Sunday, June 18, 2017

The First Rule

The murder of a human may break the truce between the living and the undead in Chicago, and Tom Jurgen’s investigation opens old wounds as he discovers a mysterious—and deadly—club for vamps and humans.

The First Rule, Part One

The corpse was covered in bruises and blood. Male, early thirties, his face was white from blood loss, but bending down I could see two small punctures in his neck.
“Vampire.” Detective Anita Sharpe pulled me back to let the tech team in.
“Yeah.” I sighed. This was going to cause problems.
The Chicago CP and the Chicago vampires had a shaky truce. One that I’d helped negotiate. No indiscriminant killing of vamps by the cops, in exchange for no large-scale attacks on humans. Vampires needed blood to survive, but they couldn’t slaughter humans like Huns rampaging the countryside. As long as the blood was kept to a minimum, we could live uncomfortably together.
Now I was on the deserted top floor of a four-story parking garage on the west side of the city at 2:30 a.m., with Sharpe—my partner on the Silent Force, my name for the vampire squad—looking at a body that clearly violated the treaty.
And I was the go-between—the liaison between the vamps and the CPD. The vampire ambassador.
I’m Tom Jurgen. A private detective. I used to be a reporter. And I’ve been getting involved in cases and stories involving vampires, demons, aliens, and other paranormal beings for longer than I can remember.
“You’re going to have to call her.” Sharpe pointed to the pocket of my windbreaker.
Anenome. The queen of vampires in this part of the city. She and Clifton Page, another long-undead vampire, had split the map apart to deal with the treaty. But something all the problems seemed to lie on Anemone’s side of the line.
“Right.” I pulled out my phone. “Any idea who he is?”
            “Once the techs are done we can go through his clothes.”
“Okay.” I pulled out my phone. “She’s probably awake. Maybe writing her poetry.”
Sharpe rolled her eyes. “Riiight.”

“Tom? How are you?” Anenome’s voice was a soft whisper. “I’m just doing a painting of the moon. I hunted earlier.”
            She likes to hunt in the early evening, preying on older people who can’t fight back. As far as I knew, she hadn’t actually killed anyone in months. At her age she didn’t need as much blood as a younger vampire to keep her undead.
            I sat in my Honda on the street, watching the ambulance the body away. “I need to ask about a dead human. Found in a parking garage in your territory. Tonight.”
            “Oh, great.” She sighed. “I suppose you expect me to do something about it?”
            “It looks like a clear violation of the treaty. Neck wounds, drained of blood. My people are going to take this seriously.”
            “I don’t know anything about it.” Her voice rose. “But in the spirit of the truce, I’ll make inquiries.”
            “Thank you.” Telling a vampire queen what to do is scary, but it’s now part of my job. “I’ll have to call Clifton, too. Just so you know.”
            Anenome groaned. “Give him my best.”
            I shivered as we hung up. We aren’t friends, or even allies, but we’d reached a kind of equilibrium in our relationship. We sort of trust each other. But it’s a narrow balance.
            Dealing with vampires is always precarious.
Rachel and I had been up late watching Orange is the New Black when Sharpe’s call had come. She was working at her laptop on my kitchen table as I came in.
            “So?” She saved her work as I locked the door. “What’s going on?”
            “Vampires. Again. You didn’t have to stay up.”
            “I had too much coffee.” She shrugged. “Plus, I didn’t want to get ahead without you.”
            Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor. And my girlfriend. Red hair, hazelnut eyes, sort of psychic. “Let me get a beer.”
            Back at the table I told Rachel everything I knew about the murder. “I have to call Clifton Page. Just to keep him informed.” I pulled out my phone. “You staying?”
            “Let me work on this brochure a while. We’ll see.”
            Page was awake. Of course. “Tom. What can I do for you?”
            “There’s been a murder. A human. In Anemone’s territory, but I thought you ought to know.”
            He paused. “What can you tell me?”
            “Not much.” I gave him what I’d seen. “I’ll probably know more tomorrow.”
            “This sounds . . . I don’t know. I’ll contact some people myself. I probably don’t have anything. But I’ll call you if I do. Before sunrise or after sunset.”
            “Right.” I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight. “Thank you.”
            “Of course.” Clifton Page was more than 100 years undead, but still a gentleman. “Good night.”
            Rachel closed her laptop. “Bed.”
            “Good idea.” I finished my beer.
            She stood up and stretched. “Don’t get any ideas. I’m going to fall asleep in two seconds.”
            “Whatever.” I turned out the lights.

