Chapter 1 – Killer Cranberries
In the end, it’s the little things in life that get us. For example, despite what you see on television, the actual number of people who are killed by an asteroid while their town is being attacked by zombies during a volcanic eruption caused by the awakening of an ancient Native spirit is shockingly small.
On Friday night I was being the dutiful daughter, and prepping for the family dinner I was hosting on Sunday. Midnight might seem like an odd time to be cooking, but life’s like that.
I might have been safe if it wasn’t for the cranberry relish. Cointreau is required for my recipe, and it was well after midnight when I realized that the bottle in my cupboard was empty. Why I’d put an empty bottle back was a mystery. It was time to go on a quest.
Fortunately, the liquor store at Brentwood is open until two in the morning. It wouldn’t take me long to run out and get a bottle. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic at that hour.
The parking lot was a sparse forest of light poles casting their steady glow over nothing but empty asphalt.
Other than the two employees, the store was deserted as well. I guess Easter isn’t a big time for people to get drunk.
I’d seen what happened in parking lots when people couldn’t hold their liquor, so I was careful to hold the bottle firmly as I carried it to my car. Once the bottle was safely on the passenger side floor of Binky I could relax.
Yes, I named my white Cavalier Binky because it’s my faithful steed. If you don’t get it I don’t think we can be friends.
Being the wild and crazy rebel that I am, I drove straight across the lot toward the exit. None of this keeping to the lanes rubbish for an intrepid private investigator like me.
The sound wasn’t as loud as you would expect. It was a sort of surround-sound crunchy popping. My keenly-trained investigative mind instantly reacted to the event.
Um, why is there a hole in the windshield?
The glass was mostly intact, apart from a small, oval opening hovering like a spider in the middle of its web of cracks. A stream of cold air blew in onto my face. The outside world sounded louder than it should, so I turned to look at the rear window. It was missing.
Weird. It’s almost like—crap! Somebody is shooting at me!
I threw myself across the passenger seat and gouged my ribs as they became overly intimate with the shifter. I hadn’t seen any movement or muzzle flash ahead of me, so the shooter had to be behind. From my horizontal position all I could see through the windshield were the bases
of the looming light posts as they went by. I should be able to get away as long as I didn’t drive into one.
There was the sudden flapping sound of a seriously flat tire, and Binky pulled to the right. That aimed me toward the outlying professional building. That wasn’t what I had in mind.
Unless I wanted to drive back toward the shooter I needed to thread my way between that building and the main mall. The steering abruptly pulled back to the left, and started wobbling. The flapping was now flap-flapping. The shooter must have taken out another tire.
The only way I could keep Binky on track was to sit up and try to drive normally, but that would expose me to the shooter. The flat tires felt like they were on opposite corners as Binky kept bobbing from side to side like a coracle trying to shoot rapids. The sound of metal rims grinding on pavement became noticeable. With the tires no longer attached to the rims I had to slow to a crawl or Binky would lose all traction, and I’d
be even slower getting away.
I had to get out. At this speed the shooter could just stroll up to me and finish the job.
Binky got me as far as the coffee shop near the corner of the building before I had to leave him. The liquor store was the only place open, but
it was now at least two hundred metres behind me. Besides, that would just trap me in a store with some innocent bystanders. There was no way I’d let that happen. I was on my own.
I hid behind a garbage can and quickly scanned the area. There was still nobody in sight. Binky probably covered me at the moment, but that
safety wouldn’t last longer than it took for the shooter to change positions. If ever there was a time to swallow my lone-wolf pride and call the police, this was it.
I unzipped my jacket, and put my hand in the inside pocket where I usually kept my phone. It was empty. I must have dropped it. I looked
around, including in the car, and I had a sudden mental image of my coffee table. I was only going out for a few minutes. I’d left the phone at home.
Veronica, you idiot.
Okay, there was no sense crying over it. The garbage can was plastic and wouldn’t even stop a bullet from a .22 pistol. I got down on my stomach and crawled toward the corner of the building. Rather than running across another 200 metres of empty parking lot, I hugged the L-shaped mall.
I peeked back around the corner, but I still couldn’t see anybody.
I ran along the front of the mall, and looked over the area while cowering as far into the corner as I could by the mall entrance. Still, nothing was moving.
One more long dash and I’d be on Charleswood Drive. Maybe somebody would drive past and I could get their attention.
I took a deep breath and ran. When I was nearly at the far end of the Safeway, one of the plate glass panes in front of the store exploded into tiny shards a metre behind me.
I instinctively ducked, but without cover there was no point in stopping. Maybe the breaking window had set off an alarm. The end of the building was close.
I ducked around the corner, and considered my next move. I could stay on the sidewalk and try to get to the next block, but there was very little cover. If I could make it to the other side of the road I would have a lot more cover that was closer. It didn’t hurt that it was the direction of my home.
