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TWELVE

I SPENT THE rest of the morning catching up on my sleep. After lunch, I called Teddy Michaelis at the motel and arranged to meet her at a town called St. Alice. It was twenty miles from Annapolis, according to the map, but only ten from the cove where I was supposed to meet Rosten, later. I didn't give that as a reason for selecting it as a rendezvous, however.

I'd picked the town, but she, knowing the area a little better, had picked the meeting place: a bar and seafood joint built on a long pier sticking out over the water. The ceilings were low, the light was poor, the floor linoleum was cracked, and the tables had gingham tablecloths that could have been cleaner, but the bar was quite handsome: a great, massive, old-fashioned hunk of mahogany.

I was nursing a beer, taking it easy, when Teddy came in, carrying a folded newspaper under her arm. She was wearing snug white pants and a blue sweater with a hood, thrown back casually from her blonde head. Her mouth was as grim as such a small mouth could be, and her blue eyes were bright and angry. She came right over to the bar.

"What'll you have?" I asked.

"It isn't true!" she said fiercely.

"Simmer down, small stuff," I said. "I asked you a question. What'll you have?"

"It isn't true! Papa would never dream of-"

"I'll ask you once more. If I don't get a straight answer, I'll walk out on you. What'll you have?"

"But-oh, all right, damn you! Get me a-a bourbon on the rocks."

"Bourbon on the rocks for the lady," I told the barman. "Another beer for me. We'll take them in one of the booths."

I took Teddy by the arm, marched her across the room and set her down in one of the dark booths that lined the far wall. She slapped the paper down on the gingham tablecloth.

"It's a lousy lie!" she said.

"If you say so. What is?"

She shoved the paper towards me. T took it, opened it, and saw that the hurricane was gaining on us. Georgia was catching it now and the Carolinas were braced for the assault.

"Not there, stupid!" Teddy said. "The right-hand column. That damn reporter! That damn paper!"

I looked where she pointed. The column was headed:

SCIENTIST MISSING. A quick glance through the text indicated that, like the New York private eye, a Washington reporter had stumbled on the interesting clue of the hidden schooner, as well as certain other facts, and had managed to worm an admission out of a certain government agency with which Michaelis had been connected. Murder, suicide and kidnapping were all considered, and while the reporter didn't actually say that Michaelis might have decamped under his own power, he did say that the agency in question categorically denied the possibility that Michaelis might have decamped under his own power.

"Don't you see what he's doing?" Teddy demanded. "He's giving the impression without saying a word- everybody who reads that will think Papa's a traitor! They're trying to cover up, that's what they're doing. Trying to make it look as if he disappeared voluntarily, so they won't have to embarrass the influential Mrs. Rosten!"

"I see," I said. "So you're still on the Rosten kick?"

She looked startled and indignant. "Why, yes, of course. That's what happened, you know it is. Why, it says right here in the paper they're the ones who found Papa's boat, she and Louis."

"They found it sailing along empty, according to the story," I pointed out.

She laughed scornfully. "Naturally they'd say that. They went out to look for him in the power cruiser, in the dark. They'd been drinking, probably; they hit the cocktails hard every evening. They found Papa, and there was a terrible drunken quarrel on the way back to shore-" She stopped, and swallowed something in her throat. "Afterwards-afterwards they had to say they found the boat empty. What else could they say?"

"Whatever they said, it seems to have convinced the police and the U.S. Government."

"Oh, I'm sure she was convincing as hell! She always is, with that damn great-lady act of hers. Offering to cooperate with the authorities in every respect, even to hiding the Freya to make it look as if Papa was off cruising. The longer the government held off announcing that he was missing, the safer she was, she and Louis. Well, she's not as safe as she thinks!" The kid looked at me across the gingham-covered table. "That is, if you haven't changed your mind, Petroni."

I shook my head. "Drink up and let's get out of here," I said.

Outside, we had to stop for a moment to get used to the sunlight. The front door faced a wide, reedy arm of Chesapeake Bay. The day was bright and, in contrast to the preceding night, quite warm, and people were sailing and fishing out there, forgetting the month's bills and the day's headlines. It seemed like a fine idea. I thought I'd have to try it some time.

"Okay, small stuff," I said, holding out my hand.

She fished a crumpled envelope out of her tight pants. I opened it and counted the bills inside. I closed it again and tucked it away in my coat. Teddy giggled and took my arm as we walked towards the shore.

"I like you, Jim," she said. "I had a dog once that was just like you, a big black Doberman. He'd bite anybody I told him to. I didn't even have to tell him. If I didn't like them, I'd just snap my fingers and he'd go for them. I taught him that. Papa thought he was just getting mean, the way Dobermans do. Papa didn't know. The dog's name was King. Papa had him put away, finally. I cried all night, I was nine years old."

"Sure," I said. "Will you cry all night if they put me away, Teddy?"

