Sunday, October 2, 2016

Out of the Box, Part Two

I called Miles from my car. He didn’t pick up. I left a message.
            I swung by his house. It wasn’t really on my way back home, but I was curious. I rang his buzzer, called again, and thought about pestering the neighbors to get inside. But I didn’t really have any reason to knock on his door if he wasn’t answering his phone, and I wasn’t ready to commit illegal entry yet.
            Not that I’ve ever done that. More than once or twice.
            Back home I ate an apple and called Sharon Young again. No answer.
            I wasn’t sure what else to do. I didn’t have any answers—or questions. Charley had been scared. He disappeared. He starved himself to death. But why?
            Sometimes the only thing to do was start over again. No preconceptions. But where did the story begin? Charley being born? Coming to U of I? Or traveling here for the interview?
            The only hard evidence I had was the video. So I pulled it up on my laptop.
            I recognized Charley now. The Gundersons had sent me dozens of pictures. He had long brown hair and a gold stud in his left ear. He was shouting. His parents had tried to get a lip reader to figure out what he was saying, but she’d only come up with a few words—“God,” and “No,” and maybe “Away!”
            But no one was in the elevator with him. Maybe he was hallucinating. Or the other person had someone had managed to stay below the range of the camera.
            Maybe Charley was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. But I’d asked the Gundersons if they were aware of any mental health issues, and to my relief they didn’t get angry. Like they’d had to answer that question before, too many times.
            I worked a case once where I met a guy with a charm that could make him invisible, and he had a bunch of friends with the same charms and abilities. But he swore they didn’t commit any crimes more serious than sneaking into the movies.
And this seemed different. Charley wasn’t just spooked by an unseen voice. He was terrified.
            I watched the video again, trying to slow it down. There was Charley, pounding the buttons. The elevator didn’t stop. Why not? That was a new question to ask. I wrote it down.
            And then Charley was pounding one button, his finger stabbing the lighted number. I tried to zoom in.
            You can’t really “enhance” images or videos the way they do on TV. The closer I got, the more the picture broke up. But I could still make out the shapes of the numbers.
            Charley was pushing the number six. Over and over again. Even with all the other numbers lit, he kept punching the same button. Six, six, six . . .
            Then the door slid open. Charley fled.
            I started the video again. Charley was talking, then shouting, then pushing buttons. When they all lit up and the elevator didn’t stop, he stabbed the same button over and over again. Six. Three times, then a pause as he yelled in terror. Then three more times.
            Oh, hell. Rachel says I’m not that quick on the uptake, but I could figure this out.
            I picked up my phone. My hand shook. I didn’t have all the answers, but at least I had a few new questions.
            “Bradford Hotel, Linda Palmer, how may I—”
            “Hi, it’s Tom Jurgen again. We met yesterday?” I tried to keep my voice steady. “I just have one more question. Does anyone know why the elevator didn’t stop when Charley Gunderson hit every single button?”
            “What?” She kept her voice low. “I don’t know. I mean, we shut down that elevator and brought in inspectors. All they could say was that it was maybe a circuit failure. But I don’t know. Listen . . .”
            “I shouldn’t tell you this.” She gulped. “But I’m going back to school in a few weeks, so it doesn’t matter. The thing is, this maintenance guy I talked to, one of them who found the, uh, the body downstairs? He saw something. On the wall behind the locker.”
            “What was it?” I thought I knew. But I knew I could be wrong.
            “The numbers, 666. In big black letters. Like from that movie The Omen? I saw it on TV when I was seven. I couldn’t sleep for three nights.”
            I remembered the movie. Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and a creepy little kid who was the Antichrist. And a guy getting his head sliced off, which was when I walked out. I never saw the end.
But I knew the number 666, and not just from the movie or Charley’s frantic jabs at the elevator buttons. It came from the Book of Revelation. The number of the beast.
I’ve met a few demons. They’re not nice.
But I didn’t want to spook her. “It was only a movie.” I tried to sound reassuring. “I don’t think there’s any danger. Just—be careful.”
            “Okay.” Palmer giggled. “I mean, I can make it a few more weeks. I don’t have to go down there again/”
            “Where are you going to school? What are you studying?”
            “DePaul. Journalism. I want to be a reporter.”
            I stifled a groan. “Well, I used to be a reporter. I should tell you to find another career in something more practical, like taxidermy. But call me if you need any advice.”
            “Thanks! I will.”
            Now what? I called Miles again and left a message. I called Sharon Young and again got no answer, so I left a message.
            I had an address for Sharon. I’d already gone to check on Miles in his apartment, so I figured I ought to do the same with her. Of course, Miles knew who I was, so I’d have to be careful approaching his girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend.
