So I have the dream every few months, usually when it’s raining:
I’m standing in an alley, cold rain drizzling over my scalp and shoulders.
An eight-year-old boy lies silent and motionless in a black puddle.
He’s wearing Pink Panther pajamas, ripped and soaked and stained with blood. His fingers and toes are curled up tight, like he’s sleeping. But he’s not breathing. He hasn’t in a long time.
I know I should grab my camera and take pictures. But I can’t do it. He’s just a little boy. I wipe my eyes against the rain and lean against the house behind me. I’ll have to report on this. Write a story for my newspaper. What do I say? How can I—
Then a shadow rears up at the corner of the alley.
It’s tall and black. I can’t see its eyes or its face, but its body is huge, monstrous, misshapen, like a beast out of H.P Lovecraft. It rocks back and forth as the rain pours down.
I want to take a picture. Or run. But my hands and legs are paralyzed with fear. I can’t even blink. Oh god, oh god—what is that?
Suddenly the creature leaps up into the air. It looks like it’s wearing a long black coat, its tails whipping around in the wind. Wings?
The creature—whatever it is—spins around above the house and looks down at me, like a circling vulture looking for prey. Is it coming for me now? What do I do? How can I . . .
Then it disappears up into the dark clouds over the house.
Then it disappears up into the dark clouds over the house.
And now I’m surrounded by cops yelling at me.
I point. “He’s up there! He flew away! Get him!”
The cops look at me as if I’m crazy.
I stare down at the little boy. His mother is right behind me, screaming his name, and the cops have to hold her back.
I look up at the black sky. Rain stings my eyes.
Then I wake up.
* * *
I sat at my dining room table on a rainy Tuesday morning in late November, drinking coffee and running background checks on my laptop with 1980s classic rock on the radio for background noise. Yeah, I grew up on Talking Heads, U2, and Journey. I may be a private eye, but I never claimed to be cool.
My client had six candidates for a bookkeeping job, and I had to make sure none of them had a prison record for embezzlement, or any outstanding parking tickets, or anything in between. I ran the usual checks, hoping for some classic David Bowie.
The 10:00 newsbreak reported on two shootings on the south side, along with mortal combat between City Hall and the Chicago Teacher’s Union and schoolyard insults from the Illinois governor and the speaker of the house. In other words, a typical day in in the city of Chicago. My kind of town.
Rain from last night’s thunderstorm was still tying up traffic on the inbound Kennedy Expressway, and an accident on the Dan Ryan was keeping cars to a crawl. The rain was likely to fade away in the morning but come back in the late afternoon. Unusual lightning overnight had struck a church in Old Town, a 300-year-old tree in a cemetery on the west side, and the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier.
My cellphone buzzed. Hoping for Rachel, or a more interesting client, I hit “save” on my laptop and looked at the screen. Uh-oh.
Detective Elena Dudovich, Chicago PD.
Dudovich and I have run into each other more often than either of us would like, because some of my cases have an unfortunate tendency to involve, well—vampires, monsters, demons, and other entities that most people, especially cops, don’t like to think about. But I have to, because I’ve seen them. And I used to insist on talking about them.
So Dudovich is on my speed dial. I call her from time to time. Sometimes she actually picks up. She seems to have a reluctant respect for me—something she’d never admit to my face. She even steers clients my way once in a while. We aren’t exactly friends, or even allies, but we sort of understand each other.
But I’m usually in trouble when she calls me.
I took a deep breath and pressed the “Answer” button. “Good morning, detective! What can I do for you today? Am I in trouble?”
“Not yet, but it’s only ten o'clock.” Dudovich’s voice was raspy, as if she hadn’t slept. “You remember the Rain Killer?”
Oh hell. My body went stiff. “That was—10 years ago?” When I was still a reporter.
“Yeah. I need you to pull everything you have on the story and bring it down to Central. You think you do that?”
“Wait, what?” I did still have files from those days, copied to disks. “What’s going on? Aside from the obvious First Amendment issues—”
“He’s back.” She lowered her voice. “And if you tell anyone I said this, I will follow you and plant parking tickets on your car until the end of time—but I think maybe you were right.”
Oh god. “I’ll be right there.”
So here’s the thing:
My dream? It happened. No one believed me about the dark shape flying into the sky. Not the cops, because they didn’t see it. And not my editors, because they got leaned on by the cops. The superintendent and the mayor got involved.
The cops and my editors had two problems with my story: One, I was crazy; two, even if I wasn’t crazy, a shadowy black monster who killed children and then flew away would only create panic and false speculation in the city.
And three, I was crazy.
So I was stupid. I wrote my story, insisting it was accurate, and then I called my editor a coward and an asshole—and okay, maybe I threw a box of chicken-fried rice across the newsroom.
I was supposed to report the facts, wasn’t I? But in the end the main fact was that I was out of a job.
I picked up a job with another paper. That didn’t last long, mostly because my marriage was falling apart and I refused to stop working on stories my editors didn’t want. I was starting to find weird angles in everything: A throat wound looked like a vampire attack, and bodies dragged into the sewers meant that some kind of monster lived beneath our streets. Sometimes I got evidence, but it was never good enough. So I was arguing all the time, at work and at home. Eventually I got fired again, and the same day I came home to find divorce papers on the kitchen table.