The good news was that there was no traffic, so I didn’t have to worry about being run over or endangering bystanders. The bad news was that there was no traffic. I was still on my own.
Across the street a church backed onto an unpaved lane. I made it to the lane without being shot. I chose to go right, hoping that it would take me closer to Crowchild Trail. There was always traffic on Crowchild, even at two in the morning.
If all else failed I could try hopping fences to get there. I thought about banging on doors, but that would call attention to me and put other people at risk. I wasn’t going to involve other people unless it was necessary.
My best bet was the University C-train station on Crowchild where I could use the transit emergency call box to yell for help. The train had stopped running at least an hour before, so the platform would be clear. Anybody else I saw should be the shooter and I’d know to duck.
I skulked down the lane as quickly as possible, turning left at an intersection so I wouldn’t be going back toward the mall. The probability was that I’d lost the shooter, but I value my life and wasn’t taking chances.
Now that I was no longer running the cold was bugging me. I hadn’t expected to be out this long, or to be sweating this much, and had just thrown on a light jacket before leaving home. The temperature had to be around the low side of freezing, which wasn’t too bad unless I was out in it for a long time after running for my life. I had to get to that emergency call box.
A right turn from the lane led out onto a street, but it didn’t feel far enough from the mall for safety. The next right led onto what I recognized as Morley Trail. Despite its grand name it was just another two lane residential street. Most of the houses were bungalows from the 1960s when big front yards were in fashion.
Now that I knew where I was I jogged along Morley for a block, and cut right at the next intersection. The complete lack of other people, even at this hour of the morning, was a bit spooky. I knew there was a pedestrian overpass on the side street paralleling Crowchild that would take me right to the station. If I could find it.
Castle Road went in exactly the right direction. I could see the stairs of the overpass at the other end of the block on Capital Hill Crescent. Trying to stay warm, I began jogging again.
The straight, badly-named crescent was separated from Crowchild by a concrete noise-abatement wall that was way too high for me to jump. I
was almost at the steps leading up to the overpass when something whizzed past my ear, and buried itself in the concrete pillar near the bottom of the stairs. Small chips of cement sprayed me and the area as I ducked and covered my head.
This outing was not going in any way as I’d expected. The object that had hit the concrete wasn’t a bullet. It was an arrow.
The stairs weren’t the only way onto the overpass; there was a ramp about a block to the left. I scrambled behind the thick bushes planted along the wall, and ran as well as I could through the space behind them that was rapidly getting shorter. Stray branches tried to gouge my eyes out a few times. At least the ramp and wall protected me from the top and right.
The bushes were still leafless in the early spring and certainly not arrow proof, but the shooter would have to find me before he could hit me. When the head room was too small for even me to continue crawling, I fought my way out from between two bushes, and made for the end of the ramp.
Another arrow hit the concrete beside me. What the hell? This time it came from the Crowchild side of the wall. From the angle it looked like it had been shot from the C-train platform itself.
Give me a break! How is this guy getting around? Or are there more than one of them?
So much for crossing the overpass. I’d be a sitting duck running up the ramp. Even more so when I got to the platform. If I was very lucky somebody might notice the shooter on the station CCTV cameras, but not in time to keep me from becoming a Veronica kebab.
I stayed on the street and ran.
Capital Hill Crescent only curves at the ends. The rest is as straight as the section of Crowchild it parallels. The plantings didn’t have much room between them and the wall, but I was small enough to make it through.
The bungalows on the other side of the street all had big front lawns, and very few had hedges or trees. There was no cover there.
I got to an angle where the wall jogged that gave me a bit more concealment from the direction of the overpass. I didn’t waste energy being happy about it. I was breathing hard and sweating. I’d have opened my dark blue windbreaker, but I was wearing a white t-shirt underneath. Not good for keeping out of sight at night.
The wall was shorter here, and I could occasionally hear traffic on the other side. I could probably heave myself over, but I’d be a perfect target while I did so. I made a mental note to take up parkour if I survived.
There was still nobody behind me when I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. There was no movement at all. I waited and listened. Apart from those inaccessible cars on Crowchild there was no sound.
I walked as carefully as possible trying not to move the branches and give away my position. A cross street gave me hope for a moment, but there was even less cover in that direction. I kept going.
Another useless cross street came and went. The stress of trying to hide from a murderous stalker was wearing me down. The bushes kept trying to tear pieces off me as well as the branches slashing at my eyes. There didn’t seem to be any more intersections for a stupidly long distance.
That would be Twenty-fourth Avenue, another major residential road that should have traffic. Better yet, it intersected Crowchild and there might be at least one car stopped at the traffic light where I could get help. At the least a driver might report a crazy woman screaming and running around the intersection.
Just as the bushes ended another arrow hit the concrete right by my head. I felt a sting on my forehead where a piece of concrete hit it. When I put my hand to my head there was blood. From the angle of the arrow, the shooter was somewhere in front of me.
