STAR FINDER

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Chapter 34: The Nautilus Has Survived for Over Five Hundred Millions Years

Leo’s cell phone chimed. “The Man in the Box” played. He answered, and then froze in mid-stride on his way to the park’s center. His jaw dropped. Taking off his reflective sunglasses he tucked them into his chest pocket. “Is this a joke? How’d you get this number, punk?”

Eyebrows toasted in the fire, there wasn’t much to arch when he gasped with surprise as he listened to the raspy voice on the other end of the line. “Is that you, boss? You calling from hell or somethin’?” He pressed the phone tight to his ear. “It’s hard to understand you, Fields. Hold on a sec.” Flattening the mouthpiece against his thigh, Leo signaled his men and Claudie to halt.

They huddled around him.

He pointed at his phone. “Give me a minute. It’s the boss.” Returning to Fields he began to talk, and switched back to his subordinates. Dressed to appear official in similar dark suits, white shirts, and thin black ties they stood out among the bright oranges, yellows, and reds of the children playing in the park. But then again, this was D. C. the FBI’s home turf so no one gave them a second look.

“You look like a Men in Black reunion. Fan out, circulate.”

Leo walked over and sat down on a bench away from the swing sets and screaming kids. Bent at the waist he rested his elbows on his knees. “I thought you were French-fried, boss. How’d you survive it?”

“Sorry to disappoint, but my suit protected my vital parts. Those tech guys…” Leo heard a gurgle as if Fields gulped air, “…and their bullet and fireproof fabric are getting a budget increase. My face wasn’t so lucky.” Fields wheezed, hacked, and cleared his throat. The constant beep of machines played in the background. “Kind of hard to talk when your skin’s oozing junk and your face is bandaged. Smoke cooked my lungs. But the hospital’s got top-drawer morphine. I’m getting another dose of I.V. antibiotics in an hour. After that, they’ll spring me or I exit against medical advice. Later, I’ll be in my office expecting an update on the girl and the diamond.”

“You think that’s wise boss?” At the warehouse, Leo had heard them mention a diamond. Now it was one of the first concerns out of Fields’ mouth. Its value increased in his mind. “You can go back to the grind just like that?”

“They’re setting up a hospital bed, oxygen, the whole nine yards, in my office. We got enough docs running around there to take care of me.”

“A few restrictions. I gotta stay out of the sun. But hey, I do some of my best work in the dark. They didn’t hire me for my good looks.”

“If your face melted off, you’d certify as the real Boogie man.”

“Don’t get cute, Leo.” Fields croaked like a bullfrog, it turned into a gasp. “Umm…sorry about your Wanda. Good field agent. I liked her. You buried her yesterday?” Fields’s voice lacked emotion. He could have been talking about the weather, not a colleague’s death.

“Yeah. Cremated her. That was her wish. My day of mourning is over so you can cut the crap. I’m not expecting a Hallmark. Orders?” asked Leo.

“I’ll make this short. Nothing’s changed. The girl. She’s your priority.” Fingernails on sandpaper he hissed, “We still need her—Cosmo’s daughter—to recover the diamond. Once we have the diamond and control of Skye, the opportunities are endless.”

“You still planning to dissect the kid’s brain?”

“Yeah. The mission hasn’t changed. You gotta problem with that?”

Leo waited as the sound of the air pump decreased. “Nope. But won’t that kill her?”

“She’s only good for finding Skye. She proved that in the warehouse when she blocked out our control measures. Some of our scientists want to play around in her brain and see how she communicates with…I’ve said too much. You don’t have clearance. Needless to say, Cosmo corrupted her.”

“Can you describe the diamond? So I know what I’m looking for.”

Fields sucked air and snorted. “Oxygen is my new favorite food.” His voice was rough, tainted with chemicals and pain as he pushed on. “You’re stepping outside the guidelines I gave you. Focus on the girl. Any leads?”

Nada on planes, trains, and a bus. Street cameras zero. My instincts tell me the mother and son who own the apartment building where Cosmo and his daughter lived are hiding something. The night of the fire I put a twenty-four/seven surveillance team on the building. Most kids run home when they’re scared.”

“You read a child psych book last night?”

“You said Cosmo was loaded so I figured the kid could be paying them for protection. I’m on my way there right now to do a little cage rattling. The son has a bone to pick with the girl. I saw her humiliate him in public. The plan is to ask for his help like he’s an equal. Make him a part of the team by putting the word out on the street that there’s a reward for the girl. Temptation’s a productive angle. Dangle a carrot and see if he’s hungry. If the girl’s there I’ll find her. It’s our best lead.”

“Maybe you do have a brain.” Fields rasped, “What else? Leverage?”

“Plenty. Our research guys dug deep. The mother is an Irish gypsy. She was rejected by her clan for marrying an outsider, Max Thayer. The boy is in deep with the clan. The dad used to beat her and the boy. Messed the son up bad, put him in the hospital twice. Then old Max disappeared. The police report says, ‘under questionable circumstances.’ They never found his body. I figure either the boy—Tem—or his mother did the deed and covered it up.”

“Good. The right type. I like them for this. Monitor incoming and outgoing calls—cells and the Internet. I want cameras inside. Put Claudie on it. There’s a recently vacated apartment. Right? Get her into Cosmo’s old place tomorrow.”

“If the girl is hiding in the building, won’t she recognize Claudie from the warehouse? Besides I need her to head up a team searching the shelters.”

“No! Claudie goes in. She was in combat gear at the warehouse; I doubt the little girl even knew her gender. God knows I have trouble sometimes. Make her a yoga instructor, body builder, or something. That’s typecasting. Tell her to cozy up to the son, what’s his name…”

“Tem,” offered Leo.

“Yeah, him. Make it happen.” The phone went dead.

Leo stared at the phone. His eyes tilted skyward as he mumbled. “You up there, baby? I suppose I’m looking in the wrong directions. But I promise I’ll get her, bring her in. This one’s for you.”

He stood, stretched, and crooked a finger. “Over here guys.”

In the huddle of suits, he said, “The boss is alive and bellyaching.” Leo replayed his conversation with Fields.

“Claudie, peel off. Go back to headquarters and have the nerds fabricate a background as a fitness instructor. We passed a gym a block back. Find out who owns the place and buy it. You’re the new manager. Tomorrow morning, go to Cosmo’s old apartment, rent it, and move in. Eyes sharp for any signs of the girl. Your assignment is to get close to Tem, the landlady’s son. Read his profile. From what I hear, he needs to get in shape. Be a good neighbor. Offer him free instruction and gym membership. Do whatever it takes to win his confidence. Then pump him for info. Ask him about a fight at the ice cream shop when a little girl mopped the floor with him. Fuel his hatred. Get him talking about the Randalls.”

“Yes, boss.” Claudie turned and jogged away.

Leo took a long look at her muscular body as she loped into the distance. Adjusting the knot on his tie Leo smiled at his team. “Okay, let’s go be Feds. I hear the benefits are outstanding.” He slid his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose. His men did the same.

They all laughed.

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