Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Nearly Naked and the Dead: Part Two

“ATTACK AT NIGHTCLUB!” It was all over the news, print and internet. A madman had stabbed and killed at least three people and wounded six more. Police were still searching for the weapons—knives, maybe swords.
            Most of the news media websites played up the strip club angle, using stock photo images of half-naked dancers and neon lights. A local Chicago news site actually quoted two of the dancers, using photos that blurred their faces but not their bodies.
            Of course the cops didn’t believe that a huge Bigfoot-like creature had invaded the club, especially since none of the survivors could describe what the attacker looked like. They tried to convince us—and themselves—that in the darkness and noise someone had terrorized everyone with knives and swords. When I asked where the knives and swords were, the lead detective told me to shut up.
            At least they didn’t drag me downtown to Chicago CP headquarters, even after I mentioned that I’d seen the same creature in the alley last night. Alexa backed me up, but she was a stripper and I was a PI. Our credibility with the cops was somewhere below crackheads and Star Wars cosplayers. They didn’t listen, because we were obviously crazy.
            But Dawne was dead. So was Ron, the red necktie guy. Three others were in the hospital with broken bones and internal injuries. Franco was dead too, but no one knew for sure why. I didn’t see any wounds during my brief glimpse of his body on the floor, but one cop questioning me was pretty sure that it had to be drugs. “It’s always drugs with assholes like this.”
            In the end we huddled around my car at 2:30 in the morning—Alexa, Kyra, Marta, and Nikki. None of them wanted to go home again. Alexa went with Kyra. We agreed to meet in the morning.
            Last night had been almost fun—four attractive young women stranded in my apartment after I’d saved them from a monster. Tonight was about shock and trauma. Nikki cried in my car and on my couch. I found a bottle of rum in the rear of the cupboard, and Marta drank half of it as she rubbed Nikki’s shoulders, her eyes drooping until she couldn’t lift the bottle anymore. So I helped them into the bedroom and left them alone.
            When I was a reporter, everyone told me to forget about the things I’d seen. But I couldn’t. Dawne was trying to make a living there. Ron, the red necktie guy, only wanted to get away. His girlfriend wanted the same thing. Ron had ended up dead, and the girlfriend had run. She’d try to forget all of it. Maybe she could.
            I thought about Dawne. And I didn’t want to forget.
Rachel called me at 6:32 a.m., waking me from a nightmare of the beast charging me as Dawne shrieked for help. “You idiot! Why didn’t you call me?”
            I staggered up from the couch. “Uh, I didn’t want to wake you.”
            “You’re allowed to wake me when you almost get yourself killed! What the hell happened?”
            I grabbed a bottle of water. I was thirsty, exhausted, still trembling—but I felt a little better hearing the worry in Rachel’s shaking voice. “I think one of the bartenders at the club transformed into the beast. He—it—killed one of the dancers here last night.”
            “Oh, god.” Her voice dropped low. “Do you want me to come down?”
            “No. I, uh, don’t want to wake anyone.” If Nikki and Marta had actually gotten to sleep.
            “Oh. You mean—”
            “Yeah. I had to bring two of them home. They’re in the other room.”
            “I don’t care. Look, call me in the morning when they’re gone. Or I’ll call you. And don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
            I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the dancers or the monster. I didn’t care. “I try not to.”

“Marta’s still asleep.” Nikki staggered out of the bedroom at 8:30 in the morning.
            The cops last night wouldn’t let any of the dancers back inside the club while they were examining the crime scene, so Nikki wore one of my T-shirts. It barely reached her hips, and I wasn’t sure she was wearing anything at all underneath.
            I closed my laptop and tried not to stare at her long legs. “Do you want a bagel or something? Granola? Stale Doritos? Hang on, there’s coffee . . .” I hurried into the kitchen.
            “Thanks.” She sipped the coffee and pulled at the bottom of the T-shirt. “I had to borrow something to wear. I’ll wash it.”
