First printed: More Red Holt Steele #4
Summary: Remington and Laura investigate a possible insurance fraud case and end up meeting several familiar(?) faces.
Disclaimer: This “Remington Steele” story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with “Remington Steele,” the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
"Remington Steele Investiga-tions. Please hold--Aunt Laura, help!"
Laura left her office to help her niece Laurie Piper. Laura leaned over the desk and punched buttons until the phone stopped buzzing, and merely flashed urgently.
"Sorry, Aunt Laura. None of the calls seem to be from real people. They're really rude recordings. One of them was a phone sex line. I put in a call and an e-mail to the phone company. The call went to voice mail, so I have hope, but the e-mail bounced. The fax machine's dead. How can we run a detective agency like this?"
"Something bizarre is happening to the telephone system for the whole world, Laurie. It started Friday night--must be a major systems crash since it's still out of control at nine on Monday. It's sheer bad luck that your first summer job is to catch the phones at a time like this. Just put them on the machine for a couple of hours, and practice the fine art of letter writing. First, round up the staff for a meeting in the conference room. Please stay out here for visitors; it's the only way we'll get business today."
The agency had grown in the twelve years since the Steeles' marriage. Laurie brought in her brother Daniel Piper, and her sister Mindy, both graduates of USC, '98 and '99 respectively; the ink was still damp on Mindy's diploma. They were apprentice detectives. The family tradition continued with Bernard Clark, nephew of Mildred Krebs, who had retired recently. He had inherited his aunt's talent for numbers and guerrilla computing. Jackie Crawford, handsome with curly black hair, did much of the leg work now. Only the Steeles knew that he had been a pickpocket at the age of fifteen. They hired him after he graduated from reform school; he'd put himself through college working for them. He had a detective license now.
Laura motioned to Bernard to turn on his little voicewriter computer. Remington Steele called the meeting to order. He was the picture of authority, well dressed, with a touch of gray in his hair and a few lines in his brow to emphasize his seniority.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a riot is a terrible thing. And I think it's about time that we had one." At their shocked looks, Remington added, "Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks, 1974. Sorry, bit of levity, but the situation is serious. We are in the communications equivalent of the New York Blackout--and it seems to be worldwide. How can police protect a city without 911 calls? How long will banks stay open? And, as Laurie pointed out, how can we run a detective agency? We need a plan to stay in touch with our clients for now. This city is as flammable as dry grass under the Santa Ana winds. Be cautious about what areas you visit, and turn back if you see trouble."
After knock at the conference room door, Laurie popped in. "Sorry to interrupt, but he says it's a matter of life and death."
"Bernard, work out a schedule with the rest of the staff to see clients--and swing by your aunt's place too, please," Laura said. "Mr. Steele and I will see the visitor."
"Mindy, you and your sister especially should avoid going out alone today. A lot of people are only civilized while the police are on call," said Remington.
As Laurie settled the visitor into Remington's office and fixed his coffee, Laura murmured, "It's hard to be both an uncle and a boss, isn't it?" to Remington in the hall.
"Can't be helped. Anyone smart enough to work for us is smart enough to dig up my past. We need employees who'd never blow the whistle," he said softly. They put on their professional faces and joined the visitor, introducing themselves.
"I'm Phil Studge, from Vigilance Insurance. I was awakened this morning by a Federal agent at my door. He wanted me to see that an accident claim is settled as quickly and quietly as possible. The widow and child of the man killed may be in great danger, but they'd be afraid of government employees. They'd be more willing to come out of hiding for their friendly insurance agent.
"Last Thursday night, a series of strange ‘accidents’ started in a small town. Harold Parkette was killed with a lawnmower. It burst in the front door, ran through his house, and followed him out the back. He was found mutilated in his back yard by his wife, Carla who says she and her ten year old son Peter slept through the attack."
"Who'd be stupid enough to kill someone with a lawnmower?" asked Laura.
"The lawnmower was ordinarily operated by a man named Jobe Smith, who had the intelligence of a six year old, and was very strong. Smith worked for Terry McKeen, who ran a yard service company, and who was the brother of Father McKeen, a priest who was Smith's legal guardian." Studge took a deep breath. "Father McKeen died in a mysterious fire the same night as Parkette. The next night, there was an explosion at Virtual Space Industries, a government contractor. Several people are missing and presumed dead in the explosion, including Jobe Smith and Terry McKeen. The government hopes the widow and boy survived. They found a boy's footprints near the building. Another thing: Watch out for this man."
Studge showed them a picture of man in a black t-shirt, unshaven and frazzled, who looked rather like Remington. "This is Dr. Lawrence Angelo. He was the next door neighbor to the Parkettes, had his lawn done by Terry McKeen and Jobe Smith, and Father McKeen performed his wedding. He worked for Virtual Space Industries. He's originally from London, and was granted express U.S. citizenship five years ago to do classified work. He disappeared at the time of the explosion, and the FBI is quietly desperate to find him alive. They won't say what he was working on, but it must be big. Big enough that someone would destroy his lab, and kill his neighbor, gardeners, and priest in case he let something slip to one of them."