            I left a message with Rachel. It’s a habit, so someone knows where I’m going in case I run into trouble. Then I finished my apple and went down to my car.

Sharon Young lived in Cicero, a suburb near her job in Oak Park. I got there at about 5:30. Her building was three stories high on a quiet street. I parked and made my way to the door.
            I pressed a buzzer and waited. No answer. Just like Miles. So I called her number on my cell phone.
            This time she picked up. “Who is it?”
            “Ms. Young? My name’s Tom Jurgen. I’ve been trying to contact you. It’s about Charley Gunderson?”
            “Wait a minute. Oh, god. There’s someone buzzing my door—”
            “That’s me. I apologize, I don’t mean to bother you. It’s just that I have a few questions. Could I come up?”
            Sharon Young didn’t know me, and she didn’t have any reason to let me into her apartment. But after a moment the door buzzed. “Second floor,” she whispered.
            No elevator. I climbed the stairs. She was waiting for me in the hallway, a young blond woman in cutoff shorts and a blue T-shirt. “Hi. Who are you again?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I handed her my card. “I can show you my ID if you want. I’m a private detective, working for Charley Gunderson’s parents. I only want to ask you a few questions. We can talk out here in the hall if you want.”
            Her hand shook as she peered at the card. She glanced back at her door. “No. I recognize your voice from the messages. Sorry I didn’t call back.”
            Inside the apartment Sharon slammed the door and locked the deadbolt.
            The apartment was small, one bedroom, and it looked like she hadn’t left it in days. Dirty clothes and towels lay scattered on the floor, along with empty pizza boxes and crushed cans of Pepsi. And a mostly empty bottle of tequila on a bookshelf.
Sharon dropped my card on the floor and collapsed in a chair, pulling her legs up in front of her chest. “It’s about Charley, isn’t it? I saw that video.”
“Yeah.” Where to start? “Well, you and your boyfriend were two of the last people to see him alive—”
“No!” She screamed at the ceiling. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
I’ve been yelled at before, but this was different. I lifted my hands, ready to run. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“No . . . no. I wasn’t talking to you.” Sharon took a deep breath. “Well, partly I was. Miles isn’t my boyfriend. Not anymore.”
“So who were you talking to?”
She shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’d believe. Let’s start over.” I perched on the edge of a couch. “I’m looking into Charley’s death. I just want to ask a few questions.”
            She pressed her hands against her ears. “Shut up! Shut up! Stop talking!” She stomped a bare foot on the hardwood floor.
            I stood up. No one else in the living room. I peered toward the kitchen behind Sharon. No movement. No sound except her hoarse breathing and my pounding heart.
I tried again. “Who are you talking to?”
            She leaned down, her had between her knees as if she was about to throw up. “The devil,” she moaned.
            And me without a crucifix. Or my Taser. “Sharon.” I kept my distance so she wouldn’t feel threatened. By me, anyway. “Can you tell me what happened?”
            “What?” Sharon looked up. She seemed surprised I was still around, like she’d fallen asleep for a moment and I was just part of a bad dream. She sat back and coughed. “That’s easy—Miles got Charley an interview at his company. Charley came in and aced it. I mean, Miles said he was sure to get the job. So we went out to celebrate, and Miles got drunk, so we took him home to sleep it off. And then . . .” Sharon seemed to curl up again. “I went back to Charley’s hotel with him.”
            Oh. “So you and Charley . . .”
            “He was cute, you know?” She giggled. “And Miles was drunk. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But I wasn’t that drunk. And Miles and me . . . it wasn’t going that great.”
            “So what happened? Aside from—you know.”
            “Crap.” She glanced around the room. “I’m thirsty. Get me that?”
            The tequila. “Okay.”
            She took a swig. “Miles called me in the middle of the night. I guess he heard Charley in the background. No, we weren’t doing it!” She shouted at the ceiling. “It wasn’t like that! He was in the bathroom! It was just . . .” She planted the bottle on the floor. “I can’t take this much more.”
            I paced the room. I had part of a theory that almost made sense. Not that anyone would believe it. “So what did Miles do?”
            Sharon closed her eyes. “He went crazy. Yelling, calling me a slut and a whore, saying he was going to destroy me. And Charley. Charley came out of the bathroom and heard him screaming over my phone. He grabbed the phone and they yelled at each other. Charley threw it across the room. I got dressed and I left.”
            And then later that night—morning, actually—Charley took the elevator down and disappeared. “So did Miles do something?”
            “He said he was going to open the box.”
            Huh? “What box?”
            “The box, it’s like a Mayan pyramid, it’s got four sides—oh, hell, shut up, shut up, make it stop talking!” Sharon grabbed the tequila and took another long swallow. Then she jumped up, and almost fell over. “I can’t take it anymore. Shut up!”
