Water Fall: Cold Leads

Six Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

After four days we were almost done. Circuit had left information on nearly a hundred different pieces of property among the papers we’d recovered from his warehouse a few weeks ago. But so far digging into the real estate agents and owners of those properties hadn’t turned anything up. The last stop we were making was also the most significant.  Keller Development held almost a third of the properties on Circuit’s list and of those, the firm had acquired more than half in the last six months.  All things considered Analysis felt that they had the best chance of being a front, patsy or even co-conspirator in whatever Circuit was doing.

It had also taken longest to get an appointment with them, although that didn’t mean much either way as they were also the largest firm we’d been dealing with. In addition to it’s multiple commercial and residential real estate holdings, Keller’s also owned a medium sized stretch of waterfront, the marina there was where the firm’s founders had gotten their start. While he had few holdings outside the county the owner, Roger Keller, was still something of a political force in the city. Project Sumter was an agency of the national government but that didn’t mean we didn’t like to maintain good local relations as well, so asking questions without drawing heat was going to be a priority. I was planning on letting Teresa do most of the talking.

Provided, of course, she could stay awake for the interview. She’d slept through almost the entire drive to the Keller offices, and I was hoping the hour of rest would help her keep her mind clear. We had nothing so far and I was hoping that things would be different by the time we were done.

Even so, I hesitated to wake her up after putting the car into park and switching off the engine. She’d proven a remarkably sharp, aggressive and reliable supervisor in the time I’d worked with her but I knew she was what she was because she also came with baggage. While I have something most people would consider a superpower I don’t have much in the way of emotional trauma to go with it. Sure, some people might say I have a chip on my shoulder but I suspect that has more to do with being short and scrawny than anything else.

On the other hand, Teresa had set out to get the job she had in part as a way to cope. Not doing it, or doing it badly, would probably be worse for her in the long run than loosing a little sleep. I nudged her gently. “Teresa. We’re here.”

Asleep she looked remarkably peaceful but as soon as she snapped awake layers of stress started to roll down over her face, followed by the fine tuned professionalism that kept the old troubles in and new ones out.  It was kind of sad to watch, really. “Good. We’re here,” she said, rubbing grit from her eyes. I glanced away, Teresa always stretches after sitting for a while and it’s the kind of thing that leads red blooded guys to stare in ways that would get me smacked by my dad and chewed out by my mom. “Where are we?”

Okay, so there was a crack in the usual professional façade. “Last place on the list of real estate developers.” I grabbed the stack of folders in the back seat and flipped through them until I found the right one. “You feeling okay there, boss?”

“Just tired.” She took the folder from me and got out of the car.

I followed suit after putting the other folders back. “Do you remember which one that is?”

“Uh…”

I stopped, more than a little surprised. This wasn’t just a crack in the façade, this was starting to look like a full blown break. I turned and looked at her over the top of my old, beat up Ford Escort. “Look, Teresa, I know you’re old friends with Senator Dawson and his family. His daughter was your friend, got you this job, helped you live the dream. But if you stay up all night kibitzing on the investigation into her disappearance you’re going to be too tired to learn anything that will help with her case; to say nothing of the one you’re actually assigned to.”

A flicker of irritation passed under her mask of propriety, another troubling crack in her usual aura of competence. “Helix-”

“I’m serious. We need your A game here.” I shrugged. “I’m not going to say no one I’ve known in the Project has ever taken on extra curricular investigations, because that would make me a liar. But you can’t let it interfere with your assignments.”

She sighed. “Okay, fine. Your advice is appreciated.”

“Good.” I pushed off the car and headed for the building, a tall, well built place with a bunch of architectural flourishes like columns and shaped blocks which probably have technical terms of some sort. Me, I didn’t know them but I could tell it was a fancy place.

But local development firms, even fairly prosperous ones, didn’t need an entire building like that for their offices. They did take up the whole top floor, though. As we waited for the elevator in the lobby Teresa said, “So I didn’t read the brief on this place. Bring me up to speed.”

“Sure.” I took the folder and flipped it open to the most relevant statistics as we stepped into the elevator and Teresa punched in our destination. “Keller owns a large number of the properties we’re looking into, most of the commercial buildings and at least half of the smaller rental properties. They don’t deal in private real estate, so none of the houses on the list have-”

“Wait.” I glanced up from the file to find Teresa looking a bit like a deer in the headlights. “These are the Keller Development offices?”

“Yes…” I flipped the folder back closed slowly. “This is probably the most important interview in the batch and anything significant learned here is just going to wind up in our laps anyway. I figured we might as well do the legwork ourselves and kept it for us when handing out assignments.”

Teresa sighed and rubbed a thumb along the bridge of her nose. “Helix, I know you looked into my background when I first joined up.”

