Carole Mann and Nic Reitner walked down the street, holding hands in the moonlight. The second date was going well.
“We could watch a movie at my place.” Nic squeezed Carole’s hand. “Or is that too fast?”
“I’d like that.” She reached for her phone. “Let me just call my roommate. Let her know I might be late.”
Late? Nick grinned.
A dog barked. Nic tensed and glanced over his shoulder.
“You okay?” Carole looked around.
“I’m fine. There’s just some wild dogs running around here lately.” Nic peered down the street. “People just let them out, I guess. Idiots. I’ll walk you back to your car later if you want.”
Later? Carole stifled a giggle as she pressed buttons on her phone. “Give me a minute. Hi, Becca? It’s me. I might not be home until . . .” She glanced at Nic. “Late.”
Nic reached for her hand.
Then the beast sprang out.
It had a long snout, yellow teeth, red eyes. It reared on its hind legs and lunged forward, snarling with rage.
Nic pushed Carole back. “Wait—hold on—”
The creature pounced, its jaws wide. Nic fell back, his skull slamming against the sidewalk. He lifted his arms, desperately trying to push the beast off of his body. No, no, no . . .
Carole dropped to her knees on the lawn and shouted into her phone. “Becca! Call 911! Call somebody! Call—”
“They don’t believe me.” Carole Mann sat at my dining room table with her roommate Becca, trying not to cry. “It wasn’t a gangbanger. It wasn’t a coyote. It was a monster. And it killed him and then it ran away.”
I nodded. “I’m very sorry.”
Becca looked skeptical. But she seemed willing to listen to whatever Carole had to say. “The police aren’t doing anything. Nic’s parents are willing to help pay your fee. But can you do anything?”
I looked at my coffee. “I can’t make any promises. But I have some experience with—unusual cases.”
Yeah, that’s me. Tom Jurgen. Vampires, zombies, demons? I’m your guy. I used to be a reporter. Now I’m a private detective. And I get more calls about monsters than I do for cheating spouses and workers comp fraud.
It’s a niche, I guess. Not one that I like, but it keeps me in Cheetos and beer.
I looked at my laptop. “I have some resources the police don’t have. But I can’t make any guarantees. There’s not much to go on.”
“I’ve got this.” Carole brought up her phone.
I peered at the image. Shaky, blurred, but it did seem to show a creature with blood dripping from long fangs. A second photo showed it running away, head down, butt high.
The third image had her second-date boyfriend on the sidewalk, his face ripped apart and his stomach bleeding.
“It was just a date. A second date.” She set the phone down. “It was going pretty good, and then . . .”
“Okay.” I didn’t want her to start crying again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Carole pulled out a checkbook. “Tell me how much.”
So I started by checking the media reports.
Local papers had covered the story, describing the creature in vague terms. None of them mentioned the beast lunging forward on two legs. The police described the thing as an animal, possibly a wolf or a coyote that had strayed into the city. Carole Mann wasn’t quoted, but some of the neighbors were. They reported hearing growls and screams, and one of them had seen the creature fleeing into the darkness on four legs.
Then I called the Chicago Police Department.
“Jurgen?” Detective Hawkins barked through the phone. He was one detective who’d still speak to me. “I’ve got a drive-by shooting and an old man dead in his house, so I don’t have time for a magical mystery tour. What the hell do you want?”
“Nic Reitner.” I checked the address of the killing on my laptop. “Killed two nights ago on a date. What can you tell me?”
“I don’t have to tell you anything, asshole.” But I heard him tapping keys. We weren’t friends by any definition of the word, but we’d worked together fighting vampires before the recent truce.
“Hang on. Here it is.” Hawkins snorted. “Reiter. Killed by a dog or a coyote. Witness was a girlfriend, panicked. Unreliable. What is it with you and dogs, anyway?”
I’d met Hawkins a few years ago, on a case involving dogs from another dimension. Yeah, I know how that sounds. I’ve been nervous around dogs ever since.
I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anything useful. Cops tend to tag witnesses as “unreliable” if they can’t immediately arrest a suspect. “I’m more into goldfish now. Thanks for your help, detective.”
“Anytime. Wait—No, I mean never again.” He laughed. “Good hunting, asshole.”
“Same to you.” I hung up.
