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SIXTEEN

Ii WAS A large place on the water, some distance out of town. By the time I reached it, the moon was getting low and a mist was rising. My headlights sent long white fingers searching the lawns and trees ahead of me as I followed the winding drive around to the rear of the house, as instructed. There wasn't a breath of air moving. The small sound as the house door opened seemed as loud as a gunshot.

"This way," Mrs. Rosten called softly. I got out of the car and joined her. She said, "I apologize for the back door, but I thought you'd rather not attract any more at-attention than necessary."

I said, "It couldn't just be that you're ashamed of your guest, lady."

She was wearing something long and pale that whispered when she swung to face me. I couldn't see her face clearly, but her voice was sharp, "Can't you forget that twisted pride for one minute, Petroni? I said please over the phone, didn't I?"

She turned away, leaving me to follow her ghostlike figure through a dark kitchen and a succession of dark rooms into a small, softly lighted, booklined study in which a fire was burning. I noted a gun rack over the fireplace. A leather sofa faced the fireplace. It looked quite comfortable and inviting. On the low table before the sofa was a silver tray holding an array of bottles, two glasses, a silver ice bucket, and so help me, a real honest-to-God soda-water siphon. I hadn't seen one of those in years.

She had stopped to close the door behind me. I turned to face her. We stood like that for a moment. I pursed my lips and whistled softly.

"Not bad. That must be just about the quickest recovery in history."

She'd got her hair up again, drawn back smoothly from her face. It had a dark, velvety luster she must have worked hard to attain in such a short time. I don't know the technical distinction between a negligee and a peignoir, but she was wearing one of those elaborate boudoir creations, creamy white against her brown skin, high-necked and long-sleeved, lace to the waist and layers upon layers of nylon below, reaching the floor all around her.

In this day of trick pajamas and Peter Pan nighties, it's a real treat to see an attractive woman dressed for seduction in a garment with some grace and dignity to it. It raises the whole business of sex to a higher plane, in my opinion. I assumed that seduction was what she had in mind, dressing like that-or at least that it was the idea she wished to plant in Lash Petroni's crude mind, for reasons yet to be determined. In a way it was a relief. I hadn't been sure she wouldn't greet me with a shotgun, or the police.

"You have the tact of an ox, Petroni," she said. "Never remind a woman of looking like hell, particularly when it was your fault. Come to that, you look a little better yourself."

That was a lie. I'd seen myself in the mirror as I left the hotel room in my other Petroni suit. The man who'd looked back at me from the glass had been a real cool cat. I wouldn't have trusted him in the same house with Whistler's grandmother.

"It a wet damn bay," I said.

"Let's drink to that," she said, smiling. "It's something we can agree on, anyway. What will you have?"

I watched her sweep past and bend over the silver tray. There wasn't any peekaboo stuff; there were no provocative displays of skin or limbs such as often go with the negligee bit. She was a great lady entertaining at home, but I couldn't help the distracting thought-as Lash Petroni, of course-that dignified though she might look in the regal gown, she probably had on very little underneath it.

I cleared my throat and said, "Bourbon and water, lady. Hell, make it soda. I haven't seen one of those fizzwater machines in action since I was a kid."

"Is that so?"

She tried to sound interested, but her smile was mechanical. The polite mask slipped for just a moment. She didn't give a damn what Petroni had or had not seen as a kid, and the idea of pretending to be fascinated by the horrible creature's revolting childhood turned her stomach. But she caught herself, and brought my drink to me, and smiled again, doing a better job this time.

"Sit down, please," she said, and laughed softly. "There! I said it again. Please." She moved towards the couch. "Where did you grow up, Petroni-Jim? That's your name, isn't it? Jim

"That's it," I said. "Jim."

"You may call me Robin."

"Okay, Robin."

She sank down on the couch, and patted the space beside her. "Please sit down. You make me nervous standing over me like that. You must be just about the tallest man I know. Did you play basketball as a boy, Jim?"

It was time to exert a bit of pressure. She couldn't be allowed to think Petroni was a complete fool. I looked down at her deliberately, and gave her a slow, mean grin.

"Cut it out, lady. All you have to be is polite. If there's any seducing to be done, I'll do it."

Sitting there, she looked up quickly. I saw hatred flame in her dark eyes, but only for an instant. Then she was laughing.

"All right," she said, "all right, Jim. I deserved that. I underestimated you. I was only testing my weapons, if you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean." I sat down beside her. "Let's not worry about my childhood. You don't give a damn about my lousy childhood. Have you got anything on under all that glamor?" I touched the filmy stuff of her skirt, draped across the leather sofa between us.

