Finder’s Keeper – Part Five
by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
Vee somehow managed to get us a pair of business class tickets on Aer Lingus out of LAX that afternoon. Not sure how, but I’ve learned at times, don’t ask. We checked in and scooted into our seats, which these days felt more like something out of some science fiction film. The Boss did what the Boss always does, started talking to the other passengers. For someone who claims not to understand people, he can be incredibly charming when the moment calls for it.
Me, I’m more the silent type. Not because I’m dumb, mind you. I can keep up with the Boss and Vee, and in my element, they both know better than to second guess me. But I tend to be, how to put this? I’m more straightforward. Call it a learned handicap. Getting shot at a lot will make you less tolerant of niceties and more willing to cut to the chase of a situation. Are you trying to kill me? Yes? Nice to know.
As soon as we were in the air, I plugged in my laptop and connected back to the office. Vee had already set up a working folder with everything we had on both al Mansouri sisters. It wasn’t a lot, but you got to start somewhere.
For me, that meant their college years. The little bonbon that Manny had dropped during the Boss’ story was that both girls were boarding school products. That said that despite dear old Dad’s claim of being a doting father, he still shipped them off for three or four months at a time. Now me, I was the product of the mean streets of Rockville, Maryland, which meant I didn’t get that privilege. But being that close to the seat of power, I knew rich kids whose parents came and went with the political winds and were shipped off like this. They were told it was for their own good, but a lot saw it as being parked for their parent’s convenience.
I suspected going to university after graduation was the girls’ first real act of independence. Papa had wanted them to go to Cambridge, where he’d gone. Instead, they headed to Paris, and they gave up the Doublemint Twins routine to follow studies that better fit their talents and temperaments. Ariana had gone to École Polytechnique, although the cheerleaders just call it ParisTech. In five years, the young woman had blown through a Bachelor’s degree in Materials and Structural Mechanics and was well on her way to her Masters.
Isabeau’s path, while no less rigorous, took her to Université Paris-Sorbonne. I spent a moment translating the transcript. Art History major? No surprise there. But she suspended her studies a year ago and didn’t finish her degree. I sat back and considered that piece of news.
Tomas dropped into the seat across from me. “You seem a man with much on his mind.”
“Manny. How close was he with his daughters since they’d gone to Paris for their schooling?”
“Not as close as he’d like, but then, what parent is?”
“Louis, what is hmm?”
“Just a curiosity. Something he must have known and didn’t mention. Isabeau dropped out of the Sorbonne just over a year ago, before completing her degree.”
Tomas rubbed his chin. “So, Papa says he knows nothing, and supposedly the sister doesn’t either?”
“Or maybe isn’t telling him something. Here’s a new possibility. Isabeau isn’t missing. She’s hiding.”
The stewardess came by and handed me my beer. Tomas had a Perrier with lime, as usual. He stared at the bubbles. “I’ve known Marwan for years,” he said, not looking over. “I would have thought he’d be above such.”
“Cultural norms run deep, my friend. Especially about these sorts of things. We have to face the idea that the message of the two pearls might not be time.”
The Boss looked at me, his expression as somber as I’d seen in a very long time. “No. It might mean two lives after all. Just not the two we thought.”
As the flight traveled east and the sun set outside the plane, the lights were dimmed in the cabin. Most of the Business Class passengers took advantage of their seat’s conversion to a bed, including Tomas. I looked over with envy. The guy could sleep practically anywhere, in almost any position, and in less than an hour be fresh as the proverbial. Me? I’d learned to catch shuteye in some weird spots in the service, but unless I had four straight horizontal and comfortable, I was in desperate need of a caffeine jumpstart.
But it wasn’t the lack of a fluffy pillow keeping me up right now. I had a picture of those pearls on my laptop. The possibilities opened by the sisters’ transcripts made this so much more troubling. I wondered if al Mansouri even has a clue.
I glanced out the window at the inky black. Why did it have to be a kid? Things I can handle. Even pets, like that time we had to recover that woman’s Burmese python, literally in Burma. But kids… I started to fiddle with the ring on my pinkie. Kids come with baggage.
The memories pushed in, unbidden. A summer afternoon, as perfect a day as you could want. My old home in Diamond Bar. The streamers, the decorations, the cake.
The card with the writing of a child. Happy Birthday, Mommy.
Alicia’s smile as Bree handed her the small wrapped box and then ran to me. “Did I do it right, Daddy?”
I looked at her, my princess, dressed in her favorite costume as some character from a TV show about candy-colored horses. “You did right, Pumpkin.”
“I’m not Pumpkin, I’m Sparkle,” she told me with all the seriousness a four-year-old could muster.
“I apologize, your Highness.” I bowed, and she tapped me on the forehead with her horn. I heard an intake of breath and looked up.
“It’s beautiful,” said Alicia, holding up the diamond pendant. “But wherever did you get it, Bree?”
“I told you, Mommy, I’m Sparkle!” She folded her arms and pouted.
Alicia winked at me and held out her arms. “My mistake. Can you forgive me, Princess Sparkle?”
Bree ran and jumped into her lap. “Mommies always receive a royal pardon.”
Alicia kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you.” She held up the pendant again. “This is beautiful.”
“You like it? The Princess of the Night gave it to me.”
“Uh-huh. She plucked a star out of the sky and told me to give it to you.”
