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Starsky's Sweet Angel
Unlike their arrival into the city, the drive down to the Philadelphia Police station was, by contrast, an uneventful one. Dixon let the two men out of his car in front of the station and drove himself to a nearby coffee shop to wait for them. The detectives made their way up the cobblestone steps of the station and went inside. Once they were inside they immediately noticed that the atmosphere was friendlier and less chaotic than their home base at Metro. The staff turned out to be extremely helpful and hospitable, providing coffee and unfettered access to any public documents related to the case that they required, that was until their commanding officer arrived.
Captain Benjamin Kraft was nothing like their Captain Dobey. In fact, Kraft appeared to be the antithesis of their gruff and grumbly supervisor. The only obvious similarities were their gender and ethnicity, and that was most likely where it stopped. They both looked up when he entered the squadroom. He was dressed sharply in a tailored, freshly pressed-grey business suit, spit-polished shoes and a paisley tie. He sported a neat, freshly barbered natural and a thin mustache. His demeanor was cool and reserved as he strolled in. No excitement there. They could tell just by looking at him that he probably gave the same amount of attention to his position that he gave to his style of dress, and that included the two peculiarly dressed detectives who'd made themselves at home in his squadroom. He regarded them with indifference as he stopped at his secretary's desk and conferred with her, then disappeared inside his office. The pretty brunette left her desk and sauntered over to where the two men were sitting. She was wearing a baby blue silk dress over two inch heels, sans stockings, and when she walked, she seemed to float. She half leaned over the desk as she spoke to them and Hutch swore to himself that he was in love.
"Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson, the captain will see you now," she said to them.
Never without a kind word for a pretty face, Hutch perked up and smiled broadly, oozing charm from every pore. "Why, thank you, kind lady. I'm sorry, I hope you don't mind my being forward, but I do believe you must be about the most beautiful creature on earth that I have ever seen." He took her hand. "Are you free tonight? My partner and I are new in town and..."
Starsky put a restraining hand on his partner's shoulder and gave him one of those "you old devil" looks out of the corner of his eye. "Hey, hey, Romeo, we're working unfamiliar territory here. You think you could put the brakes on your libido long enough for us to find out what we're up against?"
Hutch wordlessly relented to his partner's suggestion, but with reservations. The brunette seemed just as disappointed as he was. She leaned forward a bit more, discreetly revealing ample cleavage. "I'll take a rain check on that invitation, darlin'," she said, and he grinned. As she straightened and walked back to her desk, both men were hard-pressed to ignore her obvious charms. Hutchinson was well aware of his partner's mutual interest.
"Hey, Starsky, don't get any ideas. Remember, I saw her first," Hutch reminded him as they headed for Captain Kraft's office door. Starsky looked completely innocent and then knocked.
"Come in," the captain's voice said.
The two men hovered tentatively inside the doorway as they walked into Kraft's office. He was sitting at his desk, his feet up, leaning back in his chair. He took his feet down when they entered, motioning to his visitor's chairs. "Go ahead and sit down. The two of you have obviously come a long way to see me."
The two men pulled out chairs and sat down. They looked at each other as they took their seats; neither of them able to determine the seriousness of their situation by the tone of the man's voice, the way they could with Dobey. He folded his arms in front of him and eyeballed them mercilessly. "So, you two are from Bay City?"
"Yes, sir." Hutch answered. "I'm Detective Kenneth Hutchinson."
"And I'm Detective Starsky."
His hand reached out to shake theirs. "Pleasure to meet you both. So, what brings you to my humble city?"
Hutch turned to Starsky. "You go ahead, Starsk. I'm just along for the ride."
"Right. Um, you see, Captain, my partner and I are investigating a car accident that happened here a few months ago; the decedent's name was Elaine Colchetti. We're here because we have reason to believe the accident may not have been an accident."
"What kind of reasons? I need to hear them. You don't have to be specific. But you do have to be straight with me."
"Okay, no problem. We have a source, a young woman in her early twenties, who claims that her father and his current wife had her mother killed."
"Sounds tenuous--but go ahead."
"We have hearsay information provided by this source that suggests to us that the father and his new wife may have had a pecuniary motive for wanting the mother out of the picture."
"Of course, hearing things like this makes us curious to find out what really did happen to the lady," Hutch added.
"Of course. So you came all the way out here from Bay City to corroborate her story."
"That's right, but only because we have reason to believe this young lady is telling us the truth. So, what do you think?" Starsky asked.
"I'm not sure. For the life of me, I don't know what you think you're going to uncover that would be germane to the story your source has given you. The department has already done a preliminary investigation of the accident, and that was due to the financial profile of Mrs. Colchetti's husband and the circumstances of her death, for insurance purposes. I can tell you unequivocally that no manpower was spared on it. And I guarantee you that my men dotted each i and crossed every t when it was over. I just don't think that the two of you are going to find out anything that will substantially support your source's suspicions."
"Yeah, okay. But in spite of all that, Captain, isn't it still possible that your men coulda missed something?" Starsky queried.
"It's not highly likely." He sniffed.
Starsky stood up and Hutchinson followed him to the door. "But it's possible, right?"
"Detective Starsky, in my line of work I've found that anything's possible. In light of that fact, I'm going to grant you both access to any available resources at our disposal. I never want it be said that the Philadelphia Police Department did not do its part to assist its fellow officers." Kraft turned to look out his window and light a cigarette. "Even if they are working off duty and out of their jurisdiction."
Starsky flashed his partner one of those "do you believe this character?" glances and Hutch raised his brow. Kraft sounded just like one of those highbrow politicians he remembered Hutch's father liked to introduce them to at those name-dropping functions he used to invite them to on occasion to show off. His type were always on and always campaigning for office.
Kraft turned to face them again. "Where were you two thinking about heading first?"
Starsky beamed. Kraft was going to help. "We'd wanna go take a look at the car."
"After that," Hutchinson added, "we'd want to visit the site of the accident, see if we can pick up any stray clues."
"All right, I gather you've both read the filed reports, and you know that the accident occurred on I-95. If I remember correctly, Mrs. Colchetti was traveling south approaching the airport. She was preparing to exit the highway, and a delivery truck of some type entered the highway at a high rate of speed. The truck driver clipped the rear end of her BMW and flipped it over; it must have turned over at least ten times. It was a pretty nasty smash-up. If you want to see what's left of the vehicle, you'll have to hurry. I think it's on the way to the junkyard. It might be there already."
"The junk yard?" Hutch repeated.
"Yeah, that happens when foul play is ruled out and the car is totaled. You know that."
"Wouldja mind tellin' us where we might find this place?"
"The insurance company holding the policy on the vehicle would have that information. Check with Cassie on your way out."
Both men sprinted for the door of Kraft's office and they weren't halfway out of it before he stopped them. "Officers?"
"Yes, sir?" They answered.
"Thanks," they replied.
Starsky went back to the desk where they'd been poring over the incident reports on the case and tried to straighten it up a little, while Hutch approached Kraft's fetching secretary, Cassie, for the information on Mrs. Colchetti's car. He leaned toward her, smiling a smile that would charm the scales off a snake. She stopped typing and immediately responded to his presence. "Yes? How can I help you, Sergeant Hutchinson?" she asked him, smiling dreamily at him.
"You can call me Ken."
"All right, Ken. What can I help you with?"
"The captain says you might be able to help us out with the information for the insurance company that insured Elaine Colchetti's car. It's the one that was involved in a hit-and-run accident about four months ago?" He turned to his partner. "What's the file number, Starsk?"
