Saturday, September 17, 2016

Room without a key, Part One

Well, it seems like I'm caught up in your trap again.
And it seems like I'll be wearing the same old chains.
Good will conquer evil and the truth will set me free.
And I know someday I will find the key.
And I know somewhere I will find the key.
—Jimmy Cliff

I opened my eyes and rolled over on the bed. What the hell?
            I’d been talking to Finn Markham. I remembered standing in front of a door. A short, skinny man, balding. He shook my hand . . .
            And then nothing.
            I stood up, feeling groggy, and looked around. Oh, hell.
            It could have been an ordinary motel room anywhere in the world: a flatscreen TV with a remote, a desk and chairs, the mini-fridge, and the generic landscape painting on one wall. One small bathroom.
            No phone or clock radio, though. And dark curtains that didn’t let any light inside.
            I staggered to the door. This can’t be right. I didn’t do anything. I was just asking questions!
            I pushed the handle down and pulled the door back.
            Oh, no.
            A barricade of cinder blocks, hard and heavy, blocked me from leaving. I put my hand forward and pushed. The barrier felt cold and solid. I’d need a jackhammer or dynamite to get through it. And I was pretty sure I didn’t have anything like that in my pockets.
            My pockets. I patted my jeans. Empty. No wallet, no keys—and no cell phone. Damn it. I slammed the door.
            Across the room I yanked the curtain back. The same blank gray wall loomed on the other side of the glass.
            I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed my eyes, trying to clear my fuzzy head. My mouth was dry and I needed to go to the bathroom, but my legs felt weak and wobbly.
            After a few minutes I forced myself up. Inside the mini-fridge I found sandwiches and bottles of water. I gulped down half a bottle, then sank into the desk chair, fighting a wave of nausea.
            I knew only one thing for certain. I was trapped.


