Ingrid Armstrong-Boehk

NICK RUSSO - PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR

NICK RUSSO PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR

CHAPTER 1

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

I dont know why I had expected to see a big-nosed female of snooty, matronly appearance when the French Ambassadors wife announced her visit.  It may have been due to the fact that anything French reminded me of the illustrious General De Gaulle whose good-sized beak had left a lasting impression on me ever since I loused up a school project about him years ago.

Claudette Rouciere took me completely by surprise.  She reminded me of a purring kitten with her emerald eyes and the way she rolled her Rs from the back of her throat.

She wanted me to check on her husbands movements for a few days as she strongly suspected him of having an extra-marital affair.  If that was true, she said, shed divorce him immediately.  Mon dieu, the scandal!  Money was of no consequence, she said, she had plenty of that, then generously handed me an open cheque.  Armand doesnt come home all night, she went on with downcast eyes, and I thought: what an awful waste.  If there is one thing I believe in, then its regular mattress exercises to keep fit.  Being unattached myself, I often make use of any such opportunities when they present themselves.

I had followed Roucieres limousine for a couple of days and observed that, at nine thirty each morning, he was driven from his home to his Spring Street office.  At four p.m. his chauffeur picked him up again, took him to a boarding house off

Chapel Street
, then left the car there, and caught the next tram.  Rouciere however, entered the house and stayed there all night.  At eight thirty the next morning the driver returned to take his boss home for a change of clothes, then on to the office again.

I sat in my unobtrusive little Laser for three nights in a row watching that boarding house, and listening to 3MPs soft music, until my eyes sat in their sockets like hot coals.  The pattern was always the same.

After reporting my findings to Claudette, I believed my job was done, although I wondered briefly why she flinched when I mentioned

Chapel Street
.  Oh no, Monsieur, she gasped for whatever reason. Please, you must catch Armand in the act.
           What does she expect me to do, I thought, turn into a flea and travel inside his shirt pocket?

Anyway, the next day I watched Rouciere dismiss his chauffeur at the boarding house as usual.  He went inside but re-appeared moments later with a Strawberry-blond in tow.  They climbed into the car and drove off.  I followed them to a French nightclub in South Yarra, parked around the next corner, and pulled a tie from my bag of tricks, which I always carry in the boot.  I spruced myself up a bit and followed them inside.

As the place wasnt very crowded, I was able to crawl into some dim-lit corner from where I could watch the pair.  Although I would have preferred a glass of Grappa, I ordered a cognac.  This way I could have easily been mistaken for another Froggie.  I dont think the stuff did me any good though, as I was to find out later.  All I had eaten that day was a small wedge of cold, soggy pizza I had collected in passing from my cousin Luigi and which hadnt helped my digestion any.

I kept my eyes glued on the Ambassador and his company.  I must say, that the womans coarse features and large teeth were a little too masculine for my liking, despite the fact that she was dressed to kill, with her face all made up by use of the usual feminine aids.  Personally, I prefer the members of the opposite sex much softer and cuddlier, and with a lot less war paint.

Rouciere wasnt exactly a dreamboat either.  His huge stomach strained the buttons of his silk shirt, and his arms and legs looked as though they had been borrowed from the Michelin Man.  Tufts of hair stood from his temples like lonely soldiers guarding the Never-Never, and a long, thin strand brushed sideways across his scalp, attempted to conceal his baldness.  Mama mia, for the life of me I couldnt figure out what any female could see in him, however desperate, let alone the lovely Claudette.  Still, he must have had something going for him, whatever that was.

A couple of cognacs later, I noticed that Armand and his friend had lost all inhibitions.  His dome-cover had fallen over one eye, brushing his double chin, but this didnt seem to bother him much.  His other eye focused drunkenly on the two bumps inside the Redheads dress.  That animal actually drooled from the corner of his mouth.

The female appeared to be in the same inebriated state.  She continually uttered shrill choirboy giggles in between kissing his blubbery lips while her hand crawled playfully over his thigh.  I had seen enough.

A discreet phone-call from my mobile brought Claudette running about fifteen minutes later.  Still catching her breath, she stood in the doorway and scanned the interior.  When she spotted the couple, she stared at them for a few seconds as if fixed in a trance, then suddenly went to her knees.  Her legs had buckled from under her and her face was as white as my new jocks.  I caught her just before she hit the floor then dragged her out to my car.  Luckily, no one had noticed the incident.

Please, Monsieur, she moaned as she hung like a rag doll in the seat belt, take me away from here.  Quicklee.  Then she started to whimper and sob and groan:  Oh Pierre.  Mon Pierre.

For a moment there, I thought shed lost her marbles.  This was a new one.  She hadnt mentioned anyone called Pierre before.  I couldnt make head nor tail of this.  I thought her husbands name was Armand.  So what was she on about?

As soon as we arrived at her Toorak mansion, against which my own humble abode seemed like a rat hole, I dropped her onto to the couch and searched for the kitchen to make her a decent Espresso.  Here, I said as I brought her the result of my efforts, thatll get your wings flapping again.  Nothing like this for a good pick-me-up.

As she sat there, taking little sips of coffee, I casually asked.  Who is Pierre?  Jeez, I might as well have dropped a two-ton bomb.  She jumped up, sending the cup flying across the room and splashing coffee all over the expensive carpet.  I do not wish to ever speak of him again, she shrieked hysterically.  What I saw was, oh, horriible.  Then she punched into the couch cushions with both fists.  That ... that animal had pro...promised to marry me, she sobbed almost beside herself.

Padre mio!  I hadnt expected that kind of reaction at all. 

None of this made any sense.  To calm her down, I did the only thing I could think of at the time: I gathered her in my arms and rocked her like a baby.  Shhh, mia cara, I soothed.  Shhh.  Had she seen someone else at that nightclub I didnt know about?  I wondered.  My befuddled mind wasnt functioning too well at all due to the cognac I had consumed.

As I tried to figure things out, I absentmindedly played with her hair.  Suddenly she stopped crying, looked into my eyes, and whispered: kiss me, mon Cherie.

Well, I instantly grew hot under the collar and suddenly felt in desperate need of some mattress exercises.

When morning crept over the satin sheets, the kitten stirred next to me and purred: Are you awake, mon Cherie?

Was I awake?  I hadnt slept a wink.  My head buzzed like Flinders Street Station in peak hour.  I still tried to work out this Pierre business and what it could possibly have to do with Armands indiscretion.  I mentally listed all the facts as I knew them and still hadnt come up with an answer.

Soon I will be free of Armand, Claudette presently chirped, lazily stretching her gorgeous limbs.  I will be rich.  Werry rich.  And I will return to France and take you with me, mon Amour.  You will come, no?

Suddenly it all became as clear to me as the daylight that seeped through the venetian blinds.  Mama mia!  It hit me all at once.  The little schemer had married Rouciere purely for the sake of his bank account.  Catching him in flagrante last night, was enough evidence for her to file for divorce and marry this Pierre whoever he was, except, that the mentioning of his name made her want to throw up now.  I also realised that she had seen him the night before, although it took me a while to work that one out.  I would have staked my best Marilyn Monroe poster right there and then on the fact that my hunch about that individual wasnt just a hunch.  In my cognac-sodden state, I had overlooked the most obvious.

Much to Claudettes surprise, I shot out of bed and into my clothes.

Where are you going, Cherie?

Business, I muttered already halfway down the hall.  See you later, baby.  But as I slammed the door behind me, I knew I wouldnt want to see that little gold digger ever again.

I coaxed my Laser into full speed and raced through the still empty streets to the boarding house.  I jumped from the car, ran to the entrance, and there it was, right next to the second doorbell.  The black letters on a gold-coloured plate stabbed painfully into my bloodshot eyes.  PIERRE LA ROUGE, it said in bold print.  This was followed by: Actor and female impersonator.

That bloody cognac, I thought sickly, fancy mistaking a bloke in drag for the real thing.


*

CHAPTER 2

 

CATHIES ORDEAL

It was Monday morning.  I still recuperated from the weekend and wasnt quite ready to talk to anyone yet.  So, when the phone rang, I switched my hearing to selective, and acted deaf until the caller gave up.

My mother had preached her same old sermon again the minute I had walked into her kitchen: You no looka good, Nicko.  Whatsa matter wid you, huh?  You no eat.  You no sleep.  Maybe too much lamore, cheeky boy.  No good lika dis.

The woman drives me nuts sometimes.  Shes been trying to marry me off for years.  Considers it her motherly duty to always introduce one or the other hopeful to me.

You dirty-two years old, Nikco, she had reminded me again.  You no getta younger.

No, Mama.

Better you prendi moglie soon, eh?  Getta married and make a lotsa bambinos.  Youre Papa very much lika the grandson.
           
Si, Mama.  One day...

One day, one day, she had mimicked.  One day you morto!  Finito!  Capisce?

Nice start for a Monday morning.  Just as well she doesnt have another too thin, too fat or too ugly female lined up for me at present.  I would really jitterbug.  The woman has no idea of my taste in females.  She thinks the homely, mumsy type is best for me.  Being molly-coddled and spoon-fed might be all right for some blokes.  Me?  Id die of boredom.  Life would be about as bland as a pizza without Mozarella.  I need a bit of spice in my life.  Well, that French kitten, Claudette, had provided me with more than enough in that area a while back.  But that had been the only good thing about her case.  As for the rest, forget it.  I do have my principles.  Anyway, thats all water down the Yarra now.

I brewed myself a cup of coffee, hoping that the black delight would rid my brain of the weekends cobwebs, when the phone rang yet again.  This time I was ready for business.

Good morning, Cherie, it chirped into my ear.

Oh no!  Not her again!  The woman just wont give up.  Its been what? At least six weeks since my experience with her. What dyou want?  I was rude on purpose.  But apparently not rude enough.

When will I see you again, mon ami?

Sorry, Im busy.  I felt like telling her to rocket to the moon.  Instead, I said Id be going Interstate the next day.  Dont know when Ill be back.  Ciao.  That ought to fix her, I thought. I had hardly slammed down the receiver when the phone rang again.  I told you Im busy, I snapped.

Too busy to talk to an old mate?

Now, this really took me by surprise.  Either Claudette had a sudden sex change to accommodate her straying husband - anything was possible with her - or there was really a bloke at the other end of the line.

Whos this?  I was curious.

Its Spiros, the voice said, Spiros Akrotakis, Remember me?

Well, Ill be stuffed.  If it isnt old Akro!  I remembered his nickname immediately.  He and I had been best mates during our school days.  The teachers at Brunswick High often wished us both to Mars with all the strife we got into.  Although we lost touch when Akros folks moved away from Carlton, Id never forgotten him.  It was great to hear from him again.

What you been doin with yourself, amico?

Apart from getting married, building my house, and fathering two juniors, nothing much, he explained.

Sounds like youve been a busy boy.

Still am, and lovin it.  How goes it with you, Spags?  He hadnt forgotten my nickname either.

       Well, if I got any kids running round, I said, then their mothers havent caught up with me yet. And as for gettin married, I seem to have this problem, you see.

       Oh, yeah?  Whats that?

I keep on asking myself: why jump into a lake if I only want a drink of water.

       You havent changed much, have you?  Akro chuckled, still the same old shagger.

