STAR FINDER

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Chapter 49: A Nautilus Uses Its Tentacles to Catch Prey

“I’m not insulting you, Leo, I’m threatening you.” Field’s gray bloated lips pursed as he sucked oxygen. “Don’t go to the gym to talk to Claudie again! Ever!”

The intended shout imploded in Field’s scorched throat and the fallout exited as a raspy purr. Leo hunched closer to hear his boss.

“The gypsy’s son knows you. If he sees you at the gym …” Click, whoosh. “…you’ll blow Claudie’s cover. The jerk will warn his mother and she won’t leave the girl behind—she’s too valuable. They’ll all run.”

Fields’s lungs had sustained permanent damage. He couldn’t function without the tubular collar around his neck that streamed moist oxygen over his mouth and nose twenty-four/seven. Oxygen tanks were strewn along the length of the sixth-floor interrogations section at Nautilus’s Chamber 7 downtown headquarters. A small O2 canister was hitched to Fields’s belt as a backup. He was paranoid about running out of air.

“Yeah. I thought of that, boss. I was careful, guarantee no one saw me. You gotta understand that girl is an itch I can’t reach. She watched my Wanda die and never lifted a finger. We’re no closer to picking her up now than we were last week. I wanted to know if Claudie was spinning her wheels.”

“Such a romantic. Now I see what Wanda saw in you.” Whoosh. Suck. “You lack patience, Leo.”

“Boss, if Claudie isn’t making any progress with the gypsy‘s son maybe she should be transferred. Her assignment was to get inside the apartment and have a look around for signs of the girl. Her foot hasn’t gotten past the front door. There is always someone at home so she can’t break in. Stalemate. Besides, it’s my job to check on my people.”

Your people? You’ve got an itch? I have to understand?” Fields grunted. “You have an independent streak. This isn’t tennis. It’s baseball, a team sport. My team. You’re up to bat, Leo and you have two strikes. I’d hate to see you get the third and be benched.” Click. Whoosh. “Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, boss.” Benching was a bullet in the head.

All of Fields’ body hair had been burned off in the fire. The pink sheen of the ‘new’ patches of skin on his face and bald head were reminiscent of a large newborn demonic baby.

Blood-rimmed sclera turned up at Leo. “You listening?”

“Yes. No disrespect intended, boss.” Rolling back the cuffs of his denim shirt, beads of sweat cropped up at Leo’s temples. “We have other leads that look promising. Some of Cosmo’s old army buddies for example. I’m spread thin with round-the-clock surveillance on all the residents, the psychic shop, and the park.” A sudden click of valves and the accompanying whoosh of Fields breathing pump cut into their conversation. It struck Leo that if he gave Fields a helmet, he could be the next Darth Vader in the Star Wars sequel. He smirked. “I wanted to use my…Nautilus’s people where the prospects were the brightest.” Leo glanced down at his shoes.

“Who assigned Claudie?”

“You, boss.”

Leo checked out the nurse who followed four feet behind Fields with the breathing apparatus in a cart. She wore blue scrubs and white clogs. Her pockets swelled with tape, scissors, and other tools of her trade. Did she serve a dual purpose: bodyguard and nurse? That was in Fields wheelhouse. Leo kept an eye on her hands just in case.

“So, why are we discussing this?”

“I was trying to help, boss. I would not have made a change without your okay.” Leo had to be careful. Fields was as unpredictable as a snake and his decisions just as lethal.

A clear plastic tube joined nurse to patient. Like a pet on a leash, the nurse reeled in the tubing to both keep her charge in range and the tubing untangled and attached to the tank.

“Sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Maybe thinking I’m not up to the job? Anything else I set up you’d like to change?”

“No, boss. It won’t happen again.”

“Healthy answer. You were hired to be a tool, not a thinker.” Fields spit clots of gunk into his handkerchief and leaned on his walker as they inched along. A wheel dipped into one of the drains set in the concrete floor and Fields panted with the exertion of freeing it.

“Maybe you should think about those reports your field operatives have been writing up. The one about Zilla’s business being more lucrative is particularly interesting. More clients have walked into her salon in the last two weeks than in the last two months. What did you make of that, Einstein?”

“I read it. She’s a skilled con woman and has her moments. That’s all. She hit a few gullible targets and made some bucks. Her business fluctuates. I examined her bank records.” Leo shifted his weight from foot to foot. His stomach—now an active volcano—rumbled. “If I’m wrong, tell me. You’re the all-seeing eye around here.”

“That’s enough for today.” Fields signaled for his wheelchair to be brought closer. As he plunked down into it he kicked his walker aside. The salmon colored flesh on half his face stretched white into a repulsive lopsided grin. “Thanks, Cora.”