"Don't say that!" She stopped, swinging to face me. "I don't want you to take any chances. I do like you. At least you're honest, in a brutal sort of way. You don't pretend to be something you aren't, like everybody else I know."

Even if she was a screwball, even if she had murder on her twisted little mind, it made me feel a little guilty to have her say that to me. Anyway, that was my first reaction. And then I found myself wondering if maybe that wasn't the reaction she'd been trying for.

It occurred to me suddenly that I'd been overlooking something: I'd been overlooking the fact that Jean's room had been wired for sound. She'd reported to that effect, and an agent of her experience wouldn't make a mistake about it. I had to assume, therefore, that some tapes had been recorded last night. I had to assume that the person I was trying to locate-the contact-had already played those tapes, carefully studying the dialogue that had passed between Jean and me before she died. I'd been putting on an act of sorts, if you recall-so had Jean-but anybody listening to our recorded conversation would certainly know I wasn't a gangster named Petroni.

Yet the two people who had made contact with me so far had acted on the assumption that I really was Lash Petroni, a ruthless, unscrupulous, but possibly useful individual: a killer for hire. Or had they? It was, after all, a coincidence that two people should have hit on the idea of hiring me for the same job. Perhaps at least one of them knew perfectly well that the man he-or she- was ostensibly trying to bribe to commit murder was really a government agent. Perhaps it was a clever cover-up as well as a delicious joke and a way of keeping an eye on my activities.

I glanced at the kid standing in front of me with the sun bright on her cap of pale hair. Her words ran through my head again: You don't pretend to be anything you aren't. She could be perfectly sincere in her cockeyed way, but I couldn't overlook the possibility that she was throwing me a mocking hint, taunting me with her secret knowledge that, as a one-man Murder, Inc., I was the world's biggest fake.

I said, "Everybody pretends something, small fry. How are you at pretending?"

Her blue eyes got narrow, as if I'd accused her of something. Well, maybe I had. "Are you busy tonight?" I asked easily.

She relaxed. "Well, yes. I have a date."

"Break it. Wait a minute. Who's the guy?"

"Who would it be?" she asked with a grimace. "How many people do I really know in this forsaken town? He kept pestering me and what else was there to do except sit in that lousy motel room and think?"

"Orcutt?" I said. "Well, can you get him to take you to a cocktail party being given this evening by some people named Sandeman? I gather they're relatives of Mrs. Rosten, which means they're relatives of Orcutt, so he should be able to swing it."

She said, "Well, I can try, but-"

"When you get there," I said, "ditch the Thunderbird boy temporarily and make a play for Louis Rosten. Can you do that? Can you play them both, Orcutt and Rosten! Can you take Rosten away from his wife and make her mad so she'll march out of the place fuming-and then can you get the two men together and spend the evening with them? I think it would be a good idea if you all wound up at the Rosten place for drinks, say eleven-twelve o'clock. Can you swing that?"

She hesitated. Her eyes were bright, contemplating the challenge. "Of course I can, but-but why do you want me to do it?"

I said, "Don't be more stupid than you have to. I want Mrs. Rosten alone, naturally. And I think it would be a hell of a good idea if you had a solid alibi for the whole evening. Don't you?"

"Oh." Her breath caught. "I see. You mean-it's tonight? So soon?"

"Do you want me to stall around so you can dream about it?" I glanced at her, and said casually, "Talking about dreams, I forgot to ask what kind of a job you want me to do. Smooth or rough?"

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

I said impatiently, "Hell, the price you're paying entitles you to a few frills if you want them. So tell me, do you just want the dame dead? Or do you want her dead with her face smashed in, her teeth knocked out, her breasts sliced off, and her fingernails ripped out by the bloody roots?"

She gulped. "Don't be so damn graphic, Jim!"

I said sneeringly, "That's what I thought! You're really chicken, aren't you? Now you listen to me and get this straight: we don't give refunds. You can call it off now, but once we leave here you're in for the whole job and the whole five grand; so don't come whimpering to me later about how you've changed your mind." I took the envelope out of my pocket and held it out. "This is it, kid. In or out. You call it."

She hesitated. I let my lip curl scornfully. She saw it and slapped the envelope aside. "Go ahead," she said. "Go ahead, Jim! I'll be there; midnight at the Rosten house. And you can do it just as rough as you please; it can't be too rough for me!" She giggled abruptly.

"What's funny?"

"Just something you said. She'd never miss them."

"Miss what?"

"She's pretty flat-chested, you know. She'd never miss them."

I watched her run along the pier to the shore and jump into a small white sports car-an MG, if it matters. She clashed the gears badly getting into low, and again shifting up, which is hard to do with a synchromesh transmission, but she managed. She was really a pretty horrible little girl. At least she was working hard to give that impression.


ELEVEN | Murderers Row | THIRTEEN