STAR FINDER

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Chapter 16: Motoring Down the Alley

Outside of Schaffer’s, Leo clicked off his cell phone and shared Fields’s orders with Wanda. “Change of mission parameters. We stay on the girl.”

“Can do,” said Wanda.

“We keep her safe. Which means we have to deal with that thug…”

“…and his gang.”

“Yeah. We’re to be discreet. No shooting. Dart guns only. Boss doesn’t want her spooked or injured. We follow nice and easy. Report in again in twenty, sooner if she takes us to their home base.”

“Then we better grab our gear and change our clothes. She might have noticed us at the ice cream shop. Let’s get a move on, Leo—the lights just went out at Schaffer’s.”

“Gotcha. How about we get some religion, baby?”

“Perfect,” said Wanda. The devil danced in her eyes.

Wanda and Leo adjourned to their van. Once inside they looked through a rack of costumes and made their choices—a priest’s attire for him and a nun’s garb for her.

“Leo, grab the night-vision monocles.”

“Right. Got plenty of darts? And your revolver, hon?”

Wanda gave him two thumbs up as she adjusted her garment to conceal her weapons.

They emerged from the van four minutes later armed to the teeth and dressed in their drab humble clothes. Leo carried a briefcase. It was black; about twenty inches long and held his injection rifle, scope, and a supply of tranquilizer darts.

After half a block, they separated. Leo took the park and Wanda the ice cream shop side of the street so they had eyes on Tem’s gang as well as the front of Schaffer’s. They connected to the deep web and Nautilus’s private account so they could converse using their Bluetooth devices.

“Scum of the earth, this Tem, and his boys. Couldn’t I put a few of ’em down permanent. Punks like them ruin the neighborhood.”

“Leo, don’t be so judgmental. You’re forbidden. At least for now.”

“I’ve got my knife? I can be real quiet.”

“No,” said Wanda with finality. “Just make sure they don’t get in our way.”

Five minutes later Wanda checked her wristwatch. “So, what do you think? Back alley? We’ve given her enough time. And I don’t think she’s dumb enough to walk out the front.”

“Let’s go. I’ll take the rooftops. I can see both the street and alley from up there. You walk the alley. Start at Swan and work your way down. I’ll give you a heads up when I spot her.”

“Check. Moving out.”

The alley was pitch dark and although Wanda and Leo had done their reconnaissance sweep earlier and knew the general layout, Wanda pulled out her night-vision monocle and clicked it on. Leo panted as he climbed the fire escape.

“You’re out of shape, hon. Good thing you skipped the pretzel.”

“Very funny. Next time you do the climbing.” He grunted. “I’m on the roof. Nothing changed street side.” Bent low Leo ran to the alley side. There was silence.

“See her?” asked Wanda.

“Nope.” Kneeling down Leo opened his briefcase. He took out a small towel, folded it in half, and placed it on the roof’s brick facade to pad the aluminum barrel of his rifle. He assembled his weapon and loaded it, lining up several extra darts for quick access. Eye to the scope, Leo panned right and left scanning for Lilly.

“Wanda,” his voice rung serious, “I know that Tem and his cousin are Neanderthals but stay sharp. Untrained beasts can still be dangerous.”

“I think I’m going to cry,” whispered Wanda.

“Why? My concern tugging on the strings of your heart?”

“No. There’s a midnight shoe sale at Saks and I’ll missing it. I found a flier.”

Leo blew his wife a kiss and smiled. “Got her. To your left.”

Two pairs of eyes spotted Lilly as she slowed to a walk and followed the path a half moon had illuminated down the center of the alley. The narrow slot between buildings formed a natural wind tunnel. Trash floated in the air like dirty snow. Wanda followed every move. The chilling caterwauling of cats and snarling dogs hurried Lilly along. She broke into a trot. Wanda, matched strides with Lilly’s shadow.

“Hey, I had a thought. We’re like guardian angels protecting this kid.”

Wanda swallowed. “Leo, you do know what they’re planning to do with her, right?”

Leo whispered back. “Dissect—hold on. Check out the right side of the alley.”

“I see a couple of them clowns. They’re hiding behind a dumpster thirty yards ahead of her. She doesn’t see them. Geez, this kid is clueless. She’s slowed, walking right up to their location. Can’t believe the legendary Cosmo Randall trained this kid. She is looking up at the moon. Duh. Hang on.”

Two dull thunks bumped the darkness.

“You got them, Leo? Come back.”

“Got ’em. Tough shot.”

“Don’t let your shiny ego blind you. Stay focused.”

One of his victims toppled over a garbage can. It clattered, rolled.

Wanda’s voice grew more animated. “I lost the kid. She rabbited. Leo, a little help here.”

“I don’t see her. Wait…she’s hiding inside a packing crate. Gees there’s a street creep in there with her. At the least she should be able to smell the bum. Protecting her is a full-time job. What if I run out of darts? Can I use my knife?”

“Leo, cool it. I know you packed fifty darts so enough about the knife. Take care of the pervert. There’s a car turning down the alley. If the kid bolts and Tem’s guys grab her, there’ll be blood in the streets to get her back.”

“The target, Mr. Creepy Guy, slithered back into his hole. I lost the shot.”

“Stay put until the car passes.”

Through her night vision goggles, Wanda saw Lilly pull out a cell phone. “Damn. Our briefing said they didn’t use cells. Is she warning her father?” Wanda moved closer. “Hang on. She’s put the phone inside the pouch, of her hoodie to shield the light.”

Seconds later Leo whispered, “Oh, darlin’ I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. Get a load of what’s tooling your way. It’s a 1963 lime green Mercury Marauder. Can I take it home? Please.”

“Shut up, Leo. You talk too much. They’re part of Tem’s gang, checking for the kid. And you’re not allowed to buy another car.”

Leo chuckled. “Okay, you’re clear. The Merc exited the alley. Keep on her baby. Creepy guy coming on at your three o’clock. You have the better angle. Take the shot Wanda.”

Before Wanda pulled the trigger she watched a bony hand curl over Lilly’s shoulder. “The kid’s lost it. Freaked, she’s dropped the cell, and bolted.”

“You, think? I’d have to be deaf to miss that squawking. She’s running flat out.”

“This alley’s ripe. Oh my god.”

“What? Wanda, you okay?”

“Something wet just splattered my face. I hope that was rain.” Wanda added. “The creep’s following her. I’ve got him in my sights. Bingo. He’s down. Fell behind a crate. The kid’s clear. She stopped at the end of the alley under that fire escape to catch her breath. Are you tracking her?”

“Yeah. That’s not all she’s doing.” Leo snorted. “Oh. Gross. Check out the kid.”

Doubled over, Lilly braced, hands on knees and vomited as Wanda gave Leo a blow-by-blow. “Ice cream, hot fudge, and gummy bears a la second time around. Oh look, Leo! The rats like gummy bears.”

“Ha. Ha.”

“For a hit man you have a very weak stomach.”

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