"The M.O. of the first murder practically screams ‘the gardener did it.’" Steele said. "But he obviously wasn't bright enough to commit sabotage. Speaking of sabotage, did the Federal man have any news on the telephone system?"
"A big No Comment, but I think he suspects there's a connection between the laboratory explosion and the phone problems. Everything's disorganized in that town now, and our local insurance investigators and detectives have been warned off. Vigilance thinks that you could get through, with your government background. Your duty to us is to find Carla Parkette, so we can give her a check. If you can find Angelo alive also, the FBI has a million dollar reward."
Remington snapped to attention. "Rest assured that the Steele agency will track down every lead. We'll leave on the next plane."
They showed the visitor out. "I'd like us both to work on this one, but it's out of state; it's short notice to leave the children with the nanny for several days," Laura said.
"Mrs. D. can handle them. She used to play football," Remington said. "It'll be like old times, just the two of us. Bernard and Jack can handle anything that comes up while we're away. With the larger payroll now, we can't afford to turn this one down."
They went home to break the news to their children that they would have to spend a few summer days without parents. Mrs. D. helped them pack, and assured them that she'd keep the young ones out of trouble. The plane trip, after unsettling delays, was normal. Soon they reached the small town in their rented car.
They tried to visit the Parkette and Angelo houses, but were turned away by police. At the ruined lab, they were turned away by grim looking men in business suits. They pulled into a little coffee shop to regroup. At a table, they saw a thirtyish man and woman in gray business attire, who nearly had "Property of U.S.Government" stamped on their solemn faces.
"Cuppa tea, love?" asked Steele teasingly of the plump waitress behind the counter. She looked at him, startled.
"Are you related to Dr. Angelo?" she asked hoarsely.
"No. But it sounds as if you know Dr. Angelo. Have you seen him?"
"Nobody's seen him since the lab blew up. He used to come here, when things weren't going good with his wife--a lot lately. I got him some English tea bags with no strings, to cheer him up. I'll get you a cup of tea. What'll you have, ma'am?"
"Iced tea and sympathy," Laura said with a smile. "I understand that there was an accident with a lawnmower last week?"
"Oh, that was awful. They had to bury him right away, then they were going to have a memorial service when his wife had time to recover. Ms. Parkette and her boy are supposed to be with relatives, but nobody's been able to get hold of them." She brought their tea, and went to check another customer.
The solemn couple had watched the exchange with interest.
"We may have a common interest," said the man. "My name is ... George Hale. This is my partner, Dr. Starbuck."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Remington Steele, and this is my wife Laura. We're looking for Carla Parkette, to settle the claim for her husband's death. We'd be grateful for any information. Are you with the government?"
"Employed by them, but here unofficially. We've been told this one's out of our jurisdiction. But there's no law against having pie and coffee in a small town cafe."
"Any word on the woman and boy?" asked Remington.
Hale looked around the nearly empty cafe. "Small items like toothbrushes and underwear are missing from their house, as if they'd had time to pack. They haven't shown up at the homes of any relatives we can trace. A boy's footprints led away from the damaged lab, along with some odd looking prints." He showed them a photo. "The footprints beside the boy's were of a grown man, but I've never seen a shoe like that. It looks like heavy wire was embedded into the sole, along the paths of the major nerves. Never meant to be worn outside, more like a medical item, my partner says."
"So the boy might have left the lab, we hope voluntarily, in the company of someone who had access to unusual medical gear. Angelo was a medical doctor."
"Yes, doing secret research, with primates, as far as we could tell."
"Any chance of us getting a look at the Parkettes' house, or the doctor's?"
"I'll ask my source if he'll work with you. The man defused bombs for years before he was promoted to investigating them, and he's rock-steady. I'll tell him that you're good at cracking impossible cases," he said, giving Steele an oddly knowing look, "and very good at keeping secrets. He'll contact you here if he agrees."
The government couple finished their pie and left. Laura was uneasy. "He had a look in his eye as if he had a file on you."
"Any little problems in my past would be too commonplace for him, I suspect."
They ordered dinner, and browsed magazines at the coffee shop's news rack.
A tall, lean, dark haired man walked into the cafe. He spotted the Steeles, and said, "I think we have a mutual friend. One who collects strange footprints."
The Steeles introduced themselves.
"Just call me Dan. I understand you're trying to locate the Parkettes?"
"And Angelo, if possible," said Laura.
"They may be together, but the evidence is sketchy. With the phones messed up, we can't run checks on where they use credit cards. The woman and boy could be in a cabin recovering from the death in the family. Or Angelo may have persuaded them to come with him, possibly even as hostages. He's wanted for the deaths, the destruction of the lab, even the phone problems. He may need them for camouflage; a family looks more innocent than a lone man who probably hasn't slept in three days.
"Neighbors said, before the blast, he seemed to be under stress. His marriage was breaking up. He spent most of his time in his basement computer lab. He had enough high-tech games down there to start an arcade. The boy's prints are all over Angelo's house. There were signs of struggle in the basement; Angelo's eyeglasses were broken," he said softly. "His front porch was riddled with bullets. Government issue automatics. His car, and two government ones, were damaged. The bombs used on the lab were government issue. He seems to have escaped all of it. The 'shop' is checking gas station security videos trying to find him."
