I pressed the buzzer for apartment 3A three times without getting a response. So I pushed the button marked “Manager.”
A voice responded 30 seconds later: “Yeah?”
I looked up at the security camera inside the door. “Can you let me in? We need to do a safety check on one of your tenants.”
Two minutes later a young white man in jeans and a Chicago Cubs T-shirt opened the door. “What’s up?”
“My name’s Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective.” I handed him my card. “Jim Gold’s ex-wife hasn’t heard from him in months, and she’s concerned for his safety.”
He looked at my card. “His safety or her alimony?”
Child support, actually. “Either way, he’s not answering.”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
It was a small building, three floors, no elevator. We were both huffing for breath by the third floor.
The manager—Jack Figueroa, he told me—unlocked 3A with a key from a large ring attached to a thick leather belt. “Let me go first. I don’t know—whoa!”
The stench from inside was enough to knock a grown man over. Figueroa backed away, retching. I put a hand over my mouth, trying to control my stomach. Was Gold dead? That would explain . . .
No. I’d found dead bodies before—sometimes long dead. This odor was different. But no less nauseating.
Figueroa leaned down, hands on his knees, gasping for breath.
I grabbed a handkerchief from my back pocket and held my nose. Then I went through the door.
Patches of gray slime dotted the carpet. Empty cans of beer sat on a coffee table in front of a red couch covered with similar stains. An empty case of beer was infested with cockroaches feasting on the remains of a pizza that must have been a month old.
They didn’t even scatter as I crossed the room, trying not to step in the slime.
The apartment had one bedroom and a kitchen. I glanced into the kitchen, saw more roaches and blotches on the floor and counter, along with more beer cans, then bit my lip as I headed for the bedroom.
The stink was worse. And the hardwood floor was almost completely covered with the gray slime. I stood in the bedroom doorway, fighting my nerves.
On top of the bed, a lump of blankets shifted.
“Uh . . . hello?” I lowered my handkerchief. “Mr. Gold?”
One blanket fell over. Then another. The pile rose up . . .
And a hand reached out.
It was covered with gray slime.
Something reared up, pushing the blankets off. It looked like a fungus, green and gray, its body shaped like a gumdrop the size of a man. The arm stretching out dripped moisture on the stained sheets. The tip of the gumdrop bent forward.
Then a face appeared. Not a full face—just eyes and a lipless mouth, no nose, no hair.
“Gold.” The voice quavered. “Jim G-Gold. Can you help me?”
Cristin Kiley lived in California. She’d gotten divorced from Jim Gold two years ago. “He was always good with the child support,” she told me over the phone. “But the checks stopped coming a few weeks ago. He moved, and I can’t find his new address. He doesn’t answer his phone. This—this is going to sound strange, but . . . I’m worried about him.”
“Not strange at all.” I asked a few questions, made some notes, and told her I could probably track him down soon.
It seemed like a routine case.
Finding Gold’s new address wasn’t difficult. He still wasn’t answering his phone or email, so the simplest solution was to go over and ask for a safety check.
So here I was. Staring at Jim Gold—or something that had once been Jim Gold, now a mound of foul-smelling fungus.
“What the hell?” Figueroa was behind me, trembling like me.
“Mr. Gold?” I wondered if it could really hear without ears. “My name is Tom Jurgen. Your ex-wife asked me to find you.”
The face reappeared, straining against the gray matter from the inside as if shrouded in translucent plastic wrap. “C-Cristin?”
“She was worried. What . . . happened to you?”
When he—it?—breathed, the stench grew stronger. “It went wrong. Everything. I didn’t know . . .” The head dropped, and in a moment his eyes disappeared back into the mass of fungus that made up his body. The arms slid back, and now he was just a lump, writhing on the filthy sheets.
I took out my phone and took a few pictures. When I turned, Figueroa was out in the hall, wiping off his shoes. “Do I call the cops? What do I tell the neighbors?”
Good questions. “I don’t know if the police can handle something like this.” I knew cops who’d dealt with vampires and other supernatural creatures—the kind I run into more often than I’d like—but they wouldn’t know what to do with something they couldn’t lock up, stake or shoot. “Stay out of here.” I clicked my phone. “I’m going to have a friend come over.”