The last part of the block was a new apartment building with a cafe on the ground floor. Of course it was closed. I ran like hell across the street, and into the adjoining lane. There was a door I tried on the way by, but naturally it was locked. There was no intercom.
Out the other side of the lane, and I was on Twenty-fourth Street. Given the direction of the latest arrow, I couldn’t risk the open intersection at Crowchild. I headed east into another lane.
This time I was even more careful, moving from shadow to shadow as much as possible. If the shooter tried following me at least I’d see him first outlined by the street lights against the end of the lane.
Again, I listened carefully before each move. There were no sounds except for occasional distant vehicles. Too distant. At this point I was now only about five long blocks from my own home. Once there I could get inside my controlled-access building, and call the police. I also had some weapons with which I could make the shooter very unhappy if he did try to break in. The advantage would be with me; bows are not close-quarters combat weapons.
The end of the lane looked clear, but this guy had followed me too far for me to feel confident that I’d given him the slip.
If there had been help around I’d have gladly collapsed into a sobbing ball and let them take care of it, but I was on my own. I had to keep going. It was a good thing that I’d lucked out in the personality lottery: I tended to go to pieces after an emergency rather than during. There would be plenty of time for freaking out when I was safe.
Twenty-third Street looked clear. I sprinted across it into the lane without drawing fire, and resumed my sneaking.
When I got to Twenty-second I took a short breather. All I had to do was to make it a few blocks south and I’d be home.
I hugged the side of the garage on the corner, and looked up and down Twenty-second. There was nobody visible. I waited a few minutes, but there was still nothing moving. There was no traffic at all anywhere that I could see or hear.
I made my way down the block toward Twenty-fourth Avenue and jogged across. Just as I reached the south side there was a loud clang. An arrow was sticking through the steel light post a few metres to my right.
I ran like a pack of demons was after me. I’m in good physical condition, but I’m not a runner. Parkour lessons were looking really good right now. If I lived to take them.
One block went by. Two blocks. Another half block and I’d be…
Another light post was skewered by an arrow, and the light died with the crackling hum of a shorted high-voltage cable followed by a loud bang as something inside exploded.
What the hell kind of bow was this guy using? For that matter, what kind of arrows was he using to penetrate steel and concrete like it was balsa?
My building was just ahead. I dug into the right pocket for my keys as I ran. For an awful moment I thought I’d lost them, but this time I’d put them in the left pocket of my jacket.
I got the key into the lock, wrenched the door open, and almost fell inside. I pulled on the steel door against its closer until it latched with a satisfying click. Gulping air like a beached fish, I stumbled to the elevator and pushed the button.
An arrow came straight through the outside door. It buried itself almost to the fletching in the elevator door in front of me. With its inner and outer doors pinned together it the elevator wasn’t going anywhere.
I was really sick and tired of this. I ran up the stairs taking them two at a time, pulling myself up by the railing and ignoring my burning leg muscles. Three flights later I fell out into the corridor and bounced off the far wall. I was running on adrenaline and sheer bloody-mindedness at that point. It took me a moment to get the key into the lock and stumble into my apartment.
My cat, Yoko Geri, had been sleeping on the sofa. He looked at me, and went back to sleep.
I got the door closed, pulled my sweat-soaked jacket off, grabbed my tactical baton from the basket by the door, and my phone from the coffee table. It took me a while to get enough breath back that I could make the call.
“Nine-one-one. What is the address of your emergency?”
This was the second time I’d called the Calgary Police because somebody was trying to kill me, and again attempted murder got me fast service. Six minutes later a car with two constables pulled up in front of my building followed by a sergeant’s van.
I think that they were wondering if I was drunk or stoned from what I’d told dispatch. That changed when I buzzed them in, after first confirming who they were on the video camera, and they saw the arrow stuck in the elevator door. The constables made sure my drapes were closed before taking my statement by the kitchen where it would be harder to get a line of sight on me from outside.
Yoko Geri decided this was all too weird, and hid in my bedroom. I wished that I could have joined him.
The tactical team showed up next, followed immediately by the sound of HAWCS, the Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety. They’d be out looking for the infrared signature of somebody skulking around in the neighbourhood. The shooter would need to have a major miracle on his side to be able to evade them.
HAWCS and the tactical team found nothing. The only evidence that I wasn’t crazy was the arrow buried in the elevator door, some holes where I’d said the other arrows had struck, and poor Binky with trashed glass and tires.
I’m told that it took a lot of doing to pull the leaf-shaped arrow head from the metal doors. They had to use a chisel to enlarge the hole.
All the tromping around woke my neighbours, of course, who were not amused at the hour. I didn’t blame them. I wanted nothing more than to go to bed with the covers over my head.
During the whole circus my mother arrived.
She flashed her badge at the constable keeping watch outside my door. “Are you all right?” I’d dragged Yoko out of the bedroom, and he was sitting on my lap while I stroked him. We both looked up as she came in.