It caught her by surprise. "Why-why, just a nightgown," she said.

"I bet it's real pretty," I said. "Maybe we'll get to it later. Right now I figure we've got other business than my childhood and your lingerie, but don't give up hope."

That brought her to her feet. Two quick steps took her to the fireplace. She reached up, and swung to face me with a double-barreled shotgun in her hands. The business-like weapon, though very handsome for a gun, went oddly with the feminine fragility of her appearance.

"You despicable creature!" she said. "You revolting animal! Just because you force me to be civil to you doesn't mean-" She stopped.

I yawned deliberately, and gave her that mean Petroni grin again. "So," I said, "now we know. Wet or dry, you're still a snooty bitch, and I'm still a revolting animal, and any resemblance to nice people having a cozy drink before making beautiful music is strictly, like they say in the movies, coincidental." I swung my feet up on the couch, and leaned back with a sigh of contentment. "Ah, that's better. It's been a long, busy day. Put the blaster away, honey. I figured you had one loaded and ready somewhere. It was either that or cops; you'd want some protection from a despicable creature like me."

"Get your damn feet off my furniture!"

I yawned again. "Cut it out, sweetheart. You've proved you're not a pushover. I've proved I'm not a pushover. Let's stop making faces at each other, huh?"

I tasted my drink without looking at her or the gun, which wasn't as easy as it sounds. At that range, a twelve-gauge would take my head off if she got careless with the trigger. I was relieved when she laughed shortly and put back the weapon. Nylon whispered as she moved away across the room. I turned my head at last and saw her standing at the window, looking out. After a while, I set my drink aside and went to stand behind her.

The big study window looked down on a dark harbor with a T-shaped dock. There were lights on the dock. Some sailboats were anchored or moored farther out; they seemed to be floating in mist. A power cruiser with a broad, square stern displaying twin exhausts and the name Osprey lay along the stem of the T; and a big white schooner was tied across the far end. Apparently the Freya had been brought out of hiding after the story in the paper. A lighted porthole indicated that somebody was on board. Well out beyond the harbor, an arching chain of lights hung over the mist, reaching off across the Bay.

"I hate that damn Bay Bridge," Robin Rosten said abruptly. "We used to have a ferry, you know. It was picturesque and-well nice. They wrecked my farm, some of the best land in the state, to build that bridge right after the war. You didn't know I was a farmer, did you, Jim?"

"No," I said. "I didn't know."

"I was, though. Louis couldn't understand that; he thinks when you have money all you ought to do is sit back and spend it. He couldn't understand why I wanted to go around in boots, smelling like a barn. I had a beautiful dairy farm north of here; and they ran their approach highway right through the middle of it. Four lanes of concrete and a fence. They wouldn't even let us cross it. We had to go halfway to town to use the north pasture, which wasn't really practical. You don't know why I'm telling you this, do you?"

"No," I said. I put my hands on her shoulders. "But you go right ahead and tell me. I'm listening."

"Easy," she murmured without turning her head. "Take it very easy, Jim. I don't like to be mauled."

"Nobody's mauling you," I said. "I wouldn't maul you." She laughed. "You have a very short memory."

"That's different," I said.

"You're a horrible man."

"Sure."

"I still haven't got all the sand out of my hair. How did you know I wouldn't call the police?"

"Some chances you've got to take. 1 thought you'd rather deal, one way or another. It was a gamble."

"What would you have done if I had called them?"

"I had a story to tell."

"I know. I saw the way you left my shoes and purse on the beach."

"There was this crazy society dame, see, who got drunk and tried to drown herself. Petroni just happened along in time to fish her out."

"It's a ridiculous story."

"Maybe. I had answers to most of the questions, not good, but good enough. I've got people who'll hire lawyers for me, as good as yours. It would have been your word against mine. And afterwards you'd have got another phone call. And if you'd sent the maid with a snotty message this time, well, the rich Mrs. Rosten might just kind of managed to bump herself off on the second try. I was laying the ground work, you might say."

"You're a dreadful person," she said. "Leave my zipper alone, darling. I don't like to be picked at." She reached back and caught my hands and brought them forward, and leaned back against me, inside the circle of my arms, holding my hands to her breasts. "There's a cheap thrill for you, you despicable creature," she said without turning her head.