       Thanks for the flattery.  Say, did you ever get to be a cabinetmaker?  I changed the subject.  You always wanted to be one.

       Bet your balls, Spags.  Got my own business.  But I never expected you to go Kojak.  Last I heard, you had your heart set on  a pizza parlour.

       Yeah, until some mongrel hit cousin Luigi over the head and emptied his cash-box.  Thats when I recalled my brief stint at the Police Academy.  With what Id learned there, I soon managed to hunt the bastard down, and gave him what-for.

       But why did you ever leave the cops, mate?  Akro wondered.  Youd have been set for life, pension and all.

       I spose I didnt like having to always go by the book.  You know me.  I gotta do my own thing.  Thats why I decided to be a Private Dick instead.

       Well, Im glad you did, and that youre also listed in the Yellow Pages, because I need your help, mate.

       Whats up?  Did someone knock off your chisels?  I joked.

       Wish that was all.  He sounded serious now.  Its my cousin Cathie.  She ran away from home a couple of days ago.  Her parents are beside themselves with worry.  They want me to find her.  But, hell, Nick, I wouldnt know where to start looking.

       Called Missing Persons?  I was all efficiency now.

       Not yet.  My uncle wants to keep it hush-hush if possible.  He is afraid people might consider him an unfit father.  Once word gets out that old Stavros let his off-spring slip from his iron fist, therell be no end of gossip in the Greek community.  You know what theyre like.

       Ive got an idea, I said.  So keep talkin.

According to Akro, the girls parents had pre-arranged her marriage to some Greek bloke without even asking her.  When she found out, she had first chucked a fit then took a moonlight flit a couple of days later.

       Probably ran away from the noose they were goin to put around her neck, I said.  How old is she?

       Eighteen.

       Poor kid.  I really felt for her.  Can you get me a photo?

       No problem.

       Meet me at the Hopping Kanga tonight then?  Oh, and bring a photo of our cousin.

       Okay.  See you about seven.  Akro hung up.

        I had a bottle of Chianti under my nose when my old mate joined me in the hotels lounge.  Apart from a small spare tyre hanging over his belt, he hadnt changed much at all.

       Youre getting a bit thin up top, Spags, he grinned as he shook my hand and gave me the once-over.

       Makes me all the more irresistible to the weaker sex, I smirked slapping him on the back.

       Oh, stop braggin, he said fisting my chin the way he used to.  You sure its not just wishful thinking?

       Here, I filled him a glass, shut your gob with this.

       Youre still into that stuff.  Dont you ever drink anything else?

       Unfortunately, they dont serve my old mans Grappa here.  Do you want a beer?  I offered.

       No. Just joking, mate.  Thisll do fine.

       So show me the photo.  Cute kid, I said after studying Cathies Colgate smile and dimpled cheeks.

       Spiros nodded.  Looks like her father.  Same stubborn chin and just as quick-tempered.  Shame she doesnt hold it with the Greek tradition the way he does.  Has about as much respect for it as a piddely dog has for a Christmas tree.

       Sure youre not exaggerating, mate?

       Well, maybe, he shrugged, I spose I hadnt expected that kind of attitude from her.  Shes not really a bad kid.  But she told me once that shed rather be penny-pinching poor and happy than tied to someone she didnt love.

       So whats wrong with that?  Dont forget, she grew up in a lenient society and expects to have the same freedom of choice as her peers.  You cant really blame her for that.  I mean, theres nothin wrong with marrying one of your own kind, but one still ought to be able to choose.  Didnt you?  I threw him a querying glance.

       Well, yeah, but Cathies folks are very old-fashioned with things like that.

       Then its about time they woke up to themselves.  This is Australia, mate.  Things are different here.  Cathies picture grinned up at us from the table as if she agreed.

       Unless something serious has happened to her, I said, and I hope not, there are two possibilities to be considered: either she ran away from marrying this bloke or took off with someone else.  Maybe both.  So, does she have a boyfriend that her parents dont know about?

       I dont think so, Akro shook his head, she wouldnt have had much of a chance the way shes been watched over.

       Bloody cruel, isnt it?

       What is?

       Come on, Akro, you know yourself that young people develop needs at a certain age.  We all did.  Surely, you havent forgotten?  Youre not that ancient yet.  My own needs still overwhelm me at times, I can tell you.

       Hell, Spags, he complained, do you ever think of anything else?

       Occasionally, I grinned.  Anyway, back to business.  What about friends, social contacts and all that?

       One girlfriend tat I know of.  Dina Lekkidis.  I think she knows more than she lets on.

       What makes you say that?

       Well, apparently, the girls had arranged to spend the night at Dinas while her folks went out.  But instead of staying at home like good little lambs, they went off to a disco.  Thats where Cathie disappeared from.  Dina was with her all night so she must know what happened.  But she wont say anything.

      I called on the girl the next day.  Dina Lekkidis, about five feet nothing tall and almost as wide, reminded me of a roly-poly clown I had seen at a circus once when I was a kid.  She was rather cute though, if you like the well-fed sort.  I introduced myself as a friend of Cathies. ....And her boyfriends, I quickly added, crossing my fingers inside my pocket.  My stab in the dark paid off.  Her mouth forming a surprised O as she opened the fly wire door and eyed me suspiciously.

       How come you know about Tony? she whispered as she stepped onto the porch.  Thats supposed to be a secret.

When I noticed someone watching us from the dark passage, I realised at once that the girl wasnt whispering because she had laryngitis.  By the black scarf tied under the watchers chin, I deduced that the watcher was Dinas mother.

       Oh, it still is a secret, I whispered back.  You can trust me.  Then I invented some story about Cathie confiding in me at Spiros a week earlier.  She said the only other person who knew of her plan to run away was you.  Her best friend, I added knowing from experience that a bit of flattery never goes astray.

       Spiros has been here asking questions, Dina said.  But... she threw a quick glance over her shoulder, I gave nothing away.

       Good girl, I mumbled.  Spiros wouldnt understand.

       Thats what I thought.  What beats me, though, she breathed, is why she and Tony went off so suddenly.  Without taking extra clothes or anything.

        Actually, I moved up close with feigned conspiracy, Cathie rang me last night.

Dinas mouth went O again.  Did she really?

       Yeah, I nodded, she asked me for a few dollars to help them out.  Then I mumbled something about an address she had given me, and which Id written down but lost.  I tried to look suitably miserable. I really feel rotten about that.  So I figured if anyone knew of their whereabouts, itd be you.  I really want to help those kids.  And that wasnt even a lie.  I hoped with all my might that Dina wouldnt see through my act and I would get the information I was after.  Instead, the girl looked ready to cry.

       Oh dear, she moaned, I havent got a clue.  I really havent.  Oh dear.  That was when I realised that my whole painstaking performance had been a bloody waste of time.

Just one more trick, I thought and whispered into her rosy ear: You dont think that Cathie is hiding out at Tonys, do you?  Well, that was the worst thing I could have said.  Dina stared at me with eyes like two large black olives.

       No way! she hissed.  His father would shoot them both!  Dont you know that Tony is Macedonian?  Suddenly her olive eyes turned into black slits.  Youre not really Cathies friend, are you?  Cause if you were, she suddenly yelled, youd know that.  Get out of here!  Im not telling you another thing!

Her shouting must have been her mothers cue, because suddenly the screen door flew open and a woman came charging at me with a straw broom.  Just as well I ducked when I did or I could have ended up in hospital with a cracked head.  I fled down the drive and into my car like a would-be-burglar out of luck.  Oh, the things that people in my profession have to put up with at times.

When I was well out of harms way and had caught my breath again, I thought the whole thing through once more.  So, this was not just a case of a young couple eloping.  There was also the hatred of two feuding nationalities involved here.  Beats me why people had to bring their wars from their old country with them.  To my reckoning, they should try to get on with one another once theyve become Australians.  I wondered how Akro felt about this business.  Come to think of it, I couldnt remember him ever giving me the opportunity to find out.

            After having digested my blunder of the day, I paid a visit to Paddys Disco with Cathies picture clutched in my hot little hand.  The manager was co-operative enough.  Probably worried about his license, I reckon.  Yes, he said, he had seen that sexy little number in a slinky red dress.  Some dark-haired loudmouth had acted as though he owned her.  And yes, there had been another girl with them, a little fat one.  But he couldnt say when and where they went.

       Hey Mick, he called out to a bloke about the size of a wardrobe, over here, son.  Im not exactly a short-arse, but I really had to crane my neck to look up at this guy.  Son?!  I wondered, but as it turned out, the endearment suited him well.  Seen this kid in here last Satdee night?  The manager showed him Cathies photo.

       The Wardrobe stared long and hard at it.  Oh yeah, he grinned after a while, a glimmer of intelligence showing in his small eyes.  Then he looked like a kid who was about to surprise us with something.  I seen her orright, he nodded beaming.  I seen her get in a taxi wiff a boy when I frew them drunks out like you told me boss, he said in a dont-know-much-but-I can-lift things kind of manner.

       What taxi was it, Mick?  Can you remember that?  I encouraged him.

         He scratched his crew cut with the confusion of it all, then sadly dropped his head.  No.  Cant rightly remember that.

            Try for us, Mick, I coaxed again.  Its very, very important.

He chewed his bottom lip for a couple of minutes and I could almost see a small cog turn behind his low forehead.  Now I know! he suddenly cried excited and looked as though he was waiting for a promise of a jellybean before getting on with it.  It was a white one, he said at last.  Wiff black writin on it.

I figured it was a Sandown Cab and said so.

       Yeah, he nodded emphatically, it was a Samtown orright.  He seemed extremely proud of himself.

       Well done, my friend, I praised him and was about to shake his paw.  But then I thought the better of it.  I still needed my right hand to function for a while.

       A phone call to Sandown Taxi Service proved that the Wardrobe had been right.  After a few minutes on hold, I spoke to the driver who had taken the fare at the time in question.  He remembered the couple quite well, he said, the girls mini dress barely covered her Mini, and the bloke with her was a real show-off.  Seemed to have it over her, he added.  I took them to a place in Carlton.  Somewhere near Potts Road and Athol Street, if I remember right.  They got out in front of some dilapidated weatherboard house with a broken-down fence.  Thats all I can tell you, mate.
        I didnt like the sound of that too much and felt I ought to speed things up a bit.  The girl had gone missing for forty-eight hours already.  I rang Spiros immediately.  I think I know where they are.  Meet me at the corner of Heath and Spring Roads right away.

       Thank Christ, he sounded relieved.  Youre worth your weight in gold, Spags.  Hey! the penny had suddenly dropped, what do you mean: they?

       Cathie and her boyfriend, I said.  Just as I had suspected.  His name is Tony.  Macedonian, apparently.  Dyou know him?

Dead silence.

       Akro?  Are you still there?

       So thats what its all about, is it?  My old mate suddenly bellowed.  A Macedonian has got to her!  His voice sounded as gravelly as it used to at school before he was about to punch some blokes lights out.  If I get hold of that rotten

       Hold it!  I thundered.  It takes two to waltz, remember?  Why only blame the bloke?  And what in hell does his nationality have to do with the price of cheese, anyway?

       You wouldnt understand.

       No.  And I wouldnt want to.  But Ill tell you this much: if thats your attitude, then Ill go it alone, capisce?

