Friday, February 24, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 24 of 42

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Chapter 24: Calls
Mara Brooke rushed to the door. “Yes?”
A large man in a black suit opened his wallet to show a government ID. “Thompson, FBI. This is Boyer.” The other man nodded, stone-faced. “Can we talk?”
She let them in. Her only question spilled out of her. “Is it Deena? Have you heard anything?”
“Your daughter, Ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes. She’s been gone a whole day now! That Jennings boy took her away.”
He pulled out a photo. “Do you recognize this person?”
Mara nodded. “That’s him. Younger, but that’s Luther Jennings.”
“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Brooke. This is Luke Haskell. His father, a contract worker at a Nevada military base, is suspected of removing classified documents. The FBI is attempting to locate the boy. We believe he might still have them in his possession. Any help you might give us would be greatly appreciated.”
Mara babbled on, protesting Deena’s innocence and detailing her deepest fears about the untrustworthy boy, and his deceitful aunt. With little prompting, she gave a detailed replay of her visit to Katy Ferril’s house.
“But no one can find either of them. I’m afraid it’s a kidnapping plot to steal away my Deena.”
He nodded. “Do you have a recent photo of your daughter?”
“Oh yes.” She jumped up and returned with the senior class photo proofs she had never returned. He took one and peered at the image of the timid, hunched over, fat girl. His expressionless eyes made no judgment, but he memorized the hair, eyes, and face. 
“May I keep this? I’ll return it when our investigation is done.”
Deena ate two burgers. Luther had trouble working through one of them.
He’s upset about his parents. She thought of her own mother.
He looked up from his fries. 
“I need to make a phone call. I promised to call my Mom. She’s probably worried sick about me.
“Could I use your phone?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have it. It’s back in Crescent City.”
“Oh, no. It isn’t. You’d dropped it at school. I picked it up. It’s in the car.”
He sat straight upright. “What! Oh no.”
Grabbing her arm, he pulled her outside. “Show me the phone!”
“Okay.” She jerked loose from his grip. “Don’t get so huffy!” She rummaged through the back seat. His tidy packing had become tumbled by her repeated dressing back there.
“Here it is. Good as new.” She handed it over.
He took one glance at the blank screen and then unclipped the battery. “Do you know if it was turned on?”
“No, I don’t. Why?”
He looked at the phone in one hand and its battery in the other.
His voice was tense. He explained, every word hard and clear. “Because a cell phone can be tracked, just by being turned on! Every cell tower talks to every phone in range. The system has to know which tower is closest to each phone, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to complete the call.
“Somewhere in the phone company computers, a log of all these connections is kept. Someone with a court order, or a bribe, can locate any active phone.
“I dropped this in the grass on purpose, the instant I knew I had to get out of town. I didn’t want to be tracked.”
Deena could see him holding in his anger.
“I didn’t know,” she whispered. “So they know where we are?”
He held up the battery. “If the phone was on, they can know we headed south. At least until the battery went dead. If it was turned off, then we are still safe.”
She frowned. “Can’t you just.... Oh. No, you can’t just turn it on to see if the battery is still charged. That would give them a signal, wouldn’t it?”
Luther nodded. “But it was off. They won’t know how far we’ve come.”
He tossed the phone and its battery back into the car.
Deena asked, cautiously, “I still need to call Mom. I promised. There’s a pay phone over there.”
He shook his head. “Your mother’s phone bill would have its number. A reverse-lookup would give them this exact location.
She understood the problem. “Then I can’t ever call her? I wish I hadn’t said anything, then.”
He watched her for a moment. She felt like a bug under a microscope. What could he be thinking?
His shoulders sagged. “You made a promise. There may be a way. But we’ll need to get to a bigger city to make it happen. Come on.”
The dog scratched at the door again. Katy sat up on her bed when she heard the sound of a key in the lock.
The black beast pushed the door open and rushed her, mouth open. She jumped up on her bed, but he got his teeth on her arm.
For just an instant, she felt the agony as his jaws tightened and his teeth sank deeper into her flesh. Then the dog obeyed and released her. Blood and pain oozed from her arm.
Leo Dryer patted his pet’s head and handed him a treat.
“Here.” He tossed her a towel. “Better stop that bleeding before it gets all over everything.”
Katy dabbed and wrapped the gashed arm. It burned from the laceration. She cried from the pain.
Leo pulled up a chair and sat comfortably while she worked. Ruben, the dog, sat quietly by his side.
“So, you have been helping the Haskell boy in Crescent City, have you? Mr. Benedict wouldn’t be pleased to hear of such disloyalty in one of his former employees.”