There wasn't anything under my hands but Robin Rosten and some lace. It was, let's say, a disturbing sensation, even for a man as devoted to his country's interests, as dedicated to his mission, as that grim, implacable undercover operative, Matthew Helm.

I cleared my throat and said, "Which brings up the question, why does the aristocratic Mrs. Rosten, instead of simply having him arrested, invite a nasty hoodlum into the house to fondle her tits."

She stiffened against me. "Don't be coarse." Then she laughed and relaxed. "I like you, Petroni. You've got a refreshing directness. And you don't pretend to be something you aren't."

Here was another woman telling me I wasn't pretending, sincerely or otherwise. I remembered something else Teddy Michaelis had said. I'd have to put the kid straight. She'd done the older woman an injustice. They weren't spectacularly large, but they'd certainly be missed.

"Everybody likes Petroni," I said. "You haven't answered my question."

"You know the answer."

"You want to know who hired me," I said. "And you didn't think the police would get it out of me. Smart girl. But I told you at the cove, I've got principles."

"Still?" she murmured, warm in my arms.

"Cut it out," I said. "You're making the mistake dames always make. They all think their bodies have got something to do with business."

She was silent for a moment; then her soft laughter came again. "Rebuked, by God! Petroni, you're wonderful! It was Louis, wasn't it?" I didn't say anything, and she went on, "Oh, don't bother to deny it. He was pretty obvious about picking a quarrel with me so I'd drive off alone. And I saw his face when I came home. He'd never expected to see me alive again; he was absolutely petrified. He's off getting drunk right now, recovering from the shock. He'd have betrayed himself right there if that odd little girl, Michaelis' idiot child, hadn't managed to spill whisky all over herself, gawking. That gave him time to recover, helping to mop her off. You know Louis. If the world was coming to an end, he still wouldn't pass up the chance to pat a pretty girl with a paper towel."

"You know Louis," I said. "I didn't say I knew Louis."

She patted my hands lightly, and lifted them away, disengaging herself. "I think that's enough erotic stimulation for the moment. Where's my drink?"

"Where you left it," I said. "Erotic stimulation. That's fancy for kicks? I'll have to remember it."

"I didn't think Louis would have the nerve to kill me," she said, moving towards the coffee table. "Or even hire someone to have it done. Of course, he's been acting strangely of late, ever since Norman disappeared. I wonder."

She gave me my glass as I came up. I took it and said, "Thanks. I still haven't said anything."

She smiled, raising her own glass to me. "Keep your damn principles. I know it was Louis. The only question is why."

"I'm not saying one way or another. But if he did want you killed, I could think of a reason."

"Money?" She shook her head. "Louis wouldn't kill for money. Oh, I don't mean he doesn't like it; but he's even more cowardly than he's greedy. He's a rat; he'll only bite if he's cornered and scared, really scared."

"That's a hell of a way to talk about your own husband."

She ignored the comment. "Louis has been scared ever since we found Norman's boat empty; scared I'd noticed something, I guess. Only it goes back farther. I think dear Louis has got himself involved in something big and dangerous, so big and dangerous he has to kill his way out. Did he ever mention Mendenhall to you?"

"Mendenhall?" I said. "What's that? And who's Norman?"

"Mendenhall used to be the family estate; it's part of a restricted Marine training area now. Norman was-is a friend of mine. He vanished mysteriously some weeks ago. Louis must have told you."

"Don't be clever. Why should he tell me and when? For the record, I've only seen your damn husband a couple of times in my life, and talked to him, never. What about this Mendenhall place?"

"The government took it away from me," she said. "We talk big about how bad they have it over there, with the dirty communists and their tyranny; and all the time we've got our own little bureaucratic tyrants right here, with their confiscatory income taxes and ruthless condemnation proceedings. Well, never mind all that. The funny thing is, Louis was almost as upset as I was when it happened, although he doesn't give a damn about the family. He's been fascinated by Mendenhall for years, for some reason, particularly the island-"

"The island?" I couldn't help asking the question. "What island?"

She didn't seem to notice that I'd stepped Out of character, if I had. "Well, it wasn't originally an island," she said. "Originally, when the land was first settled, it was a peninsula, a long, wooded point of land; and the first house was built out there among the pines, facing the little bay. Then the land gradually washed away, and even the big house

– a hurricane took that in the eighteen-seventies-and the family rebuilt on the mainland. There's nothing out there now but a chain of little islets and one real island about a mile by a half with a stand of pines and a few old ruins, all cut off from the mainland by a mile of shallows and an eight-foot channel washed out by the tide."