            “Keep it.” I forced my mind to focus. “Can we talk about last night?”
            “You mean . . .” Nikki groaned. “I don’t remember that much. It was like the night before. A bad dream, and I couldn’t wake up. Everyone was screaming. Wait—” She rubbed her eyes. “Did I give you a lap dance?”
            “No, it was another guy.” I sat back. “Do you know a guy named Sigmund?”
            “Oh.” She gulped some more coffee with a grimace. “There’s four or five guys who own the place, and he’s one of them. He hangs around a lot. He doesn’t bother us, much. But he’s kind of creepy. I think he’s a gangster. You know, the Outfit?”
            I’d heard of it. “Dawne said she heard him talking to someone.”
            I shook my head. “Maybe Franco.”
            Nikki kicked the table leg. “I like Franco. Liked him. Everyone did.” She groaned. “It doesn’t make sense.”
            “No.” It didn’t.
            The bedroom door opened. Marta, in another one of my shirts, leaned against the bookcase. “Is there coffee?”

I took them both home.
            Nikki kissed my cheek when I dropped her off. “Thanks, Tom.” She headed up a short sidewalk to the door of a small house, unlocked the door with a key hidden under a plant on the porch, and turned for a wave as I drove away.
            Marta didn’t talk. When I got to her building she jumped out, slammed the door, and ran up the steps, my second-best blue shirt blowing under her legs. I waited as she hit the door buzzer.
            I sat at the curb, tired, irritated, and confused. So I called Kyra. “Can we meet? Or are we done?”
            “Finished? Oh, hell no.” Kyra sounded as feisty as ever. “You get everyone home okay? Here’s my address.”
            “Okay, twenty minutes. Wait—” Marta was trudging down the steps, breathing hard. She stood on the sidewalk in bare feet, pulling my shirtsleeves down as she shivered in the morning air.
            I reached over to open the door. “Get in.”
            Marta sat next to me, wiping her eyes. “He won’t let me in. Bastard. Two nights, he said. Bastard!” She pounded my dashboard, sobbing. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You’re so nice, and he’s just a son of a bitch.”
            “Here.” I reached in my back pocket for a handkerchief. “This is—well, it’s mostly clean. I’ll take you back to my place. Or anywhere else you want.” Maybe to a Target to buy some clothes.
            Marta blew her nose. “Thanks. Sorry.” She wiped her sleeve across her face. My sleeve. Then she looked down, as if just remembering she had no pants. “Oops. Can I borrow your phone?”
I dropped Marta at a girlfriend’s house. After watching her walk her up to the door to make sure she was safe—the girlfriend looked me over as if I was some kind of spider, but hugged Marta and rushed her inside—I went back to the Honda and made my way to Kyra’s apartment.           
            Alexa answered the door in gray sweats. “Are you all right? And the others?”
            I smelled fresh-ground coffee inside. “Everyone’s fine. I took them home.”
            Kyra and Alexa sat together on a snug couch in her small living room. Kyra poured Irish whiskey into her mug and then pointed the bottle toward me.
            I shook my head. “So, was it Franco?”
            Kyra lit a cigarette. “You’re the detective. You tell us.”
            I’d only gotten a quick look at the body in the dim lights before I was down on the floor with a cop on top of me. More naked than the dancers, Franco hadn’t looked mauled or bloody as if the beast had attacked and killed him.
            So what did kill him? No idea.
            I told them about Dawne. “Any ideas what Sigmund might have been talking about?”
            “You think he was talking to Franco?” Alexa shook her head. “No. Franco’s the best.”
            Yeah. “How long did he work there?”
            “Since we opened.” Kyra closed her eyes for a moment, as if searching her memory. “Sigmund recommended him, actually.”
            That raised the question I really wanted to ask. “So who is Sigmund?”
            Kyra sipped her coffee, and then glanced at Alexa. “You or me?”
            “All right.” Alexa sat forward. “Tom, you can imagine that you don’t go to the bank to borrow money to run a nightclub like this. So we had to do business with whoever was willing.”