She jotted down the number. "Hold on a minute, I'll take a look for you." The young woman got up and went to a nearby file cabinet, thumbed through a drawer and pulled a file folder, she checked it thoroughly, then brought the folder over to him and stood so close to him he could smell her perfume. "Here it is. Says here the vehicle was insured by Pennsylvania State Mutual Insurance Company." She leaned over and wrote the address and phone number down on a slip of paper, then turned it over and quickly wrote down her name and home number. She tucked the piece of paper into his hand and let her eyes rest on his for a moment. "I know you'll pay particular attention to that second number, won't you?"
Hutch noted it and smiled again very broadly. "I sure will. Thank you...Cassie."
Hutch left her side and stuffed the folded piece of paper into his shirt pocket, then walked over to his partner and tapped him on the shoulder. Starsky looked up at him. "I got it. Let's go."
When they left the station, they were armed with a renewed sense of purpose, but not much else. They had no idea what they'd be able find out from the insurance company much less what they'd be allowed to see. They hoped that with any luck, Captain Kraft might be able to pull some strings and they'd be able to cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape. When they got outside the building, Dixon was there waiting for them with the engine running. The man truly was a marvel. The detectives got into the Caddy's backseat and he swung the car around to head back to the house. Never a quiet man for long, Dixon tried engaging the two men in some idle chitchat. "So, did you find what you were looking for?"
The sound of his voice was kind of unexpected, like a freight train whistle late at night. Neither one of them were paying much attention to what he was saying, lost as they were their own thoughts. He tried again. "Hello back there, are you among the living?"
"Whatja say, Dix?" Starsky said, finally responding.
"I said, did you find out anything from our Captain of the Police?"
"Oh, you know him, Dix?"
"We have had occasion to meet now and again."
Hutch joined the conversation. "Well, the captain was nice enough to provide us with an address to a place that might be helpful to our cause. You think you could find it for us if we gave you the address?"
"Is the Pope Catholic?"
Starsky grinned. "Last time I heard."
"The address is 13 West Willow Grove Avenue."
"We are there, you have but to say the word."
Dixon checked his side mirror and steered the Cadillac into a wide U-turn that headed them in the opposite direction. They were well on their way to the offices of Penn State Mutual Insurance.
The Penn State Mutual Insurance Company was an overpowering, rather intimidating white brick structure that took up all but a few acres of the land it was built upon. To get there had taken only an hour, but when Dixon pulled into the lot; he knew that he had no intention of sticking around as he had at the police station. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and the other on top of the seat as he looked back at his passengers and they got ready to exit. "The two of you might want to think about hiring a cab to get you back to Frankie's place. Normally I'd stick around, but these establishments are not known for their appreciation of others' time, if you know what I mean."
"We know what you mean. Don't worry about it. We'll get back okay."
"Dix, when you get back there, wouldja tell Frankie we said 'thanks again', please?"
"Sure thing. Will we be seeing you later on tonight, you think?"
"Depends on what we find out."
"All right then. I bid you good luck, gentlemen."
Both men got out of the car and walked toward the looming insurance building. They stood in front of the entrance until Dixon drove away. The darker man leaned close to his fairer partner and whispered, "You get the feelin' he knows more than he's tellin' us?"
"Starsk, you're too superstitious."
"You got a better explanation for him just showin' up at the front door like that?"
"I dunno, Starsky. Maybe it's ESP, or telepathy. Who knows? I'm no expert on the supernatural. All I know is that the quicker we get inside this place and start asking some questions, the quicker we'll be able to get this taken care of."
"Lead the way, O blond one."
Hutch went inside and up the stairs first with Starsky behind him. When they got inside the office they had to stop to adjust to the interior lighting, which seemed severe in comparison to the natural light they'd been in outside.
"Is just me, or is it really bright in here?" Hutch asked, blinking his eyes.
"No, it's really bright in here."
After a few seconds of readjustment, Starsky made out a sign before them that read "INFORMATION". He tapped his partner on the shoulder and pointed to it. They walked up to the clerk manning the desk. He was a small man, wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses straight out of the fifties, and a drab, grey business suit that seemed appropriate to his quiet demeanor. He looked up immediately when they approached. "May I help you, gentlemen?"
"Ah, yes, we hope so. I'm Ken Hutchinson, and this is my partner, Dave Starsky. We're detectives investigating the Colchetti hit and run that occurred about four months ago. Can you tell us where we might find someone with records on the incident?"
"Colchetti, you say?"
"Right," Starsky answered. "The driver was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run on her way to the airport. We'd like to get a look at the vehicle if that's still possible."
"Well, we handle them by last name, first name and the C's start over there." He pointed to a sign that had "A-D" on it. "Walk over there and tell that clerk what you just told me."
"Thanks," Hutch said.
They left the male clerk and walked in the direction of the sign, their eyes drifting down to the hefty female clerk below it. Starsky gulped. "Oh, man, I sure wouldn't want to get her mad."
Hutch silently agreed, clearing his throat as they stepped forward. "Excuse me, ma'am."
The clerk looked up but didn't say anything. She was chewing frantically on gum that had probably lost its flavor a half hour ago. She was pale and blonde, and she wore a floral muumuu that covered her from stem to stern. Both men smiled the most pleasing smiles they could muster, considering. Hutch tried again.
"Pardon the interruption, but we've just spoken to the information clerk over on the other side and he tells us you might be able to help us find what we're looking for."
"What're ya looking for?" she asked him quizzically, not really paying attention.
"We're lookin' for a car," Starsky answered.
"What kind of a car? Ford? Dodge? New or used?"
Hutch frowned. "It's neither, ah, none of those."
"We're lookin' for a car that was involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Probably totaled. It's under the last name Colchetti. First name Elaine." He spelled the last name for her. "The accident took place around August of this year. Ya think ya could help us find it?"
Finally, she focused on them. "You're lookin' for the actual car?"
"Yes, the actual car."
"I'll go take a look. Wait right there, okay?"
The woman stopped chewing on her gum and reading her romance novel long enough to get up from her desk and go over to a file drawer. She rifled through it until she came upon something, pulled it and brought it back to her desk, then she stopped in mid-motion, seemingly flustered, and turned to them. "Hey, how do I know you guys are really detectives? You haven't even shown me your badges or anything yet."
"Oh, yeah, sorry." Hutch produced his badge and showed it to her, and Starsky did the same.
"Does that help ya?" Starsky asked.
"Loads," she answered, then opened the folder to read the contents off to them. "Says here, "Elaine Colchetti, was deceased on August 23rd, 1977. The car was a black convertible foreign number that's since been released to Peterman's Wrecking Yard for recycling."
"It's not too far from here. In fact, if you walk out those glass doors, you'll almost be in their parking lot." She pointed toward the rear exit.
"Out those doors?" Starsky queried, already headed in the direction she was pointing.
The woman nodded her head silently a rather impatient look growing on her face. As they were walking away, they suddenly, at the same time, remembered something they'd neglected to do. "Hey, ah...ah...thanks!" they yelled back.
"Don't mention it!" she responded after going back to her duties, one of which included chewing her gum at the same frenetic pace she had been before she was interrupted by the demands of work.
When the two detectives went out the building's back exit, they saw nothing. They were standing outside the glass doors, looking around. Neither of them able to spot anything that even remotely looked like a junkyard in the vicinity. Hutch was starting to get a little hot under the collar and he tapped his partner on the shoulder. Starsky turned to him.
"Starsk, promise me something."
"Promise me this is the last time I let you sucker me into going on a wild goose chase with you."
"Can't do that."
Starsky spotted something to his left. "Hey, lookit that over there."