I said, "Geography is interesting, honey-history, too- but I like erotic stimulation better."

I hoped my voice was level and casual; and I hoped my words wouldn't discourage her from telling me more, but I didn't really think they would. She wanted to tell me all this-she wanted to tell Lash Petroni all this. The question was, why?

She said, "I used to play there as a girl. We'd sail down and have picnics. I took Louis once, just to show him, before we were married; but he's not the picnic type. It wasn't until a few years ago that he began to act interested. He had us anchor in the little bay a few times, cruising in the Freya, while he rowed ashore and explored, That was before the government took it. I have a feeling that whatever he's got himself into, it's got something to do with Mendenhall Island."

I said, "But if the Marine Corps has got it now, and it's restricted as you say-"

She laughed. "You're not a sailor, are you? They don't build many fences in the water, Jim. On a dark night, in a sailing vessel like the Freya down there, I could ghost right into Mendenhall Bay without a sentry noticing a thing. I don't think they use their radars except when they're actually firing. The question is, just what is Louis up to? There was that strange business about Norman; all kinds of government people were around asking questions."

It was time for me to ask some more questions about the mysterious Norman, or maybe it wasn't. I didn't like that casual reference to government people.

I said, "Look, honey, this is fascinating as hell, but what's it got to do with me?"

She said, "It depends on Louis. I don't mind so much his trying to have me killed, although it does seem to indicate he's cracking up, doesn't it? And if he slipped out in a boat and hit Norman over the head with an oar that afternoon because he was jealous, well, I gave him lots of provocation. It would be kind of nice to think he still cared that much." She shook her head abruptly. "I don't believe it for a moment. I think he's mixed up in something big and nasty. And if he thinks he's going to involve the family and me in some dirty scandal- He'll get caught, of course. He hasn't got the brains not to. Unless-"

"Unless what?"

She drained her glass and set it down on the table. It was low enough, and she was tall enough, so that she had to bend down a bit to make it.

"I'll pay well, of course," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Sure," I said. "For what, and how well?"

She smiled at me, and made a slight gesture towards the drink in my hand. I finished it off, and put the glass down beside hers.

"I'd pay very well indeed, Jim Petroni," she said, holding out her hands.

"I like cash," I said.

She laughed, unoffended. "You're a cold, stubborn man. There'll be cash, too."

Then she was in my arms, or vice versa. I can't lay claim to having originated the idea; but I saw no reason to fight it for that reason. Jimmy the Lash wouldn't be likely to put up a violent defense for his virtue. As for that sterling government employee, Matt Helm, I found it difficult to remember exactly who I was, of all the people I'd pretended to be, feeling the warmth of her lips and of her long, taut body, unconfined beneath the lace and nylon of the dignified gown. Some men prefer naked women, but I guess I like my presents gift wrapped, to start with, at least.

"You'll do it, won't you?" she breathed at last. "You'll get rid of him for me?" She laughed, her breath warm on my ear. "I'm rather bored with Louis, anyway, and divorces are so messy and expensive."

I found myself thinking, vaguely, that I'd never come across such a murderous bunch of citizens in my long and bloody career; but to be perfectly honest, I wasn't paying all the attention I might have. Only so much can be accomplished standing up; and I had a certain leather sofa rather strongly in mind.

"Sure, baby," I said thickly. "Anybody. Just name him and he's dead."

That was Lash Petroni speaking, but his voice seemed to come from far away. I drew a long breath and straightened up and looked into Robin Rosten's face. It wouldn't focus clearly; it seemed to waver before me; but I could see that she was smiling oddly. I glanced quickly toward the glasses on the coffee table.

"You bitch," Petroni said, a long ways off.

She laughed, watching me with speculative interest. I had a choice to make; and I reached out and took her by the throat before she could step back. I saw her eyes go shocked and wide.

"Too bad, lady," Petroni said. "Too bad. You shouldn't have tried-"

I made the voice trail off incoherently. The apprehension went out of her eyes as my fingers relaxed. I went to my knees and pitched forward, grasping at her skirt. After a little, I felt her bend over me and free the filmy nylon, tougher and more elastic than it looked.

"Good night," she murmured. "Good night, Matthew Helm-or should I call you Eric?"

As I closed my eyes, I knew I found what I'd been looking for: the muffled voice on the telephone, Jean's contact, the person who'd known all along I wasn't a gangster named Petroni…


FIFTEEN | Murderers Row | SEVENTEEN