(New story, new character. Tell me what you think!)
Thomas Hale Jurgen. Age 41. Unlike a lot of private detectives, I was never a cop. I used to be a reporter, until I covered a story about the murder of a little girl on a south side playground. Eyewitnesses insisted that a shadowy monster had butchered the kid and then disappeared down a storm drain, but the cops leaned on my editor to kill the piece. I wrote a big story about the public’s right to know, straight out of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Then I quit.
Eventually I got a job doing research for a law firm. Then the lawyer I worked for got killed by her vampire ex-husband.I quit the law firm. Seeing the pattern here?
So now I’m a private eye. No one has ever compared me to Sam Spade or Spenser, although I have been called a stubborn asshole from time to time. I’m not very courageous. Supernatural beings still freak me out, but unfortunately I can’t quit when I’m working for myself.
Some days I question my career choices.
* * *
I was a reporter before I became a private detective. So I’ve seen a few dead bodies—shot, stabbed, mutilated by werewolves, and drained by vampires. It never gets easy.
Clark Glendon was sprawled on the carpet, his clothes ripped and bloody. His left arm looked like something had gnawed had the skin off and then eaten lunch on the muscle beneath.
I clamped my jaws. Cops hate vomit all over a crime scene.
The hallway door had been unlocked. The empty reception room was small and narrow. The door in back was shredded. The hinges were intact, but the rest of it had been clawed into splinters by an angry grizzly bear. Glendon’s body lay in the center of the small office.
The place might have been some kind of computer lab a few hours ago. Now it looked like Tokyo after a visit from Godzilla. High-tech equipment crushed into Lego-sized blocks, a worktable in splinters, a folding chair torn apart, a stepladder sticking through a gash in the drywall, a long crack in the window on the opposite wall, letting in the mid-afternoon sun. Computer equipment lay strewn across a trio of worktables: monitors, boards, cables, and a bunch of tech stuff I didn’t recognize.
I did recognize Glendon. My client, Lauren Moore, was CEO of a company in downtown Chicago. Glendon had been working on a project for her, and the deadline was coming up without any word from him. I’d done some work for her before—nothing that had involved any dead bodies—so she hired me, showed me some pictures, and let me search the cubicle he was using for the project. I found the address of this place in his desk.
It was a small building in Evanston, and the rent was being paid by a company called Tera Systems LLC. Nothing suspicious about that. Glendon was a consultant, after all. Still, I’d been nervous about possibly being charged with trespassing. Just a knock on the door—that was my plan, and maybe a peek inside. But the door was unlocked. And the inner door had been destroyed.
The doors gave me a puzzle to concentrate on as I tried not to throw up. Glendon had been ripped apart, and one door completely wrecked. But the other door was still intact, as if the same killer had left quietly and politely—or left some other way.
Or was still hiding inside. I held my breath and stood silently in the doorway. I took out my cell phone to call the police.
Then I heard a whimper from the restroom in the back.
* * *
Great. Whoever had mutilated Glendon might still be in there.
But the groan might be another victim. Someone who needed help. Still, the police were my best bet. I tapped my cell phone—
And something peered around the edge of the bathroom doorway.
Its face was covered in gray fur, and its ears were pointed like an elf’s. Two long blunt teeth rose from its lower jaw, and its mouth seemed to extend halfway around its head.
Why can’t I ever have a normal case once in a while?
“Hello?” I held up a hand. “My name’s Tom. Tom Jurgen. Are you all right?”
It answered with something like a frightened whimper, then ducked back into the bathroom.
I’ve seen lots of strange and supernatural things—and gotten a reputation for handling problems straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—but I didn’t recognize this creature. And neither would any cops who came in to check out the scene.
And their reaction might be, well, negative.
Fighting the impulse to turn and run, I took a deep breath and stepped carefully into the office, careful not to get close to the body or nudge any of the wreckage as I approached the bathroom.
“Hi there?” My voice shook and my throat was hoarse. But I didn’t want to surprise it when I reached the bathroom door.
It looked like an overgrown koala, cowering next to the toilet, trembling all over. Its body was round and gray, with no neck, but it had two long, gangly arms and two short, stubby legs. It blinked at me, trying to stay calm while figured out what I was.
So we had that in common.
I held up my cellphone. “I’m just going to take a picture, okay? Picture?” I felt like a tourist in a foreign land trying to communicate by talking loud. But the creature didn’t argue or attack me. It just blinked again, and scratched its butt.
Three pictures. I sent an email and then called Rachel.