Starsky pointed. "Over there. Looks like a parking lot to me."
Hutch squinted in the direction he was pointing. "Looks like one to me, too."
Starsky started off towards the parking lot and Hutchinson followed him. "You still haven't answered my question."
"Why you can't promise me you won't ask me to go on one of these little excursions of yours again."
"Oh, that. Well, 'cause life's unpredictable, Hutch. If I promised ya that, I'd be lyin' to ya, and I wouldn't want to do that."
Hit with that kind of pretzel logic, there wasn't much more Hutch could say. It made such perfectly good sense, at least to his partner, that he didn't bother arguing his point whatever it had been, although it had seemed like a perfectly good one at the time. He simply followed the man wherever he wanted to lead them to.
The parking lot that Starsky had seen from a distance did soon lead to a noisy and very cluttered auto junkyard with the name 'Peterman's' heralded above it in huge lettering painted on a wooden sign. The two partners purposefully searched out the proprietor of the establishment, who turned out to be a man named Harley Peterman. Peterman was a big guy, oddly comfortable in dirty coveralls and a straw hat, his jaws chewing busily on a wad of tobacco; he was definitely the 'hillbilly' type. Beside him stood two black Dobermans, both unleashed and sniffing the air around them like eager bloodhounds readying for the hunt. Neither of the detectives wanted to get on their, or his, bad side.
Starsky extended a shaky hand towards the man, prompting both of the dogs' snouts to follow it until it reached their master. "H...Hello. Mr. Peterman?"
He shook the hand offered him. "Yeah, I'm Peterman. What's it to you?"
"Well, ah...me and my partner here, we'd like to see on of your cars."
"What for?" he snorted, still feeling them out.
"We think it might have been involved in a felony."
"A felony? That kinda evidence gets held up at the police investigation yard, don't it?"
"Well, this one might have slipped by them. That's why we'd like to see it. Do you have any idea where it is?"
"It was a convertible number, black paint job. Foreign. Ring any bells?"
"Oh, that one. That one's on the crane."
"On the crane?" Hutch questioned.
"Yeah, it's suspended...in mid-air, you know? We drop them down into the crusher after we get all the salvageable parts off 'em. Although, this one didn't have that many parts on it for resell. I tell ya, the way it looked, I'd of hated to have seen the driver."
"She didn't make it."
"Didn't think so. Well, come on, I'll show it to you."
"Ah, don't you want to see our badges or somethin' first?"
"Naw, I trust you. If you weren't on the up and up, my dogs would've had you for lunch already."
Starsky looked at his partner, and he at him. Then they followed Peterman and his two dogs to the salvage yard, albeit at a safe distance.
"There it is up there," he said, pointing towards the sky.
Both men looked up. It was there, all right, suspended in space by the powerful claw arm of the crane that held it. But it didn't look much like a car anymore. It really didn't look like much of anything anymore.
"Can you bring it down?" Hutch asked.
They both stood as close to Peterman's dogs as they dared, while he walked over to the crane and stepped inside. They watched him operate the controls of the machine, bringing the twisted hunk of metal down precisely to within an inch of where they were standing. When it landed on the ground, a plume of dirt rose, and Peterman hit the release lever on the control panel. The huge claws climbed up and settled at the very apex and stopped. Then Peterman climbed out of the crane and rejoined them. "Well, there it is," he said.
"Not much of it left."
"I told you that. This thing rolled over a bunch of times, too. At least that's what the paperwork told."
Hutch circled the medium sized hulk of metal a couple of times. What had been the fabric convertible's roof was in tatters and the metal that had held it was bent in odd directions. He tried opening the driver's side door, but it was wedged against something inside and it wouldn't open. The tires were gone. So were the seats and much of the innards of the vehicle. Starsky examined the rear of the wreck, checking the impact site. The bumper area had been severely damaged, and upon closer examination, he noticed streaks of white paint running across its lower half.
"Come and take a look at this."
Hutch left his spot at the front of the car, and joined his partner at the rear. "Whatcha got?"
"Take a look. There." He pointed. "Whaddya see?"
Hutch examined the spot on the bumper that his partner indicated. He leaned closer and studied it for a second, looked up at his partner.
"Well, what does that look like to you?"
He touched the bumper and examined at the flecks that remained up on his fingers. "Paint?"
"That's what I was thinkin'. Mr. Peterman, could you come over here a second?"
Peterman gave an order for his dogs to stay, and he joined the two men. "What can I help you with?"
"We think we might have found something. We're going to need a ride out to Interstate 95. Know how we can get one?"
"Well, I could let you borrow my truck, but you'd have to promise to bring it back."
"You sure about that? I mean, even if we are cops, we're still strangers. Are you saying you'd trust us to take your truck and bring it back?" Hutch asked him, skeptical.
"Hell, no, I don't trust you. But I do trust my dogs. They'd be goin' with you. You know, sorta like insurance. And of course I'd want a little something for my time." He ran his thumb slowly over his index and middle fingers greedily.
"Hutch, pay the man."
"You heard me."
The blond went into his pants pocket and pulled out two twenties. "Man, the things I do for a friend," he muttered and handed the man the money, which Peterman pocketed quickly.
"Terrific. Hold on just a second."
Starsky pulled a small jackknife out of his jacket pocket, along with a small envelope. Into it he scraped a sample of the paint from the bumper and then put everything back into his pocket. He held it up to Hutch's face. "For the police lab." Hutch nodded.
"I can give you the keys right now if you want."
"Sure, why not?"
"They're in the truck."
"Be right back, Starsk. Okay, let's go."
Peterman took his dogs with him and led the blond detective to a dirty white trailer that doubled as his office; he climbed inside and came out with a key fob that was overburdened with keys. Then he led Hutchinson over to a grey 1952 flatbed Ford that was parked beside the trailer. Peterman offered the blond man the keys and grasped his dogs by their collars, leading them into the back of the truck. He got in the flatbed with them and secured their leashes, then jumped out and closed the hinged door. Then he joined Hutch in the cab and they drove the short distance back to his partner. Peterman hopped out and stood beside the open door. "You guys still gonna be needing that metal over there? I mean it is worth a little dough to me. "
Starsky took one last look at it and got into the truck. Then he closed the Ford's door. "Tell you what, hold off on it until we come back with your truck, we may still need it. Will you do that?"
"I can do that, sure thing. But I need my truck and my dogs back here by eight o' clock sharp tomorrow. There's a Thomas Guide under the front seat if you need one." He tipped his hat. "I sure hope you guys find what you're looking for."
Hutch looked over at him. "Thanks. So do we," he said, and then put the truck in reverse, backed up and into drive. They waved to the portly man as they disappeared down the road in his truck.
Harley Peterman stood on the dirt portion of the lot, watching them take off down the road in his truck, with his dogs. He spit out a jawful of wet, black tobacco juice and watched it splatter onto the ground, then wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve. "Humph, big city folk," he grumbled.
Having concluded that the early morning hours would be more suitable for their search than the waning hours of the evening, the two detectives returned to the boarding house. On Wednesday morning, after an early breakfast and after having made sure that Peterman's dogs were watered and well fed, they started out. When they got to the site, only a few cars were speeding down the wide stretch of blacktopped asphalt. Hutchinson pulled the truck over to the right hand side of the highway and parked, and Starsky got out first, surveying the road for as far ahead as his eyes could see.
"Any idea what it is we're lookin' for exactly?" Hutch asked, climbing out of the driver side.
"Skid marks. Tire tracks, maybe a piece of somethin' from the truck that hit the car. Anything the PPD guys might have left behind when they did their preliminary investigation."