I had to keep up my appearance of coolness. “Hi Mum. I don’t know why they called homicide. I’m not dead yet.”
My sarcastic PI/daughter face held for about five seconds before my subconscious told me that my mummy was here to protect me, and the tears started. She sat on the sofa next to me and cradled me in her arms. Yoko Geri seemed to know that I was upset and stayed where he was. I could feel as well as hear him purring.
“We’ll be outside,” someone said.
Some time later I mostly got myself under control. Mum was stroking my hair. She’d also put the box of tissues from the coffee table beside me. I pulled three of them out, and blew my nose loudly enough that Yoko decided that he’d be safer in the bedroom. The tactical team should have come running.
“Do you have any idea who was after you?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ve pissed off a few people during investigations, but none of them badly enough to shoot at me.”
“Did you see the shooter?”
“No. The arrows just kept coming out of nowhere.”
She had me go over the whole evening once more, in even more detail than the constables had demanded.
“May I use your laptop?” She said when I’d finished. I nodded while drying my eyes.
She brought up the Google satellite view, and had me show her my exact route, where the arrows had hit, and their directions.
“You were a clear target when you got in the car, but that first shot missed. The next two shots took out two of the tires on opposite corners so you’d be forced to abandon your car. Those aren’t shots consistent with somebody who misses.”
“There might have been more than one shooter.”
She pointed out the locations on the map.
“I agree, but look at this. As soon as you were about to get on the overpass a shot hit the wall right in front of you. Yet you weren’t bothered while you made your way to the ramp, where another arrow prevented you from using it.”
“Damn,” I said. She was right. “At each point, the arrows either prevented me from getting help, or goaded me into hurrying.”
“I doubt that it was a coincidence that the final arrow missed you too.”
“Somebody was herding me?”
That pissed me off. “Why?”
“Do you have any ideas?” she countered.
“None. I don’t even know how it could be possible. There must have been at least four shooters, or…” I stopped as a nasty possibility occurred to me. One I couldn’t tell her about.
“Um, nothing. Just that there must have been more than one.”
Mum looked dubious. Her instincts could smell a lie from across the city.
“You’re coming home with me tonight.”
“I’ll be fine here.”
“No, you won’t.” She used her Motherly Voice of Command. “Think of this as protective custody. It’s either come home with me, or I’ll lock you up.”
“I’m over eighteen. You can’t put me in protective custody without my permission.”
She switched to her Hurt Mother Look. “Please.”
Damn it, I wasn’t going to win this one. “Yes, Detective. Let me get an overnight bag.”
“You’re being unusually quiet,” she said as she drove south toward my parents’ house.
“I’m tired,” I said. In fact I was exhausted, but that wasn’t the whole reason for my silence. Somebody who might be able to appear and disappear at will, coupled with the weird choice of weapon, had me wondering if this had anything to do with the Blakeway affair of last year.
So far I’d avoided telling Mum about the outcome of that case, and I intended to keep that from her as long as possible. It wasn’t every day that you had your nose rubbed in the reality of demons walking the Earth. I thought I had a small handle on the supernatural world, but until I knew more it probably wouldn’t do her any good to know about it. Knowing might also get her in big trouble.
There was also the problem of getting her to believe me.
“You know more than you’re letting on,” she said. Damn. Are all mothers this psychic, or just the ones who are detectives?
“Not really. Mostly I’m trying to figure out who could be after me. I just hope you’re right about this not being attempted murder, but if it isn’t that then I have no idea what it is.”
“You and me both.”
Dad was waiting up for us when we arrived. I didn’t know how much Mum had told him, and I didn’t feel like going over the story one more time, so I just said I was exhausted. I didn’t get away without a long hug, not that I wanted to.
Dad had turned down the bed in my old room. I took off my still-damp t-shirt, dirty jeans, and shoes. That was all I had energy for.
It still took a while for me to get to sleep. It surprised me how much I missed Yoko Geri curled up with me under the covers.
I woke up to my phone ringing on the bedside table. The alarm clock said 1:17. Since I hadn’t gotten to bed until almost 4:30, I assumed that it was after lunch. I felt like I hadn’t been to bed yet. I’m really not a morning person. Even when it’s afternoon.
I said something into the phone. I believe it was mmmff.
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“Hi, Kali. How’s my favourite sister?”
“Don’t stall. Dad left a message saying that you’d been shot.”
No wonder she was freaking out. “No, I was shot at. They missed. Lots of times.”
“Who was it?”
“I have no idea.” I told her the whole story. I was getting good at it.
“Do you think it was anything to do with, you know, the demons?”
“I don’t know. I can’t figure why they might be after me a year after our last encounter.”
“Who knows how they think? Especially Beleth. She’s nuts.”
“Good point. And thanks for that comforting thought.”
“Where are you now?”
“At Mum and Dad’s place. She won’t let me go back to my apartment until they catch the bad guys.”