After a few months I got a job as a legal researcher, but that didn’t work out so well either. The lawyer I worked for was smart and tenacious, but unfortunately her ex-husband was an actual vampire—with issues. And sharp teeth. I managed to stake its heart with a shard of plywood from a damaged bookshelf, and then I quit.
Eventually I managed to finagle a license to be a private detective. Reporters and P.I.s basically do research and ask questions, right? It seemed like a good fit. And I was making a living at it.
But I never forgot that little boy. His name was Justin Bennett. And I never forgot the creature that had killed him.
The officer at the front desk of CPD’s Central District station on State Street gave my ID a skeptical look, but she picked up her phone. “Detective Dudovich? I’ve got a Tom . . . Yurgen here? He says—yes, ma’am.” She handed my ID back. “Third floor.”
Dudovich was waiting when I got off the elevator. “You—over here.” She
yanked open a door, and we sat in a conference room. No one-way glass, so I wasn’t being interrogated. Yet.
“Okay.” Dudovich perched on a chair. “What do you remember about the Rain Killer?”
That’s what they called him—or it. The killer always returned the bodies in the rain, like a crazed meteorologist.
“Like it was last night.” I closed my eyes, and I could see the rain pouring down on Justin’s pajamas. “Three kids were kidnapped. It was the same pattern—they were taken from their homes and then found dead, close to their homes, two or three days later, always when it was raining. A kid named Justin Bennett was the third one, I was there when they found him. I was interviewing the parents. They were hoping a newspaper story might spook the killer into making a mistake. Or changing his mind.” I shook my head. “Obviously that didn’t work. There was another one after Justin, a little girl, and then . . . it stopped.”
“But you saw something.”
“You’ve got my statement in your files somewhere.” I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I saw something rise up into the sky and then fly away. After all these years, someone’s going to admit that I wasn’t crazy?”
Dudovich glared at me. “I don’t care about your precious feelings, Jurgen. I told you, it’s happening again. Two days ago. A little girl, same pattern. Karla D’Angelos, age 11. We found her last night. And her father says . . . he saw something fly away.”
So, yeah, I felt a small twinge of victory. Someone else saw it too. Finally. Maybe now they’ll believe me. That lasted half a second before the horror of the crime sank in.
Oh god. It was happening again.
The First Amendment was one thing, but kids getting killed? I pushed my disks across the desk. “So what else can I do?”
Dudovich stared at me. “Are you willing to talk to the parents?”
What? I’d felt like a media vulture interviewing Justin’s parents ten years ago—even though they’d asked for an interview, desperately hoping they could somehow get through to the kidnapper by talking to a reporter.
I wasn’t sure I could go through that again. But if it would help catch that monster—“Fine. Can I bring Rachel?”
Dudovich groaned. “If you can control her.”
I snorted. “You’ve met Rachel, haven’t you?”
Dudovich actually smiled. “I can’t even believe you’ve got a girlfriend, Jurgen. Just don’t let her talk to the press. You know what I think of them.”
Ouch. But I could see her point. “Speaking of which, how isn’t this all over TV and the internet?”
“It will be. We’re trying to keep the whole ‘flying away’ thing out of it.”
“So people won’t think you’re crazy?” I couldn’t resist it. “Yeah, that would suck.”
Her glare could have melted steel. “Are you going to help or make smartass comments?”
“Fine. I’ll want to look at everything you can show me on the other cases.”
She shrugged. “Dozens of real detectives have been looking at those files for years.”
“None of them believed in a killer who could fly away.”
She stood up. “Some of it’s computerized, but you’ll have to do it here. I don’t want anything leaving the building.”
“No problem.” I stood up too.
“I’ll set it up with the parents.” Dudovich sighed. “God, I hate this.”
Kelly and Dean D’Angelos looked exhausted and heartbroken.
“Can I get you anything? Water, or . . .” Dean had grizzled gray hair and the rough face of a guy who hadn’t shaved in days and might never shave again.
His wife slumped in an armchair in their living room. She managed to look up, her shoulders shaking and her eyes as raw as a zombie. “What—what was your name again?”
“Tom. Tom Jurgen.” I turned, feeling awkward as hell. “And this is Rachel.”
“Hi.” Rachel stepped forward to shake Dean’s hand. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she’s my upstairs neighbor. Yeah, she’s also my girlfriend, at least sometimes, but she helps me on my cases.
She’s also psychic. Sort of. She can pick things up—emotions, lies, paranormal phenomena. I didn’t think the parents were lying—although years as a reporter and P.I. have taught me to be skeptical—but I wanted her to read them as they spoke.
Also I just wanted someone with me who believed me.
Dudovich was with us, but she was staying back. Just watching and listening.
Kelly D’Angelos clutched her hand. “Thank you for coming.”
“I just wanted to say . . .” Rachel sat next to me on the couch. She’s usually pretty calm—except when she’s mad at me—but right now her dark hazelnut eyes were trembling. “I . . . I know it’s a cliché, but I’m so sorry for, you know . . . your loss.”
