“Me lady, a word?”
“What are you now Satan?” Artemis said. Artemis examined the sharp featured middle-aged man. He had active pale blue eyes, and thinning dishwater blond hair. She started to walk away knowing it would follow.
“Not sure the FBI has been described as Satan?”
“Sorry, force of habit,” Artemis said. She stopped walking and turned toward the man who stood in front of an abandoned pharmacy building made from ancient red bricks. “FBI? You sound like a Brit.”
“I’m Welsh, the names Nero Berkey, special agent, that is,” he said. He flipped open a wallet to reveal his golden badge. It appeared official. He opened his jacket to display a holstered weapon strapped to his sturdy frame. “Moved here with me father as a child, can’t quite lose the accent. I blame it upon the parents, at home, they only talk in Welsh.”
“What do you want?”
“Your client,” Agent Berkey said. He buttoned his jacket. “They are rather secretive, and highly profitable in an age when hospitals like this be closing down, why?”
“I have no idea,” Artemis said. She gripped her hips as she briefly stopped walking. “Guess you know my business, and my background?”
“It’s what we do,” Agent Berkey said. “Ex-Marine medic, you’re a tough lass, know what it’s like to get shot at.”
“Might we have a coffee?” Agent Berkey asked. He winked at Artemis. “If you have some time.”
“My hotels across the next block,” Artemis said. She waved him forward. “Walk with me, I know the drill.”
They started to move down the concrete sidewalk. They passed an older woman pushing a packed grocery cart. The old lady ignored them, but she also noticed them.
“You know the hospital owns your hotel?”
“I think they own the entire town,” Artemis said. “Is that a big surprise?”
“Not really, I guess,” Agent Berkey said. He held open the hotel’s smoked glass front door. They strolled past the chubby valet who Artemis acknowledged. “Ah, this will do nicely.”
“Why are bothering me?”
“Not sure I should say that right now,” Agent Berkey said as he sat down on a cushioned chair near the breakfast bar that was being cleaned by the hotel staff. “I’m just up here asking questions, listening to locals. It’s impossible to be about here without bein’ noticed.”
“I know,” Artemis said. “At least you don’t have my hair.”
“True, but I have this accent. I’m not to be trusted by them, I’m an outsider, as it were,” Agent Berkey said with a mischievous wide-toothed smile. He leaned his elbows on top of the table. “Where’s your liability claim headed? Lots of death up here, local lawyer seems well prepared.”
Artemis leaned forward, and took in a deep breath. She studied Agent Berkey’s face, his intense eyes.
“You know I’m under an NDA?”
“I suspected,” Agent Berkey said. He again winked at Artemis. “But I also suspect you don’t want to get pulled in over your head. Not a client to risk jail time, and loss of your liberty.”
“I’m not over my head,” Artemis said.
“Ha, I like your spirit,” Agent Berkey said. He pointed at Artemis. “You’re a spunky lass, almost a proper Irish girl. You’ll take it easy on me, now, so, help a boy out, what can you give me?”
Artemis understood the statement. It was a common practice to discuss cases on and off the record, or make certain comments that might lead toward the facts.
“I don’t know yet,” Artemis said. “Let’s just say, they might scare me if I were a patient.”
“Indeed,” Agent Berkey said, critically. “Thank you – what do you know about that Tree of Life, out in the woods?”
“Nothing,” Artemis said. “Old man out at a grocery mentioned weirdness – nothing else.”
“Not sure,” Artemis said.
“Ever heard of Profit Higgs?”
“Apparently he has quite a following,” Agent Berkey said. “Women, men, an entire army, a cult leader, as it were. Studied about the type in academy, first time in my career to deal with a real one, rather creepy fellow.”
“Yeah, it gets a bit strange, if I must say,” Agent Berkey said. He hesitated. “I think it would be good to find them, observe them from a distance. I’m just not sure where, any ideas? Might you tag along, I think they are connected to the hospital, not sure why, but it’s in my bones. I never question my Welsh instincts, old school, they never failed me.”
“I’m only half Irish,” Artemis said. “My mother always told me to tell the truth, and right now, I’m not sure what to think of you, or this tree, and yes, it all sounds creepy.”
“I understand,” Agent Berkey said. He looked past Artemis at the hotel lobby being mopped and cleaned by a Hispanic girl with a long black pony tail. “I’ll put you at ease, in truth, I’m lost up here, this is an alien country for me, not like a normal city or town.”
“They are clannish, Scot Irish, they don’t like outsiders,” Artemis said. “A bit tribal in a way.”
Agent Berkey stared over at Artemis. She thought he was calculating his words.
“If you’ll help me,” Agent Berkey said. With his left hand fingers he gripped his square, unshaven chin. “I’ll return the favor, as it were?”
“I’ll play along,” Artemis said. She thought perhaps it would be a good time to visit the local cemetery. “I’ll do some work tonight.”
“Can you help me find this Tree of Life?”
Artemis sat back and crossed her arms. She watched the hotel valet scratch his plump belly as he tried to chat up the Hispanic maid. She was certain he would fail in his efforts.
“We should go visit the old man at the grocery,” Artemis said. She remembered the lost Native American and the roaming white stag. “I think I can find it, his names Virgil. Yeah, Virgil Sammons, he knows a friend, he’ll know where to go.”
“Ah, many thanks,” Agent Berkey said. He tapped on the laminated fake wood table top. “I need to find a local with knowledge. Otherwise, I’ll find myself with the troubles about me. My superiors will start to question me methods.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Artemis said. “I think he’s a heavy drinker, likes the hard stuff.”
“Lass, I’m Welsh,” Agent Berkey said. He chuckled, he sucked in a deep breath. “I’d not trust him otherwise if he didn’t like a proper pint.”
“Give me your contact information,” Artemis said. She pulled out her smartphone, she tapped in the password. “Here, put in your number, I’ll call you in the morning. I have an idea what to do, just let me do some checking, I have my ways, my own peculiar methods.”
Agent Berkey tapped in his information, he handed the smartphone back over to Artemis.
“I’ll be waiting,” Agent Berkey said. “Till tomorrow then?”
“Fine with me,” Artemis said. “I’m an early riser, don’t sleep much, so I’ll likely be early.”
Agent Berkey stood and shook Artemis’ hand.
“I welcome working with ya,” Agent Berkey. “Until then.”
“Sure,” Artemis said. She leaned her head to the side. “Curious, why Nero?”
“Ah, not sure, really,” Nero said. “I’m not Roman, or Greek. It’s not even a family name.”
“My old man was a antiquities dealer, biblical scholar,” Artemis said. She smirked. “Some say Nero was a code for 666, from the Book of Revelations. I’m half kidding, not sure why I remember this useless facts.”
“I don’t think I’m the anti-Christ,” Nero said. He chuckled like a former smoker. “At least not today, my dearly beloved Catholic mother would have a good laugh at that one.”
“Sorry, I’m kidding with you, I tend to be sarcastic,” Artemis said. “If you were, I know someone that would rat you out.”
Agent Berkey amusingly shook his head, as he turned to walk away as if a huckster had tricked him into buying swamp land in South Florida.
End. Chapter 14.
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