Saturday, June 10, 2017

Firestorm, Part Two

Martin was pacing in front of the elevator. “The police are in there. Can’t you get them out? I want to talk to my son!”
            I’m a P.I., not a lawyer. “Maybe we should wait a few minutes. Did you get to see Evan at all?”
            Martin collapsed in a chair. “When he first woke up. He’s . . . recovering faster than they expected. I don’t know, maybe because of me. His skin was healing, and he was shifting around. They pulled back on the meds, and then his eyes opened. I got to talk to him for a few minutes,”
            “What did he say?”
            “He asked for Chelsea.” Martin hung his head. “He recognized me, but he wanted her.”
            He’d asked for Chelsea when I was next to him on the lawn. “That’s understandable, especially if she’s the last person he saw before . . . this happened.”
            “But she’s on a rampage! And she did this to him!”
            I glanced around. Two elderly ladies were huddling together, crying, and a young African American woman in a corner stared at the TV with eyes that didn’t blink, as if she was determined to ignore everything about the world around her.
            Martin rubbed his eyes and sat back, catching his breath. “Are you getting anywhere?”
            I sighed. “Not so much. Honestly, the police have a better chance—”   
            “First thing you’ve been right about all day.” Beach walked into the waiting room, along with a second detective, a young Asian man with a wrestler’s build who ignored me.
            I stood up. “Wow. You’re fast. I was just talking to you—”
            “Shut up. When you have anything to tell me, let me know. In the meantime—”
Martin lurched to his feet. “Can I talk to my son now?”
            Beach waved a hand. “Go ahead. Come on, Jee.” Beach shot me one quick glare as they headed for the elevators.
            In the intensive care unit Martin pulled back a curtain hiding his son’s bed. Evan’s eyes were open, his hospital bed slightly elevated, and he was scratching at a bandage on his arm. “Dad.”
            “Evan.” Martin moved around the bed. “This is Tom Jurgen. He’s a private detective. He’s—helping to find Chelsea.”
            Evan’s breath was slow, and his voice was raspy. “She didn’t—it was me. Is she okay?”
            Martin shot me a look. Don’t tell him. I nodded. “We don’t know. She’ll be found. Can you tell us what happened?”
            “We were . . .” His eyes closed, but then he reached for a cup of water on the table next to his bed. Martin helped him. He took a long swallow, then opened his eyes again. “In bed together. And then—I don’t know. It happened before with me. Not with another girl, just . . . sometimes. I don’t remember all of it. Just fire, and . . . then I was running, and . . .”
            He closed his eyes again. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
            “No.” Martin rubbed his son’s shoulders. Lightly. “Everything’s fine. Just get better.”
            Evan dropped off into sleep.
            We walked out into the hall. “So here’s the thing.” I wasn’t sure how to phrase this. “Evan can start fires, and so can Chelsea Johnson. Are you . . . aware of any connection there?”
            I expected Martin to get angry. Instead he leaned on the wall, as if he was close to falling asleep himself.
            “No.” He shook his head. “I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. Chelsea’s just a girl—woman—who works for me. She’s good at her job. I admit—yeah—I was suspicious. Evan’s mother, when we got divorced, tried to take me for every penny she could get. But that’s history now. I just want . . .”
            He shook his head again. “I don’t know. She hurt my son. Except maybe, from what he said, she didn’t. I can’t think anymore.”
            “Do you want a cup of coffee?”
            Martin chuckled. “I’m fine. I’ll just take a nap.” He shook my hand. “Thanks.”
            “Do you want me to stay on this? Like I said, the police are more likely to find her before I do.”
            He stood up. “Find out what you can. If you need more money—”
            “We’re fine for now.” And I had a few more leads to follow up. “I’ll be in touch.”

Back home again, I opened a beer and called Dr. Guy. Again I left a message. Then I called Rachel. She came down in fifteen minutes while I was marinating some chicken and tofu—separately—for dinner later. Sometimes Rachel eats chicken, but I wanted to be careful. I opened a beer for her, and she opened her laptop to set up a Skype session.
