Catch Me If You Can
Laura lay on a cot staring up at the ceiling, reviewing in her mind for about the one hundredth time how she'd come to be in a detention center in Zurich accused of stealing a valuable ruby. It seemed fantastic, unbelievable. These things happened to Remington Steele, not Laura Holt. Yet here she was, locked up like the cheap crook she'd accused him of being all those years ago, and wondering how on earth this could have happened to her.
Her mouth firmed. Oh, she knew how it had happened. Katherine. She had stolen the ruby and left Laura to take the rap. And it hadn't been a chance occurrence either, a misfortune of sharing a face. No, this had been a deliberate plot hatched up by a devious mind.
The police said her face was clearly visible on the surveillance camera as well as her fingerprints on the safe where the ruby was being housed before transfer back to Landrieu. Katherine had done her work well, planting the evidence that would delay the search for the real thief.
If she didn't get out of here soon, the trail would be cold. Just like Katherine had planned. The ruby would disappear, and Laura Holt's impeccable record would be smeared. What client would want to hire an investigator once accused of theft, bogus though the charge was?
She gritted her teeth as she struggled to contain her anger and impatience. She felt like screaming, throwing a temper tantrum. Being locked up in a cell, having her freedom curtailed was unbearable. She had asked the guards, the police captain, anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot what was taking so long, but they just kept telling her to wait for the Commissioner. Who the hell was the Commissioner?
As if the very intensity of her question had summoned the answer, the cell door suddenly opened, and a guard stood on the threshold. She swung her legs to the floor and waited for him to speak.
'Come with me.' He said, motioning for her to walk in front of him. 'The Commissioner is here and wants to see you.'
She was herded down several corridors and eventually into a large, spacious room. It was much bigger and grander than the ones she'd been in before. This appeared to be the warden's private office. A large, mahogany desk, neat and tidy, sat in front of a bank of windows. Sunlight poured through momentarily blinding her. She automatically raised a hand to shield her eyes.
'Please come in, Miss Holt.' A voice said. 'I hear you've been most anxious to meet me. And I must admit I've been equally anxious to make your acquaintance. I've heard a great about Remington Steele Investigations.'
As her eyes adjusted to the light, the form of a man seated behind the desk came into view. If Remington had been there, he would have said the man bore a striking resemblance to David Niven. He was elegant and somewhat languid in appearance, his uniform perfectly pressed, his expression pleasant yet aloof.
Only his eyes revealed his curiosity. He watched her approach with a hard, bright intensity that unnerved her, his finger smoothing his mustache almost absently, rather like a cat twitching its tail while it waited at the mouse hole.
'Actually, it's Mrs. Steele.' Laura told him, coming forward. 'I was married a couple of weeks before this unfortunate misunderstanding.'
'My apologies. I don't know how I could have forgotten the husband. His name, after all, graces the door of your agency.' Before she could comment, he turned his attention to the guard at the door. 'You may leave us.' The door closed, and he turned back to Laura. 'Please be seated, Mrs. Steele.'
She settled herself in the chair before the desk and looked at him expectantly.
He smiled. 'My name is Commissioner Alastair Milbank. I'm with Interpol, and I've been assigned the case.'
'It must be a very important ruby for them to send a Commissioner rather than an ordinary inspector.' Laura noted.
'It is.' He agreed. 'I'm sure you can understand how anxious Landrieu as well as their insurer is to recover the Tiger's Heart. It's one of their most prized creations and worth well over a million dollars.' He glanced down at the file on his desk. 'I see that the local police have questioned you, and you have repeatedly denied any involvement in its theft. Have I got it right, Mrs. Steele?'
'You have.' Laura said, inclining her head. 'I'm a private investigator, Commissioner. I'm hired to recover stolen property, not steal it.'
'Yet we have video of you leaving the room in which the ruby was housed as well as your fingerprints on the safe. How do you explain that?'
'My story may sound incredible to you, it did to the local police, but I assure you that it's quite true.'
'Then by all means share it with me. I'd be interested in hearing it first hand rather than in a typed report.'
Laura took a deep breath and began her story for about the tenth time. She was getting tired of repeating it. 'While my husband and I were in St. Moritz, we met a woman who called herself the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. She and I were so similar in appearance that we could have been twins. She hired me to impersonate her while she supposedly had a rendezvous with her lover. It turned out to be a ruse. While I was pretending to be her, she stole the Simba Collection. We soon learned that this woman was not the Grand Duchess but rather a thief. I am quite certain she stole the ruby and set me up to take the fall.'
The Commissioner stroked his mustache. 'That is an incredible tale. Sounds like something straight out of the movies. The old evil twin angle, eh?' He leaned back in his chair, studying over steepled fingers. 'I must admit I'm intrigued, but do you have any evidence of her existence? Without that I'm afraid you're still our prime suspect. Videos and fingerprints rarely lie.'
'Do you think I'd be stupid enough to leave my fingerprints all over that safe?'
He studied her for a moment, his eyes narrowing, and then said. 'No, I don't believe you would. A private investigator would know better.'
'And as a private investigator, I'm also aware that there are two questions that need to be asked of every suspect. First, was there a motive, and secondly, was there opportunity. The motive, of course, would be financial gain. That's pretty consistent with every theft.' Laura conceded. 'But what about opportunity? I ask you, Commissioner, how could I have stolen the ruby when I was on my honeymoon during the time period in which the theft was to have taken place?'
'That, of course, is the weak spot in the case against you.' Milbank admitted. 'However, no one can vouched for your whereabouts on the night of the theft except for your husband, and husbands, I'm afraid, are notoriously unreliable. They will say nearly anything to get their wives off.' When she opened her mouth to point out that there were other witnesses, he continued on relentlessly. 'And, yes, we have spoken to the proprietor of the ski resort where you rented the chalet for the duration of your honeymoon. They verify that yes, the Steeles were guests, but they cannot confirm seeing you except for the evening you checked in and the morning you checked out. I certainly understand your desire to spend time exclusively with your husband, that is the way of honeymooners, but it certainly hasn't helped your case. The hotel where the ruby was being stored as within easy distance of the resort. You could have gone there and back in less than an hour.'
'And if I stole the ruby, where is it?' Laura demanded. 'The police haven't located it, and I assure you, Commissioner, they performed a thorough search.'
'I think you'd be in a better position to answer that question, Mrs. Steele.'
Laura felt like screaming again. Nobody but Remington would believe her, and apparently husbands weren't considered valid witnesses unless they were ratting on you. Where all these people in cahoots with Katherine or was she speaking a language they didn't understand?
She took a deep breath and tried again. 'So it comes down to proving Katherine's existence.'
'It would appear so.'
'Very well.' Laura said with ill-concealed annoyance. 'My only witness other than my husband would be Lord Cheswick. She was a close associate of his at one time.'
His thin eyebrows rose. 'The Lord Cheswick who is currently under arrest for receiving stolen property?'
'That's the one. She set him up as well.'
'Yes, isn't she?' Laura said dryly. 'I've rarely met anyone so skilled at dispatching their enemies.'
'And where you her enemy?'
'Not at all. I was on my way back to L.A. with no intention of pursuing her when she involved me in another one of her little plots. In a way I have to admire her ingenuity. What better way to slip out of sight than to get the police chasing the wrong person? The longer you waste your time with me, the longer she has to disappear with the ruby.'
Milbank nodded. 'It's a brilliant plan, I grant you, but you still have to prove to me that this woman exists.'
'Lord Cheswick '
'Is hardly a stellar witness, Mrs. Steele.' He finished for her. 'He's also been annoyingly tight-lipped ever since his lawyer arrived. He was let out on bail a week ago and has cloistered himself in that chalet of his. No one goes in or out except for the lawyer.'
'Nevertheless, he should be questioned.' Laura persisted. 'As well as my husband. I know you'd feel his evidence is biased, but '
'We've taken your husband's statement, several times in fact.' Milbank interrupted. 'He's been most vocal, I can assure you. In fact he's made a bloody pest of himself over the past two weeks. The warden is on the verge of charging him with harassment. The only thing that's stopping him is the knowledge that he'd be stuck with him around the clock if he did so.' He paused, his eyes running over her in a speculative manner. 'He's very devoted to you, isn't he?'
Laura felt a blush rising to her cheeks. 'We're newlyweds.'
'Yes, well, I afraid wedded bliss will have to wait.' He leaned forward, resting his arms against the desk as he looked at her with an expression of uncompromising frankness. 'You have an impeccable record, Mrs. Steele, and I'm inclined to believe you on the reputation of your agency alone, but you must understand that I'd be in dereliction of duty if I released you without some solid evidence that this so-called twin exists. We'll attempt to question Cheswick, but I wouldn't put much hope in his cooperation. If I were you, Mrs. Steele, I'd have that husband of yours find you a damn good defense attorney. You're going to need it.'
He'd done a lot of illegal and not so illegal things in his life, but masterminding a prison break topped the list. It had always been his philosophy to stay out of prison, not break into it, but the way he saw it, there was no other option. He couldn't let Laura sit in that prison one more day. Not only did he miss her like hell, but the longer they delayed, the colder the trail became. Pretty soon even Laura's nose wouldn't be able to pick it up.
Remington knew how quickly jewels disappeared. Once it was in some billionaire's private collection, it would be nearly impossible to recover. First you had to find out who had it, and then you had to figure out a way to get inside the man's house, which usually resembled a mini-fortress. It would be easier to break into the prison, especially since Laura was at low security detention facility.
Oh, yes, he'd made good use of his time. During his frequent visits, he made careful note of the prison's layout, the amount of security it had and how alert the guards were. He'd also allowed his fingers to wander through the warden's desk and file cabinets, borrowing keys and locating exactly where Laura was being held. His final act of larceny came in the form of a guard uniform, which he now wore, concealed beneath the baggy coveralls he'd taken from the delivery man lying at his feet.
'Come on, mate.' He said, reaching down and propping the man against the wall of the coffeehouse restroom. 'You have a good sleep, and I'll do all your work for you. Can't get a better deal than that, eh?'
The man snored softly. He'd sleep for a good twelve hours. Plenty of time for Remington to make use of his truck. As he jogged lightly across the parking lot, he made a mental note to thank Daniel the next time he saw him. A mickey was a useful item to have about. He also sent a silence thanks to the man's mother who had neglected to teach her son not to accept drinks from strangers.
Remington glanced at his watch as he threw the truck in gear and guided it onto the road. Ten minutes behind schedule but that could easily be corrected with a little added pressure to the gas pedal.
He arrived at the prison gate exactly on time and then waited as the guards did their job. He'd been watching the procedure for the last few days and knew the routine by heart. Once the guards inspected the vehicle, he would be waved through into a loading dock where he'd go about the business of collecting bags of soiled linens and clothing from the prison's laundry room.
By his estimates he had exactly half an hour to collect Laura and the laundry. Hopefully she would not prove difficult. He frowned as he dropped lightly to the ground and headed for the laundry facility where he quickly shucked the borrowed overalls. That was the wild card in the whole operation, the thing he couldn't be certain of. How would Laura react to a prison break?
His mouth firmed as he pulled the guard cap down low on his brow, concealing his features as much as possible. It didn't matter how she reacted. She'd be coming with him whether she liked it or not. He was prepared to use force if necessary. This time they'd be doing things his way. Isn't that what she'd said she wanted?
Laura was lying on the cot again, trying to convince herself to sleep, when the opening of the cell door drew her attention. It wasn't the usual loud scrape of metal against metal but rather a smooth whisper as though the person opening the door wanted to make it as silent as possible. Odd behavior for a guard, she thought, lifting herself on an elbow. They normally made enough noise to the wake the dead.
To her surprise rather than motioning her outside, the guard slipped inside. There was something about that slip, that effortless Fred Astaire glide that told her exactly who it was standing in her cell. Remington. For a brief moment joy threatened to overwhelm her, and it was all she could do not to launch herself at him, but reason quickly asserted itself. What crazy scheme did he have up his sleeve this time?
'What do you think you're doing?' She hissed, getting up and coming over to him.
'I think that would be obvious to a woman of your intelligence, Laura.' He hissed back. 'I'm breaking you out of here.'
'Are you crazy?' She demanded in a whisper. 'I can't break out of here.'
'Of course, you can.' He grabbed her wrist, pulling her toward the door. 'Just leave it to me. I've got it all planned. The laundry truck leaves in fifteen minutes, and you're going to be on it.'
'Your getaway car. Sorry it isn't Cinderella's coach but our fairy godmother is in L.A.'
She dug in her heels. 'I'm not going anywhere.'
He sighed. 'Must you always be difficult, Laura?'
'I'm not being difficult.' She protested. 'I'm being realistic. There's an approved method for getting out of jail, Mr. Steele, and it's not in the back of a laundry truck. It's called a court of law. If I break out of here, I'll be a fugitive.'
'Fugitive, jewel thief, what difference does it make? They'll hang you for both.'
'They don't hang people anymore.'
'How reassuring. I imagine 2400 volts of electricity is the more humane way to go.'
'I'm not going to be executed.' Laura told him flatly. 'I'm innocent. They don't execute innocent people.'
He looked down at her, his expression like that of a father explaining something to a child. 'What fantasy world are you living in, darling? Innocent people go to prison all the time, and your friend, Katherine, has placed a neat, little noose around that delightful neck of yours.' When she opened her mouth to protest, he continued on ruthlessly, 'we haven't got time to argue, Laura, so I'm going to be blunt. The longer you sit in this jail, the more time Katherine has to disappear. We simply don't have time to wait for some pointy-headed lawyer to spring you. I know what happens to stolen jewels, and if you don't get out of here soon, that ruby is going to be buried so deep in some billionaire's vault that not even your nose will be able to find it.'
Laura opened her mouth and then closed it again. She knew he was right. Hadn't she been thinking the same thing only a few hours ago? Before her meeting with the Commissioner, she'd still had some hope of reasoning her way out of this, but now? Let's just say Milbank hadn't given her a warm, fuzzy feeling. He'd told her to get a damn, good lawyer.
Did innocent people need damn, good lawyers?
'But I'll be a fugitive.' Laura repeated. 'And you'll be in trouble too. Aiding and abetting could get you a long prison sentence.'
'I'm willing to risk it.'
'I can't let you do that.'
'Damn it, Laura,' he said gruffly, 'in case you haven't noticed, I'm in love with you, and I'm not going to let you sit in here another day.'
'Look,' he said impatiently, 'are you coming peacefully or do I have to conk you on the head and carry you out of here?'
She eyed him warily. 'You wouldn't dare.'
He smiled, a toothy grin that reminded her of a shark right before it bites. 'Believe me, love, if Nick Charles could punch Nora in the jaw to save her from getting shot by Morelli, what makes you think I won't do the same to you?'
'I think you're serious.'
'You better believe it, sweetheart.'
Laura wavered for another minute, considering her options, none of which thrilled her, and then said with reluctance. 'Ok. I'm with you.'
His smile widened into a grin. 'That's what I love about you, Laura. You accept defeat so graciously. Come along, my lady, your carriage leaves in approximately,' he checked his watch again, 'seven minutes.'
Together they slipped out of the cell, closing the door softly behind them. With Laura in front and Remington behind they walked down the corridor, moving as quickly as they dared. It would look suspicious if they moved too fast, hurried unnecessarily in any way. They must appear like the typical guard escorting a prisoner.
They had nearly reached their objective when the sound of approaching footsteps froze them in place.
'What do we do?' She whispered, feeling frantic.
Remington, however, was in his element. He took her arm as though to support her, and whispered. 'Act like you're sick. The infirmary's down this way.'
Laura bent over and gave a feeble moan.
'Come, Laura, the water heater in your loft groans louder than that.'
She tried again, louder this time.
The owner of the footsteps turned the corner and then stopped when he saw them. He was a young man with fair hair and nervous eyes, a corporal by the looks of his uniform. He studied them suspiciously, his face trying to decide whether it should frown or remain impassive. Frowning won.
'Where are you going?' He demanded in German. 'All prisoners should be in their cells.'
'This prisoner's not feeling well.' Remington replied easily. 'I'm taking her to the infirmary.'
The guard eyed continued to eye them suspiciously until Laura gave another good groan. He took a hasty step to the side as though afraid it was catching. 'Please proceed.'
'Where'd you learn German?' Laura asked once they were safely cloistered in the laundry room.
'You don't want to know.' He said, hurriedly scrambling into the coveralls. 'It involves a priceless painting and a most accommodating ski instructor named Greta.' He paused, tilting his head to one side. 'Or was it Helga? Maybe it was both. I was wild in those days.'
Laura threw up a hand. 'You're right. I don't want to know. That's part of your past I can do without.'
'Glad you're seeing things my way.' He said with a grin.
'Well, don't get used to it.' She shot back. 'I'm just feeling cooperative because it's my first jailbreak.'
'If it makes you feel any better, it's my first jail break too.' He told her, unfurling an empty tote bag and holding it open for her. 'Get in.'
Laura screwed up her nose. 'It smells like dirty gym socks.'
'I never promised you a rose garden, Laura.'
Reluctantly she stepped inside the bag and allowed him to pull it up over her head. Once the drawstring was closed, he lifted her, placing her on the floor of the truck. If she'd thought the smell of dirty clothing was strong, it got even stronger when he began tossing other bags on top of her. Soon she was buried beneath a pile of dirty laundry. Thank God there was a thin layer of cloth between her and it. Frisking about in prison underwear was not a fantasy of hers.
The truck door slid shut with a bang, the impact nearly jarring her teeth out. Then a few seconds later, the engine roared to life and they began to move, slowly at first and then rapidly as they pulled away from the prison.
Operation Jailbreak was a success.
Commissioner Milbank was enjoying an excellent glass of port and listening to Debussy's Afternoon of the Fawn when a knock came at the door of his private apartment. Setting the port on the table near his elbow, he rose and went to answer it, his movements slow and languid. He never considered anything worth hurrying over.
Arthur Banks, his personal aide, was standing on the doorstep. From the man's expression it was obvious that he was not there to deliver good news. Of course, one could never tell with Banks. He always looked as though he was in the middle of a bilious attack.
'Yes, what is it, Banks?'
'There's been a prison break, Commissioner.'
He was never one to beat around the bush either. Frontal attack Banks is what the boys at Interpol called him.
'Oh really?' Milbank murmured, returning to his chair. 'Anyone I know?'
'It's Laura Holt, Sir.' The young man answered. 'The guard was making his rounds and found her cell empty about two hours ago. We have the local police searching for her now.'
Milbank picked up his glass, studied its deep red contents for a moment and then said. 'Call off the search.'
'I said to call off the search'
'But Commissioner,' Banks protested, 'the ruby '
'She didn't steal the ruby. She's too good a detective to do something so foolish.' Milbank interrupted.
'Detectives have been known to go bad before.' Banks ventured.
'Not this one.' He took a sip of the port and then leaned back in the chair, his expression thoughtful, almost calculating 'But she does know who did it, and it occurs to me that our job would be a lot easier if we let her do all the work. She'll go after the ruby because it's the only way to clear her name. All we have to do is follow her. She'll lead us right to it.'
Banks reached for the phone on the nearby table. 'I'll put a man on it right away.'
But the Commissioner's voice stopped him. 'There's no need. I've already got someone on it. You see, Banks, I was anticipating something like this. The Steeles tend to be unconventional.'
Arthur Banks frowned. He didn't like having his authority usurped even by his boss. 'May I ask who, Sir?'
'But he's a '
'Bumbling fool?' Milbank finished. 'Perhaps but that bumbling fool always manages to do exactly what he's told to do. And that's important, Banks. We can't have any loose cannons. We need someone reliable, someone who will keep us informed every step of the way.'
Banks appeared skeptical but he was a yes-man right down to his shiny, black, patent leather shoes. 'If you think that's best, Sir.'
'Couldn't you have picked someone a little less portly to be our accomplice?' Laura panted as they lugged the snoring delivery man across the parking lot. Remington had insisted on putting him back in his truck.
'I didn't have time to call for auditions, Laura.' Remington retorted, holding the man while Laura crawled into the truck. 'And considering the short notice, I'd say,' he gave a quick glance at the man's name tag, 'Wolfgang did an admirable job.'
'It doesn't take much talent to sleep.' Laura said, grabbing hold of the man's coveralls and pulling while Remington pushed. It was like playing tug-o-war with a three hundred pound bratwurst.
'Granted, but not everyone would have allowed me to buy them a drink. It took a wide-eyed innocent of magnificent proportions to play our accomplice to perfection.'
'He's certainly of magnificent proportions.' She muttered, continuing to pull. 'It's amazing how quickly you've become skilled at administrating mickeys. I'm married to a regular Lucrezia Borgia.'
'Is that a note of bitterness in your voice, Laura? Surely you'll still not miffed at me for doctoring your cocoa? I explained why I did it.'
'Why should I be miffed?' She asked. 'You drugged your wife so you wouldn't have to make love to her. I'm sure it happens all the time.'
'You weren't my wife at the time, and you ought to be flattered. Not every man would go to such extents to keep his intended chaste until their wedding night.'
'I'm sure the Victorians would applaud.'
Remington paused in his shoving to glare at her over Wolfgang's bulky backside. 'Come on, Laura, put your back into it. He appears to be wedged between the seat and the steering wheel.'
'I am putting my back into it.'
Stung by his criticism, she threw herself backwards, pulling with all her might on the man's blue coveralls. There was movement, and then like a man shot out of a cannon Wolfgang came spurting across the front seat, landing on top of Laura who had fallen across the passenger's seat. She gasped as his weight crushed her into the hard vinyl. Was that four ribs that broke or just two?
'Get him off!' She wheezed. 'Get him off!'
Dodging her kicking feet, which threatened to deliver an upper cut to his chin, Remington grabbed the man and pulled him upright, settling him in the driver's seat with his head resting against the steering wheel.
Then he looked at Laura. 'Happy?'
'No.' She retorted, scrambling out of the truck and following Remington to the car he'd rented. 'But it's nothing personal to you or Wolfgang. I haven't been happy since they slapped those cuffs on me.' She jerked open the passenger's door and slid inside. 'When I get my hands on that woman, I'm going to squeeze every last breath out of her. I've never met such a sneaky, conniving, under-headed, low-down crook.'
Remington glanced over at her, brow lifted. 'You haven't?'
She glared at him. He had an annoying way of reminding her of things she'd rather forget. 'There's absolutely no similarity between you and Katherine.'
He started the car, guiding it out onto the road. 'That's not what you thought the night I stood up and took the bows for your agency. I believe you called me a treacherous liar, wasn't it? I'm convinced that had you been able to get your hands around my throat I would have expired right there on the dance floor.'
'Is there a point to this discussion?'
'I was just thinking that you ought to give her a chance to explain before you strangle her.'
'I thought you didn't like her.'
'I don't, and obviously for good reason, but you've always been a woman of second chances, Laura. I'd hate to see Katherine change that. It's one of the things I love about you.'
There was a silence as Laura digested his words. Second chances? Yes, she'd certainly given him his fair share over the years. But Katherine was not Remington. There was nothing repentant about that woman. She had set Laura up as deliberately and as coolly as she had Cheswick. And what made this betrayal so abhorrent was the fact that Laura had helped her, had even liked her. She had been in no way Katherine's enemy.
'I'll keep that in mind.' She finally said, turning her face towards the window. This was not the time to let Remington see how much Katherine had hurt her. He probably suspected but was not willing to go into deep waters yet. Instead he was giving her time to work it out for herself.
'Well,' Laura said brightly, shaking off her dark thoughts with typical Holt determination, 'where do we go from here?'
'Back to St. Moritz.'
She frowned. 'Shouldn't we be trying to get out of Switzerland?'
'And go where?'
'Good point.' They would need to know in which direction Katherine went in order to follow her. 'It sounds as though you have a plan.'
'I do.' He said, his eyes on the road. 'First we get you a new identity and then we visit Cheswick. He knows Katherine better than anyone.'
'Won't that be a little difficult with the police watching his chalet?'
'Difficult but not impossible.'
'The Commissioner said he was no longer talking.'
'He'll talk to us.' Remington assured her.
Laura glanced over at him. He looked dangerous in the darkness of the car's interior, the green lights of the dash flickering eerily across his face. He was all business now. A man set on a mission, a mission to clear his wife's name, and he was willing to use every trick in his book. She had a feeling he'd wring the information out of Cheswick if he had to.
Ethics never bothered Remington, especially when it came to protecting her. There had always been that edge, that touch of violence just beneath his urbane surface that disturbed yet fascinated her. He might claim the name of Remington Steele, prefer it even, but Harry was still very much a part of him. This wasn't Wilson, the staid banker, sitting beside her. This wasn't even Murphy, the rough around the edges investigator. This was a big cat, civilized yet capable of reverting back to his jungle days.
'What makes you so sure?' She asked quietly.
'Revenge, Laura.' He said grimly. 'Men like Cheswick thrive on it. It's the gangster code. You hit us and we hit back twice as hard. I'm willing to bet the Royal Lavulite that he's comforting himself right now with visions of how he's going to bring about Katherine's downfall.'
'Nobody likes being used.'
Who was she trying to convince? Him or her?
'No, they don't.' He glanced at her. 'So it's settled? Tomorrow night we visit Cheswick?'
'We visit Cheswick.'
Sweet is Revenge
Lord Byron - 'Don Juan', canto I, st. 124
Laura stretched, enjoying the feel of mattress and sheets, even if they were rougher than she was used to. It was a pleasure to sleep in a bed rather than a cot, but by far the best thing about last night was having her husband beside her once again, his body curled around hers, his soft breathing against her hair.
She smiled, remembering their reunion. Finally they'd finished the night in her hotel room. There'd been no Daniel interrupting or Remington bolting. Two weeks separation had made them needy, very needy, and their passion had exploded in a frantic orgy of sensation. There were a few moments when she wondered whether the old bed would make it, but it had creaked along valiantly, joining them in a sigh of satisfaction when all was quiet once again.
Just thinking about it sent a surge of desire coursing through her body, and she reached out her hand eagerly, expecting to find Remington's warm body. Her smile quickly became a frown when she found nothing but empty bed. She rolled over, dragging the sheets with her and came face to face with a note lying on the pillow where his head should have been.
Good morning, love. Went out for provisions. Back soon. Stay inside. Safer. P.S. Do you know you're beautiful when you sleep?
The 'stay inside' was underlined two times. She rolled back over on her back, crumpling the note between her fingers. He was enjoying himself. He was back on his home turf and relishing the role of her protector. For once she was dependent upon him, and he liked it. How she could sense that from a hasty scribbled note she couldn't say, but her feminine instincts told her it was true.
What had he said a few weeks ago? A man got tired of being rescued by a woman? How quickly things changed. Now he was doing the rescuing and savoring every minute of it, even going so far as to issue orders. And she'd be a fool to ignore them, and they both knew it. This operation was all Remington's. She would need his expertise in the underworld to find Katherine and clear her name.
And why didn't that bother her, she wondered, staring up at the cracks in the ceiling. Before she would have been chomping at the bit to take charge, to issue her own set of orders, but now well, doing things his way seemed right. Had she finally learned to trust him a little?