When I woke up at 8:30 the bed was empty. I took a quick shower, dressed, and checked my messages.
            Nothing from Anemone or Page. A quick one from Sharpe at 5:32 a.m.: “Call me at eleven. I’m getting some sleep.”
            So I ate some cereal and worked on my other cases for a few hours—mostly phone calls and internet searches. Sharpe called me at 10:46.
            “Jurgen? We’ve got a name on the vic.”
            I switched pages on my laptop. “Okay. Good morning, by the way.”
            “Yeah, happy Wednesday to you. Listening? Adan Shank, address in Lincoln Park, 32 years old, fifteen parking tickets and three drunk and disorderlies. His car was in the garage on a lower level. I’ll send you the data. We’ve already had people talk to his parents and a girlfriend. You get to do the in-depth stuff. Let me know what you find out.” She hung up.
            That was the kind of relationship we had. So I sipped my coffee and checked my email.
            There it was: a dossier on Adan Shank. The details were sketchy. Born in Oklahoma, his parents immigrants from Greece. Graduate of a community college. Employed at a car rental agency in Chicago, two years ago to the present. His address. Cell number. No landline number. His parents, and a girlfriend. License plate number, belonging to a nine-year-old Subaru. Various cards—library card, gym club membership, discount cards for Walgreen and Jewel and others.
            I started with an internet search of his name, using a few resources available only to private detectives. After filtering out all the results for “Adam” Shank and other variations, I found a credit report on the low side, a complaint from a past landlord, and two addresses in Chicago associated with his name.
            But internet searches will only take you so far. After copying the information, I picked up my cellphone. I started with Adan’s employer.
            The manager sounded annoyed. “I already talked to the cops. You want to rent a car?”
            “My Honda’s fine right now. Is there someone who knew him I could talk to?”
            “We don’t have time for that. I asked Tina, she’s his friend, and she doesn’t know anything. Sorry, I’ve got someone here.” The manager hung up.
            I found numbers for landlords at both addresses. The most recent one barely knew Adan, although he said the checks usually came on time. The previous landlord ranted that Adan had run out on his last month’s rent, and the security deposit barely covered the cost of the damage to the carpet in the apartment.
            Okay. I thought for a moment, then realized I was putting off the two most obvious places to start: Adan’s parents and his girlfriend.
            As a reporter I’d had to call up grieving parents and partners more than I liked. I didn’t enjoy it, and neither did any other good reporter, but it was part of the job. So I took a deep breath.
            Adan’s parents didn’t answer, so I left a message. His girlfriend Jenny Calvano picked up. “Hello?”
            “Ms. Calvano? My name’s Tom Jurgen, I’m a consultant with the Chicago Police. I’m very sorry to disturb you—”
            “It’s about Adan, isn’t it?” She sounded tense and close to breaking.
            “I’m afraid it is. If this is a bad time—” Well, that was a stupid thing to say. “I can call you later if you want.”
            “No. I can . . . a few minutes maybe. I already talked to some detectives.”
            “I know, and I’ll probably go over the same details. I’ll try to keep this brief. Adan was . . . on the top floor of a parking garage. Do you know any reason why—”
            “He wasn’t buying drugs.” Her voice was ragged. “That’s what those cops asked me. We smoke a little weed, that’s it. Nothing that would get him involved with anything violent.”
             “Okay. Are you aware of anyone who’d want to hurt him?”
            “No. No, we’ve got a bunch of friends. He likes the people he works with. You might talk to Tina, she works there with him, she knows some of his friends better than I do. I don’t know everyone. Sometimes he goes out without me, with guys from work or whatever.”
            “Did he tell you he was going out last night?”
            “Yeah, but he didn’t say with who. We don’t live together. Well, weekends, but I don’t see him every day.”
            “Would it be possible for you to give me a list of some of his friends he might have been out with?”
            She sighed. “I suppose. Give me your email address?”
            Half an hour later I had an email with six names and phone numbers—including Tina, Adan’s co-worker at the car rental agency.
            I poured myself a cup of coffee and started punching numbers.

The First Rule, Part Two

Tina answered my call but couldn’t talk, so she promised to call me later. I left messages at two other numbers, talked to two friends who were shocked by Adan’s murder but didn’t have anything to offer, and got hold of Will Hernandez, the last name on the list.
“Yeah, I heard about Adan on the internet.” Will kept his voice low, as if he wasn’t supposed to be talking at work. He worked at an electronics store, selling computers, TVs, and assorted gizmos. “I talked to him a day ago.”
“What did he say?”
“Look, I don’t know you.” He didn’t sound hostile, just skeptical. “So I don’t know what I should say.”
“I understand that. You can call detective Anita Sharpe at the Chicago Police—”
“I don’t want to talk to cops.” He hesitated. “I’m not sure if I should talk to you, but maybe—look, Adan used to be a boxer. In college, a little bit afterwards. He wanted to keep it going, but he couldn’t. So he started looking for ways to fight. Not professionally, just . . . fight.”
“With who?”
“I don’t know. Look, I haven’t talked to him in weeks, all right? He’s not an angry guy, he just likes to show off.”
“Okay.” I added “boxing” to my notes. “Thanks for talking to me.”
“I’ve got to go.” He hung up.
I looked at the time on my phone. One o’clock? What happened to the morning? I went into the kitchen to make a sandwich.
Rachel called me as I was eating. “Anything on the new vampire thing?”
“Not yet.” I set it down. “Lots of phone calls, waiting for calls back. The usual glamorous life of a P.I. How’s that brochure coming?”
“Oh, it’s done. I’m working on a web page for a startup selling frozen tuna and salmon and fish like that. It’s boring.”
“Want to come down for lunch? I’ve got—” My phone buzzed with another call. “I’ve got another call. Come down if you want.” I switched. “Hello, Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Hello? It’s Tina Kolb. You called me? About Adan?” She was whispering. Maybe she was in the rental agency’s break room, with the manager close by.
“Yes, thanks for calling me back.” I clicked on my laptop. “I apologize for bothering you today. It must be difficult—”
“Yeah, I can’t believe it.” Tina groaned. “But what can I do? I’m taking a late lunch.”
            “Me too.” I shoved my sandwich back. “So I’m trying to find out why Adan was on the empty top floor of parking garage with his own car parked on a lower level. Can you give me any ideas?”
            “I’m not sure what I should tell you.” She kept her voice low. “I don’t—I didn’t know Adan that well. We were friends, but I don’t want to get into any trouble. You’re with the police, right?”
            “I’m a consultant. Mostly I’m a private detective, but I work with them on certain cases.”
            “What kind of cases?”
            I couldn’t talk about vampires. Not yet, anyway. “Unusual cases. I’ll try to keep whatever you can tell me confidential. But in all honesty, I can’t promise that.”
            I half expected her to hang up. Instead she took a long deep breath. “Okay. All I know is that Adan used to be a boxer, or wrestler, or something. Sometimes he’d come in with a bruise on his face, and when I asked about it, he’d sort of laugh and said he had a few good rounds last night. I don’t know what he meant, but it sort of sounded like he’d been fighting. For fun.”
She swallowed. “I’ve got to go back to work. Can I call you later?”
“Of course. Thanks for talking to me.”
Rachel opened my door as I set the phone down. “You said something about lunch?”
            I looked at my sandwich. “I’m having turkey and swiss cheese. Let me see what I’ve got.” Rachel’s a vegetarian.
            “That’s okay. Just give me some coffee. I’m not sure I slept last night. Or the night before.” She yawned. “So what’s with the vampires?”
            “I’m not sure.” I looked at the clock. “Six hours until sundown. I might get some answers then.”
            Then my phone buzzed.
            “Hi, I’m Jeff Tollin.” One of Adan’s friends that I’d left a message with. His voice quivered. “You called me?”
            “Yes. Thanks for calling back.” I introduced myself. “I only called to see if you could give me any information about Adan Shanks. I got your name from a friend of his. He’s, uh . . .”
            “Dead. I know.” He swallowed. “Look, I can tell you some stuff, but not on the phone. Can we meet somewhere? Tonight?”
            “Sure.” I tapped at my computer. “Where? When?”
            “My place.” He gave me an address on the west side. “Uh, around 8:00?”
            “That’s great.” It was 2:00 now. “I’ll be there. Thanks.”
            “What’s that?” Rachel cocked an eyebrow.
            “Jeff Tollin. Friend of the victim. I’ve meeting with him at 8:00. But before that I’ve got phone calls at sundown. You want to hang out here?”
            “I’m going to take a nap.” She kissed the top of my head. “Upstairs, so don’t get any ideas. Call me before you go anywhere.”