"In other words, a needle in haystack."
There was landscaping on both sides of the I-95, as well as a weedy gully full of discarded cans and bottles and other items. Both sides of the road were crossable if they were careful. Hutchinson looked around at the wide expanse of road before them.
"Where do you want to start?"
"How about you take the left side, I take the right? We'll check about fifteen yards up, and then do a run back. Meet back here at the truck when we're done."
"Sounds good to me."
Hutchinson gave his partner a quick shoulder rub, looked both ways and cautiously ran across four lanes of blacktop to the other side of the highway. Starsky checked his side, and right away saw something shining directly in front of him, he ran ahead to check it out. "Hey, Hutch! I think I got somethin'!" he yelled as he bent down to pick it up.
Hutch stopped on his side. "Whaddya got?" he called over.
The detective picked through some weeds and trash and pulled out the object, dusted it off and frowned. It was a tin plate from an old TV dinner. "Aw, it's nothin', just somebody's leftovers!"
"Well, keep lookin'!"
The two men searched every square inch of the area twice, turning up nothing useful to them. Hutchinson checked his watch; it was five minutes to seven. He crossed the traffic lanes again and met up with his partner beside the truck. The two dogs stood and waited in the back of the truck watching them, panting and drooling.
"Well, looks like this is clean."
"I thought sure we'd find somethin' out there. We have to get the truck back to Peterman in an hour."
"Want to try up the road a little farther? I didn't see any skid marks on this stretch of road, now that I think of it." He opened up the driver side door and climbed inside.
Starsky nodded, "Sure, why not." He walked past the two dogs, and one of them adventurously stuck his wet snout out at him as he went by. "Watch it, fella." He warned playfully, and then got in.
Hutch started up the truck, waited for traffic to yield and then merged into light traffic. He drove down the road a few miles until he spied what appeared to be the faint outline of tire marks on the road. "Look, Starsk, over there." He pointed to some black tread marks on the leftmost lane. "What do those look like to you?"
"They look promising, is what they look like. Let's check it out."
Hutch stopped the truck and they got out, again watching for oncoming traffic as they crossed. They stood on a grassy area at the side of the road and looked at the marks. They were from tires, but they were not fresh. It had been three or four months since the accident, and the weather had taken its toll on anything that remained, removing almost all existence of the event.
"I'll check the other side." Hutch offered, sprinting across the lanes when it was clear.
They searched the new spot and again came up with nothing. Starsky rejoined his partner at the truck once more. "I got zip, what about you?"
"Same here. What's next?"
"We take the truck back to Peterman and get him to drive us back to Frankie's. Then we'll probably have to set up that meeting with Angel's parents after all."
"That's what I thought you were going to say."
The two detectives got back in Peterman's truck, made an illegal U-turn and headed back towards the junkyard.
By the time the two detectives returned the truck and Peterman's dogs back to him it was a few minutes before eight. As agreed, the man dropped them off at the boarding house and then drove home. When the two of them walked into the house, Angel was sitting in the living room on the sofa with the owner, Frankie. Her face was as forlorn as a puppy dog's, but it seemed to perk up when the raven-haired detective strode in with his partner.
"You guys find out anything?"
Starsky raised both hands, palms up. "Not a thing." He walked over to the sofa and sat down beside the two women, while Hutch settled into the wing chair across from them. "What'll we do now? What's left?"
"We're gonna have to talk to your father."
"That's what I was afraid of."
Starsky took hold of her hand. "You can stay here if you don't feel comfortable going out there with us."
"Oh, no. I want to go...I--I guess I have to."
"Look, would it make you more comfortable if one of us stayed behind? I'm thinking the situation won't seem quite so confrontational if there aren't two out of state cops waiting at his front door when he opens it," Hutch reasoned.
Starsky turned to her. "That's a good idea. So whaddya say? Would that make you feel better?"
"Yes, and I'd really like it if you'd be the one to come with me."
Hutch nodded his head knowingly. "Okay, so the decision's been made. I'll stay behind."
"What're you gonna do in the meantime, partner?"
"I'll hang around here, help out if I'm needed. Check in with Dobey. Maybe give that pretty secretary at Kraft's office a call, who knows?"
"Okay. Frankie, do you know of a good place to rent a car around here? I hate to keep imposin' on old Dix every time we need a ride someplace."
"I sure do. You can use mine."
"I didn't think you had a car."
"Nor did you ask."
"Well, you got me there. What and where?"
"It's a sixty-two Dodge. It's been sitting out back in the garage gathering dust off and on for about six months. Dixon keeps it up for me when it needs it. I only use it every once in a great while."
"Okay. Mind if I go out and take a look at it?" Starsky asked.
"No problem. Follow me." The woman got up and led them outside and to the back of the house. They followed her expectantly, curiously anticipating the sight of a car that sounded more like a haven for stray mice and errant cats than a mode of transportation. When they reached the garage, the two men lifted the heavy garage door and propped it open with a pair of dirty wooden posts that were kept nearby for the purpose. They dusted off their hands and looked inside. The interior of the garage was neat and well organized with cobwebs and spiders that had invariably settled in the rafters.
The vehicle in question sat under a dusty old tarp. Starsky walked to one side and Hutch the other and together they lifted the tarp off to got a good look at the object underneath it. For something that was fifteen-years old and rarely used, it looked fairly decent. Starsky studied the car's lines, kicked the tires. It wasn't the Torino, but if it was as well maintained under the hood as Frankie had said it had been, than he figured it might not be too bad.
"Well, what do you think?" Frankie asked.
"It looks pretty good. But how does it run?" he queried.
She dug into her apron pocket and pulled out a handful of keys, plucked one from the lot and handed it to the curly-haired detective. "Here's the key, let's find out."
He took it, got inside and tried starting the car. After a couple of turns, the engine turned over and he saw a lot of exhaust smoke coming from the back, but after a few presses of the accelerator, the smoke cleared away. Everything appeared to be clicking on all cylinders and he was clearly impressed. "She purrs like a kitten, Frankie. But I won't be able to tell you if she's road worthy until I take her for a test drive."
"Be my guest."
"Thanks a lot. Anybody want to join me? Hutch?"
"No-o-o, thanks, not the way you drive. I'll keep my feet firmly planted on terra firma."
"I'll go with you," Angel spoke up.
Starsky raised an eyebrow, started to rebuff her, but let it go. "Okay, ah, hop in."
Angel came around the passenger side and the lanky blond opened the door for her. After he'd closed it, he bent down and tapped on the glass. She rolled the window down.
Starsky eyed him inquisitively from the driver seat. "Yeah, buddy?"
"I just wanted you to be sure to bring all this back in one piece."
Starsky smiled at him. "Are you kiddin'? I wouldn't think of damaging this fine piece of machinery." He slapped at his chest. "They don't make 'em like this anymore. One of a kind."
"That's for sure, but I was talking about the car and the girl."
"Oh." Taking his friend's advice to heart, Starsky put the car in reverse and backed slowly out of the garage.
Hutchinson strode over to Frankie's side and waved his partner and the girl off as they pulled away and out of sight.
She regarded him quietly, wondering whether she could chance asking him a sensitive question without seeming too forward. As they were heading back to the house, she put a hand on his forearm. "Detective Hutchinson, would you mind if I asked you a question?"
"No, what is it?"
"How do you feel about your young friend?"
It was a question he'd been deliberating himself, but he didn't think anyone else had been, least of all her. "How do you mean?"
"I mean she doesn't talk much around me, she's very quiet and respectful. But when either of you enter the room, she lights up like a moth to a flame. You haven't know each other very long and...well...that's kind of unusual, don't you think?"