“You are going to anyway, aren’t you?”
“Nonsense. Whatever would make you say that? ”
After lunch I found Mum in Dad’s home office working at the computer.
“I thought you’d be at work.”
“I am at work. I’m going over the evidence while guarding
“I’ll need to go home to feed Yoko Geri.”
“That’s taken care of. I went this morning.”
“I’m not letting civilians near the scene until we resolve this.”
I knew that tone of voice. The discussion was over.
“Has Ident gone over my car yet?”
“Yes. There was nothing other than the obvious. They think they found where the first arrow hit, but there was no sign of it. The shooter must have collected it afterward.”
“I’ll need to get Binky fixed.”
“That’s taken care of too. I had them tow it to a place that Doug recommended.”
Doug was my genius mechanic, but he didn’t do glass. Any place he recommended would be good.
“Thanks. I was wondering if they found a bottle of Cointreau on the floor by the front seat.”
“Not that anybody mentioned.”
She tapped a number into her phone.
“Ray? This is Janet Chandler. Did you find a bottle of Cointreau in Veronica’s car? Front seat… Okay, thanks.”
“No,” she said. “No bottle. Somebody must have stolen it before we got there.”
“Damn. All night running around being shot at, and now I’ve lost a new bottle of Cointreau. My life sucks.”
“It could be worse,” Mum said. I raised one eyebrow.
“So my big win is that I’m not dead? You sure know how to cheer me up.”
“That’s what mothers are for. Go have a shower and I’ll make you some breakfast.”
“That’s nice of you, but I’ve already survived one attempt on my life.”
“Fine. I concede that you and your father are the great master chefs. You can pour your own cereal.”
Chapter 2 – Staycation
After a week I was still living at my parents’ house. Dad and I had cooked Easter dinner together. He not only supplied the missing Cointreau, but also baked an apple pie for dessert.
Apart from the parental units and me, there was Kali and George. Kali was technically my BFF, but all of us considered us to be sisters. She’d inherited a gigatonne of money from her parents. As usual she was wearing a black Romantigoth gown that made her look like Queen Victoria mourning Prince Albert. This dress had purple lace trim and matched her black hair with purple tips.
George had been her boyfriend for over two years, and was such an astoundingly nice guy that I actually approved of him. Not that I’m overly protective or anything. He had a scholarship to the University of Toronto, and he was only here during school breaks until he graduated.
“How’s the investigation going?” Kali asked as her boyfriend passed her the spouts. It being an active case, Mum said nothing.
“Not well,” I said. “The only evidence was the damage to my car, some holes in concrete and lamp posts, and one arrow buried in the elevator door. That’s not much to go on.”
Our eyes met and I could see the question in hers: Demons? I scrunched my mouth: Not now.
George missed the psychic girl by-play. “How long are you going to hang around here before going home?”
“No longer than necessary,” I said pointedly, looking at Mum.
“I think we can find another topic,” Dad said.
“Fine. How’s Toronto, George?”
George sighed. “Not bad. The program at the U of T is great. I just wish I was closer.”
George and Kali gazed fondly into each others eyes, and she trailed one finger over the back of his hand. I could see the hairs on his wrist come to attention as he shivered delicately. Kali’s lips parted slightly. The moment could only be described as smouldering. It surprised me that they didn’t jump each other right then.
That reminded me that I was currently between boyfriends and my hormones were not happy about it.
“More potatoes?” Mum asked, waving the serving spoon.
On Monday I was reading in the living room when Mum came out of the office, and flumped on the sofa next to me. That worried me. I thought only Kali flumped.
“I just got an e-mail from the lab,” she said, then paused.
“They can’t figure out what the arrow is made of.”
“How is that even possible these days? Tell them to cut a piece off and feed it to a mass spectrometer.” Yes, I watch cop shows too. I think every investigator does, if only to make fun of them.
She paused again. That wasn’t like her.
“You’re beginning to freak me out. Don’t just sit there, say something.”
“The arrow was one solid piece of something metallic-looking. Even the fletching seemed to be part of the shaft. The whole thing was ridiculously rigid. Even the feathers refused to bend under any conditions they tried.”
“Seriously? They’re feathers. Did they try poking them with a finger?”
“You know Ray in Ident?”
“Yeah. Big guy. Used to play football I think.”
“When they were sure that nothing they could do would get any useful evidence from it, he put the arrow on the floor in the basement and took a five pound sledge hammer to it. The feathers didn’t budge. In fact, they left cut marks in the head of the hammer as well as chipping the concrete.”
“You’re kidding.” She pointed at her face, giving me the “does this look like I’m kidding?” sign. “That’s ridiculous. Nothing is that strong.”
“That’s one reason why they’re confused.” She paused again. “The other is that the arrow disappeared before they’d completed their testing. It wasn’t lost or stolen. The technician swore that he turned away for a moment to make a note and the arrow just—vanished from the bench. Most people don’t believe him, but there’s no sign that anybody but him entered or left the lab, and they searched the lab. The arrow isn’t there.”
