Budweiser rose in the air.
            “Whoa!” Rachel shoved her chair back, clutching the edge of the table. The bottle whirled around her head—once, twice—and then it fell, breaking into dozens of shards next to the stool’s legs.
            Danny slipped off his chair. “Jason, is that you? Not funny, man!”
            The bartender looked up from another customer. “Hey, somebody’s got to clean that up, you know?”
            “Sorry!” I grabbed Rachel’s shoulder. “You okay?”
            “I’m fine, jerk.” But she patted my hand. “You think I need you to protect me?”
            “Hell, no.” I squeezed her shoulder. “I’m hoping you’re going to protect me. Let’s get out of here. Danny?”
            He was waving his hands like he was searching for someone, well, invisible.  “Wait . . . wait . . . oh, damn it! Yeah, we should leave.”
            I laid some cash on the table, plus a little extra for the cleanup duties. “Thanks! Sorry about the mess!” We headed for the door, Danny and me huddling around Rachel until she realized we were trying to protect her. She elbowed my ribs and gave Danny a sharp jab in the back.
            Danny stumbled onto the street. “Ow! What was that for?”
            “You get used to it.” I stood between them, rubbing my side. “Who’s Jason?”
            “It wasn’t him.” Danny rubbed his head. “He plays jokes, that’s just his thing. But—”
            The door burst open behind us. But no one came out. I grabbed Rachel, and she tried to squirm away from me. Danny reared up, waving his arms again. I heard the bartender shout.
            Then a big green bottle of Jagermeister flew through the air right at my head. I ducked, and it smashed against Danny’s skull.
            He slammed to the sidewalk, groaning. The bottle hit the concrete and shattered, spilling liquor over the curb.
            I tried to shield Rachel in case another bottle attacked us, but she pushed me away and knelt next to Danny. “Hey! Blink at me! Are you okay? Danny, talk to me!”
            “I’m fine!” But his head was bleeding. “What the hell was that?”
            I grabbed my cell phone and looked around. “I’m sorry.” I shuddered, imagining an invisible attack from any direction. “This is my fault.” I hit 911. “Just sit tight.”
            Rachel looked up me, her face fierce. “If this is about your case—”
            “Then it’s a stupid move. Because it’s so obvious.” Which meant I was either looking at this the wrong way, or the killer wasn’t very smart. I wasn’t sure which possibility I liked worse.
            I could think about that later, though. I gave Danny my handkerchief to stop the bleeding as the 911 operator picked up. “Hello? We need an ambulance.”

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