I checked out a few other cases, made some phone calls and sent a few emails. Then I napped too. Vampire cases keep me up all night, and I needed the extra sleep.
            I woke up around 5:30 and waited for the sun to drop. I checked my email., drank some lukewarm coffee, and made sure twilight filled the sky before making my first call. Anenome.
            “Tom.” She laughed. “Can’t you give a girl a few minutes to dry off from a shower? I’m naked here.”
            Vampires take showers? I tried to keep my mind on business. “Adan Shank. The guy in the parking garage? You had all night to ask questions.”
            “Just give me a minute.” I heard rustling noises. “I’d send you a selfie right now, but I really want to go out and hunt.”
            I squirmed. “I don’t need any selfies, but thanks for the offer. Have you got anything for me on Adan Shank?”
            “Actually, no.” She sounded surprised herself. “No one is talking to me.”
            “No one? You’re the vampire queen. You’re the toughest vamp in Chicago, aren’t you?”
            “You should hope I am. But it’s not like I can send a group email to every vampire with a cellphone and expect an instant response.”
            “So will you keep asking?”
            Anenome sighed. “After I hunt.”
            I pretended not to hear that.
            Clifton Page called me a few minutes later. He didn’t have anything either.
            I was feeling frustrated. “You and Anenome have been able to keep the truce going for months. How do you communicate? I assume you don’t have town hall meetings every month.”
            He chuckled. “We do have email. Some of us, anyway. And we have—other methods of communicating that I’m not going to share with you. But we really don’t have thousands of vampires living here, or even hundreds. Maybe just dozens, especially since Asmodeus was killed.”
            I shuddered. Asmodeus—the vampire king who launched the war on Chicago. Yeah, he was dead. I’d killed him, after he’d slaughtered Detective Elena Dudovich, my one sort-of friend in the CPD. Killing Asmodeus had led to the truce, so at least something positive came out of all the deaths.
            I still missed Dudovich.
            “So you should be able to get the word out to all of them, though, shouldn’t you? Or most of them?”
            He sighed. “This ‘king’ and ‘queen’ thing is mostly a fiction for you humans to feel better. The only authority we have is fear. As long as they’re afraid of Anenome and me, the truce will hold. If that stops . . .”
            He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to.
            “Will you keep asking?”
            “Of course. I’ll be in touch.”
Jeff Tollin opened the door. “Hi. Tom?”
            “Yes.” I stepped aside for Rachel. “This is Rachel. She works with me.”
            “Okay.” He backed up. I tried to ignore him checking out Rachel’s tight jeans and boots. “Come on in.”
            The two-bedroom apartment was small, neat, and clean. The window looked across at the street at a Mexican restaurant.
“I work over there.” Tollin lowered the shades. “My roommate’s gone for now. He works down the block.”
            Tollin was heavyset, with a blond beard and a thick nose. He offered us sodas and then sat down with one of his own.
            “Here’s the thing.” He sipped. “Adan used to be a boxer. In college. I think he got a partial scholarship, but he wasn’t interested in going pro. But he missed it, so he started boxing at this one gym where I met him.”
            “Do you box?” Rachel asked.
            He grinned, embarrassed, as if Rachel was flirting with him. “A little. Mostly I lift weights.” Then he glanced at me and went back to the point. “Anyway, he was a pretty good boxer, but he told me once he was into something a little more . . . extreme.”
            “Like krav maga?” Rachel looked at me. “What? I took a class once. It almost killed me.”
            Good. I didn’t need her to get any better at slugging me.
            “No.” Tollin looked at the floor.  “Did you ever see that movie ‘Fight Club’?”
            “Only the trailer.” The first rule about Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. Or something like that.
            “I did.” Rachel sighed. “Brad Pitt. I’ll rent it for you sometime.”
            I leaned forward, “Is that what Adan was doing? Fighting with . . .” Vampires?
            Tollin shook his head. “I don’t know. He was really like, ‘You don’t talk about Fight Club.’” He shrugged. “That’s why I didn’t want to talk on the phone.”
            I nodded. “Okay. Anything else?”
            Tollin shook his head. “Just that it’s weird, what they said about him being found in a parking garage. Like that might have been one place to meet. And fight.”
            I nodded. “Yeah.”

Back at my apartment I called Clifton Page again. “Do vampires have fight clubs with humans?”
            He didn’t ask what a fight club was. Maybe he’d seen the movie. Maybe I was the only person in the city, human or undead, who hadn’t.
            “Some humans seem to enjoy the idea of testing themselves against us.” He hesitated. “And a willing victim is rare. So it happens.”
            “Are you aware of any going on right now?”
            Another long pause. “It’s the kind of thing I’d try to stop. My people might enjoy it, for obvious reasons. Some of your people might for their own reasons. But there’s too much risk of a backlash if it goes to far or happens to often.”
            “Bad for business.” I have watched “The Sopranos.” I thanked him and hung up.
            “So?” Rachel gave me a beer.
            I shrugged. “Human-vampire fight clubs are apparently a thing. Who knew?”
            “Nothing surprises me anymore. You calling Sharpe?”
            “Yeah.” I had to report, even if I didn’t have anything more than a theory.
            “Jurgen.” She answered on the first buzz. “How did you know?”
            “Know what?” My blood pressure jumped. Rachel’s the psychic, not me, but—
            “There’s another one.”