It took a few minutes before she realized she was smiling rather idiotically up at the ceiling, but it was like reaching a milestone, turning a corner. Laura Holt had finally learned to trust someone other than herself, and it'd taken the most unlikely person to teach her. So let him enjoy it, she decided, tossing back the covers and getting up. He'd proven himself. Hadn't he said so on more than one occasion?
Two hours later all her good intentions were beginning to fray at the edges. The bug called restlessness had bitten her, and she was impatient to know where he was and what he was doing. Being closeted in a seedy motel room was nearly as bad as a prison cell, but she didn't dare go downstairs. Remington was right. It was safer for her to stay inside. But, geesh, where was he?
For about the fiftieth time she pulled back the curtain and glanced at the street below. No Remington. She was about to let the curtain fall back into place when she noticed the ice cream vendor. Who in their right mind would want ice cream in St. Moritz in late February? And who would be foolish enough to try to sell it?
She was pondering this oddity, pacing the room like a caged tiger, when she heard the doorknob turn. Remington walked in carrying two paper bags in one hand and a white bag like those used in bakeries and Styrofoam cup in the other.
He smiled when he saw her. 'Breakfast is served, my lady. Shall I serve it in bed or will you take it standing up?'
Laura pounced on the white bag and cup. She was ravenous.
'Ah, yes, I see. Standing up. Excellent choice. Helps with digestion.' Remington murmured, watching her rip open the bag with the ferocity of a hungry she-wolf. 'I take it you were hungry.'
'Famished.' Laura said around a mouthful of croissant. 'Prison food leaves much to be desired.'
'Well, we can't have them serving the convicts Veal Piccata with lemon butter.' Remington quipped, setting his collection of bags on the bed. 'Otherwise, they'd have too many people trying to get in rather than out. Would put a dreadful strain on the prison system.'
Laura eyed the bags on the bed, still munching. 'Where have you been all morning?'
Remington removed the cap he'd been wearing low on his brow and flung it on a nearby chair. Then he turned to look at her, hands on hips. 'Arranging for your new identity. The Swede is not an easy man to find. Then I couldn't decide whether I preferred you as a redhead or a blonde.'
'Who's the Swede and what's he doing in Switzerland?'
'The Swede is a purveyor of fake passports and other useful documentation. Pete referred me to him. Pete's an old colleague of mine.' He added before she could ask the inevitable question. Laura had an unfortunate habit of requiring pesky details. 'As for why the Swede's in Switzerland, you'll have to ask him this afternoon if it's important to you. I didn't much care as long as he knew his business, and according to Pete, he's the best. Unfortunately, he only deals in cash, which means I shall have to give Mildred a call and ask her to wire some more money.' He grimaced. 'I had a devil of a time explaining why I needed the last batch. Really, Laura, that woman is getting far too inquisitive. Was it really wise to let her get her investigator license?'
'You didn't tell her about our little problem?'
Remington sent her a glance that clearly asked whether she thought him a fool. 'Of course not. If I told her, she would have insisted on coming over here, and I had enough things to do without looking after her.'
'How did you explain our delay?'
'I told her I'd convinced you to stay a little longer.'
'And she believed you?'
'Of course.' He said as though he couldn't believe she was asking him such a thing. 'If you haven't noticed, Laura, I'm rather skilled at stretching the truth when the need arises.'
'That's an understatement.' Laura muttered, her eyes returning to the bags on the bed. Now that her hunger was sated, her curiosity was asserting itself. 'What's in these?'
She blinked. 'Who?'
'Bacall's character on Dark Passage. She's your new identity.' He grabbed the nearest bag, reaching inside and pulling out an auburn mop of synthetic hair. 'Try it on.'
'Red won obviously.'
'Goes with the freckles.'
Sending him a look that said he'd pay for that comment later she snatched the wig from him and disappeared into the bathroom. She emerged a few minutes later, a redhead. Remington circled her slowly, his eyes narrowed, rubbing his chin in a studious fashion.
'I look like Rita Hayworth.' She muttered, blowing a curl out of her eye.
'Yes, I know.' Remington said, a wolfish grin breaking out across his face. 'Isn't it delightful?'
'You might as well get that thought right out of your head.' She told him crisply. 'I'm not wearing this in order to fulfill any of your kinky Hollywood fantasies.'
He looked suitably shocked at such a suggestion. 'Really, Laura, what do you take me for? Some pin-up girl pervert? I'm appalled that you should even think I'm thinking such a thing.'
Not at all fooled by his protestations of innocence, she snatched up the other bag. Inside was a pair of regular glasses, a pair of sunglasses and a long, ivory scarf. She looked at him inquiringly.
'The clear glasses go with the wig. You'll wear those for the passport.' He supplied. 'The scarf and sunglasses are for everyday use. I didn't think you'd want to wear the wig constantly. They get hot and have a tendency to list to one side.'
'Spoken like a man who knows.' She noted before asking. 'And what about you? You don't look like Parry any more. You shaved off the beard.'
'I shall have to take my chances with a fake one.'
She reached up a hand, letting her fingers trail along his jaw. 'Pity. I've always wondered what it was like to kiss a man with a beard.'
'Indulging in your own fantasies, Laura?'
'Maybe.' She slid her arms around his neck and turned her face up to his. 'Have you ever wondered what it would be like to kiss Rita Hayworth, Mr. Steele?'
'What do you think?'
'I think you have.' She told him, pressing her body against his. 'Would you care to give it a try?'
'I thought you weren't interested in fulfilling any kinky Hollywood fantasies.'
'Delighted to hear it.' He said, sweeping her up in his arms.
A few hours later Remington's voice broke the silence of the room. 'You know, Laura, I'm going to miss this bed. It sings beautifully.'
'You're a man of exceptional taste, Mr. Steele.' She murmured against his shoulder. 'All the wonders of Europe and you're impressed by a bed in a cheap motel.'
'I've slept in plenty of cheap motels, Laura, and on beds not much different than this one. It's you that makes this one something worth remembering.'
'So kissing Rita was all you'd imagined it to be?'
He allowed his fingers to run through her dark hair. The wig had come off ages ago. 'Kissing Rita is nothing compared to kissing Laura.'
She was nearly asleep when a thought drifted across her mind. It had been bothering her ever since she'd seen it, teasing her like dream that you only half remembered. 'Did you see that ice cream vendor on the street outside?'
'Terrible time to sell ice cream.'
'I was thinking the same thing. You don't suppose '
But she never completed her sentence. Sleep had overtaken her.
'Have you ever skied in the dark, Laura?' Remington asked, removing two sets of skis from the top of the rental car.
They'd parked the car in a small corpse of fir trees a couple miles up from the chalet. From there they would go on foot, using skis to transverse the snowy expanse. Their goal was Cheswick's back door, the place where Remington knew he'd be the most vulnerable. For some reason people paid more attention to their front doors than their back.
'Do you mean dark dark or on a lighted slope?'
'Then you're in for a rare treat.' He shoved a pair of goggles at her. 'You'll need these.'
He watched as she pulled them over her head and then waited patiently for the reaction he knew would be coming. She didn't disappoint him.
'Where'd you get these?' She demanded. 'They're infrared. Not something you can purchase over the counter at your local drugstore.'
'The Swede has a colleague who has access to military paraphernalia.'
'In other words, he's an arms dealer.'
'I prefer to call him a supplier of highly specialized merchandise.' Remington snapped his ski boots into place and then pulled down his own pair of goggles. He smiled as the world before him became visible. Such an improvement over last time. They'd have no difficulty picking out Cheswick's men or any stray police officers. He glanced over at Laura. 'Ready?'
Without waiting for her answer, he pushed off, leading the way down the mountainside. It was comparably flat land, requiring more in the way of cross-country skiing than downhill, and it took them about forty five minutes to reach the line of fir trees bordering the back of Cheswick's property.
Having reached their destination, they unlatched their skis and struck them in a snow bank for safe-keeping. Then they started toward the chalet, running lightly across the harder packed snow until they were concealed within the shadows of the house. Seeing no movement, Remington went for the window he'd used last time.
Once again it slid up easily and silently. He shook his head. Very shoddy security. Turning to Laura, he grabbed her by the waist and lifted so that her legs went through the window first. Then he followed, sliding one leg and then the other over the ledge. Once inside, he closed the window. Mustn't leave open windows to alert the occupants to their soft spot.
He turned, expecting to find Laura waiting for him. And she was. Unfortunately so was a gun. It glinted in the dim light seeping through the window and was pointed right at him. He looked up. A man of bulldog proportions was holding Laura against him, a hand clamped over her mouth.
'That way.' The man said, motioning toward the door with his gun. 'The boss will want to see you.'
'Another nice mess we've gotten ourselves into.' He murmured to Laura as they walked down the hallway.
'You're beginning to repeat yourself, Mr. Steele.'
It wasn't the only thing repeated, Laura thought as they were ushered into the living room. It hadn't been too long ago that she sat in this very room sharing a cognac with its owner. And tonight, as he had last time, Cheswick stood at the drinks cabinet, pouring cognac. He glanced up at their entrance.
'We really must stop meeting like this, Miss Holt.' He murmured, letting his eyes run over her in a familiar fashion. 'Or your associate might feel the need to break my arm again.'
'Husband.' Remington corrected.
'Ah, I see you've been busy since the last time we met.' Cheswick said, coming forward with two snifters of cognac. 'Entered into wedded bliss. How charming. I would extend my congratulations, but I'm not feeling particularly magnanimous this evening. My lawyer has advised me to be on my best behavior so I won't kill you. I'll merely ask you to have a seat and tell me why you felt the need to break into the house of the man you helped incarcerate.'
'We need information.' Laura said once they were all seated around the fire, Cheswick in a black leather armchair and she and Remington on the white couch. 'And you're the only person capable of providing it.'
'I've been advised not to talk.' He told her.
'Yes, we know.' She nodded. 'But we thought you might be willing to break your silence in this particular instance.'
'And why would I do that?'
He was watching her over the rim of his glass, and for a brief moment, she knew how a mouse felt just before the snake struck. There was a hypnotic quality in his gaze that kept her rooted to her seat and scrabbled all her carefully rehearsed arguments. Her tongue seemed incapable of forming words, and she hastily looked away, wondering what in the world was wrong with her.
The word came from Remington, blunt and to the point. Unlike Laura, he hadn't been affected by Cheswick's mesmerizing stare. Like the mongoose in Rudyard Kipling's short story, he had kept his eyes on the man, searching out his weak spots, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Cheswick's gaze went to Remington. He took a sip of his cognac before asking. 'Revenge, Mr. Steele? Against whom?'
The name hung in the air around them like a gunshot. Laura shifted uneasily beside him, but Remington remained completely still, his eyes never leaving the man across from them. He watched as the man's face tightened slightly. Oh, yes, he thought with satisfaction, his hunch had paid off. Cheswick wanted revenge alright. He was nearly vibrating at the mention of the woman's name.
'Ah, yes, Katherine.' The man murmured, his eyes dropping to the golden liquid in his glass. 'Such a delightful woman. I've often wondered if she's Helen of Troy reincarnated. The face that launched a thousands ships and brought empires to their knees. That's Katherine.' He paused as though contemplating the comparison and then glanced up. 'What makes you think I'd want revenge, Mr. Steele?'
'It stands to reason, doesn't it?' Remington asked with the air of one perfectly at ease. 'She's free, and you sit here a prisoner in your own home, a prison she put you in. It's only natural for a man's thoughts to wander down dark avenues, to contemplate glorious retribution.'
'And if I am?' Cheswick queried. 'How does that benefit you?'
'Like my wife said, we need information.'
Remington glanced at Laura as though to say 'I've softened him up, you take it from here.' She didn't fumble the exchange. She accepted the baton and ran with it.
'Katherine's stolen the Tiger's Heart ruby.' She said simply. 'And she set me up to take the fall. I was arrested a little over two weeks ago for its theft. Naturally I want to clear my name and bring her to justice.'
'How delightful.' Cheswick chuckled. 'The detective she used to put me behind bars becomes her next victim. Do you believe in poetic justice, Mrs. Steele?'
Laura's lips firmed as his comment struck home. 'I assure you, Lord Cheswick, we did not conspire with Katherine to place you in your present circumstance. We just wanted the diamonds. Unfortunately they were in your possession when that occurred. I would have preferred to put the thief behind bars.'
'I bet you do.'
'The point is,' Laura persisted, 'we can be of use to each other. In your present situation, your ability to extract revenge is limited, but should you provide us with the information we need, justice will soon prevail. You will have the satisfaction of seeing her behind bars, and I will have my name cleared. Both of us will benefit from this arrangement. Will you help us?'
Cheswick stared at her for a long time as though weighing the pros and cons of her proposition and then said. 'I found Katherine on the streets of New York City. She was sixteen at the time and an exceptionally good pickpocket. I immediately realized her potential and took her back to London with me. The girl was a quick learner and within a year she was nearly as skilled as the men and women who'd been with me from the beginning. In those days she idolized me. I was the man who'd rescued her from the streets, had given her a room in my townhouse and pretty clothes to wear. She grew and matured into a very attractive young woman, and I'm afraid I fell under her spell. She, of course, encouraged the infatuation, and I soon found myself asking her to marry me. She accepted, and it seemed as though we would have a happy life, but then she started to change. It was slight at first, just incidents of her asserting her will, questioning how a heist would be done, lying when it suited her purposes, that sort of thing. She was getting older, gaining more experience and her strong-willed personality started to assert itself. Soon we were arguing constantly. She would disappear for long periods of time and then return, begging my forgiveness, usually with some bauble in hand as a peace offering. But eventually she demanded her freedom.'
'Which you were unwilling to give?' Laura asked.
'So in order to get her freedom she set you up.'
'It would appear so.'
'Sounds like a very stormy relationship.'
'It was.' He said, abruptly getting to his feet and going over to the bar. 'What else would you like to know?'
'Her name would be helpful.'
'Which one? She has several.'
'Any that she would use to enter or leave another country.'
He reseated himself, his snifter full once again. 'She has passports in the name of Katrina Wagner, Caterina Lupino, Caitriona O'Hara, Catherine DuPont and Katherine Davis. I would suspect she used one of those to leave Switzerland. If not, I would suggest you look for any variation of the name Katherine. I've never known her to use anything else.'
'And where would she go?'
'It's hard to say. It would depend on what she intends to do with the ruby. In the past she would hand it over to me, but she's free agent now. Either she has replaced me or she has decided to handle things herself.'
'And if you had to make an educated guess?'
He leaned his head back against the chair, his expression thoughtful. 'The wise thing to do is to hand the jewel over to a fence, but I don't think her pride will allow her to do that. It's my guess that she'll try to handle things herself.' His head came back down and he looked at Laura. 'That's the key, Mrs. Steele. That's how you defeat her.'
'The key?' Laura echoed. 'What do you mean?'
'He means that Katherine's pride is her weak spot.' Remington supplied. 'It's dangerous for a thief to become too confident. They consider themselves unstoppable, and that's when they make mistakes.'
'Spoken like a man who knows.' Cheswick murmured.
'A successful detective understands the criminal mind.' Remington replied easily.
Cheswick turned his attention back to Laura. 'She's already giddy on her success. She's managed to defeat me as well as Remington Steele Investigations. Heady stuff, I assure you. She won't anticipate you coming after her so soon.' He paused as a thought occurred to him. 'By the way, how did you get out of prison so quickly?'
'My husband is skilled in arranging speedy exits.' Laura said, getting to her feet. 'Thank you for the information, Lord Cheswick. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to bring Katherine to justice.'
'I'm sure you will. I like you, Mrs. Steele. I have from the very beginning. That's part of the reason I gave you the information.'
'And the other part?'
'Revenge mostly, but there's a small part of me that feels responsible for her. Like Frankenstein, I created a monster, and she must be stopped.' He lifted his glass in a salute. 'As the French would say Bonne Chance!'
Remington had risen as well. He cast a glance at the bulldog hovering in the background. 'We're free to leave?'
'But of course,' Cheswick agreed, flashing a grin, 'if I killed you, what would become of my glorious retribution?'
The envelope had an official look about it that sent a fizzle of dread up Mildred's spine. She'd seen that type of envelope before. Mostly in her IRS days. There was no mistaking that government-issued stationary. It fairly vibrated with ostentatious authority. The fact that it was addressed to Mr. Remington Steele had her immediately reaching for the letter opener.
What a bunch of sanctimonious gobbledygook, she thought as she read, her eyes quickly scanning the sheet of paper. When she was finished, she refolded it and stuffed it back into the envelope. It was just as well the kids had decided to stay in Europe a while longer. It was going to take her a while to defuse the bombshell on her desk. First thing she needed to do was find someone skilled in the art.
A few minutes later she'd found what she wanted in the attorney section of the phone book. She reached for the phone. It rang beneath her finger nearly sending her into cardiac arrest right then and there. With pounding heart, she answered.
'Remington Steele Investigations.'
'Mildred?' A familiar voice asked. 'Are you all right? You sound a bit wobbly at the knees.'
'I'm I'm fine, boss.' She assured him. 'You just startled me. That's all.'
'Are you sure?' He persisted. 'Nothing wrong at the office is there? No juicy murders troubling you?'
'No, no murders.' She assured him again. 'We've hit a dry spot. Everything's in tip top shape. Wonderful.'
There was a pause as though he was deciding whether or not to believe her and she took the opportunity to change the subject. The boss could be just as much a bloodhound as Mrs. Steele if he sensed trouble. Best to divert his attention.
'It's been ages since I've heard from you. Having a good time?'
'Ah, yes, wonderful, peachy keen, couldn't be better.'
'Then I guess it'll be a while before you come home.' She crossed her fingers.
'Actually, Mildred, that's why I called. We've run into a bit of a mystery over here, and Laura being Laura, well, she's determined to solve it. You know how it is.'
'Of course.' Mildred said as tidal wave of relief poured over her. 'Take your time. Enjoy yourselves.'
'Glad you understand.' He said. 'Now how about being a dear and wiring over another $2,000?'
'What happened to the first $2,000?' Mildred's sense of relief was immediately wiped out by her sense of frugality.
'Business expenses, Mildred. It's bloody expensive in St. Moritz.'
'You're still in Switzerland? I thought you left there ages ago.'
'Life never turns out the way you plan it, Mildred. It always takes unexpected twists and turns. That's your word of wisdom for the day. Now how about doing some research for us?'
'Sure.' Mildred pulled out her notepad.
There was a pause and she heard the rustle of paper as though he was smoothing out a list. 'See if any of the following women left Switzerland in the past, oh, let's say, three weeks. There are five. Ready?'
He rattled off the names and then added. 'Check every mode of transportation out of here. Plane, boat, car, train, hang glider, if necessary. And if you find any of them, see where they went and where they are. We want an address, a solid address, ok?'
'Got it. Where should I call when I have something?'
Remington provided her with a number and rang off.
Something was up. She could smell it. Every time the boss got dodgy it usually meant trouble, but on this particular occasion, she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The bigger the trouble, the longer they'd stay overseas, giving her more time to deal with the bombshell on her desk.
She turned to her computer and starting searching for the first name. The sooner she found what they were looking for, the sooner she could make her own phone calls.
Remington was awakened in the early hours of the morning by the sound of a ringing telephone. He growled and buried his head in the pillow, but an elbow in his ribs had him rolling over and fumbling for the receiver. He grabbed it, dropped it, reeled it in by the cord and then fell back down into the pillows.
'Boss, it's me, Mildred.' When he didn't answer, she asked. 'I'm not disturbing anything, am I?'
'Just sleep, Mildred. Nothing important.'
'Good.' She said as though waking someone at he opened one eye to look at the clock three thirty-three in the morning was socially acceptable behavior. 'I've got a lead on one of the names you gave me.'
'What time is it there, Mildred?'
She paused as though he'd asked her a trick question. 'Around 6:30 PM.'
'Don't you normally leave at five?'
'I wanted to get your research done. It sounded important.' There was another pause and then somewhat suspiciously. 'It is important, isn't it?'
Best to get off the subject, he thought. The less she knew about their current predicament, the better. He could discuss acceptable times to call with her when he was back in L.A.
'Yes, it's important. What did you find out?'
She plunged into her narrative with her usual enthusiasm. 'Caterina Lupino left St. Moritz by train nearly three weeks ago. From there she went to Milan, Italy where she rented a car. She and the car dropped out of sight for nearly two weeks, but three days ago the car turned up at a rental agency in Rome and she turned up at the Grand Hotel Palazzo Della Notte. I've checked with the hotel, she's still registered as a guest.'
'Excellent work, Mildred.'
'Will that be all, boss?'
Remington rubbed his eyes. 'Ah, see about arranging a flight out of Zurich tomorrow for me and Mrs. Steele. Destination Rome. Get us a reservation at this Grand Hotel Palazzo Palazzo '
'Della Notte.' She supplied when his memory faltered. 'I'll do it before leaving tonight.'
'Put everything under the names of Vincent Parry and Irene Jansen. And use cash. No credit cards, ok?'
There was a long pause and then Mildred said, suspicion back in her voice. 'Boss '
'Don't ask, Mildred.' He said, cutting her off. 'It's just part of the case.'
Without waiting for any further comments, he dropped the phone back into its cradle and rolled over, burying his head in the pillow.
'I take it Mildred found something?' Laura asked, her voice heavy with sleep.
'Caterina Lupino is in Rome.'
'Rome?' Laura echoed, sounding a little more awake. The bed moved as though she'd risen up on an elbow to look down at him.
'Yes, Mrs. Steele, Rome. Looks like we're in for a Roman Holiday. Hope you know how to drive a Vespa better than Princess Ann.'
The Body in the Closet
Inspector C.W. Budge shifted his bag of golf clubs and watched as the couple he'd followed all the way from Switzerland entered the Grand Hotel Palazzo Della Notte. They looked quite different from the couple who'd been staying at Heidi's Alpine Lodge for the last two days.
For one thing the man had emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon. He had gone from a street-wise tough to a smartly-dressed gentleman about town, his suit of the finest cut and make and his gleaming shoes right out of the pages of GQ. Even a cop like Budge could tell Italian leather when he saw it. The other item worth noting was the dark beard that clung to the man's jaw. It hadn't been there the night before.
The woman too had changed and perhaps even more dramatically. Although her attire was more subdued, a tailored pantsuit of taupe silk, she was no longer a brunette but a redhead, and a pair of large-framed sunglasses sat on her nose. They were so large they nearly obscured her entire face. She had removed them briefly in the Zurich airport, replacing them with a pair of gold-framed glasses, but quickly put them back on once they'd left the airport in Rome.
As soon as the doors of the hotel closed behind them, he hurried across the road. Horns honked at him, but he paid them no mind. Horns often honked at him, and he'd learned to ignore them. Somehow the drivers always managed to miss him. The golf bag banged against his legs, but he ignored it too. Bruises were just part of the job.
The couple was standing at the front desk, the man's hand on the woman's elbow as they spoke with the concierge. He eased toward the Salone where a few guests had gathered, his eyes on the couple, his ears straining to hear their conversation. He heard the name Caterina just before he backed into a lady of immense proportions who was carrying a Pekingese of equally immense proportions.
The woman let out an ear-piercing squawk as his golf bag goosed her. She whirled around, one hand on her offended backside.
'How dare you!' She fumed. 'I am the Honorable Lucinda Hepplewhite, and I will not tolerate being pawed in such a manner! I'll have you know my husband is a MP!'
'I'm I'm terribly sorry, Madam.' Budge began, backing away.
But his apology was drowned out by the sound of shattering glass. The golf bag had swung wildly, striking a nearby pillar and sending a vase filled with golden chrysanthemums crashing to the floor. Water went up like a small geyser.
'My shoes!' The Honorable Lucinda screamed, dropping the Pekingese as she swiped ineffectively at the water. 'Oh, you beastly man! These cost me a fortune, a fortune I tell you, and now look at them. Spotted!' She put a hand to her forehead and swayed a little. 'Oh, I feel faint.'
'Is everything ok, Signora?' A hotel clerk asked, hurrying forward, arms outstretched as though to catch her.
'No, everything is not ok.' Lucinda declared, apparently getting her second wind. 'How can everything be ok when you have perverts in your Salone goosing women's behinds? And look at what he's done to my shoes! I thought this was a respectable hotel! You wait until my husband hears about this! There'll be an incident of international proportions, I can assure you.'
Budge tried easing away, aware that all eyes were on them, but the Pekingese was having none of it. It yapped once, twice and then sunk its teeth into his pant leg. He shook his leg, hoping to dislodge the furry rat. No luck. The Peke held on like a bear trap. Perhaps if he gave it a hand to chew on, it would surrender the leg.
Wrong move. As he bent over to grab the dog, golf clubs went shooting out like jet-propelled rockets. They fell across the marble tiles, spinning crazily and sending up such a terrific clatter that every eye that was not already on him immediately turned his way. Even the couple at the counter glanced over.
Hotel staff came running from all directions, swarming him like a SWAT team. By the time he'd disentangled himself from dog, clubs, hotel staff and the Honorable Lucinda, who kept bleating like a bloody goat, the couple had disappeared.
Ah well, he thought as he slipped into a room marked 'Pulizie'. It wasn't the first time. He often ran into difficulties. It was his modus operandi so to speak. He knew that with a little ingenuity and a little of the famous Budge luck, he'd soon be on their trail again. It was only a matter of time. Budge always got his man.
'There was something fishy about that guy.' Laura muttered as they left the elevator and walked down the hallway to their suite. 'Tourists do odd things, but they don't wear fake noses. It looked like Tootie's in Meet Me in St. Louis.'
'It does my heart good to hear you referring to movies, Laura.' Remington said. 'But I'm afraid you got it wrong. It was more reminiscent of Tyrone Power's in Thin Ice, Twentieth Century Fox, 1937.'
Laura shoved the key into the lock. 'I'm not interested in debating noses with you, Mr. Steele.'
'Then why did you bring it up?'
'I didn't bring it up.' When he opened his mouth to disagree, she quickly cut him off at the pass. 'Ok, I brought it up, but it was to illustrate how fishy that guy was. Are you telling me you didn't find anything suspicious about a guy wearing a fake nose?'
Remington shrugged. 'Oh, I don' t know, Laura. What's a fake nose here or there. He might be a fugitive, and we fugitives should stick together. How does that old saying go? Something about glass houses and stones, eh?' He flashed a smile and then walked past her into the suite.
Laura stood for a second or two in the hallway, momentarily speechless, and then followed him inside, closing the door behind her with a bang. But he didn't even notice. He was too busy admiring their new surroundings.
'Now this is more like it.' He said with satisfaction.
'I'm glad you approve.' Laura said acidly, tossing her purse on a nearby table.
He wandered over to inspect the wet bar, picking up several bottles and nodding his head approvingly before disappearing into the bedroom. A few seconds later, Laura heard running water.
'We've got hot water, Laura.' He called out. 'And complimentary bubble bath.' There was a pause and then. 'Lavender, I think. That ought to improve your mood.'
