Sunday, November 5, 2017

Chicken Fight, Part One

Vandella Burroughs pounded her fist on her knee. “My husband is dead! Someone stabbed him 171 times! And the police aren’t doing a damn thing about it!”
            I took a deep breath. Just like my therapist had advised me. “I don’t, uh, usually handle murder cases.”
“Sure you do.” Sharon Marmont clicked her expensive Montblanc pen. She’s a lawyer. She usually calls me when she has a case that veers into . . . unusual territory. “You’ll want this one.”
I pulled the police report forward. “Just let me take a look.” I opened the folder, reminding myself to stay calm. This is what I did.
Tom Jurgen. Ex-reporter. Private detective. Currently struggling with PTSD and depression. After years of dealing with vampires, demons, and monsters of all kinds, including a dragon, I’d had some kind of a breakdown that landed me in the hospital. Diagnosis: depression, PTSD, high blood pressure, and too many Doritos.
But after a month of therapy sessions, medications, and long walks in the park, I needed to get back to work. Or I’d just sit in my apartment watching bad sitcoms and drinking coffee for the rest of my life.
Jared Burroughs had been found dead in an alley two months ago. He’d died of blunt force trauma and blood loss caused by, yes, 171 small stab wounds in his chest and abdomen.
Vandella Burroughs sighed impatiently. I leaned down. One detail stood out from the report.
Burroughs’ body had been covered in blood. But not all of it was his. Or human.
I stifled a groan. Rachel was going to kill me. But Marmont was right. This was my kind of case.
I packed the folder into my briefcase. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
But first I had my weekly 11:30 a.m. appointment.