So now I had nothing left to do but check out the neighborhood.
I parked my Honda a block away from the site of the killing.
The afternoon was warm and sunny. I rang the bell at the house nearest the scene of Reitner’s death. After thirty seconds a young African-American woman in jeans and a sweater looked through the screen door suspiciously. “Yes?”
“Hi.” I held up my card. “My Name’s Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s about the, uh, the killing that took place outside—”
“Oh god.” She seemed ready to burst into tears. “I heard it—the man screaming, I mean. I didn’t see anything. I called 911 right away.”
I nodded. “The girlfriend described something like a large dog leaping up on its back legs. Have you seen anything like that around the neighborhood?”
She glanced down at the door handle, as if wondering whether she should lock it against the crazy guy on her porch. “No. I mean, there are a lot of dogs. The people next door have a poodle. But it’s not like we have coyotes on the streets after dark. Even so . . .” She glanced past me, down at the sidewalk. “I’m not letting my kids out after dark for a while.”
That sounded smart. “Could I leave my card? In case you see or think of anything?”
She opened the door just wide enough to snatch my business card from my fingers. “Is there a lawsuit or something?”
“Not that I know of. The girlfriend is just looking for some answers.”
She closed the door with a shudder.
I knocked and rang all the houses up and down the block. The life of a private detective isn’t always so exciting. About half the houses were empty—or at least no one wanted to answer. Most of the folks I did talk to her were reasonably polite, although no one knew more than the first woman did.
No strange dogs, no weird occurrences, nothing. One old man did complain about raccoons in his garbage cans, and a teenaged boy offered to sell me some weed, but I came up with nothing pertinent until I got to the second to last house, down on the corner.
A middle-aged woman talked to me through her screen door, like most of the others. She didn’t know anything about the killing, but when I asked her about dogs, she shook her head. “Just a few. There’s a cute little beagle someone walks in the morning, and someone has a poodle. And then there’s that animal clinic a few blocks away on Ventnor.”
“Animal clinic?” That sounded interesting.
She pointed. “Ventnor.”
I left my card. “Thank you.”
Back in my Honda I called Rachel. She’s my girlfriend, my upstairs neighbor, and sort of psychic. She also helps me out with my cases. I’d told her about Carole Mann and Nic Reiter. I like to check in with her whenever I’m out. Mostly so she has a starting place to look if I don’t come home.
“What is it? I’m working here.” Rachel’s a graphic designer when she’s not helping me with my cases. “Sons of bitches keep changing the copy on this brochure. I swear, the next speaker bio they send me is going to read, ‘Ray Headshot is an annoying asshole who can’t make up his mind about anything.’ What’s going on?”
“I’ve been knocking on doors all afternoon. I just needed a break.”
“Oh, right. The second date murder? How’s that going?”
“Well, a blonde woman answered the door in her panties and asked if I could fix her sink. The rest is confidential.”
Snort. “Riiight. You home for dinner? I’ve got tofu.” Rachel’s a vegetarian.
I looked through the windshield. I was tired and hungry. “I have to check out an animal clinic on Ventnor. If I’m not home by 8:00, it’s probably because I went back to fix someone’s sink.”
Rachel grunted. “Fine. I’ll save some tofu to throw in your face.”
I drove around a few blocks before finding Ventnor Avenue. The north side of the street was lined with shops, a diner, a bar, and a tattoo parlor. I spotted the clinic as I turned a corner.
MURROW CLINIC. A low gray building on the corner next to a fish taco restaurant. I parked half a block away and tried to ignore the steaming aroma of fried shrimp as I walked to the front door. I was hungry, and all I had waiting for me was tofu.
The front door had clear windows reinforced with dark wire. It slid open automatically, but inside I had to press a buzzer to get through a second door.
In the waiting room a young man whispered words of comfort to a cat meowing in a carrying case. A big dog sat on its haunches like a soldier at attention as a middle-aged woman leafed through a magazine.
A heavyset woman with long white hair sat behind a counter.
I pulled out a card. “Hi. Tom Jurgen. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m a private detective—”
She looked up. “Do you have a pet that needs attention?”
“Uh, no.” I held out my card. “I’m just looking into a killing a few blocks away. It might have been a dog or a coyote or something else—”
“Take a seat.” She punched a button on her phone. “Mr. Montgomery? When you have a minute . . .”