'My mood doesn't need improving!' She yelled back.
'Of course it does.' He told her, appearing in the bedroom doorway. 'You've been surly all morning. You nearly snapped that poor stewardess head off when she offered you peanuts.'
'I don't like peanuts.' Laura stated, pushing past him into the bedroom where she pulled off the wig and tossed it on a dresser. She busily began removing bobby pins.
'What's wrong, Laura?'
She picked up her overnight case, unzipped it and began digging through it like a dog uprooting petunias. 'Why should anything be wrong? I've been arrested for jewel theft, I've broken out of jail and now I've just traveled on a fake passport. What could possibly be wrong? It's just another day at the office.'
She pulled out a brush and began dragging it through her hair. Halfway through the third pull, his hand closed around hers.
'This is the first time I've ever considered a brush a dangerous weapon.' Remington murmured, taking the brush from her. 'Allow me.'
He drew the brush through her hair, gently, lovingly, admiring how it curled around his hand and shone in the light pouring through the window. How he loved her hair, always had. It was so dark, so soft and shiny, lovelier than mink. And there was something soothing about brushing it. Laura must have thought so too because he could feel the tension draining out of her with each stroke.
Finally he said. 'You get used to it, you know.'
She knew exactly what he was referring to. 'Laura Holt doesn't commit crimes. She solves them.'
'Sometimes circumstances conspire against us, and we're forced to do things that we wouldn't normally do.'
'Is that what you told yourself when you were lifting jewels and priceless works of art?'
Her voice held a challenge, a deliberate slap across the face that he chose to ignore. She was looking for a fight, and it wouldn't do either of them any good if he picked up the gauntlet she'd just thrown down. She was upset. Who wouldn't be? She was not used to being on the other side of the law, poor lamb. It had always been easier for him to step into her world than her into his.
He put down the brush, took her hand and drew her over to the bed. He sat down, pulling her down beside him.
'It doesn't matter what I told myself. That was another time and another place. Today, right here and now, demands extraordinary measures, and I, for one, intend to do whatever's necessary to clear you name. If that requires breaking the law, then so be it. I'd fight lions for you, Laura.' The words hung in the air between them, crackling like static electricity. Then he smiled. 'Good thing they still don't keep them in the Coliseum, eh?'
She stared at him, her eyes dark with some unknown emotion. Even now he couldn't always decipher what she was thinking or feeling. Had the passion in his words frightened her? He'd always been a little scared that the depth and intensity of his feelings might make her uneasy, send her running in the opposite direction. She was, after all, used to milksops like Wilson. What would she do with a man with hot blood in his veins?
But then she smiled and his fear vanished in its sweetness. 'A good thing for the lions, I'd say. There's no doubt in my mind that you'd win.' There was a pause and then she sighed. 'I'm sorry, Remington. I shouldn't have said what I did. I've been edgy all morning. I just can't shake the feeling that we're being followed.'
'By who? The coppers or someone else?'
'Logically, it would have to be the police, wouldn't it?'
'Then why haven't they closed in?'
She shook her head. 'I don't know.'
'Then it's probably just your imagination.'
'Maybe.' She agreed. 'But I'll be glad when we find Katherine and get this whole thing straightened out.' She glanced at the clock. 'We'd better go check her room.'
She stood up but Remington caught her wrist, pulling her back down on the bed and onto her back. He rose up on an elbow to look down at her.
'She'll keep.' He said. 'I'd rather take a moment to enjoy the Eternal City of Love.'
'I believe that's just Eternal City.' She corrected. 'There's no love involved.'
His lips trailed along her throat. She tried not to giggle. His fake beard was tickling her neck.
He rose up on an elbow again. 'What's wrong?'
'Are you going to wear that beard the entire time we're in Rome?'
'Didn't you say you always wondered what it would be like to kiss a man with a beard?' He flashed a devilish smile. 'Well, here's your chance, Mrs. Steele. Don't go all wobbly-kneed on me now.'
'A real beard, not a fake one.'
'I'll start growing one tomorrow.'
'No need.' She told him. 'I prefer you as you are.'
'Women's prerogative again?' He asked, raising an eyebrow.
'Of course.' She said, slipping out from under his arm. 'Come along, Mr. Steele, we have work to do.'
'How did I know you were going to say that?'
'Because you know me so well?'
His eyes darkened. 'I'd like to know you even better. By every freckle to be exact.' He leaned back against the bed, his expression speculative. 'If we started now, how long do you think it would take us to map every one?'
'Longer than we have time for.' She told him, plunking the sunglasses on her nose. 'That's a project we'll have to save for a future date.'
'Perhaps.' She agreed slowly, letting the promise dangle invitingly before adding. 'If you'll get off that bed and apply yourself to finding Katherine.'
She was surprised at how quickly he vaulted off the bed and out the door. She was still staring at the place where he'd once been when his head re-appeared around the door jam. He looked at her, his expression reproachful.
'What are you waiting for, Laura?' He asked. 'This is no time to be wool-gathering. We've got work to do. Chop, chop.'
'We've been sitting in this lobby for hours, Laura.' Remington said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. His backside was feeling decidedly numb. 'Don't you think it's time to try a different approach before we become permanent fixtures?'
'What would you suggest?'
'A little wine, a little Chicken Alfredo.'
'Can you only think of your stomach at a time like this?'
'It's a little difficult to ignore when I haven't put anything in it since those peanuts you didn't want.' Remington glanced at his watch. 'It's well past eight.'
There was a pause and then she said slowly, reluctantly. 'Perhaps you're right.'
Remington brightened, rubbing his hands together. 'Splendid. I'll call and make a reservation.'
'But first we'd better check her room again.' Laura said, getting up.
'Laura,' Remington said, chasing after her as she headed for the elevators. He'd been through this scenario before. All hopes of dinner would go up in flames should she find what she was looking for. 'She couldn't possibly be in her room. We've been watching the front door for hours.'
'There's more than one way into a hotel.' She asked, pushing the call button for the elevator. 'You, of all people, should to know that.'
'Then what in bloody hell were we doing watching the front door all blooming afternoon?' Remington demanded.
The elevator doors open and they stepped inside. Laura hit the button for Katherine's floor. Remington reached over and hit the button for their floor.
Laura looked at him. 'What do you think you're doing?'
'It occurs to me that we'd save time by stopping by our suite first. You can slip into something sleek and sexy,' he looked at her in a way that said he'd enjoy watching her slip into it, 'and I'll make reservations. Then on our way to dinner we'll pop in to see Katherine. Efficiency, Laura. I demand it of all my employees.'
'You only have one employee, and she's in L.A.'
'And she's the very essence of efficiency.' He said, taking her arm and hustling her out of the elevator. 'We mustn't let our employees out shine us, Laura.'
Fifteen minutes later Laura emerged from the bedroom, dressed in a shimmering dress of dark blue silk, fastening an earring. 'Ready, Mr. Steele?'
Remington unfolded his lean frame from the sofa where he'd been waiting. 'We have a reservation at La Pergola in twenty minutes.'
'You got rid of the beard.' She noted as she settled a hat on her head. Its brim cast just the right amount of shadow. 'Do you think that slicked back hair will be enough to conceal your identity? You still look an awful lot like Remington Steele to me.'
'That's because you created me, darling.' He said, taking her arm once again as they left the suite. 'To everyone else I'm Johnny Todd, well dressed toff about town.'
The walk to Katherine's room was short and uneventful. The only person they met on the way was a maid, her arms full of towels, so many in fact that it was difficult to see her face. They nodded to her and continued on their way, entering the elevator and pressing the button for one floor up.
The doors slid open and they immediately turned to the right. They were exactly where her room was for they'd done a preliminary sweep earlier that afternoon. The room had been empty but showed signs of occupation. Clothing had been in the closet, lingerie in the dresser drawers and toiletries on the sink.
Laura had gone through the room meticulously, hoping the ruby was hidden somewhere inside. Remington had told her it was useless to look, that no thief in their right mind would leave a million dollar ruby lying about in their underwear, but she'd continued her search. Doing something was always better than doing nothing
They stopped outside room 217 and Laura raised her hand to knock, but Remington's voice stopped her.
'It's already open.'
She glanced at him. His eyes were on the door. She followed his gaze. He was right. The door was ajar. She could see the arm of a chair through the crack.
'Is that a bad sign or good one?' She asked.
'Bad.' Remington replied grimly, reaching into his pocket and pulling out two sets of gloves. He handed a pair to her and then starting putting on his own. 'Very bad. No one with a million dollar ruby leaves their door unlocked.'
'When did you start carrying gloves?' She asked.
'When your fingerprints were found all over that safe.' He murmured, his attention on the door.
If it had been up to her, she would have barreled right in. But not Remington. He slowly pushed open the door and then stood on the threshold, head cocked to one side as though listening. He reminded her of an animal sensing danger, every muscle tense, every nerve focused on his surroundings. Finally he pushed the door wider and they slipped inside.
Remington surveyed the empty room. He didn't like it. Something was wrong. He could feel it. It hung in the air like cheap perfume. His eyes touched the sofa, the tables, the vases of ever present gold chrysanthemums. Nothing unusual except for the lack of clutter. Either Katherine was extremely neat or she hadn't spent much time here. He leaned toward the latter explanation. She hadn't seemed like a woman who put down roots, but of course, what thief did?
Finally his eyes slid to the bedroom door. It was slightly ajar. He started toward it at the same time as Laura. They met at the doorknob and stood for a few seconds, listening, before slowly pushing it open.
Once again, empty. Too empty, Laura thought, her eyes going to the dresser drawers. They were slightly open as though someone had emptied them in a hurry and not bothered to close them all the way. She hurried over to the first one, a large mahogany chest with heavy, inlaid drawers.
'Empty. All of them. They were full of underwear this afternoon and now there's not even a pair of pantyhose left. Darn it!' She muttered. 'How did she get out of here without us seeing her?'
'You said yourself that there's more than one way into a hotel.' Remington pointed out. 'Stands to reason that there's more than one way out.'
'Must you repeat to everything I say, Mr. Steele?' Laura asked irritably. 'It's like working with a myna bird.'
But Remington wasn't listening. He was checking out the bathroom. It, too, was empty except for a few dirty towels. He sniffed the air. Perfume but definitely not cheap. Chanel No. 5, he'd say.
He glanced at the sink, noting several waxy, white flakes and then at the wastepaper basket, where he found what he was looking for. A soap wrapper lay amid several tissues. He was about to pick it up when a scream from Laura sent him rushing to the bedroom.
She had opened the closet door and had apparently been startled by something inside. It now lay at her feet. She was staring down at it, an expression of horror on her face. A garment bag, he wondered, coming closer. No, not a garment bag. They didn't have arms. Nor did they have knives sticking out of their backs. How delightful. Laura had found herself a dead body.
'It was like finding Ben Pearson in your garment bag again.' Laura said in way of explanation.
Remington stooped down to examine the body. 'I'm afraid this killer is a little more flamboyant than Leo.' He studied the knife. 'A superb example of 15th Century weaponry. Venetian, I should think.'
Laura stared at him. 'How do you know this stuff?'
'You'll find that most professional thieves have an excellent grasp of art history, Laura.' His eyes left the knife and went to the face. He glanced up at her. 'It's Hans.'
'Hans?' Laura echoed as though she'd never heard the name before.
'Yes, Hans.' Remington confirmed, standing up. 'You remember Hans. He drove while Stefan held the gun on us.'
'What's he doing in the closet with a 15th Century knife in his back?'
'Not a knife.' He corrected. 'A stiletto. There's a difference. And this particular one is an excellent example of Renaissance metal work. That design on the hilt is superb, absolutely superb. A tiger, I believe. Some billionaire would pay a blooming fortune...' his voice trailed off. She could almost hear the wheels turning in his head, and she waited patiently for what she knew was coming. 'Laura, I was thinking...'
'You don't even know what I was going to say.'
'We are not stealing the murder weapon.'
'Pity.' He sighed before saying with renewed enthusiasm. 'Because I know this bloke in Cheapside that...'
'Apply yourself to the question at hand, Mr. Steele.' Laura interrupted before he could woo her over to the dark side. 'What's this very vaulable stiletto doing in Hans' back?'
'That question you'll need to ask Katherine.' Remington said grimly. 'It's her room.'
'Great.' Laura muttered, going over to the bed and sitting down. 'Not only is Katherine a thief but she's a murderer as well. And she's wearing my face.'
Remington came over and sat down beside her. 'We don't know that for sure, Laura. If she's the one that knifed him, how did she get him into the closet? He's a big chap, built like a brick chicken house.'
'A male accomplice?'
'Perhaps.' Remington nodded. 'But then there's the murder weapon. It's a little out of character, don't you think? I'm sure she's the type who could pull a trigger without blinking an eye, but stabbing someone with an antique stiletto? It's not something you have lying about in your underwear drawer.'
Laura jumped up and began to pace. It was bad enough she had to find that ruby, now she had to find a murderer as well. She eyed the stiletto. A rather eccentric murderer, one who fancied himself 15th Century assassin.
'Well, it's obvious that Katherine's flown the coop.' She said irritably. 'We'll have to call Mildred and tell her to be on the look out for any of those names Cheswick gave us. I knew we should have camped out in her room. None of this would have happened if we had.'
'You're absolutely right, Laura.' Remington agreed, leaning back on one elbow, watching her with half-closed eyes. 'Instead of Hans having a stiletto in his back, one of us might have been the lucky one.'
She turned to reply and stopped. Her foot had trod on something. It was a bit of note paper, half hidden under the brocade bedspread. She reached down and picked it up, smoothing out the wrinkles.
'Ever heard of Bocca Della Verita?'
'Of course.' Remington replied. 'Roman Holiday. Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Paramount, 1953. In English it's the Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that if you put your hand in its mouth and tell a lie, it'll bite it off. Your hand, that is.'
'This ought to be interesting.'
'What?' Remington asked, sitting up. He didn't like the smile on Laura's face. It was positively smug.
She held up the scrap of paper. 'Looks like someone dropped this. It's got Bocca Della Verita written on it and today's date.' She tapped the paper against her cheek. 'I wonder who dropped it. Katherine, Hans or the murderer?'
Remington was about to answer when a noise stopped him. Someone was in the sitting room. They looked at each other and then at the body.
'I'll stall them.' Laura said, heading for the door. 'You get rid of the body.'
What the bloody hell was he supposed to do with a 230 lb. body, Remington wondered a bit frantically.
'Oh, scusa!' A maid was standing just inside the room. 'I didn't know anyone was in here.'
'Did you want something?' Laura asked, eying the maid suspiciously.
It was the same one they'd met on their way to Katherine's room, except now she wasn't carrying any towels. Without them her face was clearly visible. It was a masculine-looking face, very broad and square-chinned. Her wild mop of black curls did nothing to soften its appearance, and Laura understood why she'd hidden it earlier. She was one of the ugliest women she'd ever seen.
The woman looked momentarily startled by her question and then said hurriedly. 'I came to turn down the bed, Signora. It is a service we provide our guests.' She started toward the bedroom. 'It'll only take un minuto.'
Laura draped herself in front of the door. 'I'm afraid I must ask you to skip our room this evening. You see, my husband isn't feeling well. He's in bed right now, poor dear.'
'Oh, come terribile.' The maid said, clucking her tongue. 'Roma is such a romantic city. Signora shouldn't have to spend her night tending to a sick husband.' Her expression suddenly brightened. 'I have some training as a nurse. Perhaps if I take a look at him '
'That's won't be necessary.' Laura told her. 'He'll be fine in the morning, and I don't mind spending the evening in.'
'But it looks like Signora was planning an evening out.'
'Plans change.' Laura said with a laugh.
From the bedroom came a loud thud.
'Your husband,' the maid exclaimed, 'maybe he has fallen, no?'
Distracted by the noise Laura was not prepared for the woman's sudden movement. She lowered her head much like a fullback and barreled forward, brushing Laura aside when she tried to stop her. The door was flung open to reveal Remington standing beside the bed, holding a man's wrist while he squinted down at his watch. He looked up at them as they entered.
'Who are you?' The maid asked.
Rather bold question for a maid, Laura thought.
'Dr. Alberto Corleone.' Remington answered with a fairly good Italian accent. 'Signora Lupino asked me to take a look at her husband.' He released the wrist. It fell to the bed like a dead weight.
The maid frowned darkly. 'What's wrong with him?'
'Drunk.' Remington stated. 'Dead drunk, I'd say.'
'Are you sure?' The woman persisted. 'He doesn't look like he's breathing.'
Remington looked down his nose at her. 'Are you questioning my professional expertise?' He removed one of his gloves and slapped it against the palm of his hand. He suddenly looked like a member of the family whose name he'd borrowed. 'I've never been so insulted in my life. I've a good mind to challenge you to a duel, Signora.'
'A duel!' The woman exclaimed, suddenly losing her Italian accent. 'Why why that's ridiculous. Men don't challenge women to duels.'
'In my part of the country they do.' Remington declared. 'So what will it be, eh? Pistols or swords? I let you choose.'
'You're you're mad!'
'I'm afraid she's right, Doctor.' Laura interjected. 'A duel wouldn't be appropriate.'
Remington's gaze slid to Laura, and his outrage softened. He smiled in a way Laura could only describe as smarmy. 'For the bellissimo Signora Lupino, I not kill her.'
'Ah, thank you, Dr. Corleone. You're most kind.'
'But,' he continued, indignation returning, 'I will call the concierge and report this disgraceful behavior immediately.' He made a move toward the phone on the bedside table. 'I cannot allow my honor to be trodden in the mud.'
That seemed to get the maid's attention. She began backing away. 'Ah, that won't be necessary, Doctor. I'm sure you're right. He just needs sleep. Ecusa, I have many more beds to attend to. Arrivederci.'
She nearly fell over herself leaving the room. If the chatter of dishes and silverware from the hall was any indication she did manage to find a service cart to fall over.
As soon as all was quiet again, Laura hurried over to the bed and flung back the covers. 'Come on. Let's get him back into the closet before she comes back with the concierge.'
'She won't be back.' Remington said, replacing his glove.
'Of course, she will. She's suspicious.' Laura said, rolling Hans from his side onto his stomach. She winced at the sight of the knife sticking upright like an ornate flagpole. 'We've got to get out of here before she identifies us. I don't need to be arrested for murder as well as theft.'
Between the two of them they dragged Hans to the closet and stuffed him inside.
'I assure you, Laura, she won't be back.' Remington repeated, shutting the closet door. 'She doesn't want her identity known any more than we do.'
'What are you talking about?'
'Surely you recognized her.'
Laura frowned. 'She was in the hallway when we left to come up here. She must have followed us.'
'It's not like you to be coy, Mr. Steele, what exactly are you trying to tell me?'
'What I'm trying to tell you is that she is a he.' When Laura stared at him, her expression skeptical, he asked impatiently. 'When's the last time you saw ankles like that on a woman?'
Laura considered for a moment. 'You're right. They were the size of tree trunks.'
'And I'd bet the Royal Lavulite that if you removed that mop of curls, you'd find the chap with the fake nose. You're instincts were quite right, Laura. We are being followed.' Remington said grimly. 'The question is by whom.'
There was a long, heavy pause as his words sunk in. Then Laura came alive, heading for the door. 'We've got to get out of here. Now.'
Remington taught her arm. 'Why? I told you he won't say anything.'
'Are you willing to take the chance that he won't?'
He studied her for a moment, his eyes searching her face, and then he said somewhat fiercely. 'I won't let them put you in prison again.'
'Then we'd better not take any chances.'
'No, we'd better not.' He agreed.
Thirty minutes later, they left their room, heading for the front desk. Their luggage had been taken down five minutes earlier. Once again they were disguised as Vincent Parry and Irene Jansen.
Remington glanced at his watch as they waited for the elevator. 'We should have been at the restaurant an hour ago.'
'We'll pick up something on the way.'
'On the way to where?'
'To the Bocca Della Verita, of course.' Laura replied.
Assignation with a Monk
Remington was beginning to feel decidedly out of sorts. Sitting on a park bench across from the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin surrounded by luggage was not how he'd envisioned the evening. He understood that this was an important mission. Nothing was more important than clearing Laura's name, but couldn't they be civilized about it? A man has to eat, doesn't he? His stomach growled in agreement.
He felt like pointing out to Laura that she'd lied, that they hadn't stopped for dinner on the way like she'd promised, but he liked his life too much to try. Such an accusation was sure to bring dismemberment or if she was feeling generous, just a good old-fashioned tongue lashing. She hadn't been in a good mood since she'd quarreled with the taxi driver over where exactly the Mouth of Truth was.
Now here they were. No dinner, no bed for the night, just a couple of vagabonds waiting for what? A meeting of some sort? Hell, as far as she knew that piece of paper might have been lying under the bed for weeks. It might have belonged to an American tourist. Or it might have belonged to Katherine and 'tonight' was actually last night. There were all kinds of possibilities. So what were they doing on this blasted park bench at a quarter 'til midnight?
His stomach growled again.
'Can't you do something about that?' Laura asked irritably.
'The tried and true method would be to put something in it.' He shot back just as irritably.
When she replied by crossing her arms and turning her face away from him, he sighed inwardly. Snapping at each other wasn't going to help matters. They needed a plan of action and sitting on a park bench wasn't what he called action. It sure as hell wasn't going to get him dinner or Laura a thief cum murderer.
'Laura,' he ventured once the initial dust cloud had settled, 'exactly how long do you plan on sitting here?'
'All night if I have to.' She retorted. 'Of course, if you want to leave '
'You know I'm not going to do that so don't even suggest it.'
He grimaced. That had come out all wrong. He'd sounded testy, petulant. Try again, old man. Softer this time. Use the velvet glove.
'I just wondered what we're supposed to be watching for.'
That was better. Her head had turned towards him a little.
'Anything suspicious.' Short and to the point. She hadn't melted much.
That got her to look at him. Sure, it was a look that said 'are you serious?' but at least they were making progress. Never mind that her dark eyes were snapping fire at him. It might warm them up a bit. It was devilishly chilly on this blasted bench.
'You know. Suspicious.' She said impatiently. 'Anything out of place.'
He debated for a moment, wondering whether he even ought to bring it up and then tossed fate to the wind. 'You know, Laura, that piece of paper could have been lying under that bed for weeks. A fat American tourist might have dropped it there. Or Katherine might have dropped it two days ago. There's no guarantee that something's going to happen tonight.'
'It'll happen.' She said somewhat fiercely. 'I know it will.'
Well, at least, she hadn't plunged a 15th Century stiletto in his back. Encouraged, he took her hand. It was cold. He chafed it between his own. 'Laura, love,' he said gently, 'you're grasping at straws. Let's just call Mildred and have her track those names again.'
She looked at him. 'If you were Katherine and you came in and found a former associate of yours with a knife in his back, what would you do?'
There was a pause and then he sighed. 'Run like hell.'
'And after you ran?'
So that was that. She wasn't open to reason. She was determined to sit there, and he wasn't about to let her sit alone. Well, you might as well get settled in, mate, he told himself. Stretching out his legs and crossing his arms to conserve as much heat as possible, he leaned his head against the bench and closed his eyes. If he wasn't going to get any dinner, he might as well get some sleep. Laura would sound the alarm should anything 'suspicious' occur. It was a sure bet that she wouldn't be closing her eyes that night.
They sat like that for several minutes before Laura's voice came out of the darkness. 'There's a pizzeria just up the street.'
She tried again. 'I think it's still open.'
'Why don't you go get yourself something to eat?' She suggested, tried of beating around the bush. She hated it when he played stupid. It always forced her to say more than she wanted. 'You can give Mildred a call while you're there and ask her to keep an eye out for those names.'
Remington rolled his head to the side, opening one eye to look at her. 'Is this your way of saying you're sorry?'
'Dead bodies make me edgy.'
She hadn't answered the question, but he decided not to push her. She'd been through a lot. Any other woman would have been a basket case by now. 'And where will you be while I'm playing messenger boy?'
He got up. 'If anything happens, don't try to handle it by yourself, ok?' When she didn't answer, he drawled warningly. 'Laura '
'Ok, ok.' She said gruffly. 'I'll sit here like a good little girl.'
They both knew she wouldn't yet wasn't that one of the reasons he loved her? Because she had moxie or guts or whatever you wanted to call that irrepressible spirit of determination that kept her fighting even when she was outnumbered. Such a wave of tenderness swept over him right then and there that he couldn't help himself. He reached down, grabbed her by the arms and hauled her upright. His mouth took hers in a hard, fierce kiss that had her going all soft and lovely in his arms. When he released her, she plopped back down on the bench.
She looked up at him. 'What was that for?'
'Because you're Laura.'
Before she could answer, he turned and sprinted up the sidewalk, smiling. That ought to give her something to think about. Of course, she was probably mulling over his answer rather than the kiss. That was the difference between them, he thought, jogging across the street. His mind was taking him to visions of freckles, lots and lots of freckles while hers was dissecting the meaning of a word. Ah, well, she'd eventually catch up. Sometime tonight hopefully. Sex was an excellent stress reliever, wasn't it?
He was so busy exploring and anticipating what would happen once she caught up that he nearly collided with someone walking in the opposite direction.
'Esuca.' He said, his eyes going to the person.
It was a bit of a shock to find himself face and face with a monk. And it was a monk, he assured himself, his eyes quickly running over the man. The rough, brown habit with the cowl pulled down low on the face was unmistakable. Looking at him Remington was reminded of a painting by Zurbarán, St. Francis in Mediation, housed at the National Galley in London. Like the painting, only the nose, mouth and chin of the monk were visible. It gave him a distinctly sinister air quite unlike the benevolent St. Francis.
The monk nodded and continued onward. Remington, too, continued on his way, jogging the last few steps to the pizzeria. His hand was on the door when his brain finally processed something he'd see. It clicked it into place like a stubborn lock, and suddenly he could see the significance. Around the monk's neck had been a silver medallion, and on that medallion had been an image of a tiger that matched the one on the stiletto in Hans' back.
Coincidence? Remington didn't believe in them. Never had and never would. That monk was on his way to the church, and Laura was there waiting for him.
So much for the pizza.
He quickly re-crossed the street and ran lightly up the sidewalk, keeping well within the shadows. Laura was still sitting on the bench and the monk several steps behind when he suddenly re-appeared. She looked up, opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, Remington was on the bench, kissing her enthusiastically.
'What ' Laura gasped between kisses, 'are you doing?'
'Kissing you.' He said, his lips nibbling the line of her jaw. 'Any complaints?'
'No I mean yes ' her words were interrupted by another long, passionate kiss, 'what I meant to say is why are you kissing me?'
'Because a monk with a medallion that matches the knife in Hans' back has just entered the church gate.' Laura stiffened and then tried to turn her head. 'No, no, I've got an eye on him.' Remington assured her. 'Just keep kissing me. He won't find anything suspicious about two lovers on a park bench.'
Laura wrapped her arms around his neck. 'What's he doing?'
'At the moment loitering.'