I could feel myself blushing a little. “Look, that was-”

“I’m not complaining because it was entirely justified given the circumstances,” she said, ignoring me completely. “But I’m surprised you didn’t come up with the names Keller, Sykes and Oldfather.”

With a sinking feeling I started to suspect where this conversation was going. The elevator opened with a cheerful ding and I instinctively stuck out a hand to keep the door from closing as I said, “I’ve heard of Roger Keller before. Who hasn’t, around here? But Sykes and Oldfather are mysteries to me.”

“You must have done a really roundabout job investigating, then.” She shook her head and stepped out into the lobby. “I can understand not knowing Kevin Oldfather, but Matthew Sykes? You’ve really never heard of him?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“Then you are in luck.” I turned and found a middle aged man in a wheel chair making his way across the lobby towards us. While Keller Development’s lobby was full of low benches and potted plants that should have made maneuvering across the floor a challenge for him; he handled the obstacles with something approaching grace and all the while kept his face turned towards the two of us. The face in question had a sleepy, relaxed look. “I’ve heard of Matthew Sykes,” he added, in case we had been wondering. “Few know more about him than me, in fact, seeing as I am him.”

Teresa made a funny squeaking sound that I did my best to cover for. “Quite a coincidence, Mr. Sykes,” I said, nudging Herrera in the hope that she would calm down a bit. “Do you work for Mr. Keller, or are you an associate?”

“Work for-” He laughed, the chair rolling to a stop.

“Mr. Sykes is the owner of Sykes Telecommunications, Hel-” Teresa caught herself before she used my codename in public and smoothly turned it into something else. “He owns one of the largest fiber optic networks in the state, among other things.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard your name before.”

“Not a problem, really,” Sykes said, wheeling himself the last few feet over to us. He was wearing a light gray suit and matching tie that looked expensive enough but, by contrast, his wheelchair was a very basic metal and fabric thing. Not what I would have expected from a well moneyed business man. At the very least I would have expected something self propelled, although from the looks of his hands and upper body Matthew Sykes was benefiting from the exercise. “STC is primarily based in Springfield. We’ve been expanding in this area over the last several years but we’re hardly a household name yet. Which makes me wonder how it is that you’ve heard of me, young lady.”

Teresa glanced down at her hands quickly, composed herself, although I’m not sure Sykes noticed the difference between flustered and normal, and said, “I was sponsored by the Oldfather Fund when I was seventeen. One of the first, actually.”

“I see. That would be what, eight, nine years ago?” Sykes turned thoughtful, his gaze went off into the distance as he absently drummed his fingers on the arm of his wheelchair. “Seventeen is unusually old, even for us. What’s your name, if I could ask?”

“Teresa Herrera.” She hesitated, then added, “Before, it was Ortiz.”

“You forgot ‘Senior Special Agent’,” I said, moving slightly so I could see the two of them at once and displaying my ID. Like most such cards carried by Sumter agents it placed us with the government agency we were currently working with. I’ve had as many as two dozen in a year before. “We’re with the FBI. Care to clue me in to what we’re talking about?”

“Relax.” I caught Teresa giving my ID a quick glance to remember what my current identity was. Hopefully she’d mention it out loud, I wasn’t really sure what it was at the moment either. “It’s most likely not directly relevant to this case.”

Sykes laughed again. “I would hope not. The Oldfather Fund is a charity, Agent…” He squinted at my badge for a second when I didn’t supply my own name. “Agent Hoffman. We help people finance adoptions.”

“There’s… a need for that?”

“It’s very expensive, sometimes.” Sykes shrugged. “Frequently more so than having a child in a state of the art hospital. But we specialize in helping people who are interested in adopting a child with more challenging circumstances.”

“Challenging?” I glanced at Teresa. Her birth father had been killed by a talent codenamed Lethal Injection, a serial killer who used his control over the viscosity of liquids in strange and disturbing ways.

But Teresa seemed to guess what I was thinking and shook her head slightly. “Once children are past the age of five or six their odds of getting adopted drop dramatically. Anyone older than ten is virtually guaranteed to remain in the system until they reach adulthood.”

Which didn’t sound like a great way to grow up but didn’t directly tie the Oldfather Fund back to the case. It also didn’t sound like a the Oldfather fund specifically dealt with children who had had some kind of a brush with talented people. “I see. And Mr. Keller is a member of this fund?”

“Sure.” Sykes leaned back in his wheelchair causing the material to creak slightly. I realized that it wasn’t quite the barebones package I had thought it was – it wasn’t made of metal and canvas it was made of metal and leather. I wondered absently if it was a custom job or if you could just order them out of a magazine somewhere.