I sat down next to the young man with the meowing cat. “He’s a good doctor, right?” I asked.
The man didn’t answer. He was too busy shushing his cat.
The older woman leaned over my shoulder. “Dr. Murrow is the best. I’ve lived here for 20 years. No one takes better care of Goliath.”
A young woman in a white lab coat opened the door. “Cleo?”
The young man stood up, hoisting his case. “It’ll be all right, baby.”
“Come on in.” She held the door. The cat meowed as the carrying case shook.
Before the door could close a man looked out. My age—mid 40s—with a thin beard and slender arms. “Mr., uh, Jurgen? I’m Montgomery. Dr. Murrow’s business manager.”
He led me into a small office of walls lined with books and pictures of animals. “What’s this about?”
I tried to choose my words carefully. “A man was killed a few blocks away by a strange dog-like creature. I’m just scouting around. Maybe you’ve seen something like that?”
Montgomery’s eyebrow twitched. “That’s not much to go on. But we don’t have anything to do with it. I can tell you that.”
I shrugged. “I know. I just thought you see a lot of animals in here.”
“Of course. Dr. Murrow is a very experienced veterinarian. But nothing like this monster you described.”
I hadn’t described anything. But I stood up and dropped a card on his desk. “Well, thanks for your help. I can find my way out.”
He followed me anyway, probably to make sure I didn’t ask any more questions.
I didn’t. I got in my Honda and drove home. The sun was going down.
Back in my apartment I did a quick preliminary search into the Murrow Clinic. Dr. Benjamin Murrow, D.V.M, had graduated from the Rossum College School of Veterinary Medicine in Vermont in 1998. The website included a list of places he’d worked, but there was a gap between 2012 and 2015.
I dug a little deeper, and found something interesting: In 2014, animal rights activists had broken into an animal testing clinic run by a cosmetics company and freed a few dozen dogs. A newspaper article quoted a Dr. Ben Murrow calling the break-in a “terrorist act” and complaining that a gang of thugs had interrupted important research.
Murrow opened his clinic in Chicago the next year.
James Montgomery was indeed listed as “Business Manager,” and the staff list included two other vets and six assistants. Its hours were 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. It offered care for dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, and other household pets.
No complaints had been lodged against the clinic. It paid its taxes and contributed to the local chamber of commerce.
Rachel called. “I burned the tofu, so I’m making ravioli. Want some?”
We don’t live together or eat together all the time, but we did cook for each other once or twice a week. “Darn. I was looking forward to tofu.”
“Liar. Fifteen minutes.”
My phone buzzed while I was walking up the stairs. Hawkins. “Am I in trouble again?”
“When are you out of it? There’s another killing like the one you were asking me about. Some animals on two hind legs, according to witnesses.”
Oh hell. “Where? When?”
“Half an hour, 45 minutes ago? About six blocks further west from, who was it, Reitner?”
“Who’s got it? You?”
Great. Detective Mario Beach hated me even more than Hawkins did. “Okay. Thanks for the heads up.”
“Don’t mention it. I mean that.”
I let myself in to Rachel’s apartment. We share keys.
“Hi!” Rachel set plates on the table. She’s got hazelnut eyes and red hair, and she was wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt from a band called Tricky Pixie. “I lied. It’s tofu. Sit down. Eat.”
I sighed. “Fine. Just bring me lots of ketchup.”
“Jerk.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
I tried to find reports of the new killing on my phone, but it was apparently too recent for the media to pick up. I looked at Beach’s number on my contacts list. With a deep breath, I pressed “call.”
“Jurgen? What the hell?” Beach was annoyed. “I’m kind of busy here.”
“Another animal killing, right?”
“Not your business. Hey, get out of the way there!”
“It is my business. I was hired about the killing a few nights ago—”
“I don’t care! I hope you get paid for it, but stop bothering me when I’m working!”
“Wait!” I pushed the phone to my mouth. “The Murrow Clinic. It’s an animal hospital. You should check it out. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake . . .” Beach groaned. “Fine. Don’t call me again.”
Rachel came out two beers and a bottle of ketchup. “What’s going on?”