Sadly, I believed it. “That’s—strange.”
“And you’re still hiding something.”
I sighed. She was right, of course.
“It’s nothing that will help solve the case.”
“So you say.”
“Please, just drop it. I’ll tell you when I’m ready.”
The look she gave me made me feel even worse than I already did. The whole unbending/disappearing arrow thing was exactly what I’d expect from demons. Especially Beleth—she was bug-house nuts.
Very few people in the world knew that demons were real. Kali and I were two of them. Sure, lots of people took demons as an item of faith, but it’s whole a lot different when you meet them face to face.
With their powers, if demons wanted me dead I’d be dead. It seemed like they were just playing around for some, as usual, unknown reason.
I suppose in some way that was mildly comforting.
A week later Mum left me in the house by myself while she went shopping. Binky was back from the shop—good as new and sitting in the garage so he wouldn’t be visible from the street. She was taking no chance that a would-be assassin might find me.
I’d been indoors for over two weeks. If I didn’t get outside soon my head was going to explode. There were some things I wanted from my apartment, and if nothing was happening to me here it wasn’t likely that anything would happen if I just popped out to get them.
Okay, to be truthful, I was on edge the whole way there. My eyes locked on every moving object, and I almost went nuts trying to memorize each vehicle behind me on the road in case one was following me. I wasn’t as cool about this trip as I had thought.
Tenant parking is around back, and I kept looking around as I unlocked the door to my building. People make fun of paranoia, but trust me, it’s not fun at all. Especially when somebody is out to get you.
I was beginning to think that this was a really bad idea, but it’s patience I’m short on, not stubbornness.
The hallway between the back door and the lobby was empty except for the quiet hum of the overhead fluorescent lights. There was nobody in
the lobby. The only unusual thing was the OUT OF ORDER sign on the elevator. The front door to the building had either been replaced or
patched really well.
I jogged up the stairs as quietly as I could. There were no other people around.
My black, furry sidekick looked up from the couch as I opened the door to my apartment. He must have been expecting Mum, but when he saw me he trotted over and bunted my legs while purring loudly.
“I missed you too, fuzz butt.” Before I could pick him up, he meowed and trotted into the kitchen where he looked at me accusingly. Sure enough, his bowl was empty. I repaired that matter before grabbing my things.
The apartment was a lot cleaner than when I’d left. Apparently Mum had tidied as well as looking after the fur ball. She’d even watered my potted herbs.
I jumped when my phone rang, then felt stupid. It wasn’t like an attacker was going to call me before shooting at me. I expected it to be Mum, demanding to know where I was, but it was a man.
“Ms. Chandler, my name is Jack Hoag. I would like to meet to discuss a case with you.”
I’d been so braced for parental displeasure that his voice confused me for a moment. A shot of adrenaline ran through me as I wondered if
he had anything to do with my shooter. Damn it, I wasn’t going to let some bad guy prevent me from living my life.
“Yes, sorry. I have some time right now if you’d like to come to my office.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
He hung up before I could give him my address. It’s not listed because it’s also my apartment. Oh well, either a former client had given it to him, or he’d be calling back. Either way, I had enough time to check my mailbox downstairs.
Something had me on edge. I found myself straining to listen with no idea what I was listening for.
My eyes were playing tricks on me too. It was almost like there was something wrong with the lobby, but when I looked directly at it the effect all but disappeared. Maybe it was time for an eye exam. I wondered what I’d look like with glasses. Would the hot librarian look work for me?
I checked my mailbox. It was empty, which wasn’t unusual.
Something was definitely wrong.
I looked around. The fake potted plant by the door to the stairwell didn’t look quite right, as if somebody had pasted the area into a picture but it was one pixel off. Then it definitely moved.
The effect was really subtle, and reminded me of that movie with the alien predator who could camouflage himself. My heart rate took off like a fighter pilot who has overshot her landing on an aircraft carrier.
I forced myself to stand in front of the notice board next to the elevator and pretend to read. I concentrated on my hearing.
This was an exercise we’d practised a few times in Krav Maga class. It was a technique used by some blind people to navigate.
Sound bounces off hard objects like walls and produces reverberations. We seldom notice them as our brains filter them out, but they are the reason why people feel stifled in a recording booth with sound-absorbent padding on the walls, and have trouble understanding speech in a gymnasium that’s nothing but hard surfaces. Humans can learn how to interpret those echoes to locate objects. Not as well as bats, but well enough. Our teacher assured us that it wasn’t difficult. It just required practice.
In class, the idea was to tell when somebody was sneaking up behind you by detecting differences in the ambient sound. Human bodies absorb a lot of sound.
As I pretended to read I made clicking noises with my tongue. If you were skillful, you could use the clicks like submarine sonar pings. I was barely a beginner at it, but I’d tagged a few people in class when they were trying to sneak up behind me.