       Sorry I lost my temper, mate, Akro had calmed down again.  That Tony is probably all right.  Its still a bit hard sometimes to forget whats been drummed into you as a kid.  Anyway, Ill see you shortly.

Spiros Valiant came tearing around the corner less than half an hour later.  And he had brought someone with him.

       Whos this?  I eyed his companion suspiciously.  Im not used to working with an audience.

       Er this is George Kostakidis, my mate explained sheepishly, Cathies future husband.

       What sort of a stunt are you trying to pull here, Akro?  I exploded.  If you think you two can barge in on those kids an rough em up, then youre barking up the wrong power pole!

       Im sorry, this George said.  It was my idea to come.  I thought I might be able to help.  Spiros told me who Cathie was with and I know that character.  He is bad news.

       Dont you bloody start!  I snapped.  Its this nationality thing that really riles you people up, isnt it?

       No.  Not at all, the bloke argued.  Tony Dimitriou has been shooting his mouth off about Cathie being easy.  Thats what its all about.  Ive been wanting to make him eat his words for a long time, whether Cathie likes me or not.

Well, that was a bit of a switch.  And I thought that kind of gallantry had gone out with top hats and gloves.  Just goes to show.

       Its mighty noble of you, amico, to want to defend a girls reputation, I said sarcastically.  But, no offence, how do you know he wasnt right about Cathie?

Now they both started in on me.

       My cousin isnt like that!  Akro shouted, and George grabbed me by the collar of my leather jacket.  Theres more to it, he urged.  Dimitriou is dangerous.  We have to do something quickly!  His face shone white under the streetlight.

       What do you mean we?  We have to nothing!  I yelled flinging his hands away.  I dont need any prejudiced mates or jealous contract-fiancs to help me with my business, capisce?!  Before they knew what had struck them, I was back in my car and across the intersection.  I was really getting fed up with that racial shit.  In my book, people are people until they prove to be bastards - and there were plenty of them around, whatever their race or creed.

The place in which I thought the pair might be hiding in, was somewhere near my old neighbourhood.  Taking all the shortcuts I knew, I soon located the address.  The old weatherboard house was covered in darkness.  Not a single sliver of light slipped from it.  No sign of life whatsoever.  The bell gave a hollow sound when I rang it, as if it were echoing through empty rooms.  But I wasnt going to give up easily and decided to make some inquires next door.  In answer to an Avon ding-dong, the porch light came on and a woman of about twenty-eight stood in the doorway.  What a woman!  What a peach!  At the sight of her long blond hair and Dolly Parton boobs, I just couldnt stop myself from mumbling a mama mia.  Her shapely hips were squeezed into a mini skirt, which showed off a pair of long, long legs.  Absolutely delizioso.

       Yes? the peach asked in a husky voice and eyed me from under long lashes.

       I...uh . I nervously fumbled for Cathies picture in my pocket.  Im looking for this g ... girl.  I actually stammered!  Shes supposed to have moved in next door a couple of days ago.  You w wouldnt have seen her by any chance, would you?

While the dolly studied the photo, I studied her and my shirt collar started to strangle me.  Eventually, she raised one stencilled eyebrow, gave me the once over, then shook her golden mane.

       Sorry, she rasped, havent seen her.  Who would want to live in that run-down shack anyway?  Its supposed to be condemned, you know.  Dont know why it hasnt been pulled down yet.  Has this girl been up to something?  She studied the photo again.

       Depends, I said, then filled her in with a few details.

       Oh, how awful for those kids, she said warmly.  I could tell she had a kind heart.  In fact, I could almost see it.  Her low cut neckline held an excellent view.

       Come to think of it, she drawled, her eyes trapping mine, you said this happened last Saturday?

I could only nod.

       Well, there was a light shining through my bedroom window, you know.  Must have been around midnight.  I thought at the time that it might have been a car reversing.  But that was all I noticed.

       Sorry, to have troubled you, Miss ... uh ?  I was dying to find out her name.

       Its Stella, she smiled.  Everyone calls me Stella.  But youre welcome.  No trouble at all.

I handed her one of my cards.  If you find out anything, could you give me a tingle, please?

       Private Investigator?  she asked.  Her eyes went right through me.  I see.

Was she suddenly less friendly?  I wondered, but then, I could have been mistaken.  It had been a long day. for me.  I climbed back into my bomb and sat thinking for a while.  What if those kids had gone inside that house after all and left again later?  I speculated, then there would have to be some sort of evidence.  There was only one way to find out.  I dug a torch and a screwdriver out of my glove box and walked over to the silent dump.  The gravel crunched under my shoes as I crept along an obscured garden path.  My Guccis made more noise than a couple of nutcrackers.  I took them off and shoved them into the pockets of my jacket, and immediately, the nights dampness soaked my holy socks.  I noticed briefly that one of my big toes had worked its way to freedom.  It shone in the dark like a fat glow-worm.  An overflowing rubbish bin near the back door stank as though it held something that had been dead for centuries.  A quick glimpse inside it however, showed me that there was no trace of Cathie in it, thank God.  My screwdriver did its job on the back door within seconds.  A dark passage yawned at me as I entered, and some rotten floorboards squeaked under my footsteps.  The damp, mouldy stench of the place nearly caused me to lose the contents of my stomach.  Padre mio!  I wondered what this shit heap had to offer to a girl like Akros cousin and the bloke who had brought her here, when a sudden cry, like that of a hurt kitten, came from the shadows.

       Anyone there?  My voice boomed through the empty joint like thunder.  I let my torch beam run ahead of me through a doorway on my left, and let it play around a room.  The bare floor was filthy.  Wallpaper dangled like soggy rags from the walls.  Spiders had decorated the ceiling to their hearts content, and a mantle piece had shed its rocky components around the black mouth of a collapsed fireplace.  There!  I noticed a sudden movement in the corner!  The beam of my torch shot through the dark like Dart Vaders sword.  And then I saw her.  Wrapped in something red, she lay curled up like a foetus on the spilled guts of an old mattress.

       Santa Maria! was all I could manage before diving towards her.  Cathie?

It was her alright.  She squinted into the light with a terrified expression.  I could hardly believe that this was the same pretty girl who smiled so sweetly from the picture in my pocket.

       Its all right, baby, I soothed, Uncle Nick has come to take you home.

       She was quiet for a moment then suddenly yelled: No! Im not going home!  Ever!  Leave me alone!  Her yelling had turned into heart rendering sobs with her last sentence.  I wanted to pull her to her feet, but she fought and tried to bite me.  If I hadnt withdrawn my hand when I did, sure as hell, Id be minus one little piggy now.  I had no choice but to deliver a gentle Nelson to her chin to knock her out.  Then I slung her over my shoulder like a bag of spuds and, with my torch wedged between my teeth, struggled back the way Id come through the knee-high weeds and wild growing fuchsias.  By the time I reached the front fence, she had come to and was madly hammering into my shoulder blades.  She wriggled and kicked, and was yelling loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood.  Let me down! she screamed.  Let go of me, you fiend!

Ive been called many a name in my lifetime but fiend?  That was a new one.  Lights were suddenly coming on where there hadnt been any before, doors and windows opened, and dogs began to bark.  Luckily, the first one on the scene was Stella.  Ignoring the gawkers and their remarks about shameful things going on around here, she quickly lent a hand, and with our combined effort, we managed to lug the wriggling bundle into her house.

       Its all right, love, Stella crooned to Cathie like a mother, Youre with friends now.  Whether it was what she said or how she said it, I dont know, but the girl was suddenly as timid as a lamb.  We helped her into Stellas bedroom and onto the pink-draped bed.  What a bedroom!  What a bed!  I had never seen such luxury before.  Huge mirrors everywhere.  Anyway, the kid whimpered a couple of times that she wanted to die, but then, exhaustion got the better of her.  Her eyes disappeared behind their shutters and moments later she was fast asleep.

       Poor girl, Stella whispered as we tiptoed from the bedroom.  Must have had a terrible ordeal, you know.  But Im sure she feels safe now.

On entering Stellas lounge room, I felt as though I was sinking into the thick white carpet, and suddenly I remembered my holy socks.  With a great deal of embarrassment, I tried to hide my feet under the frills of a green velvet couch, while fishing for the shoes in my pocket.   But the gorgeous Stella just grinned at my efforts. Its all right, she laughed, Ive seen worse socks than yours before, you know.  Then she handed me a double scotch.  I dont often drink the stuff, but that night I needed it desperately in more ways than one.  The woman looked scrumptious in the light of a rose-coloured Tiffany lamp.  Stella by starlight, I thought dreamily and quickly retrieved my mind from where it had slipped down to.

As I made myself comfortable on the couch, I took up the subject of Cathie again.  Guess, well have to wait til she comes to.  How long do you think shell be out?  Although I wasnt born yesterday and had a pretty good idea, I played dumb on purpose.  No harm in trying, I thought.  My heart was set on staying a while longer in the company of this alluring woman.

       Who knows, she said, it could take a few hours yet, you know.  You might as well go home and get a good nights rest after all that excitement.  Ill take care of her when she comes to.

Ignoring her suggestion, I tried a bit of small talk about this and that, but it got me nowhere.  Stella sat there smoking one cigarette after another and I began to feel that she wanted me to leave.  I looked at my watch.  It was 1.30 am, Tuesday morning.

       Well, I yawned and stretched with exaggeration, spose youre right.  Hope I dont fall asleep at the wheel, I hinted and awkwardly tried to slip into my shoes.  But the invitation I wanted to hear wasnt uttered.

       Dont worry about the kid, Stella assured me again as she ushered me to the door, Ill give you a call as soon as she wakes up.

       Thanks a million.  I took her hand and held it tight for a moment.  It was all she let me hold.  Im really grateful for your help.  Then I tried one of my soulful looks.  But that didnt move her either.  Well, there was nothing else left to do but to say Good-night.

On the way home I swore to myself that, if that Tony had taken advantage of Cathie, Id break every bone in his body.  I hate blokes who force themselves on helpless girls.

When I finally flopped into my cot, I imagined sharing Stellas exotic bed in her exotic room with her.  Mama mia, I had never seen so many mirrors in one place.  The dream that followed was out of this world.  Absolutely fantastico.

My phone rang repeatedly the next morning, but I ignored it.  I had a hunch that it was Spiros and decided to let him stew for a while.  Do him some good, I thought.  Eventually, some time after lunch, I gave into the persistent ringing.  It had been him all right.

       Ive been trying to get in touch with you all day, he exaggerated.  Have you found Cathie?

       Yes, I found her, I said with a touch of coolness.  And shes okay.

He must have sensed that I wasnt in a very friendly mood. Sorry I upset you last night Spags, he apologised, you were right.  I shouldnt have brought George into it.  And as for this Tony, I admit that I was a bit prejudiced, but as long as he takes good care of my cousin, the shape of his face really doesnt matter, does it.  Im going to tell him that too, when I see him.

       You might change your mind yet, once youve heard the full story, I thought but just muttered a lets see.

       So where was she?

       Ill tell you later on, I reconciled.  In the meantime shes being well looked after.  Just a little tired.  With a bit of luck shell be home again by nightfall.

       Thanks, mate, Spiros said.  Ill make it up to you, I swear.