"The 'shop?'" she asked.
"Another agency. I'm with the FBI. The other agency is the Department of Scientific Intelligence, DSI--strictly black budget. Spooks. They weren't thrilled about me being here, but the FBI has to investigate this sort of thing."
"Could enemy agents have taken them?" asked Laura.
"Someone with no qualms about killing civilians tried, I believe. DSI thinks Angelo, and probably the woman and boy, are free, on the run."
"If we could contact them, we could offer them protection and make sure Angelo gets a fair trial. Could we look at their homes, find a clue about where they went?"
"They've been pretty well picked over, and the most relevant items were taken away by DSI, but I can get you in." He ran his hands through his hair. "DSI's driving me crazy. I need another pair of eyes. Someone who won't withhold evidence from me, or shoot Angelo before I can talk to him. I need him alive." His voice lowered. "Bet you had a hard time renting that car out front. Credit card line was busy, right?" They nodded.
"People are just starting to realize how much banks depend on phone lines. They're pulling money out of banks, all over the world. Criminals realize that security systems are off line. Radio systems don't have the capacity or security to carry it all. We're on the edge of an economic disaster worse than Germany in the 1930s. If it's Angelo's fault, we need his help to fix it. If it were up to me, I'd pardon him for everything in exchange for normal phone service. But I'm not sure he can repair it."
They drove to Angelo's house. Dan flashed his identification to the young cop on duty. They saw the bullet damage, and bare spots where computer equipment had been. Dan showed them pictures taken of the equipment before it was removed.
"Looks a bit...kinky," said Laura. "All those cables, masks and gloves."
"While he was in that rig, he was in his own computer-generated world. I've heard the main lab had more elaborate equipment. He was addicted to the sensation."
"So he must really need a fix, now," she said.
"DSI is kicking in doors at game designers' labs. No luck yet. We think he took very little with him--the computer and backups were wiped, probably by him. We found traces of soot here and next door that suggest he came home after the explosion, and that the Parkettes were close enough to get dirty."
They searched the cluttered basement. "Not a tidy man, for a doctor," said Laura. "He must have spent half his adult life in college, to be a specialist in both virtual reality and neuro-chemistry," she said, pointing out diplomas. "He was about 39, right? A time when people sometimes say, ‘What am I doing with my life? What happened to the ideals I had?’ As a doctor, he wanted to do good. What good was he trying to do, and how did he go wrong? As a computer expert, he'd keep backups, so he could always return his program to an earlier form, if his system crashed. Where would he go, if he wanted to restart his life from an old backup?" she continued.
"There's a dormitory look about this place, tons of books, and that little refrigerator. When he goes to ground, it may literally be underground. Maybe a college, blend in with professional students, get his hands on a big computer for free."
"College is a socially acceptable reason for a grown man not to have a real job," added Remington. "If I were in his shoes, with two Federal agencies after me, I'd put at least one national border and a few time zones between me and Washington. Canada, perhaps. He likes a high standard of living, and wouldn't dare use his passport. The Canadian border guards are polite and undemanding, as a rule, and with no telephones or faxes, they wouldn't know to watch for him."
"Out of my jurisdiction, damnit," said Dan. "About Angelo's doing good--you heard about Smith, the retarded gardener? We went to his house just to get some fingerprint samples. We found college level books with Angelo's name on them, and Smith's fingerprints in them. This man, who his neighbors say was harmless, and could barely understand a comic book, appears to have read every page of Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom. When I asked DSI about it, they stonewalled. Judging from the little trails of grass clippings here, Smith visited Angelo regularly. Did Angelo teach him to read? If so, he must be a miracle worker."
"As in Charley, 1968: a retarded man was made into a genius," said Remington.
"We're pretty sure Smith's dead. The local dentist examined a jawbone from the main lab, with wisdom teeth recently erupted. Smith's the only missing man the right age for that," said Dan.
They went next door to look at the Parkette house. The front door was boarded shut, so they went around back, avoiding patches of stained grass.
"How could such a gruesome, noisy murder happen in a back yard, without attracting attention?" asked Laura.
"Angelo was away that night, and the other next door neighbor's an old lady who goes to bed without her hearing aid. Other neighbors mentioned nodding off earlier than usual. If spies are involved, they might have dosed the local water with sedative. DSI's not talking about that either. See that footprint? Matches the kid's sneaker print in the picture," said Dan.
Laura and Remington searched the house for empty spots in drawers and closets to guess what they had taken with them, as well as to hunt for travel clues.
"I think they took their best sweaters and coats," said Laura. "That would be consistent with Canada as a destination, possibly permanent. They only took what they could carry. The family had very little money, judging from bank statements."
They left the house and started toward their cars. "That's as much as I can show you, at this point. Thanks for your insights—" Dan broke off at the sight of the sunset gleaming off submachine guns. They were held in the hands of a pair of tough looking men in black suits, crouched by their cars along with the nervous young cop.
"Dan O'Neill, FBI," Dan said, firmly. "May I get out my identification?"