Through clenched teeth, chattering from shock, she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t play games. Thompson has called this morning. He told me all about your little visit with Mrs. Brooke and her daughter—Deena is it?
“The sooner you tell me where he is, the less likely Thompson will have to...question...your new friends.”
Boyer monitored the radio scanner while Thompson scanned the schoolyard with binoculars. He checked one blonde teenage girl after another, trying to match what he was seeing with the photo they had gotten after doing an Internet search on “Bryony Sawyer”.
Thompson’s FBI credentials were good enough to bluff an old lady, but he didn’t want to risk them going through the school’s office staff. Educators were more paranoid about risks to children these days.
He needed to get the Sawyer girl alone.
Boyer sat up straight in the car and started the engine. “Our tap is hot. A call’s coming into the Brooke phone. It’s from the 801 area code—Utah.”
Thompson put down his glasses and buckled his seatbelt. The girl would just have to wait.
Deena heard her mother’s voice through the noisy connection. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mom. It’s me. I’m fine.”
“Deena! Where are you? I’ve been worried sick.”
“I can’t tell you, Mom. I just wanted to call and tell you everything is fine.”
“You get home right this instant! If that boy....”
“Mom, I’ll be a few days. Luther has been a perfect gentleman.”
Across the table at the coffee shop, Luther was counting down seconds on his fingers.
“He can’t be trusted. People were here....”
“Mom, you raised me to be a good girl. Trust that you did a good job! Don’t worry. I love you. Bye.”
She set down the phone. Luther tapped a key on his laptop computer.
“Was that okay?”
He nodded. “Short, no details. It was fine.”
Deena sipped on her bitter coffee. “The call was real noisy, but it worked.”
“I’m surprised it worked at all. Voice-over-IP needs consistent bandwidth to keep the audio from breaking up. I’ve used these Free Internet hotspots before, and the network quality is erratic. At least you don’t have to use your credit card to get a connection.
“As long as I’ve got the setup working, I should probably try to call Katy.”
He made the connection to the anonymizing proxy in Poland. From there, he activated the VoIP software and picked up the phone he had plugged into his laptop’s adapter. He dialed the Malibu number and a computer system in Utah connected his Internet signal to the telephone network.
“Yeah?” A man’s voice answered.
Luther hung up immediately. 
Deena looked puzzled.
“She’s not at home.” He looked grim.
Deena took his hand and squeezed it. Luther came out of his dark thoughts and began packing up the laptop and the VoIP interface box.
“You’re worried about her.”
He nodded. “My brain knew she was in deep trouble, but somehow I hoped.... I felt like she had eluded Thompson and was just waiting it out.
“I guess I was wrong.”
Deena asked, “Who is this Thompson?”
“Muscle for Leo Drye, who in turn is under Angelo Benedict. Dad was part of that organization, somehow, and they killed him.”
“And now they have Katy?”
He nodded.
“What do they want? What’s so important to them?”
Luther picked up his gear and said, “Come with me.”
In the parking lot, he opened the trunk and put away his computer gear.
“Look here.” He slid one box off of another and opened the lower one a few inches.
Deena looked in. There were stacks and stacks of little plastic trays. Each contained several gold coins.
Luther gave her a good look, then closed the box and stacked the other items on top of it.
“How much?” Deena asked.
“Let’s get moving first.”
“When I first counted it, I thought two million dollars in gold was the reason Benedict’s men killed my father. Now I’m not so sure.”
They were moving slowly in city traffic. A few hours to the south was San Francisco and they were in one long chain of urban development along the highway.
“Because two million dollars is nothing to a man like Benedict. Perhaps it was his private coin collection and he was personally offended, but I don’t really buy that. There aren’t any really rare coins in there. It’s just typical bullion coins. He probably had that as a little insurance policy. It’s the only handy way to carry untraceable money around.”
“Why untraceable?”
“Gold is gold. There aren’t any serial numbers on coins like there are on paper currency, and there are gold dealers all over the world who will give you the current going price, no questions asked. For a man like Benedict, who probably has his own private plane and doesn’t have to deal with airport security guards, it would be a way to move value around freely, without banks making a record of it.”
“You could give it back to him.”
Luther shook his head. “No. Never! He killed my parents.”
“Not even to buy your own safety, or Katy’s freedom?”
Luther clenched his teeth. “No. Deena you don’t know these people. They don’t think like you do. They kill people. Why would they honor any trade deal with me? They would take the money and then ‘tidy up the loose ends’. That’s you and me.
“No deals with Benedict or any of his goons.”

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