Eve had provided me with a phone number. I called the number and gave the chick who answered my authorization (another damn pin code) and a couple of hours later I had all the information I needed to clear them to stay in Aster or send them on their way. I wasn’t running a retirement home for spies, what I was doing was trying to keep everybody safe. These guys were far from useless, they had a special skill set. Even more important that had the ability and the willingness to do things other people couldn’t do,
It never occurred to me that those skills would ever come in handy in Aster, until a child went missing. The child had been picked up in the family van from play school by the nanny. The little girl hadn’t been seen since. Aster isn’t the kind of town where a van and it’s occupants disappear. I mean we are not talking alien abduction here.
The child was a cute little girl of four. Her parents were just ordinary people. There was no reasonable explanation for the abduction. So of course all of us assumed the worst.
I got involved early on because Blevins knew all about Vlad and Anya. Blevins had known both in another life. Blevins informed me that the nanny was from Eastern Europe. He knew that there was a small group of Europeans coming over to retire in Aster. Of course he didn’t really know why. He knew that Vlad and Anya had moved in across the street from me. so he called me to ask that I check with anyone I could think of for information. The cops needed a motive for the abduction. Without it, knowing where to start looking for the child was going to be impossible.
I walked across the street to the Drugstore Townhouses. I knocked on Vlad’s door. ‘Maxine, what brings you all the way over here?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Do you know anything about Sheryl Martin, the little girl who has gone missing?” I asked.
“Are you accusing me of something?” he snapped angrily.
“Vlad, you know me. If I thought you had anything to do with this. I would have you looking down the barrel of a pistol at this moment.” I said.
“Or tied to a chair with wires leading from my nipples to a lamp switch,” he said with a smile. “Do you have any reason to believe I should know something?”
“What I have reason to believe, is that most of the newcomers are from Eastern Europe. Those are people you know well. The nanny was a teenager from one of those old Soviet places. The cops are all over her parents as well as the missing child’s parents. So far they have nothing.”
“So they asked you to nose around?” he guessed.
“I came to you of course, I need to know if the family was involved in anything they should not have been. The nanny could have been involved in something as well. Vlad you know we don’t have much time.”
“Max, go home, make some coffee and get out your lamp cord,” he said quietly.
“I am not going to be the KGB of Aster. If you find that one of the newcomers is involved, we call in the heavy hitters. If it’s some local thugs the local cops can have it. All I am going to do is pass on information.” I said.
“First we need to get information,” Anya said from the bedroom doorway. “Go home, we will make calls about the Nanny. We will also see if the family of the child is known by our people.”
“Anya, you know we can’t settle this ourselves. We have to turn it over to the cops, or the company?” I asked it looking her in the eyes.
“We do what we have to do to survive Maxine. You know that is our way. We will try to keep it open and legal. That is your way and we respect it.”
What she didn’t say, was that if for some reason the cops, or the company couldn’t, or wouldn’t handle it, there were about twenty people in town, who could make the pope disappear. It was something everyone hoped wouldn’t be necessary, but it was doable.
I turned and was headed back to my house to make a large pot of coffee. When I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me, I looked up expecting to see Leon. Instead I was greeted by Tiny Dancer. She was all dressed as if just back from her morning walk at the mall. I did not need to ask where she had been, since Leon occupied the only condo on the top floor.
Since the Dancer was dressed in her mall outfit, it was obvious that she had been with Leon in some capacity beyond selling him girl scout cookies. So that would be ‘Euro Trash Wanna Be’ spending time with ‘Arrogant Euro trash’. For some reason it struck me funny.
“So, you off for the mall?” I asked. “Kind of late today aren’t you”
“Busted,” she said in her best gangsta voice. which was pretty awful. “I was there earlier. I came to have coffee with Leon and haven’t had time to get home yet. The smile she gave me left no doubt that the attraction wasn’t coffee at all. I nodded and walked away.
When I got home, even though it was only 4PM, I called the Cowboy’s Bar and Grill. “Sarah this is Maxine Stone. I need some information,” I said forcefully.
“What do you need hon?” she asked.
“Has anybody mentioned the little girl that went missing a couple of hours ago?” I asked.
“Who is missing?” she asked.
“Some four year old named Sheryl went missing after her day school. She left with her nanny in a white van. If anyone mentions her call me. This is a kid we are talking about, so it’s important,” I said.
After Sarah I made a few more calls then just gave up in frustration. There had to be more that I could do, but at that moment I didn’t know what it would be. I decided to pump Blevins for information. I expected to get nothing or very little.
“Blevins,” I said when I got him on the phone. “I got some people looking into the nanny and the family from a different perspective, nothing so far. How about you? Do you have the van yet?” I asked.
“We found the van at the park where the nanny took the little girl now and then. She should not have taken her there today though. After play school she is supposed to take the little girl straight home for a snack and a nap.” Blevins informed me.
“So what did the van look like inside?” I asked.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” he said.