Rachel’s my girlfriend. At least sometimes. She lives upstairs from me, and she helps me out on my cases. She doesn’t like to be called a witch, but she has some unusual abilities that come in handy when I’m handling supernatural cases.
“Hi, this is Rachel, I’m not here right now unless your name is, uh, Brandon, and you’re calling to take me to an expensive dinner or maybe buy me jewelry—”
“Rachel? Shut up and check your email.”
“What? Is that any way to talk to me? No ‘Hello, how are you, I’ve missed you, what’s new’? I was thinking about letting you—”
“I’m in the middle of a crime scene. Five feet away from a dead body, and I need you to identify something. Please look at your email.”
“Dead bodies? We talked about this. I only . . .” I heard the clicking on hr keyboard. “Oh, wow. What’s that?”
I sighed. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
“Wait a minute, it just took me by surprise. Let me zoom in.”
The creature looked at me, curious but calm.
“Okay, here it is. That little fella is probably a wheesling. They live in another reality. How did it end up in a bathroom? Where are you?”
“Evanston. No idea what it’s doing here. Can you tell me anything about them?”
“They’re smart, peaceful, mostly eat leaves and veggies, but—whoa, be careful, according to the database they break down tough fibers by spitting up some kind of acid. Don’t let him lick you.”
“Are they intelligent? Can you talk to them?”
“They’re as smart as you or me. Or me, at least. But their language . . . okay, I speak six languages on Earth and one or two from other dimensions, but not this one. But wait.”
“Do you remember Carrie Burke? She speaks wheesling.”
“She’s the one who doesn’t like me?”
“That doesn’t exactly narrow it down, but yeah. Actually, she likes you fine, she just thinks I can do better.”
This wasn’t the time for that argument. “Will she talk to me? I mean, will she try to talk to the wheesling?”
At the word “wheesling” the creature’s pointed ears trembled. It lifted its head, its eyes wide. I nodded.
“I’ll send you her number.”
“Thanks. By the way, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks for asking.” She hung up.
A moment later her email with Carrie’s number came. “Wheesling,” I said to the creature. “Me, Tom.”
Its mouth opened in what I hoped was a grin. “Tommm . . .”
“Hello?” Carrie didn’t recognize the number, and her answer was cautious. I couldn’t blame her.
“Hi, Carrie? It’s Tom Jurgen.” Would she remember me? “Rachel’s friend? I need your help.”
“Tommm,” the wheesling repeated.
“What? Rachel? What? Oh, wait . . .” I heard a crash in the background, and a loud curse. The human kind, not a supernatural spell. “Okay, I got it. Coke all over the floor. Who is this?”
“Tom Jurgen. Rachel gave me your number. I’ve got a wheesling here.” I looked at the little creature. Obviously scared, but watching me intently. “I can’t explain it right now, but I need you to try and talk to him. Or her. Would you do that? Please?”
“Wait.” She dropped the phone. I heard a dog barking in the background. Down, Zeus! Good boy!
After a moment she picked up again. “Sorry. A wheesling? What do you want me to say?”
I tried to think. “Find out its name. Tell him my name. Then tell him to come with me. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try. Give me a second, I need paper towels here. Okay, let me find the dictionary on my laptop . . . okay. I hope I’ve got the right accent.”
I hit the speaker phone function and held the phone out. “Go.”
Carrie spoke. The language was musical, full of short sounds and high pitches. The wheesling stared at the box, then jumped up, its mouth wide open, and answered with what looked like relief and joy.
They chattered for a few moments. I thought I caught my name in the flow of strange words. Then Carrie said, “Okay, Tom?”
“Tom!” The wheesling pointed at me. “Tommm!”
I nodded. “Tom. Yeah, Carrie?”
“His name’s Pontoval. He’s very scared.”
“That makes two of us.”
“I told him to go with you, that you’d take care of him. That’s right, isn’t it? You aren’t going to sell him to a zoo or make a pelt from him, are you?”
Did all of Rachel’s friends hate me? “I need to get him away from a crime scene before the cops show up. I’m taking him home. Will he come with me?”
“Yes. And I’ll be right there too.”
I groaned with relief. “Thank you.”
“Thank Rachel.” She hung up.
I looked at the wheesling. “Pontoval?”
On his legs, he was three feet tall, and his arms stretched toward me like a frisky orangutan. He sprang forward, and I teetered back as I caught him, grunting as my shoulder hit the wall. “Yeah, yeah, we’re good, just . . . okay, Pontoval? We’ve got to leave?”