The nurse fluffed the pillow at his back, and Fields patted her hand and waved her off.

“You missed the boat, Leo. People like the gypsy run a strictly cash business. That’s why the son is sporting a new watch and expensive clothes. Or hadn’t you noticed? Claudie did.” He wiped drool off his lips. “Zilla’s prospering ’cause the kid is helping her. The girl’s a finder.” Click…suck. “I had one of my people interview some of Zilla’s satisfied customers. They raved about the psychic. One particular client said Zilla was the genuine article.” Whoosh. “That she traveled to the hereafter and came back with the combination for her dead husband’s safe. When she opened it she discovered stocks and bonds worth thousands. And all Zilla took was her regular fee and a small empty antique box as a memento.”

“A finder? I don’t know exactly what that is, but don’t you think I should have been read in? All I was told was that she had a unique brain you wanted to copy.”

“Wanda knew. I assumed she told you.”

“Great! Give me some men. It will be a quick in and out and you’ll have the girl tonight.”

“Cool your jets, Leo.” Whoosh. “Some very interesting stuff is happening and I’m waiting for the eyes-on conformation.” Click.

“Claudie got inside?”

“No. But I’ll come back to that later. Don’t you want to know what was in the box?”

“You just said it was empty.”

“See, Leo, you need to be more curious. That’s your flaw. You think what you see is all there is.”

Cora held out an inhaler for Fields to puff on and turned to Leo, “He’s talking too much. It’s taxing.” Then to Fields, “You must rest.”

Fields puffed as instructed. “Inside that antique box was a secret compartment full of priceless gems. And Zilla knew that when she asked for the box as part of her fee. And how did she know? Because the girl told her.”

“You saw these jewels?”

“I found the broker who the son, Tem contacted to sell them. He told me everything.”

“You’re sure?”

He pointed to a metal box. “He’s right over there—you want to interrogate him?” Fields sipped from his water bottle. Water leaked out around his scarred lips. “The girl’s expertise is remarkable.”

“I don’t get it. But if she’s what you say, won’t she find out we are coming for her?”

“She can’t see in more than one place at a time and there are other parameters; the distance between her and the diamond. It’s her conduit, the power grid for that designer brain we gave her.”

“Is another diamond or crystal capable of the same amplification? One of those gems Zilla found in that antique box?”

Fields pulled back and looked at Leo. “Not bad. But there are other factors involved. The size of the diamond for one—and what’s at the heart of it for another.” He chuckled. “Only four people in the world know that secret and you ain’t going to be number five.”

‘Secret’ was just another word for danger in Leo’s world. He wouldn’t press Fields for more information, but he was sure multiple dollar signs were attached to that diamond.

Fields’s mind seemed to wander, and then he mumbled, “Skye must be close by if the girl is accomplishing these findings.” It was an inner thought expressed.

“Skye? Who’s that or is it the name of that big ass diamond?”

“There you go thinking too much again.” Fields smirked. “You don’t need to know.”

Leo tensed as one of Fields’ foot soldiers policed the detainee in the metal box. Nerves taut Leo widened his stance as the grunt walked behind him. Regrouping he offered a tactful excuse for his screw-up. “Now that I know about the girl’s skills, I’m on it. I have a lot to learn from you, boss.” Flattery couldn’t hurt either. “Follow up. Investigate the small details. I can do more. I will do more.”

“Good. I enjoy these mentoring opportunities.” Fields gave a half chuckle and broke into a fit of coughing. Whoosh. Click. Whoosh. Click.

“Nautilus is not an organization that craves the limelight. Its members don’t run for political office and they don’t star in movies. They’re the puppeteers pulling the strings behind the scenes. We start wars, steal technology, influence governments, and buy and sell commodities. We are a shadow organization that likes to make a profit. Simple. That’s the way we have operated for decades. We survived by using night vision. Nautilus moves around in the dark spaces. Whoosh. Click.

Leo gave a sharp nod.

Blowing, cheeks puffed like he was trying to inflate a balloon, Fields head toppled back against a cushion. He closed his eyes for ten seconds. His breathing slowed. Recovered, his lashless lids popped open and he added, “No blazing guns. The warehouse fire was a big mistake and it cost too much in bribes and didn’t yield the required results. When we’re ready to infiltrate Zilla’s home it will be a low-key off-the-grid operation.”

“Got it.”

The nurse’s gloved hand spread ointment over both of Field’s eyes.

Leo was desperate to change the subject. “You going to be okay, boss?”

“I need a lung transplant.”

“You’d think with Nautilus’s resources they would have found you a pair by now.”

“Yeah. Well, you gotta do these things…” Fields slurped air “…for yourself. In a few days, I’ll do another search.”

