Saturday, June 10, 2017

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.”

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