“Everybody says that.” Kelly gave a bitter laugh. “Everybody. Goddamn it . . .”
“Kell.” Dean squeezed her arm. “They’re trying to help.”
“I know, I know!” Her laughter turned to low sob. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”
Dean looked at us as his wife wept quietly. “You’re—detectives?”
“Private detective.” I glanced back at Dudovich, who nodded. “And Rachel is my associate. Thank you for meeting with us.”
He crossed his arms. “What can we do for you?”
“I used to be a reporter. I covered the, uh, original crimes 10 years ago.” How to ask this? I’d been trying to phrase the question in my mind for the last half hour. “I only want to ask about what you saw. Flying away.”
“What?” Dean shook his head. “They all think I’m crazy.”
I knew the feeling. “I saw the same thing. Ten years ago.”
Dean glanced at his wife. “What did you see?”
I hesitated. “Maybe you’d better tell me first.” I didn’t want my story to influence his.
He took a gulp of water. “We were here—right here. Waiting for a call. There was a cop there.” He shot a glance at Dudovich. “He was very nice, ma’am. And some in a car outside. I was falling asleep on the couch, and then there was this sound—like something falling out back. So I ran, and the cop came with me. And . . .”
Dean’s voice cracked. “Karla was—right there. At the bottom on the steps. I sort of froze, and then there was this thing . . . this thing. It turned around and looked at me, and then it just—I don’t know—flew up into the air. And it was gone. And Karla was—oh, god . . .”
He grabbed a tissue while Kelly held onto his arm, weeping softly. I waited for Dean to blow his nose and take a gulp of water. “I’m sorry, but could I ask a few more questions?”
He blinked at me. “Yeah.”
“I only saw a shadow. You said it looked at you?”
Dean nodded, his neck wobbling. “I didn’t see a face. It backed away, and then it was gone.”
“Did it just jump up? Or climb something?”
“It, uh—I guess it jumped, and caught the other house for a moment. And then it, you know, flew away.” He shrugged. “Then the police were out there. I couldn’t—couldn’t think . . .”
“I was right behind him.” Kelly’s voice choked. “We both got soaked. But we didn’t feel anything. Just . . . just . . .”
She shuddered. “In the sky. Against the clouds. Sort of floating. It turned around and then—there was this big red thing all around its chest. Like a snake. Then it was gone. All I cared about was Karla. You know?”
“Of course.” Big red snake? That was different. The thing I’d seen had been black all over.
I looked at Rachel. She nodded. “Did you see the red mark, Mr. D’Angelos?”
“No.” He gulped some water. “Maybe. It was so dark. For a moment I couldn’t see anything. But I saw it fly up. I swear I saw it! They didn’t believe me!” He jabbed a finger at Dudovich. “Your people didn’t follow it! No one believed me!”
Dudovich stayed quiet. I almost felt sorry for her. Cops have a hard job, and she was a good one. Tough, but honest. She didn’t like me, but she’d always been straight with me.
I leaned forward. “Detective Dudovich doesn’t believe me most of the time. That’s how I know she’s good at her job. But she asked me to come here. You can trust that she wants this thing as much as you do.” Or me.
Dean’s head drooped. “Sorry. I’m just . . . I know you’re all doing the best you can, but Karla is dead. My daughter.”
Rachel clutched my hand. Red snake, her lips said silently. I nodded.
Dudovich caught it. She doesn’t miss much. But she didn’t say anything.
I stood up. “I’m very sorry to upset you. And for—everything.”
“I just want my little girl back.” Dean was sobbing, and Kelly held his shoulders. “Please—can’t someone bring her back?”
“So what’s with the red snake?”
We were back in my Honda. Rachel looked out the window at the house. Dudovich was in her own vehicle. The sky overhead was gray.
She shrugged. “I felt something when she mentioned it. Nothing I can describe. She’s telling the truth, I’m positive. But it made a big impact on her.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
“You didn’t see it? That time?” I’d told Rachel about that night. More than once.
“It was dark, and I only caught a glimpse.” I shook my head, helpless and frustrated. Should I have seen it? Ten years ago? Did I miss something that could have stopped the Rain Killer in its tracks?
Maybe only women could see it. Or maybe it had changed over the years. Or maybe I was just clutching to some desperate hope that I could somehow turn things around and make everything right.
I’d still be a reporter. I’d still be married. I’d never meet Rachel.
But the kids would still be alive.
I started the car. “I’ll drop you off. I need to go back downtown and go through the police reports. It might take a while.”
Sometimes Rachel punches my arm. Now she squeezed it softly. “Are you all right?”
“I’m . . .” Yeah, I was fine. Super. Never better. But Rachel wouldn’t need any psychic powers to know I was lying. “I just have to work on this. I’ll be okay.”
“Right.” She fastened her seatbelt. “I’m going to look into this red snake thing. I’ll call you.”
I pulled away from the curb. Dudovich flashed her lights at me—even though it was the middle of the afternoon. “I’ll need all the help I can get.”