Half an hour later Stella was on the line.  The kid is ready to meet her rescuer, Nick, she said and her sexy voice made me prickle all over.  I couldnt wait to see her again.

Dressed in an elegant pink-coloured number, obviously one of Stellas  dressing gowns, young Cathie smiled shyly at me from her hostess couch.  Stella herself had poured her body into a black slinky cat-suit, which gave her shape even more credit than it already deserved.  The kid still looked a bit pale, but other than that, she seemed quite calm.

       You gave us a bit of a fright for a while, didnt you, blossom?  I said as I sat down beside her.

       Im sorry, she muttered.

       Want to tell me what happened?  I asked and, to make it easier for her, mentioned that I knew she had run away with Tony.  You see, I took her hand, your cousin Spiros, who is an old friend of mine, had asked me to look for you.  Im glad he did.  God only knows what might have happened to you.  Anyway, Ive got it all pretty well figured out, but there are still a couple of questions that bug me.  For instance, why on earth did your boyfriend drag you to that dump next door?  And why did he leave you there to rot?

       Cathies cheeks turned the colour of ripe tomatoes and her eyes flashed danger signals.  That ... that creep, she hissed contemptuously.  But the next instant she swallowed hard and her eyes filled with tears.  And then it all came tumbling out:  He said he loved me and would look after me ... and ... and all the time ... all the time he was acting .... cause all he wanted was just to ... to...., she couldnt say what I knew she wanted to say.

       Did he hurt you, dear?  Stella, who had sat down on the other side of her, asked softly.

Cathie shook her head.  N ... not in the way you think, but ... but he tried.  See?  She showed us her badly bruised arms and thighs.  I scratched and I bit and I kicked him.

       You do that very well, I said remembering my own experience with her.  She gave a little grin at that.

       And then I started to scream, she went on.  He mustve got scared that someone might hear, cause he called me something awful and then he took off.  I never saw him again after that.  And ... and when you came in, I thought, I thought...

       I know, blossom, I nodded.  You were scared.  Here, I gave her a tissue, blow your nose.  Youre much too pretty to be crying all the time.  Spoils your good looks.

At this, another tiny grin jumped around her mouth.

       But why, for heavens sake, did you stay in that house all this time?  With nothing to eat, nothing to drink?

       Oh, there was still a whole pizza left from Saturday night that Tony had bought on the way.  I had some of that and drank some tap water.

       But why didnt you go home, kiddo?  I couldnt understand that part at all.  You couldve called on someone to get you a cab or something.  Did you want to stay in there for ever and ever?

       Oh, I dont know, she squeaked like a mouse, and the tears started to roll again.  But dont you see?  I cant go home anymore.  My dad would kill me and my mum will die of embarrassment.

       Stella put her arm around the sobbing bundle.  Im sure theyll be only too pleased to have you back, she soothed.  Now put your head on Stellas shoulder and let it all out.

       But cant you see? the girl wailed, Ive disgraced my parents, turned my back on a decent guy and all because I let Tony twist my head.  Ooh, I just want to die.

       Now, now.  Theres no need for anything as drastic as that, I padded her arm.  You just leave it to uncle Nick.  Hell fix it.

I left Stella to dry Cathies tears and went looking for a phone.  Eventually I found one in the kitchen and dialled Spiros number.  Now listen, Akro...., I dropped him a few words, then went in search for a kettle.  It was time that someone made a decent cup of coffee.  Cathie had stopped crying and trumpeted into the tissue just as I carried the cups into the lounge room.  Stella moved, no, glided, with cat-like grace across the room to switch on the radio.  Soft, nerve-calming music filled the room.  The woman knew exactly what to do at exactly the right time.  Yet, although nerve-soothing for some, combined with Stellas exotic perfume, it had the opposite effect on me.  My collar and other things grew uncomfortably tight.  I didnt know just how much longer I would be able to contain my composure, when I was literally saved by the bell.

       Who could that be?  Stella looked up startled.  I hadnt expected any one, you know.

Instead of answering her, I answered the door.  It was Spiros and George as I had expected.  Without wasting too many words, I ushered them both into the lounge room.  Stella grew a little pale at the sight of two men shed never met.  She nervously lit up a smoke and took a few quick puffs, all the time staring at the blokes as though she was worried about something.  But once I had introduced them, she relaxed again.

Cathies eyes had opened wide.  Spiros?  George?  What are you doing here?

       Its okay, little cousin, my mate grinned.  Your folks want you to come home.  And they said you didnt have to go through with anything if you didnt want to.  He threw a meaningful glance at George.

       But how did you know where I was?

       A little fairy told me, my mate smirked in my direction.

       Watch it, Akro, I threatened jokingly.  I dont appreciate your distorting my character in front of these two lovely ladies.  This broke the ice.  Everyone laughed except for George, who had remained silent by the door.  Now he was coming a step closer. Cathie?

       Im sorry, George, she blushed, I didnt mean to...,

Its all right, he interrupted her.  I mean, its all right if you dont want to marry me.  Ill learn to live with it.  Really.

       B ... but I wasnt gonna say that, she stammered, I was gonna say that I think ... I think I made a big mistake.

       Do you mean that?  George grinned from ear to ear and then they both blushed together.

       Ill be Best Man, Spiros boomed and Cathie blushed even more.

Something on the 6 oclock news on the radio suddenly caught my attention.  Quiet, everyone, I ordered and rushed to turn up the volume.  . had been on the run for nearly a week, the newsreader presently said.  The four young men, aged between nineteen and twenty-five were apprehended in an amusement parlour at Kingston.  Police have arrested Alain Stokes, Eric Petrovic, Tony Dimitriou and Phong Lim on drug dealing offences.  And now to sports....
           
We all stared flabbergasted at one another and tried to come to terms with we had just heard.

       Cathie?  Spiros asked anxiously.

       I didnt know anything about that, I swear, she reassured him.  And if I had, I wouldve been the first to report Tony to the police.  Anyway, Im glad theyve caught him.  Serves him right.

       Those poor boys, Stella said sadly.  God only knows how they got mixed up in that and how many other kids will suffer.  That convinced me again that she had a big heart.

       Lets hope our Tony will wake up to himself, I put in my bit of wisdom.  What he did to Cathie was pretty rough, but, lets face it, it couldve been a hell of a lot worse, right?

       Right, they all agreed.

Evntually, we all left the lovely Stellas company.  Spiros and George escorted Cathie to their car and I climbed into my own.

Stella was continuously on my mind, as I drove home.  I just had to get to know her better.  Itd be a real shame to let a golden opportunity like this drift away with the sands of time.

On the following Saturday night, I decided to pay her another visit.  I dressed in my best garb - David Jones suit, spit-polished shoes, and brand-new socks - and bought the finest bottle of wine The Grogfather had in stock.  With my heart beating to my throat, I rang the Avon ding-dong once again.  It took a while for Stella to open the door, but she looked a dream in her pale-blue negligee.  Oh, its you, she said as if she wasnt too keen to see me.

       Shes just a little preoccupied, I thought, then smiled what I thought was my most irresistible smile.  Arent you going to invite me in?

       Well, its just ... Im kind of busy right now, you know?  She hesitated before coming out with the rest:  I ... uh ... Ive got a visitor.

Suddenly it all fell into place: the luxurious bedroom, the mirrors, her sexy clothes, her apprehension when she found out about my profession, and her nervousness when Spiros and George had turned up.  What a bloody blow!

       Think nothing of it, I grinned to hide my disappointment.  I just wanted to thank you once again for your help.  Then I shoved the wine at her, said ciao, baby, and strutted back to my car with my head held higher than usual.  I kept up my arrogant posture until I slumped behind the steering wheel.  Then I hit the dashboard with both fists.  Shit, I yelled, youre a bloody stupid idiot, Russo!  Fancy falling for a hooker of all people!

Well, I drove home, pulled some cheap Bubbly from the fridge, and drowned my uh... sorrows for want of a better word, you know?

You wouldnt believe it I missed out again.

*

CHAPTER 3.

FIRE FLIGHT

The Italian Community recently held a concert during Elderly Citizens Week, about an hours drive from the city.  My mother had commissioned me to be her and my fathers taxi driver for the occasion as it was a fairly long drive from home.  Mama couldnt wait to listen to the songs from the Old Country, whereas my father was excited about meeting up with some of his old chums from his marketing days.  The Italian Senior Citizens usually came from miles around to enjoy this yearly event.  While my parents enjoyed the lovely scenery along the coastline, my own mind however, was somewhat preoccupied with an assignment I had been given by a certain Insurance Company the day before.  The report I had received stated that the house of one of their policyholders had burned to the ground a couple of days previous.  They had serious doubts regarding the persons claim that the fire was accidental.

The Italian Club had put on quite a turn.  The large hall was already chock-a-block and buzzing with lively conversations by the time we arrived.  My old man heartily greeted his former mates while my mother settled herself comfortably into a chair and waited excitedly for the concert to begin.  Both their expectations were more than fulfilled.

An Italian choir sang all the popular Italian numbers to the efforts of an accordion player, whose grin was as wide as a barn door.  That bloke really had what it takes.  He played one foot-tapping tune after another with great gusto.

The choirs female conductor and lead singer had a voice as clear as a bell to which the acoustic of the place did full honour.  Three other vocalists who called themselves The Mad Hatters, obviously so named after the crazy creations on their heads, did their best with several numbers in English.  One guy in the group, the size and image of a leprechaun, yodelled like a Swiss mountaineer and was exceptionally good with his imitation of Tom Jones.  And the duets his male and female companions sang were nothing to be sneezed at either.

The spread that provided afterwards was more than generous.  Mama mia!  I had never seen so many plates of sandwiches and cakes in one place.  In fact, there was so much food that people were given plastic bags to take home what they couldnt eat.  Bit of a shame really, if you think that thousands of kids are starving to death in other parts of the world.

All in all, it was quite an entertaining and fulfilling afternoon for everyone concerned until some woman suddenly called out: Madonna mia, somebody pincha my purse from my handbag!  Everyone stopped yapping at once and stared at her.

How much did you have in it?

            Five hunderd dollar.  More, she cried.

Well, that had put a damper on things.  I went up to her, still chewing on my Mortadella sandwich and asked her if she had any idea about who might have taken her purse.

Dat one.  With an accusing look in her eyes, she pointed at a female in the Mad Hatters company. I had noticed that particular lady earlier as she was taking pictures of her mates from various angles of the hall.

What makes you say that?

            She have plenty chance.  Walkin round all e time everywhere.
          I observed the accused closely.  She had an open, friendly face, was well spoken, well dressed and seemed very polite to everyone she talked to.

Do you have any proof at all?

            Dem people no belong to us, the Italian woman growled, Is not Italiano.

But that doesnt make them thieves.  I said annoyed and thought: how dare she?

            I think you might be barking up the wrong lamp-post here, Signora, I tried to set her straight.  Those people came to entertain you free of charge because they wanted to do something nice for you, and not to rob everyone blind.  It was difficult for me to restrain my growing anger.  When she stubbornly insisted, I advised her to call the police if she was so convinced.  I had no intentions of getting involved with someone the likes of her, who had such a suspicious and nasty attitude towards people, just because they werent born in Italy.

No, no, she protested loudly.  No polizia. 
       