"Go ahead. You others, let's see some ID too," said the older man.
The older man looked over the identification. "You do not have clearance for this area. We're going to have to ask you some questions," he growled at the Steeles.
"They are here on my authorization," said Dan. "They're looking for the woman and boy, on behalf of an insurance company. They saw nothing classified. Do I have to ask my boss to talk to your boss again?"
The government man glared. "Mr. and Mrs. Steele, if you agree to drop this case, and not discuss it with anyone, you may leave town. If this case leaks, you could be charged with treason. We have your names. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Remington said.
They got into the rental car, as Dan and the other agent had a quiet, hostile talk.
"Let's go up north for a little fishing, dear," Remington said, as they pulled away.
They returned to the airport and brainstormed about how to search Canada for a fugitive without phones, modems, or faxes, and without attracting DSI's attention.
"We need a contact in Canada, preferably with ties to a college," said Laura. "I correspond by e-mail regularly with an English professor in Toronto. He posts to alt.mysteries, because he teaches a 'detective story as literature' course. He loves to hear from real detectives, so we have a standing invitation to visit him."
"Love letters behind my back? How could you?"
"Nothing like that. But I have heard that undergraduates get crushes on him every semester." They persuaded the ticket clerk that their credit was good, and caught a redeye flight to Toronto.
After a long nap in a hotel, they hunted up the professor's University office.
Upon seeing him, Laura understood his students' infatuation. He was tall and slim, dark haired, much like Remington. His only flaw was a half-inch of beard.
"Professor Lattimore? I'm Laura Steele, this is my husband Remington."
"Ah, we meet at last! Call me Charles." He shook hands with each of them. "You're left handed, aren't you, Laura? And you have a grip like a prizefighter, Steele. I felt old callouses, although recently you've done work that requires fine dexterity."
"Right on target, Charles," Remington said. "You ought to do this for a living."
"What, and lose tenure?" he replied. "I had to move to Canada to get this job."
"We ordinarily would have called before visiting, but the phones have been impossible lately," said Laura. "We need your help on an investigation." Showing him pictures, she said, "Dr. Lawrence Angelo, Carla Parkette, and her 10 year old son Peter may have crossed the border from the States in the last three days. We think he's attracted to college towns. He may try to contact colleagues in Canada. He can't run indefinitely, especially if he has his neighbor's wife and child with him."
"Neighbor's wife? Broke the tenth commandment, did he?"
"We're not sure; it's even possible that they're hostages, although from the little we know of him, Angelo seems like a decent man," she said. "His expertise is virtual reality, brain chemistry, and perhaps special education. Please keep this confidential. The last time we asked a few questions, we were almost charged with treason. I think the case has something to do with using this...artificial reality for military intelligence."
"As an English teacher, I must tell you that you've just used two oxymorons in a sentence."
"Charles, please. The woman and boy may be in danger. Our usual avenues of investigation are closed. If there's an academic grapevine still functioning, it's our best hope of locating them."
"The fellows in Engineering have ham radio, radio modems, and such. They have connections with all the major Canadian universities and government offices, with links to the States. The phone problems have put communication back several decades. But if you'll write up a short message, sort of an all points bulletin, I'll see that it goes to specialists in the fields you mentioned, and ask them to contact me if they hear of someone like Angelo."
"Thanks. We'll have it ready in a few minutes," said Laura.
They gave the message to Lattimore. They added a brief message to USC, to Laura's brother-in-law, Dr. Piper. They asked him to let their family and employees know that they were well, and that the investigation was progressing. It might take a day or more to get a response, Lattimore warned them, after sending it.
After dinner, the Lattimores and Steeles studied the photographs of the basement, footprints, and people. They turned on the news channel at a low volume in case there was a mention of Angelo.
"If he committed all those crimes, what was his motive?" Lattimore asked. "He had talent that bought him a high-paying job. Why did he throw it all away?"
"How did the retarded gardener fit in with this?" asked Laura. "Parkette's murder seems to throw blame on him, but he had a reputation as a harmless boy in a man's body. Angelo taught him to read at an adult level, very fast, it seems. How?"
"In just seven days, he made him a man," murmured Remington. "Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975."
Lattimore held a magnifying glass over the picture of the doctor's equipment.
"Angelo was a wizard, a shaman. You visited the cave where he saw visions and made medicine. See the little bottles in the trash? He cured a weak mind by the laying on of gloves," he said, pointing out the equipment. "He used something in that basement to give his scarecrow a brain." He smiled. "Wizard of Oz, 1939."
"Would this work on an ordinary person, and turn him into Einstein?" asked Laura. "Agencies which benefit from having rare intelligence would feel threatened by that. Someone wrecked his lab to keep that technique from spreading, and perhaps crashed the phone system for the same reason. I don't think Angelo's responsible for the phones. No doctor would want patients to die for lack of a 911 call," she continued.
"He'd want to perfect his methods of teaching. Where better to teach, than at a college? If it involves drugs, well, college students are willing to try anything once."
"Mad doctor experimenting on college students? Laura, that's such a cliche," teased Remington.