            She ran to the kitchen, sobbing. I got there just in time to see her pick up a long sharp knife. Her face was red, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Make it stop, make it stop—”
            I grabbed her arm. She twisted and sank an elbow into my ribs. Rachel slugs my arm sometimes, but it’s usually pretty mild. This hurt. But I managed to get hold of her wrist as I staggered back. “Sharon! Sharon!”
            “No!” She jabbed the point of the knife at her wrist. Blood spurted over her arm, red and pulsing. Some landed on my shirt.
            I hit her in the shoulder. Okay, I don’t like hitting people, women especially, although at times I’ve done it all. And I’m not very strong. But I got her hard enough to make her drop the knife.
            Screaming, she sagged to her knees. I kicked the knife into a corner and looked around the kitchen until I spotted a roll of paper towels. I snatched a half dozen and pressed them down on the wound as Sharon squirmed and moaned. I didn’t think she’d gone too deep, but more blood was flowing from her wrist than I ever wanted to see.
            With one hand I managed to get my cell phone out and hit 911. “There’s a woman who’s had an accident with a knife,” I told the dispatcher. I struggled to remember the address but I got it right. “Send an ambulance right away. Please?”
            “Shut up,” Sharon moaned. “Shut up, shut up, shut up . . .”
Rachel met me at the local ER. “Have I ever mentioned that I hate hospitals?” Then she saw my shirt. “Is that blood? What the hell?”
            “That’s why I asked you to bring me a shirt. Don’t worry, it’s not mine.”
            “Good.” She slugged my arm. “I don’t want to visit you in a hospital bed.”
            “You and me both.” I told her what happened. She lifted her eyebrows when I mentioned the Devil.
            A nurse pushed the curtain back. “You can—wait, are you family?”
            “I’m Sharon’s brother. Tom. I called the ambulance.”
            She looked me over skeptically for any sign of a family resemblance. “Okay. Five minutes.”
            We went inside. Sharon was sitting up, her eyes dazed, a wide bandage on her wrist and an IV in her arm. “Oh. Hi.” She shook her head. “Sorry about that.”
            “How do you feel?”
            She gazed up at the ceiling. “I can’t hear it now. I hope it doesn’t come back.”
            Me too. “This is my friend Rachel. She helps me out. Can she talk to you for a minute?”
            “Sure.” Sharon blinked at Rachel. “Wait, are you his girlfriend?”
            I expected another punch. But Rachel just smirked. “It’s complicated. Look, Sharon—it’s Sharon, right? Let me just . . .”
            She reached out and took Sharon’s hand, the one without the wound. Sharon looked at her, puzzled but smiling. I figured the painkillers were helping her relax. She giggled again and closed her eyes.
            Rachel dropped her hand. “There’s something. You know I can’t pick up definite images or anything like that, but there was a presence, and she’s been scared. Really scared. I think it’s fading. But I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just because she’s out of her place.”
            I didn’t like to think of her going back home if she was going to try to kill herself again. I also didn’t want to worry that this was my fault—that if I hadn’t asked her questions, she would have been fine. Frightened, but not suicidal.
            Sharon opened her eyes. “Oh, hi. You’re still here.”
            “I’m sorry.” I glanced at the curtain, not sure how much time we had. “You said Miles was going to open a box? A pyramid?”
            “What? Oh yeah.” She shivered. Then she looked around and sat up. “Huh. It’s gone.”
            “What’s gone?” I glanced at Rachel.
            “The voice. The devil.”
“You’re not scared anymore?”
            “Spiders and hornets, insurance salesmen, yeah. The other thing?” She tilted her head and rubbed an ear. “I can hear again.”
            “What about the box?”
            The nurse pushed the curtain back before Sharon could answer. But she didn’t kick us out. “Listen, honey, we want you to stay the night. We’ll take you up to a room in a few minutes.”
            “Okay.” Sharon shrugged. “Wait—do you need my insurance card or anything? I don’t think—”
            “Your brother brought your purse. Everything’s fine.” She smiled.
            Sharon blinked at me. “Oh. Thanks, bro.”
            “Anything for my sister.” I’d managed to grab it when the paramedics came. “Could we have another minute?”
            The nurse nodded and left.
            Sharon laughed. “My brother?”
            I grinned, more in relief than anything else. “I had to get in to see you somehow. So look, Sis, what about this box? The pyramid?”
            Her face paled. “Miles used to joke that he had a demon trapped in there, and if anyone pissed him off, he’d let it out. He said his uncle gave it to him when he died. I thought he was just joking, but now . . .” She shuddered. “I guess maybe he was right.”
            A box. “I don’t suppose you still have a key to his apartment?”


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