Sykes went on, unaware of my moment of distraction. “Kevin Oldfather interviewed Roger and I while writing a book on older children and the foster system. We were two of the rare adoptees over the age of ten.”

“What Matthew forgets to mention is that we were chosen as much to keep the family business in the family as anything.” If Sykes didn’t look much like a high powered business man in his simple suit and wheelchair, the new guy did. His slicked black hair and neatly trimmed goatee clearly said he had enough money not to care what people thought about him, while the suit he wore, which probably cost more than I made in a year, reminded people he could still be in touch with fashion if he wanted to. There was a sort of vague slickness to him that set my teeth on edge. He had a cold look on his face at first, but then he glanced at Sykes and smiled slightly, which helped a little. “Hello Matthew. Legs doing any better?”

“I can’t complain, Roger,” Sykes replied, his own smile transforming him from sleepily interested to fully engaged. I couldn’t tell if it was a practiced skill or just part of who he was. “The doctors tell me there’s another surgery that might give me more mobility back in the knees, probably let me walk again in another couple of years, but I’m not sure I want to go through another recovery right now.”

“Best to take it easy.” The smile, faint though it was, vanished and Roger Keller turned to give Teresa and I his full attention. “Well, to business. My secretary told me my two o’clock and two thirty appointments were out here chatting, so I guess that makes you the two from the FBI.”

“Actually, Mr. Keller, I didn’t realize we’d be interviewing you today,” Teresa said. “As I was just telling Mr. Sykes, I was sponsored by the Oldfather Fund when I was younger and I’m not sure-”

“You must have been one of the very first.” Keller tapped his chin absently. “Is this one of those conflict of interest things? Am I suspected of something?”

“We were just hoping you could help us by providing us with some information about some properties that came up in the course of an investigation,” I said, tapping my folder with one hand.

“Well, that shouldn’t be very difficult then, should it?” Keller asked. “I’ll tell you what I can about properties we’ve developed for ourselves, but our work for other clients will have to remain confidential.”

“It might be better if I came back with another-”

“Look, I’m a busy man.” Keller turned and started across the lobby. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to work you into my schedule again so if you have questions to ask, let’s get to them, shall we?”

I glanced at Teresa, who shrugged and said, “At this point it is mostly just fact finding. It probably can’t hurt anything if I’m there.”

“Well, good luck,” Sykes said, backing his wheelchair up a few paces to give us an unobstructed path. “And don’t mind Roger. He’s all bark and no bite, I’m sure he’ll cooperate as best he can.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sykes.” I wondered what had brought him here. It felt like there was something that I wasn’t quite getting but I figured I could always ask Teresa about it later. As we hurried after Keller I quietly asked, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“You were right. We do need to find out whatever Keller knows, and we don’t have time to wait for whenever we can make another appointment.” She shrugged. “Nothing for it but to see what he can tell us.”

——–

As it turned out, it wasn’t much. The buildings were a mashup of places Keller Development had invested in and places clients had asked them to redevelop on their behalf. In the short half hour we had all we really managed to do was get Keller’s promise to send us the details that had led his people to purchase those properties his firm held independently. He emphatically refused to ask his clients if he could share any of their information with us. In the end, if there was some kind of grand scheme to Keller’s work in the city, we left his office with no clue of what it might be. Analysis could sort out the data he gave us, but Teresa and I were fresh out of angles to follow up on.

So we went back to our office and wrote up the necessary reports, then went our separate ways.

My apartment is not really a place where I get to spend a whole lot of time. Even on my days off I don’t really stay there much, I have a workshop elsewhere in town where I much prefer to be. Basically, I just use it as a place to store changes of clothes. It’s kind of lonely, really.

Even so, when I get back there I take a few basic precautions. For example, before I unlock the door I check to make sure the room is at an even temperature. While I don’t have infrared vision or anything I can “feel” the temperature of my surroundings rising into cold spots or sinking into hot spots. An empty room is on an even level, because the whole place is literally at room temperature. However, today there was a slight depression in one corner of my apartment. Someone had dropped by to pay me a visit.

I checked the lock but it showed no signs of being picked or forced. There are a few people who have spare keys to my place, because being a lone wolf really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At the very least, if I ever locked myself out it was cheaper to drive over to Jack’s place and pick up the spare than pay the fee to have the building supervisor open the door for me. But I had a feeling it wasn’t my tactical team leader that was waiting for me. There were two spare keys and I’d lent the other one out a month ago, to help with the planning for a birthday party.

With a sinking feeling I let myself into the apartment and looked into the small living room. Darryl Templeton was there, sitting on the sofa, turning his cane in his hands slowly. He looked up from his cane when he heard the door open, did his best to force a smile. “Hello, Helix. Looks like you had another long day. Sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute for an old friend?”

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