  Strange, I thought, how white her face had suddenly turned when I mentioned the police.  Maybe she has something to hide?  I decided to ask my parents if they knew anything about her.

She Vince Mancelli widow, my father said.  Him die from cancer couple o years ago I been told.  Used to be good mate o mine.  I was Best Man for him when he marry.  But him an me lose de touch after.  I no lika his Missus, he added with a screwed up face and a shake of his head.

Mancelli?  I wondered.  Hadnt I heard that name only recently?  My father hadnt mentioned it before.  I was sure of that.

So, why didnt you like her?  I asked my old man.

           Oh, she too hungry for de money.  Vince worka too hard an she say all a time for him, buy dis, buy dat.  Spenda lots a lots o money.  An she sometime rubare (steal) in shop.
            
You mean, she used to pinch stuff?

Si.

I go talka de ladies, my mother said and immediately wandered off towards a small group of women.  My mother was very good at wheedling information out of people.  I had learned that during my childhood.  Whenever I got into trouble and tried to lie my way out of it, somehow she always managed to get me to tell the truth.

A short time later she brought back some interesting information.  Apparently, this Lucia Mancelli, had just moved in with her daughter because she had no place to live.  They say she lika de Bingo too and sometimes she goin to de Casino, Mamma said.

So the Signora likes to gamble, huh?  I knew from some of the cases Id handled, just how destructive this hobby can be.  A person could end up with huge debts, which in turn led to theft, deceptions, and fraud.  Was she trying to rake some money out of someone, or banked on a Good Samaritan to pass a hat around for her?

Anyway, the incident had left a sour taste with everyone, including myself, so one by one, people said ciao and took their leave.

Mancelli, Mancelli, I still puzzled over where I had heard that name before when, suddenly, it dawned on me.  The report from the Insurance Company, of course!  I had to look into this as soon as I got back to my office.

The following morning, I barely took the time to make myself a cup of coffee, before I had the Insurance Companys report under my nose.  An sure enough, I read that one Lucia Mancelli claimed that her house had burned down through no fault of her own and that she expected to be paid the full sum for which it was insured.  I hopped into my car right away and drove to the given address to check things out.

There wasnt much left of the large brick-veneer house.  Only the shell.

It was terrible, the woman from next door said when I made some inquiries in the neighbourhood.  Fancy that poor Dear losing her home like that and her being a widow as well.  She went on to say that she and her husband had awoken to shouts for help at two-thirty in the morning, and when they had gone to investigate, found Mrs Mancelli in the garden.  With a spade of all things.  As if one could fight a house fire with a gardening tool, the woman shook her head.  The poor thing must have been terribly confused with the shock of it all.

A man from across the road stated that he had heard someone yell for the fire brigade.  In the meantime, people had tried their best to put the fire out, but hadnt been very successful.  By the time the fire brigade arrived, the flames had already gutted most of the interior.  Another neighbour told me Mrs Mancelli said that she had been drying some clothes near the open fireplace and that they must have caught on fire.  I knew for a fact that it wasnt raining the previous night, because Id been out jogging around the block.  So, why would she want to dry things inside?

I climbed through the ruins to look for any evidence of foul play.  The fire seemed to have started in the kitchen from what I could gather and there wasnt any evidence of an open fire-place anywhere as people had been let to believe.  The windows had all blown, except for some brick windowsills, which were still in one piece.  On inspecting them closely, I noticed a faint footprint on one of them with the toe part pointing to the outside.  Had the woman jumped from this window?  I wondered.  It was quite possible that the fire had trapped her, and that this had been her only way out.  One witness had seen her in her garden, fully dressed, at about two oclock in the morning.

This case was becoming more and more interesting.  There was something fishy about the whole thing.  As Im no expert on lighting fires, intentionally or otherwise, I was going to have a chat with the chief of the fire brigade as soon as I had checked out the backyard.

Starting under the window that had the footprint on its sill, I found the same shape of footprints leading into the garden.  I followed them carefully and ended up close to the back fence where some lovely rosebushes lined its entire length.  I love roses.  They do something to me.  I can never walk past a rose without smelling its lovely scent.  Anyway, I couldnt help myself and bend down to take a sniff when, suddenly, the ground gave way under my right sneaker and my foot sank ankle-deep into the damp, soft soil.  This spot had obviously been disturbed not long ago, as the rest of the soil around was dry and much firmer.  Being a bit of a mole wont hurt, I thought, grinning at the double meaning of the word.  With my bare hands I dug a little deeper into that patch, and, surprise, surprise, found that something was buried here.

As I dug a little deeper still, I suddenly felt something solid and eventually unearthed a locked, ornate metal box the size of a pizza carton, only twice as deep.  I wiped my filthy hands on my Carlton Footy scarf, fished my pocket-knife from my jeans pocket and set to work.  The lid flew off moments later.  What fluttered around my feet like dead autumn leaves was enough evidence to prove to the Insurance Company that Mancellis widow was indeed trying to take them for a ride.  There was no need to talk to the chief of the fire brigade after all.

In my statement to the Companys Manager I said that I was convinced Mrs Mancelli had deliberately set fire to her own home, and that I could back up my report with the evidence I had on hand.

What evidence?  You may ask.  Well, the box I had found in Lucia Mancellis garden contained her passport, various Birth-, Marriage- and her husbands Death certificates, as well as a number of family snapshots, including one of her wedding, which also showed my father in his younger days as the couples Best Man..

It seemed that the lady had buried those important documents and her personal keepsakes to save them from the fire.  No doubt, she would be trying to retrieve them sooner or later.  The rest was up to the Insurance Company.  Case closed.  Finito.

By the way, Im going to a concert tonight to enjoy another performance of the entertaining Mad Hatters.  I found that little leprechaun rather amusing.  And as Im a bit of a sentimentalist, I also look forward to hearing those beautiful love songs again that duet had sung.  They had really touched my heart.


*


CHAPTER 4.

                     WHERE IS JULIE?

My phone rang just as I switched on the percolator, as if the caller knew I was back in action and in desperate need of some cash.

"John Briggs here," someone rumbled into my ear.  "I have an urgent assignment for you.  Meet me in my office right away."  He gave his address and hung up before I had a chance to reply.  Well, that was short and sweet.  I'm not usually one for taking orders that are barked at me over the phone, but I needed to earn something in a hurry, especially since the rent for my flat was well overdue and my landlady had already started to give me a hard time about it.

            Half an hour later, I was riding the lift to the sixth floor of a high rise building.

John Briggs' office was larger than my entire flat, bathroom included.  His massive desk must have cost him a mint.  Success was written all over his middle-aged face.  But not in his eyes.  There was a look of despair in them.  "My daughter," he said after I introduced myself, and handed me a gold-framed picture that had stood on his desk.  It depicted a young woman with a little girl about nine years old.

"That is her with her child?"  I asked.

"That child is my daughter," he explained.  "It's the only photo I have of her.  The wife took her when she left me."

"So how old is your daughter now?"

"Sixteen.  Julie came to live with me when her mother died a few months ago.  All was fine for a while, but then she got involved with the wrong crowd and moved out.  Haven't heard anything from her in weeks."  (This wasn't quite true as I was about to find out later).  At the time however, I wondered how on earth I was supposed to recognise this girl now that she was a young woman.  No need to mention that I wasn't too keen on the assignment, but beggars can't be choosers.

"No luck with the police?"  I asked.

"They said that, at her age, Julie was old enough to look after herself.  Huh!"  He laughed a bitter sort of laugh. "What do they know?  Bloody useless, they are.  Did you know that sixteen-year-old kids can get all sorts of government support these days?  They only have to tell a few fibs like being homeless, not getting on with the family, no job, no income, etc, etc, and Bob's your uncle."  His cheeks were flushed with anger.  "You find her, Russo," he ordered.  "I don't care what it costs."

I redirected my chewy to my left molars.  "Do you have any idea where she might be?"

            "I know that she took up with a young man before leaving home.  John Frawley is his name."

I whistled through my teeth.  "A relative of Bill Frawley?"  I wondered aloud and itemised some of the man's activities: "gambling, prostitution, drugs, and so forth."  The guy was a big number in the red light district.

Briggs nodded grimly.  "His son."

His reply made me wonder.  "So you know about him?"

"Never mind that," he snapped.  "A thousand now," he chucked me a wad of notes.  "And another one when your job is done."

Jeez!  I hadn't seen that much dough in ages and quickly pocketed it before Briggs changed his mind.  Still, finding that young lady would give me more than a headache.  Frawley was an underworld baron and bad news.  The cops had never been able to pin anything on him because he usually got his bullies to do his dirty work.  I knew that his regular hangout was the Trocadero Bar and decided to pay it a visit.

The joint was decked out with red carpets, drapes and red lights.  A half-naked bird, I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, was gyrating on stage.  It was the sort of sleazy scene where Frawley was at home and decent people kept away from.

I recognised his ugly mug immediately, thanks to my mate Jerry at the cop shop, who had let me glimpse through Frawley's file while his back was conveniently turned.  I had learned that Frawley was smart.  Very smart.  Right now, he was sitting in a corner with his back to the wall and in the company of an ape-faced, muscular individual.   I walked right up to him, told him who I was looking for, and that I suspected he knew something of the girl's whereabouts.

"You're pretty game to be making those sort of statements, Dago."  He regarded me with a crooked sneer around the fat cigar in his gob.

"Charmer," I grinned.  "I just happen to know that your off-spring has towed her off."

            Frawley took a sip from his glass.  "No business of mine," he shrugged.  "The kid's old enough to run his own affairs."  Then he turned and said to his guard: "the Dago wants to leave, Sam.  Show him the door.  And Sam, he would like a taste of your knuckles."

The Gorilla rose and came closer.

"Better back up," I warned him, "or you mightn't be able to eat your bananas for the next couple of weeks."  But that didn't deter him.  He raised his fist to take a swing at me just as my knee connected sharply with his groin.  He obviously hadn't known that I wasn't one to be fooled with.  "Your hired muscles don't scare me any," I smirked at Frawley, whose wide-eyed stare was presently fixed on his protector, who resembled a folded up pocket-knife.  "Why not co-operate, amico?  You'd be wise to give me the info I want," I added, "or I might smash that glass over your head and nail your pretty hands to the table with what's left."

"All right, all right."  I guess he realised that his Ape was no match for me.  He gingerly lifted his hands to ward off the execution of my promise.  Little did he know that I'm not always game to talk tough with members of the underworld, but I happened to know that this mongrel was nothing but a big, fat Yellow-Belly who left his fights to people like that sorry-looking sight to my right.

"My boy dropped that kid weeks ago," Frawley mumbled.  "Far as I know, she's supposed to be staying at Al Moran's, somewhere in South Melbourne.  That's all I can tell ya.  You'll have to find her yourself."

"That's Papa's boy," I grinned.  "Now you're talking.  Nice chatting with you."  Before leaving, I glared at the still pale-faced Gorilla.  "Next time you keep your hairy paws to yourself, capisce?"

A couple of phone calls to my mate Jerry had put me on the right track and a short time later, I was on my way.  I headed straight for Moran's place without looking neither left nor right, nor behind me.  This had been a big mistake as I was to learn later on.

As I didn't want a reception committee - with Frawley's chums one never knew - I went around the back and squeezed my body through an open bathroom window.