"Well, to tell you the truth I've been thinking the same thing. Except that instead of it being both of us, I'd say it's my partner she does all her lighting up around. I haven't been able to figure out what's going on with her yet, but I have a gut feeling that she's not being entirely up front with us."
"Well, now that you mention your partner, I've been watching the way the two of them interact. It seems at times he's very close with her and at other times he's a little uneasy. It seems like he wants to be nurturing and caring but at the same time he wants to keep his distance."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." He smiled at her. "You've got a good eye."
"Just something I've gotten fairly good at doing. Must be from all my dealings with people over the years. I'm intuitive about these things, and it's fairly obvious to me that she's the 'needy' type, she needs attention."
"How do you mean?"
"Haven't you noticed the way she 'leans' on him? It's almost like she's needs him to breathe. I've seen it before and I'll tell you one thing, it could mean trouble for him if he's not ready."
"It wouldn't be the first time." He groaned. "But Starsky's a grown man, if he needs my advice he knows where to find me. Let's go in, huh?"
"I just wanted to be sure that you were aware." She stepped up onto the back porch and went into the house.
"Oh, I am," Hutch responded, following her. "I am."
Ordinarily Sergeant David Starsky knew where the lines were drawn when it came to adhering to the rules of his job. For his partner and himself there was always a fine line between the outright flouting of those rules and the bending of them to get a desired result. And the one hard and fast rule of any civil servant is, don't get personally involved in your cases. It sounds simple enough in principle, but in reality, it isn't always the easiest thing to do. Especially when real life gets in the way. There's always an internal struggle to keep things on a purely professional level.
Even though he knew it probably wasn't a good idea to get involved with Angel Colchetti, he also knew something else; that she was a hugely attractive, funny and intelligent young woman who was as much attracted to him as he was to her. The problem was that there were too many things he didn't know about her yet. Such as how much truth there was to her story and how deeply she was involved. She was a stranger to him, and under normal circumstances he wouldn't be doing what he was doing, but for some strange reason these weren't 'normal' circumstances.
"I wanted to ask you something, before we go back to the house." She leaned in close to him as she spoke. Her skin and hair smelled of milled soap and earthy perfume.
"Ask me what?" he asked innocently.
"Remember the question I asked you on the bus?"
He didn't look at her, keeping his eyes on the road ahead of him. He knew his already thready resolve would be done for if he let his eyes stray into those big brown eyes of hers. "What question?" he asked.
"Would you please stop fudging and answer me?"
He went silent.
She folded her arms. "You don't remember, do you?"
He glanced over at her once and then quickly redirected his eyes onto the road. "Oh, you mean the 'how do I like you' question?" She nodded succinctly and he tilted his head as if he were giving it some thought. "Oh-h, I guess I'd have to say I like you better than a sister, if I had one."
"How much better?"
"Where are you going with this?"
"Pull over and I'll tell you."
He frowned and eased off the accelerator and pulled the car over to the side of the road. There was no indication of any apprehension or uncertainty in his movements, he just put the car in park and turned off the engine, and then rested his left hand on the steering wheel, with his right arm lying along the back of the seat behind her. "You're really serious about this."
"Yes, I'm very serious about this." She leaned toward him and put her hands on his arms, turning his body to face her. "Could you please at least look at me?"
He did. And as soon as he did he remembered the feeling he'd gotten back in Hutch's apartment, the picture of her with her mother, that burgundy dress, the smell of her perfume, and suddenly whatever was holding him back from acting on his impulses ceased to exist. He drew her close to him, closed his eyes and kissed her, hard and for a long time. Then once their lips had parted, he seemed to regain control of himself and he turned away. "I don't know what I was thinking, I shouldn't have done that."
She inhaled. "I'm glad you did."
"We should go back." His hand nervously went for the keys.
She placed her hand over it. "Why, are you afraid of me?"
Starsky shook his head. "I'm not...afraid of you. It's just I know there's gotta be somethin' wrong with this."
"Why does there have to be anything wrong?" Her hand was still on his.
"For one thing I'm a cop. It's better for both of us if I don't get involved with you while I'm trying to help you. The investigation's going to suffer, or one of us will."
"That won't happen."
"What makes you so sure about that?"
"Look, I know I've only known you a few days, but believe it or not, I can tell a whole lot about you. It's all in your actions and your physical characteristics." His body language was distant; he didn't believe a word of it. "Okay, so like for instance right now, you're telling me a whole lot about yourself without saying a word. Your distance from me tells me that you don't take things at face value. Am I right?" He didn't respond. She took his hand in hers and then brushed the back of it against her cheek, he didn't pull his hand away. "This tells me you're not afraid to be touched by the love of another." She ran her free hand through the curls on the back of his head casually. "The texture of your hair tells me that you're an incredibly strong person with a healthy appetite for life. You've already shown me that you're caring and noble. What more do I need to know about you?"
Starsky freed his hand from hers and rubbed his palms together, ridding them of the sweat that was building on them. "Okay, so let's say this thing works out, what then? Haven't you noticed there's a big age gap between us? I mean I'm thirty-four years old and you're, you're what, twenty or twenty-one? From where I sit that's a pretty big stretch."
She didn't blink an eye. "I like older men. Always have. You can ask anybody who knows me."
He shook his head and held his stomach with his left hand as a familiar sensation of fear rose in the pit of his stomach and traveled up into his chest.
She wanted him to say something, anything. After a minute her hand went to his sleeve. "Just tell me one thing, when this is all over, after we've found out what really happened to my mother, do you think you'd be able to relax enough to at least find out if this is something you want to continue?"
She was offering him an out. He jumped it. "Sure. I guess so."
"Then why don't we do that? We'll go to my father's house today, right now."
He restarted the car and pulled it back onto the main road, his head swimming with the possibilities her scenario presented. He wondered what he would do if he weren't able to follow through on his promise even after they found out what happened. He would probably end up doing exactly what he wanted to do the least. Break her heart. Right now it wasn't something he couldn't afford to think about. He turned to her. "What do I tell my partner?"
"Call him and tell him where we're going, what we're doing, he'll understand."
"Yeah, okay. Where's your father live?"
"I'll show you. Just keep driving."
When they pulled up to where Angel's father and his new wife lived, Starsky was noticeably impressed with what he saw. The Colchetti residence was located in one of the most exclusive sections of Philadelphia known as Ardmore. It was one of those enclaves where the affluent did things like dine on pheasant under glass and give expensive parties in their overpriced mansions beside their equally overpriced Bentleys, Jags and Rolls Royces. They walked up to the gate. After she pressed the buzzer, she caught him fidgeting anxiously.
"Is there something the matter?"
"Um, no, your father's got a really nice set up."
She knew the look because they all got it sooner or later. "Yes, my father is loaded." She smiled. "But don't let that bother you. He's really just a commoner underneath all this grandeur."
"You sure you don't mean he's just a wolf in sheep's clothing?"
"No, I don't. He's really okay. And he doesn't have ESP and he will not somehow know that you kissed me, if that's what you're worried about. You'll be fine."
She pressed the buzzer again and the intercom came to life.
"Yes, who's there?" a haughty male voice answered.
"It's Angela, please tell my father that I'm here to see him, and I have a guest."
"Yes, miss," the filtered voice responded.
Not so long after the intercom went quiet, a large wrought iron gate opened automatically and they walked through it. The grounds were spacious, well kept and expertly manicured. The actual residence was set well away from the entrance, so that it was a relatively long walk to the front door. When they finally reached it, the butler was waiting for them. Must be video monitors, Starsky thought. The butler addressed them both with perfunctory air. "Miss Colchetti."