“Blevins, I can maybe help you. If nothing else, you know I will not compromise the investigation, so you need to keep me in the loop all the way. If not, you know I can go rogue and that would not be a good thing.” Yes it was definitely a threat. I was either in or out, but either way I was a player by that time. As they say on TV, I was invested.
“Well?” I asked putting him on he spot.
“There didn’t appear to have been any violence inside the van.” he replied finally.
“Have you come up with any witnesses?” I asked.
“No witnesses, no traffic cam videos either,” he informed me.
“Are you sure that it was the nanny who picked the little girl up?” I asked.
“Yes and it was the family van,” Blevins said to me. “Now what about you?”
“Nothing yet on the nanny, nobody in my circles knows anything or at least they are not admitting to it. Right now we are looking for the girl, if we don’t find her tonight, I expect to be looking for a body.”
“Yeah, I know. This just feels like a kidnap for ransom kind of thing. There is no reason to take the nanny for any other reason,” Blevins said.
“So how is the family’s finances?” I asked.
“Strictly middle class, we can’t find anything they are involved in to warrant a ransom.” Blevins said.
I made a mental note to check with my contact at the farm. Sometimes things were not at all what the seemed. “Well I’m checking in the Russian community that has sprung up lately,” I admitted.
“Would that be Vlad or Anya?” he asked.
“That would be both. This is a child, there are different rules for children. Only the worst of the worst would do this for money,” I said. “So who are the father and mother. Are they Russian or any other immigrants?”
“Not that we can tell,” he informed me. “They both have middle class jobs. They work in Tryon and live in Aster where the cost of living is less. The nanny would be a babysitter in any other context. She is called nanny because she is European. The family likes to put on airs.”
“Is it possible somebody mistook them for money?” I asked.
“Not if they did any checking. The family us living just a heartbeat away from being above their means. There is no cash or savings at all.”
“Well, If I’m going to kidnap for ransom, I am going to make damn sure the family can pay.” I said.
“Yeah me too,” Blevins agreed. “If anyone has contacted the family they are denying it.”
“If they can’t pay, they would be all over you to help them, maybe it’s something they think they can do. I’m going to have some people I know continue looking into the family as well as the nanny.” I said.
“You better hurry, if this is for ransom, we should be hearing soon. Then it will be moot. We have a tap on their phones.” he said. “That might be productive.”
“I heard the latest trick is to send them a burn phone to get ahead of the cops,” I said it just to give Blevins a heads up on some of the new tricks the spies were using.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” he said. “I got to go. If you hear anything let me know.”
Thirty minutes later Vlad and Anya were at my door. “What do you know?” I asked not being very polite. They didn’t seem to notice. Anya went to the kitchen for coffee and Vlad walked to my window on the street to watch the traffic and people pass.
“The girl is part of the extended family of one of our operatives. She is living here in Aster with her Uncle and Aunt who were with us. She could have been contacted by either someone in the Russian community, or someone inside intelligence.” Vlad said.
“So, it’s all about why they chose that little girl. The nanny could be the clue to who, but first we have to know who the child’s parents are to know whose cages to rattle.” I observed.
“You get on the who ‘mama and poppa’ are and we will take care of interviewing our people. We need to keep this under wraps.” Anya said.
“Yes we do,” I agreed. “There were ten family members for each of the retirees at least. We didn’t need their shit being traced back to us.”
I got the call from the farm two hours later, I put it on speaker, since Vlad and Anya were still in the apartment. Eve had explained the company’s super duper computer. It was a hundred times smarter than Watson.
It took the super duper computer about thirty seconds to find the connections, but it took two hours to get on the damn thing, or so they said. “Maxine the machine tells me that the kidnapper’s connection to the missing girl is through the Nanny. It’s like 80% sure,
“I don’t understand, how you came up with that?” I admitted.
“We fed everything known about this case into our super duper computer. The clues were given probability ratings. The fact that they kept the Nanny suggest that they need her to take care of the child and to keep her calm. That gave ransom as a motive with a 70% rating. When we factored their financial status it fell to 40%. Then the computer factored in each of the parents as a source of information or actions. When we pulled that the mother worked as a sorta drug salesman, ransom kidnap odds went up again.
The computer thinks that someone brought pressure on the Nanny to give up the child’s information. Then somehow they convinced her to go along with them. The child’s mother is a salesman and delivery driver. Mom places the day’s orders from her route, then she picks up the orders and sorts them by destination. Then she spends all day running her route taking orders and delivering the drugs from the day before. Mostly its nursing homes and drug stores. The truck is unmarked, so there is almost no chance of a holdup. Besides there would be very few hard drugs on the truck at any one time.
Somebody wants her to give up the security details for the warehouse. They want the access codes and guard information.”
”Any ideas who it might be?” I asked.
”The computer says there is a 75% chance that it is someone she knows. That pretty much makes it one of her own people. Maxine she is most likely pretty deeply involved, but she might not know the final plan.”
“What does the computer say that is?” I asked even though I knew.
“No witnesses only conspirators,” the chick on the farm suggested.”
Vlad and Anya both nodded their head in agreement. I hung up the phone pretty discouraged.