Out of the corner of my eye, the potted plant now looked normal. Click, click, click…
The change wasn’t anything I could really analyze. The clicks suddenly sounded different.
I put both hands against the wall, and mule kicked backward as hard as I could at an average stomach height. My foot hit something extremely hard, and I felt it move. Like kicking a concrete block on ice.
When I turned I couldn’t see anything, but whatever it was had to be between me and the front door. I ran for the stairwell door, yanked it open, and darted through.
I pulled on the handle to get the door to close faster. Something grabbed it and dragging me forward. Whatever it was pulling on the door was strong.
I let go of the door and kicked it. There was a second thump just after my foot landed, and the fire door vibrated. With any luck I’d nailed whatever it was in the face. Assuming it had a face.
I ran up the stairs like I was being chased by invisible demons.
Exactly like that.
Seconds after I slammed my apartment door the downstairs buzzer sounded, which didn’t help to calm me at all. The security camera showed an ordinary looking man wearing a suit and carrying a brief case.
There was no way I was calling the police and trying to explain invisible assailants. Both times when my attacker had shown up I’d been alone, so keeping my appointment was probably the safest thing to do. I buzzed him in.
Mr. Hoag was short, slight, and all business. At least that helped me focus.
“I represent a consortium of collectors who wish to acquire an historical artifact,” he said, opening his brief case on the coffee table. “All the information we have on it is in this file.”
I skimmed through the folder while he patiently waited. It was all background information about something called the Sampo. The name sounded fake to me.
“This is very interesting, but I don’t see anything about where it is now.”
He smiled coldly. “That’s why we need you. Nobody knows where it is.”
I picked up the executive summary page.
“According to this, the Sampo was mythical. And it was destroyed at sea. By gods.”
“If you read further, there are reports that the Sampo was seen in historical times. It’s quite real and, at that time, seems to have been intact.”
I pushed the file back toward him. “I’m a private investigator, not a thief. Even if I locate it, you will need to buy it from its present owner—if any—and probably get permission to take it out of whatever country it’s in.”
“All of that can be arranged once it is located. We certainly aren’t asking you to do anything illegal. We merely want you to find it for us.”
I was trying not to let on how excited I was. According to the file, the Sampo had last been seen in Sweden which meant it was probably somewhere in Europe, unless a collector from elsewhere had acquired it. The chase could lead anywhere in the world. This was not my usual cheating spouse or runaway child.
Besides, it had been a few weeks since my last case. I could use the money. I could also use a distraction from my alleged attempted homicide.
Chasing a mythical artifact could be exciting. I already had a fedora. Maybe I could get a bull whip to go with it. Whoa, girl, take it easy. This sounds too good to be true. Especially the “we merely want” part.
“There are some practical difficulties. I’m only licensed as an investigator in Alberta. Anywhere else I’d just be a private citizen.”
“We’re hiring your expertise, not your credentials.”
“That’s another thing. I’m relatively young. Why not hire a more experienced PI? Why me?”
“Let’s just say you come highly recommended.”
“Really? By whom?”
“Your former clients speak very highly of you.”
“How would you know who my clients are?”
He shrugged. “One person mentions you. They also mention that they recommended you to a friend. The friend recommends you to someone
else. Despite your youth, your chain of satisfied customers is quite long. My clients were impressed.”
The flattery was nice but it wasn’t going to get me to give in that easily. “The biggest difficulties in this investigation will be time and money. It probably will cost you tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, and I don’t have the resources to front that.”
He reached into the brief case again. “My principals anticipated that. I’m to give you this if you accept the job.” He placed a card on the table. It was a corporate credit card with a familiar logo, but it was plain white rather than the more familiar gold or platinum. “You’d operate on an expense account.”
“What’s the limit on this card? Of course I’ll be as economical as possible, but I need to know if I’m getting close so I’m not stranded.”
“It doesn’t have a limit.”
That sounded preposterous, both because I’d never heard of a card with no spending limit, and because he was offering it to me. “Even if the card has no preset limit, how much is your client willing to spend?”
“As much as is necessary. I’m told that your normal rate is $75 per hour?”
“That’s correct. With a two thousand dollar retainer.” I’d recently raised my rate as I became better known.
“We also understand that a breakthrough might happen at any time, day or night, so I’m also authorized to offer you twice your normal hourly rate, charged 24 hours a day until you find the Sampo. That’s $3600 per day.”
Holy crap. Calm down, girl.
“That takes care of my fee and expenses, but what if I don’t find it within your expected time frame?”
“We’re giving you three months. If you haven’t located it, and there are no current promising leads, then you can pocket approximately three hundred twenty-four thousand dollars and walk away with our thanks for your efforts. Of course if there is a promising lead we’d be happy to extend your contract for as long as necessary.”
My too-good-to-be-true meter was still quivering right near the top of the scale.