“Judith, this is Tom Jurgen. The private detective I was telling you about.”
            Dr. Diane Atkinson was a psychologist. And a friend. An African-American woman in her fifties, she sometimes referred clients to me if their problems fit into my area of unwanted expertise—demonic possession, vampire attacks, alien abductions, and the like. She called me her crazy guy. But she did call me. I wasn’t sure how much she believed any of my stories, but she kept an open mind. Mostly because she was determined to help people.
            The office in her Lincoln Park apartment, contrary to stereotype, did not have a big leather couch for her patients to lay back on and free associate about their dreams. Just a few chairs and a table with her laptop, a vase of flowers, and a box of tissues.           
            Judith Stevens looked shy and fragile. Almost painfully skinny, or maybe anorexic? White, 25 or so, she had short brown hair and thick eyeglasses. She shook my hand with a tentative grip. “Mr. Jurgen? It’s nice to meet you.”
            I smiled. “Just call me Tom.”
            Atkinson sat back in her chair. “Judith, would you like to tell Tom what happened?”
            Judith bit her lip, close to saying no. Then she nodded. “Okay. This is going to sound weird, though.”
            “Don’t worry.” I’d heard that before. “If I had a dime for every time someone told me that, I’d have . . . well, a lot of dimes.”
            Judith laughed. They usually do. Although one client actually gave me a dime one time.
             “Okay.” Deep breath. She looked at Atkinson.
            She nodded. “Go ahead,”
            “Right.” Judith swallowed. “Here’s the thing . . .” She closed her eyes. “I was trapped in a motel room for 193 days.”
            I glanced at Atkinson. She nodded.
            “Okay.” I pulled out my notebook. “Tell me more.”
            Judith hesitated, expecting me to tell her she was crazy. Then she went on as if she wanted to get it all out at once. “It looked like a motel room, all right? But I couldn’t get out. There was this gray wall behind the door and the windows. But when I got out—” She started trembling. “It was only a day. I was back home, and no one knew I’d been gone.”
            That was indeed weirder than usual. “How did you get out?”
            She shook her head. “I don’t know. Toward the end I wasn’t really awake. I stopped eating. I just wanted to starve. I know it’s wrong, but I just wanted to get out there somehow.”
            Atkinson sat forward. “Her parents took her to the ER. She was highly malnourished and dehydrated, plus some loss of muscle and bone mass from inactivity.”
            “I tried doing exercises for a while.” Judith seemed almost apologetic. “It just didn’t seem worth it.”
            “Where did your food come from?” I wasn’t trying to poke holes in her story, just make sense of it.
            “There was a little mini-fridge. It had sandwiches and water. And it somehow got refilled all the time. I washed my clothes in the bathroom sink. I thought about . . .” she blushed. “Not wearing any? But I was afraid someone was watching me.”
            I didn’t blame her. “You said 193 days. How did you keep track? Scratches on the walls or something?”
            She laughed, as if that was the silliest idea she’d ever heard. “I read one chapter of the Bible every day. There was one in the desk, like every hotel room has. I know about where I was when I got home, so I counted.”
            “Good idea.” I nodded. “So you live with your parents?”
            She hesitated. “Right now I’m staying with a friend.” She seemed embarrassed. “A girl from college. I just can’t go back to—to my room at home.”
            College. “What are you studying?”
            “Religion. At the University of Chicago.” She seemed proud of that.
            “Okay.” I glanced at Atkinson again. She stared back. So I looked straight at Judith. “So you want me to find out what happened?”
            A long silence. Finally Judith nodded. “Every night I think—I wonder if I’m going to wake up there again in the morning. And I don’t even know where I was.” She grabbed a tissue from the box.
            I knew the feeling. I’ve seen too many things in the dark.
             “Of course.” I hesitated. “Judith, would it be okay if I talked to Dr. Atkinson alone for a moment?”
            “Sure.” She hopped up. “I’ll just—”
            “No, no.” Atkinson stood. “You wait here. Tom and I will talk in the kitchen.”
            She poured me a cup of coffee. “What do you think?”
            I sipped. It was dark and strong, like a Starbucks on speed. “So who’s hiring me?”
            Atkinson crossed her arms. “She doesn’t have much money. I took the case while she was at the hospital. I have to do a certain amount of pro bono work—”
            “So I’m doing this as a favor?” It wasn’t actually unreasonable. And I owed her a few she’d done for me.
            She grinned. “Come on, admit it—you’re intrigued.”
            Intrigue doesn’t pay my cable bill. But Atkinson was a shrink, and she could read me almost as well as my friend Rachel.
            Plus, she was right. I was curious. “Okay. A case of Heineken.”
            She laughed. “I would have bought you two.”
            Back in the office Judith was sagging in her chair, half asleep. But she forced herself up as we sat down again. “I’m sorry. I’m just so tired lately.”
            “That’s fine.” I picked up my notebook. “A few more questions?”
            Judith nodded. “Sure. I guess.”
            “How did you end up in the room? Do you remember?”
            She rubbed her eyes. “Not really. I was at home. I remember that. My parents were talking to someone in the living room—I don’t know his name, but I think he lives in the neighborhood. He’s half-bald? And kind of short. Kind of skinny.” She looked down at herself. “Well, not like me. I didn’t used to look like this. My mother tried to keep me from eating too much, but—”
            “Judith.” Atkinson’s voice was quiet and calm. “That’s a separate issue. But for the record, you look fine.”
            “I don’t know.” She giggled. “Okay. But . . .” She looked at me, then looked away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I was just there. And I couldn’t get out.”
            Judith grabbed a tissue, and then another. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”
            We waited. I wrote notes. When Judith looked up again, her eyes were red. “Sorry.”
            “No.” I set my notebook down. “It’s not a problem. But I have to ask—” Again I glanced toward Atkinson. “May I talk to your parents?”
            That made Judith nervous. “I-I guess. But—” She forced a short nod. “They don’t know I’m seeing a, a psychiatrist. They wouldn’t like that.”
            “You’re an adult, Judith.” Atkinson nodded reassuringly. “You’re allowed to make these kind of decisions for yourself.”
            “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She wasn’t convinced, but she squared her shoulders. “I know that.”
            “I’ll try not to tell them.” I stood up. “Oh, by the way, in the room, there was no phone or TV?”
            “There was a TV. We don’t watch TV at home, so I never turned it on. Well . . .” She shrugged. “My roommate watches TV. I kind of like this show, Friends? It’s on, like, twice a night.”
            I nodded. “Yeah. I like Chandler the best.”
            “Yeah, but Joey’s cute.” Then she blushed again.