"Hello, Charles. Where's my father?"
Charles was a stiff, wiry man in his mid-fifties, dressed in a starched grey butler's uniform, and buffed to gleaming navy blue shoes. His own dull blue eyes followed Starsky narrowly, as though he thought the man might have some sort of communicable disease. "Your father is in the reading room, Miss. Shall I show you in?"
"No thank you, Charles. I'll find him myself."
"Of course." He closed the front door, and then left them alone.
Starsky followed her through the museum-like rooms until they reached a study. He felt like he was touring the inside of a mausoleum, not a place to live in and entertain people. When they came into the room, the only thing visible from their perspective was a plume of smoke that rose above an unidentified head. John Colchetti was sitting in a huge armchair, reading the Business Journal and smoking a pipe. As they rounded the corner and he came into view, Colchetti lowered his newspaper and pulled down his reading glasses, his lips sagging away slowly from the pipe as he removed it.
She breathed out the breath she'd been holding in. "Yes, Dad. It's me."
He rose immediately from his chair, slapping the newspaper down as if he were going over to embrace her. But when he saw the man who was with her, he stopped in the center of the room. "Who's this?" he asked, drawing back visibly. "Don't tell me you're in trouble with the authorities."
She scowled, and turned on her heels to leave, but Starsky grabbed her before she could go very far. "It's not like that, sir. Your daughter asked me to come with her and talk to you." He offered his hand. "I'm David Starsky. I'm a detective with the Bay City Police Department in California."
"Bay City? I don't understand," Colchetti replied. "Talk to me about what?" He shook the hand offered him somewhat apprehensively and released it. He was a tall, handsome man with a dark Mediterranean cast to his skin. At first glance, he might be described as intimidating, but the coolness of his manner contradicted the seriousness of his outward appearance.
"About Mother's accident," Angel answered him roughly.
"A few days ago your daughter approached my partner and me about some concerns she had about the circumstances of her mother's death. I'm interested in helping her out, and I was hoping you could shed some light on a few things."
Colchetti remained pleasant, if only the slightest bit offended. "What'd you say you were? A cop?"
"I'm a detective, actually, if you want to get specific." The dark-haired detective came forward and put his hand lightly on Colchetti's forearm. "Why don't you sit down, Mr. Colchetti?" He turned to Angel. "You too."
Colchetti lowered himself back into his armchair and his daughter reluctantly sat down in one of the chairs that was furthest away from him.
Starsky sat in an identical chair beside her and deliberated the tack he was going to take. This would be the hardest part, questioning a man about the death of his estranged wife without turning the situation into a screaming match between father and daughter. There was also the possibility of being thrown off the property to think about. He laid out the questions in his head and then began. "Why don't you start by telling me everything you know about your ex-wife's accident?"
Before he could answer, the sound of a woman's high heels echoing on the hardwood floors in the hallway interrupted him. The footfalls continued until they reached the study entrance, then stopped. When the three of them looked up, the owner of those high heels was standing in the doorway. She smiled at them. "Oh, John, you have company. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's all right, Jess. Come on in, we were just talking."
Both men stood as she entered the room. 'Jess' was a very attractive woman, maybe mid to late thirties, medium height, auburn-haired, porcelain-skinned. If she'd been a little taller, she might have passed for a high fashion model. Angel's father made the introductions.
"Detective Starsky, this is Jessie, my new wife."
She offered a hand to him and smiled fetchingly. "Detective."
"Mrs. Colchetti, it's a pleasure." He watched her as she smiled and directed a silent greeting to the younger woman that she ignored. The lack of a reply didn't seem to cause her any great concern, leading Starsky to believe that it was a response she was used to getting from the young woman. She stood beside her husband's chair and made no further gestures or comments in the younger woman's direction.
"So," Mr. Colchetti sat down and began again. "You wanted to know what I know about the accident. Is that right?"
Starsky reseated himself, keeping his eyes on both of them at the same time that he answered. "Yes, sir. Just tell me what you know." He paid very subtle attention to Mrs. Colchetti's facial expressions to see if they changed during the questioning. They did not. She retained the same ingratiating, hostessy smile on her face the entire time she stood there. She did however, temporarily distract her husband by bumping his shoulder with her hip, once. He smiled appreciatively at her and then turned his attention back to the detective.
"Sorry. As I'm sure you've heard by now, my late wife and I were not on speaking terms. She'd made plans to go out of town for a few months and was on her way to do just that when the car she driving in was hit by an unidentified truck driver. The car spun into a ditch and turned over and she was killed instantly. A sad and unfortunate turn of events." He shrugged. "But one that I can assure you I had no part in bringing about."
"That's not true! You know that's not true! It wasn't an accident!" Angel shouted at him accusatorily.
"Angela, I know nothing of the sort. Forgive me, Detective Starsky, but ever since this happened my daughter has had this idea in her head that I meant to do her mother harm, which I assure you I did not. To tell you the truth, I've been trying to get past the whole thing and get on with my life. It really doesn't make any sense to dwell on it. I find it impossible to comprehend that she was able to find someone who actually believed these ridiculous accusations."
Mrs. Colchetti bent towards the girl as if to console her. "Now, now, John. I don't blame her for feeling the way she does. After all, Elaine was her mother. It is all right to feel this way, you know."
Angel simmered on that for a moment, then leapt from her chair and ran toward the front door again, this time making it as far as the hallway. Starsky got up and raced after her, grabbing her by her shoulders and subduing her, like capturing a bird in flight. He spun her around to face him. His voice was calm and affirming as he willed her to look into his eyes. "Look sweetheart, we're not going get anywhere here if you're gonna outright accuse people of stuff we're not even sure happened. We're here to find out what we can, so you've gotta calm down. If not I'm gonna haveta ask you to go and sit in the car. What's it gonna be?"
She hung her head. "I'll stay."
"Good. Now let's go back and sit down."
Angel walked with him back to the study and sat down wearily. Meanwhile, Colchetti and his wife were looking at each other with questioning eyes, waiting for the detective to return to his chair. He sat down and smiled at them. "Sorry about that. So now, Mr. Colchetti, when was the first time you were made aware of your estranged wife's fate?"
He thought for a moment, tapped his pipe on the wooden portion of his armchair and then tamped down the tobacco, then he said, "If I recall correctly, it was later on that same afternoon. An officer came to my door and reported it."
"What about you, Mrs. Colchetti?"
"I found out the same day John did. I was here with him."
Starsky caught Angel flashing a disapproving glance at the woman, and she looked away, to his relief she stayed in her seat. He continued, "What was your immediate reaction when you first learned about her death?"
"I was quite understandably upset. I mean I couldn't believe it happened at first. As I said, Elaine and I weren't on the best of terms, but she was the mother of my only daughter. I felt I did owe her at least that much respect."
"What did she do? Did she work outside the home? Have any hobbies?"
"No, she wasn't working. There was no need for her to. Maybe that was part of her problem. As for hobbies, mostly she shopped and traveled."
"Uh huh. If you don't mind me asking, what do you do for a living?"
"I own a couple of car dealerships," he chuckled softly. "A few, actually. Perhaps you've heard of them, Colchetti Motors?"
Starsky nodded that he was aware of the name. "How about you, Ms. Colchetti? Do you still work outside the home?"
"Not anymore." She was still smiling that overly solicitous smile. Starsky nodded and wondered how long it would stay that way. "What about a life insurance policy on the family, would there have been one in effect for your wife?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, there was," he answered indignantly. "I'm sorry, but just where is all this leading?"
