The pipes in the ceiling crisscrossing over parked cars, mundane and exotic in design, throughout the three-story garage. Some of the pipes are cracked and drip water on the vehicles below. Most of the ones affected are mundane, but one exotic car with its top down is going to have a soggy passenger seat. Stark passes by that vehicle without empathy, her eyes sailing past to the next row of cars.
She uses the drips to cover up her footsteps as she searches the garage, concerned her undercover attire may not be sufficient camouflage. She knows that the most reliable witnesses are the ones who can recount details with at least two senses, so she hopes to disguise her auditory presence as much as possible.
Visually, her red hair is hidden underneath a blonde wig with a ponytail and a cap. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses conceal a majority of her freckles. Instead of her usual officer uniform, she’s dressed in a baby-blue blouse with a violet star on the back, black jeans, and plain black sneakers. Her public image is still in disrepair, so she dons the disguise now to waste no more time finding Reddic. She dials Syerus.
“Are you sure I can find her gift here?” she says as a couple enters her side of the garage.
“Her gift? What do–”
“Samuel, come on,” she whispers venomously, evoking laughter from the passing couple.
“Right, undercover. Sorry. But if the gift is what I think it is, then I’m sure it’s there.”
“How sure?” Stark rounds the corner to the next level.
“Cat and Andrew are my top sources. If they say it’s there, it’s there. I trust them, and you trust me. So, yeah.”
“And now they have mine. Provisionally,” Stark announces as she brushes her hands on the back of the FHA_030 license plate. The jeep is parked beside a pillar with a partially recoiled cable with five metallic prongs protruding. “It’s here this time.”
“I guarantee it was also at the Juniper Mercy Hospital yesterday, too.”
“Were Cat and Andrew on that case, also?”
“No. That was the work of Julian and Brandon.”
“Get rid of those two.” Stark presses and holds an orange button next to a plate with five holes. A thin rectangular screen on the opposite side powers on and reads “96%” above a yellow bar.
“You want me to fire my friends?”
“If you won’t, I will. You’re bringing too many faces into this mess, anyway. Now, listen to this. Most cars these days run off of electricity, but they have rest-reset modifications to preserve power while they’re off. Older models like the jeeps and buses at Four Hearts still have the glitch where two percent decays every half hour. Based on what I see here, Reddic’s been in this part of town for an ho- make that an hour and a half…approximately,” she says when the number lowers another two percent.
“So, he’s close.”
“Stay by the phone,” she orders before hanging up. She races to the steps in the corner of the floor. She envisions a two-dimensional map of downtown Jupiter City in her mind’s eye. Three green lines and one red one extend from her position on that map to distinct landmarks.
Ambulatory routes from here don’t leave him with too many options. There’s the mall proper, but I doubt he has shopping on his agenda. That leaves the McWinter Free Clinic, the Jupiter Museum of Art, and Armory Lane. Based on past reports, I know where to start.
The last surviving green line leads to a long road a mile from the parking garage.
Armory Lane is aptly named for the two blocks dominated by stores with weapons in their signage and storefronts decorated with enticing deals. The one thing keeping the owners civil is that each shop specializes in a different weapon or shield. The second of the shield stores from the main road focuses on heaters. The signage says “Ready Parebi” but both of the A’s are replaced by orange and black heaters. The window stickers showing off knights in shining armor wielding heaters tickles Reddic. He enters with his trademark jocund grin, ready to put the owner at ease when the bell above the door rings.
The man at the counter is assisting a family of three; a father purchasing heaters the same colors as on the signage for his son and daughter. He lights up the moment he sees Reddic. “Red!” he greets enthusiastically, startling the family. “My apologies,” he tells them, then turns to his right. “Cam, come and finish up here, please, and thank you!” He races over and hugs Reddic warmly. “Red, where have you been? No calls, no texts for a year? You’re lucky I don’t slap you for showing up unannounced. Come!”
“It’s been a busy year, Parebi. And I imagine for you, too. I saw the two new stores on the corner.”
“Ah, you know the turnover rate here. Those two will be replaced before long by another pair. But Ready Parebi is eternal!” the owner declares. He unlocks and holds open a door. “After you, Red.”
Reddic steps into an office and sniggers at the home décor. “The couch?”
“Me and the missus aren’t on the same page right now,” Parebi states.
“Where haven’t you been, Red.”
Parebi pushes the couch closer to his desk and kicks up a corner of the carpet. A hatch in the floor with a keypad rests in that same corner and hisses open when Parebi punches in the code. Reddic follows him down a staircase into a room with only a phone booth and a computerized stereo inside. Parebi skips to the stereo and fires it on, entering a swift series of keyboard commands.
“How long do you need?”
“Ten minutes. I’ll be in and out.”
“Just for my own edification, how urgent is it on a scale of one to ten?”