The First Rule, Part Three

This one was in an empty house on the south side. Cops had cordoned off the yard with yellow tape, flood lights illuminated the property, and curious neighbors watched as I pulled up in my Honda and showed the cops my ID.
            Rachel was with me. I couldn’t talk her out of it.
            Sharpe was inside, once again impatiently waiting for the crime scene techs to finish their work. She nodded at Rachel. “Your boyfriend brings you on some fun dates.”
            Rachel patted my arm. “That’s why I love him.”
            I tried to focus my mind on business. “Who is it?”
            “Hispanic male, early 30s. Won’t have a name until we get him out of here.” She patted a tech’s arm. “Take your time, guys.”
            I leaned forward. Wounds on the throat. Bruises on the face and chest—his shirt lay in a corner. Bloodstains on the wooden floor.
            “Look at his hands.” Rachel’s breath whispered in my ear.
            His knuckles were red, as if he’d hammered his fists at a door a dozen times. Like a boxer.
            I stepped back. “Want to hear my theory?”
            Sharpe pulled me back into a corner where the techs couldn’t hear us. “What?”
            I glanced at Rachel. She nodded.
            “Fight club.”
            “Oh.” Sharpe looked over my shoulder at the corpse. “Yeah. That makes sense. Great movie, by the way.”
            I’d gone from cops telling me I was crazy to not even having to explain what I was talking about. “Yeah. I’ve got to watch it one day.”
            The lead tech motioned to Sharpe. “We’re done for now. I’m calling the M.E. in to take him out.”
            “Thanks.” She jammed her hands into her pockets. “I’ve still got to wait until they get him to the hospital before we can find out who he is. Or what’s in his pockets. Damn it.”
            Rachel stepped forward again. “Give me a second.”
            “Back away.” Sharpe raised her arms.
            The techs were packing up. Some of them watched Rachel, although they were probably just checking out her butt.
            I was surprised that Sharpe actually seemed willing to listen to Rachel. But I guess a few months dealing with vampires had opened her mind.
            Rachel closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “He wasn’t scared. Until the end. He thought he could win. It hurt, but he thought he had a shot. Then he couldn’t breathe. Hands on his throat. Then . . .”
            She staggered backed. I caught her. “Are you okay?”
            “I’m fine.” She pushed my hands away and stood straight. “It was a fight. The vamp’s name was Victor. It was the last thing he thought. Except for . . .”
            Rachel sagged. Sharpe and I grabbed at her arms and shoulders. One of the techs came over to help.
            After a few minutes we helped Rachel out to my car. She laid back, gasping, but managed to fastened her belt as Sharpe held the door. “Get home safe.” She zeroed a glare at me. “I guess I need both of you.”
            I pulled away from the house. “Are you okay?”
            “No.” She grabbed a water bottle from the holder between our seats. “I mean, yes. The last thing he thought was ‘Daddy.’”
            I waited a few minutes while Rachel caught her breath. Eventually I was back on Lake Shore Drive, heading home. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
            “I’m not doing it all the time.” She gazed out the window at the lake. “I just felt it. Maybe because he wasn’t . . . dead . . . for very long. I just thought I could help.” She rubbed her eyes. “I haven’t slept in two nights.”
            “You helped. Victor.” Maybe Page or Anemone knew that name. In the meantime . . . “I’ll get you home. Thanks.”
            Rachel slugged my arm. Weakly. “Anything for the team.”

I got Rachel home and put her to bed. Alone. In her apartment. Then I looked for something to eat in her refrigerator.
            Rachel’s a vegetarian. I’m not, although I try to respect that. Still, the pickings were slim. I managed a sandwich with tomatoes, avocado, and mayo.
            I was wiping tomatoes off my shirt when my phone buzzed. Sharpe.
            “Victim’s name is Will Hernandez. And here’s a thing—he’s got a card for a gym that Adan Shank belonged to.”
            Wait—what? “Okay, Will Hernandez? I talked to him today. He was a friend of Adan.”
            “So what did he tell you?”
            “Not much.” Damn it. Could I have gotten more from him? Or told him enough to keep him from getting killed? “What gym is it?”
            “It’s called Champions. On Belmont. It’s open 24 hours. Want to come?”
            I looked at the clock on Rachel’s wall. Minnie Mouse’s little hand pointed to 10. Her little hand pointed down.
            I looked at my sandwich. “I’ll be right there.”
            Sharpe hung up. I took another bite, looked at my phone, and then called Jeff Tollin.
            “Sorry to call so late.” I didn’t know what kind of hours he kept. “But I have to ask you a question.”
            “No, it’s okay, I’m just waiting for Jimmy Kimmel. What’s going on?”
            “The gym you go to—where you met Adan? What’s it called?”
            “Champions. It’s on Belmont. Why?”
            Oh hell. “You might want to stay away from there for a while.”
            “Why? Oh.” He gulped. “I never noticed anything weird there.”
            “Is there a guy named Victor?”
            “Uh, yeah. He runs the place. Tall guy, long arms. Big ears. Friendly. He spotted me with the weights a bunch of times. He doesn’t smile much, but he seemed all right.”
            “Okay.” I stood up. “It’s probably nothing. Sorry to bother you.”
            “No problem. I’ve got tomorrow morning off.”
            We hung up.
            I checked on Rachel. She was still asleep, snoring loudly the way she does when she’s really tired.
            I kissed her cheek. She rolled over and swatted me away.
So I left a note on her table. I signed it “Love, Tom,” and drew a heart with an arrow through it.
            She’d hate it. But maybe I could get back before she saw it.

Champions was a small storefront gym with wide windows and half-lowered blinds. I could see deserted treadmills and one spinning exercise bike as I walked past the police car parked at the corner. “Is Detective Sharpe here?”
            The officer peered at my ID. “I’ve never seen that one before.” She looked me over.
            “I’m a consultant.” I’d gotten better at saying it lately.
            “Oh. I hate you guys.” She waved me past. “Go on.”
            The interior of the gym smelled like sweat and disinfectant. The spinning exercise bike stopped as I walked forward. I saw Sharpe at the back, talking to a tall African-American man as two other men in shorts and T-shirts lifted weights and one short, sinewy woman in a tank top worked a stairmaster, ignoring everyone else.
            Sharpe turned as I approached. “He’s not here.”
            “He’s the owner.” She pointed at the guy she’d been talking to. “This is Jason. Assistant manager. Jason, this asshole is Tom Jurgen, and he’s not a cop, but you’d better answer his questions the same way you answer mine. Only better.”
            Jason looked nervous. I didn’t blame him. “I just don’t know—I only work here . . .”
            “Where’s Victor?”
            “She asked me that! I don’t know.” Jason tried to keep his voice low, to avoid alarming the few people in the gym. “Like I said, I don’t know anything about those guys. Hernandez, Shank . . . I never thought . . .”
            I felt bad for Jason. Maybe he was an innocent human, just working for a living. But I couldn’t ignore the other possibilities. I looked at Sharpe. “Did you ask him where Victor lives?”
            She smiled. “I was just getting to that.”
            I watched Jason as he led us into the back office. His face reflected clearly in the mirrors on the walls. So, not a vampire.
            Jason slouched behind a desk and hit a keyboard. “Okay, give me a minute.”
            Sharpe pulled me back toward the door. “What have you got?”
            “You’re way ahead of me. Victor owns this place, whoever he is. I got that from a guy who works out here and knew Adan.” I pulled put my phone. “I can call my contacts—”
            “Here it is.” Jason looked up from the computer. “His home address. Only I don’t know if I should—”
            “You should.” Sharpe leaned over the desk. “Because we need to talk to him for a murder investigation.”
            “Well . . .” He tapped a key. “Here. I can—”
            We turned.
            The man in the doorway was tall, with long arms and big ears. He lifted one lip in a crooked smile. “Are you looking for me?”