            “His name’s Angelo and he doesn’t want to use his last name.” Rachel tapped keys. She was in jeans and the same long black T-shirt from this morning. “Give me a second.”
            Angelo was in his fifties, with a short beard and big ears. “Hi there. Can you hear me all right? Hi.”
            “This is Tom. He’s my—we work together.” She jabbed my ribs with her elbow. “Sometimes.” Rachel doesn’t always like to introduce herself as my girlfriend right off the bat.
            “Hi, Angelo.” I leaned forward with what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “I just want to talk. For background. Is that okay?”
            “I guess.” He scratched his beard. “No names, okay?”
            I started easy. “When did you first start, you know—starting fires?”
            “Oh, I was 12 or 13 the first time.” He thought for a second. “I was outside. Walking my dog. We were out on the road behind my house, and I got kind of dizzy. So I sat down, and Sparky—he was my dog—was growling. I pushed him away, and then, I guess I passed out. When I woke up, the grass around me was burned black, and Sparky was barking. Running around in circles. I got up, and some of the grass was still on fire, so I stomped it out. Then Sparky got quiet, and I walked him home.”
            “Were you angry?”
            “I was scared. I’d just flunked a math test, and my mom and dad were going to be mad. I know that now. Back then, I just wanted to get away.”
            I looked at Rachel. She nodded.
            Okay. “What happened after that?”
            “I don’t know.” He gulped. “A year later there was this party. It was outside. My friends were trying to start a bonfire in the back yard, and it wouldn’t light. Everyone was yelling, so I stood up and . . . all the logs just started burning. I felt good. Then the fire jumped up. Half the kids ran away. But this one girl . . . she liked it.”
            “Okay.” I was getting the picture. “Do fires start when you’re, uh, excited?”
            “It’s not like that.” Angelo sounded annoyed. “I set off a few fire alarms in college. No one got hurt. And this one time the sprinklers all went off at a party because Rich Thompson was dancing with—well, that’s not important. But after that I stayed away from people. I didn’t come out of my room at home for two years, and even then things caught on fire because I was scared.”
            He paused. “My parents made me go to a doctor. I got some meds. And therapy. I still have a hard time controlling it, but I haven’t burned anything in years.” More hesitation. “But I still want to. Sometimes.”
            He sounded like Martin. But I had to ask: “So Angelo, do you have any idea where it came from? A relative, or someone like that?”
            He sighed. “I don’t know. My grandma could light a candle with her breath. Maybe that’s it.”
            But Chelsea wasn’t related to Martin or Evan. Unless . . . “Do you know a woman named Chelsea Johnson?” I had to ask.
            “Who? I don’t think so.”
            Okay. “Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.”
            Rachel tapped a key to end the call. “It sort of fits. I mean, when I . . . started hearing stuff in my head . . .” She rubbed her ears. “It was around the same age.”
            “Yeah.” I knew a little bit about Rachel’s teenage years. She didn’t like to talk about it. “Paranormal stuff starts to manifest around, uh, puberty, right?”
            “Maybe it’s different for everyone.” She closed the laptop. “But you don’t know what’s going on. And there was no one to talk to. It’s scary.”
We sipped our beers in silence for a moment.
            “So is this just some out-of-the-world coincidence?” I tried to think. “Both of them can start fires, and they just start dating? After she takes a job with a boss who can start fires?”
            Rachel leaned back in her chair. “Maybe it transfers? Maybe Evan gave it to her.”
“Like an STD?”
“Jerk.” She slugged me in the arm. Harder than usual.
            “Hey!” I was used to it, but this one actually hurt. “What was that for? I was only—”
            “Shit. Sorry.” Rachel rubbed my shoulder. “Really. It’s just—I had to take a bunch of antibiotics once. It was a long time ago. But I’m fine now. Don’t worry, okay?”
            “I’m not . . .” I shut up. Rachel didn’t like to talk about her past too much. I knew some details, but I also knew not to push her. “It’s okay. I’m sorry.”
We were quiet for a few moments. Then I pushed my chair back. “You staying for dinner? I’ve got chicken. And tofu. I’ll mix them or keep them far away from each other, whichever you want.”