“Let me get this straight. You are willing to give me an unlimited expense account, and a three month head start. What’s to prevent me from taking a cash advance of a hundred million and disappearing?” I figured I’d name an outrageous sum to shock him into giving something away. I hadn’t had much experience with big players.
“There’s no chance of that happening,” he said calmly.
“How do you know? A hundred million is awfully tempting.”
“For one thing, you are too intelligent to bring that up if you really intended doing it. For another, you have a reputation for scrupulous honesty, and devotion to your clients as long as they play fairly with you. We are playing fair.”
“It still seems too good to be true.”
“I assure you, the offer is genuine. As is the offered reward.”
“Of course, you’d say exactly that even if it wasn’t.”
He nodded, conceding the point. “As a final incentive, my employers have authorized me to offer you the full three-month pay regardless of how long it takes you to find the Sampo. If you find it on the first day, you still get the full three hundred twenty-four thousand dollars. My clients are quite wealthy, and even the full amount represents a small investment to them.”
I wished he’s quit saying three hundred twenty-four thousand. That would buy a lot of cat food.
“I take it that there will be a written contract?”
“Of course.” He pulled a small stack of paper from his case.
I read it over very carefully. It was too simple to contain much trickery. Everything he’d mentioned was there, including the detail that my payment in full would be placed in trust pending the completion of the contract. I’d heard of the law firm that was named as the trustee. They were a big name and highly reputable. I tried my cynical best, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with the agreement.
Besides, this could help me out with my other problem.
I got out my pen. “All right, when do I start?”
I walked Mr. Hoag out of the building, just in case my invisible friend was still here. Before we left my apartment I took a few moments to put the items I’d gathered in a bag: the case file, the red phone from my night stand, my knife roll from the kitchen, and my tactical baton from the basket on the book shelf by the front door.
I opened my bedroom door so Yoko could get out, and I took a moment to scratch his head.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I said to him as he lay on his back purring. “Be a good boy.”
He was slightly affronted when I stopped petting him and left.
I listened carefully as we walked down the stairs. There didn’t seem to be any weird echoes to our footsteps. Nor were there any Predator-like shimmers.
“You didn’t answer my question. When do you want me to start?”
“As soon as possible. While I would not presume to tell you how to investigate, may I suggest that you start with Professor Seppo Nieminen.”
“The world expert on the Kalevala, currently working at the British Museum. The Kalevala is the nineteenth century Finnish epic poem that mentions the Sampo. The details are in the file.”
We got to the lobby. As far as I could tell we were the only ones there.
“There’s one further detail,” he said at the front door. “The PIN for the card is your birthday: eight digits, year, month, and day.”
“How do you know when my birthday is?”
“Please, Ms. Chandler. We wouldn’t offer you this job unless we’d thoroughly vetted you. Good luck.”
We shook hands, and I drove to my parents’ home as quickly as possible. If I was very lucky Mum would still be out when I got there.
My mother wasn’t home. Detective Chandler was, and she let me know the moment I opened the door that she was not at all amused.
“Are you insane? Going out without telling me? Somebody is trying to kill you!”
“There’s been no threat for two weeks.”
“Yes, because you have sensibly stayed out of sight in the house!”
“I’m going nuts sitting around all day. I needed to go outside.”
She shook her head and looked disappointed. “You waited until I went shopping so I couldn’t stop you. What was so important?”
I fished the knife roll from my bag.
“I wanted my knives.”
“They’re exactly the same as your father’s.”
“No, these are mine.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a chef thing. Besides, I got a call from a potential client while I was out. You don’t want me to be a dead beat, do you?”
“You took a phone call? You are insane. What if he was the one who shot at you?”
“I’d have flattened him.”
“Just because you are good at Krav Maga doesn’t mean you’re invincible.”
“I met him in my living room, not in a dark alley, and a bow isn’t a close-combat weapon. I had my baton nearby.”
“Do you know how many cops are shot with their own guns? Again, a baton isn’t a magic wand that makes you invulnerable.”
I was almost stupid enough to say “whatever,” but I really didn’t want the argument to get completely out of hand. I compromised.
“Maybe, but at least having a new client will free you from babysitting me, and let you get back to your life.”
“Oh? And how do you figure that?”
“I’ll be heading for London as soon as possible. That should keep me out of the shooter’s way.”
“Seriously? Ontario or England? What’s there?”
“England. A professor who’s an expert in nineteenth century Finnish epic poetry.”
She gave me that dubious look. “It must be one weird case.”
I thought about my suspicion that demons might be involved. “I hope not. It’s just property recovery. I’m told that he knows where it is.”
“You’ve never been outside Canada. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Mum, I always know what I’m doing. I already have a passport.”
She snorted, which I thought was quite unattractive. “You be careful. Please.”
“When am I not careful?”
She didn’t even bother to answer. I very sensibly shut up, and went to my room to read the case file more carefully.