“For myself, a four. The other party, one hundred.”
“Then get to business. Just tap on the door twice when you leave so I know you’re clear.”
“And do not haunt me after again, Red. I will hurt you,” Parebi says half-jokingly before leaving him alone.
The hatch stays open, but Reddic hears the office open and close. It’s at that point that Fanger becomes visible from his shoulders up in the corner. He lowers onto his semi-visible belly with a soft purr.
If only I had the time, but I’d rather not burden Parebi with my nonsense.
Reddic takes a second to savor the positive energy Parebi leaves wafting everywhere he goes. The news he has to deliver, as well as his antics in general, are bound to rub the other party the wrong way. He connects his phone to the same USB port that the phone and stereo are plugged into. Ten pixelated unlocked locks appear on the stereo’s screen. One by one the locks are secured, and that’s when Reddic dials out.
“Reddic?” asks a condescending female voice. “Is this call worth my time?”
“More worth than a call with Holt,” Reddic says with an intense frown on his face. The name even forces a soft growl from Fanger.
“I can hear the failure in your voice. No news on the Exulsi copycats?”
“I checked Jupiter Mercy and found at least six cases of patients with throat scars leaving them mute. All are over two weeks old and no new cases since. Your copycats are in the wind.”
“Son of a–” The rest of her curse is drowned out by a loud crash and shattering glass.
“How long did that chandelier last?”
After the woman calms herself, she says, “Ignore that. Is there any chance you can pick up on their trail?”
“It would eclipse the two weeks the headmaster gave me.”
“Don’t you mean that you gave him?”
“I have to play nice right now. I’m the new fish. Tease them too hard and they’ll tip my bowl on its side. And you have a network of spies. You telling me they can’t do this?”
“Red tape is a damned nightmare! We have a military base in the area, but they’re kept as clueless as can be. Getting access to hospital records two weeks late doesn’t help. The only reason Venesi was able to save that officer at your request was because of in house influence. So, tell me Reddic, how deep does your game go?”
“Ignore that…for now,” Reddic says. He needs her approval for this meeting, but he knows the damage Lady Khadijah would cause if she knew his plan.
“For now, only. One day, you will divulge this scheme in its entirety.”
“Does that mean you’ll allow Kirby to meet with me without a wire?”
“I don’t require such pedestrian tricks. One order and Kirby will inform me of every detail of your talk, down to the tiniest of eye twitches or pauses between sentences.”
This is a stupid risk, but I can’t make my next move without Kirby’s approval, and this is too much to risk being found through some cellular investigation.
“You have Kirby for 24 hours from the moment he lays eyes on you. Do not hold him one second longer.”
The call ends. The locks on the stereo screen unlock before the screen itself cuts off.
Reddic doesn’t even bother going invisible as he would normally, but Fanger does. He bids farewell to Parebi with a regrettable scowl, and makes a plan to apologize later by way of flowers to his missus in Parebi’s place.
The bigger issue is getting to Kirby. I can’t roll into Fraise with the school jeep. I need no more interested parties aimed at Nuria than there already are.
Reddic makes a beeline for the parking garage, speeding past a window shopper with a violet star on the back of her shirt.
Tailing the frantic Reddic to the parking garage comes easy. The distraught nature of his haste puts a question mark in Stark’s mind. She makes sure to always stay one block behind him. She keeps tabs on him through his brown double-breasted vest and white dress shirt, his height helping stick out from the crowd. Once she enters the parking garage, she passes by the FHA_030 jeep, but it’s empty.
Stark heads back to the yellow box car she borrowed from Syerus and slides into the driver’s seat. She recalls every drippy pipe on the floors she searched and shuts her eyes. She expands her senses beyond herself and locates each resultant puddle on a radar, linking her sight and hearing to each one. Each puddle grants her only a narrow cone of vision, but she puts more stock in the sounds and noises nearby. She scans and discards the silent ones right away. She almost discards the view from the exotic car with the top down when she hears a car door shut.
“Come on, Fanger,” she hears Reddic’s voice unmistakably say.
She blinks her eyes open when both her liquid and solid ears hear a car engine start. She peers over her shoulder as the sports car’s rear lights blare. The bottom of the car is much closer to the ground than it should be. She tries to get a look at this Fanger person, but doesn’t see anyone in the passenger seat.
Another person with invisibility? That’s just…fantastic. Looks like Neth was right to be suspicious after all.
Stark starts the box car and intends to follow, making a mental note to apologize to Syerus later. She puts the car in reverse when her phone rings; a call from Warden Crata. She lets it go to voice mail knowing a text will come if it’s urgent. She curses when she reads:
SOS! Liamria is in town!
Stark peers over her shoulder again at Reddic’s vanishing grand theft auto.
Stark drops her phone and puts the box car in gear.