"Nowhere, yet. Maybe it won't lead anywhere. I'm just checking things out."
Colchetti took a pull off his pipe and blew out the smoke. "You'll pardon my insolence, but I guess I'm still having trouble grasping why you thought my daughter's unsubstantiated accusations warranted a trip out here. This was quite obviously a jaunt for you."
"Well, it's this way, sir, your daughter asked me for help and I was willing to help her out. To be honest, if I were her father, and my wife had just been killed, and my only daughter had ended contact with me, I'd be curious to find out where she was and why she left. There'd be nothing that could stop me."
"Detective Starsky, it's painfully obvious to me that my daughter is old enough to make her own decisions about where she lives and with whom she lives. I haven't been making those decisions for her for some time. There was so much animosity between us about my remarrying when she left, that I just let her go, sometimes you just have to set them free."
"Like you set Mother free?" Her eyes bore into him, brimming. "She loved you, for Pete's sake."
"Um, would anyone like something to drink? I could have the butler bring in something," Mrs. Colchetti asked, apparently trying to diffuse the tension of the situation.
Starsky put up his hand. "No, no, thank you. I think that's all the questions I have, at least for now."
Mr. Colchetti stood up and grabbed onto his wife by her waist with an arm, the pipe held in the corner of his mouth. Angel gave Starsky a pained and surprised look at as he rose too, extending his hand to help her out of her chair. "Come on, babe. I don't think there's anything else to find out here." She unwillingly took his hand and walked out with him to the front entrance. Once they were there the butler appeared to escort them out. Both were quiet until they reached the car.
"Is that all we can do?" she asked plaintively.
"Nope. We're gonna do one more thing."
"We're going to find the officer who reported the accident to them and see whether his story jives with theirs."
"Good. I mean, at least that's something."
They got into the car and drove down to the Philadelphia Police Department, both hoping against hope that the two stories would contradict each other.
Hutch held the phone away from his ear and let Captain Harold Dobey release the head of steam he'd been building up since he and his partner had been away from the station. Even though the man had been their supervisor for sometime, it was still remarkable to him how far the man's voice could travel when he was pushed hard enough. When the captain paused to take a breath, Hutch put the phone back to his ear. "Yeah, Cap'n. I hear you. We'll wrap up our vacation as soon as possible...Um, no, Starsky's not here right at the moment, but I'll tell him you said hello." He pulled the phone away from his ear once more as Dobey gruffly and loudly reacted to his last statement. "Okay, right, Cap'n. We'll talk to you later.... Yeah, ten-four, over and out." He hung up the phone and rolled his eyes. This was definitely the last time he was letting Starsky talk him into doing something this impulsive again. He checked his watch for the time: four o'clock, and still no sign of him.
Where in the hell are you, Starsky?
Then as if in answer to his question, the curly-haired detective walked in, his female charge trailing not far behind him. The blond man wasted no time marching over to reprimand him. "What took you so long? I was just on the phone to Dobey and he's fit to be tied."
Starsky walked past him without seeing him; ignoring the wagging index finger pointed in his direction. He dropped defeatedly onto the couch. Angel stayed leaning against the arched doorway that led into the parlor. She was trembling and the whites of her eyes were veiny and red, as though she'd been crying. Hutch slowly lowered the finger he'd been holding up and sat down on the couch beside his partner. It didn't take a crystal ball to see that their plan wasn't working.
"Didn't go over too well, huh, buddy?"
"How'd you guess?"
"I'm a detective, dummy, I get paid to know these things. What happened over at Colchetti's place?"
Starsky looked up and over at Angel with a doleful smile. "Both of them have a verifiable alibi. I talked to one of the officers at the police department who worked the accident. They were both at home when the whole thing happened."
Angel walked over to the sofa and dropped down beside him, her head finding his shoulder, her left arm slipping into his right. "What am I supposed to do now?"
He leaned toward her. "Don't worry, something else will turn up."
"Yeah, who knows, with any luck somebody will get antsy and do something stupid."
Starsky stared at his partner disapprovingly. "You know, sometimes you're about as useless as a pulled tooth."
"Yeah, well, I do my best."
He patted Hutch's knee and smiled weakly, signifying that he understood the intention of the statement. It wasn't Hutch's fault that questioning the parents hadn't led to anything they could use. It was just that there was nothing for them to go on and it was getting frustrating. Starsky got up and reached his hand out to her and she took it. "Hey Hutch, I'm gonna make sure she gets upstairs okay."
"Good idea, Starsk. I'll right here."
Hutch watched his partner and the young woman until they disappeared upstairs. He already knew that would take a lot more than some unfocused nosing around by the two of them to figure out if anything out of the ordinary had happened to her mother. What they needed was a break, a big break.
Mrs. Jessie Colchetti lounged stylishly beneath a flowered canopy set up beside the main swimming pool, her eyes were closed, and her shapely legs were crossed at the ankles, the canopy lending just enough shade to keep her fair skin from burning under the sun's unrelenting rays. The Olympic-sized pool was a masterfully executed merging of imported masonry and exotic flora that sparkled with crystal blue water that lapped rhythmically against its sides, inviting those who desired to enter. As beautiful as it was, the pool was second in attractiveness to the woman lying beside it; she fairly glowed wearing a white two-piece swimsuit that boasted a matching swimming cap. A pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses shielded her eyes from the sun, and expensive-looking white heels shod her feet. Another butler, a black man named Henry, brought out a sterling silver-serving tray that bore two half-filled glasses of liquor and an antique phone set. He put the tray down on a table well within her reach and departed. She picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Sharon," a man's voice answered.
She checked her surroundings. "Jessie, please. We don't know who might be listening."
"Right. So how's it going, doll? How's it feel to be Mrs. John Colchetti?"
"It feels all right. I mean it's not very hard to get used to all this. But I'm worried. There was a cop nosing around here yesterday."
"Aha. I don't suppose it was a social visit?"
"No, Colchetti's kid brought him around to ask us questions. His name was Starksy or something like that. The little smart aleck seems to think her mother's accident wasn't an accident after all." She picked up one of the drinks and took a sip, closing her eyes.
"So she's a smart kid. How's she looking these days?"
She opened her eyes. "I hadn't really noticed." There was a significant pause after she said it. "I still don't understand why you thought it was necessary to do what you did to her, that you couldn't have done it any other way?"
"I did it the way I knew how. But whatever I did it was always in deference to you, my sweet. Besides it's to your credit that she's still around. I would have..." He stopped cold. That was too much information. "Anyway, she's out of the way, and she doesn't know a thing, so don't worry about her."
"All right. So how does the story end? What's the next step?"
"I'll let you know when you need to know. Like you said, we don't know who might be listening in, so the less said the better."
She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder and leaned forward in time to see John Colchetti standing in the foyer handing off his hat and coat to Henry. "Look, Bruce, I've got to get off the phone now. The master's home."
"All right. I'll be in touch. Remember, stay cool until you hear from me."
"I will." She gracefully ended the call just as Colchetti was making his way toward her. She put on a smile and stood up, pulling the bathing cap off and shaking out her auburn mane seductively as he approached. He greeted her warmly and kissed her, wrapping his arms around her waist. When he drew back from her, she sighed enthusiastically.
"Hmm, that was nice. You must have been thinking about me."
"All day long," he answered. "Did you have a nice swim?"
"Wonderful," she answered, sitting down and patting the end of the lounge chair, indicating that he should sit. He glanced at the serving tray on the table and noticed the second drink.
"That for me?"
"But of course."