The sound of voices was coming from somewhere in the house.  Following my ears, I tiptoed along the passage then burst into what looked like a lounge room.  "Surprise," I grinned.  Despite my precautions, I only found a middle-aged Joker, dressed in nothing else but a pair of jocks and a grubby singlet, sitting on a couch.  Next to him, not looking too clean herself, sat the girl I thought I was looking for.  She looked rather young, had the same colour hair as the girl in the photograph, and from what I could gather, very similar features.

"Sorry to burst in on you like this," I grinned again, "but I've come to take you home, Julie."  I grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet.  Your old man wants to see you."

"Julie?!" she asked tearing herself lose.  "Are you nuts?"  My name is Sharon.  And I don't even know my old man."

I suddenly felt a little foolish.  "You mean, you're not Julie Briggs?"

By then, Moran was on his feet and was standing in defence-position.  "Just what are you tryin' to pull by bouncin' in here like that, Golliwog?" he bellowed.  "Get outta here.  The kid you're talkin' about took off a couple a months ago."

"She died of an overdose," a voice I had heard before suddenly rumbled from behind me.  It was Briggs.

"Very clever, Mr Briggs," I said.  "I thought you didn't know where this little violet here," I pointed at Moran, "was at home."

"Sorry, Mr Russo.  I had heard how good you were, better then the detective I previously employed.  But I still had him follow you and then call me."

            "You employed my opposition to lead you here?"  I could have kicked myself.  How could I have been so stupid and unaware that someone had been watching me?  This would have to be a case for the 'Guinness Book of Records!'  One P.I. outsmarting another.  What a laugh.  It would take me ages to live this one down.

            "This girl, here," a grim-faced Briggs gestured towards the now trembling female, "was Julie's nice, new friend who got her hooked on drugs.  And that bastard there," he suddenly pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at Moran, "supplied them.  Now I'm getting even with him."  His eyes spat hatred at the dealer as his finger curled around the trigger.

"Don't do it, Briggs!"  I yelled.  "That's murder!"  But before I could intervene, two shots fell in quick succession and two men were lying dead on the floor.  Briggs had shot Moran in the head then blew his own brains out.

The female screamed hysterically and I suddenly had a ghastly taste in my mouth.  I was about to lose my breakfast.  "Time for a very stiff drink," I muttered staggering towards Moran's cocktail bar.  "I s'pose you want one too?"  I turned to the girl, who wasn't at all as young looking as I first thought.  "So you're a druggie, are you?"  I asked as I handed her a whiskey before pouring a second one down my throat.

"You don't know what it's like," she cried, then broke down and sobbed her heart out.

"Then bloody well do something about it," I yelled, suddenly filled with rage against our politicians and society at large for allowing this sort of thing to happen.

I handed her my handkerchief, then figured it was high time I hiked it out of there.  I have this thing about crying females.  Ever since my French connection and the kidnapper case in Germany, women's tears have been getting me into more trouble than one could imagine.  It's amazing what they can do to a man.  No way was I going to fall into the same trap again, unless of course, Angela Verde was crying on my shoulder.  But that was a different matter entirely.

        As cold-hearted as it may sound, I deliberately ignored this young woman's tears and pulled my mobile from my pocket to ring the police.  Then I walked to the front door to wait for them and I dreaded already the cross-examinations, and lectures I would have to endure.

*


CHAPTER 5.

IN THE OLD COUNTRY

The bus coughed and wheezed uphill like a huge asthmatic beetle, bumping through numerous potholes on the road.  The driver, a skinny, long-nosed individual, was more interested in the contents of his drinking flask than the welfare of his passengers.  Every so often he sucked on it then shook it as if to make sure it still held plenty.  If his blood-shot eyes hadnt told me any different, I would have sworn by the sour look on his kisser that he was sipping pure lemon juice.  He obviously didnt like his job very much.  Although his shoddy driving worried me a bit, there was little I could do.  To take my mind off the queasiness I felt whenever I saw the driver lift his flask, I watched the terraced, sunny vineyards hiccup past the flyspecked windows.  My destination happened to be Civitavecchia, a city on the coast, from where I hoped to catch a train to the Rome Airport.  I was looking forward to going back home.

My mother had organised this trip for me, whether I liked it or not.  Arguing with her once she had made up her mind was as futile as trying to stop the sun from shining.  Still, if it wasnt for her, I might have never seen the country from whence my genes originated.  I was born and bred in Carlton, Victoria, at a time when school kids played spot the Aussie amongst all the wogs that had invaded the place back then.  Although I had inherited my parents native tongue to some degree, and their love for Italian food, I never cared a hoot about the Old Country until I saw it for myself.  And I must admit that it certainly had a lot of charm.

You gotta the brains for this business, Nicko, my mother had said and insisted that I take her place at the reading of her late fathers will.  My objections had fallen on deaf ears.  You catcha the crooks after, she had said regardless of the fact that I would be lacking any kind of income during my absence.  A Private Eye, such as myself, was never exactly loaded with cash.  Before I knew it, she had booked me a flight with Alitalia, and ordered my father to put me on board.

Her inheritance had hardly been worth the bother.  It merely consisted of a few thousand lire and a broken down tractor.  The money wasnt even enough to replace her old Kelvinator fridge, and to airlift the tractor to Aussie-land would have cost a mint.  Besides, I couldnt think of what possible use it might have had in my parents twelve-foot-square vegie garden.  I generously left the thing with my relatives, who were more than grateful for my gift.  Their hospitality had known no bounds.  Some more pasta, Nicko.  Try this vino, Nicko.  Well, I didnt object too much to that.  Good Italian wine is still a bit of a rarity in Australia.

Much against my mothers secret expectations - trying to marry me off was her ulterior motive - I hadnt at all scored in the romance department.  Even though I had met some cute village belles, the ones I felt like rolling in the grapes with were closely watched over by jealous husbands; and the eligibles were either too ugly or had strict parents attached to them.  Getting caught in flagrante would have meant immediate matrimony under the threat of a shotgun, and I wasnt prepared to take that risk.

My cousins many black-haired bambinos had worn me out though.  Having a Detective Uncle visit from Australia was quite a novelty to them.  I had to invent some hair-raising stories so that I wouldnt disappoint them.  They have no idea that my life isnt half as exciting as Sherlock Holmes.  Although I liked the little buggers a lot, and hope to have a couple of my own some day, it was all a bit too much.

When I finally said ciao and molto grazie to my hosts in Manziana, I had felt exhausted and about as bloated as an elephant suffering with flatulence.  So, I was glad to be getting on the bus.

My travel companions were mostly locals on their way home from work.  Grape picking that is.  They looked pretty beat, so I didnt bother striking up a conversation with anyone.  Instead, I stuck my nose into the sports section of La Viesta, one of the local rags.  Much to my disappointment, a small article on the international soccer scene stated that Australia had lost once again.  Why is it, I thought, that we Aussies always seem to fall short of a goal when we play against one of the European teams?  I spose the talents got to be bred into them.  Still, they wouldnt stand a chance in beating us in an Aussie rules Footy match.

A whiff of something unwashed and sweaty suddenly wafted into my nostrils.  Disgusted, I glanced around me, but the stoic peasant faces gave nothing away.  Eventually I realised that the smell came from right next to me.  The assault on my sensitive snorkel drifted from a boy of about sixteen.  I inspected him closely.  His face was dirty, his unusual blond crop of hair unkempt, and his clothes looked as though they had come straight out of a mud bath.  The kid had slipped his bare feet out of a pair of work boots with yawning soles and minus their laces.  That was where the air pollution was coming from.  Mama mia!  The pong was worse than that of the Werribee Sanitation Channels on a hot day.  I wondered if the boy had ever seen a bath tub or at least managed to stand in the rain once a while.

He had hailed the bus way back at a muddy track turn-off, with a string tied box, the size of a milk crate.  I figured that he had come from a farm around there in some god-forsaken wilderness and had been sent on an errand.  I hadnt noticed the smell at all when he first joined me about an hour earlier, but now, the heat of the afternoon was warming up what should have been left cold.  The breeze blowing through the window opposite didnt help much either.  I had to say something or throw up.  The stench was killing me.

Youve ... uh ... been working hard lately, have you?  I asked him in my best Italian.  He didnt react and continued to stare blankly at some blokes bald head in front of us.  I decided to nudge him in the ribs to get his attention.  Well, his head flew around at once, with his eyes wide open.  There was something in them that I couldnt quite figure out.  As I repeated my question, he quizzed my face with a trace of fear in his dark eyes as if I were some sort of threat, then he shook his head.  Pointing a grubby finger to his ear, he indicated that he was deaf.  I nodded sympathetically and tried to apologise, but his face remained a blank.  Unfortunately, I had never learned sign language and figured that he probably couldnt read my lips on account of my moustache interfering with the spelling.  Pity I couldnt communicate with him and learn more about his circumstances.  In the end, I had to turn back to the window and fill my lungs with fresh air.

Close to dusk, the driver stopped for petrol at a Service Station in a remote mountain village.  From what I could see, it seemed to consist of just a couple of shops and a few buildings.  I also noticed a church steeple nearby with a sun kissed cross poking into the darkening sky.  A handful of passengers alighted and the bus driver disappeared into a nearby liqueur shop.  I hoped the he would be back before long, as I was anxious to continue my journey.  I still didnt feel too good about the whole thing and was quite impatient to reach my goal.  According to my calculations, I would still have a good four hours ahead of me yet.  The wait didnt seem to bother my fellow passengers much.  They all appeared quite lethargic and bored, the odd mouth stretched to a wide yawn.  Long-nose, as I had dubbed the driver, returned to the bus a few minutes later with the neck of an unopened bottle sticking out of his trouser pocket.  No doubt, he had replaced his empty flask.  I decided to watch him much closer now, just in case.

As we got rolling again, I noticed much to my relief that Smelly had moved towards the back of the bus and curled up for a nap on a vacant seat.  The other passengers were either eating or yawning, or getting ready for a snooze themselves when I heard a couple of agitated voices coming from behind.  Someone growled something like: he needs a good scrub.  I figured that they had gotten a nose full of the young kids feet. But I didnt let it ruffle my feathers any.  I was determined to stay clear of any kind of unpleasantness.

It had grown quite dark outside and there was little of the landscape left to be seen.  There was a high mountain on one side of the road, and on the other, the scenery had dropped away under the gravelly edge.  I leafed through the local paper to practice my Italian reading skills once again.  It took a bit of guesswork, but eventually I deciphered an article about a murder attempt on a prominent businessman.  Stuff like that always interests me.  Apparently, some woman had been arrested for attempting to murder a certain Pino Francesi, owner of a huge vineyard.  The accused, one Maria Pasquale from the town of Tolfa, had pleaded guilty without giving any reasons regarding her action.  I wondered why.  Did she attack him in the heat of the moment?  During an argument perhaps?  Was the attack pre-planned?  At any rate, the case intrigued me.  I was still contemplating on it when a sudden sharp lurch nearly knocked me off my seat.  Someone in the back let out a scream and an old bloke shouted mio Padrone!  Alarmed, my gaze flew to the driver.  I had forgotten all about him.  Much to my shock, Long-nose was hanging over the steering wheel like a wet rag.  His arms dangled down his sides and his right hand was holding the now empty bottle.  I sprang into action at once cursing myself for not having checked on him earlier.  Hadnt anyone else seen what was going on or were they used to this kind of service?  My mad dash, however, was much too late.  Before I got anywhere near the driver; the bus veered sharply to the left, hit the mountain wall, then ricocheted back to the right side of the road.  Within seconds the gravel gave way and the bus slid over the edge.  The last I heard before some flying object knocked me out, were my travel companions terrified screams.