'You mean he's just standing there?' The last word came out with a squeak. Remington had just shoved a hand beneath her sweater. 'Is that really necessary?'
'No but it's certainly enjoyable.'
'What's he doing?' She repeated, trying to ignore the hand cupping her breast. When a thumb flickered across the nipple she bit her lip to stop a moan of pleasure escaping. He would pay for this later. Oh, yes, he would pay.
'He's going towards the Mouth.' He felt her tensing. She wanted to look badly. 'Easy, Laura. We don't want to spook him.'
'But he might be the murderer.'
'All the more reason to keep our distance.'
'But ' her protest was drowned out by another kiss.
She struggled to keep her head. His lips, tongue and hands were doing incredible things, stoking her to a fevered pitch. She wanted nothing more than to throw him on his back and take him right there on the park bench, but there was work to do.
'We ought to question him.' She insisted.
'Better to look and see what he just put into the Mouth.'
'He put something in it?'
'Maybe. It's hard to tell from this distance.' He suddenly pulled her closer, if that were possible, and whispered into her ear. 'This is it, Laura, the grand finale, the final curtain call. He's coming our way. Let's give Lancaster and Kerr a run for their money, eh? It's From Here to Eternity, darling, Steele-style.'
When the monk passed by he saw a couple in a hot, passionate embrace, the man pushed back against the park bench, the woman's hair obscuring their faces. They continued to kiss for a few minutes more. Just to make sure he's gone, Remington and Laura assured themselves privately. Finally they broke apart. They were breathing heavily.
'I swear, Laura, if this wasn't a park bench, I'd '
'You'd what?' She asked, her voice husky, her eyes dark.
His eyes smoldered. 'I'd take you right here and now and to hell with Katherine and the ruby.'
'And if I didn't have my name to clear, I'd let you.' Their eyes locked, promising things, wonderful things, things that made their hearts race and their pulses throb, and then Laura sat up, pushing back her hair impatiently. 'Come on, Mr. Steele. The sooner we check out the Mouth, the sooner we can get a room for the night.'
That sounded promising, Remington thought with more cheer than he had when they'd started their vigil. He followed Laura across the street and into the gated portico. They passed under a series of interconnecting arches until they stood in front of the ancient sculpture that had fascinated tourists and filmmakers alike.
In the shadowy half light the sculpture looked sinister, its bearded chin, shaggy locks and gaping mouth giving it an appearance of some malevolent river god, an odd item to have on the side of a church.
'Well,' Laura said, 'aren't you going to put your hand in and see what's inside?'
Remington's good spirits plummeted. Was she kidding? Put his hand in that thing? With his history?
'Certainly not.' He retorted.
She eyed him. 'You don't believe that old legend, do you?'
He snorted. 'Of course not.'
'Then why won't you put your hand inside?'
'Because it's your case, Mrs. Steele. I'm just providing back-up.'
'I thought we were doing things your way.'
'We are.' He agreed. 'That's why you ought to be the one to check its mouth. The boss never does the dirty work.'
There was a silence and then Laura said. 'Do you turn around and go the other way if a black cat crosses your path, Mr. Steele?'
'I don't usually meet black cats in my line of work.'
'First you believed there was a curse on that painting of the nudes and now you believe a legend about a piece of stonework.' She paused and then drawled. 'You aren't afraid to put your hand in there because you've ah stretched the truth over the years, are you?'
'Don't be ridiculous.'
She had backed him into a corner, and they both knew it. If he refused, he'd look like a superstitious old woman, and if he went ahead and took her dare, what? There was only one way to find out. He pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and reached his hand inside the gaping mouth.
'Ahhhhh!' He cried.
'What?' Laura gasped, clutching at his arm. 'What is it? What happened?'
He let her pull out his arm. She stared at it and then looked at him. 'Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck, Audrey ' he trailed off as her frown became a scowl. 'Really, Laura, where's your sense of humor?'
'I left it in a prison cell in Switzerland.'
She shoved him aside and put her own hand in the mouth. 'I don't feel anything. It's just wait ' she put her hand in deeper and then pulled something out. It looked like a business card. She held it up, trying to read it in the dim street light. 'It says La Bauta.' She looked at him. 'What's that in English?'
Remington shrugged. 'Afraid I can't help you, Laura. I didn't have the honor of making the acquaintance of any Italian ski instructors.'
'What a tragedy.' Laura muttered dryly before returning to the card. 'There's an address.' There was a pause and then she said. 'It's in Venice.'
'Makes sense.' Remington said. 'The stiletto was Venetian.'
She stuffed the card into her pocket. 'Looks like we're heading to Venice, Mr. Steele. Hope you like swamps.'
'Hardly a swamp, Laura.' Remington protested as visions of gondolas, moonlit canals and romance filled his head. Finally fate was working with him rather than against him. 'Venice is one of the most romantic cities in the world.'
'Might I remind you, Mr. Steele, that we're not here for romance. We're here to clear my name.'
'Of course.' He agreed as they left the portico. 'But we can't spend every minute of the day tracking a thief. One has to eat '
'Speaking of eating,' Laura interrupted, 'how about dinner at that pizzeria?'
'What happened to Venice?'
'Tomorrow.' She said, picking up her suitcases. 'We'll need a car and all the rental places are closed right now. And we need to check in with Mildred. She'll need to track those names again and find out what a La Bauta is.'
Remington glanced at his watch. 'Dinner at a quarter after midnight. Ah, well, better late than never, eh?'
Laura stood on the balcony of the small pensione, brushing her hair. It was a little after one o'clock in the morning, but she wasn't sleepy. Her mind was too busy running over the events of the past twenty-four hours. Had they only arrived in Rome that morning? So much had happened in such a short period of time that she felt a little disoriented.
They had arrived just in time to find Katherine, lose her and find Hans with a Venetian stiletto in his back. Nothing unusual there. That was how most of their cases started. Now they were off to Venice.
There was no guarantee that Katherine was on her way to that city, but something told Laura that if she found the owner of that stiletto, she wouldn't be too far from finding Katherine and the ruby. They were all twisted around each other somehow. It was up to her to untwist them.
She came back to the question that had plagued her since they'd left the church. Had the monk meant the card for Katherine or Hans? Since Katherine hadn't shown up, the logical assumption would be Hans. But if that were the case, why would a monk with a medallion that matched the stiletto keep his assignation with a man he knew was dead? The only explanation was that the monk wasn't the killer. Then who was? Katherine? Or someone yet unknown?
Laura shook her head. It was all very confusing. She seemed to be arriving at the end of everything important, coming in at the last moment and being left to pick up the pieces. They had to find Katherine. Only she could explain what they'd stumbled into when they'd found Hans in her closet. This wasn't just about a stolen ruby anymore; it was about murder.
From the room behind her, she heard the door open and close. It would be Remington. He'd gone to take a shower. She smiled, remembering the look of horror on his face when he'd learned they'd have to share a bathroom with other guests. Napoleon at Waterloo couldn't have looked more appalled. Yet he had bounced back almost immediately. It was amazing how adaptable he was.
She left the balcony, coming into the room. Remington was standing just inside the door, his hair damp, a towel slung around his neck. She was surprised to see a dark shadow of beard along his jaw.
'You didn't shave?' She asked.
'No.' He said, tossing the towel on a nearby chair. 'I'm letting it grow. I'm tired of pasting that fake one on every two or three hours.' He sat down on the bed. It creaked. For the first time since they'd entered the pensione, he smiled. It was a beautiful smile, and it swept away all the uncertainties the case was causing her. 'Like old times, eh, Laura?'
'I thought you'd like it.'
'How well you know me, my love.'
She came over and put her arms around his neck. 'How about making it sing?'
'Aren't you tired?' He asked, one brow arching upwards. 'It's been a long day.'
She shook her head. 'Nervous energy.'
Remington knew a hint when he heard it. He'd waited years to hear Laura ask him to make love to her, and he had no qualms about playing the role of stress reliever now. His hands went to the tie on her robe. She was naked underneath. His eyes smoldered as he looked at her. They burst into flame when she shrugged the robe off, letting it drop to the floor.
He reached for her, and she came down eagerly, allowing him to drape her across the bed like some gothic heroine. Let him have his fun, she smiled, lifting her chin so he had better access to her neck. Pay back for his park bench tease was on its way. He'd soon know what it was like to be tortured with pleasure.
'Laura ' he rasped twenty minutes later, 'you're playing with fire.'
'I thought you liked games, Mr. Steele.' She murmured, her lips against his right hip. 'You were eager enough for them on a park bench an hour or so ago.'
'I never figured you to be the vindictive sort, Laura.'
'Not vindictive, Mr. Steele.' She corrected. 'I merely believe in equality. Remember our wedding night?'
'At the moment I can't think about anything but what you're doing, and if you don't ' his voice caught, 'if you don't stop ah playing the tease, I won't be Laura responsible for the condition of this bed in the morning. Imagine bloody hell imagine your embarrassment when you have to explain it to that gor blimey that sweet, old lady who took us in.'
She laughed, crawling back up his body. 'I ought to make you say uncle.'
'That's what I love about you, Mr. Steele. You're so accommodating. Much more so than German ski instructors.'
Another twenty minutes later Laura noted dreamily. 'That's the most beautiful moon I've ever seen.'
From the bed she could see the moon rising just above the balcony. It was large and full and cast a soft streak of muted light across the rumpled sheets. She wanted to get up and see it shimmering along the waters of the Tiber but was too pleasantly exhausted to do so.
'Beautiful.' Remington agreed, just as dreamily. She wondered if he was referring to the moon or the lovemaking.
'Shouldn't we call Mildred?'
His voice sounded sleepy and seconds later she heard his soft, even breathing. Her own eyelids drooped. Perhaps being a fugitive wasn't as bad as she first thought. If Dr. Richard Kimble could do it, why not Laura Steele? Besides, hadn't her life resembled a TV series ever since a mysterious, blue-eyed con man walked in and assumed the role of her boss? Maybe she could sell the rights some day.
And with that final thought she drifted off to sleep, curled against the man she loved, a smile to rival Mona Lisa's on her face.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Venice
'Mildred darling you can't mean it. Not after what we've come to mean to each other. Not after Catalina.'
The tall, dark-haired man with the Clark Gable face clutched her close, pressing her against him. Mildred stood in his arms, unmoved. She'd run into his type before. They were a dime a dozen in her line of work. A handsome face, a velvet voice, a deadly secret. Trouble. Always trouble.
'That was yesterday, Gavin.' She told him. 'A lifetime ago. If I let every handsome face that waltzed through the door turned my head, I wouldn't be much of a private dick, would I? We had a lovely time, but now it's time to go home.'
'But, Mildred,' he cried, staring at her with tortured eyes, 'you love me. You said you loved me. We were going to go away to Acapulco together. Remember?'
'That was before you stuck a knife into your old man's back. That's murder in my book.'
'How can you let something as insignificant as murder come between us?'
Mildred pushed back her hat and eyed the man in the Brooks Brothers suit, her eyes steely. 'I made a commitment to someone else long before I met you, kid.'
'Who?' His voice was agonized.
'The law.' She turned away, glancing at the police officer waiting in the shadows cast by the street light. 'Book'em, Dano.'
'Mildred...no please I love you '
Gavin's words were interrupted by the shrill ring of a telephone. Mildred frowned. She wasn't ready to wake up yet. There was still plenty more to come. This was the best part. She held the pillow against her ears, hoping to drown out the insistent ring. Too late. She was awake and the dream was history.
She rose up on one elbow and grabbed the phone. If it was one of those heavy breathers, she'd give them a piece of her mind, the perverts.
'Yeah?' She growled into the phone.
'Mildred!' An all too familiar voice crowed. 'It is you, isn't it? You sound a bit hoarse. You're not coming down with a cold, are you?'
Mildred scowled. Why was the boss calling her at three thirty in the morning? He had all day yesterday to call but he waits until now? When she's right in the middle of a sizzling dream? This had better be good.
'Do you know what time it is?' She demanded, forgetting that he was her employer and she was supposed to show proper respect.
'No,' he said cheerfully, 'what time is it?'
'It's three thirty in the morning.'
'Oh, so sorry, pet.' He said, sounding anything but sorry. 'Time zones are devilish hard to keep track of.'
'I'll buy you an international wristwatch for Christmas.'
'Splendid. What I've always wanted.' He chirped like a robin on steroids. 'But, until then, we need you to do a little research for us.'
Again? How much research did two people need?
'Can't it wait until morning?'
'Ah, afraid not, dear. We're leaving for Venice in about ten minutes and won't be available until late this evening. Have you got a pencil?'
'Hold your shorts on.' Mildred muttered, fumbling in the bedside table. The only thing she found resembling writing materials was a tissue and an eyeliner pencil. It would have to do. She wasn't traipsing all over the house for him. 'Ok. Shoot.'
'You'll need to track those names again. Have you still got them?'
'They're at the office.'
'Glad to see your pack rat tendencies are still functioning. Now, let's see, what else? Ah, yes, while you're at it, see if you can find out what a La Bauta is? It's got an address so we think it's a place. Let's hope it's not one of those dreadful shops that reek of incense since we'll be compelled to go in it.'
Mildred scowled. 'How do you spell that?'
He rattled off the spelling.
'Got it.' She said, her scowl becoming even darker when the tissue tore. 'Anything else?'
'How's the office? No disasters to come home to, eh?'
He wanted to discuss the office with her at three thirty in the morning? She felt like slamming the phone in his ear. Instead her mind went to the folder she'd placed in the middle of her desk when she'd left last night. She had an appointment bright and early with Alex in the morning to discuss things.
'Running smooth as silk.' She lied.
Well, it was only a half lie, she assured herself. The office was running smoothly. It was the folder on her desk that was creating the road bump. Unfortunately that road bump had the potential of affecting life as they knew it. Best to get him off the subject.
She diverted his attention as she had last time by asking. 'And what about you and Mrs. Steele? How's the case going?'
'Oh, fine, fine.' He assured her. 'We found a dead body in a closet, but that's nothing new.'
'A dead body?'
'Well, Mildred, I mustn't keep you.' He said abruptly. 'You really should be in bed. Those late hours are going to catch up with you one day. Talk to you later, pet.' There was a pause and then he added almost as an afterthought. 'Oh, and Mildred, take something for that cold, will you? I recommend copious amounts of orange juce. Arrivederci.'
Mildred stared at the phone in her hand. Every time he called he threw out another tidbit of information that had her chomping at the bit to go over there. But she couldn't. Not yet. Not until she got the lowdown from Alex. Then she could go. Question was would she be arriving with good news or bad?
She replaced the receiver and got out of bed. It was no use trying to go back to sleep. She might as well get up, go into the office and get busy on that research. The Case of the Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit would have to wait until another time. Darn it.
Remington replaced the phone with the look of a little boy who'd just gotten back at his schoolteacher for making him stay in at recess. He picked up the picnic basket at his feet and trotted across the street to where Laura was leaning against the hood of the rental car, looking impatient. He was late, and he knew it. She'd told him to meet her at the car fifteen minutes ago.
'What took you so long?' She demanded, straightening up as he approached.
'I called Mildred.'
Laura looked at her watch. 'It must have been three o'clock in the morning over there.'
'Three thirty-three exactly.' He said, securing the hamper in the back between their suitcases before folding his lean frame into the passenger's seat.
He scowled when his knees nearly touched his chin. What were these cars made for? Hamsters? He reached under the seat and tugged on the release. He moved perhaps an inch backwards. Wonderful. By the time they reached Venice, he'd be a blooming pretzel.
'Isn't that rather juvenile?' Laura asked, sliding under the wheel.
'In my world turnabouts fair play.' He told her, searching for the AC button. The chilly night had turned into a warm day. He could feel sweat running down his back. 'Where's the AC?'
Laura leaned over and rolled down his window. 'There you go, sport.'
'Fresh air. How quaint.'
He gritted his teeth as Laura stomped on the accelerator and the car coughed and then rattled forward. It was all he could do not to join in the coughing as a cloud of blue smoke enveloped them before they managed to outrun it.
'What's in the basket?' Laura asked as she merged onto the highway.
A horn blared as she cut in front of a semi-truck. Seconds later it was followed by what could only be Italian curses as the truck passed them. The man in the passenger's seat was hanging out the window, making all kinds of gestures. Remington could only guess at their meaning. They didn't seem to bother Laura in the least.
'Chicken, bread, wine, the usual staples.'
'Still thinking with your stomach, Mr. Steele?'
'Someone has to.'
He clutched the armrest as Laura leaned over and started digging through the glove compartment. Couldn't she have done that when they weren't moving down a congested freeway at excessive speed? He closed his eyes as they drifted into the left lane. Fortunately it was a multi-lane highway. The grassy median just might stop them before they became a hood ornament.
She re-emerged a few seconds later, righted the car and tossed a map at him. He picked it up. It was faded and water-stained and looked as though it's been printed in 1942. It was also in Italian.
'What in bloody hell am I supposed to do with this?' He demanded.
'It's in Italian!'
She shrugged, glancing over at him with an impish grin. 'I guess you chose the wrong nationality to get friendly with.'
Remington snorted and unfurled the map. Marriage had done anything to improve her disposition. She was just as sassy as ever and he loved it just as much as he always had, damn it.
A couple of hours later they were sitting at an intersection in a small, dusty village, staring at a road sign that looked like a porcupine. A multitude of arrows like quills sprouted to the left and to the right. Some even looked as though they were pointed upwards. Venezia, which they'd quickly learned after three wrong turns was Italian for Venice, was stenciled on arrows going both directions.
'Which way do we go?' Laura asked.
Remington wrestled with the map. It won. He decided to go directly to the source. He studied the road sign. 'Right.' Laura turned the wheel accordingly. 'No, left.' She followed suit. 'Right.'
She glared at him. 'Will you make up your mind?'
'I never asked for this job. I detest maps.'
He punctuated his statement by hurling the map into the backseat.
'Would you prefer to drive?'
Remington eyed the limited space between wheel and pedals. 'No, thank you. I like my legs just the way they are. Straight.'
'Then which way do we go?'
'I think we've established the fact that I navigate about as well as Amelia Earhart, Laura. Perhaps you ought to ask the nun that's been following us for the last hour.'
'Nun?' Laura echoed, glancing in the rear view mirror. Sure enough, a nun was sitting in a car behind them. She was making no move to go around them. Nor was she honking, a sure sign that she wasn't a native. 'Where'd she come from?'
'We picked her up on one of those loops about sixty miles back.'
'Why didn't you say something?'
'At the time you were too busy yelling at that driver of the vegetable truck. I didn't want to interrupt. You were doing so well.'
'He shouldn't have been on the road.' Laura said defensively. 'He was dropping tomatoes all over the place.'
'Had a pretty good aim too.' Remington noted, eying the remnants of a tomato that still clung to the windshield. 'He has an arm to rival Grover Alexander's. The Winning Team. Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, Warner Bros., 1952.'
Laura's attention was on the nun. 'Do you think she's the guy from the lobby?'
'That would be my first guess.'
'Then let's lose him.'
Laura gunned the engine, throwing the car into a squealing right turn. The nun, caught off guard by the sudden movement, was left in a cloud of blue smoke. Nearly as good as a James Bond smoke screen, Remington thought, watching out the side mirror. Too bad it wasn't as effective. Within minutes the nun was back on their tail, veil flapping behind her like a black flag.
Unable to shake her with pure speed, Laura resorted to evasive maneuvers, and thirty minutes later they were sitting at yet another intersection, staring at yet another road sign, more lost than they were before.
'I didn't think we'd ever shake that guy.' Laura said.
'Yes, he was a persistent bugger.' Remington agreed, looking out the back window. 'If it hadn't been for that flock of goats, he might still be behind us.'
'So,' she said brightly, 'which way do we go?'
Remington turned back around in his seat and stared at her, incredulous. Was she serious? Apparently she was. There was an expectant look in her eyes that said she was waiting for him to pull a white rabbit out of his hat. He was good, but he wasn't that good. Time to regroup.
'Since you've managed to lose the one person who might know,' He said as diplomatically as possible, 'I think now would be a good time to stop for lunch and ponder our next move.'
'But we're in the middle of nowhere.' Laura protested.
'You don't need to know where you are to have a picnic.' Remington told her. 'All we need is an idyllic setting and an absent landlord. Try that hill over there. It looks like something straight out of a Carracci landscape.'
'You should know.' Laura muttered, pointing the car towards the hill.
Laura sat on the low stone wall, gazing out over the Tuscan countryside. Before her spread green rolling hills dotted here and there by low scrubby bushes, splashes of yellow and red flowers and narrow trees that shot up like arrows into the sky. Behind her came the soothing sound of trickling of water coming from a nearby well. A warm breeze lifted her hair and filled her nose with the scent of wild thyme.
She sighed happily. Remington had picked the perfect spot for their al fresco lunch. Idyllic. That's what he called it. He had stuffed her with roasted chicken and thick crusty bread, and now she was feeling pleasantly relaxed. If it weren't for the fact that time was of the essence, she would have liked to take nap, her head on her husband's shoulder, curled up under one of those scrubby-looking olive trees.
'Feeling better?' Remington asked, handing her a glass of wine as he sat down beside her.
'I didn't know I was feeling poorly.' She said, accepting the glass.
'You were getting surly again.'
'It's been stressful.'
They fell into silence, sitting side by side on the wall, sipping a fine bottle of Italian red. That's what she loved about him. He understood her moods and accepted them. He didn't get sulky like Wilson had and he didn't try to humor her out of them like Murphy. He just accepted them for what they were and waited. He could be a very patient man when it mattered.
She looked over at him and was surprised to find his eyes on her. She smiled. 'You were right. It is like a Carracci landscape.'
His brows lifted. 'You know Carracci?'
'My college experience wasn't all criminology, you know.' She said, taking a sip of her wine. 'I took one or two art history classes.'
'Ogling nude men all day, Mrs. Steele. Shocking.'
She laughed. 'Mostly nude women. The vast majority of painters as you know were male, and they tended to paint what they enjoyed looking at.'
There was a pause and then Remington suddenly asked. 'Have you ever considered posing nude, Laura?'
She glanced at him. 'Is that an invitation, Mr. Steele? I know you can draw cartoons, but I wasn't aware that your talents extended to oil and canvas.'
'Pastels. More like drawing.'
'Is there anything you can't do?
A smile broke across her face. He had a come back for everything. 'By the end of this case, I'm sure you'll be proficient in it. Even without the assistance of a ski instructor.' Her eyes dropped to the wineglass in her hand, suddenly sobering. 'It's a shame we're here in all this beauty under these circumstances. Takes the romance out of it when you're constantly looking over your shoulder.'
He considered this, his head to one side. 'Perhaps but I've found romance to be a way of thinking rather than a circumstance. Romance can be found at home in a bathtub as long as you have the proper frame of mind.' He glanced over at her, his eyes darkening. 'And a beautiful woman with nut brown hair and eyes that promise you everything you've ever dreamed of.'
'Remington Steele, you are an incurable romantic. Don't ever change.'
He leaned over, touching her cheek. 'I won't. Not as long as you're beside me.'
His mouth touched hers as soft as a butterfly. She opened her mouth to respond, to deepen the caress, but he suddenly went as stiff as a board.
'What? What is it?' She asked, bewildered.
'We have a guest.'
'A Peeping Tom or rather a Peeping Nun.' He said grimly. 'I just saw him pop up over that wall behind us like a blasted prairie dog.' He stood up, his expression darkening. 'Enough is enough. I think it's about time we met our shadow, don't you?'
Before Laura could answer, he was gone, jogging lightly over to the wall in question. It was taller than the low one they'd been sitting on and could easily conceal a man. She watched as Remington pulled himself up, balanced and then walked with catlike stillness along the top before suddenly pouncing. There was a startled yell followed by the sound of scuffling. She got up and ran to the wall.
She found Remington holding the nun, one arm around her neck and the other twisting her arm behind her back.
'Ok, mate,' Remington was growling into the nun's ear, 'let's have it. You're a nun. Sing like one.'
'W-w-what?' The nun stuttered.
'He's referring to The Singing Nun, Debbie Reynolds, Ricardo Montalban, MGM, 1966.' Laura supplied helpfully.
'Very good, Laura.' Remington said admiringly. 'I'm impressed.' He turned back to his captive. 'Come on, mate. Why are you following us?'
'Following you?' The nun asked. 'I haven't been following you.' When Remington tightened his grip on her arm, she laughed nervously and said. 'Oh, you mean just now. Well, I'm afraid I was lost so I thought following someone might get me un-lost.'
'So much for asking him which way to go.' Laura muttered.
'Don't play dumb with me, Jacko.' Remington said fiercely, morphing into Harry, the street-wise tough. 'You've been dogging us ever since Switzerland. You were the ice cream vendor outside the lodge, the man with the fake nose in the hotel lobby and the maid in Signora Lupino's room. Now you're tooling around the Tuscan countryside dressed as a nun and playing Peeping Tom. Coincidence? I don't think so, mate. Are you going to talk or do I have to twist your bloody arm off?'
The nun looked worried. Even Laura who'd met Harry several times over the years felt a little unnerved by his fierceness. That dark shadow along his jaw only intensified his feral, untamed look, causing fissures of excitement to run up her spine. This side of him had always fascinated her.
'I I don't have to give you anything but my name, rank and serial number.'
'This ain't the army, Jacko.' Remington sneered before glancing at Laura. 'Get his wallet.'
Laura fished through the nun's habit until she found a pair of trousers beneath. She was rather relieved to find them. She'd been afraid for a moment that he or she or whatever it was would be wearing bloomers. The pants were tight, and she had some difficulty getting the wallet out. She dug deeper, eliciting giggles from the man.
'Try not to enjoy it so much.' Remington growled. 'She's my wife, and I'm the jealous sort.'
The man sobered instantly, and Laura finally extracted the wallet and flipped it open.
'Chief Inspector C.W. Budge. Interpol.' She read.
'No surprise there.' Remington muttered. 'Question is why haven't you arrested us? Mind sharing that information?'
'My orders were to follow you and report on your movements.'
'Orders from whom?' Laura asked.
'Commissioner Milbank.' The man grimaced. 'Well, to be quite frank, I report to his aide, Arthur Banks. I haven't spoken to the Commissioner directly since he put me on this assignment.' He stopped abruptly as though it had suddenly occurred to him that he'd provided more than his name, rank and serial number. He looked about nervously as though expecting a lightning bolt for his indiscretion.
'Sounds like this Milbank chap wants you to do his dirty work for him.' Remington said.
Laura nodded. 'He believed my story about Katherine and knew I'd go after her. We're leading him right to her and the ruby.' She scowled, looking nearly as fierce as Remington. 'I'm getting a little tired of being used. Is there a sign on my back that says 'chump'?'
Budge had been listening to their exchange, his expression perplexed. 'Who's Katherine and what all this about a ruby?'
'Milbank didn't tell you?' Laura asked.
'I told you. My orders were to follow you and report in.'
'Have you heard of the Tiger Heart's ruby?'