Uh-huh. I staggered, my legs shaking as I lugged him out of the bathroom. Pontoval weighed 50 or 60 pounds, and I hadn’t carried anything heavier than a large take-out meal in years.
Pontoval clutched my shoulders. His fur smelled like long grass on a hillside, with some flowers in the background. Although his breath needed some mouthwash. I took careful steps through the room to evade the corpse and anything on the floor that looked like evidence the cops might want. I felt like I was playing Twister with a bag of rocks on my back. Pontoval squealed as I rocked on one foot, and patted my head as I lurched through the broken door to the front office.
I paused, catching my breath. Out in the hall we might run into anyone. Maybe I could convince any office dwellers I met in the elevator that the wheesling was a pet from New Zealand or somewhere.
“Tommm?” He sounded scared again.
I patted his arm. “Pontoval.”
“Mmm.” He rubbed his head against my shoulder.
“Okay.” I hoped my legs would hold out. “Let’s go, Ponto.”
* * *
I hoped anyone who pulled up beside me at a red light would just assume I had a big gray puppy in the back seat of my Honda. By the time I reached my apartment in Rogers Park, the late afternoon sun was fading, and Pontoval was sound asleep. I tried to carry him as gently as I could up the stairs to my apartment.
I dropped him on the couch with a grunt. My back ached, and my mind was a mess. A dead body, a creature from another dimension, and a wrecked office. One plus one plus equals—what?
I couldn’t really believe that Pontoval had killed Glendon and destroyed the office. His fingers didn’t have claws. And his two long teeth were blunt. Pontoval might have attacked Glendon in a confused rage, especially if he’d been pulled from his home without warning. But he didn’t seem equipped to rip his body to bloody shreds. And he was cute.
I unscrewed a water bottle from the fridge. Back in the living room, I nudged the bottle against his thin lips like a father trying awkwardly to feed an infant for the first time.
Pontoval grabbed the water bottle, leaned back, and sucked the water down with a single gulp. Rolling back and forth, he rubbed his chest and then emitted a loud, satisfied burp. “Tommm.” He threw the bottle onto the floor. “Tommm.”
“Yeah . . .” I stroked his head. “That’s me.”
My cell phone buzzed. Rachel. “Are you home yet? We’re right outside. Carrie’s here.”
“Be right there.” I patted Ponto’s head. “Just a minute, okay?”
“Ohh-kayyy!” He panted like a puppy. “Tommm.”
I opened the door. “Hi!”
“Hiii!” Ponto shouted from the couch. “Hiiii . . .?”
“Hello.” Carrie was an African-American woman, tall and solid. “Good to see you again.” She shook my hand. “Where is . . . oh, hi there!” She circled around me and headed for the couch. “Pontoval? Eeks som anti van pol arand . . .”
I breathed a sigh of relief when Rachel walked in. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” I felt tired. “A dead body, and a creature from another dimension—long day.”
Pontoval and Carrie were already chattering like old friends. Carrie sat on the floor, her legs crossed, and Pontoval bounced up and down like a puppy begging for treats. The couch had come from a resale shop, and I wasn’t sure how much pounding it would take, but this didn’t seem like the time to tell an alien from another reality to settle down.
“How can she speak his language?” I asked Rachel.
“She collects books. There’s this one manuscript from a 17th-century wizard that she stole from . . . well, you don’t want to know.” She winked at me.
They were still talking. So I went back to the kitchen for some more water bottles and a few cans of beer for Rachel and me. “So what do wheeslings eat?”
Carrie rocked back on her heels. “Greens. Vegetables. Just like a lot of us here. Ponto, alla van uto marre?”
My phone buzzed. “Tom? Hey, I just got a call. From the police.”
I took a deep breath. Lauren Moore was a CEO, and she was smart enough to keep her tech company running through two or three recessions—and to spot any evasions from me. I’d worked for her before. “Yeah. I think I know what they said.”
“Clark is dead. That’s what they told me. Did you . . .?”
“I was there.” I hesitated. “It’s complicated.”
“Well, they didn’t ask about you. I guess there was some paperwork in his other office with our name on it. What’s going on?”
I looked at Pontoval. He was still talking to Carrie, but his eyelids were drooping. “Your project was just a website application, right? A shopping cart thing?”
“Yes, basically. Smoothing out the purchasing process for a company selling training videos online. What does that have to do with Clark getting killed?”
I tried not to picture his corpse on the floor. “Probably nothing. Look, do you know anything about Glendon’s project for Tera Systems?”