"Commercial drug testing firms locate their clinics near college campuses, where they can find healthy young people who need money, and are free to check into a facility for a few days of testing. Cliches can have a grain of truth," she responded.
"I'll ask pharmacology professors to keep their eyes open for him," said Lattimore, grimly. "If there were an illegal drug that enhanced intelligence, the demand would be tremendous even among good kids; they'd risk any side affects to get ten points higher on an exam. Angelo's brilliant already; what if he takes his own medicine? And what would happen to law enforcement? The average criminal now isn't very bright; how would we fight a network of genius drug lords?"
"Even a good man would be tempted by the money they'd offer," said Laura. "Angelo can't touch his bank accounts, and probably had little cash with him when he fled. The Parkettes never had much. They need income, and a place to live."
"Someplace inexpensive, where the landlord isn't fussy about references," said Lattimore. "During the summer break, college apartments have vacancies."
"Look, on the TV," said Laura.
A picture of a large burning building was on the screen, with the caption "Department of Scientific Intelligence." The announcer said, "Even Federal agencies are in danger due to the telephone blackout. The DSI headquarters near Washington D.C. was fully engulfed in flames before firefighters could be contacted. An electrical power surge seems to be the cause. The preliminary report indicates no deaths."
"Could Angelo have done that?" Laura asked.
"We don't dare visit DSI to ask," Remington replied. The circle of destruction around Angelo was widening.
They talked on until nearly midnight, then the Steeles returned to their hotel.
They visited Lattimore the next afternoon, and he had news.
"A fellow named Fred Joule responded. He's a computer graduate student who saw your message. It was intended for a virtual reality professor who's out of town; he had asked the student to check his messages. Fred says one of his friends lives in a big house with several other electrical engineering students. After a small kitchen fire, they decided that they needed a professional cook and housemother. They just hired an attractive woman who has a ten year old son, new in town from the States. A man with her rented a basement room in the house. They roughly match the descriptions of your fugitives except that the woman's a brunette, the boy has a crew cut, and the man has a week's beard. He calls himself Mike Burroughs. The woman and boy go by Patricia and Charlie Webb. They're at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton."
Laura smiled. "So little Peter Parkette, with an name like Spiderman's, picks a name much like Charlotte's Web, a book about a spider. Burroughs is a good name for our fallen angel, going underground. Very alert, this graduate student."
"It's a small town, and these fellows are a bit socially isolated. A new woman in the community does attract attention," said Lattimore. "I'll give you their address."
"Could we have Fred's also? If he can introduce us to his friends, we could get a look at the newcomers and see if they match the pictures, without alarming them."
They thanked him, and arranged for the trip to Edmonton. They flew out the next day, despite the disruptions caused lack of phone service, now in its sixth day. They reached Edmonton, rented another car, and found Fred's apartment house.
They knocked at Fred's apartment, and the pale, bony, redheaded young man greeted them. They introduced themselves. Fred asked, "Do you think Angelo's dangerous? Should we contact the R.C.M.P. now?"
Remington said, "I doubt that he would have chosen to live in a house with several strangers if he planned to do anything violent. Two U.S. agencies are already involved, and one of them's got a short fuse. We'd like to look at the cook and her son before we call in anyone else. Can you introduce us as your aunt and uncle?"
Laura joined in. "We've come for a visit, and your doting Aunt Laura made more cookies than you can eat, so you're bringing them over to share. Tell us about the college so we can pass as alumni. That, and the smell of chocolate, should get us in."
After a trip to the store, Laura and Remington prepared enough sweets in Fred's kitchen to feed a Trojan horse. Bearing gifts, they set out to the rambling Victorian home for wayward computer students.
The scruffy young man at the door was surprised but pleased with the visitors. Fred introduced the Steeles to the other lads, who seemed to be about 20 years old, on average, and generally gawky. It was apparent that the new housekeeper had tried valiantly to reverse a long history of neglected cleaning. Laura complimented the home's appearance. One of the fellows took her to the freshly painted kitchen to meet Ms. Webb. The woman was busy cooking something in huge pots, so Laura set down her box of cookies in a vacant spot. The woman turned to face Laura, obviously uneasy, but trying to hide it. Except for hair color, she looked like Carla Parkette.
"Hello, I'm Laura Steele, Fred's aunt."
"Hi, I'm Ms. Webb. Are these cookies? Thank you! I used to cook for a big family--I was the oldest in a family of twelve--but I hadn't planned dessert."
"My husband Remington went to school here, and lived in a house something like this one; we're starting to look at colleges and housing for our own children."
One of the students popped into the kitchen. "Ms. Webb, do we have enough food that Fred and his aunt and uncle can eat with us?"
Flustered, the cook said, "We have a lot, but..."
"Good! Mr. Steele said he'd take us all out pub crawling after dinner."
Two large tables were pushed together in the dining room. Fifteen people settled in; the Steeles, the Webbs, mother and son, and eleven young men, counting Fred. As the casserole and vegetables went around, Laura saw Ms. Webb make up an extra plate of food, and excuse herself to take it to another room.
"Isn't your mom going to eat with us?" Laura asked the ten year old boy.