Budge nodded. 'It was stolen a few weeks ago.'
'Well, I was the one arrested for the theft.' Laura told him. 'But I didn't steal it. A woman named Katherine stole it. I'm a private investigator from L.A., and I met her while in St. Moritz on,' she glanced at Remington, 'on personal business. By some freak of nature, we look like each other, nearly twins. She used this resemblance to her advantage on more than one occasion, and recently she used it to frame me for the theft of the ruby, giving her time to disappear.'
'Clever.' Budge said. 'Diabolically so.'
'We've tracked her to Rome, to the Grand Hotel, and it was her room we were in when you found us. We went there, hoping to find her, but found the body instead.'
'The bloke in the bed.' Remington supplied.
'So I was right. He wasn't breathing.' He looked at them suspiciously. 'Did you kill him? Because if you did, I'll have to arrest you, orders or not.'
'That would be a little difficult, mate,' Remington said, pulling pressure on the man's arm again, 'seeing as how you're the one in the headlock.'
'Oh, let him go.' Laura said irritably. 'I'm tired of this cloak and dagger thing.' She looked at Budge, her eyes hard. 'We didn't kill him, but we are trying to find his killer and the stolen ruby. They're wrapped together somehow. You're welcome to join us or you can continue skulking around behind us. Either way we're going to Venice. My husband's right. You can't arrest us. You haven't got a gun. It wasn't just a wallet I was looking for.'
Upon hearing that, Remington released the man. Budge quickly put distance between himself and his former captor.
'Well, what will it be, Budge?' Laura asked. 'It's getting late, and we've still two hours of driving ahead of us.'
'I've still got my orders. I'm to follow you and '
'Report on our movements.' Remington finished. 'I think we've established that.'
'It would be highly irregular for an officer of the law to join forces with the criminal.' Budge continued.
'Haven't you been listening?' Laura demanded, reaching the end of her patience with this odd man. How could you argue with a man dressed like a nun? 'We're private investigators, not criminals. Oh, the heck with it.' She said, throwing up her hands and walking away. 'Do what you want. If you want to run around in a fake nose, looking like a penguin then be my guest. Just stay out of our way. We've got work to do.'
She stalked off, leaving the men staring after her. A few minutes later Remington joined her in the car.
'What about Budge?' She asked.
'I think he's scared of you.'
'Me?' Laura squawked. 'You're the one who had him in a headlock. I just rummaged in his shorts.'
'The female of the species is more deadly than the male. The Female of the Species. Rudyard Kipling, 1911.'
'I think I prefer you quoting movies at me.'
She reached for the ignition but was stopped by Budge's face at her window. It was a rough, masculine face that looked ridiculous in a wimple.
'Yes?' She asked haughtily.
'I was wondering.' He said almost apologetically. 'I was wondering if you could give me a lift. You see I ran out of petrol about five miles up the road.'
'And you still followed us?'
'My orders are '
'Yes, we know all about your orders.' She interrupted. 'Get in.'
The Tiger of St. Eloy
Laura's first thought when Budge joined them for the breakfast the following morning on the Piazza San Marco was that he was much better looking as a man than a woman. He was of medium height, slender to the point of being thin with a mop of sand-colored hair that had a habit of falling into his eyes. He was continually pushing it aside. Perhaps the wimple wasn't a bad idea after all.
They had arrived at a tentative agreement last night as the water-bus had conveyed them across the lagoon. Budge would not interfere with their attempt to find Katherine and the ruby, and in exchange they would keep him comprised of their movements. Thus both parties were satisfied and an informal partnership had been formed.
And he was coming in handy, Laura thought. He could speak fluent Italian. Somehow Laura didn't think he'd learned the art from a ski instructor. He looked too straight-laced for such dalliances. If she didn't know Budge to be a cop, she would have thought him a butler. Sort of like Ruggles of Red Cap.
'So Laura,' Remington said, breaking into her thoughts, 'what's first on the list today? Murder or mayhem? I leave it up to you.'
'We find out what a La Bauta is.'
'Shall I ring up Mildred?'
Laura glanced at the clock tower across the piazza. 'Ah, no, one call at three thirty-three in the morning was sufficient to get your point across. I'm sure someone here can tell us.'
'A bauta is a type of 18th Century mask.' Budge provided, slavering his fette biscottate with more jam. 'It covers the top of the face and leaves the lower half visible. You can find them in all the mask shops around here. They're immensely popular during the Carnival. I'm sure you'll see some tonight.'
Remington stared at him, slightly annoyed. It was his job to impress Laura with obscure trivia, not this constable.
Laura considered this. 'So La Bauta might be a shop of some sort.'
'Possibly.' Budge concurred. 'If it's a place rather than a thing.'
'Oh, it's a place.' Laura said. 'We have an address.' She rummaged around in her purse and produced the card, shoving it across the table to Budge. 'Do you know where that is?'
He studied the card and shook his head. 'I'm dreadful at geography.'
'Imagine that.' Remington muttered into his cup.
'But I'm sure any of these gondoliers can take you there. Shall I go and secure a gondola for you, Mrs. Steele?'
Laura smiled. 'Please, call me Laura, and yes, that would be most appreciated. Thank you, Inspector Budge.'
Budge's ears turned red, and he jumped to his feet, tripping over the table leg in his haste to do Laura's bidding. The table wobbled precariously, causing Remington to grab the edge to steady it before their cappuccino ended up in their laps.
Laura turned to Remington and was surprised to see a fierce scowl on his face.
'What?' She asked. 'What's wrong?'
'Don't encourage him, Laura. He already fancies himself half in love with you.'
Laura laughed. 'That's ridiculous. He's scared of me. You said so yourself.'
'There's a fine line between fear and awe, and he's crossed it. Give it an hour or two and he'll be scampering down the path to complete and utter devotion.'
If he'd hit her with a sledgehammer, she couldn't have been more surprised. She wanted to laugh again, but Remington's expression stopped her. Despite his sarcastic tone, he was not joking. There was no amusement on his face.
'I think you're serious.'
He looked at her. 'I don't make jokes about my wife and other men.'
'I'll keep that in mind.'
She wanted to say something to lighten the mood, but before she could a frenzied barking broke the quiet of the morning. Heads turned as did Laura and Remington's. As suspected Budge was in the middle of it. Never had they met a person so prone to trouble. He seemed to attract it like a magnet.
'Good Lord, that's not the Honorable Lucinda Hepplewhite, is it?' Laura asked, squinting into the sunshine. 'What's she doing in Venice?'
'I don't know,' Remington said grimly, 'but leave it to Budge to find her.'
The woman's squawks and the Peke's yaps could be heard clear across the piazza. They were so loud that even the pigeons were unsettled.
'You'd better go and rescue him.' Laura said.
'Why would I do that?' Remington asked, amused to see Budge being assaulted by a very expensive alligator handbag.
'Because he's drawing attention.' Laura pointed out. 'Attention we don't want.'
Remington glanced over at her. 'Laura, I adore you, worship the ground you walk on, but you have this most annoying habit of throwing a wet blanket on all my little amusements.'
'I'll make up for it later tonight.'
'Oh really? How do you propose to do that?' He asked, trying not to sound too interested. She mustn't think that she could wrap him around her little finger. 'When negoiating, it's always a good practice to have these things spelled out, Mrs. Steele. So there's no confusion.'
'F-A-N-S. Or if you prefer...' she leaned over and whispered in his ear. His eyebrows shot upwards. Well, when she put it that way...
He sighed and got to his feet. 'The things I do for you.'
Laura watched him saunter over to the ensuing chaos, dapper and debonair as ever. Within minutes he had charmed The Honorable Lucinda into putting down her handbag. The Peke was another matter altogether. It wasn't susceptible to a toothy grin and smoldering blue eyes, but Laura had no doubt that in the end her husband would prevail so she let her attention drift, her eyes wondering around the piazza in a negligent manner.
Suddenly she sat up straight. A familiar figure was walking across the piazza, a figure dressed in rough, brown cloth and silver medallion. Whether it was the same monk from the night before, she couldn't say, but did it really matter? They were obviously of the same order. If she followed this monk, he would eventually lead her to the other.
She glanced at Remington. He was still working on the Peke. She knew he'd be furious if she left without him, but she couldn't let the opportunity slip away. Taking a pen from her purse, she scrawled a hasty note on a napkin and then got up to follow.
A little over a half hour later she had found what she'd been looking for. The monk had ducked into a shop called La Bauta. Masks of every shape, form and color filled the shop window. Some were grotesque with long, pointed noses while others were beautiful, swathed in feathers and glittering sequins. They fascinated her, and she stood at the window for some time, admiring their color and flamboyant beauty.
Finally she went for the door, pushing it open. A bell tinkled, announcing her presence. A man at the counter looked up, his eyes narrowing behind round spectacles. He said something to her in Italian. She shook her head, repeating the one phrase she'd managed to pick up 'non capisco l'italiano'.
He tried again, this time in English. 'Can I help you, Signora?'
She wondered what he'd say if she asked for the monk that had just come in. Instead she said. 'I came in to buy masks for me and my husband. For the Carnival.'
'Ah.' He said, coming around the corner. 'Let me show you the most popular.' He led her over to a wall lined with masks. He removed a white one with a jutting jaw line. 'This is the bauta, our namesake. It's very popular with men. It's worn with a tricorn-hat and mantel.'
Laura accepted the mask, turning it around in her hands. 'I'll take it.'
'And for the Signora ' the little man turned back to the wall, his eyes running over his stock.
'That one.' Laura said, pointing to a blue and silver half mask decorated with pearls and diamonds. To one side was a plume of white feathers. She'd fallen in love with it through the window.
'Ah, the Diana mask, goddess of the hunt.' The man murmured approvingly. 'Bellissimo.'
Laura took it from him eagerly and tried it on. She studied herself in the mirror hanging on the wall between the masks. Beautiful, mysterious and completely impractical. Talk about impulse buying. Yet she had to have it. She turned back to the man.
'I'll take this too.'
'Eccellente.' The man said, leading her back to the counter.
While he rang up the purchase, Laura let her eyes scan the shop, looking for any sign of the monk. Nothing. He has vanished into thin air. Her eyes fell on a dark cloth in the back of the shop. Hiding the entrance to another room perhaps? Had the monk gone through there? Why? What connection was there between a mask shop and a monk?
She was so busy considering these questions that she jumped when the man told her the total. She reached into her purse, drawing out her wallet. With it came the small white card, fluttering down onto the counter as lightly as a snowflake. She reached for it, but not before the man had seen it. His hand came down hard on the counter, covering the card and preventing her from picking it up.
'Where did you get this?' He demanded, the eyes behind the spectacles hard.
'It's one of your business cards, isn't it? Aren't they meant to be passed out?'
'Where did you get it?' He repeated.
She threw caution to the wind. 'Rome.'
'That is most unfortunate, Signora. Most unfortunate.'
She opened her mouth to ask why when a cloth, heavy with some overpowering odor, was suddenly placed over her mouth and nose. Chloroform? Did they still use Chloroform, she wondered right before the world went black.
She woke up in a room with heavy stones walls and dark, wood furniture. It was dim and shadowy even though she knew it had been a bright, sunny day when she'd entered the mask shop. Had she been out so long that it was now night? No, she assured herself, it was still day. She could see light pouring through small, half windows near the ceiling.
Becoming upright was difficult. It took several failed attempts just to pull herself up on her elbow due to the fact that she was still woozy from the Chloroform. When she did finally managed to swing her legs to the floor, she sat for several minutes, holding her head until the world stopped spinning. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see a bag with La Bauta written across it leaning against the leg of the couch. How thoughtful of them to bring along her purchase, she thought acidly.
'So you are awake at last.' A voice said from somewhere in the shadows.
She looked up, blinking. As her vision cleared she sat what looked like a man seated behind a heavy desk. Like the other monks he was dressed in a brown habit and wore a silver medallion around his neck. His face, however, was clearly visible. It was a round face, lined with age and browned from the sun, and it was smiling at her.
'Do I know you?' She asked rather stupidly.
'I'm afraid we haven't had the honor, Signora Steele.' He said. 'I'm Umberto Pisani. I'm the Abbot here at St. Eloy.'
'And where is here?'
'You're on the island of Murano. It is not far from Venice.'
'Why was I brought here?'
'You are full of questions, are you not?' The Abbot said, his smile becoming broader. 'But you are a private investigator, no? We took the liberty of going through your purse and found your license. That is how we know your name. You ask questions for that is your profession, but we have questions of our own that must be answered. Tell me, Signora Steele, what were you doing in our shop?'
'Your shop?' She echoed. 'I don't know what you mean.'
'La Bauta.' He provided. 'It is our shop. Signore Beppo manages the store, but we make the masks, which he sells. Ah, you look at me strangely. It is strange, no, for monks to make Carnival masks? It was not always so. We are metalworkers by trade, which is why our founders chose St. Eloy to be our patron saint. However, as time went on, we sought other ways to support ourselves. The monastery has to make a living. We do not have wealthy patrons like we once did. So we turned to masks. It allows us to express our art while providing a steady income.'
'Very practical.' Laura noted.
He inclined his head. 'Thank you. Now that I have satisfied some of your curiosity, please be so good as to satisfy mine. What brought you to our shop?'
'I was looking for a mask. It is Carnival season, isn't it?'
There was a pause in which he studied her with narrowed eyes. Some of the pleasantness left his face. 'Let me put it this way.' He said, his voice hard like earth that has had a lot of sun but very little rain. 'What were you doing with that card?'
'It's a business card, isn't it?' She asked. 'I was under the impression that when a business has a business card, it's meant to be passed out.'
'Under normal circumstances that is true.' He agreed. 'However, that particular card was meant for someone other than you. I want to know how you came to be in possession of it.'
'I took it from the Bocca Della Verita two nights ago.'
'Because the man it was intended for had been murdered.'
'Murdered?' The Abbot echoed.
'Yes.' Laura told him. 'He was stabbed in the back with a 15th Century stiletto that had a design that matches the one on that medallion around your neck. You said you were metalworkers. Would I be right in assuming the stiletto was made at this monastery?'
The Abbot looked stunned. All the color had drained from his face. He looked at Laura, his expression becoming worried for the first time. 'I assure you, Signora Steele, that stiletto was never meant for such a purpose.'
'It's a stiletto, Abbot Pisani.' Laura pointed out. 'If it wasn't meant to be used as a weapon, what was it meant for? Decoration? Perhaps today but not in the 15th Century.'
He waved an impatient hand. 'Yes, yes, of course. It is a weapon, and when it was crafted, it was intended to be used as such. What I'm trying to say is that it didn't leave these walls with the intention of killing. It was a down payment, an exchange for something of greater value.'
'So the stiletto belongs to you.' It was more a statement rather than a question.
'Perhaps you should explain how it came to be in a dead man's back.'
The Abbot seemed to consider this. She knew he was wondering how much she already knew, and how much he ought to tell her. She hoped he would confide it all. She sensed that he possessed an important piece to the puzzle of both Hans' death and the ruby's whereabouts.
Finally he spoke. 'I do not know how it came to kill someone, Signora Steele, but I will attempt to explain how it came to leave these walls.'
'I'd be interested in hearing it.'
'Centuries ago we had a wealthy patron. His name was Giancomo Navarra. He was called the Tiger of St. Eloy. He received that name while fighting in the first Crusade. Before reaching Jerusalem, the Crusaders stopped in Constantinople. Here Giancomo came in possession of a very rare and very beautiful ruby. When he returned to Murano, he brought it with him and shortly after landing dedicated it to the monastery. It was named the Tiger Heart's ruby in honor of him. The monks of this abbey made a stiletto and sword in gratitude, but he refused to accept them, insisting that they remain at the abbey, which they have for hundreds of years.' He paused, tapped his fingers together and then continued. 'During the rule of Napoleon's stepson, Èugene de Beauharnais, the ruby was stolen. The abbot and monks at the time tried to recover it but unsuccessfully. It was deemed lost to us forever. In 1952 the ruby suddenly reappeared in possession of Landrieu. They had built an entire collection around it, even mounted it within the chest of a silver tiger. It was still lost to us, but at least we knew it is existed.'
'Did you try to recover it?' Laura asked, intrigued.
Pisani shook his head. 'We could not. Who would believe our claims? So we let it go and considered it lost until we were contacted a few weeks ago by a gentleman who called himself Mr. Bauer. He offered us the ruby in exchange for the stiletto and the sword. I and the senior brothers were torn. The stiletto and sword are very dear to us, but the ruby, she is the most dear, the most precious. So we agreed.'
'Did you meet with this Mr. Bauer?'
'Once. We came to an agreement and made arrangements about how the items would be exchanged.'
'Could you identify him if you saw him again?'
Was that a blush, Laura wondered as she watched color surged into the monk's face. He suddenly looked very uncomfortable and when he spoke next she understood why.
'Please forgive me, Signora Steele, you will think us most foolish, but we made these arrangements with a man wearing a cloak and mask, specifically a Pulcinella mask.' At her look of confusion, he explained further. 'Pulcinella is a character from Italian comedy. He is often protrayed as a pot-bellied hunchback with a large, hooked nose. This man, however, was neither potbellied or a hunchback. At the time we did not think much of it. We are Venetians. We are used to seeing people in disguise, living so near the Carnival. Looking back now I see we were most unwise.'
Laura could agree with him more. It had been incredibly stupid. One should never make deals with a person in a mask.
'Where did you meet him?'
Again the monk looked uncomfortable. 'In a gaming house.'
'You mean a casino?'
'No, not a casino in the traditional sense. This was a private club. Venice has a long history of them. They were called 'casini', small apartments or single rooms, where a certain crowd would gather for dancing, dining, music and especially, gambling. Noblemen would create their own in order to entertain the right crowd and promote political alliances. In 1744 there were 118, quite a few for so small an island, no? They were very exclusive. Checks would be made through a peephole of those wishing to enter. Some of these clubs still survive today. Perhaps it is the influence of the Carnival, but intrigue is a way of life here.'
It was getting stranger and stranger. She felt like she was trapped in one of Remington's B-rate movies. All they needed was fog.
'Do you remember where this club was?'
'But, of course. It is off the Rio dei Greci Canal, not far from the Church of San Giorgio.' He paused as a thought struck him. 'Do you think we'll have a visit from the police?'
'Very likely.' Laura told him. 'Should they trace the design back to St. Eloy as we did.'
'My husband.' She glanced at the watch on her wrist. 'He's probably tearing Venice apart right now looking for me. I've been gone for over three hours.'
The Abbot stood. 'In that case, let us not delay you further. I will have Brother Flavio take you back to Venice immediately.' He took her hand in his. 'I hope you will forgive us. Naturally we were concerned when you showed up with that card. We had to be careful, you understand?' He studied her. 'If you don't mind me asking, Signora Steele, how did you become involved with all of this?'
'The ruby was stolen a few weeks ago.' Laura said. 'And I was arrested for the theft.'
'You think Mr. Bauer stole it?'
'I believe he was part of it, but the real thief is a woman named Katherine. She looks just like me, which explains why I was arrested by mistake.'
'Fantastico!' Pisani exclaimed before saying less fiercely. 'I wish you Godspeed, Signora Steele, and should you need anything, please let us know. We are most anxious to clear our own names in this matter as well.'
'Thank you, Abbot Pisani.' Laura said. 'I will keep that in mind. This thing is far from over.'
That was certainly an understatement, Laura thought a few minutes later as she followed Brother Flavio down to the docks where they boarded a small motorboat that would take them across the lagoon to Venice. She was no closer to discovering Hans' killer than when she'd started this wild goose chase. The only thing she'd gotten from the monks was the story behind the ruby, a cloak and dagger tale to rival any coming out of Hollywood and two Carnival masks.
Still, she consoled herself, it wasn't a complete loss. She had a theory now of why Hans had been killed, and she had another address to check out. Not a stellar morning's worth of work, but at least it was something. She wondered if Remington could say the same.
Remington glanced down at his watch and frowned. He'd forgotten it was under a Pekingese's furry bum. He tried easing his arm from underneath the dog but when it growled warningly, he thought better of it. Best to appeal to its owner for relief.
He glanced at the Honorable Lucinda. She was seated upon a brocade chair across from him, pulling out tea and rhapsodizing on the virtues of Venice. Apparently she'd been there five times before. Or at least he thought she had. He'd lost count somewhere around trip number two.
'And you must attend the masquerade, Mr. Steele.' She was saying, waving a piece of biscotti like a conductor in the throes of Beethoven's 9th. 'Hotel Fiorenza has one every night of the Carnival. It's most diverting.'
'Diverting.' Remington agreed, his eyes roaming the hotel lobby.
Where was Budge? Entertaining Laura, no doubt, the bloody twit. This was the last time he was going to help someone he didn't like, and no promise of fans or other delights was going to change his mind.
'I have the most divine costume.' She smiled mysteriously at him and said in a low, conspiratorial voice. 'I'm going as Aphrodite, the goddess of love.'
Remington tried not to grimace. 'How divine. I'm sure there's never been or ever will be an Aphrodite quite like you.'
She leaned over and squeezed his knee. 'Would you like a preview? It's right upstairs in my room. Nigel's in negotiations, you know. He'll be gone for hours.'
Tea cups clattered and the Pekingese went flying as Remington leapt to his feet. 'Ah, I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check on that, Lady Hepplewhite.' Remington said backing away hurriedly. 'Terribly sorry, but I've got this wife, and she's dreadfully particular about such things. Doesn't like me frolicking about in other women's bedrooms. Old fashioned, that's my Laura.'
'Wife?' Lucinda echoed. 'I didn't know you were married. I'm sure I read in a magazine that you were one of L.A.'s most eligible bachelors a couple of years ago.'
'Yes, well, it's bound to happen to all of us, eh?' He said cheerfully. 'One day you're a tree in the forest and the next you're floating down the river with the rest of the logs.'
Lucinda considered this and then decided to be magnanimous. She was not a woman to hold grudges except against men who goosed women in hotel lobbies. It wasn't that she was opposed to goosing in general, but she preferred to know the man first. There were rules to these kind of encounters.
She smiled up at him. 'But you will come to the masquerade, won't you? Bring your wife. I'm interested in meeting the woman who caught the great Remington Steele. Besides, I know she'll enjoy it. All women enjoy masquerades.'
Remington had his doubts about Laura, but said quickly. 'Yes, yes, of course. Ten o'clock, wasn't it? We'll be there. With masks on, eh? Can't wait to see that costume. Divine, simply divine.'
And with a cheery wave, he dashed across the lobby and out into the sunshine of St. Mark's where he was instantly accosted by Budge who'd spent the past two hours lurking about the doors of Hotel Foirenza like a lost dog.
'Mr. Steele,' the man said, his expression reproachful, 'you've been in there for hours.'
'It takes a lot of work to pacify a hippo. Your hippo, I might add.' Remington said irritiably as he brushed ineffectively at the dog hair sticking to his trousers. 'I'm sending you the dry cleaning bill, Budge.'
'Mr. Steele '
Remington brushed once more at the dog hair and straightened up, a ready smile on his face. It died when he didn't see who he's been expecting to see. 'Where's Laura?'
'That's what I've been trying to tell you.'
Remington glanced at him, his expression sharp. 'What?'
'I found this on the table.' Budge handed him a napkin.
'It's all wet.'
'I spilled cappuccino on it.' Budge explained. 'But you can still read it.'
Remington stared at the napkin. Was the man kidding? It was well on its way to becoming paper mache. He handed it back to Budge. 'Translate.'
Budge accepted the napkin, squinted and read slowly, almost painfully. 'Monk in pizza no, piazza went to chunk, cluck, clunk him out meet you at the calzone.'
'Better get us a gondola, Budge.'
'But she said to meet her at the calzone I mean, the pensione.' Budge pointed out. 'It's within walking distance.'
Remington looked at him as though he wasn't overly bright. 'If you spend any amount of time with us, Budge, you'll discover that we rarely do what the other one tells us to do. That's how we operate. Laura's missing, and nothing's going to stop me from finding her. Now, be a good chap and get that gondola, eh?'
It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver. ~ Niccolo Machiavelli
Katherine hurried across the bridge, her heels clicking on the cobblestones. She should have worn flats, but of course, she hadn't been expecting two gorillas when she'd been selecting footwear that morning. Where they'd come from, she didn't know. All she knew was they'd been on her tail for an hour and were getting bolder by the minute. Only the passing tourists and residents kept them from pouncing. If she made a wrong turn, they'd be on her in a flash.
Who were they, she wondered for about the fiftieth time. Oh, sure, she had enemies but none in Venice. Not yet anyway. She cast a glance over her shoulder. They were big men with swarthy faces and beefy shoulders. She couldn't see any guns, but she was sure those Armani suits concealed a couple Berettas. They were the kind of men that rich men hired to do their dirty work.
She turned a corner and found herself on Piazza San Marco. She'd never seen anything so beautiful as the crowds of tourists, taking pictures, dining at outdoor cafes, providing her with the safety she so desperately needed. She plunged across the square, sending pigeons in all directions. If she could just get to the Riva degli Schiavoni, she'd be safe. They wouldn't dare accost her in the hotel. Much too public and intimate a setting.
The white stone façade of the Hotel Foirenza came into view, shining like glass in the sunlight, and she hurried towards it, nearly running. Heavy footsteps sounded behind her, coming closer, much closer than they'd been before. They must have guessed her intentions. Damn! What was she going to do? Would anyone do anything if she screamed?
Then she saw him, standing outside the hotel, looking at his watch impatiently. It was the hunky detective from St. Moritz, the half of Remington Steele Investigations that didn't like her. She would have preferred begging sanctuary from the female, Laura, wasn't it, but now was no time to be picky. Besides, she was playing the role of Mrs. Steele at the moment so why not use the real Mr. Steele to save her skin? She sprinted toward him.
At that moment he glanced up and saw her. His expression brightened and warmed and he took a step toward her.
'Laura!' He called.
'Remy, darling! Katherine exclaimed, throwing herself into his outstretched arms. 'How I've missed you!'
She felt his stiffen. He knew she wasn't Laura and was about to say so. She did the only thing that was sure to shut him up. She kissed him and instantly regretted her action. It was like kissing a disgruntled badger, all indignant growls and angry hisses. When he raised his hands to forcibly remove her from his person, she clamped her arms around his neck, putting her mouth against his ear.
'If you don't want to get us shot, I suggest you play along, Mr. Steele.'
Remington struggled not to follow through with his attempt to remove Katherine from his personal space. There was something about this woman that repelled him like no other. Usually he could make a show of kissing someone if circumstances demanded, schmoozing as Laura called it, but he was having a devilish hard time doing so now. Perhaps it was because she looked so much like Laura. Kissing Laura yet not kissing her. It was creepy.
He wanted to tell her that he didn't give a damn whether she got shot or not, but then remembered that she was the key to clearing Laura's name. Better keep her alive. At least for a little while.
'Would you mind telling me who's going to shoot us?' He hissed back.
'See those two men behind me? The gorillas in the Armani suits?' He nodded. 'They've been following me for about an hour. Take me up to our room.'