“Tera Systems.” Moore’s voice got quiet. “That’s Ray Antonias.”
Pontoval had slouched over on the couch. His eyes were closed. Carrie stretched her arms and slowly climbed to her feet. She nodded to me, then walked over to Rachel to ask a quiet question. And then she headed toward my bathroom.
I hoped I’d cleaned it lately.
“Did he say what he was working on?” I asked Moore.
“No. We all have confidentiality agreements for contractors. But Ray’s work is kind of—out there. Although he doesn’t know as much about technology as he thinks.
At this one cocktail party he said once time that he was going to take data into another dimension, and I’m not sure it was just a metaphor or too many martinis.” She sighed. “Shit. I’ve got a deadline coming up. Do you know any computer wizards?”
I looked at Rachel. She was in sweatpants and an orange T-shirt, and she looked gorgeous, as always. And she knew more about technology than anyone who didn’t work for Google or Microsoft, as far as I knew. “Maybe. I’ll get back to you.” I hung up.
Carrie emerged from the bathroom. “Men,” she muttered.
“Sorry.” I kept my voice quiet to avoid waking Pontoval. “Do you know what happened?”
“That’s what he’s been telling me.” She took a gulp of water. “I’m working with vocabulary from a book that’s 400 years old. Anyway, it sounds like he was with his clan by a river, doing some kind of religious service, and they were attacked by something called a voarkla. Ponto was running, and he fell into the water, and then—something happened that he couldn’t tell me about in any words I could understand.”
“What happened to the, the—what did you call it?”
“The voarkla.” She spelled it out from memory. “That’s what the old book called it, anyway. Pontoval woke up on a hard floor in a strange place, full of strange tools. He heard the voarkla eating, and then the noise just stopped.”
“So what happened to the—the voarkla?” I glanced at Ponto, but he was snoring softly.
“He said something about a hot star, but the rest of it didn’t make much sense. He hid in a big white shiny room until you found him.”
“So it might be gone? Back to the other dimension?”
She looked at Pontoval. “I don’t know anything about his world. But if I understood him, well . . .” She rubbed her eyes. “We all better hope it’s gone for good.”
* * *
I woke up the next morning with Pontoval next to me on the bed, breathing in a steady, sleepy rhythm. At least he on top of the blankets, not snuggling me between the sheets.
I slid out of the bed carefully and staggered toward the bathroom. Waking up next to a monster—whether the monster was Pontoval or me—was no way to start a tough day.
I’d fixed up a bed of sheets and pillows for him—on the floor!—while Rachel went to the store for mixed greens and vegetables and Carrie did her best to explain the concept of toilets. Then we finally ordered pizza. Then everyone had left, leaving me with a wheesling I couldn’t talk to, but who seemed to trust me. We were both exhausted, so we collapsed in the bedroom by 10:00.
In the bathroom I turned the radio on to NPR to brush my teeth, keeping the volume low. The local news was predictable: more problems with the public schools, corruption in the state governor’s office, and then—
“Chicago Police are investigating a string of animal attacks spreading from Evanston and Rogers Park down toward the Lakeview neighborhood. Two customers at an Evanston CompUniverse store were severely mauled by an animal described as a large coyote or wolf last night, which disappeared before authorities could capture it. A woman in a coffee shop on Morse Avenue was killed this morning by a creature that witnesses said resembled a large rabid dog, which once again got away before officers arrived. Police are advising citizens to be wary of possibly rabid stray dogs. The Chicago Bulls won another game last night against the—”
I washed my face the sink as fast as I could, then dashed back to the bedroom for my phone.
“What?” Rachel groaned. “Oh, it’s you. Hang on while I push Chang and Julio out of the way, they always hog the bed—”
“The voarkla’s still here.” I pulled a drawer open looking for pants. “It’s on the radio. Check out the news sites, will you? They reported murders in Rogers Park and Lakeview, just like—”
“Voarkla?” Pontoval sat up. “Voarkla!”
“Got to go.” I dropped the phone. Pontoval jumped off the bed, and completely forgot any instructions Carrie had given him on the use of the thing called a “toilet.” Fortunately I’d put some sheets down on the floor. Even so, the cleanup wouldn’t be fun.
I waved my hands, but Pontoval only danced back and forth, squealing like a frightened child.
“Pontoval!” I kneeled down in front of him. Why didn’t I ask Carrie to reach me some words? “It’s me! Tom! You’re safe! Tom?”
He squatted down, panting. His gray furry shoulders shook, and then he leaned forward to grab me in a hug. “Tommm,” he murmured. “Tommm.”