"One of the tenants is an older student, working on his thesis. He's a hermit, so she takes him his food separately," said Charlie, in the tones of a juvenile liar.
After dinner Remington found a minute alone with Laura. "I'll get the college kids settled into a bar, then slip out to the R.C.M.P. and say we've located a fugitive. You keep an eye on the Parkettes. With any luck, we'll get that FBI million," he said.
"Before or after DSI charges us with treason? They pointed machine guns at O'Neill, even though they must have known he was an FBI agent. Angelo won't get a fair trial from them; neither will we. I'd like to hear his side of the story, especially if he really can cure retardation, and knows what happened to the phone system."
"I'm curious too, but if the man has done half of what he's charged with, we need backup before we confront him. I'll ask the Mounties to station a team outside. We can talk with him when I get back, try to persuade him to come out quietly."
Remington left with the college men. Laura chatted with the cook, gently probing for information. Ms. Webb explained that she had recently lost her husband in a car accident, and that she and her son were making a fresh start.
It must be hard, suddenly being a house mother to a huge family, cleaning up after ten young men. Wasn't your husband insured?"
"Yes, but not enough that I'd never have to work. Keeping busy is good for me at a time like this..." her eyes misted up, and Laura gave her a little hug.
"You should lie down. I'll watch Charlie. You've been working all day."
Laura sat with boy in the den until she heard a knock. It was Remington.
"Are the Mounties here? The cook's taking a nap, and the boy's watching TV."
"A Mountie with a white dog, behind the big trees, is having a polite discussion with a couple of Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents about which department has jurisdiction. We're covered. Let's talk to Angelo."
They went downstairs. Laura knocked at a door near the foot of the stairs. No answer; the door was locked. Remington silently picked it, and opened the door. The room was half full of computer and telephone equipment, apparently scavenged and rigged together. They saw a thin, long-legged man lying on a couch, his head half covered by a virtual reality helmet. It was not as sophisticated as the one pictured in Angelo's basement, but enough to isolate him from sights and sounds in the real world. He did not seem to realize that he was not alone. His hands, in heavily wired gloves, moved as if he were typing for a moment, then as if he were painting the ceiling of an invisible chapel. His dinner was forgotten on a table. Laura quietly approached.
"Larry, are you all right?" she asked, face close to his ear.
He jumped a bit. "Fine...sorry, I'll eat in a minute..." He pulled off the helmet slowly, then sat up suddenly as he realized that he was among strangers. "I'm Mike Burroughs. Ms. Webb mentioned we were having company."
"I'm Laura Steele. This is my husband Remington; we're private investigators hired to locate the Parkettes. We know the charges against you, Dr. Angelo."
Angelo's pale face blanched further. Remington was between him and the door, and was more muscular, though older; Laura saw the calculation in the doctor's eyes. "There are Mounties outside, Doctor," she said.
He sighed, and rested his face in gloved hands for a moment. "Can you keep DSI away from the Parkettes? Peter played games in my basement; I was afraid DSI would think he'd seen too much, and arrange ‘accidents’ for him and his mother."
"You have our word on that," said Remington. "Tell us what happened."
"Your life's in danger just from talking to me."
"We know. Tell us anyway," he said.
"My work is a new form of brain therapy. With drugs, hormones, and virtual reality stimulation to the brain, I can increase intelligence in a subject.
"When I was an intern, one of my patients was an engineer who'd caught meningitis while building roads in Africa. By the time they got him to a real hospital, the damage was done; he functioned at the level of a two year old. I wish I'd been able to help him. Now I think I could; I hoped I could help Jobe. The man who cut my grass, Jobe Smith, had the mind of a child.
"I worked with chimps at Virtual Space Industries. My original funding was to make chimps smart enough to substitute for human soldiers on suicide missions. I also had to make them abnormally aggressive, because a chimp will run when he can't win a fight. One of them killed a man, and had to be destroyed. His intelligence was very close to human at that time. The whole thing made me sick.
"I took some time off, drank a lot, and decided to try to expand Jobe's mind. It went incredibly well for a while. I thought that if I could teach Jobe, with his IQ of 45, how to read a fertilizer bag, manage a checkbook, and drive, he'd be able to live as an adult, and I’d be doing work that I could be proud of. Jobe went far beyond that, much too fast, in two months. At the time of his death, his intelligence was beyond measure. But, unknown to me then, DSI slipped him the high-aggression form of the drug. He killed Harold Parkette, the priest, my boss, and at least two DSI agents--there's more to it, but I've told you as much as I can handle right now."
"Who destroyed the lab?" asked Remington.
"I did, but the DSI agents intended to. They brought the explosives. Jobe had taken over the computer, somehow become the computer. I destroyed the lab trying to stop him. He's inside the Internet now. He's the reason that the whole world's telephone system is a mess. Right now, I'm trying to contact Jobe, and persuade him to release control. The world economy is held together by phone and data lines, and it's coming apart rapidly.... I must sound totally delusional."
"Were you planning to experiment on the men in this house?" asked Laura.
"I confess to thinking about it. I haven't done anything about it yet. I wanted to move slowly, choose volunteers mature enough to understand the risks, and improve their intelligence just enough to show results, without stimulating aggression."