Then my phone buzzed. Dr. Brad Guy. “Oops. I’ve really got to take this.”
            “That’s fine.” Rachel stood up. “You’ve got vegetables?”
            “Asparagus and broccoli. Chop them up and knock your socks off.”  I hit the button. “Dr. Guy? Tom Jurgen. Thanks for calling me back.”
            “Mr. Jurgen.” He sounded nervous. “How can I help you?”
            “It’s about Chelsea Johnson. I understand you’re a friend of hers?”
            “We, uh, served together in Afghanistan.”
            “You’re a burn specialist, is that correct?”
            “Y-yes. I handle a variety of cases—”
            “Are you aware of a series of burn attacks around Chicago today?”
            Guy lowered his voice, as if other people might be listening. “Maybe we should meet.”
            “Sure. After dinner?”

A diner just a few miles from my house. Dr. Brad Guy slouched in a booth, staring at the remains of a BLT. He had thin black hair and long arms, and he peered at me and Rachel through wire-rimmed glasses as we walked up. “Dr. Guy? Tom Jurgen. This is my associate, Rachel.”
            We all shook hands. A waitress came over with menus, and shot me an annoyed look when I only ordered coffee.
            “So.” I had a dozen questions, but I wanted to start with the basics. “Have you heard from Chelsea Johnson?”
            Guy nodded. “Yes. She called me this afternoon.”
            “What did she say?”
            “She’s scared. Something happened to her . . .” He looked away, nervous. “I don’t know if she’s delusional, or—”
            “She said she can start fires spontaneously?”
            Guy’s eyes widened. “Y-yes. It started just last night. How do you know?”
            “I’ve seen a lot of strange things. This isn’t even the worst. How do you know Chelsea?”
            “We served in Afghanistan together. Not together, exactly, but I treated her for burns from an IED explosion. We became friends. Just—friends.” He held up one hand. “Nothing more. We’d get together every six months or so.”
            “But she called you today. Did she say what she wanted?”
            He took off his glasses. “I’ve seen this before. Once in Afghanistan, once here. I’ve been studying it.”
            Rachel nodded. “It’s a thing.”
            He blinked and put his glasses back on. “How—what do you know?”
            “I’m psychic. A little bit anyway. And I can feel the heat coming off you.” She reached forward and put a hand on his arm. “Yeah. You’re hot.” She kicked me under the table. “His skin. That’s all.”
            Ouch. “So Chelsea wanted to know—what? If you could help her?”
            He shifted in the booth. “There’s a lot I can’t tell you.”
            Oh. “This is military research?” He did work for the VA.
            “Like I said . . .” He looked out the window.
            “So why did you call me back?” The coffee in this diner was decent, but he wasn’t giving me anything I couldn’t get from a phone call.
            He tossed twenty dollars on the table and stood up. “I should . . . go. Thanks for coming.”
            “Nice meeting you.” I waited until he was close to the door, then dropped a few extra dollars next to his twenty. “Are you thinking—”
            “He wants us to follow him.” Rachel shoved me. “Come on.”

Guy definitely expected us to tail him. He drove his Acura so slowly a grandmother would have flipped a middle finger at him as she rocketed past. He stopped for yellow lights in the crosswalk. He paused to let pedestrians cross in the middle of the street.
            “Wow.” Rachel sighed as he hesitated before gently hitting the gas when a light turned green. “Someone’s going to throw a rock at him like this.”
            “If we didn’t need to stay with him, I’d have worn out my horn by now.”
            “He was lying about something.” Sometimes Rachel can pick that up. “I don’t know what, but he wasn’t trying to hide it very much.”
            We eventually got on the expressway, and I could tell where we were headed—Maywood, out to the VA hospital. “I bet—”
            My phone buzzed. Martin. I put it on speaker. “Tom Jurgen—”
            “He’s gone.” Martin sounded ragged. “He left the hospital.”
            Evan? A few hours ago he’d been wrapped in bandages in the ICU. “How did . . . okay.” Martin had said that he seemed to be recovering more quickly than the doctors expected. Which might have had to do with his firestarting abilities. “I’m following a lead right now.” Literally following. “I’ll have to get back to you.”