“Yeah, that’s me.” I held him close, hoping he was finished. He shuddered, moaning, and I felt his lips licking my shoulder.
I try to be open-minded, and I let him take a few minutes to calm down. Then I gently pushed him back. “Stay?”
“Tommm.” He looked up at me, his jaws wide in a smile. Then his eyes flicked down at the mess on my rug. “Toy-lett?”
I patted his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
He scampered toward the bathroom. I sighed. Then, still in my boxers, I searched the Internet on my phone to find the number for Tera Systems.
Ray Antonias peered at me across a long black desk. “What was your name again?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I tried to keep my focus. “I’m a private detective. I wanted to talk about Clark Glendon.”
“Well . . .” Antonias wore a black T-shirt and tight wire-rimmed glasses. The muscles in his arms looked as if he worked out every day. “I’m not sure how much I can tell you. Lawyers, you know.”
“It’s not like that. I was just hoping you could tell me what he was working on.”
“Well.” Antonias sipped coffee from a tall black mug. “Some of that’s proprietary. And I’ve already talked to the police about—what happened.” An eyebrow twitched. “If you’re looking for something to pin on my company—”
“I’m not here about liability. And I appreciate your time. But it’s important. Can you just give me some idea of the project?”
He tapped a finger on the desk. “Well . . . no.”
“It can’t be that secret. Everyone is doing business on the Internet these days—”
“Look, I’m sorry Clark is dead.” He set his mug down like a chess player announcing check. “But I’m not going to just tell you all about our projects for some fishing expedition. If that’s it, then we’re done and I have work to do.” He swiveled around to his computer. “That’s all.”
“Can I ask you just one question?”
“I was here all day yesterday, if that’s what you’re after. You can ask anyone.”
“Did the project have anything to do with breaking the barrier between dimensions?”
He stared at me. Then he picked up his coffee, took a quick sip, and lifted his phone his phone. “Kate? Could you come to my office right now?”
“Kate” didn’t sound like the name of a security guard coming to throw me out. I waited, puzzled, until she showed up a few minutes later—a short woman with dark hair in jeans, sneakers, and a gray University of Illinois sweatshirt. Maybe she was a master of kung fu. Or mistress—was that politically incorrect? “What do you need, Ray?”
“Kate Asbury, head of IT special projects. Tom, Jurgen, private eye. Could you describe Clark’s project to Tom, please?”
She narrowed her eyes at me, then shrugged. “We’re looking at ways to transfer data faster across the Internet. Clark had some ideas about shooting data packets using a different kind of protocol. He called it Portal-2.”
“Did it go through a different universe?”
Kate looked at Antonias, her eyebrows high. He nodded.
“Something . . . like that.” She looked me over. “What do you know about it?” “Here’s what I think happened.” I tried to sound as rational as I could. At least they seemed to be listening. “Glendon managed to open a gateway for sending data, but something else came through. It’s called a voarkla, and it killed him. Something else came through, a wheesling named Pontoval. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve got the wheesling in my apartment, and I think the voarkla is still here.” I waited for them to declare me crazy.
“Oh my God.” Kate stared at me. “How do you know all this?”
“I found Glendon in the office you were paying for. One of the doors was wrecked, but the outer door was intact and locked. That means the voarkla got out some other way. Have you listened to any of the news this morning?”
“Ray, I need to check the server logs.” She stood up. “There might be something there—”
“Take him with you.” Antonias pointed toward the door. “Let me know as soon as you find anything.”
I didn’t know anything about server logs, but at least they weren’t calling the cops to drag me away. I followed Kate past a row of cubicles to a door in the rear of Tera’s office suite. A sign warned: “SERVER ROOM 2/AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” Kate punched a code into the panel and opened the door.
* * *
Kate sat down in front of a wide monitor and began tapping at a keyboard. “Just stand back and let me work, all right?”
The room was chilly. Large mainframes stood against the four walls.
“You don’t seem surprised by any of this.” I stood behind her, my hands in my pockets.
“Clark tried to explain Portal-2 to me.” She tapped at a keyboard, and the monitor started showing a stream of numbers and symbols that could have been ancient Etruscan to me. “I don’t understand the software or how he developed it, but the idea was to send huge files back and forth seamlessly. I know email seems instant, but this was even faster and more secure. Clark was adjusting the setting yesterday, and I was in a meeting, but we lost contact with his server up in Evanston right around—you know, the time the police said he’d probably been killed.”
“Did you know him very well?”
