Finder’s Keeper – Part Nine
by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
Sonnofa… As Ariana bolted for the combatant’s tent, I moved through the crowds with all the grace of an oversized salmon back to the Boss’ side of the Stocks. Two fingers in my mouth and I flagged down Seamus as efficient as a cab in Flatbush (trust me, Uber crowd, that used to work).
Seamus’ expression was way less than pleased as he wandered over, arrows in hand, doing the universal hand sign for knock that crap off. “Lad, ‘tis not done, interfering with a match this way. You’ll be likely to have Baron Tomas declared the loser by forfeit.”
“Tough. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. I need you to pass him a message. Tell him that’s not Ariana on the range.”
Translator, Louis. Remember the messenger. “There’s been a switch. The woman on the field is an imposter. She isn’t Lady Argana.”
Seamus tilted his head to one side. “I see. Ye went back and walloped the Bushmills without me, didn’t you?”
“You’re daft, man. ‘Tis Lady Argana, for no doubt.”
I looked at the woman firing the last practice shaft in warm up. As she lowered her bow, I saw unlike Ariana she wore no bracer on her bow arm. And sure enough, on the left wrist, was a tattoo of a lily on a pad in a pond. Very Zen, come to think of it.
“Just pass on the message. Baron Tomas will know what to do with it.” I hope.
“All right. You better not be bollixing up this match. A lot of people have good coin riding on this and would take it out of your hide.”
“Trust me, Tomas will want to know this.” It was only after Seamus had scuttled over to the Boss that it even occurred to me. Unless he already does.
The Boss who was doing a final check on how true his arrows were when Seamus walked up, whispered in his ear, then pointed at me. Tomas made eye contact and gave me a subtle nod as his right hand flashed a series of quick signals. To anyone else watching, it would have appeared as if he was just stretching his fingers. Our code was a sort of semaphore, letters to indicate specific actions. The Boss flashed four letters – P-O-I-T.
Pursue, observe, intervene if threatened. I blinked in acknowledgment and moved off, then clicked on my Bluetooth. “Vee, wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey.”
There was a stifled yawn over the cell connection. “I’m awake, Louis.”
“Uh-huh. Probably making yourself a smoothie.”
“Now? If it has a lot of coffee in it, I’d say yes. What’s up?”
“Good news is we found Isabeau.”
“Where is she?”
“About 10 yards from the Boss, shooting perfectly good arrows at targets.”
There was a pause. “Louis, why do you always bury the lede? I hate that. How did Boss get so close to our query?”
“It appears our girls are sharing a single public persona in the Scadian world. Tag team, so to speak. Neat trick. One’s the star, one’s the lady in waiting, and switch. Cha cha cha. A neat trick in this environment.”
I could picture Vee starting to modify her search patterns. “So, if Isabeau’s with the Boss, where’s Ariana?”
“That’s why I’m disturbing your beauty sleep. Our Tiger Lily is slipping out the back side of this party and onto Clara Bog as we speak. The question is, where can she go from there?”
“Ah, now you need me.”
“I always need you, Vee.”
“Flatterer. Wait one.”
I decided it was time to change tactics while waiting. Up until that point, I’d made myself highly visible, hoping to catch attention from possible targets of interest. Now, I needed to blend in, quickly.
Step one. Fare thee well, foppish floppy hat. I hardly knew ye. A quick scoop of well-trod bog dirtied up my features nicely. Then a quick side trip to the paddock nearby. For authenticity, several Scadians rode their own noble steeds to the event, and for extra authenticity points, a few dispensed with saddles and rode bareback, as they would those crazy modern inventions like soap, penicillin and being faithful to your wife. And no, do not let your mind go there either. I liberated a horse blanket off one of the ponies on that picket line and hoped it wouldn’t feel too bad a chill that night.
“Still here. Just turning myself into Little Gray Riding Hood.”
“Impromptu disguise. In the shadows on the moors, should give me cover, once I do a little on the fly surgery to a horse blanket with my pocket knife.”
“Ever the Boy Scout.”
“Be prepared has saved Boss and me more than once. And even helped you out of a jam a couple of times.”
“Fine, MacGyver. Which way is our target tracking?”
“Well, about a kilometer ahead is an observational boardwalk.”
“Translate for those of us not fluent in Vee?”
I felt the sigh over the phone. “We’re building roaming charges here. It’s one of these things a nature center puts up. You know, you walk out on it, there’s a sign that says ‘look, there’s a plant here’ or ‘there should be a badger there.’ Except there’s never a badger.”
“Is there something about badgers from your past I should know, Vee?”
“No!” She answered a little too quickly. “Get your head on task. I’ll bet that’s her target.”
“Because the next thing is a road that’s twenty-three kilometers away.”
“Boardwalk it is.” I sped up my pace, keeping to shadows while closing the distance on Ariana.
“Louis, you’re absolutely sure you’re chasing Ariana al-Mansouri.”
“You saw the files. Wrist tattoo of a tiger and lily on the right wrist. I saw the lily and pond tattoo on the left wrist of the person shooting arrows with Tomas before I left. Besides, Ariana’s the one who rabbited the moment she saw I recognized the switch.”
“Then what’s really going on? Why switch places with Isabeau? When she graduated from ParisTech, Ariana’s skill set made her more valuable to Daddy’s empire in the long run.”
“I’ve been cogitating on this, Vee. Parts of this narrative of Manny being this loving family guy don’t add up for me.”
There were at least three beats of a pause. “Louis, I know you’re sensitive, but your judgment might be a bit clouded-”
“Admitted, but hear me out. If the family is everything, ever hear mention of the girls’ mother?”
“Hadn’t thought about that.”