            “He got a phone call. I don’t know who it was. He just listened and hung up, and then he fell asleep again. I had to go to the bathroom. When I got back, Evan was gone.”
            “You’re still there?” I veered to avoid getting hit by a pickup passing Guy’s car.
            “No, I’m home. I talked to that detective, Beach? He’s not much help.”
            I have a complicated relationship with the CPD. More so since Dudovich had died. “He’s probably doing his best. I’ll call you.”
            The Acura pulled off the highway at First Street. I followed for a few miles until Guy paused, flashed his lights once, and then turned into a driveway up to a gate next to the main VA hospital. He leaned out the window and slipped a card into a reader. The gate opened, and Guy drove through. Then the gate closed.
            “So we’re not getting in that way.” I pulled back, headed down the street, and turned into the parking structure for Loyola University Medical Center. I parked on the third level, in a slot that looked out toward the dark night sky.
            Rachel unsnapped her seatbelt. “Now what?”
            “I don’t know.” Why did Guy lead us here? I pulled out my phone. No one knew where we were, so I wanted to call someone.
            Then I stopped. A tall man in a blue windbreaker stood outside the window. “Out.”
Rachel sat next to me, holding her legs straight. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know.” I rolled the window down an inch. “Hi! Tom Jurgen! So are we parked in the wrong spot or something?”
“Out.” He pulled his jacket back to reveal a hefty handgun in a holster. “Now.”
I swallowed. “Uh—who are you?”
“I’m a federal agent.”  He reached into his back pocket. “Here. Get out.”
            The ID looked official. I peered at his picture to get his name. “Agent Michaels, right? Tyler Michaels? I’m Tom Jurgen. Don’t you want to see my ID?”
            “Just get out. Both of you. And come with me.”
            Rachel slid out of the car and stood up, her arms high. I pulled my car keys free and dropped them into a pocket, along with my phone. Then I climbed out and stood up, pushing the door shut. “We’re coming. No worries.”
            “Just come on.” He pointed. “Over there.”
            Down an elevator, through a long hall with multicolored stripes on the white tile floor, and up to a gray door. Michaels flashed a card that made the door open.
            We walked down a short corridor. Rachel’s leg bumped against my hip. I grabbed for her hand.
            Michaels opened another door with his card. “Inside.”
            The room was tiny, with a small bench with a few scrawny blankets, a sink, a toilet behind a low wall, and a drain in the floor. And thick fireproof walls.
“Okay, wait. ” I turned around. “I’ve dealt with cops, vampires, demons, aliens, and creatures from other dimensions. And even the feds. I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do this.”
            He shook his head. “Just sit down and shut up. You and your girlfriend.”
            “Wait a minute!” Rachel’s eyes flared. “I’m not . . . Oh wait. I guess I am.” She nudged my arm with her elbow. “Sorry. It got to be a habit.”
            I held her hand. “Fine, agent Michaels. You’ve got me. But Rachel doesn’t have anything to do with this. You can let her go.”
            Michaels smirked. “Yeah. Just wait here.”
            The door closed.
Rachel punched my arm. “Nothing to do with this? After admitting I’m your girlfriend? Good thing I like you. For now.”
            “I love you too.” I pointed toward a camera in the corner. “They’re watching us.”
            “So what?” Rachel flipped both middle fingers at the camera. “Hey, you guys! My name is Rachel Dunn, and I’m calling my senators, my representative, my alderman, and everybody else!”
            Then Rachel sat down next to me. “That should tell them.”
            I leaned back. “I’m just sorry you’re stuck here here with me.”
            “And I wish I was a hundred miles away.” She leaned over, rubbing her hair. “But I guess I keep asking for this.”
            I keep asking her to stay away. But this didn’t seem like the time to point that out.
            I tried my phone. No signal. The room was blocked. Great.
We slouched together on the bench. I put an arm around Rachel. “It’ll be okay. Somehow.”
            “Yeah.” She snickered. “Right.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad TJ finally got a decent cuppa, but I'm suspicious of men named Guy on principle. Feds make the undead look good.