He waved an arm. “Go home, Jason. Right now.”
            Jason stood up. “But—but—we’ve got people out there . . .”
            “Tell them to go home. Emergency water problems, gas leak, whatever. Just go.” Victor smiled. “Have a good night.”
            Jason fled. Leaving Sharpe and me alone with the vampire.
            Victor walked around the desk and sat down. “What is going on?”
            “You know.” Sharpe made her way next to me, ready to shove me to the ground. She didn’t necessarily like me, but she was going to protect me. “Two humans dead in two nights? Your little fight club? You really thought you could get away with that?”
            Victor leaned back in the chair. His lips lifted in a smile, and I could see the fangs inside his jaws. “It was a game. It’s all a game. Everyone come of their own free will. And you know what? Sometimes the humans actually win. Vamps dead, staked through the chest. That’s what makes it interesting.”
            “I don’t care.” Sharpe had her handgun out, pointed at his chest. Did she have silver bullets? It didn’t matter. Even lead bullets would slow a vamp down until we could drive a stake through its chest.
            “Jurgen?” Sharpe’s voice was steady. “Make a call. I’ve got a squad car outside, and I can get ten more in thirty seconds.”
            My hands fumbled for my phone. “Should I just call 911, or—”
            Victor moved faster than any vampire I’d ever seen. One moment, behind the desk. Then he jumped, and the next moment he pressed his body against Sharpe, one hand on her wrist, his jaws trembling against her throat.
            “Yes,” he murmured, licking his lips. “Let’s fight, you and me. You think you’re strong with your gun? I can—”   
            “Wait!” My shout wasn’t very loud. Not loud enough to hide the crunch as Victor broke Sharpe’s wrist.
            Her pistol dropped to the floor.
            “Jurgen!” She twisted her face. “Get backup! Now!”
            Victor snarled. “Yes. Do that. By the time they get here, she’ll be dead. And I’ll be gone.”
            I looked at Sharpe. “Okay. Sorry.”
            She closed her eyes.
            I’m not very brave. Not at all actually. But I couldn’t let another vampire kill one of my friends. Not after Dudovich.
            So I dropped my phone and spread my hands. “Come and get me, you bastard.”

I had nothing. Not a stake, not even a smart wisecrack. Victor knew that. He let Sharpe go and turned on me, his jaws wide in a bloodthirsty smile.
            Oh hell. Now what? I lurched back. “Maybe we could just talk? I’m good friends with—”
            Victor lunged at me. I twisted away, my arms up, protecting my throat, but his hands had turned to claws and they ripped at my flesh as he leaned down, laughing, his long fangs searching for my neck.
            I kicked. I punched. I squirmed. I managed to sink a knee into his crotch, and he grunted, but it didn’t stop him. I could smell his breath, rancid and moldy against my face, and slammed a fist against his chest.
            I should have studied krav maga, I guess. Rachel would be mad at me for getting killed.
            I reached up, pushing Victor’s face away. I twisted his lip. Somehow that worked. He howled and yanked back, his eyes red.
            “Yes,” he muttered. “Take it and enjoy it, human—”
            Then he jerked up as Sharpe shot him left-handed straight through the side of his skull.
            “Ahh!” Victor lurched away, clutching his head. “Uhh . . .”
            Sharpe kicked at his shoulder, knocking him to the floor. Victor rolled, moaning, and Sharpe fired two more shots straight into his head.
            Victor’s eyes went black. “You can’t—you can’t—”
            Sharpe staggered. “Jurgen, find me a stake.”
Sharpe glared at me. Her right arm was already wrapped up. “Don’t you ever do something like that again.”
            We sat on the curb outside, sipping coffee from a nearby shop. I had bandages over my chest. My shirt was in shreds. “Yeah. Rachel’s going to kill me.”
            “I might kill you! What the hell were you thinking, asshole?”
            I looked up at the cloudy night sky. I was still alive. Somehow. But other people weren’t.
            “Dudovich.” I set my coffee in the sidewalk. “I let her die. I just—damn it . . .”
            I felt a hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t look up.
            “Look.” I wiped my eyes. “I know you don’t like me. That’s okay. Let’s just leave it there, all right?”
            Sharpe patted my shoulder. “I like you just fine, Jurgen. Thanks for saving me there.”
            I kicked my coffee into the street. “Just glad I could help. This time.”
So I called Page and then Anenome. Page was angry—at Victor, not me. He asked if I was okay. Anenome just seemed bored.
            “I knew Victor,” she told me. “Arrogant prick. He would have tried to take over, so I suppose I owe you a favor.”
            I wasn’t sure I wanted a vampire owing me anything. But it might come in handy sometime.
            Back home I checked on Rachel. She was still asleep, but she woke up and came out as I was drinking a beer. “Wow. I don’t usually pass out like that.”
            “Probably just as well. You want anything? Beer? Soda?”
            “Just some water. And what do you mean?”
            I took my time getting a glass of ice water from her kitchen, mostly because I didn’t want to tell her I’d almost gotten myself killed. Again. But in the end I had to.
            I expected Rachel to kick me. Instead she sighed. “It wasn’t your fault. About Dudovich.”
            “I know. I just didn’t want it to happen again.” I still have nightmares. Asmodeus, his fangs stained with blood. Dudovich, her body on the grass. Me, stabbing the vampire over and over again.
            Rachel grabbed my hand. “You’re alive, Tom. That’s a good thing.”
            “Yeah.” I nodded. “Sorry.”
            “Come on.” She lifted me up. “You need to sleep. Don’t get any ideas. I’m going to be up for the rest of the night after this.”
            I let Rachel push me down into her bed, and in a few minutes I was fast asleep. Dreaming of vampires. Fight clubs. And Dudovich.
            The first rule . . .
# # #            

Saturday, June 10, 2017


A seemingly routine surveillance case explodes when Tom Jurgen's subject bursts into flames. When a woman starts burning criminals to death up and down Chicago, Tom and Rachel know they're in for some serious heat.