Alicia glanced over at me. I just shrugged and smiled. She put the pendant on. “Then, please, tell the Princess of the Night that her gift is beautiful. Just like my Princess Sparkle.” She wrapped up Bree who squealed and giggled as Alicia tickled her.
My memory faded to white, then to black again as I stared out the window. I looked down once more at the ring, at the diamond set in the field of black. The diamond plucked from the sky by the Princess on the Night and lost after the crash on the Pomona Freeway. Wrong way driver.
Crawled into a bottle for a while after that. Only crawled out when I started to chase Tomas. I spent a couple of years doing that. During that time, I picked up a different habit. As a kid, I never used to watch cartoons. But every Saturday morning I’d catch the one about cotton candy-colored unicorns and write Bree all about the episode, about what happened. I knew she was reading the letters over my shoulder.
I know she still does.
Yeah, cases with kids come with baggage. Not just me, either. When I finally caught up with Tomas, it was on a job in London that involved some different company he’d set up and a secret group he’d fooled into turning itself in to MI-6. It was another life he’d walked away from, and he came along with me willingly. But that night, he got drunk, he talked, and the real reason for that last job came up. A girl. A young girl, red hair, Roman nose like his. Not many other details but I gathered she was something new and unexpected.
The next day Tomas was stone cold sober. Since then, he’s never said another word about this girl. Come to think of it, that was the last day I’ve ever seen the Boss even the least bit under the influence. That takes discipline on both counts.
Given his other skills, I’m not surprised.
The landing in Dublin was smooth and clearing customs was surprisingly easy – given Tomas’ history, it’s always a toss-up whether he’s going to twig some flag on a security screen somewhere. It makes every flight an adventure.
As we made our way to the rental car counter, I scanned the crowd, searching for possible threats.
Tomas stopped and stretched, then turned to face me. “Louis, will you relax? You look like a bodyguard and are drawing all sorts of attention.”
“Sorry. It’s just I feel, well, naked here without either of my pieces.”
He clucked at me. “My poor, poor keeper, stripped bare of his toys. Personally, after the Wild West show the United States has turned into, I find this quite refreshing. But rest assured, I have not left you bereft. Wait until we reach the car.” He turned and started away. I hurried to follow.
A few moments at the Budget counter and a flash of the Boss’ Amex Black got him an Audi A3. As he picked it up and started to load the luggage in the trunk, he motioned for me to stop. “On my case, twist the right latch ninety degrees toward the edge.” I did. A hidden door flipped open.
“How did you slip that past TSA?”
“It’s lined, it looks like a structural component of the luggage.” He reached inside and pulled out a black stick, then handed it to me. “I trust you know what to do with this?”
I weighed it in my hands for a moment, getting a feel for its balance, then grabbed one end and whipped it to the side. Immediately that stick telescoped out to three times its length, whistling through the air with a menacing hiss. I looked at Tomas and smiled. “Me like.”
“Figured you might. Not as convenient as aim-shoot-bang, but it should do in a pinch.”
“Agreed.” I collapsed the baton and put it in my pocket, then snapped shut that bolt hole on the suitcase. “You do know you’re going to have to tell the good guys about that luggage, right?”
He pouted at me. “Aw, you take away all my fun toys.”
“Only when the really bad men can use them to hurt people.” I got behind the wheel of the car. He got in the back seat. “Boss, any idea where we’re going?”
“For now, west. Get on the M50, and I’ll call Vee.”
I did a quick calculation. “It’s the middle of the night for her back there.”
“Care to wager what ring she’ll answer on?”
“What’s the stakes?”
“You’re on. Third ring.”
He was already dialing. She answered before the first finished. Damn, she’s good.
“Good morning, Vee,” said the Boss.
“Not quite. Although the fog held out, so Balboa looks quite spectacular tonight. Figured you’d be calling soon, so I waited up.”
“Any luck finding our girls?”
“Yes and no. Louis, I got the note you sent. Interesting theory, but no luck finding any hospital records in Paris to support it.”
“Doesn’t mean anything,” I replied. “She could have gone somewhere else, or used an assumed name.”
“True. But no lead regarding a direction to look makes for a huge haystack. Oh, and you should know better than to bet against the Boss.”
“Now, now, Vee,” chided the Boss, “he made a reasonable assumption.”
“Louis is rarely reasonable,” she quipped. “But back to our search. Regarding Ariana, our warrior princess. Her social media accounts are still dark, but I managed to get a facial recognition hit on Vine on an archery trick shot yesterday at the event in Clara. It’s definitely her.”
I glanced in the mirror. “Archery? I thought this woman’s thing was bashing guys with broadswords.”
“What can I say?” said Vee. “It appears she’s versatile. I’ll forward you the details on the event so you can get up to speed.”
“Thank you as always, Vee. Now get some rest. I need you to investigate al Mansouri’s lawyers in the morning.”
“You got it.” There was a pause. “Uh, Louis, I know where this case looks like it’s heading. If you need to talk–”
“It’s okay, Vee. I’m fine,” I lied. “No problem.”
There was a second of silence, then the connection broke. I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught Tomas looking at me. “I said I’m all right, Boss.”
“I know you are, Louis.” He looked down at his tablet and began to check the e-mail from Vee. “Take the M4 west. It should take about ninety minutes to get there.”
“M4 it is.” I ignored everything else and just concentrated on driving. I needed some mindless time for a while.