He reached over and took the glass off its coaster, drinking the contents down and savoring the cooling sensation it gave as it ran down his throat. He dabbed at his lower lip with one finger and returned the glass to the tray. She trailed her hand sensuously across the fabric of his trouser leg. "So what did you think about the visit we got yesterday?"
"What? Oh that. I hadn't really thought about it."
"Oh, please. Your only daughter, whom you haven't seen in almost four months, drops by for a visit and brings a policeman around with her who asks us strange questions about your dead wife, and you say you haven't given it much thought."
"Well, okay, maybe I have." A hint of worry marred his face. "How did she seem to you?"
She shrugged. "Grown up. Life's hard out there; the stress can age a person quickly, you know that."
"But she's only seventeen. I guess my marrying you so soon after her mother died really did have an affect on her."
"Don't worry, she'll get over it." She brushed her fingertips over his lips. "Children have a rare and unique ability to adapt to all situations." Her eyes caught his seductively. "Now what, if anything, did you have in mind for tonight?"
"I thought we could watch the 76ers play the Lakers in the playroom. Dr. J's in rare form tonight."
"Sounds like fun," she said, hugging him tightly, as if there were no one more interesting and nothing else in the world she'd rather be doing for the evening.
Bruce Emerson sat in his private office smoking a cigar and talking on the telephone, his feet elevated on his desk, the smoke enveloping his blond head like a wispy cloud. He was a big man, solidly built, with hair cropped military short, he wore a neat beard that enhanced his well-chiseled features. When he smiled, his eyes twinkled and made him look much younger than his thirty-two years. He was reclining in a leather chair, a pencil in his left hand tapping out a nonsensical rhythm. When he was finished with the call, he stood up and stretched, his upper body expanding into his suit, he looked like a college quarterback, very lean and muscular. The muscles in his neck were significantly thicker than the average man's, adding to his bulk and size.
He was staring out his office window when he heard a cautious knock at his door. He responded to it from his chair and his secretary came in with a cup of coffee. She was an older woman with a tight, put-upon expression on her face, apparently unhappy with her lot in life. She sat the coffee cup down on his desk and left without waiting for a "thank you" from him, not that he was going to offer one. He picked up the coffee and looked out the window again, blowing on the surface and sipping with care. He appeared preoccupied, glancing at his watch more than once, as if he were waiting for something or someone to arrive.
An abrupt knock that was noticeably different from the secretary's timid one made him jump. He put down the cup quickly and laid his cigar on an ashtray nearby. "Just a minute," he called out.
When he opened the door, a gaunt man stepped into his office and stood between himself and the desk. He shut the door and observed the visitor from where he was standing. The man was wearing a beige service uniform that bore no identifying marks and a beige and white baseball cap that was pulled low across his forehead. He wore dark sunglasses to cover his eyes and didn't speak. Emerson walked back to his desk, picked up the coffee cup and took a sip, letting his eyes rest on the man's blank face. "Would you like some coffee?" he asked.
"Did my secretary see you come in?"
"No, I waited until she stepped away before I knocked."
"Good. You might want to have a seat." He motioned to one of the visitor chairs in front of his desk.
"I'd rather stand, if you don't mind."
The man folded his arms, remaining standing, the glasses and the cap staying on. "When can I expect payment?"
"When the job is finished, that's when."
Emerson got his cigar into his mouth and tried to pull off it, but the flame had gone out. He laid the dead stogie across the ashtray and set his coffee cup down once more. He turned towards the dark man and tensed. What he could see of the man's face was nothing more than a scarred and pockmarked network of lines and wrinkles. Dangerous, he thought. Through the dark glasses, Emerson could barely make out a pair of cold and vacant eyes staring back at him. But he was as blithe about his fear as he was about how he got his money, and he didn't flinch a muscle.
"I have one more job for you. And I believe I've made it clear to you before that I don't want to know how you do it, when you do it or where. I just want it done. After that, you'll get your entire fee."
"Sounds like a renegotiation of the terms to me, Emerson."
Emerson suddenly snapped and slammed the palm of his hand down on top of the desk, with enough force to ruffle the papers on top of it. "There will be no renegotiations! I told you that on the phone before you came over. The fee stays the same!"
Before he knew it, the gaunt man was in on him, slamming his own hand down firmly over Emerson's flattened one. The man's bony but strong fingers clamped down on it unwaveringly, inflicting considerable discomfort. Emerson tried to relax his hand underneath it, which seemed to lessen the pressure. He was in pain and wanted to fight back, but he didn't see any reason to anger the guy any more than necessary. Which was probably wise, since this man killed people for a living.
"Emerson, this is a business deal," he snarled. "When the stakes rise, so does the fee. I'm warning you--don't try to stiff me."
Emerson swallowed almost imperceptibly. "Okay. Okay, you win. Name your price."
The dark man lifted his skeleton-like hand and returned himself to the spot where he'd been standing before, and he did so so swiftly that it was almost as if he hadn't ever moved from the spot. "The fee was a hundred and fifty thousand before. It goes up to one sixty."
Emerson scowled a bit and rubbed his hands together. At the same time his mind was racing. If he'd figured correctly, he stood to gain much more than a hundred and sixty thousand dollars if his scenario played out. Additionally, he would only have to share the fortune with one other person. Seen in that light, the answer was obvious. Give the man the money. They shook hands, summarily agreeing to the mercenary's terms, and he watched with trepidation until the man left. After the door shut Emerson snipped off and relit the end of his cigar, settling back into his chair to take a much-needed pause. The remainder of his plan was in motion. There was nothing left to do now but wait.
The dark man had parked not far from the main road. He was sitting in a military jeep, a bland green model with a camouflage motif, obscured behind a high wall of untrimmed shrubs. The dark sunglasses and the plain cap from the day before remained, and a nearly spent cigarette hung from his lip at an angle, the last dying embers threatening to singe the skin holding it there. At the last minute, he released it and watched it do a freefall from the jeep and land on the ground, the ashes dispersing in the arid wind. He was looking through a pair of Bushnell's at the entrance of the building that served as the main headquarters for Colchetti Motor Company.
As soon as his target was out of the building, his attention became focused. He watched closely as two well-dressed men, perhaps salesmen or clientele -he didn't know which - made what appeared to be small talk with his subject. What they were conversing about was of no importance. What was important was that he observe for himself the day-to-day activities of this person so that he could accurately plan his next move. It was not an easy job to make murder look adventitious, but he was nothing if not good at what he did. If that hadn't been the case for the last fifteen years, he and his employers might have ended up doing hard time long ago, or worse, sitting on death row in some penitentiary somewhere. He didn't intend on letting either of those things happen anytime soon.
After the men had departed, the dark man watched the subject drive one of his own cars off the lot. He followed; keeping a safe distance away from the brand new Jaguar as it sped down the road. It was always necessary for him to verify the information he received from his clients about a subject's daily routine so that he could keep on schedule. This man's routine was a simple one: for three successive mornings in a row, he ate breakfast, a boiled egg, buttered toast, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee, with almost no variation. Then a mixed drink, maybe two, followed by some time in his Jacuzzi and finally a visit to the office. After work, he would either stop at his favorite tobacco shop, or grab a sandwich at a nearby deli, depending on his mood for the evening, always ending up at his place of residence. The dark man usually needed several days to stake out his target and implement a satisfactory strategy of elimination, but if the legwork had been done for him ahead of time, he was able to do his job more quickly and effectively. He sought a method that would be precise and clean, leaving no indication of foul play. In this case, he would take his target out in familiar surroundings, under entirely plausible circumstances. Who would suspect the accidental death of a man who drowns in his own pool after imbibing too much liquor one morning?