Firestorm, Part One

I watched the couple park and stroll into a small house, holding hands and laughing with each other. The woman unlocked the front door. I drove slowly past, stopped half a block down, waited, and turned around to park across the to watch the house.
            Nine thirty on a Thursday night in Oak Park. Nothing unusual about the couple’s behavior. They’d eaten Mexican food for dinner and taken a walk in a nearby park before coming back to the woman’s home. They weren’t even cheating on anyone.
            The man was Evan Cassidy, 26 years old. His father, Martin Cassidy, was my client, an investment banker with more than enough money to pay my cable bill for the year. The woman was Chelsea Johnson. She worked for Martin, but Evan didn’t. She was also African-American, and although Martin didn’t seem obviously racist, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the real problem.
            After months of dealing with the vampire wars, I was happy to handle a standard, routine case, even boring surveillance case.
            Me? Tom Jurgen, ex-reporter, now a private detective. I’d met with Martin in his office yesterday. Martin had gray hair and bushy eyebrows, his blue necktie tight but his sleeves pushed up. His left arm was mottled with scars.
            “I don’t know how serious it is.” He tapped a key on his computer, checking his email as we talked. “My concern is that she’s dating my son to get influence in the office. He’s 26 and he’s never had a serious girlfriend before. Or any girlfriend that I know about.”
            I agreed to follow the couple for a few days. He sent another email and wrote me a check.
            I didn’t plan on spending the whole night in my car. Just long enough to see if Evan had gone in for a nightcap and a quick kiss goodnight or was staying longer. I figured an hour would do it.
            I kept the radio on low and sipped a little water. Not too much—the wide-necked bottle I keep in the back seat was awkward to use. After half an hour a light turned on upstairs. Well, that was probably an indication. Still, I waited a little longer.
            I felt uncomfortable spying on the son. Evan was an adult, after all, and even if Chelsea was his first girlfriend—that his father knew about—it was his business, not Martin’s and definitely not mine. But I’ve got bills to pay, and I wasn’t doing anything illegal. I’ve learned to rationalize a lot of things. Not that I’m proud of it, but I have to eat.
            After another 45 minutes the light upstairs went dark and I decided I could go home. I started the car—
            And then the front door burst open.
            At first I thought his clothes were on fire. Then I saw that he was naked, howling in pain. I opened my door with one hand and punched 911 into my phone with the other.
            The runner dropped to the grass. It was Evan. He rolled around, gasping, curling up into a fetal position. His skin was—charred. All over. I lurched back, then forced myself to crouch down next to him as he groaned in agony.
            “Yes, what’s your emergency?” The operator sounded very far away.”
            Evan’s eyes flared. “No . . . no . . .”
            “I’m at . . .” I looked up at the address on the house. “There’s a guy here with severe burns. Send an ambulance. Send . . .”
            Evan shuddered and dropped down. “Ch-chelsea. Chelsea . . .”

Martin Cassidy rounded the corner of the hospital waiting room, looked around, and found me. “Jurgen. What the hell happened?”
            Evan was in a medically-induced coma in intensive care at Northwestern Hospital. I had a cup of lukewarm watery coffee from a machine. An elderly woman in a chair across from me flipped through last week’s People magazine with a photo of Justin Bieber on the cover.
            Martin slouched at the corner of a couch, breathing hard. “They say—I don’t know. Just tell me what happened.”
            So I went through what I’d seen: Dinner, a walk, lights going on and then off—and then Evan, burning. “I called 911 right away.”
            He looked up. “What about her?”
            “Chelsea? She wasn’t there. The paramedics went into the house. I don’t know where she is.”
            “Goddamn it.” He hung his head. His voice was a whisper. “I thought it stopped with me.”
             Yesterday he’d been confident, assured, convinced his money could buy anything he wanted. Tonight he seemed lost.
“I’m sorry?” I wanted to go home. But he was my client. And he obviously needed help
            Martin looked up. “It happened to me. I—I’ve started fires. A couple of times.”
            Spontaneous human combustion? Well, that was different.  “Do you want to tell me about it?”
            Martin shook his head. “Not really.”
But he lurched up and rubbed his face. “I was 17. I was arguing with my best friend. I don’t remember what, but I grabbed his arm, and he screamed. His arm was burning. He had to go to the emergency room. I didn’t know what happened.”
            An older man trudged into the waiting room, holding onto a weeping woman. They sank down into a couch next to us. The man shuddered, barely holding himself together as he tried to comfort his wife.
            I picked up my coffee and tried not to look at them.
            Martin groaned. “I was in college, studying for a final exam. I was so stressed out, and then—I don’t know—suddenly the bed was on fire. The dorm room almost burned up, except my roommate grabbed a fire extinguisher down the hall. That’s how this happened.” He held up his scarred arm, showing me the scars.. “It was over half my chest. I told everyone I’d been smoking in bed. Except I don’t smoke.”
            I put my coffee down. “Does it happen a lot?”
            Martin looked up. “I burned my first wife. Evan’s mother. Not because we were fighting, but because my business was crashing down and I was angry. It’s not why we got divorced, but—it didn’t help. Anyway . . .” He ran his hands over his scalp. “I thought it stopped. Maybe ten years ago. I never told anyone. I just hoped . . .”
            “It was all over?”
            “Yeah.” Martin leaned back on the couch. “But I guess it’s not.”
            “You think your son has inherited the same, uh, traits?”
            “What else can I think?” Martin groaned. “You’ve got to find her.”
            I looked around. The elderly woman on the other side of the room had picked up a new magazine. The man on the couch next to us was crying now, and his wife held him, trying to keep her shoulders steady.
            I hate hospitals. The smell, the constant noise, the memories of people I’ve lost. But I tried to stay professional. My client needed me. “Chelsea?”
            “She might—make trouble. I want to control that.”
To avoid a lawsuit—or worse?
            I stood up. “I’ll see what I can do.”
            “Thanks.” He lurched to his feet and shook my hand. “I need this. Just . . . do whatever you can.”
            I glanced at the weeping couple. “Of course.”