“I only met him a few times. He was—okay. I wish . . .” She rubbed her nose. “Okay, here’s a weird thing: We’re still in contact with a Portal-2 interface.”
“What does that mean?” I leaned over her shoulder.
“It means the software is still running on a machine somewhere.” She clicked a key.
“All his equipment was wrecked.”
“A hard drive could still be working, especially if it’s still plugged in.” Kate bent down, peering at the screen. “Or he could have downloaded it to another machine.”
I thought about the CompUniverse victims. And the woman in the coffee shop, where consultants and would-be novelists on their laptops are practically a cliché. “Could the software migrate to other computers somehow?”
Kate looked at my reflection in her monitor. “Why would it do that?”
“Because I think the voarkla attacked people in a computer store and a coffee shop, and then vanished before anyone could catch it or kill it.”
The door opened behind us. It was Antonias. “How’s it coming?”
Kate looked grim. “I’m trying locate the Portal-2 software on another server, and then we can shut it down from here. Maybe.”
Antonias twitched. “What if we just delete the software off our system? Get rid of it so no one can—”
“It’s not as simple as dumping it into the trash!” Kate pointed to the lines of code running across the monitor. “And it’s still running on at least one other hard drive. If Jurgen’s right, it could have spread across the Internet.”
This was getting worse and worse. I felt cold sweat under my shirt. Killing the program could strand Pontoval here—along with the voarkla. But keeping it online so we could send them back might mean bringing other wheeslings and voarklas from Ponto’s world here. Or accidentally sending humans over there. “There must be some way to control it.”
She glared. “I don’t know the ins and out of the program code. Do you want to find the documentation and read through it?”
“I can’t figure out GPS on my cell phone.” I stepped back. “Just do whatever you can.”
“I’m trying.” She clicked her mouse. “Maybe if you all just—”
“What’s that?” Antonias pointed toward her screen. “That doesn’t look like—”
The monitor screen was glowing like a fiery red flare. No more numbers and programming symbols, just a whirlpool of light, swirling around and growing bigger with each turn.
“Oh shit!” Kate shoved her chair back.
The monitor exploded. I reached for the door, but Antonias already had his hand on the knob, and Kate was swinging around in her chair, blood dripping from a cut over her left eye. I grabbed for her hand, and then—
The voarkla emerged from a halo of energy floating over the wrecked screen with a roar that shook the walls.
I hadn’t seen it before, of course, but the creature couldn’t be anything else. The voarkla looked like an oversized wolverine, with wide jaws, two long jagged fangs, and matted gray fur covering powerful muscles. Curved claws extended from its thick paws. Its breath smelled like a swamp, and its second roar burned my skin.
The voarkla’s eyes were shiny and yellow as it searched the room for prey. I ducked, pulling Kate down with me as the voarkla lunged forward. I wasn’t really trying to shield her with my body—the terror wouldn’t let me think that clearly—but we ended up on the floor, my shoulder over her head, as Antonias fumbled with the doorknob.
Maybe his frantic movements attracted its attention. Whatever, the voarkla ignored us and leaped straight for Antonias as he finally pushed the door open.
He stumbled out into the office, but the voarkla was already on top of him, its claws thrashing as it growled viciously. Antonias screamed again, and someone nearby shouted in panic.
I saw one set of claws rip through his shoulder as the voarkla twisted around, pinning Antonias beneath its body. Then its head shot down and it clamped its jaws around his neck.
Its fangs cut the scream off.
I looked over my shoulder at the red halo above the computer. It flickered, growing wider and then shrinking, a pulsing light without heat floating in the air. I could hear the voarkla’s snarls as its teeth tore into Antonias’s body.
“What the hell?” Kate whispered.
“Voarkla.” If we could shut down the computer, would it disappear? Or be trapped here with a human smorgasbord to sample one by one?
Abruptly the creature’s head rose. Its shoulders heaved as it gasped for breath, and then it twisted back around to head back into the room. With us.
I thought about Rachel, and my parents, and my brother in California. And Pontoval. But the voarkla wasn’t thinking about us. Instead, as if listening to a signal, it jumped across the room and then hurled its body back through the glowing halo.
With a loud snap! the halo closed up and vanished, taking the voarkla with it. The monitor was smashed, and the computer next to it toppled over, lights winking out. Kate groaned.
Then she pushed me off of her. “I’m fine, damn it!” She wiped at the cut over her eye. “But thanks.”
“Any—anytime.” I didn’t feel like confessing that I’d only been trying to keep out of the monster’s path.