“Can he do something about this? What is that?”
“It’s a she. And I don’t know.” The phone buzzed once. Twice. “Hey, Rachel? Can you drop whatever you’re doing and come over here?”
Rachel is my girlfriend. We live together. She’s got red hair, hazelnut eyes, and psychic powers. She can’t levitate objects or influence the weather, but she can sense magic and other supernatural phenomena. Which comes in handy all too often in my job.
She wasn’t happy about being called away from whatever graphic design project she was working on. She was even less happy when she peered into the apartment. “Yuck! Bugs! And what’s that smell? It’s worse than your dirty socks after a week.”
“Yeah. It gets worse.” I took her hand. “Try not to step into any of that gray stuff.”
“I’ll be right here.” Figueroa leaned on the wall next to the door, scratching his ankle. “Don’t take too long.”
Rachel followed in my steps to the bedroom, where the mass of fungus that had once been Jim Gold shuddered on top of the mattress. “What the—what the hell, Tom?”
“This is Jim Gold. Or it used to be.” I crossed my arms. “I need to know if this is magic . . . or something else.”
Rachel reached out. “Okay . . .”
I nudged her shoulder. “Don’t touch him.”
“Do I look stupid? Don’t answer that.” She kept her distance.
The thing lurched up. A hand shot forward—five fingers, grasping at the air. Slime dripped down from each fingertip.
Rachel groaned. “There’s something . . . not magic . . . but something wrong. Really wrong.”
“Okay.” I pulled her back. “Let’s just go.”
The fungus slouched forward, spilling over the edge of the mattress. A hoarse breath followed us. “Help me! Help . . .me . . .”
I pushed Rachel ahead of me. She glared over her shoulder as she made her way to the door. “Stop shoving my ass! I’m not some damsel in distress!”
“Fine!” I slammed the door behind us. “I just wanted . . .”
Figueroa was sitting on the hallway floor, his shoes and socks in a tangled pile between his legs.
He was rubbing a foot. A foot covered with gray fungus.
He looked up. “What do I do? What now?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“I’m going to go wash it off. Or something. Bleach, maybe.” He pulled his shoes back on. “If this is what happened to him . . .”
I looked at Rachel. “I need to go back in and try to talk to him.”
She grimaced. “You really want to do that?”
“You can stay here.”
“Hell, no.” She punched my arm. “You’ll just get into trouble.”
“How do we get rid of it?” The manager hopped on one foot.
“I don’t know.” We had to keep it—Gold—isolated. “Maybe you’d better tell the tenants there’s a gas leak or something.”
He shook his head. “There’s isn’t gas in the building, just electric.”
“Then there’s a wiring problem. I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “Come on, Rach.”
We went in again, staying away from the blotches in the carpet. Had they spread in the last few minutes? The thought worried me.
Gold’s fungoid body still lay on the bed, the pile of blankets shoved aside. If it noticed us, it didn’t give any sign.
“What happened?” Rachel was next to me. “Why are you . . . like this? I’m Rachel, by the way.”
The mass of gray fungus rose up into its gumdrop shape again, and Gold’s face pushed forward. “It was . . . accident. At lab.”
“Far—Fahringer. Far . . .” The head dropped. “Beer. Beer.”
Rachel and I looked at each other. A beer-drinking fungus? I remembered the can strewn across the living room.
Rachel turned. “I’ll go see.”
“Don’t touch anything!” I watched her head for the kitchen, then looked back at Gold.
He was a shapeless blob again, parts of his body pulsing up and down. The top of his head pushed up. “Lab. Fahringer Lab. Didn’t know. Didn’t know . . .”
Rachel returned, carrying an open can of beer with a wad of paper towels. “It was in the refrigerator. I used the paper towels—”
The arm shot out faster than either of us expected. Rachel dropped the can, and it sank into the soft fungus, along with the paper towels.
“Fahringer Lab.” I wondered how it was spelled. “Let’s go.”