I got home late, so I slept late—8:30. Eating my cereal and listening to the radio, I checked the news on my laptop.
            Evan was in the news: “Man burned outside Oak Park house.” But he wasn’t alone.
            A story on a local news website reported that Daniel Marquez, 32, had gotten into an argument at a convenience store with an African American woman who alleged that he’d been stuffing boxes of Pop-Tarts into his jacket. The argument “escalated,” according to a witness, and Marquez pulled a knife.
            “Then it was like napalm,” an unidentified witness said. “He screams, and his clothes were burning, and it smelled like a gas fire, and then he’s on the floor, screaming, and the woman is standing there like she doesn’t know what happened. Then she turned around and ran away while I was screaming for the manager to call 911.”
            Oh hell.
            The reporter linked Marquez, pronounced dead at the local hospital, to Evan, found burned but alive in the front lawn of a house on the north side. The story didn’t mention Chelsea by name or identify her as Evan’s girlfriend, but the reporter quoted a paramedic saying that the house’s owner wasn’t home when they checked.
            I called Martin, but he didn’t answer. Asleep from exhaustion, or too worried to pick up his phone? It didn’t matter. I left a message.
            Then I called Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, and kind of psychic. She also keeps odd hours like me.
            She was up, and sounded like she’d been drinking coffee for hours. “What?”
            “Good morning to you too. What do you know about spontaneous human combustion?”
            She snorted. “Are you trying to get me hot?”
            “Is it working?”
            “Are there vampires?”
            “Not this time, thank god. It’s another case.”
            “Okay. I’ll be right down.”
            Rachel opened my door three minutes later. She has red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she was wearing a long black T-shirt that drooped to her knees. “Yeah, I woke up at three and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I’ve been working. I am wearing underwear, just in case you were wondering.” She sat down at my table. “Coffee?”
            “I always wonder.” I turned my laptop toward her. “Take a look at this.”
            Rachel skimmed the story while I poured her some coffee. “Wow. What’s going on?”
            “I’m not sure.” I told her about Evan’s father.
            “Well, that’s different.” Rachel sipped her coffee and pulled her legs up under her. “Did you ever read Bleak House? That’s about all I know.”
            “I read the Classics Illustrated comic book in college. A Tale of Two Cities burned me out on Charles Dickens.”
            “Jerk.” She punched my shoulder. “But there’s always something. I can make some calls.”
            Rachel has lots of contacts in Chicago’s paranormal community. Like I said, she’s kind of psychic.
            She stretched. “I need to take a shower.”
            I shrugged. “Use my bathroom.”
            She slugged me again. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
            “You’ve got clothes here.”
            Rachel stood up. “All right. But don’t get any ideas.”
            I stood up. “Who, me?”

Some time later Rachel went back up to her apartment, her hair still wet. At least she was wearing cutoffs now. “I’ll call you.”
            “Any time.” I kissed her and then checked my phone. Martin had called back.
            “Where the hell have you been?” He sounded hoarse from lack of sleep. “Have you seen what’s going on? What the hell is happening?”
            “I was taking a shower.” I didn’t think the circumstances were any of his business. “And yes, I’ve seen the news. What’s happening is still up in the air.”
            “The police came to the hospital!” Martin’s voice was a fierce whisper. “I’ve been up for 36 hours. But it was her. You have to find her. She hurt my son.”
            Was he looking for vengeance? “I’ll do the best I can, sir.”
            “I’ve had my secretary email you the information we have on her. Call me as soon as you know anything.”
            I checked my email: There it was—all of Chelsea’s personal info, including family contacts. I wasn’t entirely sure Martin had the right to share it with me, but at least it gave me the basis for some phone calls.
            I started with Chelsea’s parents.

They lived in Tennessee. A woman answered the phone. “H-hello?”
            I spoke slowly and carefully. “Ma’am, my name is Tom Jurgen, and I’m a private detective in Chicago. I’m trying to reach your daughter Chelsea Johnson.”
            “Oh god. The police just called. Who are you again?”
At least I wasn’t breaking the news to them. I hated it as a reporter, and it wasn’t gotten any easier since then. “Thomas H. Jurgen, ma’am. I’m working for Chelsea’s employer, Martin Cassidy. He’s—eager to find out what happened. What did the police tell you?”
“I can’t—I don’t think . . .” She sounded about to hyperventilate. “Vern!”
A second voice came on the line: “Hello, this is Vern Johnson. Who—I mean, what’s going on?”
            Once again I gave my name and who I was working for. “What have the police told you?”
            “I don’t know if we should talk to you, but . . .” He hesitated. “All right. They’re looking for her because of two people who got burned to death. They somehow think—think she did something. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”
            “Only one person is dead. The other is in the hospital. It’s Evan Cassidy.”
            “Evan? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would she—I mean, we haven’t met him yet, but he sounds okay from what she says.”
            “She likes him.” The mother sighed. “And she says he treats her right. It’s hard, I know. But you find the right guy . . .”
            “He’s a good kid, as far as I can tell.” Vern coughed. “I can’t believe Chelsea would hurt him.”
            I wished I could tell them Evan was going to be all right. But he was in a coma. Maybe he’d wake up and tap dance. But in the meantime, I had a job to do. “So if you haven’t heard from her, can you think of any friends she might call?”
            “Well . . .” Vern sighed. “Her best friend is Andrea Tompkins. I don’t know her phone number or anything. She talked a bit about a girl—excuse me, I mean a woman named Mona. She worked in her office. I don’t know her last name.”
            “And Guy.” Her mother perked up. “Guy . . . something. I don’t know. Oh god, this is a nightmare.”
            “Is that all?” Vern sounded annoyed. I didn’t blame him. “I’m going to have to call the police back after we’re done.”
            “That’s fine.” Smart, even. “I’ll be in touch.”