“So how are you doing this week?” Dr. Neral closed his laptop as I sat down.
            Dr. Francis Neral was a psychiatrist. An African-American with a balding scalp and a thin black necktie. I’d been seeing him weekly ever since I got out of the hospital.
            He sat in an office. I had the couch. A standard, comfortably upholstered couch, not a black leather-padded one from the 19th century. No lying back and free-associating about my mother here, Dr. Freud. “Well, I took a case.”
            “Is that good? What kind of case?”
            “I don’t know yet.” I shook my head. “But my internet isn’t going to pay for itself.”
            “Right.” He made a note. “Are you still taking the medication?”
            I sighed. “Yeah.”
            “Any side effects?”
            I sat back. “I don’t have much appetite. My girlfriend’s been cooking for me.” I had lots of leftovers.
            Dr. Neral nodded. “How are things with Rachel?”
            I hesitated. “I guess she still likes me. I’m still not sure why.”
            “Why wouldn’t she? I mean . . .” Dr. Neral shrugged. “You’ve been together for a long time.”
            My shoulders tensed. “Didn’t I mention how I almost got her killed half a dozen times?” Not even counting the time she got possessed by a demon because of me. I hadn’t gone through my entire case file with Dr. Neral yet. “But she insists on coming with me.”
            “And that worries you?”
            “Yes! I mean . . . okay, she saved my life at least once.” Although if I hadn’t been stupid enough to get abducted by aliens . . . “And I like having her around. She’s smart. Smarter than me.” And she had a mean elbow jab. “If something happened to her, I don’t think I could deal with it. I already told you about Elena Dudovich.”
            Dr. Neral nodded again. “You still feel guilty about that.”
            “Of course I do. We weren’t exactly friends, but we . . . found a way to work together. If I hadn’t screwed up . . .” My voice shook. “Shit.” I grabbed for the box of tissues.
            After a moment Dr. Neral asked, “How are you sleeping?”
            “I had a nightmare about Donald Trump as a vampire.” I tossed the tissues into a can. “I woke up before I could stake him.”
            Dr. Neral chuckled.
            We had an hour to kill. And although I was used to asking the questions—ex-reporter, now a private detective—I was finding that answering them was oddly therapeutic. Go figure.
            But mostly I wanted to get back to work on the case.
The main piece of information was the blood evidence.
Marmont had scanned a copy of the police report. I emailed the forensics to a chemist I knew at the University of Illinois, asking if he could identify the non-human blood. He’d worked for the police for twenty years; now he was a professor, and he’d helped me out on a few cases.
But forensics information only went so far. I had to talk to people.
Jared had worked the 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. shift in one of the big department stores downtown, managing loading and unloading of the trucks that came in at all hours of the day and night. Vandella had given me the names of a few co-workers. I had their statements to the police, but they might be able to give me more information, since I was working for her, and I wasn’t a cop.
            So I started making phone calls.
The first guy hung up on me. The second guy said he’d call me back. Then Vlad Smith answered. He’d just gotten home.
            “Yeah, I only saw him at work that day.” He yawned. “I didn’t go out. My wife was sick, and I had to get home to take care of my kid. Hi, bubbles!” I heard a little girl laugh.
Vlad cleared his throat. “Sorry. He was going out with Mick and Hector. They’re two guys from work.”      
Mick Soto and Hector Moore. They were the first two people I’d called. “Do you know where they were going?”
            “We usually go to a bar called Friendly’s over on LaSalle. They might have gone somewhere else later. Why don’t you ask them?”
            “You’re the first one who’d answer me.”
            He chuckled. “Look, I liked Jared, but I’m a white guy. Mick and Hector? Getting questioned by a bunch of white police officers will make anyone a little nervous about answering questions from some other white guy on a phone.”
            I could understand that. “Okay. Thanks for your help.”
I was scanning the internet for stories about the killing when Rachel opened my door. She has a key.
“Hi there!” She dropped a bag of groceries on the table. “What are you working on?”
            I closed my laptop and sipped my Coke. I wanted a beer, but I couldn’t drink with my medication. “I took a case.”
            “It’s about time.” She started unpacking the bag. “Look! Ground beef! I hated buying this for you, but I did it. Think about all the poor innocent cows who died for this while you fry it up into hamburgers or bake it into lasagna.”
            Rachel’s a vegetarian. She’s also my girlfriend. She lives upstairs. And she’d also been checking in on me at least twice a day since I’d been in the hospital.
            “You don’t have to cook dinner for me every night.” I was nervous. “This is great, but—”
            “Dinner? It’s 2:30. I have work to do. I’m just buying you groceries so you don’t forget that milk and eggs go bad after a few weeks.”
            I nodded. “Thanks.”
            “Okay, talk.” Rachel sat down. She’s got short red hair and hazelnut eyes. Plus, she’s sort of psychic.  But she probably didn’t need supernatural powers to sense that I hadn’t told her everything. “What kind of case? Tell me it’s just a cheating husband. Or wife. Or a missing person. Or embezzlement. Or—”   
“It’s a murder case.” I braced for a punch.
She blinked. “You’re really jumping right back in.”
I opened my laptop. “The victim was stabbed over 100 times, and he was covered in blood. Some of it wasn’t human. The cops and the media aren’t paying a lot of attention to it. Probably because it’s not a gang-related shooting.”
“Fine.” Rachel shoved her chair back and stood up. “I’ve got a big project. Call me.”
Damn it. She was mad.
“Come on, Rachel!” I followed her to the door. “I need to do something. I can’t just sit around doing background checks, or trailing some worker’s comp case—”
            “Bullshit!” Rachel turned on me, her eyes burning. “You want the adrenalin! You can’t wait to get back to fighting vampires and zombies and assassins who can walk through walls!”
            She punched me. Hard.
            “Okay, okay!” I staggered back. “It’s what I do! I didn’t ask for it, but I can’t quit. You know that. You know me.”
            Rachel grabbed the doorknob. “It’s a good thing I like you.”
            I grinned. “I think that every day.”
She slugged me again. Lighter this time. “Jerk. I’ve got to go.”
            I nodded. “Yeah. Thanks for the groceries.”
            I was putting everything into my refrigerator when my phone buzzed. I ran back out to the table to pick it up. “Tom Jurgen here.”
            “Who? My name’s Mick Soto. You called me.”
            Mick. One of the names Vandella Burroughs had given me. “Hi, Mr. Soto, thanks for calling me back. I’m Tom Jurgen, a private detective working for Vandella Burroughs about the murder of her husband Jared Burroughs. She gave me your name. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
            “Shit.” For a moment I thought he was going to hang up on me. “I don’t know if I should.”
            “I’m only looking for information. Jared’s wife and her lawyer think the case is being ignored. Anything you can tell me would help.”
            “That’s not what I mean.” He hesitated. “Look, I’m working right now. Double shift, with Jared gone. You want to come down here, then maybe we can talk.”
            I looked at the clock over the door to the kitchen. 2:55. “Sure. Where are you?”
            He gave me an address.