I slurped my beer and told her about the latest killing. “I don’t know the details. Yet. Beach isn’t likely to talk to me. But . . . I don’t know.” I shook my head. “I’m hungry for whatever”
She patted my arm. “Coming up.”
Rachel listened as I told her about the Murrow Clinic. “I don’t have any evidence. But something about Montgomery makes me suspicious.”
“You want to go check it out tomorrow?” She spooned more tofu onto my plate. “I can borrow a cat or something.”
“Tonight. I just want to watch it for a while.” I finished my beer. “Good tofu, by the way.” This one had scallions, broccoli, carrots, and a special sauce. I tried not to eat too fast.
Rachel kicked my leg under the table. “You’re not going without me.”
We’d had this argument before. Too many times. “Fine. It’s not going to be very exciting.” But maybe she could pick something up. Like I said, Rachel’s kind of psychic
“Great.” She hopped up. “You do the dishes. I have to change.”
“Did Sam Spade do the dishes?” I picked up my beer.
“He would have done better with a hot girlfriend.” Rachel headed for her bedroom. “Don’t forget the wok!”
A tall wire fence surrounded the yard at the rear of Murrow’s clinic. A few small dogs wandered around, rolling in the dirt, playing with each other, and sipping water from troughs near the door. I could see security cameras on the top of the building.
Rachel leaned forward. “They’re hungry. That’s all.”
I killed my headlights. “Let’s wait.”
“You’re not going to ask me to make out with you to pretend we’re not watching this place, right?” Rachel jabbed my ribs. “Not that I’m against making out with you, but . . .”
Nice idea. “Actually, could you open the glove compartment and hand me that pack of cigarettes?”
“What? You smoke?” She tossed the pack of Winstons at my chest. “I’m breaking up with you right now.”
The cigarettes were at least three years old. I hit the window button. “Smoking gives you an excuse to hang around a building. There should be a lighter in there.”
Yeah, I used to smoke. I was a reporter in my twenties. It took me years to quit. Fortunately the cigarette was so stale I wasn’t even tempted to inhale.
A door inside the fence opened. A man in a long black coat came out, clapping his hands. “Who’s hungry? Who’s hungry, huh?”
The dogs rushed toward him, barking and jumping. The man poured food into dishes. He looked up through the fence at the car. Then he turned and went back inside.
Rachel shook her head. “They’re all happy here. They like that guy.”
“Because he’s feeding them?” I threw the cigarette out the window and started the car. “Let’s go.”
“Wait!” Rachel pointed.
I was at the corner, ready to head home. “What?”
“There.” She jabbed her finger.
I peered through the windshield. On the opposite side of the street stood a three-story storage facility. An orange sign on the top story read CLOSED. A heavy corrugated door hung down over the garage entrance. Next to it another red CLOSED sign was pasted to a doorway.
“There’s something inside there.” Rachel closed her eyes. “They’re in pain.”
What the hell? I glanced in my mirror at the back of the clinic, then rolled forward and parked in the building’s loading zone.
I opened the door. Rachel grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?”
“Having a cigarette.”
I stepped out, lighting up and trying not to cough. Unlike the rear of clinic, the facility didn’t seem to have any cameras watching. I walked over to the door and leaned back on the wall. Rachel glared at me through her window.
I tilted my head back, close to the door. Listening. Was a dog barking inside?
I could go home now. Call Beach. He wouldn’t listen. But I’d be home. And safe.
But two people were dead. I’m not brave. But you can’t be a reporter or a private detective without being curious enough to ask more questions. Even when they’re dangerous.
So I let my elbow slip down to press the button next to the door.
Rachel reared up, waving her arms. I could read her lips. Mostly they said Crazy? And Jerk!
I waved back, hoping she’d take my hint to duck down. Then the door opened behind me.
It was Montgomery. “You . . . what are you doing here?”
“Just having a cigarette before I go home.” I dropped it on the pavement and stomped it out. “I was just walking the neighborhood. You know, there was another killing tonight.”
Montgomery peered up and down the street. But my Honda’s lights were off, and Rachel was hiding.
He grabbed my arm. “You want to see what’s going on? Come on in.”
Oh hell. I looked past him at the open door. “What’s inside?”
Montgomery grinned. “You’ll see.”