I called the main number of Cassidy & Associates and asked for Mona. I got connected in a few moments.
            She gasped. “I heard about it online. Can’t believe it. I mean, Chelsea and I are like best friends, at least at work. I never . . .”
            “So you haven’t heard from her? Do you have any idea where she’d go if she felt she was in trouble?”
            “No. I think they said the police might come in asking questions, but I haven’t seen anyone yet. You could ask Andrea. We hang out all the time outside work.”
            Mona gave me Andrea Tompkins’ number. She worked in a law office. I thanked her, left my number, and then called Andrea and introduced myself again.
            “Uh, sure.” She sounded hesitant. “Chelsea’s my friend. I like Evan. But I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, I haven’t heard from her. And it’s not like I’d hide her from the police. I’d tell her to turn herself in, hands up, no cell phone, no arguing, nothing.”
            That made sense, especially in this day and age. “Can you think of anyone she’s talk to?” The key finding a missing person isn’t looking for them, but finding the person who knows where they are.
            “Maybe Guy.”
            Mrs. Johnson had mentioned that name. “Guy who?”
            “Oh.” She laughed. “Brad Guy. He’s a doctor for the VA hospital out in Maywood. Chelsea’s in the reserves. Army. She joined to pay for college. She got deployed to Afghanistan.”
            Something new. I didn’t know if it would make a difference, but at least I had a new name to check out. “Thanks.” Again, I left my number. You never know.
            The Veterans Administration has a hospital in Maywood, Illinois, next to the Loyola University Medical Center. I checked their website. It was impressive, but I couldn’t find a search function for doctors there. So I typed “Dr. Brad Guy” into Google.
And I found him in .0023 seconds. Dr. Bradley Guy, 38, affiliated with the VA hospital and several others, a graduate of the Pritzker School of Medicine.
His specialty: Burn treatment.
That was interesting.
I called the VA hospital, got connected to his department and then to voicemail, and left a message.
With no one else to call, I put my phone down to make a sandwich. By the time I carried it back to the table, my phone was buzzing.
But not from anyone I wanted to talk to.
“Mr. Jurgen? This is Detective Mario Beach from the Chicago Police. I’d like to talk to you about your involvement in an ongoing criminal case.”
Sam Spade could tell the cops to go to hell in The Maltese Falcon. I can’t exactly do that. “Sure. I’m working for—”
“Not on the phone. Downtown.”
I looked at my sandwich. “Can I finish my lunch first?”
“One hour.”

I’ve been to police headquarters on State Street before, of course. Lots of times. I actually work there part-time these days with the Vampire Squad. So I wasn’t intimidated about being summoned down. Too much.
            Of course I called Rachel to let her know. In case she had to bail me out.
            Mario Beach was a white man in his thirties with blonde hair and a nose that looked like he’d been in a few fights. He sat me down in a small room with the traditional two-way glass and asked me if I wanted some water.
            “I’m fine for now.” I kept my hands on the top of the table. “Look, before we start, you should know that Detective Anita Sharpe can vouch for me. Even Commander Hughes.” I missed Dudovich. “They don’t exactly like me, but—”
            “I know who you are, Jurgen.” Beach leaned forward. “I talked to Sharpe. And I was friends with Dudovich, too. I don’t quite understand your position around here, but that doesn’t mean you’re not subject to questioning.”
            “Sure.” I looked at the mirror, wondering who was on the other side. “Ask me anything you want.”
            “Who’s your client?”
            “Martin Cassidy. Cassidy & Associates. You can call him. His son is in the hospital.”
            “Yeah.” He tapped his tablet computer. “So what do you know about Chelsea Johnson?”
            I shrugged. “They went on a date. Dinner, a walk in the park, then back to her place.”
            “You were following them?”
            “My client wanted to know how serious they were.”
“I didn’t sneak any videos through the window. It looked like he was going to spend the night.”
            “Until he came running out the door on fire.” Beach grinned. “That’s one definition of hot sex.”
            I sighed. I guess one of us had to say it.
            “Did he say anything?”
            I shook my head. “Just Chelsea’s name. Then he passed out.”
            He leaned forward. “Why are you looking for her now?”
            “My client wants her found. It’s natural.”
            “We’re going to find her. He doesn’t have to pay you.”
            Another shrug. “You’d have to ask him.”
            “Are you getting anywhere?” The question was skeptical.
            “I’ve talked to some of her friends, left messages with others. My hope is she’ll contact someone who’ll tell her to call me. That’s usually how it works.”
            “And you’ll tell her to turn herself in, right?”
            I lifted my hands. “Of course.”
            Beach stared at me. “You’ll call us if you hear from her. Right?”
            I might call my client first. But I nodded. “Absolutely, detective.”
He looked like he didn’t believe me. But he pushed his chair back. “Thanks for coming in. Now get out.”
Out in the hall, glad I wasn’t getting locked up, I looked for Sharpe. I found her planted behind her desk, pounding computer keys. She glanced up. “What the hell do you want, asshole?”
            That hurt a little. I thought we’d been starting to get along. “Just wanted to say hi. You doing okay?”
            “Oh, I’m just ducky.” Sharpe leaned back in her chair. “I’ve got two street shootings and an old man in a house. That one’s a real whodunit.” She stood up. “You want coffee? I need coffee.”      
            “Sure.” Never turn down a cup of coffee—that’s one of the top rules of investigation. “So no new, uh, bloody slayings?”
            We were trying to keep news of the vampire killings quiet. Sharpe filled a paper cup for me. “There was one attack last night. Not fatal. But nasty. You might want to call the vamp queen about it.”
            “I will.” It was part of my job now. Vampire ambassador. But it felt good to be doing some regular detective work again.
            “You’re on those burn cases, aren’t you?” Sharpe filled her own mug. “Beach called me about you.”
            “I hope you told him nice things.” I sipped the coffee. Lukewarm and watery, just like always.
Sharpe scowled. “I can’t protect you outside of this vampire work, Jurgen. Remember that.”
“Yeah.” Nothing had changed. “I get that.”
I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with authority. Working with the cops on the vampire wars had been a break from that—and it had almost cost me my relationship with Rachel—but as time went on the old speed bumps had resurfaced.
The cops and me would never be on the same side. And that was fine with me.

My phone buzzed as I started my Honda. Martin Cassidy. Demanding results? I cut the engine. “This is Tom—”
“He’s waking up. Evan. Can you get over here?”
I started the car. “Give me twenty minutes.”