I texted Rachel when I got there. Usually I call to let her know where I am, but I didn’t want to talk to her while she was mad at me.
            Okay, maybe she was right about the adrenalin rush. I’d missed it. When I was a reporter, there’d been nothing like chasing a hot story. Since becoming a P.I. with a reputation for cases involving the supernatural, I’d gone into some dark corners. I couldn’t deny the fear, or the relief at surviving. But I kept doing it.
            Right now I felt better than I had in months.
            A light rain was starting to fall as I met Mick Soto outside an office building on LaSalle downtown. He was finishing a cigarette.
            “I just have a few minutes.” He looked down the alley. “More trucks coming in. I’m working until midnight.”
             “I’m parked a block away if you want to get out of the rain.”
            “Just get to it.” He dropped his cigarette butt into a garbage can.
            I held out a card. “I’m working for Jared Burroughs’ wife. You can call her.”
            “The cops already talked to me. I told them everything I know.” He grinned. “You going to crack this case?”
            “Probably not.” The last thing I wanted right now was to confront a murderer. I only wanted to find some information that might provoke the police to take a closer look at the case. That meant asking questions. “So what happened that night?”
            Mick lit another cigarette. “We all went down to Friendly’s. It’s on the next block. A couple of beers. Then Jared and Hector left. That’s . . . all I know.”
            I’ve learned how to tell when a subject wants to say something more. Sometimes they just need a nudge. “So why did he leave? Where was he going?”
            He blew smoke from his lips and shook his head. “Okay. He was going for a fight.”
            “What kind of a fight?”
            “He’s—“ A cab rolled past. “He used to be a boxer. Amateur. I guess he missed it. He talked about getting back into it. Some days he showed up with bruises, and he laughed about it. He was always a big, muscular guy—he could lift boxes it took two of us to move.”
            He lit a new cigarette. “You know how it is? You want to go back and do it again? You played in a band in high school, and so you start playing with bands in bars even though you only know four or five chords and you can’t really sing. That was Jared. Except he looked like he could do it. So maybe he went off to some kind of fight. You’d have to ask Hector.”
            He’d hung up on me. “I tried. Is he working tonight?”
            “Nah, he’s been off for a few days.” Mick looked at my card. “I’ll ask him to call you.”
            Off? “How long?”
            “Couple of days. I don’t know.” He stubbed out his cigarette and tossed it into the garbage can. “I’ve got to get back.”
            “Sure. Thanks for your help.”
            Mick looked over his shoulder as he walked away. “Drive safe.”

Back in my apartment I called Vandella Burroughs. Sharon Marmont was technically my client, but she’d given me Vandella’s number and the okay to call her with any questions.
            “Ms. Burroughs? It’s Tom Jurgen. Can we talk?”
            “What?” She sounded surprised and angry. “I didn’t think—do you have anything?”
            “No, not really. Just a question. Was Jared ever an amateur boxer?”
            “Uhh . . .” She sounded confused. “Yeah. In high school. But he quit.”
            I hesitated. “He may not have.”
            “I knew it!” Her shriek made me pull the phone from my ear. Then her voice grew quiet. “I knew it . . . damn it.”
            Vandella was crying. “He came home with bruises. He said a box hit him on the face. Or the arm. The last time was a week before it happened, and he was bleeding on his shoulder, and he said someone’s box cutter slipped. Goddamn it!”
            “I still don’t know if it means anything.” I tried to keep my voice calm. “I’m still waiting to hear from some people. I’ve been in touch with Sharon Marmont. Don’t jump to any conclusions.”
            “My little boy is asking where his father is!” She gasped. “I’m sorry. Just—anything you can find out. All right?”
            “I’ll do what I can.”
            I started to call Marmont when my phone buzzed. Len Dryer, the chemist at UIC. “Hi, Len.” I gulped some coffee. “What’s going on?”
            “I looked at that report you sent over.” He sounded like he was swallowing coffee too. “From what I can see, it looks like chicken blood.”
            Chickens? “Okay. How much?”
            “Most of it’s human, but the markers on about 30 percent of the data indicate some kind of bird, and the closest match I can find is chickens. That’s all I can tell you.”
            Chickens. “Okay. Thanks, Len. Send me your bill.” Marmont would pay it.
            He chuckled. “Sure will.”
            I sat back and sipped my Coke.
Yeah, Rachel was right. I lived for this kind of thing. I’d have to talk to Dr. Neral about that soon.
            That made me remember to take my pills. I wasn’t sure how much they were helping, but it just following the rules made me feel a bit more in control of my life.
            I clicked on my laptop. Chicken blood might mean voodoo. On the other hand, it might mean he had a side job in a butcher shop. It could a lot of things. But why would it be mixed with Jared’s blood? It didn’t make sense.
            I should have called Vandella Burroughs back again. But after just making her cry, I wasn’t in any hurry to get her even more upset tonight.
So I called Marmont and left a message.
Then I got up to make dinner. Burgers. Rachel would be mad.