‘Search’ was code for abducting and testing more donor candidates.

“I thought there were plenty of black market organs available for quick cash.”

“They aren’t choosy about their clients.” He checked the gauge on his tank. Valves clicked. “I don’t want some druggie’s burned out sacs. I need something fresh off the shelf, young lungs. Maybe an athlete’s.”

Leo nodded. “Makes sense. So what’s next for me?”

A bell rang and both men twisted toward the elevator.

Claudie exited wearing form-fitting workout leggings and a pushup sports bra under a white unbuttoned man’s shirt. She spotted Fields and Leo. Her graceful body loped across the floor to them.

“Now it’s time to discuss the gypsy’s place and the girl. True, Claudie hasn’t been able to get into the apartment, which in itself tells me a lot. But she’s worked out a backup plan. We have contracted with a guy on the inside of the family circle at the fortuneteller’s home.”

“Great! I’m ready.” Leo rubbed his gut. His hand plunged into a pocket of his black pants and came out with three antacid tablets. He tossed them into his mouth and chewed. Stepping a little lighter he caught up to Fields’ motorized wheelchair that veered to greet Claudie. Sour reflux burned at the back of his throat.

Fields’ blurry eyes angled up. He smiled welcoming Claudie. “This is pleasant,” His cool wet lips kissed her offered hand. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Leo reared back, “We have?” No matter. “Good to see you.” Leo liked Claudie. “Taking a break from the grease ball.”

“I peeled him off. Told him I had ‘girl’ things to do for a couple of hours. I was working at my place, at the St. Regis.” She smiled and faced Fields. “Can we talk privately?”

That was the hint for Leo to make himself scarce. He walked to the far end of the wide-open space and watched the naked prisoner being lifted out of the metal box and placed on the cement floor. The limp body twitched. A natural response, he fingered the concealed weapon under his shirt.

Fields and Claudie’s eyes wandered over to him several times during their discussion. He decided to put in some extra time on site. He paced in circles while he waited to be summoned.

Fields motioned to Leo.

“You’re here on a good day, Leo. Our inside man has contacted Claudie. I have confirmation.” Whoosh. Click. “We are prepping a five-man team to take the girl. Claudie will take the lead on this.”

“She works under me. I should be heading this up.”

Claudie stroked Leo’s shoulder. “Listen, your presence will cause panic. Everyone in the building has seen you.”

Field’s didn’t look up. “We do this her way. Soft. You’re a hammer.”

“Okay. When?”

Claudie explained. “We’ve got the perfect cover. My neighbor on the second floor is throwing a big party Saturday evening. Thirty plus people, a flash mob will crash the festivities at around ten. Blasting disco music, lots of glow-in-the-dark painted faces, neon colors, and strobe lights in the foyer, I couldn’t ask for a better or noisier diversion.” Claudie paused a beat. Her eyes went flat, all business. “Tem and I have been invited. Of course, that is the least my jerk neighbor could do since I convinced Tem to let them dance in the foyer, and helped plan the whole shebang. We hit the apartment at the same time the party crashers arrive.”

“What about the mother and that other guy who lives there—Bobby Alabama?”

“Our inside man,” she rested a hand on Fields, “will take care of them. No one will know what went down until the rent comes due and Tem’s not at their door sticking his hand out.”

“I expect pristine execution. No wrinkles. No heat.” Fields set his watch. “It’s now Friday eleven fourteen in the morning. The countdown starts now. At twenty-two hundred Saturday evening, T minus thirty-five hours and counting, this game ends.”

Claudie turned to Leo. “I have your assignment.”

Leo folded his arms in front of his chest and rocked back on his heels. “Shoot.”

“You’ll be in charge of securing the perimeter.”

Leo’s breath caught in his throat and so did the words, like hell. He had suspected the gypsy from the beginning. Nautilus gave him no credit for being right but chose instead to insult him. Now Fields was making him take a back seat to Claudie? He was no witless flunky.

“Whatever you say, Claudie. Anything else boss?” Fields shook his head. “I’ll get back to checking Claudie’s videotapes of the inside and outside of the building in preparation for our assault.”

“Sure.” Fields and Claudie were too quick to turn their backs on him.

It was a blunt dismissal. Leo fumed. He jabbed a finger on the down arrow button and stepped into the elevator. He threw a last smile at Claudie and Fields. Right after the doors closed his expression spun to glacial.

Hands in pockets Leo jangled his change. His feet never stopped moving. The elevator hummed. The floors flashed by: six, five, four. Time to take matters into his own hands—exact revenge for his Wanda. If Fields sent men after him…well he’d show them how a real soldier fights.

As the doors parted and Leo exited he muttered, “T minus thirty-five hours. Time to settle accounts.”

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