“What the fuck was that?” This came from a tall guy with a beard and a long ponytail, standing over Antonias’ dead body, shaking with shock. “Kate? Who’s that guy?”
“T-Tom Jurgen.” I got unsteadily to my feet as Kate clambered up on her own. “And that was a demon from another dimension.”
“I think I know what happened.” Kate looked at the crashed computer, breathing hard.
I tried to catch my own breath. “Is that good?”
“Maybe.” She nodded slowly. “Maybe.”
* * *
Detective Elena Dudovich didn’t like me very much. Mostly because my explanations never fit her definition of crime.
“Come on, Jurgen.” She leaned over Tera’s conference room table, her arms tense. “You know I can’t put that in my report.”
I gulped lukewarm water from a plastic bottle. My hand shook. “So it’ll sound better if you say a coyote took an elevator up to the 7th floor and snuck into the server room? And then left through the rear exit?”
She wanted to slap me. But Kate Asbury was in the room, a bandage on her forehead and calmer than me. She’d backed up my story, but otherwise stayed quiet.
“Get out of here.” Dudovich jabbed a finger at the window, as if hoping I’d leave that way. “Call me when you've got something that doesn’t sound like a SyFy movie. You . . .” She waved an arm at Kate. “If you’re smart, you’ll stay away from this guy.”
Kate stood up slowly. “Ray was my boss.”
Dudovich groaned quietly. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“I know.” She looked at me. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Right.” I opened the door for her. “Just try to keep an open mind.”
* * *
“I think parts of the program mimic a magic spell,” Kate told Rachel and me back at my apartment. Ponto was on the floor at my feet, watching TV and slurping apple juice from a big jug.
I was sitting next to Rachel. “When I told her to keep an open mind, I wasn’t expecting her to catch on this quick.”
Rachel’s eyes darted between the two of us. “You know he’s my boyfriend, right?” She gets possessive. Sometimes. I squeezed her arm.
“I don’t care about that.” Kate was exasperated. “When I was in college I was part of a coven. We did the usual magic, but I remember how the spells worked. The spell is holding the voarkla—is that what you called it?—in this world, somehow stuck in the network that Clark set up between his computer in Evanston and the one in our office downtown.”
She pointed at Rachel’s laptop. “But the program runs through the Internet, so sometimes part of it must pop up on a random computer, and that’s when the voarkla gets out. But it pulls him back. I—I actually summoned it when I was running the program on our server, and . . .”
She closed her eyes.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Rachel said firmly. “That guy Clark brought the voarkla here in the first place. Anyway, we have to focus on getting rid of the thing. Right?” She shot a look at me.
“And getting Pontoval back home,” I said.
He looked up from the TV. “Hommme?” Ponto was starting to pick up our language. I scratched his ears. He seemed to like that.
“We can’t take the program completely off the Internet,” Kate said. “So the only thing we can do is find the last server that’s running it and shut it down. The server at our office burned out when the voarkla went back through, and the one Clark was using probably did the same thing. But it’s still active on at least one other computer in the city.” She sat back in her chair and rubbed her bandage. “We’ve got to find it.”
“Hommme,” Ponto murmured. “Home.”
* * *
Lauren Moore usually trusted me. I’d done other jobs for her. One of them involved a background check that had turned up a vampire. (She didn’t hire him.) But she was legitimately annoyed when I told her we needed the computer Glendon had been using at her company. And that she might not get it back.
She overcame her reluctance when I directed her to an online news report about Tera Systems. She even helped me disconnect it and load it into my Honda.
Ponto was jumping up and down on my couch when I got back to the apartment. Partly because he knew he was going home, but mostly from terror of the voarkla. I couldn’t blame him.
So I tried to calm him while Kate and Rachel set the computer up on the dining room table. I felt grateful that he seemed to have mastered the use of the toilet, and he didn’t break anything while he danced around with growing anxiety as the computer booted up.
“Okay.” Kate tapped some keys, biting her lip. “The Portal-2 program is partitioned off. And it’s . . . password protected. Damn it. I could override that on our server, but—”
“Move over.” Rachel nudged her aside. “And don’t watch what I’m doing. Trade secrets.” Her fingers moved fast.
Kate smiled. “You’re a hacker?”
“Sometimes. Plus, a witch. You’re not the only one who used to be in a coven. No smartass comments, Tom!”
“Who, me?” I handed Pontoval a handful of lettuce from a bowl on the table. “Just let me know when we’re ready.” Not that I was in any hurry to confront the voarkla again.
“Okay, we’re in. Open your eyes now.” Rachel stepped back.