             We? I looked from Alexa to Kyra. Of course. “You two?”
            Alexa nodded. “I don’t let on that I’m an owner. It’s easier to work with the other girls.”
             I shrugged. “Sorry. I guess I just always pictured nightclub owners as big sweaty guys in bad suits.”           
            Kyra laughed and poured more whiskey into her mug.
            “I’m an owner.” Alexa held up one hand and counted down on her fingers. “The club is 40 percent mine. Sigmund has 25 percent. Another guy owns 15 percent, and Kyra has 20.”
            “You always mention me last.” Kyra kicked her ankle.
            “I’m saving the best.” She patted Kyra’s hand.
            “So what about Sigmund?” I asked.
            “I met him at a bar I used to hang out at.” Kyra light another cigarette. “The Witches’ Brew. It’s for, well . . . witches.” She puffed. “That doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to, now that we’ve got monsters outside my bar. Anyway, he was an investor there, and he was always talking about looking for a deal.”
            Alexa stood up and stretched her arms, looking tired and stressed. “He’s a real estate developer. I think he only bought in because he wants to tear the club down and put up a big new building, and then take over the whole block. He has mob connections. But that’s the only way to do business when you run a nightclub.”
            “He wants to buy us out.” Kyra tapped a foot on the floor. “He’s been after us for weeks. So far it’s only been money. But now . . .” She stared into the air. “I don’t know.”
            “What’s his full name?” I pulled out my phone.
            “Sigmund Schuyler.” Kyra sat forward and grabbed her own phone. “I can send you his information.”
            “What do we do now?” Alexa sat back on the couch, exhausted. “I mean, if Franco was the monster, and he’s dead—is the club safe?”
            “Not if Sigmund is behind this somehow.” I looked at Kyra out of habit. “Are you going to reopen? Sorry.” I shook my head. “I’m still thinking of her as the boss.”
            “Oh, she’s the boss.” Alexa smiled.
            “I don’t know.” Kyra lit another cigarette. “We have insurance. But if anyone’s willing to come back and work there after last night . . . that’s the problem.”
            I thought of a different problem. “Alexa, what happens with the club if, you know, something happens to you?” It was maybe a tough question right now, but asking questions is my job. “Sorry.”
            Alexa leaned back. “It’s a fair question. Kyra has a power of attorney if I’m in a coma or something. But if I die . . .”
            Kyra glared. “Didn’t you read the damn contract, bitch? Your shares get split evenly. So Sigmund gets 38 percent, Henry gets 28. And I’m left with 34, depending on how they do the math. But if you’re not here . . .” She kicked the side of the couch. “I might as well sell out the day after the funeral.”
            “And if we sell out to Sigmund now . . .” Alexa frowned. “After last night he’ll probably cut down his offer. Tell us he’s doing us a favor.” She shook her head. “No. I won’t do it. Not after people died in my club. Our club.” She nodded to Kyra.
            I stood up. “Let me see what I can find out about Sigmund. And Franco. Did he have any friends at the club who might be willing to talk to me?”
            “I’ll get you some names.” Kyra reached for the whiskey again.

So back at my apartment I opened up my laptop and started looking for data on Sigmund Schuyler. But Rachel came down before I finished typing his name on the keyboard. I was beginning to think she had my place bugged.
            First she hugged me. Then she punched my arm. “Don’t scare me like that again!”
            “I love you too.” We sat down.
            I was done with coffee for a while, but Rachel got herself a Coke from my fridge while I filled her in on what I’d learned—such as it was. “Great.” She grimaced. “It’s not enough you've got monsters. Now you’re getting mixed up with the Outfit?”
            I sighed. “I hope not. Maybe Franco was just a rogue shapeshifter with a fixation on Alexa? And Sigmund was talking to someone else about something completely different. But it’s better to find out, right?”
            “Right.” She’d brought her laptop. “You find out what’s on the internet about Sigmund. I want to know more about this girl Alexa. Not that I’m jealous, or anything!”
