Friday, October 5, 2018

Crossroads, Part One

“Hi.” Jody Hopper closed her magazine as I sat down. In her late 20s, she wore a loose gray T-shirt featuring a heavy metal band I’d never heard of. A black bra strap dangled down one shoulder, next to a tattoo of a blue turtle.
She dropped a half-size manila envelope on the booth’s Formica table next to my coffee and business card. “There’s a check in there. And some stuff about Stepan. He’s my boyfriend. He disappeared on me. I mean really—vanished.” She gulped some coffee. “This is going to sound weird. But that’s why I called you.”
Yeah, weird is sort of my business. I’ve gotten a reputation for it that follows me whether I like it or not. “Tell me.”
A waitress came by. I ordered coffee, although I could have taken a bagel. We sat in a diner. I don’t have an office like a TV private eye. Too expensive. So a lot of my business is conducted at diners and coffee shops. At 11:30, the diner was quiet, and the waitress seemed okay with us just ordering coffee.
A few people sat the counter with coffee and bagels. A family sat a large table, trying to keep their kids occupied until their food came. Two booths behind Jody Hopper, a man in a White Sox baseball cap chowed down on some pancakes.
“Okay.” Jody Hopper sighed. “We were arguing. He was breaking up with me. And then he . . . just—disappeared. Not through the door.  He just sort of—his body was this big silvery swirl. Like the transporters on Star Trek? And then he was . . . gone.”
“Gone how?”
She waved her hands. “Just gone! One second he’s there, and then . . . poof!” She slapped the table. “I’ve been ghosted before, but never like this. Where is he?”
“What were you arguing about? Why were you breaking up?”
“He said he was taking a new job out of town, but he wouldn’t tell me anything about it. I thought he was seeing somebody else, and we started arguing. Then he got a phone call. He just looked at his phone, and then—” She waved her hands again. “Like I said, a silvery flash, and then he was gone.”
She tapped the envelope. “I’ve got some stuff in there. Pictures, his address and phone number, a couple of articles, that kind of stuff.”
I pulled it toward me. “What does he do for a living?”
“Construction work. He does floors, mostly. There’s a lot going on in Chicago right now, so he keeps pretty busy. That’s why I was suspicious that he had to go away.”
“How long have you been dating?”
“Six months. Right after he got out—what the hell?”
I turned. And found myself face to face with a handgun.
Two men, both in sunglasses. One African-American, one Caucasian with a thick black beard. He held the pistol.
My heart stopped. And then it started pounding again like a thunderous drum solo in the pouring rain. The snout of the handgun looked like a cannon. And the bearded white guy’s finger was on the trigger.
He swung the muzzle of his weapon. “Come on, Jody. We’re taking you to see Stepan.”
“W-what? Why? No!” She shook her head, her voice shaking. “He wouldn’t—you can’t—” She looked at me. “Help?”
For a split second I considered throwing my coffee into the guy’s face. But his partner could just shoot me too. Plus, the coffee wasn’t very hot.
“Don’t do anything stupid.” The white guy leaned forward. “Just come on, Jody.”
“I can’t—I can’t . . .” Her body wobbled with fear. “I just . . .”
Then she vanished in a flash of silver flame.
Just like she’d told me Stepan had done. A literal blaze of light.
“Shit.” The gunmen looked more annoyed than surprised. As if they’d seen this before.
“Let’s get out,” said the black man.
“Yeah.” The other guy stared at me. He spotted my business card on the table. “Tom Jurgen?”
I gulped, my mouth too dry to speak.
“You stay out of this.” He jammed the card into a pocket.
Then they turned and left.
The waitress dropped her coffee pot. It shattered on the tile floor, as she collapsed on a counter stool, hyperventilating. The guy in the White Sox hat dropped some money on the table and hustled to the restroom.
            My stomach lurched. But I managed to slide Jody Hopper’s envelope into my jacket as I tried not to throw up from terror.
 “Hey!” Someone shouted. “Where’s my order?”