'We don't have a room here.'
'Mr. and Mrs. Steele are registered in room 280.'
'Borrowing Laura's identity again?' He asked grimly, his eyes on the two men. They were hanging back, loitering beside the dock where Budge was still in conversation with a gondolier.
'Yours too, sweetie.'
'Who's playing me? Stefan?'
'How'd you guess?'
'Come on.' Remington said, taking her arm and hustling her toward the hotel doors. 'Now that I've got you, I'm not letting you go.'
'I didn't know you cared. Does Laura know?'
They were waiting for the elevator when Budge entered the hotel and hurried over to them. He barely missed tripping over a cart loaded with luggage.
'Mr. Steele,' he said, stopping beside them, 'I've finished negotiations on the gondola.'
'There's been a change in plans.' Remington said, stepping into the elevator and dragging Katherine along with him. 'Get in, Budge.'
'Did you catch up with your monk, Mrs. Steele?' Budge asked politely as the elevator began its upward ascent.
Katherine stared at him. Where'd they find this guy?
'This isn't Laura, Budge.' Remington told him, his eyes on the floor numbers. 'This is Katherine.'
Budge returned her stare. 'You mean she really does exist?'
'Of course.' Remington said impatiently. 'Do you think we'd be running all over Italy if she didn't? Let me introduce you. Katherine, this is Chief Inspector Budge of Interpol. Budge, this is Katherine. She'll have to provide the last name. She changes them like socks.'
Katherine smiled at the astonished Inspector. 'Hi'ya Budgie. Just call me Katherine.'
'If you have a last name, please be so good as to provide it, Ma'am.' Budge said coolly.
'Aren't you the formal one?' Katherine drawled. 'What's wrong, honey? Those regulation shorts too tight?'
The elevator doors opened, and Remington hustled her into the hallway before Budge could respond. Gone was the refinement and elegance of the Grand Duchess. In her place was Sugarpuss O'Shea, the wisecracking gangster doll from Ball of Fire. He wondered if this was the real Katherine. Probably. She morphed into Sugarpuss as easily as he morphed in Harry. Were all con artists cut from the same bolt of cloth?
They stopped in front of room 208 and Katherine produced a key with a little, red tassel.
'The honeymoon suite.' She said with a flourish as the door swung inward. 'I must be psychic. When last we met you were Miss Holt and Mr. Steele. Clever of me to marry you off, huh?' She swept into the room and draped herself on the sofa. 'Where is the little woman by the way?'
Remington turned on her, anger suddenly surging through him. To hear her speak so casually of Laura after what she'd done enraged him. 'You can ask that after what you did?'
'What'd I do?'
He struggled to keep his temper. For the first time he was glad he'd been saddled with Budge. The inspector's presence just might keep him from strangling the woman just might. 'Listen, ducks, I've had about all I'm going to take from you. You're on my turf now, and you're going to play by my rules, see? I want answers, and I want them now.'
Katherine stared at him, her dark eyes narrowed. If his anger surprised her, she didn't show it. She was cool one, alright. 'Sure, honey, what do you want to know?'
'Plenty but for starters how about telling me why Hans was in your closet with a stiletto in his back?'
'Stefan and I put him there.'
'After you killed him?'
'Jewels and paintings are my racket, honey, not murder. We came back and found him on the floor of the bedroom so we put him in the closet and cleared out.'
'Your concern for a dead colleague is touching.'
'If you had my shall we say colorful past what would you have done?'
Remington started to say something really sanctimonious and then thought better of it. Hadn't he said something to Laura about glass houses? He and Laura had done pretty much the same thing. They'd put Hans in the closet and cleared out. Thieves and fugitives had something in common a distaste for involving the law.
'Any idea who might have killed him?'
'Not a clue.' Katherine said, shrugging. 'People in our business make a lot of enemies. Stefan and I parted company with Hans shortly after leaving Switzerland. He was only a hired hand anyway. What he did after he left us or who he might have annoyed, I don't know. Afraid my physic abilities haven't reached their full potential yet, honey.'
Remington sensed she knew more than she was saying but decided to let Laura have a go at her. Laura was much better at squeezing blood out of turnips. There were more pressing issues right now.
'How about those goons downstairs?' He persisted. 'Who are they?'
Once again Katherine shrugged. 'I don't know.'
'For someone reported as being one smart cookie, you don't seem to know a lot of things.' The jab didn't produce the desired effect. She just stared at him as cool as a cucumber, swinging a heeled foot. He tried again. 'Where's the ruby?'
'This stupid act is beneath you, Katherine, so I suggest you drop it before I lose my patience. I'm not a nice fellow when I lose my patience, see.' Remington assured her in his best Edgar G. Robinson. 'We know you stole the Tiger's Heart ruby because Laura was arrested for it. Real clever piece of work. I knew you were untrustworthy, but I didn't peg you as callous. Laura helped you in St. Moritz and you set her up to take the fall. Just like you did Cheswick but with no reason. You're one cold customer, Katherine. A virtual iceberg. How do you keep Stefan warm at night?'
Katherine stared at him and for the first time there was a hint of emotion in her expression. She looked as though he'd just slapped her. So the cat had a heart after all. It may be two sizes too small but it was there. Perhaps like the Grinch it could grow. Remington grimaced. He was really spending far too much time with Laura's nieces and nephew when he could site Dr. Seuss.
'I didn't set her up.'
'Then who put her fingerprints all over that safe?'
'I don't know, but I swear to you that it wasn't me.'
The fierceness of her denial surprised him. Why should the accusation bother her? It wasn't as though she was concerned about their opinion of her or was she? Had Laura made more of an impression on the woman than first thought?
'According to Cheswick, your oaths aren't worth much, and I'm inclined to agree with him.' Remington told her. 'But it's not my place to decide whether or not you're telling the truth. That's up to Laura. She's the one you stabbed in the back. All I want to know is what you did with the ruby. I know you had it. I saw the soap shavings in the sink.'
Her expression went from annoyance to cool disinterest. 'Soap shavings? What on earth are you talking about, darling?'
'It's an old trick. Used by thieves for generations. A very convenient way to conceal a jewel. You break a bar of soap, hollow out a space large enough to hold the jewel and then seal the bar together again with water. If you're good, you can't even tell the bar's been broken. And something tells me you're good.'
'You seem to know an awful lot about the criminal world, Mr. Steele.'
'I'm a detective. It's what I do.' Remington said easily before continuing in a much harder tone. 'Now what did you do with it?'
'I gave it to the Prince.'
'Who is the Prince?'
'Please be specific, Miss Miss Katherine.' Budge said, suddenly entering the conversation for the first time. 'What's his name?'
He'd been hovering just inside the door, watching the exchange in silence for some time. It was after all Steele's fight, not his. But the ruby interested him. It was stolen, and as an agent of the law, it was his duty to recover it if he could.
She glanced at him, her eyes narrowing. 'Why should I tell you? What's your angle in all this?'
'He's an associate.' Remington said quickly. 'Rather like Hans.'
'Well, let's hope he doesn't end up with a knife in his back.' Katherine retorted tartly before saying grudgingly. 'His name is Rinaldo Bertucci. I don't know whether he's an actual prince or not, but he likes to call himself one. He's very rich and that's all I cared about when I made the deal with him. Stefan and I arrived in Venice yesterday morning, and I handed the rock over to him last night. I suspect the ruby is safe within the Prince's palazzo. Any more questions, Mr. Steele?'
'Any chance those goons downstairs belong to him?
His question seemed to surprise her. It was obviously something she'd not considered.
'It's possible.' She admitted slowly. 'But I can't imagine why they'd be after me. I kept my part of the deal. I delivered the goods as promised.'
'Did you?' Remington murmured.
He glanced at Budge and saw that the man's mind was going in the same direction as his.
'Of course, I did.' Katherine was saying angrily. 'You act as though I have no honor at all.'
Remington didn't bother to answer. He'd leave the question of Katherine's honor to Laura. She had always had more faith in humans than he had. 'Come on.' He said, grabbing Katherine's arm and pulling her up and off the sofa. 'Get packed. You're coming with us.'
'I'm staying here.' She retorted.
'That's not one of your options.' Remington told her. 'You can take your clothes or you can go as you are. Either way you are going.'
Katherine studied him for a moment or two and then turned on her heel and marched into the bedroom.
He looked at Budge. 'I'm going downstairs to check Mr. and Mrs. Steele out. Keep on eye on her. That's the type that climbs out windows.'
Silently Budge joined Katherine in the bedroom.
Twenty minutes later, Remington saw a familiar figure slip through the hotel doors. He'd been expecting an escape attempt. Katherine and Laura shared more than a face. They shared an indomitable spirit and a quick mind. Like Laura, she wouldn't accept defeat easily.
As he detached himself from the dock where he'd been securing them transportation, he wondered what she'd done with Budge. Visions of the Inspector tied hand and foot to the bed frame with bras floated through his mind, and he quickly shoved it aside. That was an image he did not want bouncing around in his head. It was nearly as ghastly as the one of Lady Hepplewhite as the goddess of love.
'Nice afternoon for a stroll, isn't it, Katherine?' He asked, gliding silently up beside her.
She turned on him, clearly annoyed. 'You're one hell of a pest.'
'Thank you. I work very hard at it.'
He took her arm to guide her back to the hotel but was stopped by someone stepping into their path. It was one of the Armani suits. The feel of something hard and round being shoved into his back announced the arrival of his partner.
'Come along.' The Armani behind them growled. 'The Prince wants to see you.'
Just as he suspected, Remington thought as they left the motorboat and walked along the dock toward the large, sprawling building. It was a blooming fortress. All these billionaires were the same. Once a rock went in, it was nearly impossible to get it out. Fortunately it looked as though the Tiger's Heart ruby had never found its way in despite what Katherine claimed.
Something must have gone wrong with the delivery. And it couldn't have happened to a nicer person, he mused as they were herded up stone steps, beneath a massive portico supported by large, Doric columns and into a dim, marble-floored foyer. They stood just inside the door as one of the Armani brothers peeled off and disappeared into the shadows. He returned a few minutes later and motioned them forward.
The room they were ushered into was bright and airy. The far end was lined with windows and a pair of French doors opened outward, letting in a cooling breeze. It was heavy with the scent of the sea. Beyond the doors was a crystal clear pool surrounded by a patio full of various blooming plants. At one corner sat a table surrounded by chairs and shaded by a bright yellow umbrella. They were steered toward it.
As they approached a man emerged from an alcove of laurel trees. He was lean and dark and moved with languid grace. His white suit was dazzling in the sunlight, a sharp contrast to his dark eyes that watched them with the intensely of a rattler. This was no doddering old fool, Remington decided. But, of course, he hadn't expected him to be. Men who purchased stolen goods knew exactly what they were doing.
'Caterina,' the man said, his voice low and husky, 'how good of you to visit me again.'
'I didn't have much choice.' Katherine said with a glance at the two men flanking them.
'I apologize, cara mia, but I did not think you would come otherwise.' He glanced at the two men. 'You may leave us, Angelo, Giovanni.' As the men departed, his eyes slid to Remington. 'The invitation was for Caterina alone. Who might you be, Signore?'
Remington opened his mouth to answer, but Katherine cut him off. 'This is Stefan. He's a close associate of mine and is fully aware of our arrangement. Have no fear, Rinaldo, he's trustworthy.'
The Prince continued to eye him suspiciously. 'Why wasn't he with you last night?'
'It's my deal, not his.' Katherine said, her voice hard. 'Your gorillas brought him along by mistake. Perhaps you need to train them better.'
'I'll keep that in mind.' Rinaldo murmured before waving a slender hand toward the table. 'Please be seated.' He walked over to a cart and picked up a pitcher full of a pale yellow liquid. 'Would you care for some lemonade?'
'No.' Katherine said flatly.
The Prince, however, did not listen to her. He placed a frosty glass in front of her and then Remington before taking a seat across from them. He lifted his glass. 'Cin cin!'
Only Remington joined him in his salute. Katherine sat as still as a stone, staring at him with hard, brown eyes.
He placed his glass on the table, leaned back in his chair and smiled charmingly. 'Ah, you don't like lemonade, eh? I apologize, Caterina, that I can't offer you something stronger. You see, I do not keep alcohol in my palazzo, not even wine. It befuddles the mind, and I like mine clear and active.'
'I'm not interested in drinking.' Katherine retorted. 'I'm interested in knowing why you brought me here.'
'Ah. That.' The Prince said mysteriously.
'I was under the impression that we completed our business arrangement last night.' Katherine persisted. 'We had a deal, and I fulfilled my part of it.'
'Did you?' The Prince asked, picking up his glass. He held it up, gazing at the pale liquid in the sunlight. With his eyes on the glass he said almost absently. 'A funny thing happened this morning, Caterina. An associate of mine visited me, a gemologist, and I had him take a look at the ruby you gave me. Do you know what he said?'
'Enlighten me.' Katherine said.
'He said the ruby was a fake.' The glass suddenly came crashing down and his eyes locked onto Katherine's face. Although his eyes were black with fury, his voice remained cool. 'Have you double crossed me, cara mia?'
'No, of course, not!' Katherine exclaimed. 'I gave you the ruby I was paid to secure.'
'I have taken the liberty of calling my banker and having the wire to your Swiss bank account recalled. There will be no payment, signorina, until I have the Tiger's Heart ruby in my possession.'
'But I gave you the ruby.' Katherine insisted. 'If it's fake, then it was a fake when I stole it. I don't double cross my clients.'
'If that's true, then you should know your merchandize better. An experienced thief would know a fake from the real thing.'
'Do you still have the ruby?' Remington suddenly asked.
The Prince seemed momentarily taken aback as though he'd forgotten his presence. 'Yes, of course.'
'May I see it?'
'To what purpose?'
'To verify that what you're telling us is true.' When the Prince frowned, he said easily. 'I don't mean to offend, mate, but how do we know that you're not double crossing us? We'd be fools not to verify your claim.'
There was a silence as the Prince considered his request, then he got to his feet, motioning them to follow. 'It's in my study.'
They followed him through the French doors. Going over to a large, mahogany desk, the Prince opened a drawer and removed a steel box, which he opened with a key from his pocket. He removed the ruby and handed it to Remington who held it up to the light. Within seconds he was handing it back.
'Your associate was quite correct. It's a magnificent fake.'
'But that's ridiculous!' Katherine exclaimed, her cheeks flushed with anger. 'I tell you it's the ruby I stole. It's never been out of my sight.'
'Never?' Remington asked.
She started to answer but as interrupted by Angelo entering the room. 'Esuca, Principe. There's a telephone call for you. He says it's important.'
The Prince hesitated for a moment and then locked the steel box and returned it to the drawer. At the door he stopped, turning back to look at Katherine and Remington. 'We'll finish this conversation later.'
'And in the meantime?' Katherine asked.
'In the meantime, Angelo will show you to your quarters.'
What had he said to Laura a few weeks ago? Something about another nice mess? Well, this one took first prize, Remington decided as he stood with his neck and wrists locked into a wooden pillory. At least in Cheswick's chalet, he's had Laura by his side. Down here in the Prince's dungeon all he had was Katherine, and she was a pretty poor substitute even if she did look like Laura.
His eyes went to his cell mate. She was struggling against her bonds again, cursing under her breath as the heavy ropes dug into her wrists and ankles. What did she have to complain about? At least she was lying down, stretched across 'the rack'. He was standing and getting one hell of a crick in his back. 15th Century prisoners must have been much shorter.
'It's useless to struggle.' He told her. 'Those ropes are meant to rip limbs from their sockets. Nothing you can do will weaken them.'
She looked down her body at him, glaring. 'You don't mind if I keep at it, do you? It makes me feel better.'
'I don't mind, but if you keep carrying on like that you'll disturb the rats.'
'Rats?' She squeaked.
'Most dungeons have them.'
She stopped struggling. 'He's going to kill me, you know.'
'You should have considered that before you double crossed him.'
'I didn't double cross him!' She insisted angrily. 'I gave him the ruby I took from the safe.'
'Are you sure?'
'Of course, I'm sure. It never left my sight.' There was a pause and then she added. 'And just for the record, hotshot, I do know the difference between a real ruby and a fake one. The one I stole was real, damn real.'
'Then someone must have switched rubies on you.'
'The only people with access to that ruby were me and Stefan.'
'What about Hans?'
She shook her head. 'He was never alone with the ruby, not even the day he was killed. I carried it with me constantly.
There was a pause and then Remington said quietly. 'Then that leave only one person.'
'Stefan didn't do it.' Her denial was instantaneous.
'Are you sure?' He persisted.
'Of course. Stefan and I are very close.'
'It's none of your business.' She snapped.
'I'll take that for a yes.'
They fell into silence. Only the drip-drip of water somewhere nearby broke the oppressive stillness.
Finally Katherine's voice came out of the dimness. 'Stefan wouldn't do that. I know he wouldn't.'
Who was she trying to convince, Remington wondered. Herself or him?
'People in your profession aren't exactly trustworthy.' He said grimly. 'I've always found it best to trust their actions, not their words.'
'What do you know about my profession?' She demanded.
'Quite a lot actually.'
'I don't ' She stopped abruptly as a noise came out of the shadows around them.
Was Angelo coming back for them? They held their breaths, waiting. The noise came again. It sounded as though someone was trying to wrest metal from stone. Remington's eyes went to the metal grate almost directly above Katherine. It provided the only outside light into the dungeon, and that light had disappeared hours ago. To his astonishment and great delight, Budge's head appeared at the opening.
'Budge!' He exclaimed. 'How'd you find us? Is Laura with you?'
Budge slithered through the opening and dropped lightly to the floor. 'I followed you.' He cast a glance at Katherine as he passed on his way to Remington. 'After I escaped from the closet, of course. I would have come sooner but I thought it best to wait until dark.'
'What about Laura? Is she with you?'
'I'm assuming Mrs. Steele is at the pensione as indicated in her note.' Budge studied the pillory. 'Looks as though you're in the headlock now. Dreadful thing. Do you have the key?'
'If I had the key, would I still have my head stuck in here?' Remington demanded irritably. 'You'll have to pick the lock.'
'Right.' Budge said, fishing a pick set from his jacket. 'I'll have you out in a jiffy.' Four broken picks later, he admitted. 'Never was much good at this.'
'You wouldn't happen to have a crowbar, would you?' Remington asked hopefully. 'Bolt cutters perhaps? Plastic explosives?'
'Afraid not, Mr. Steele. I don't carry non regulation equipment.'
'How about a pocketknife?' Katherine called from across the room. 'If you cut me loose, I can pick the lock.'
Budge and Remington exchanged glances. Neither one of them trusted her, but there appeared to be no option.
Sawing through the rope took time, and it didn't help matters to have Katherine continually hissing 'hurry' in Budge's ear. Her presence seemed to unnerve him. But finally the last rope broke. Instantly she was up and heading for the door, calling over her shoulder. 'Sorry, Steele, but it's me he wants, not you.'
'I wouldn't do that if I were you.' Budge said, his voice taking on a hard note.
Remington gaped. He'd never heard the man sound so commanding.
Katherine must have heard the new tone too for she turned, a look of disdain on her face. 'And why not? Are you going to stop me, Budgie?'
He pulled a gun from his jeans and aimed it at her. 'As a matter of fact, I am.'
'You wouldn't dare.'
'I assure you I would. I'm a cop. It's what I do. Now get over here and release Steele.'
She wavered, indecision on her face, and then complied. If he fired the gun as well as he picked locks, one of them was bound to get killed, and she liked her life too much to take the risk. Taking the last pick from him, she worked the lock and freed Remington.
'Good work, Budge.' Remington said, rubbing his wrists. 'I'm impressed. Now how do we get out of here?'
'Back through the grate.'
By mutual consent Katherine went last. They wanted no chance of her escaping while they helped the other through the opening, and they were sure she'd followed since it was clear she did not want to be left behind. Once they had hauled her out, they crouched against the wall of the palazzo, surveying their surroundings.
'I've got a motorboat down along the shore.' Budge whispered. 'I didn't dare tie it up at the docks. It's being watched.'
With Katherine between them, they ran lightly across the grass, keeping low to the ground. Remington couldn't help but be impressed by the chap. Here he and Laura had thought him a bumbling fool, and he just pull off a dungeon break. His admiration was short-lived, however, for when they reached the shore, the boat was nowhere to be found.
'I thought you said there was a boat.' Katherine hissed.
'There was.' Budge insisted. 'I left it right here. See. Here's the rope.'
'Was the other end tied to the boat?' Katherine asked.
'Of course. What do you take me for? A fool?'
'Do you really want me to answer that question?'
'Katherine,' Remington said, his voice hard, 'if you say one more word, we're leaving you here.'
'You wouldn't dare.' She stated. 'You need me to clear your precious Laura.'
'All I need is the ruby, which you don't have. Your usefulness is running out, pet.' His eyes went to the dock, calculating their chances. 'We'll have to take one of their boats.'
'And how do you propose to do that, hotshot?' Katherine asked scornfully. 'Walk right up to them and say hi, I'm here to borrow one of your boats? Brilliant plan.'
'I'm not going to walk up to them.' Remington said easily. 'You are.'
'Ever heard of a sacrificial lamb?'
'Once. A very long time ago.'
'Maybe that's what's wrong with you.' Remington noted before saying. 'You'll cause enough of a distraction to give us an opportunity to take them by surprise.'
She was reluctant but in the end she complied. She really didn't have much of a choice, Remington thought as he and Budge crouched nearby, watching Katherine saunter up to the men. They held the cards, and she was smart enough to know it. Of course, that didn't mean she was beaten. She'd wait for her opportunity, and then she'd strike.
Katherine's appearance caused the distraction Remington had hoped for. While Giovanni and the other man questioned her, demanding to know how she'd came to be there Remington and Budge fell upon them, landing punches that knocked the men to their feet.
The sound of an engine growling to life caught their attention, alerting them that Katherine had not been idle. There was no doubt in their minds that she would have left without them if they hadn't thrown themselves onto the boat just as it roared away, sending a plume of water up behind it like a geyser.
Within minutes they heard the sound of pursuit and then the sound of gunfire. Katherine shoved the accelerator to maximum speed, sending the boat bouncing over the waves, almost skimming the top like a skipping rock.
'There's a light up there!' Remington yelled.
'I see it!' She yelled back.
The light, a single flasher, came closer and closer until they were on top of it. At the last moment, Katherine jerked the wheel to the side, barely missing a buoy. The boat teetered precariously, nearly becoming parallel to the water. Remington quickly grabbed the side, but Budge wasn't as lucky. He'd been watching behind them and was taken unaware by the sudden movement. He tumbled into the water.
'Bloody hell!' Remington swore. 'Budge fell overboard! Turn around! We've got to go get him!'
'Are you crazy?' Katherine shouted. 'They're shooting at us!'
'We can't leave him there.' Remington insisted. 'It's dark, and he's miles from shore. Turn this boat around.'
'I was right about you.' Remington said, his voice harsh and biting. 'You're one cold-hearted dame. The man saves your bloody neck, and you're perfectly content to leave him behind. Don't you ever think of anybody but yourself?'
She didn't answer. Nor did she make any move to change the course of the boat. And he had counseled Laura to give this woman a fair hearing? He must have been out of his bloody mind. He was about ready to forcibly remove her from the wheel when she suddenly threw the boat into a sharp turn.
'I swear, Steele, if I get shot for that man, I'll never let you forget it. I'll haunt you until your dying day.'
'Thanks for warning me.' He said. 'I'll be sure to hire a damn good exorcist.'
Laura was beginning to worry. It was nearly 11 o'clock, and Remington had still not returned to the pensione. Neither had Budge. She had felt some relief knowing he had Budge with him, but it hadn't lasted very long. Budge, after all, wasn't exactly Dirty Harry. Heck, he wasn't even Barney Miller. Upon reaching that conclusion she'd decided to take matters into her own hands. She'd called the biggest, most glamorous hotels in Venice until she'd found Lady Hepplewhite.
Not that that lady had been much help. Yes, Mr. Steele had been with her, delightful man, but he'd left hours ago, and no, she didn't know where he'd gone. Then she'd launched into the Spanish Inquisition. It seemed Lady Hepplewhite was exceedingly curious about the woman who'd managed to snag one of L.A.'s most eligible bachelors. Laura had only escaped by promising to attend a masquerade the following evening. It looked as though the purchase of those masks was providential.
She had then visited the Hotel Foirenza herself. Once again, the hotel clerk had confirmed that Mr. Steele had indeed been there that afternoon. In fact, he'd checked himself and his wife out. Laura had nearly choked. Did you say he and his wife? Oh, yes, Signora. The Steeles had been guests, stayed in room 280. She had thanked the clerk and immediately headed for the elevators.
What she'd found in the room had only increased her anxiety. The closet door in the bedroom had been forced and a chair, probably from the nearby vanity, was lying in bits and pieces. She had checked the dressers as well as the closet and found them full of clothing. The women's was her size and style, but the men's? She shook her head as she held up a white shirt with open collar and full, balloon-like sleeves. Remington wouldn't be caught dead in such a thing.
So who did they belong to? Who had posed as Mr. and Mrs. Steele? Her first thought was of Katherine, but who was the man? Hans had a knife in his back, and Cheswick was a prisoner in his chalet. The only other option was Stefan unless Katherine hadn't been lying about the magazine writer.
When she could find no other clues to their possible whereabouts, she'd returned the pensione and waited. Eight hours later she was still waiting and getting more and more anxious. She had never handled inaction well.
The opening of the door caught her attention. She turned. Remington was standing just inside the room, looking terrible and wonderful at the same time. His hair was an untidy mess, his clothing wrinkled and damp? But he was the most wonderful sight she'd ever seen. He held open his arms and she rushed into them.
'Remington!' She sighed as relief poured through her. 'Where have you been? I've been worried sick.'
'Laura baby ' Remington breathed against her hair, hugging her close, 'my God, you're a sight for sore eyes.'
He pulled away, taking her face between his hands. His eyes searched her face for a second or two before he lowered his mouth to hers. It started out soft and gentle, as light as a butterfly, but quickly deepened into something frantic and needy. Their breathing became ragged, and Laura wondered why he didn't toss her on the bed and finish what he'd started. Instead he pulled away to look down at her once again.
'What was that for?'
'Because you are Laura.'
She frowned. 'Why do you keep saying that?'
'You'll understand any moment now.'
'What ' She stiffened as her eyes went past him to the open doorway. Budge stood on the threshold and beside him was her eyes went back to Remington. 'Katherine?'
'On a silver platter.'
Laura took one more look at the woman, turned on her heel and marched into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
Remington stared at the closed door, momentarily speechless. He'd imagined all kinds of reactions from Laura when she first saw Katherine again but not this one. He looked at Katherine and Budge.
'Ah, I'll just ' he made a motion toward the bathroom, 'see what's up. Budge, if you'd ah keep an eye on ' he made a motion toward Katherine, 'I'll be right back I think.'
