The temperature was already past 100 and the sun beat down in sheets of glare. Although the Juniper Valley Antique Furniture Emporium was across the square, Agent Tersarius drove out to the highway.
AirFlo Gases was in a medium-sized industrial park. He could see a large vacant building with the faint outlines of “Superconducting Super Collider Facility” still visible on the façade.
“We only sell direct to industries,” said the office manager. “You just can’t walk in and buy liquid nitrogen.”
“Really?” Tersarius was still holding out his badge. “This place is rather out of the way. How do we know if a terrorist came by and slipped someone in the plant some cash for a carry-out deal?”
The woman cringed. “Please, I had nothing to do with it.”
The head of the shop where the tankers were loaded blubbered away immediately.
“Just tell me who wanted the nitrogen and I’ll be happy,” he said. "I'm not INS."
“I don’t know his name, he was a old white man. He had a real lab flask, though, so I figured he knew what he was doing.”
“Well, what he look like?”
The man hesitated. “If hope he’s not going to tell me we all look alike,” thought Tersarius.
“He was an old man, tall, bald in the middle with curly hair on the sides. He had a checked shirt on.”
“He had a funny hammer in his belt, with a small square head.”
“Relax, amigo, you’re a small fish. Gracias.”
Tersarius headed back up the highway and into town again.
* * *
He walked into the furniture store and saw a lanky man hammering away at the back of an old Victorian Era sofa.
The man’s eyes twinkled behind his wire rim glasses. He unfolded his tall frame as his tucked the upholsterer’s hammer in his belt.
“How may I help you?”
Tersarius pulled out his badge. “I understand you once worked for the government, Dr. Frame.”
The retired scientist stiffened.
“And if you are retired, why would you still need liquid nitrogen?”
“Am I under some kind of investigation?" He spoke very precisely.
“Yes. Liquid nitrogen is a very hazardous material, and you had no right to purchase it. The agency is very concerned about any possible terroristic threats against..."
The older man straightened. “There’s no terrorist threat!”
“Then what about The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act? You’re a little old to go to prison, Dr. Frame.”
An older woman with stark white hair pulled back in a ponytail came from a back room. “Who is it, Jim?”
“Someone who wants to know how we paid for the Sebring convertible.”
She stopped dead in her tracks and looked over Tersarius’ thin frame and dark suit. “Oh, dear god.”
Frame gestured to large couch against a wall. “Can we sit down and talk?”
* * *
Their story was simple and straightforward. Someone who knew about the retired couple’s background had paid them a large sum to prepare a kit for the transport of a tissue sample. Yes, it could have been used for a human sample, noted Frame. They never knew who paid them. An intermediary arranged the deal.
When he was back in his car, Tersarius realized someone sitting in an unmarked car across the square was looking at him. They made eye contact.
They both got out and met at the gazebo in the center of the square. Tersarius sat down and spread his arms on the back of the bench. Hitchens stood with his arms crossed on his chest just below his badge.
“I really don’t care whatever else you have going,” said the agent. "I know this couldn’t have been your idea.”
The lieutenant had watery blue eyes and a droopy cowboy mustache. “I don’t know if it’s any y’all’s business.” He spat tobacco juice over the railing and onto the geraniums.
“The boys in Washington want to nip this new crime in the bud,” said the agent. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose your money from Matamoros. Nobody’s going to care about protecting you because you got involved in some science project.”
Hitchens glared at him. “You drive a hard bargain.”
“Hard, but simple.”
“We’re all divided up, like cells. Mah part was to handle the liquid nitrogen. After Frame got the kit ready, I turned it over to someone else, who’s the real middle man.”
“Yes, someone I imagine in the middle of things, who everyone trusts, and nobody would suspect. Certainly not you. Let’s go."
Tersarius took off at a fast pace across the small park towards the newspaper office.
* * *
Marcel shot a quick glance down the hall as Tersarius and Hitchens walked in.
“I wouldn’t bolt, if I were you,” said Tersarius.
“He knows,” said Hitchens.
Tersarius looked towards the credenza with a shelf lined with software packages. “I see you’ve already removed the box.”
Marcel looked angry. “I needed the money!” he snarled. "I can't make a living from this pissant newspaper."
Tersarius gave him a dubious look.
"I needed the money,” Marcel repeated. “Why else do you think I’d work with this crooked bastard?”
“Well, you’re not any better than him now, are you?”
“Can’t we make some kind of deal? Like for immunity?”
“You’ve been watching too much television. You tell me where you were taking the tissue sample, and maybe, maybe we can talk.”
“I had to wait until I was told to make the drop-off. This whole deal was set up with firewalls,” said Marcel.
“The guy at Cloverleaf, Jim Jervinis, contacted me. I passed along the information on what was needed to him,” he said, gesturing to Hitchens, “he got the stuff from Frame, and then I passed it along.”
Tersarius shook his head. “What’s Cloverleaf?”
“That’s a fancy horse hotel on the edge of the city, right on the county line,” said Hitchens. “So that’s where this was going.”
“I assume there’s a lab set up at Cloverleaf,” said Marcel. “They host a stud service, and have been big into AI for years.” He paused. “Of course, in this case, AI stands for artificial insemination.”
“Have you already called Cloverleaf?”
“No, I called Scott.”
“Did you call Cloverleaf?”
“I didn’t know they were in on this. My connection was to him.”
“Good, then we’re going to this Cloverleaf place and you’re both coming with me.” He turned to the editor. “Would you like to retrieve the box?
(to be continued)