When I came to, there was nothing but dead silence all around me.  As my eyes got used to the dark, I noticed that the bus had come to rest against a huge boulder which miraculously had saved us all from plunging to our deaths.  Moonlight shone through the shattered windows onto mangled seats torn from their moorings.  There wasnt a sound from any one passenger.  Nobody moved.  The scene looked as though it had taken place on a battlefront, and for a moment, I thought I was buried alive in a mass grave.  But suddenly, I heard a whimper and then another as, one by one, the travellers stirred back to life.  The whimpering and moaning grew louder and louder until woeful cries and lamentations filled the night like a chorus of lost souls.  An old bloke was the first one on his feet.  Despite a bleeding gash on his arm, he managed to scamper through the rubble then out through the open bus door.  Ill get help, he shouted over his shoulder before he disappeared into the dark.

I pulled myself up and touched the injury on my-head.  Whatever hit me had caused the sprouting of a lump as big as tennis ball.  Despite my throbbing pumpkin however, I helped the others as best I could out of the scrap heap.  At first, I couldnt see the kid Id met earlier but I certainly smelled him.  Following my nose like a hound-dog, I eventually found him stuck between a twisted seat and a fallen down luggage rack.  By the angle of his left leg, I judged that it was broken.  For a second it struck me as weird that, despite the agony the boy must have felt, he never uttered a sound, only his eyes were pleading for help.  I quickly searched through the rubble for something I could use as a splint.  I found a battered umbrella, tied it to his leg with my belt before I quickly carried him outside.  I couldnt do anything for the driver any more.  The steering wheel had penetrated his chest and his neck was broken.  His eyes glowed eerily in the moonlight.  I closed them quickly then relieved him of his wallet which I intended to hand to the Police as soon as I had the chance.  Poor, bloody idiot, I thought, you should have known better.

Some time later, something like a cattle truck arrived - apparently they couldnt get enough ambulances in a hurry - to take us all back to the village we had left behind earlier.  The church I had seen had already been turned into a makeshift hospital to accommodate us all.

A doctor and two nurses stood at the ready with an assortment of pills and bandages.  I noticed the one young nurse in particular for her Bo Derek-style dimensions.  The minute we came in, she started to rush back and forth on very shapely legs, glowing with efficiency.

The local Sergeant of Police also turned up a short time later to question the morbid lot.  Crying or swearing or both, they all agreed that the driver had drunk himself blind.  But when asked why they hadnt tried to stop him, each one had a different excuse.  Being quite familiar with that sort of thing from my own profession, I gave a more detailed report.  As I handed the drivers wallet over, the officer regarded me somewhat suspicious until I showed him my Australian Passport.  After reading that I was a Private Investigator, he immediately changed his tune and treated me as though I deserved a certain respect.  Either there was something wrong with his English or my lousy Italian.  At any rate, he seemed to overestimate my importance.  But that was his problem.  The drivers name had been Aldo Comanicci and his given address Number 8, via dell Aqua, Ladispoli.  A tattered pay slip said that the Vacanza Bus Company had employed him as a part time driver.  Apart from that, the mans wallet was empty.  Apparently, he had spent his last lira on the plonk that had killed the poor bastard.

Aching head and all, I went in search for my young companion because I felt he might need a shoulder to cry on.  The kid grinned half-heartedly at my approach, indicating that he appreciated my company.  And I was glad he did.  For some reason this strange urchin whose name I didnt even know, had started to grow on me like the stubbles on my chin.

Eventually, the Doctor attended to us both; replacing the boys makeshift splint with a plaster bandage and dabbing something on the lump on my head that stung like bell.  Nothing to worry about, he told me, then signalled to the Bo Derek nurse who made us each swallow a couple of painkillers before producing a clip board and pen.  Buona sera, Signor Russo, she said in a husky voice.  Per cortesia, would you fill in your details for the Dottore s records, prego?

You know my name, Signora?  I was surprised.

Signorina, she corrected me and added with a gorgeous smile: news travels fast around here.  (At this point, I have to mention that nowadays even unmarried girls are addressed as Signora, which stands for Mrs)  At the time however, I was saved a bit of guesswork.  Sergeant Mobilia is very excited about meeting a distinguished Australian colleague.

Im flattered, I grinned wondering whether Mobilia knew the difference between my profession and that of a cops.  But I didnt let on.  All I was interested in was getting to know this young lady a lot better.  And now that you know my name; you must tell me yours.

Its Angela Verde, she obliged.

Hmm, an angel of mercy, I charmed.  I like that.

The forms, Signore, she reminded me ignoring my remark

Wont you call me Nicko?  I pushed on.  I hate formalities.

Per cortesia, Signore, This is not a social gathering.

I wish it were, I muttered.  Pity.

I filled in the necessary details about myself then looked deep into her hazel eyes.  Can you do sign language?  Im sure she thought I was still fooling around because she eyed me a little annoyed.

Please, I said.  Im serious.  Dont you want to know this boys name?  I pointed at the kid.  He is deaf.  I met him on the bus and know nothing about him.

For a moment she seemed to still doubt my words but then made a sign at my young travel companion.  At the sight of this, his dirty face lit up like that of a young childs at Christmas.  Eagerly, he signalled back.  Angela seemed quite fluid in sign language.  It was fascinating to watch them let their fingers do all the talking without their mouths joining in.

What is he saying? I asked.

His name is Gino Pasquale, Angela informed me, and he comes from a place called Tolfa, about eighty kilometres from here.

The moment she said it, something clicked.  I instantly recalled the newspaper article I had read before the accident.  This boy had the same surname as the woman who was accused of attempted murder.  She was also from Tolfa.  Could there be some connection?  I wondered.  Would you ask him a bit more about his background?

Her lovely eyes quizzed me again.

I have my reasons, Angela, I insisted with professional air.  Since the Police Sergeant had paved the way so nicely for me, I was making the most of it.  A few minutes later I knew nearly all I wanted to know.  Gino was so eager to explain that at times I felt his fingers couldnt keep up with the speed in which he tried to tell it all.

As it turned out, he had lost his hearing through shock a couple of years earlier when he witnessed his father being crushed to death by a load of runaway wine barrels.  His mothers name was, as I suspected, Maria Pasquale.  Apparently, he had been on his feet for nearly two days, getting himself lost and sleeping in the forest near a swamp before he had reached the main road from where he had hailed the bus.  Then he went on to explain that his mother had packed him off with a letter to her brother in Cerveteri, an uncle he had never met.  All he knew of this relative was that he owned a transport company and that he might give him, Gino, a job.

Was it possible that his mother had planned the attack on this Francesi bloke and sent the boy away before she did it?  I speculated.  Eventually the kid would find out about it anyway.  He only needed to pick up a paper.  I felt that I had to help him somehow, except, I didnt know how just yet.  Tell him Ill help him locate his uncle, I said to Angela, and asked her if she knew of a place where Gino and I could stay for a few days.

No problem, she said and, much to my delight, she invited us both to stay at her place.  This brought another grin to Ginos face; and I was no longer in a hurry to leave for home.

Scusi, Signore, the Cherub excused herself, the Dottore needs me.  We will talk again later.

The boy had dozed off.  Now that I knew his story, I felt really sorry for him.  It cant be easy for a deaf person to communicate with the majority of mankind.  First thing in the morning, I thought, Ill start looking into things.  I also hoped that my prolonged stay might have some fringe benefits as well.  Perhaps, with a bit of luck, I might score in the romance department yet.  Angela was gorgeous, and my therapeutic mattress exercises were well overdue.

It was sometime after midnight when the angel of mercy returned with a pair of crutches for Gino and the three of us made our way to her house, less than ten minutes away.  There, we both tucked the boy into a bed, said buona notte and stepped into a comfortable living room.  At last, I was alone with the Cherub.  She kicked off her shoes and flopped into an armchair while I settled myself on a two-seater couch.

How does your head feel? she asked.

Oh, it really hurts, I fibbed.  Maybe you should take another look at it.  I quickly moved into the couch corner, hoping that she would join me.  But my attempting closer contact was a waste of time.

Ill look at it in the morning, Signore.  Im sure you will live until then.  A tiny smile played around her mouth.

Per favore, I begged, please, Angela, if you must let me suffer until morning, then at least, call me Nicko.  Now that Im a guest under your roof, it would be nice to drop the formalities.

And what if I dont?  Her lips tempted me with a mischievous grin.

Youll be breaking my heart, I warned.

Oh dear, she laughed. We cant have that.  All right then - Nicko - if you must insist.  A faint, pink flush coloured her checks, then spread all the way to her hairline.

Thanks, Angel.  I can go to sleep a happy man now.

I will show you to your room.  She stepped into the hall, with me hot on her heels and pointed to a door at the very end of it.  It looked awfully lonely.

I told her that I sometimes suffered from terrible nightmares and was awfully scared when I woke up.  Thats when I desperately need someone to rock me back to sleep.

Perhaps you would like a sleeping pill?  She grinned.

Thanks for the thought, I muttered.  Buona notte.

I slept like a babe under the soft eiderdown and didnt wake up until lunchtime.  A pair of dark trousers and clean skivvy had replaced my bloodstained T-shirt and jeans.  The clothes Angela had so thoughtfully put next to my bed were not quite made to measure for me but would have to do until I retrieved my suitcase from wherever it had ended up.  A mouth-watering smell of tomatoes, garlic, and rosemary drew me to the kitchen.  My stomach made noises as though it thought my throat was cut.  It reminded me that I hadnt eaten a thing since leaving Manziana the day before.  While I rang Rome Airport to cancel my return flight for the time being, Angela was preparing the best looking lasagne I had seen in days. And the delicious aroma that drifted from a coffee pot on the stove seemed like a gift from heaven.  Gino, freshly scrubbed, and dressed in a pair of mens pyjamas grinned at me as I entered.  Judging by the clothes our hostess had lent us both, I figured that there had to be a man in her life, and decided to ask the relevant question before too long.

Buon giorno, I called out, coffee smells good, and before I knew it, I had a cup of the steaming brew right under my nose.  By the look of things, our angel of mercy was not only a good nurse, but also a very good little housewife.  Sugar? she offered with a smile.

Tastes better without, I declined.  Gets rid of the cobwebs.

And the nightmares? she smiled.

Them too, I grinned.  Then I thanked her for the clothes.  I hope their owner wont mind.

They were my fathers, she said a little subdued.  He died of a heart attack three years ago.  My mother followed him a few months later.

Im sorry, I said.  I shouldnt be so nosy.

Thats all right, she shrugged.  Life must go on.  One cant mourn forever.  Have another cup of coffee.  She refilled my cup then returned her attention back to the stove.  Her long black hair was tied together at the back and her pretty face glowed from the heat of the stove.  As I watched her, something came over me which made me feel more content than I had ever felt before; and I suddenly surprised myself with the thought that I could easily live with my feet under Angelas table for the rest of my life.  This sentiment was quite contrary to my usual opinion on holy matrimony.  I suppose that sooner or later there will come a time when even a hard-boiled bachelor like me feels that he is missing out on something.  At thirty-two, I suddenly felt that I had.  What would your boyfriend think, Angela, if he saw you spoiling two strange men like this?  I speculated.