“We have to talk later.” Kate crossed her arms and examined the screen for ten seconds. “Okay, you’d better get ready.”
“Battle stations!” Rachel blew me a kiss and headed for the bedroom.
We had a big cardboard box in the corner for Ponto. I picked him up, whispering some wheesling words that I hoped would keep him calm if I pronounced them right, and carefully pushed him into the box. Out of sight. We hoped.
I picked up my Taser from the table and made sure it was fully charged. Then Rachel walked out of the bedroom, lugging a sword with both hands.
Kate’s eyes got wide. “Is one of you compensating for something?”
“Talk to him.” Rachel lifted the sword. “Just call me Conana the Lady Barbarian. And no jokes about chain-mail bikinis, all right?” She gave me a wink.
I forced a smile. “Never entered my mind. Mostly because I’m terrified right now.”
“All right. I’m opening the program. This might take a few minutes—”
She jumped back as the halo burst into existence above the monitor. Pontoval squealed. The halo flared bright red, pulsing like a heartbeat.
Rachel stood next to me, her arms trembling from the weight of the sword. I clutched the Taser with both hands. The voarkla moved fast. I’d probably get only one shot. I didn’t expect the Taser to bring it down, but it might scare or shock the thing long enough for Rachel to—
“What are you doing? Put that thing down before someone gets hurt!”
Not the voarkla. A human emerged from the halo and stepped down onto the rug beneath my table. She was short and dark, and wore a gray robe with grass stains at the bottom.
Oh hell. “There’s a voarkla,” I said, pointing over her shoulder toward the portal. “Be careful! It might . . .”
Pontoval surged from the box with a happy snort and jumped up into the woman’s arms. She laughed and hugged him as he snuggled against her chest. “Pontoa! Pontoa arkla u mando! Yi asla n . . .”
Ponto wrapped his long arms around her neck. “Yeeha. Yeeha, limooo.” He closed his eyes. “Limooo . . .”
The woman shifted him around in her arms. “Who’s in charge here?” she demanded.
We exchanged glances. Kate looked ready to volunteer, but Rachel slugged my shoulder. She was right. It had all started with my case.
I took a cautious step forward. “Tom Jurgen. So who are you?”
“My name’s . . . let’s see, what would you understand?” She stroked Ponto’s fur. “Just call me Limona, is that all right?”
“Limonnnnna.” Pontoval lifted her head and turned his face to me. “Tommm? Tommm!”
I smiled. “Ponto. You okay now?”
His head bobbed up and down. “Yesss.”
Limona gave us a look as stern as a disappointed nun. “I don’t know how Pontoval got here, but it’s about time he came home. I’ve been looking for him for seven years.”
Seven years since yesterday? Well, it was another dimension—time probably moved differently there. “But the voarkla—”
“We’ve taken care of that. He was harder to find. This world is so confusing.” She slid a foot back and forth on the rug. “The thing you call Goo-goo? It’s a road without an end. And the Yahooo thing makes no sense at all.” She lifted one lip in what looked like a smile. “But I—we—are grateful that you took care of Pontoavallian.”
“Well . . .” Suddenly I realized that he was leaving. “He’s a good friend. I hope—I mean . . .” Damn it.
“We need to close this world off.” Limona glanced back. The halo behind her was shrinking. “It’s too dangerous for us. You won’t need to worry about us any more.”
“But—” Of course. “Yeah. I get it.”
“Thank you.” Limona stepped back, and the halo expanded to catch her.
Pontoval twisted his head to look at me. “Tommm! Tommm?”
I waved. “Okay, Ponto. So long.”
He waved back. “Soo looong . . .”
The halo collapsed, taking Pontoval and Limona out of our world and back to their own.
Kate dropped into a chair as the monitor went dark. I set the Taser on the counter and looked at Rachel.
The sword lay at her feet. “He was cute.”
“Yeah.” At least he was safe. “Thanks for your help,” I told Kate.
“At least they didn’t destroy another computer.” She tapped the keyboard and began uninstalling Glendon’s program from the hard drive. “I’ll help you take this back when I’m finished.”
I nodded. “Sorry about your boss.”
Kate said nothing as she worked.
Rachel picked up the sword, and I followed her to the bedroom with the Taser. We stowed the weapons safely away, and I rolled up the sheet I’d used to protect my floor.
“We could get a cat,” Rachel suggested.
We? I grinned. “Right now I’d settle for some Chinese food.”
She kissed my cheek. “I’ll get the menu.”
# # #