The door behind them opened, and a tall, dark haired man entered. "A sensible goal, Doctor. I am authorized to offer you complete support from the British government in achieving it. We will provide funding, immunity from prosecution, and a new identity. Ms. Parkette and her son may accompany you, if they wish."
"Who are you?" Remington and Angelo asked in unison.
Laura added, "British government? Not Canadian?"
"Rank hath its privileges, madam. You may call me Blaine. Richard Blaine."
Remington looked as if he had been hit with an unfair punch. "We've met before, but I didn't catch your name then."
The two men were much alike, but Blaine seemed older and harsher. Remington's face had smile lines. Blaine's had lines from squinting over gunsights.
"I caught yours, Mr. Steele. You have done Her Majesty's government a service, by locating Dr. Angelo. You will keep this totally confidential, so that I will not be forced to open a twenty-year-old can of worms.
"Doctor, the United States government has treated you badly. You'd be much better off as our star researcher than as a prisoner at some American secret base. You'll be back home in London before the sun rises on Washington."
Angelo nodded wearily. They went upstairs. The Parkettes were in the den, surrounded by men in suits. Lattimore was with them, apparently pressed into service by Canadian security. He spoke quickly.
"Dr. Angelo, I know you're most comfortable in an academic setting, and you came to Canada when you needed help. I'm Professor Lattimore of University of Toronto. We offer you a research position, and asylum as a Canadian citizen."
Blaine said, "That is not our arrangement, Professor. He's going to England."
"Sir, whatever country gets him will earn most of the Nobel prizes for the next century. He went to America because England did not fund his work. He came here because Americans treated him like a criminal. Canada's a free country. He can work here if he wants too. We're tired of being the junior partner."
"I'm with the FBI, damnit!" came a voice at the door. It crashed open, and O'Neill strode in, despite the efforts of a politely protesting R.C.M.P. officer.
"Where's Angelo?" he asked, looking into the den. He did a take at the sight of Steele, Lattimore, Blaine, and Angelo together, but collected himself. "Dr. Angelo, all charges against you have been dropped. A Mr. Smith called to demonstrate that he could correct the telephone disruptions temporarily. He will correct them permanently if you will negotiate with him. You can return to the States, so can the Parkettes. You can write your own budget, have anything you need for equipment and staff." Angelo, who had seemed dazed, became sharply attentive at the mention of Smith's name.
"Get back across the border where you belong, O'Neill," said Blaine coldly, his face calm, but flushed. His gun hand twitched.
The Steeles stepped back. Laura murmured, "He's beside himself."
Remington nodded. "Two other agencies are after his prize, and he can't shoot 'em; we're all allies. How did they all find us?"
"O'Neill said radio wasn't secure. It's been almost 48 hours since Fred sent us the message."
A Mountie looked in. "There's a man from the phone company outside. He needs for Dr. Angelo to try some equipment in his van, he says it'll fix the phones."
"No!" snapped Blaine.
"People are dying for lack of ambulances. Let him try," said Lattimore.
"All right, but I'm staying within three meters," Blaine growled.
All of them trooped out into the street. The phone company van was parked nearby, the back door open, displaying computer monitors and little equipment lights. A tall thin man took Angelo inside, after showing Blaine his ID. Angelo seemed relieved to have equipment, rather than people, to deal with. He asked Ms. Parkette to bring him his little black bag from the basement; she did so. The phone man closed the van, and started the motor. "Got to run the engine, battery power," he said.
"You're a dedicated repairman, out at this hour," said Laura.
"Actually I'm a dedicated phone bill collector, the name's Taffin. International collections on a multi-billion dollar account. We'll let him work it off," he said.
Blaine parked his Aston Martin to block the road ahead of the van. O'Neill blocked the rear. Taffin seemed amused at the lack of trust.
Laura saw a helicopter land in the yard behind them, and a military man jumped out. The man shouted into his hand radio, "Got here as fast as I could! It's a helicopter, not the bloody starship Enterprise, sir!" He spotted the Steeles. "What's happening, where's Angelo?"
"In the van. We're detectives, the Steeles. Who are you?" Laura asked.
"Mike Graham, United Nations Anti-Crime Organiza-tion."
"The charges against Angelo have been dropped. He's trying to restore phone service. The United States, Canada, and England have all offered him jobs."
"His work belongs to the world, not just one country," said Graham.
"Let him straighten out this mess first, then we can talk about intellectual property rights, and who paid for his research," said Laura. The Steeles, Parkettes, and Graham sat on the porch and watched the van.
Remington pressed an envelope into Carla's hand. "Fill out this form, and we'll arrange for a courier to bring you your husband's insurance money in a few days."
He turned to Laura. "The President's Analyst, 1967. James Coburn knows all the President's secrets, so every spy in the world wants to grab him, but the real villain is the phone company. What's happening in there?"
Angelo stepped out of the van and approached them.