“Then there was the fact that rather than keeping the girls close by to build a close family, Manny parked them somewhere else all year long every year in boarding schools.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember the Boss’ story of how they caught him?”
There was a noticeable pause. “First night home…”
“And not just any boarding schools. They were skilled enough to stop Tomas at age nine. That takes discipline. I’m sure when you’ll deep dive, you’ll find highly regimented, formal ones in another country, possibly another continent.” I took a deep breath, then continued as I moved into the shadows of a tree. “Add to that no mention of any other sort of female role model. Finally, here’s something else. Manny’s arguments about cultural issues were even wrong. Abu Dhabi may be probably the most modern state in the Middle East when it comes to women in their society – they even have a female fighter pilot.”
“Lyin’, cryin’. It isn’t paradise, but it isn’t exactly Sharia law, either. Surely Manny wouldn’t waste talent like his daughters, would he?” I looked up. Aw, damn. “That is if he could keep from misplacing them.”
I could picture Vee pinching the bridge of her nose. “What did you do? Lose her?”
“As I said, Ariana’s a rabbit. Give me a sec, I need to pick up her trail again.” I climbed a tree near the edge of a grounds to get a better overview. I opened my mouth to say something but heard Vee typing followed by swearing. “Does your boyfriend know he kisses you with that mouth?”
“Yes, quite often and quite well, thank you, Louis. It’s just, Remington. The barriers and blocks with that firm are Byzantine, and that’s being conservative. I’m starting to think we’re backing the wrong horse in this race.”
“I’m starting to wonder if there is a right horse. Knowing Manny and Miller may already be here adds to the less than warm and fuzzy. I bet Ms. al-Mansour would really love that info if she’d stop long enough for me to tell her.”
“So, where is she?”
“Let me try something.” I fished out the GoPro and selfie stick out of the pocket and turned it on. “Can you look around over my connection?”
“I can try. Yes, you have enough bandwidth. Okay, Ariana just crossed a bridge over the river to the south of you and is heading into a darkened building just outside the estate with an oversized parking lot.”
“I need an ID on that building.”
“I need an ID, please. A little bit of work, Louis, but we might just train you yet.”
“You wish, Vee. I was putting perps behind bars when you were still dunking in college.”
“True, but were they staying there?” Her computer beeped. “Got it. It’s the Clara Bog Education Center—”
“A bog needs an education center?”
“Shocking, isn’t it? I thought they were all home-schooled. But you didn’t let me finish. It’s also the branch library and recreation center.” Vee paused a moment. “Bit late for some light reading.”
“Plus, I’m not sure Gaelic is one of her four languages,” I agreed. “Wait, a car just pulled up. One of these crazy tiny ones they drive over here.” I watched as a figure bundled up in a coat got out, then reached back in and pulled out–
“A car carrier.”
“Whoever just arrived at the library to meet Ariana has a car carrier. You know, like you carry a baby in?”
“Or a weapon.”
I was getting that naked feeling again. My hand crept to the baton in my pocket. Hadn’t used it yet (telescoping carbon fiber really wasn’t all that big in the 16th century). “I know your stuff is important, Vee, but I’ve got a feeling.”
“Yeah, you and your feelings. Get me the license plate so I can run it. I’ll stay warmed up in the bullpen for you, just in case.”
“You’re the best.”
“You can show me your appreciation next time you’re back in.”
“Oh, is that an invitation, Ms. Davis?”
“Call it… a possibility. How’s Tomas?”
I looked over my shoulder at the archery range. “The Boss is buying time. Flags say he’s lost at thirty paces. They must be about to shoot at forty any time now.” A cheer went up from the crowd. “He’s doing well if that’s any indication.”
“Yeah, but how good’s the opponent? Never mind, I’ll get the play-by-play later. Get over there to that library and get me the license plate so I can figure out who was in that car.”
“Oh, I love it when you’re bossy.” I dropped out of the tree and skirted the edge of the bog. It had gotten dark, but luckily my model Swiss Army Knife came with a small LED flashlight. It didn’t throw far, just enough to keep me on the right path avoid the occasional root sticking up. It was weird jogging on the bog. It had the feel of being both springy and moist at the same time, like a waterlogged trampoline. It slurped with every step as I moved across it. On the one hand, stealth is not an option. Then again, someone sneaking up on me here would have to be really, really good. Glass half full. Nobody around about to attack me. Yay me.
I made it to the bridge Ariana used, a simple metal framework designed to support electrical cables. Definitely not Louis rated. I took a deep breath, then dashed onto it and ran for the other side. It began to moan and bend the moment my weight hit it, the metal’s complaints growing with each step. As I reached the far side, one of the primary support struts twisted underneath the deck and snapped. I stumbled onto the concrete, then looked back. The bridge deck hung sideways over the fast-moving river. I’d have to find another way to sneak back in among the Scadians.
I headed for the car. Ford Fiesta, 2012, maybe 2013. Under the single working mercury street lamp in the lot, it could have been black, could have blue. I took a pic of the license plate and sent it along to Vee. 131-D 0648. The only thing I remember is the D stands for Dublin. I looked at the library doors. Nobody was making their way out, so I walked around and risked the back door.
Something fell at my feet. I recognized the baby seat right away. It was the same model we’d used for Bree. It let us carry her in and out with just a quick snap. Then I looked down. My heart stopped.
Kids bring baggage.
It was just a stuffed animal. Only a purple unicorn with wings. But I must have stared at it for a good half-minute before I bring myself to pick it up and carefully brush any dirt off it.
Hello, Princess Sparkle. Just who do you belong to?
There was a quiet pop, and the parking lot went dark. My instincts kicked in. I slammed the car door shut and ran to the library.