So I opened the desk drawer. The Bible was there, left by the Gideons. I closed it and picked up the remote.
            The TV flickered on, but the screen showed only gray and white static. On every channel.
            I looked up for cameras in the corners of the ceiling, but if they were there, they were too well hidden. I could try taking things apart for microphones. That would give me something to do, but I wasn’t sure I’d recognize a hidden microphone even if I found one. Or that I could put everything back together again.
            Even so, I lifted my head. “Hello? Anyone there?”
            No answer.
            In the bathroom I splashed some water on my face. So at least the sink worked.
            I paced the room, counting my footsteps. I tried to remember everything Judith had told me about her imprisonment here—and how solitary confinement drove people crazy. She was still sane after almost 200 days. I wasn’t sure how long I could hold up with only sandwiches, water, and the Bible for entertainment.
            For a moment I thought about Rachel trying to find me. Then I remembered that I wouldn’t really be gone long enough for her to notice.
            I sat down. Stood up. Paced the room again. Drank some more water.
            “Hello!” I shouted again. “Is anyone there?”


Back home, I opened my laptop on the dining room table where I do all my serious detective work, checked my email, and then called Judith’s parents. Her mother lowered her voice to a whisper when I explained who I was. “I’m not sure I should talk to you. My husband might not like it.”
            “I only want to ask you and your husband a few questions. It might help your daughter.”
            “Judith.” Her mother said the name like a prayer. “She’s not here anymore. I can’t believe she’d leave us.” She choked, as if gasping for breath between tears. “I just want my baby back.”
            I couldn’t promise anything like that. “Just a few questions. I don’t want to make any trouble.”
            “Well, maybe.” She sighed. “After dinner? He doesn’t like anything to get in the way. Maybe 8:00?”
            “That’s fine.”
            I hung up, feeling guilty. Mrs. Stevens was obviously scared of her husband. And Judith seemed scared of her parents. So the questions I wanted to ask might make things worse.
            But she’d asked me to find out what happened. And I wanted to find out too.
            “Hi, there!” Rachel let herself into my apartment. She has a key. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. She’s my upstairs neighbor, and she’s sort of psychic. She kissed me and sat down at the dining room table. “You got a new case? What’s for dinner?”
            Yeah, I’ve been cooking a lot for us lately. “Bring me a beer?’
            “What am I, your girlfriend?” She slugged my arm.
            She came back with two bottles, and I tried to show off my manly strength by twisting them open. She grabbed them away when I winced with pain and snapped off the caps with a bottle opener. “Wimp.”
            I shrugged. “So, do you know any kind of magic that can trap someone in a room for 200 days?”
            She cocked her head at me. “That’s pretty different.”
            I sighed and stretched. Yeah, this wasn’t the usual “Oh my god, I’m being stalked by a vampire!” case, or even a cheating husband. “So my client was stuck in the room from ‘No Exit,’ but without other people. No phone, just a Bible and a TV. The doors and windows were blocked, but somehow she got food and water every day. Did I mention she was there almost 200 days?” I sipped my beer. “But when she got out, no time had passed.”
            Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Welcome to the Hotel California.”
            “Yeah. She tried to check out by starving herself at the end. But she did manage to leave. Somehow.”
            She sipped her beer. “I hate the Eagles.”
            I clinked my bottle against hers. “That’s the one song of theirs I can actually stand. Any ideas?”
            “Well . . .” She crossed her arms. “She could have been caught in an alternate reality, or some kind of pocket universe. There are always rumors about people who do that—kidnapping, mostly, or crazed stalkers. Yuck.” She shivered. “Got any names?”
            Rachel’s a psychic, not a sorceress, but she does have lots of contacts in Chicago’s supernatural community.
            “Not right now. I’m talking to my client’s parents tonight. Maybe I’ll get something from them.” I finished my beer. “You want a sandwich?”

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