"Gentlemen, get some rest," he said firmly. Laura saw Remington's eyes droop, despite his effort to stay alert. He slumped in the porch chair, sound asleep. Graham was in the same condition. Angelo motioned to the Parkettes, still awake, to come with him. He glanced at Laura. She pretended to drop off to sleep quickly, but watched him with a not quite shut eye. Angelo was sweating as though he'd run a marathon, and trembling slightly. He had a fresh mark in his neck, like a vaccination.
"Larry, what have you done?" Ms. Parkette asked nervously.
"I talked to Jobe," he said, with a tremor in his voice. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated; a man who was on drugs, or who had seen a ghost. "He's more mature than he was. He agreed to stop playing with the phones. He wanted to make up for the evil he did. I taught him so much. I asked him to teach me one thing, so we could escape.
"I can't trust my work to any government. An army of men like Jobe was, the day before he died, would be horrible. But I still think the world would be a better place if we were all a little smarter. I want to continue my work, in secret. Will you and Peter come with me? I'm still worried about what might happen to you, just because you know me. I can cover my tracks better now that I know some of of Jobe's tricks."
They agreed. Angelo went to the Aston Martin, eased the sleeping agent aside, and moved the car. He and the Parkettes collected their few possessions from the house. Laura nudged Remington, but couldn't wake him before the fugitives came back out. Angelo hauled Taffin out of the van's front seat and arranged him on a pleasant stretch of lawn. The doctor and Carla loaded the van. He asked the woman to drive, as his hands were shaky. Laura squinted, trying to get the license number.
"Get some rest, Ms. Steele," said Angelo. "Don't try to follow us. I wouldn't want you to fall asleep at the wheel." Despite herself, Laura dozed off until morning.
The next day, multiple agencies began a manhunt. They discovered that telephones, modems, and faxes worked for most purposes, but messages and pictures about Angelo went astray, or arrived garbled beyond recognition. "He has still a friend at the phone company, doesn't he?" Remington said, exasperated after an attempt.
O'Neill regretfully informed them that the FBI was off the case, due to its international nature. The million dollar reward was no longer available. The Steeles reluctantly decided that the big one had gotten away on this fishing trip.
The Steeles returned home, and talked to Vigilance Insurance. They were paid for delivering the insurance form. The Parkettes had received the payment by wire, but a computer glitch had wiped the bank code that might have revealed their location.
"Back to the usual routine, eh, Laura?" said Remington. "The paperwork, the meetings, and such." They were settled into his office, catching up on business.
"I'd like you to have a little meeting with Jack Crawford," Laura said quietly.
"He's been flirting with Mindy, and things escalated while we were away."
"Sounds like he doesn't need my advice, dear. Their feelings are mutual."
"Yes, but office romances can lead to hurt feelings, arguments--"
"Would you be saying this if Jack hadn't once been a pickpocket? He's a fine young man, Laura. He reminds me of myself at his age, but with far fewer problems."
"I suppose I am being overprotective of Mindy. Speaking of men who are like you, did you notice how many men we've met lately who look like you?"
"By the time Graham arrived, I was beginning to feel as if I'd accidentally walked into a police lineup. I suppose it means I have an ordinary face and build. Either that," he sighed, "or my father was a charming, well-traveled, irresponsible man.
"Well, back to business," he continued. "Now about this office romance policy..." He put an arm around her. "We should discuss what is an acceptable level of interaction, between consenting adults. This is all right, isn't it?" he asked. She nodded. He held her close with both arms, "And this?...and this?...and this?" he continued, with progressively more intimate kisses.
She agreed that office romance was wonderful when the feelings were mutual.
VIRTUAL STEELE "CRIB SHEET"
Virtual Steele is for fans who’ve seen just about every Brosnan film, and can believe six impossible things before breakfast. It’s contrived, but, hey, so was Elegy in Steele.
The Piper clan, Daniel, Mindy and Laurie, are Laura’s nieces and nephew used in Steele Sweet on You and Suburban Steele. Jack Crawford is from Pocket Full of Steele, and Bernard is from Steele in the Family.
Phil Studge owes his name to the H. H. Munro short story Filboid Studge, about an unappetizing breakfast cereal.
Mrs. D. is from Mrs. Doubtfire: a nanny tough enough to double as a bodyguard for the detectives’ children.
The FBI couple are X-Files’ Scully and Mulder, using an alias and a nickname they used in the series. By ordering pie and coffee, they add a dash of Twin Peaks.
Dan O’Neill is Brosnan’s character from Live Wire.
Charles Lattimore is his character from Murder 101.
The fugitives’ pseudonyms (Webb & Burroughs) are a bit obvious, but the writers for Lawnmower Man gave the name Jobe Smith to a holy fool who’s best at working with metal things, and Angelo to the name of the hero, so I’m not the only one using obvious names. Smith rushed in where Angelo feared to tread.
The Mountie with the white dog is Ben Frasier, of Due South.
The engineer in Africa--a grandson of Brosnan’s character in Mister Johnson.
Richard Blaine is James Bond.
Taffin is Brosnan’s character in the movie of the same name.
Mike Graham is Brosnan’s character in Death Train and Night Watch. His commanding officer in Death Train was played by Patrick Stewart, hence the Starship Enterprise remark.