Laura turned as the bathroom door opened and closed. 'I suppose you think I'm crazy for running off like that.'
Remington shoved his hands in his pockets and considered this question. 'I admit that I'm a little confused by your reaction. I was expecting something more along the lines of death and dismemberment.'
'That's just it.' Laura said, her voice husky with emotion. 'I was so angry, so infuriated when I saw her that I ' she threw up her hands, 'I had to leave before I went for her throat.'
'No one would blame you if you did.' Remington said. 'Actually I know two or three that would applaud.'
She looked at him sharply. 'What do you mean?'
'Well,' Remington said, seating himself on the rim of the tub, 'Cheswick would certainly like to see her neck stretched and after being in her company for the last nine hours, both Budge and I would enjoy seeing her boiled in her own pudding. But I think the Prince, the man whose hospitality I've just had the honor of enjoying, would be more than willing to perform the feat for you. She'd not a loveable person, Laura. In fact, she's Jezebel reincarnated.'
'Surely she's not that bad.'
'She's that bad.'
She decided to ignore this and asked. 'Who's the Prince?'
'Her client, the man she sold the ruby to.'
'I don't understand. If she sold him the ruby, why does he want to kill her?'
'Because the ruby she handed over was a fake.'
'Are you sure?'
Remington looked offended. 'Please, Laura, if there's one thing I know, it's jewels. It was a very good copy, excellent in fact, but a copy all the same.'
'So she double crossed him.'
'He thinks so.'
'And you don't?'
'As much as I'm loath to say so, no, I don't think she double crossed him. I'll even go so far as to say that I think she's the one that's been double crossed. The deceiver has become the deceived. Poetic justice, eh?'
Laura struggled to control the surge of satisfaction she received from this news. She, like Cheswick, had longed for revenge, and now she'd gotten it, and she hadn't even had to lift a finger. Fate had stepped in and dealt with Jezebel once again. Still she felt guilty for rejoicing. She ought to show some kind of concern, shouldn't she?
'So,' she said, sitting down beside him, 'who's the deceiver? Anyone we know?'
'Stefan. He switched the rubies on her.'
'They're lovers.' Remington said flatly. 'According to her, she and Stefan were the only ones near that ruby since she stole it. Logically, he's the only explanation, but at the moment, she's not buying it.'
'But that's ridiculous.' Laura exclaimed, jumping up and pacing from the tub to the sink and back again. She sat back down. Pacing didn't have its usual calming effect when she had to step over Remington's feet. 'If he's the only possibility then she has to believe it.'
'Not if she's in love with him.'
Remington looked at her, his eyes grave. 'Love is a dangerous thing, Laura. It makes us believe in people that are unworthy of our trust. It makes lady detectives take chances on cut rate con men. It only works out if the cut rate con man is bitten by the same bug. Somehow I don't think that's the case with our dear Stefan. She's been had, Laura, plain and simple. Cheswick will be delighted.'
'Then you believe Stefan has the Tiger Heart's ruby.'
'And she might know where to find him.'
'Do you think after conning her, he's going to stick around?' Remington shook his head. 'Not a chance.'
'Then we've lost the ruby.'
'Unless a miracle falls into our laps, I'd say you've got it just about right.'
A knock suddenly came at the door, and then Budge's voice came through the panels. 'Mr. Steele? Mrs. Steele? It's getting late, and we've got to uh decide what to do with our captive. She's getting restless.'
'Poor Budge.' Remington muttered, getting up.
Laura's eyebrows shot upwards. 'That's certainly a change of attitude since this morning when you were content to let Lady Hepplewhite pummel him to death.'
'Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. The Tempest, Act II, Scene II.'
They left the bathroom and entered the bedroom where Katherine and Budge were waiting in uneasy silence, she draped across a chair and he standing near the door as though ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.
'You can't keep me here.' Katherine said, her expression mutinous.
'Where would you go?' Laura asked coolly. 'The Prince will be watching the hotel.'
Katherine shrugged. 'There are other hotels.'
'You'd be safer if you stayed with us.'
'In other words, you don't want me to pop off before I can clear your name. Your concern is touching.'
Laura struggled to control her temper. 'Look, we both want the ruby. It's the key to clearing my name and getting you out of hot water with this so-called Prince. It would benefit us both if we joined forces, seeing as how neither one of us has any idea where the Tiger Heart is.'
Budge cleared his throat. 'Actually, we do.'
'What?' Laura asked, swinging around.
'I don't know the actual location of the ruby, but I do know the Prince was contacted regarding it this afternoon.'
'Budge!' Remington said, his admiration returning. 'You're amazing. How did you manage to undercover that juicy tidbit?'
'While I was waiting to release you and Katherine, I overheard a conversation between the Prince and one of his associates, Angelo, I believe he called him. A Mr. Bauer had called, offering the ruby.'
'Did you say Mr. Bauer?' Laura asked sharply.
'I'm fairly certain that's the name, yes.'
Remington's eyes were on her. 'Does that name mean something to you, Laura?'
'A Mr. Bauer contacted the monks of St. Eloy and offered them the ruby.' She then quickly related to them her visit with Abbot Pisani. 'I assumed that Hans was Mr. Bauer, but since Hans is dead that would be impossible, wouldn't it?' She looked at Budge. 'Did you hear anything else?'
'The Prince is to meet Mr. Bauer tomorrow night at a casini off the Rio Dei Greci canal. He is to come dressed in a Bauta mask with a red feather in his hat. It's reasonable to assume that the red feather is a sign to the guard at the door to let him in.'
Laura looked at Remington. He knew that gleam in her eye. It usually meant she had, in her opinion, a brilliant plan. 'Looks like a miracle just fell into our laps, Mr. Steele.' She went over to a chair, reached in a paper bag and pulled out a white mask. 'Here's the mask. All we need now is a hat and red feather.' She looked at the Inspector. 'Brilliant work, Budge.'
His ears turned red again. 'I'm glad to be of assistance, Mrs. Steele I mean, Laura.'
The red ears had not gone unnoticed by either Remington or Katherine.
'And what about me?' Katherine asked, her voice as crisp as green apples. 'Am I free to go now?'
Laura looked at her. 'I think you'd better spend the night. I'm sure Budge won't mind sharing his room with you.'
Both Katherine and Budge gaped at her.
Budge was the first to find his voice. 'Do you think that's wise?'
'Well, she can't stay in our room. There's nowhere for her to sleep. You've got a double bed.'
'But ' he stopped and then tried again, 'she'll be out the door as soon as my eyes are closed. It'll be impossible to detain her.'
'Oh, I don't know about that.' Laura said, coming over to him. She took his arm and led him over to Katherine. As quick as a flash, she produced a pair of handcuffs, which she snapped onto their wrists. 'There. That should stop her from wandering.'
'Now just a minute ' Katherine said, finally finding her voice. 'There are laws against this kind of stuff.'
'Laws, Katherine?' Laura asked with the lift of one dark brow. 'When did you start caring about laws?' She gave the couple a gentle but firm shove toward the door. 'Pleasant dreams.'
Shutting the door behind them, she turned to Remington who had already removed his jacket and tie and was currently working on the buttons of his shirt. He had a slight smile on his face.
'Poor Budge.' He murmured. 'I'd rather sleep with a rattlesnake.'
'Then it's a good thing you're sleeping with me or I might have put her in your bed.'
'Perish the thought.'
Laura came over to him and slipped her arms around his neck. She looked up at him curiously. 'Such a prospect doesn't appeal you at all, Mr. Steele? She looks like me, you know.'
'I told you before, Laura, that I would know immediately who it was I held in my arms. There's no comparison, I assure you.'
'I'm glad to hear it.' She murmured, her eyes on his mouth. 'If I remember right we made a deal this morning. Something to do with fans, wasn't it?'
'Among other things.' His voice sounded dark and smoky.
It sent a tingle up her spine, which became an electric charge when his hands found their way beneath her shirt. With a flick of his fingers, he released her bra. Such talented fingers, she thought as his hands cupped her. She leaned into him, raising her mouth for his kiss.
Several minutes later she sat bolt upright on the bed. 'I almost forgot.'
Remington groaned as she scrambled off the bed and disappeared into the shadows. She always bolted just when things were getting pleasantly heated up. In the old days, he'd always let her go. Now that he was her husband, he wasn't going to let her escape so easily.
'Laura?' He called.
'Just a minute.'
He frowned at the sound of rustling paper? Rising up on an elbow, he peered into the darkness and nearly went off like a ballistic missile when she emerged into the moonlight streaming through the balcony windows. She wore nothing but a silver and blue mask.
'Ah, I don't remember masks being part of the deal, Laura.' He said, his voice sounding ragged.
'It's Carnival, Mr. Steele.' She said, gliding toward him. 'We ought to get into the spirit of the season, don't you think?'
'I'm not opposed to being festive.'
'That's the spirit.' She said, placed a shapely knee beside his hip. 'This is the Diana mask.' She told him as she straddled him. 'She's the goddess of the hunt.'
'Was she? How invigorating.'
She looked at him through the slits of her mask. 'Do you hunt, Mr. Steele?'
'I've ridden with the hounds once or twice.' He admitted.
'Shall we ride the fox to ground then?'
'I have one word for you, Laura.' Remington said, placing his hands on her hips.
'And what would that be?' She breathed.
Budge woke with his nose pressed into something soft and sweet-smelling. He lay for a moment, breathing deeply, wondering what this delightful substance was. A cloud? A mink coat? Finally when he had exhausted all reasonable and not so reasonable guesses, he opened his eyes and found himself looking at hair, dark brown hair to be exact.
Reality hit him in like a tidal wave. Katherine. She was sharing the bed with him. Upon further inspection he discovered that she was lying on top of him, their handcuffed arms flung out to one side as though they'd been dancing the tango. Her other arm was wrapped around his neck and his was he felt heat come to his ears and hurriedly removed the offending appendage.
His sudden movement roused her, and she lifted her head. Looking first to the right and then the left, her eyes finally came to rest upon his face. She blinked like a sleepy hedgehog and then a slow smile spread across her face. 'Hi'ya Budgie. Sleep well?'
'Tolerably.' He answered stiffly.
'I'm not accustomed to being a mattress.'
'Pity.' She said. 'You make a fairly good one.'
Budge felt the heat rise to his ears again. 'Would you mind moving?'
She considered this, tilting her head to one side. 'What time is it?'
'Judging from the sunlight coming through the window, I'd estimate the time to be around 8 o'clock.'
She abruptly dropped her head back down on his shoulder. He grimaced as the fragrant cloud of hair returned. It was most distracting. 'Sorry, Budgie. I never get up until at least ten.'
He stoically stared up at the ceiling through the screen of hair. Never had he met a woman so so unconventional. The women he'd dated did not sleep on top of strange men and they certainly didn't go back to sleep when asked to vacate the premises. Desperate measures where obviously called for.
Using the hand he'd recently removed from her person, he grasped her side and shoved. She went rolling off. Free at last he quit the bed as fast as his legs would move. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten the handcuffs. As soon as he'd gained his footing, he went tumbling back onto the bed as though attached by a giant rubber band.
She propped her head up in her hand and smiled down at him. 'You're terribly jumpy.' There was a pause and then she drawled. 'When's the last time you woke up with a woman in your bed?'
'One night in my bed doesn't give you the right to ask.' He retorted, glancing around the room a bit frantically. Where in the bloody hell were those keys?
'What about two nights?'
'There won't be a second night.'
'You seem awfully sure of that, Budgie.'
'I am.' He declared.
His eyes had finally spied the keys. They were on the dresser near the door. He'd put them there last night, knowing Katherine would have to wake him in order to get at them. If she hadn't kept prattling on about his bed partners, he would have remembered that sooner. Blast her.
'You know, you're kind of cute when you're flustered.'
'I'm not flustered.' He snapped.
'There's no need to get huffy.' Katherine said. 'I've already got a guy so your honor is safe with me.'
'I'm relieved.' He muttered before glancing at the dresser. 'The keys to these cuffs are on that dresser over there. If you'll come along, I'll get them and release us.'
He was surprised when she sat up and scooted across the bed until she was sitting beside him. He'd been expecting more wisecracks, more taunts. She seemed to enjoy needling him. He got up, expecting her to follow, but she suddenly jerked at the cuffs, sending him reeling backwards. He fell across the bed again, and before he knew it she was upon him, not to strangle him but to kiss him!
After a minute or two she raised her head and looked down at him. 'Thanks, Budgie.'
'For what?' He asked, dazed.
'For letting me kiss you.' She said. 'I've never kissed a cop before. It was interesting.'
Interesting, he thought forty minutes later as he followed her down the stairs to the breakfast parlor. He had a better word for it. Devastating.
Laura watched Budge put another teaspoon of sugar into his cappuccino. For him to put sugar in cappuccino was interesting in itself, but after six teaspoons it must be nearing the consistency of molasses. What was wrong with the man? He was acting spooked. There was no other word for it.
She glanced at Katherine. Nothing unusual there. She was as cool as a cucumber, not a hair out of place, looking wonderfully fresh for someone without a change of clothing. Yet she paused, considering yet there was a look on Katherine's face, a self-satisfied look that reminded Laura of a cat who had just gotten the cream. Had something happened between Budge and Katherine?
If it had, then handcuffing them together had been a terrible mistake. The last thing she wanted to do was saddle Budge with a woman like Katherine. Budge was well, Budge was Budge, goofy but in an endearing sort of way. And Katherine well, numerous adjectives came to mind; none of them good. Treacherous liar, cheap crook, cut rate she stopped, frowning.
No, she told herself, Katherine was nothing like Remington. They might have shared a profession, but that's where the similarities ended. She would not let her heart soften as it had with Remington. No, Katherine was a modern day Jezebel and whatever spell she'd cast over Budge must be broken. It was time to have that talk she'd been avoiding.
She looked at Remington. 'You'll need a hat and cape for tonight. Why don't you and Budge go buy them?'
Remington paused with his teacup halfway to his mouth. Spending more time with Budge was not on his agenda. 'Budge?' He echoed. 'Don't you think it would be better if he watched Katherine while we ' he winced. A foot has just connected with his shin. 'Yes, of course, we'll do that. Right after I finish ' his shin took another direct hit, 'why don't we do that right now? No time like the present, eh?'
'Excellent idea.' Laura said with a smile.
'Come along, Budge.' Remington said, getting to his feet and limping over to the Inspector. 'Venice awaits.'
'Awaits what?' Budge asked, looking up from his cappuccino.
'I'll explain in the gondola.'
As soon as the men had left the room, Laura turned to Katherine. 'What did you do to Budge?'
'I slept in his bed.' Katherine said coolly. 'Isn't that what you wanted? You're the one that put the cuffs on us.'
Laura ignored her taunt. 'What else did you do?'
'What makes you think I did anything to him?'
'Most people don't put six teaspoons of sugar in their cappuccino. He's obviously distracted.'
'Do you think so?' Katherine asked with that catlike smile.
'Katherine ' Laura drawled warningly.
'Oh, very well, if you must know,' Katherine declared, leaning back in her chair, 'I kissed him. Right on the lips. Shocking, isn't it?'
'Because I'd never kissed a cop before.'
There was a pause and then Laura said quietly. 'Leave him alone, Katherine. He's not in your league.'
'Meaning he's a cop and I'm a thief and the two don't mix?'
'Meaning you use people like Kleenex. Once they've serve their purpose you toss them aside. I don't want him getting hurt. He's a nice guy. Besides,' Laura said, sending her a sidelong glance, 'what about Stefan?'
Katherine shrugged. 'What about him?'
'Remington seemed to think there's something between the two of you.'
'Well, he's wrong.'
'He's not often wrong about these things. He can sniff out an affair de coeur as easily as I can sniff out a murder. And in this particular case it appears that we have both, a murder and a love affair. What else do we have, I wonder? Oh, yes, we mustn't forget deceit. That's the underlying theme, isn't it?'
She had tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but it was there all the same. Darn! Why did she care? Was it just her inbred dislike of playing the chump or was it something else? What made her like this woman despite what she'd done?
Katherine's voice broke into her thoughts. 'I didn't set you up.'
'I don't believe you.'
'I did use you to put Trevor behind bars, but it wasn't my plan to have you arrested for the theft of the ruby. As far as I was concerned, our association was over. You'd served your purpose. Just like a Kleenex.'
Laura hid her annoyance at having her own metaphor flung back at her. 'Then who put my fingerprints all over that safe?'
'I don't know.'
She didn't want to believe her. She'd believed Katherine before and had ended up behind bars. Yet Laura felt herself weakening. What if she was telling the truth? That opened up all kinds of questions. If not Katherine, then who? And why?
Then a thought struck her. Had she ever actually seen the fingerprints? No, she had just taken the police's word for it. After all, if you couldn't trust the police, then who could you trust? Why would they deceive her? Besides, the whole police division would have to be in on it as well as Commissioner Milbank. Crooked cops? Possibly but not likely.
She went back to her original suspect. 'What about Stefan. Could he have done it?'
Katherine shook her head. 'I did the job by myself. Stefan and Hans left while I stayed behind to complete my business with Trevor and steal the ruby.'
'But Stefan and Hans knew why you stayed behind?'
'And there was nothing preventing Stefan from being in St. Moritz when you stole the ruby. You might have thought he was gone, but he could just have easily stayed.' Laura said thoughtfully. 'When did you meet back up with Stefan?'
'The day we found Hans in my room. We'd made arrangements to meet at a café not far from the hotel.' She suddenly leaned forward, her expression intense. 'I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to make Stefan out to be a murderer.'
'I'm just gathering information and formulating theories.' Laura told her. 'For someone who's not serious about him, you seem awfully anxious to convince me of his innocence.'
'He's not a murderer.'
'But he's not above switching rubies, right?'
Katherine turned her head away, obviously preferring not to comment.
Laura waited for a moment and then said quietly. 'If you're so certain of his innocence, then help us find him.'
'That's just it.' It was Katherine's turn to sound bitter. 'I'm not certain, damn it.'
'Either way the best thing to do is help us find him.' Laura persisted. 'Isn't it better to know than not know? The truth is always better than a lie, no matter how painful.'
Katherine's eyes swung back to her. They were fierce like the eyes of a wounded tigress. 'What do you know about it?'
'I know a few things about lies.'
'You?' Katherine sneered. 'You've got the perfect life. A successful career, a man who worships the ground you walk on. You've probably got a nice, respectable family back home in L.A. What do you know about stealing and lying just to make a living? Believe me, honey, life looks a whole lot different on the other side of the tracks.'
Laura considered answering but decided against it. It was best to give her some time to think, to sort out her feelings for Stefan and what he'd done, to process the pain of finding oneself the deceived rather than the deceiver.
She pushed back her chair and stood up. 'Think about it. What you decide could change your life. In the meantime,' she said on a brighter note, 'let's go shopping.'
'We need costumes for tonight's adventure, and I know the perfect shop.'
On the Rooftops
Ribbons of fog swirled eerily around the gondola as it drifted slowly down the Rio Dei Greci canal. The only sound came from the oar dipping in and out of the water and the gentle slide of the boat as it plowed forward, seeking its destination. The occupants of the gondola looked like characters from a bygone age, their attire elaborate and fanciful, the stuff of mystery and intrigue.
'I feel ridiculous.' Remington muttered. 'A grown man playing dress up. Appalling.'
'Everybody plays dress up during Carnival.' Laura told him, her voice low as though she were afraid of disturbing someone. 'Just pretend you're the Phantom of the Opera.'
Remington considered this and felt a little less aggrieved at being decked out in white mask, black mantle and tricorn hat with an enormous red feather. This is what comes of putting Budge in charge of feather procurement. He ended up looking like one of the Three Musketeers. Suddenly the image of Murphy and Laura dressed as a clown and rabbit came to mind and he winced. Blimey, he thought, didn't fate forgive anything? Must he always pay for his little amusements?
He glanced at Laura. She was intent on the adventure ahead. He could almost feel the excitement pouring out of her as she sat beside him dressed in mask and hooded cloak. She didn't look nearly as silly as he did even though she was more fancifully dressed. Somehow the 18th century gown and white wig suited her. It gave her an air of mystery that he longed to solve. He felt desire rising within him and he quickly searched for a way to cool it.
'Ah, Laura,' he asked, keeping his voice as low as hers had been, 'what exactly am I supposed to do?'
Laura tamped down on a fizzle of irritation. Really, she thought, you'd think he'd relish such a part. It was right up his alley. Yet he'd been fussing about it ever since she'd put the mask on him.
'You go into the club and wait for a man in a Pulcinella mask. Then pretend to be the Prince and make a deal with him for the ruby. Child's play for a man of your talents.'
'And if the man at the door should ask for a password?'
'He won't. Abbot Pisani confirmed that the red feather is our ticket inside.' She touched the feather pinned to her own cloak. 'It's unlike you to worry, Mr. Steele. First superstitions, now unnecessary hand-wringing. I hope marriage hasn't stolen your moxie.'
'My moxie, as you call it, is right where it should be.' He retorted. 'I merely like to understand the job. No thief goes in blind.'
'Shhh! Keep your voice down.' Laura hissed, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder. 'I don't know if it's wise to let Katherine know where you got your start. She's the type that would use information like that to her advantage.'
He followed her glance. Katherine's head was turned away from them, staring off across the canal. 'Looks as though she has other things on her mind.'
Remington frowned. He didn't like the ominous tone of Laura's voice, but he quickly forgot his misgivings when the gondola bumped into the side of a building. They grasped the side as the boat teetered precariously.
'Sorry!' Budge called in a loud whisper. 'I haven't quite got the hang of this yet. It's more difficult than it looks.'
'Whose idea was it to let Budge play gondolier?' Remington asked as the boat righted itself and continued down the canal.
'I didn't ' Remington stopped as he remembered. As a matter of fact, he had. He'd thought it safer than having him go into the club with them.
'There it is.' Laura said. 'The fourth door down.'
Bumping their way along, they finally eased up along side the short dock leading into the casini, and Remington and Laura climbed out. Katherine made to get out as well, but Laura stopped her.
'No, you'd better stay with Budge. If it is Stefan, he might recognize you. We mustn't spook him.'
Surprisingly Katherine didn't protest but returned to her seat. Budge eased the gondola away, moving them further down the canal to a place where they could watch and wait without arousing suspicion.
Laura and Remington walked the short distance to the door and entered. They found themselves in a narrow vestibule. The only light came from a lantern hung on an iron hook beside a thick, wooden door. As Laura lifted her hand to knock, there was the sound of sliding wood and then the door swung open, revealing what looked to be a lounge decorated with frescos, mirrors and gold gilding. The floor was patterned marble and several chairs and couches sat along the walls.
'Excellent example of Baroque architecture.' Remington murmured as walked down the lounge toward a wrought iron railing that led upwards.
When they reached the top, they found themselves on a balcony that wrapped around the entire area of the room. Stairs at the east and west ends led down into a room where people were quietly engaged in gambling. All were masked and dressed in costume and their voices were low and muted like the lighting. Shadows abounded, providing plenty of corners for intimate conversation.
'I don't see a Pulcinella mask.' Laura said, leaning over the railing for a better look.
'How can you tell?' Remington asked. 'It's like a cave in here.'
'Atmosphere, Mr. Steele.' Laura said. 'You wouldn't expect intrigue to be played out in broad daylight, would you?' She sighed, somewhat wistfully. 'It's exactly the kind of place one would expect to find Casanova.'
'Let's hope not.' Remington muttered, taking her elbow and guiding her down the stairs.
When had Laura developed an admiration for Casanova? He would have thought him the type of chap she'd despise. Must be the 'atmosphere'. It caused hearts to pound a little faster and imaginations run a little wilder.
'We'd better split up.' Laura said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. 'He'll be expecting the Prince to be alone.'
'Where will you be?' He asked, not liking the thought of her roaming unattached in such a place.
She smiled, a smile that sent curls of unease up his spine. Impulsive, daring Laura was with him tonight. 'Around.'
And before he could press her further, she was gone, disappearing into the shadows with a swirl of frothy lace skirt.
Outside in the fog, Budge and Katherine waited, watching the entrance of the casini. They'd been sitting there for a good forty minutes and no sign of Pulcinella. Of course, he might have already been inside, but surely the Steeles would have reappeared by now if he had. How long did it take to make a deal on a stolen ruby, Budge asked himself. It wasn't as though Steele was looking for a bargain. Just agree to whatever the man wanted.
He glanced at Katherine and then immediately looked away. He'd forgotten how his heart had pounded at the sight of her dressed in a black gown trimmed with gold, her face concealed behind a cat-shaped mask. He had told himself that it was merely her resemblance to Laura Steele that made him react in such a fashion. His mind was getting them confused. Face it, he told himself irritably, neither one of them was available. Sure, Katherine didn't have a husband, but she was a thief and a liar, not the kind of woman C.W. Budge gave a second glance.
He was mulling this over when he sensed a change in Katherine. Did she make a sound? Move slightly? Whatever it was, his eyes swung back to her. Where before she'd been staring with sullen intensity into the water, she was now alert, her head up, her eyes fixed on something. He squinted through the swirling fog. Yes, up ahead, just outside the casini stood a man. He was tall and lean and wore a cloak. From the hood of that cloak protruded a long, hooked nose.
Katherine's fingers gripped the side of the gondola, digging into the wood. She would have known that body, that manner of movement anywhere. Yet she wished she didn't. She had hoped that the Steeles were wrong even when she knew in her heart they weren't. Stefan was Pulcinella and there was no way she could continue to deny his culpability. He had switched the rubies. He had deceived her.
White hot fury surged through her followed by an icy calm that frightened her. At that moment had she had a dagger she would have plunged it into his lying, deceitful heart. The bastard. It was he who had turned her against Trevor, who had petted her ego and encouraged her to demand her freedom. Sure, she had wanted to be free, but had it been necessary to put Trevor behind bars?
She'd been a fool, and Katherine hated being a fool.
'You know him?'
She jumped. She'd forgotten that Budge was in the boat with her. Damn! Now she would have to sit there, acting calm, cool and collected when everything in her was crying out for action, for revenge. It was her right to deliver the death blow, not Budge, not the Steeles. Stefan was hers.
She shook her head. 'No. I just recognized the costume. That's all.'
Budge didn't press her and she was glad. It gave her time to plot.
Remington prowled the gaming room restlessly. When was this fellow going to show up? If he waited any longer, the Prince would be there, and then there'd be fireworks. Of course, it was Katherine and Budge's job to detain his Majesty, but he would feel a whole lot easier if they could get this over and done with before the Prince made an appearance. He'd also feel a whole lot easier if he could get Laura out of this den of intrigue.
He'd seen her a few times, once at a table playing some sort of card game and then drifting in and out of the crowd like a bloody butterfly. Couldn't she sit still? Preferably in a place where he could keep his eye on her. As it was he spent more time checking every shadow for a Casanova then watching the stairs for this so-called Pulcinella.
Remembering the reason for his vigil, he allowed his eyes to drift toward the stairs and froze. A man stood on the balcony, surveying the crowd. He wore a mask with a large, hooked nose. Remington stared hard at him and then nodded when the man's gaze stopped on him. The man started down the steps, his cloak swirling about his legs.