“How’d your meeting go?” Rachel came out of our office to get more coffee as I locked the door.
            I sank onto the couch, trying not to let her see me tremble too much as I unbuttoned my jacket. “Guns. Men with guns.”
            “What?” She slugged my arm. “You said this was a missing boyfriend case!”
            “Yeah.” I rubbed my arm. “Turns out it’s something else.”
            I’d told the cops everything. They were skeptical, of course, even when the waitress confirmed that Jody had vanished in a flash of light. The diner had security cameras at the front and rear entrance, so they called someone to come in and check them. They took my name and number and told me someone downtown would be in touch.
            “Huh.” Rachel sat down next to me. “So what are you going to do now?”
            I pulled out Jody’s envelope. I figured I could tell the cops I’d forgotten about it—if I had to. “This is what she gave me.”
            Rachel’s back stiffened. “So you’re going ahead with this?”
            I shrugged. “I just want to know what’s going on.”
            She punched my shoulder. “Okay. It’s too late to complain that you’re an idiot. Good thing I don’t have my own place anymore.”
            We’d been living together for six months. Dating for a long time before that. Rachel’s got red hair, hazelnut eyes, and vaguely psychic powers. She helps me on my supernatural cases—and punches me when she thinks I’m being a jerk. It’s a thing.
            We moved to the dining room table, and I emptied the envelope. First the check, which I set aside. I wasn’t sure I was even going to work on the case, so I’d hang onto it until something happened.
            Then a few printed snapshots of Stepan. Shirtless in one, with skinny arms and a thin chest. Smiling in another, wearing a tight black T-shirt. He had a scraggly beard and yellow teeth.
The third was a mugshot. He scowled at the camera, his lips tight.
“Ugh.” Rachel grimaced. “Why did I ever go for the bad boys in high school?”
I glanced over at her. “Anything you want to tell me about?”
“Shut up.” We both had stories from our past that we didn’t talk about.
“Wait a minute.” I stared at the photos. “He was there. Eating pancakes.” The guy in the White Sox hat was Stepan Milos.
            Rachel picked up the photo. “Oh-kay. Why didn’t his girlfriend notice him?”
            Good question. I tried to think. “Her back was to him. He had a hat. And she was reading a magazine.” I remembered him heading for the restroom after the gunmen left, and I hadn’t noticed him come back out—although I hadn’t been watching.
            I pushed the photos aside. “So maybe Stepan can . . .  teleport?—and maybe he can teleport other people, so that’s why Jody Hopper disappeared.”
            Yeah, it was the kind of leap that made a lot of people call me crazy. But I’ve seen lots stranger. And it fit with Jody’s story about Stepan’s vanishing.
            Rachel shrugged. “That would mean she’s all right, and she found her boyfriend. Sounds like your work is done.”
            I smiled. “Still curious.”
            She glared. “I’d punch you, but my arm’s getting tired.”
I looked at the rest of it. A scribbled notebook page listed Stepan’s contact information: address, phone numbers, email address, and his latest work address, a construction company on the south side.
I called his cell phone. No answer. I left a message. I sent an email. Then I went back to the documents in the envelope.
            A brief article printed out from the Chicago Tribune website: CONVICTED IN ARMED ROBBERY, MAN GETS THREE YEARS. That explained the mugshot. Stepan and two other people had robbed a drug store—for pharmaceuticals, mostly, and about $150 from the register—five years ago. Stepan only stood near the door, and then drove the getaway car, but the other two had been armed with handguns. When they got caught, Stepan flipped and made a deal, so he only did three years at the Vandalia Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Fayette County.
Which meant he would have been released about eight months ago. Right around the time Jody Hopper started dating him.
The only other item was an obituary. Clyde Hanisch, 48, had died two years ago of cancer. Survived by his mother, sister, and a brother, Dr. Brad Hanisch. “I wonder what this is doing here.”
            Rachel picked the obit up. “Huh. There’s a Brad Hanisch I’ve heard of.”
            “Old boyfriend from your bad-boy days?” I tensed for a punch.
            She laughed. “He’s a doctor, a neurologist, I think. And a wizard. Or he used to be. I don’t really know him, but Carrie does.”
            Carrie is Rachel’s friend. She doesn’t like me, but she’s pretty knowledgeable about magic and the supernatural.
            In the office we shared I turned on my computer and did a search for Clyde Hanisch. It didn’t take long. Clyde had done time for robbery, and check forgery. He’d been in Joliet, Menard, and his last sentence had been served at Vandalia—where Stepan had done his three years.
            “That’s the connection.” I saved the file. “Call Carrie.”
            Rachel sighed and picked up her phone. “She’ll be thrilled.”

“Wake up!” Rachel kicked me under the covers in the middle of the night. “Something’s going on.”
            I rolled over and rubbed my eyes. “Wha—?”
            Then I saw it. A swirling flash of bright light, just like I’d seen at the diner. It hovered above the rug, slowly descended, and exploded in a burst of cold white flame.
            Jody Hopper staggered forward. Wearing the same gray T-shirt from this morning, her bra strap drooping lower, but in just a pair of blue panties. She leaned against the edge of the bed, gasping.
            “Who’s she?” Rachel shoved her covers down.
            “My client. Sort of.” I swung my legs to the floor, glad I was wearing boxers. “Ms. Hopper? What’s going on?”
            “I don’t . . . have much time,” she panted. “They’ve got us, both of us. I don’t know where we are. They’re going to knock over a rib joint later tonight. Then they . . .” She shook her head. “Can you help us?”
            Rachel and I looked at each other. “What rib joint?”
            “I don’t know.” Her legs were shaking. “They found us at Stepan’s mother’s house. She wasn’t there. They’re going to—”
            Then the silver fire returned, enveloping her like a sheet of lightning. It whirled around like a dog chasing its tail, then imploded with a sharp crack like thunder, leaving behind a lingering smoky odor.
            “What the hell?” Rachel stood up and walked around the bed, waving her hand in the space Hopper had just been standing in.
            I looked at the clock radio. 1:36 a.m. I picked up my phone.
Then I put it back down. What exactly could I tell the police? “Hi, a woman teleported into my bedroom to tell me that her boyfriend and two other guys are going to teleport to a rib restaurant that I didn’t know the name of”? The cops laughed enough about me in the break room already.
            “What are you going to do?” Rachel crossed her arms.
            I stood. “Get a drink of water and go back to sleep. Maybe. Tomorrow I’ll . . . think of something.”

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