            “Of course not.” It might be useful. I’d investigated my own clients more often than I like to think about.
            We played computer nerds for an hour or so. I made sandwiches, and we compared notes.
            “Alexa Spring, real name Irina Nikova,” Rachel read from her screen. “Parents born in the Ukraine, she was born in Milwaukee. Studied dance at University of Michigan. Arrested in Florida for indecent exposure, two counts, arrested in Nashville for prostitution, charges dropped all three times. A couple of traffic tickets. Opened a nightclub in Detroit six years ago. It lasted two years. Opened the Tiger Club here six months ago. It’s not exactly clear what she was doing in the meantime. I could try hacking her credit reports, but you probably have some squishy ethical thing about that, don’t you?” She smirked at me.
            “Kind of.” I sipped some water. “Sigmund Schuyler is indeed a real estate developer, but he seems to make more money suing his partners than building or developing anything. Although he was named in a suit by Donald Trump in a hotel deal that fell through. He’s partnered with people with ties to the Outfit, but he’s never been indicted for anything criminal. He’s been sued a lot, almost as much as he likes suing other people.”
            Rachel swallowed some Coke. “First positive thing I’ve ever heard about Donald Trump.”
            “We don’t know he’s bad. Sigmund, I mean, not Trump.” I shuddered. “You didn’t happen to check up on any of the other partners, did you?”
            “A little. There’s not much on Pablo Nelson, he looks pretty legit. The other one, Kyra Madison?”
            “She’s the manager.”
            “She did two years in Kentucky for writing bad checks. Divorced, no kids. Possibly gay.” Rachel shrugged. “Someone named KyraM did show up on a website for witches, looking for a spell that would make her ex-husband, uh, impotent.”
            Yeah, we’ve dealt with witches before. And there was definitely bad magic floating around this case. “Check that out.”
            “You’re the boss. Not literally!” Rachel shot me a warning look. “What are you going to do?”
            I sighed. “I hate to say this, but the next step is to talk to Sigmund. Wait, no.” I checked my email. Kyra had sent me a list of dancers to contact. “First I have to talk with some hot women.”
            Rachel groaned.

So I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to dancers. On the phone. They all loved Franco. I heard that he was “the best” so often I started marking it off on a pad. Not that Franco was a saint—one dancer told me they’d hooked up three or four times—but he’d never gone over the line to outright offensiveness. Or stalking.
            I also asked about Sigmund. The few who said anything would only admit that he’d creeped them out with the occasional leer.
            I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I called Sigmund’s office to make an appointment. A secretary told me he could see me at 5:30. Two hours.
            “Am I coming?” Rachel looked up from her screen.
            I hesitated. Rachel can be stubborn when she wants, which is most of the time. “I’d rather he didn’t get to know you. At least until we’re sure the Outfit isn’t involved in this.”
            To my relief, Rachel nodded. “Just me when you go into his office, and then call me as soon as you’re done.”
            “You really do care.”
            She snorted. “Hah. I need someone to feed my fish when I’m out of town.”
            I called Kyra next and told her about my meeting with Sigmund. Then I looked at Rachel. “Anything on Kyra?”
            “Well, she shows up on a couple of witchcraft and magic forums, but . . .” Rachel rubbed her eyes. “Nothing that looks suspicious. You did say someone recommended you, right? Maybe this is how she got your name.”
            I do have a reputation in some unusual local communities. For better or worse, although it got me some business. “Okay.” I stood up and stretched. “I need to take a break before I visit Sigmund. You can go home. Or whatever.”
            “Oh, you idiot.” Rachel shoved her laptop back until it bumped mine and stalked around the table. “Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Except maybe now.”             She kissed me. This didn’t happen very often.
            She ran a hand across my shoulders when we both came up for air. “Don’t get too used to this, Tom Jurgen.”
            I licked my lips. “So does this mean you like me?”
            Rachel pulled at my shirt. “Just shut up for a few minutes. All right?”

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