'Signore Bertucci?' He asked in a low, husky voice.
Remington inclined his head.
'Shall we retire to a quiet corner?' Pulcinella suggested.
'As you wish.' Remington murmured, following the man across the room to where the deeper shadows gathered in the corners.
They seated themselves, and Remington waited. It was always best to let the pigeon do the talking.
Finally the man spoke. 'Are you interested in my offer?'
'Would I be here if I wasn't?' Remington asked. 'I'm a busy man. I don't have time for,' he waved his hand in what he hoped was aristocratic disdain, 'wild goose chases, Signore. You have the ruby?'
Pulcinella's nose bobbed at him.
'The real ruby?' Remington persisted.
'Yes, of course.'
'I'm sorry, my good fellow, but I had to ask.' He paused, his eyes running over the man, before saying in a steely voice. 'You see, I was recently double crossed by another shall we say broker? She promised me the Tiger's Heart, and she handed over a fake. Excellent quality, of course, but a fake nonetheless. Naturally, I do not want to be cheated again.'
'Naturally.' Pulcinella agreed. 'I assure you, Signore, it is the Tiger's Heart.'
'Can you prove that?'
There was a silence broken only by the quiet murmur of the people at the gaming tables. The two men stared at each other, a battle of wills. Finally Pulcinella looked to his right and then his left. Satisfied that they were indeed alone, he reached into his cape and pulled out a small velvet bag, which he pushed across the table.
Remington picked up the bag, loosened the drawstring and then tilted it. A blood red stone fell into his hand. Even in the dim light its many facets glittered and flashed. He knew at once that this was the Tiger's Heart. Nevertheless, he went through the motions of checking it thoroughly. When he was finished, he placed it in the bag and pushed in back across the table. Instead of picking it up, Pulcinella allowed it to lie between them. As bait, Remington wondered.
'How much do you want?'
'It is a very valuable ruby.'
'That goes without saying.'
There was a pause and then Pulcinella said. 'A million. Wired to a bank account in Zurich.'
'Very well. A million.' Remington agreed.
But Pulcinella was no longer paying attention. He was staring at something behind Remington's left shoulder. Unease ran up Remington's spine, and he leaned to one side, hoping to see what the man saw. The unease turned to outright panic when he saw the woman standing at the top of the stairs. He knew that black and gold dress, the cat-shaped mask. It was
'Katherine.' Pulcinella breathed.
She started down the steps, looking as regal as the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin herself. Remington searched frantically for a way to exit with the ruby and was just about to grab it and run when Laura materialized out of nowhere, blocking Katherine's path.
'Don't do it, Katherine.' She said.
'We'll take care of him. He won't go unpunished.'
'I'm accustomed to taking out my own trash.'
Katherine stepped around her and continued toward the table. Laura made a move to stop her and then thought better of it. The casini was not where she'd wanted the final showdown to take place, but the ruby was here, and Katherine had a right to confront her deceiver. Hopefully they could get this over with before the Prince showed up.
'Good evening, Stefan.' Katherine said, stopping at the table. 'Stabbing me in the back like you did Hans?'
'Katherine ' Pulcinella repeated, somewhat stupidly. 'What are you doing here?'
'I could ask you the same question, but I already know the answer.' She held out her hand. 'Give me the ruby, Stefan. I stole it. I took the risks. It's mine.'
Remington's eyes were on the little velvet bag. As far as he was concerned neither one of them was going to leave here with that rock. It was Laura's redemption. He shot a glance at Laura, standing just behind Katherine's right shoulder, and knew she understood his intentions.
The silence around the table was heavy with tension. No one moved. No one spoke. It was the classic game of chicken. Who would make the first move? They might have sat there all night, locked in this silent battle, if a disturbance from the balcony hadn't forced their hand.
The Prince stood at the top of the stairs, dark and ominous, Angelo and Giovanni behind him. His eyes raked the crowd, searching for what he knew was there. The four people below stared at him for a moment and then at the bag sitting in the middle of the table. No one could say afterwards who made the first move, but suddenly all four of them were diving for it.
The table went flying to one side, knocking down chairs like a bowling ball knocking down pins. There were gasps and a few screams as the four people scrambled to secure the velvet bag, which had gone sliding wildly across the floor. In the end it was Stefan who emerged victorious. Clutching the bag, he scrambled to his feet and took off across the room. The other three were soon on his heels.
'Where's Budge?' Laura yelled as they chased Stefan down a long hallway lined with gilded mirrors.
'In the canal.' Katherine yelled back. 'He fell in.'
'Accidentally or intentionally?' Laura asked.
'I make it a policy to never kiss and tell.'
The hallway gave way to another lounge, and they arrived just in time to see Stefan's feet disappearing up a spiral staircase. They charged after him, round and round, until they reached the top to find themselves in yet another hallway. They paused for a moment to catch their breath. And that was when they heard the other footsteps, coming up behind them, fast.
'Ah, blimey,' Remington panted, ripping off his mask and hat and tossing them away irritably, 'doesn't that chap ever give up?'
'This is no time for a temper tantrum, Mr. Steele.' Laura called as she and Katherine headed for the door at the end of the hallway.
He might not live for the right time, he thought morosely, flinging the mantle after the other items. Bloody silly way to spend an evening. Intrigue was not all it was cracked up to be. It was damn exhausting.
The door opened into a marble-tiled room. It might have been an armory at one time for the walls were hung with various weapons: razor slim epees with ornate hilts, silver shields decorated with long forgotten crests and heavy double edged battle swords. There was no exit to the room except for a series of long windows. One of those windows stood open, allowing in gusts of cool, salt-soaked air.
'Damn!' Katherine cried, running to the window. She leaned out, searching the canal and neighboring buildings. The fog made it difficult, but she finally saw what she was looking for. 'There he is! He's on the rooftop!'
She threw a leg over the window ledge and disappeared. Laura was about to follow suit when the sound of the door crashing against the wall stopped her. She turned. The Prince stood on the threshold.
'Where is the ruby?' He demanded.
Laura's eyes swept the room. They fell on the epees. She judged the distance it would take her to reach them.
'I'm afraid it just went out the window, old chap.' Remington said cheerfully. 'If you hurry, you might just catch up with it.'
Keep him talking, Mr. Steele, keep him talking, Laura urged as she inched along the wall. She was almost to the swords.
'I am not a man to be trifled with.' The Prince declared. 'I want the ruby, and I want it now.'
'You and everyone else.' Remington muttered.
Laura's fingers closed around the ornate hilt. With a jerk it was free.
'Remington!' She called.
He looked at her and she sent the sword flying in his direction. He caught it.
'What the hell am I supposed to do with this?' He asked.
'You're the movie buff.' She said over her shoulder as she headed for the window. 'Pretend you're Captain Blood.'
He watched her disappear over the edge before turning back to the Prince who had retrieved the other sword from the wall. He made a mental note to remind Laura that Olivia DeHavilland never deserted Errol Flynn while he fought the bad guys for her. She stuck around to provide proper encouragement and appreciation. These modern women needed a course in manners.
'I warn you,' The Prince was saying as he gave his sword a few practice swipes, 'I'm an excellent swordsman.'
'Splendid.' Remington said with more élan than he felt. 'I wouldn't want this to be too easy. Takes all the sport out of it.'
They circled each other, making a couple feints to test the other's strength. Or at least that's what the Prince was doing. Remington was just trying to make it look as authentic as possible. He had learned early in his career that a good bluff was nearly as effective as the real thing. It almost always got him out of a tight spot until now. It looked as though the Prince was eager for a contest.
Remington steeled himself for the opening attack, but it never came. The Prince, his back to the door, suddenly stiffened and fell to the floor with a loud 'whump'. Budge stood in the doorway, holding a shattered mirror.
'That will get you seven years.' Remington noted, lowering his sword.
'It was the only thing available.'
'So you sacrificed yourself for me. I'm touched.' Remington tossed the sword aside and went over to the window, looking out.
'Where's the ruby?'
'Running away.' Remington said, swinging a leg over the window ledge. 'If Casanova can do it, so can we.'
But Remington was already gone, pulling himself up and onto the roof with the agility of a cat. It's been a long time since he'd walked the rooftops, but there were some things you never forgot. Sort of like riding a bike. He stood for a moment or two surveying his surroundings. All was quiet except for the distant barking of a dog. Fog swirled, revealing and then concealing.
'How fast can two women move in long skirts and heels?' He muttered to himself.
Laura held her breath and jumped. She landed on the roof, teetered and then fell forward onto her knees. Pain lanced through her as the rough shingles bit into already scraped and bruised knees. How many rooftops had she jumped so far? It seemed like a hundred, but it could only be three or four at the most. Keeping up with Katherine and Stefan was grueling work, especially since they seemed to have no trouble whatsoever balancing on ridge poles. Must come with the profession, she thought, struggling to her feet.
The skirt of her dress was coming loose again and she impatiently tucked it back into her waistband, creating balloon-like trousers which remind her of King and I. Not very attractive but much easier to climb. She's gotten rid of her shoes and white wig ages ago. The less encumbrances, the better.
Having adjusted her clothing, she started off again, reaching the other side of the roof just in time to see Katherine shimmy down a drainpipe and drop lightly to the ground. From her vantage point she could see Stefan's dark figure disappearing around a corner. There was nothing else for it. She would have to follow them down the drainpipe.
The shimmy, although intimidating, was uneventful, and she dropped lightly to the cobblestones just as a voice came echoing out of the fog and darkness. It was Katherine. Her voice held a command and reminded Laura of the Queen of Hearts shouting 'Off with his head!'
Laura took off at a sprint. They couldn't be that far ahead, especially if Katherine's voice was audible. She caught up with them at a bridge spanning a canal. Katherine stood at one end, Stefan at the other, fog swirling about them. Stefan had stopped, his body turned slightly as though he wanted to go but was held in place by the force of Katherine's will.
'How dare you do this to me?' Katherine spat. 'How dare you lie and cheat and use me?'
'That's the name of the game, isn't it?' Stefan asked. 'Con or be conned. That's the law we live by. If I hadn't done it to you, you would have eventually done it to me.'
'No.' Katherine denied. 'I loved you.'
'Is that what you told Trevor?'
There was a long, tense silence and then Katherine in a voice devoid of all emotion. 'Give me the ruby. It's mine, and you know it.'
'Sorry, sweetheart, I'm afraid I can't do that. I've investigated too much in this rock. More than you'll ever know.'
He turned his back on her, and that's when the shot rang out, loud and echoing. Stefan jerked and then crumpled to the ground. Laura hurried forward, reaching Katherine's side just as a figure detached itself from the shadows. It was with some surprise that she recognized the face of Commissioner Milbank. What in the world was he doing here? Whatever the reason she had a bad feeling about it. Cops didn't shoot suspects without cause.
'So we meet again, Mrs. Steele.' The Commissioner said, coming forward until he was standing directly above Stefan. He reminded Laura of a wolf guarding its catch. 'May I congratulate you on your success in finding both Katherine and the ruby, but of course, I never doubted you would. After all, you are a first class detective.'
'A title I apparently don't deserve.' Laura replied. 'I was so busy chasing the ruby that I didn't pay any attention to what you were doing or why.'
'Understandable, my dear. Being arrested has a way of distracting even the best of minds. You're no longer the dispassionate observer. You're the hunted, and that makes a person sloppy. Emotion, Mrs. Steele, has no business in investigation. I avoid it at all costs.'
'A regular iceberg.'
Katherine had been looking from Laura to the Commissioner, her expression perplexed. 'I don't understand. Who is this guy, and why did he shoot Stefan?'
Laura didn't answer. She was just beginning to understand, and she kicked herself for not sticking with the bad cop theory earlier. In her silence, Milbank stepped into the void. She wasn't surprised. Most criminals liked to brag, especially the ones who thought themselves unusually clever.
'I am Commissioner Milbank from Interpol.' He said, making a slight bow. 'And you are the delightful Katherine. I've heard so much about you, my dear. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last. Let me take this opportunity to tell you how eternally grateful I am that you liberated the ruby. I've wanted it for some time.'
'Look, buddy, I didn't steal it for you.'
He considered this. 'Yes, that's quite true, but you delivered it to me all the same.' He cast a glance at Laura. 'With some help from Mrs. Steele, of course. It would have been much harder to find you without her valuable assistance.'
Katherine looked at Laura. 'You were in cahoots with him?'
'Unintentionally.' When Katherine continued to stare at her, she explained. 'It would appear that Milbank framed me and then let me do the dirty work for him. Is that right, Commissioner?'
He nodded. 'I'm a busy man, Mrs. Steele. I'm also a lazy one. If I can get someone else to do the work for me, then I will. I was delighted when Stefan told me about you, and how much you resembled Katherine. It was clear early on that Stefan and Hans were unreliable. You, however, were entirely trustworthy. Once you started a job, I knew you'd finish it. So I produced a case for you and made sure you were emotionally involved enough to keep your eye on Katherine, not me.' He smiled broadly. 'And your husband. Bravo! I couldn't have asked for a better accomplice. By breaking you out of the detention center, he solved the dilemma of how I was going to get you out.'
'So Hans and Stefan were working for you? All the time?' Katherine asked.
'I'm afraid so.' Milbank confirmed. 'I know it's a bitter pill to swallow, my dear, but don't feel too badly. Stefan double crossed me as well. So did Hans. It's really a shame that the only sort of people you can get for this type of work have an unfortunate habit of being untrustworthy. It makes cleaning up so messy.'
'You killed Hans.' Laura said. It was a statement rather than a question.
'With the item he double crossed me for. Fitting, don't you think? He knew too much just like Stefan here. They had to be eliminated.'
'And what about us?' Laura suddenly asked. 'Are you going to kill us too?'
Milbank's smile became even wider. 'But, of course. When they find your bodies in the canal tomorrow morning, I doubt there will be too many questions. There is bad blood between you. Katherine framed you. In a fit of rage you shoot her and then turn the gun on yourself.'
'My husband will never believe it.' Laura declared.
'Oh, yes, I almost forgot Mr. Steele.' Milbank tapped the gun against his chin as he thought. 'He has proved himself a bit of a pest. Ah, well, he shouldn't be too difficult to take care of. He is, after all, in the company of Budge. Accidents, as I'm sure you're aware, tend to happen around the good inspector.'
'Six murders?' Laura asked, rising an eyebrow. 'Isn't that a little much even for you, Commissioner?'
'It's a bit excessive.' Milbank agreed. 'But this is where circumstances have led us. If this young woman had left the ruby in her room in Rome, one only murder would have been necessary, but as it is ' He raised the gun, pointing it at Katherine.
But he never got off a shot because he was tumbling head first into the canal. His splash was followed by another. Katherine and Laura ran to the side of the bridge, looking down into the churning water. Milbank's head bobbed up and was immediately shoved under.
'Don't drown him!' Remington yelled, appearing out of the darkness.
It was then that Laura recognized the man holding Milbank under. It was Budge, and he'd arrived so quickly because the drainpipe he'd been shimmying down had let go. It lay on the street looking like a long black snake.
Laura rushed off the bridge and helped Remington drag Milbank and then Budge out of the canal. The Commissioner was breathing but unconscious.
'What happened to him?' Remington asked, glancing up at Budge.
'He hit his head.' Budge said, handing him the gun he'd taken off of Milbank. 'With this.'
Remington took it gingerly. 'Convenient.'
'Budgie!' Katherine exclaimed, throwing her arms around Budge's neck. 'You saved my life!'
Even in the dim light of the street lamps Budge's ears glowed red. 'I was just doing my duty. It was nothing personal.' He glanced at her anxiously. 'You understand, don't you?'
'Oh, I understand perfectly.' Katherine said just before she grabbed his coat lapels and pulled him to her for a kiss.
Laura looked at Remington. 'I think that's our cue to go call the police.'
He stood up, taking her arm. 'Excellent suggestion.'
They hurried away from the couple.
'How'd you find us?' Laura asked as they were on their way back from making the phone call. Even now they could hear sirens.
'We followed the breadcrumbs.'
He tilted his head to one side. 'Ah, yes, let's see. The right foot of a pair of ladies' high heeled pumps, followed by the left and then rounded off by a bedraggled white wig.' He stopped and turned her to face him. A grin touched the side of his mouth. 'Quite a strip tease, Mrs. Steele. I hope in the future it can take place in our bedroom rather than the rooftops of Venice.' He pulled her close, lifting his eyebrows suggestively. 'What do you say? Will you give a private performance?'
She slid her arms around his neck. 'I thought you'd never ask.'
'You're frowning.' Remington noted as he joined Laura on the balcony of their suite at the Hotel Foirenza two evenings later. 'I know Lady Hepplewhite is a chore, but on a whole the masquerade was a pleasant bit of nonsense. In fact, I especially enjoyed the part when I took you in my arms and we danced cheek to cheek.' He demonstrated by pulling her close and placing his cheek against hers.
She leaned backwards. 'You shaved.'
'Daniel was right. Beards should be left to dead poets.' He raised an eyebrow. 'Disappointed?'
'That savage look did have sex appeal,' she admitted, 'but it was leaving a terrible rash on my neck. So, no, I'm not disappointed.'
'Glad to hear it.' He said. 'Now why were you frowning?'
'Just thinking of Katherine.' She looked up at him, her expression troubled. 'Do you think I did the right thing by advising her to go back with Budge and accept the consequences for stealing the ruby?'
'Am I the right person to ask?'
'It's her first offense, at least as far as the law is concerned, and the ruby was recovered.' Laura persisted. 'With Milbank tampering with the evidence, the prosecution will have a difficult time convicting her. If she serves her time, she'll be free to start anew.'
'As whatever she wants.'
'Career paths are fairly limited for ex-thieves.' Remington pointed out. 'Not much of a market for people experienced in jewel heists.'
'So you think I should have let her slip away.' There was an accusation in her voice that warned Remington to choose his words carefully. 'You think I should have overlooked her transgressions as I did yours.'
He shook his head. 'I didn't say that. All I advocated for was a second chance, which you gave her.' He watched the frown deepen and hurried to cut her off at the pass. 'But really, Laura, all this angst is unnecessary.'
That got her attention. 'Unnecessary? Why?'
'Because Katherine has no intention of going to St. Moritz.'
'How do you know that?'
'She fell against Budge as she was getting on the train.'
'What has that got to do with anything?'
Remington looked at her as though she wasn't overly bright. 'Come now, Laura, it's the oldest trick in the book, been used by pickpockets for centuries. Bump into someone and lift their wallet. Only she didn't lift his wallet. She lifted the keys to the handcuffs. I imagine somewhere between here and St. Moritz, Budge will wake up cuffed to the seat, and Katherine will have vanished into the sunset.'
Laura stared at him and then muttered. 'That woman has one hell of a lot of nerve.'
'Just like someone else I know.'
'You're not implying that there any similarities between me and that that Jezebel.'
'More than you're willing to admit, darling.' Remington murmured, tipping her chin up. 'But that's ok. I love you anyway.'
Laura was about to argue the point, but Remington's mouth on hers convinced her to let bygones be bygones. When he swung her into his arms and carried her to the bed, she began to see things his way. And an hour or so later, when she was wonderfully relaxed and snuggled against his side, she decided that Mr. Steele had a delightful way of winning arguments.
Budge struggled to open his eyes. When he did finally pried them open, he saw a train seat. It was swaying in a most nauseating fashion. Had he been asleep? Obviously. It was unusual for him to sleep on a train. It was unusual for him to sleep at all when transporting a prisoner. He pushed himself upright and then winced when cold metal dug into his wrist. Actually his whole arm was hurting. It was cocked at an odd angle. What the heck was Katherine doing to twist his arm into such an uncomfortable position?
He tugged experimentally, expecting the cuffs to give, but they didn't. They remained fixed in place. He twisted his head to discover what the problem was and then sat bolt upright. His head whirled, but he ignored it, his attention on his wrist. It was cuffed to the metal frame of the train seat.
Katherine was gone. In the place where she'd been sitting were the keys to the cuffs and two pieces of folded paper. He reached for the larger. It was a signed confession. But it was the smaller that sent his heart racing. Whether it was in anger or anticipation, he didn't know. He supposed that only time would tell.
Sorry, Budgie. But this story isn't over. There's several chapters left to write. But we'll meet again. I promise. Yours, Katherine P.S. You still owe me that second night.
Tis a Far, Far Better Thing
Mildred sat in the water bus, feeling nauseous. She wondered if it was the boat or the information she carried in the leather briefcase clutched tightly to her chest. Since boats had never caused such a feeling before, she assumed it was the briefcase. Transporting a bomb was a queasy business. She had tried to diffuse it, but to no avail. She could only deliver it and watch the fallout. Sort of like the Enola Gay over Hiroshima.
Remington had awakened early. He'd lain in the bed for several minutes, staring up at the ceiling. When sleep had refused to return, he'd rolled over and spent a good half hour watching Laura sleep. Delightful though that pastime was, he found himself becoming restless and eventually slipped from the bed. Grabbing his robe, he headed for the balcony. Fresh air greeted him, and he breathed deeply, leaning his elbows along the wrought iron railing as he watched life beginning to stir along the Grand Canal.
Tomorrow they would leave Venice. With Laura's name clear, there was no reason to linger. Besides, he missed L.A. His mouth kicked up at one side. Had he finally found that elusive place called home? Yes, definitely.
Then why was he getting that unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach? In the past he'd only gotten it when he knew a heist was going to go bad. Daniel had called it his 'early warning system'. Perhaps it was. So why was it going off now when things hadn't looked this good in years?
He stood there for some time mulling this question over before he finally gave up and returned to the bedroom. Laura was still asleep, lying on her stomach, the sheets pulled up under her arms. He was tempted to drop kisses along that lovely expanse of bare back but decided to let her sleep. She was exhausted. He'd kept her up into the wee hours of the morning. She grumbled irritably as he slipped back under the covers.
He was lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling when the knock came. It was so timid at first that he'd thought he'd imagined it, but then it came again, louder, more forceful. He quickly left the bed, intent on quieting the knocker before whoever it was woke Laura.
'Mildred!' He exclaimed, somewhat chagrined. They'd forgotten all about her. 'What are you doing here?'
'Business.' She said briefly, pushing her way into the room. 'Is Mrs. Steele here?'
'Of course, where else would she be?' When Mildred just stared at him, offering no response except for an expression as sober as a Temperance Society, he added. 'She's sleeping. We had a ah late night. It's Carnival, you know.'
'You'd better go wake her up.' Mildred said. 'This affects her too.'
He frowned. 'This sounds serious.'
Without another word, he left Mildred and re-entered the bedroom. Laura hadn't moved. He went over to her, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
'Laura?' He whispered against her ear. 'Laura, love, wake up.'
She smiled and rolled over, her arms sliding around his neck, pulling him down. 'Ready for more already, Mr. Steele?'
Remington found himself wedged between two pert breasts. Normally he would have found such a circumstance quite arousing, but Mildred's arrival put a definite kibosh on such feelings. He sat up, pulling her arms from around his neck. 'Mildred's in the sitting room, and she's got her fraud face on. You'd better get up.'
Ten minutes later they were seated on the sofa across from their secretary, looking and feeling very much like naughty schoolchildren.
'What's all this about, Mildred?' Laura asked briskly. 'You didn't fly all the way over here to tell us what a La Bauta is, did you?'
Without answering Mildred opened the leather briefcase she'd carried in and extracted a manila folder, which she handed to Laura. 'A couple weeks ago we received a letter in the mail addressed to Mr. Steele. It was from the INS. Since I'd prepared the paperwork for his request for permanent U.S. residency, I opened it.'
'And?' Laura prompted when she stopped.
'I think it's best that you read it yourself. It's in the file.'
Laura opened the file. The letter was sitting neatly on top. She picked it up and scanned it quickly. Then she read it again, slower, much slower. Finally she looked at Mildred, her expression grim. 'This says he's been denied.'
Mildred nodded. 'Naturally I was concerned so I contacted an immigration lawyer. Between the two of us, we tried everything, but the government's the government.' She paused and then suddenly morphed into Mildred, the fraud agent. 'Look, I'm going to give it to you straight, ok? I've never been good at breaking bad news. The long and the short of it is, if he ever sets foot of U.S. soil, he'll be arrested and placed in federal prison. It's as simple as that.'
Remington rocketed forward. 'But I'm married to a U.S. citizen. Doesn't that count for anything?'
'Doesn't matter. You were deported. Once deported, always deported.' Her expression suddenly softened. 'I'm sorry, boss, but you can't ever come back to the States.'
There was a long pause and then Remington murmured, his voice sounding dazed. 'I've been exiled.'
'That's about the gist of it.' Mildred agreed.
Remington stood beside the bed staring down at his wife. He longed to touch her, to brush the dark hair away from her face, to kiss her one last time, but he didn't dare. He'd barely made it out of the bed without waking her. If he touched her now, she might wake, and he wouldn't be able to do what he had to do.
And you have to do this, he reminded himself when his resolve trembled, shrinking from the thought of leaving her. It was the only way. He couldn't let Laura ruin her life because of some misguided commitment to him.
Of course, she'd spent the entire day saying all the right words, assuring him that they could start again in London, but he could see the anxiety in her eyes. It all sounded good, but was it really possible to move an entire agency across the ocean? Would Laura be happy living anywhere but L.A.? Hadn't she told him once how much she loved that city?
After lunch, which had been a sober affair despite Laura's attempts to jolly him and Mildred out of their gloom, he'd gone out and spent hours walking the bridges of Venice, debating with himself what he should do. The selfish side of him wanted to take Laura up on her offer to move the agency, anything to keep her with him, but the other side, the side that loved her more than himself, couldn't bear the thought of her giving up everything she ever cared about for a man like him. For despite his new name and his new career, he was still Harry, a cheap crook that didn't deserve her.
Everything she was and had worked so hard for was in L.A. He'd been nothing but trouble since he walked into her life, and now he'd landed her in the biggest pickle of them all. As long as he remained at her side, she could not return to the States and her first love, Remington Steele Investigations. As he stared down at her now, a cynical smile kicked up the side of his mouth. Didn't they always say you never forgot your first love?
He reached for the envelope in his breast pocket and then stopped. No, it was better to leave without a word. She'd hate him then, and if she hated him she wouldn't try to find him. She'd return to L.A. and her detective agency and forget all about the man who had had the audacity to steal her boss.
And him? Would he ever forget her? Not likely. How could he forget the woman who filled his heart with song, who was that voice in his head encouraging him to do better, who kept believing in him when he didn't even believe in himself? Good God, life would have no meaning without her. But at least he would have the knowledge that he'd done the right thing. He was putting her before himself. He was making it possible for her to return to her work, her family, her life.
'Tis a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.' He murmured and the added. 'Tale of Two Cities, Ronald Coleman, MGM, 1935.'
Then he turned away from the bed, picked up his suitcases and left the room.
TO BE CONTINUED IN 'THE FORGING OF STEELE'