Oh, there is no boyfriend, she laughed.  I am in no hurry.

I guessed that she was about twenty-five and wondered why no man had snapped her up yet.  Was she too fussy perhaps?  Best to cut the personal stuff for a while, I thought.  Why spoil a good thing?

While we were talking, Gino had the morning papers under his nose and leisurely leafed through it.  I didnt give this much thought and was about to tell Angela how cute she looked in her handkerchief-apron, when the boy suddenly made a terrible choking noise.  Angela dropped her wooden spoon, I jumped off the chair, and we both hurried to Gino at the same time.  His face had turned white and his eyes seemed to be bulging from their sockets.  Then he swished the newspaper madly through the air as if in wild refusal of something.  I pulled the paper from his hand and grabbed his arms.  His behaviour frightened me.  Then Angela took his face between her hands and forced him to read her lips.  Whats wrong?  What happened?

I wondered if he had read something about his mother.  So I quickly turned the pages and, sure enough, found an article on page three with the headlines: Maria Pasquale still silent.

Gino! Angela cried again, take hold of yourself.

Then something totally unexpected happened: Mama, he stammered.  Mia Mama.  Prigione.  Although the words came hesitantly at first, their meaning was as clear as a bell.  Tears had started to run down his cheeks.  Angela and I looked at each other.  She too had tears in her eyes and, Im not ashamed to admit it, so had I.

Gino, Angela said close to his ear, can you hear me?

Si, si, he muttered nodding emphatically.  At this, she put her arms around him and hugged him tight.  I realised at once what had happened.  On reading about his mother, he had received a tremendous shock, which in turn had snapped him out of his afflictions.  It was like a miracle.  The sight of the two of them crying together moved me so much that I instinctively put my arms around them both.  This was the most emotional experience I ever had in my entire life.  I finally blew my nose and not quite trusting my voice, affectionately ruffled the boys blond hair.

What exactly did he read? Angela mouthed at me over the top of his head.  I just shook my head and I pressed my lips together.  She understood immediately.

Mia Mama, Prigione,  Gino said again, regarding me with pleading eyes that held a million questions.

Im sure theres been some mistake.  I cleared my throat.  Ill check it out as soon as possible.  What else could I have told him?  The first thing Ill do right now, is to try and contact your uncle, si?

Si, he nodded, then added: letter... shirt.  Angela ran to fetch it.  When I glanced at the name on the crumbled envelope, I first thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.  I read it again and had to restrain a gasp of disbelief.  This cant be right, I kept on thinking.  It mustnt be!  Just how much more misery does this boy have to endure?  Even I could hardly come to terms with the latest developments.  Padre mio.

The name on the envelope hit me in the face like a boxers right hook.  Aldo Comanicci, it said, Ditta Turistica Vacanza, (c/- The Vacanza Tourist Company), Cerveteri.  There had to be some mistake!  I dont know how I managed; but I forced myself to grin light-heartedly before I rushed from the house.  I still found it difficult to accept that the alcoholic bus driver who had nearly killed us all the previous night had indeed been Ginos uncle.  I checked the letter again.  I had read it correctly.  Maybe there were two men with the same name working for the same company?  I didnt think so.  This would be too much of a coincidence.

I hurried down the street and bought another newspaper to read all the details of the article that had jolted Gino into that shock.  Under the heading I had seen a few moments earlier, it said:  although the Accused shows remorse, she still refuses to explain why she attacked Pino Francesi.  According to Doctor Antonio Edmondo, the victim is in a critical condition and may not survive the savage attack.  Maria Pasquale will stand trial in two weeks time and may be facing life imprisonment.
        
Bloody hell! I thought, no wonder the boy had snapped when he read what his mother had been up to.  His greatest hope now, of course, was that his Uncle Aldo would be coming to the rescue. If the poor kid only knew...

Maria Pasquales attitude didnt make any sense to me.  One would think shed try anything to keep out of jail.  So, why the hell didnt she?  She had a disabled son to worry about for heaven sakes, unless of course, she thought him in good hands with her brother.  What really baffled me was why she wouldnt utter a single word in her defence.  Was she protecting someone?  And if so, then who?  I was determined to find out.  I located the Police Station without too many hassles.  It was right next door to the local Community Centre.

Sergeant Mobilia was sitting behind his desk when I entered.  He greeted me like an old chum: Ahh, come sta, Signore Russo.  How are things?  I shook his podgy hand.

Have you come for your luggage? Some of it has been retrieved.  He pointed at some stuff in the comer.  My battered suitcase with its kangaroo sticker stood out like an ugly relic.  I also recognised Ginos cardboard box.  It had half its contents hanging out.

That too, I said, but to answer your first question, things are not so good.  I need some information.

The previous nights catastrophe and my distinguished Australian presence was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to this bloke.  He was more than eager to oblige.  Im sure he believed I was there on some official business.  I didnt want to spoil his fun and left him his illusions.  He made a couple of phone calls at my request, and as it turned out, Id been right about the dead bus driver.  He was indeed, Ginos uncle.  Doesnt fate often play some weird games?  I thought, then wondered if Aldo had got himself sloshed, if hed known that his own nephew was on board?  That question would always be left unanswered.

Signore Russo?  The sound of Mobilias voice reminded me of where I was.

What do you know about the Francesi case?  I asked him next.

Nothing much, he shrugged.  Francesi was a bachelor in his forties.  Lived on his own in a villa outside Tolfa.  Big number in business circles.  Some years ago there was talk about him going overseas to heal a broken heart, they say.  But that was before my time here.  Im afraid thats all I know.

No immediate family?

Only his old parents.  They retired to Florence.

And what about that woman, Maria Pasquale?  What do you know of her?

A widow with one son.  Rents a small place near Tolfa.  Her husband was killed in an accident at Francesis wine distillery a couple of years ago.  They said at the time that Francesi had stood by and let it all happen without lifting a finger.  But theres never been any proof of that.

Now this was interesting.  Had Maria wanted to kill Francesi out of revenge?  Then why not sooner?  And why not say so?  The more I thought about her action, the more I was convinced that she was protecting someone.  Is there anything else I should know, Sergeant?  I pursued the matter further.

He then told me that, according to his old mate Guiseppe who had been working as the Francesis gardener for years and occasionally came to town for a visit, Maria had been a housemaid to Signora Francesi for a while but was eventually dismissed for reasons unknown.

I thanked Mobilia for his assistance, said ciao, then left with my suitcase in one hand and Ginos box in the other.

A shady roadside bench seemed a good place for studying Marias letter to her brother once again and for thinking things out undisturbed.  I retrieved the crumpled item from my pocket.  It took me a while to make sense of the words, but roughly translated they went something like this:

Caro fratello (Dear brother),

Can you ever forgive the foolishness of a young girl who wanted more out of life than our fathers small farm could offer?  If you can, then I beg you to take care of my son.  I cant give you any explanations right now, but I desperately need your help.  I have no one else to turn to.  Gino is deaf, but can lip-read and communicate through sign language.  Perhaps you can give him a job?  He is used to working hard and often worked long hours at the distillery with his father, who died two years ago. Should anything ever happen to me, my son would be left on his own.  Please, Aldo, for old times sake, I beg you.  I would be forever grateful.  Someone told me once that you have done well for yourself despite the fact that you never liked work much as a boy.  I was so proud of you when I heard that you were the owner of a Bus company.  Aldo, if you have any love left for me, then please, take care of Gino.

With all my love, your sister Maria.

I dont know how long I sat there deep in thought.  So, Aldo had led people to believe that he was a business owner when in actual fact he was only a part time driver.  Strange.  Why would he want to do that?  But that didnt matter any more.  Learning the truth about that wouldnt answer my most pressing questions.  I needed to know if there was a connection between the fact that Gino had also worked at Francesis distillery, as I had just learned, and Marias action. I finally concluded that it was high time I talked to Maria herself for Ginos sake.

It was late afternoon when I arrived back at Angelas.  She told me that she had given Gino a sedative after my departure that would keep him in dreamland for a few hours yet.  Did you find out anything about his uncle? she asked anxiously.

Well, you wont believe this, I said, but I almost shook hands with him last night, so to speak.

Almost?  And why didnt you?

For one thing, I explained, I didnt like him, and for another, he is dead.  You see, Angel, -she didnt object at all to the affectionate term I used, he was the bus driver who jeopardised his passengers lives in a drunken stupor last night, then got himself killed in the process.  I recognised his name in the letter Gino was meant to take to his uncle.  I wasnt quite certain then but now Im convinced of this.

It took a moment for her to digest what I had just dropped.  Im so glad Gino doesnt know that yet, she said at last.  He has already been through so much.  I read that article in the papers about his mother.  I wish there was something we could do for that poor boy.

Trust me, Angel.  I felt like kissing her sad, sad eyes.  I will think of a way.  There is something fishy about the whole business.  I want to go to Tolfa as soon as possible and make some inquiries.  Any idea how to get there?

My fathers old car is still in the garage.  You could use that if its still driveable, Angela offered.  It hasnt been touched since he died.

Itll be driveable when Im through with it, I said then stripped off my shirt to play mechanics.

 The old Fiat was still in reasonable good shape, only the engine needed a good clean.  After less than a couple of hours, I had it going again.  All I needed now was a tank full of petrol, which I obtained at the Service Station where the bus had stopped the night before.

Gino was still dead to the world when I returned.  This suited me fine.  For one thing, I didnt have to tell him the truth just yet, and for another, I was able to spend a bit more time with the angel on her own.  I helped her with the dishes after the scrumptious evening meal she had cooked, - a very unusual thing for me to do - then we sat down on her two-seater couch together, enjoying a glass of well-matured wine.

I began to feel rather romantic and was about to put my arms around her when she stopped me with: oh, I must tell you something.

Here goes, I thought, shes going to tell me hands off.

Tell me what?  I quickly repossessed my limb.

Well, I repacked Ginos clothes into a small suitcase this morning since the box they were in was quite damaged.  Anyway, I found these.  She pulled an envelope from her pocket.  Do you think they might tell you something?

Lets have a look.

Apart from a Doctors Certificate relating to Ginos affliction and a few thousand lire, there were a couple of other certificates inside the envelope.  One was a marriage certificate stating that Maria Anna Van der Velde was married to Dominic Pasquale on the 12th of March. The other was Ginos christening certificate, which had been issued on the 20th October of the same year.  A quick calculation told me that Maria had either been pregnant before she got married or the child was born prematurely.  But there was still something missing.  If Maria considered it necessary to entrust her son with such important documents, I speculated aloud, then one would expect her to include his birth certificate.  But there isnt one.

Maybe its been lost or something, Angela suggested.

Or she didnt want anyone to see it, I supposed, including Gino.  Slowly things started to fall into place.  Ill be going to Tolfa in the morning, I said, then casually dropped my arm on the back of the couch.  Ever so slowly, my hand crawled all of its own towards her lovely shoulders.

Tell me about Australia, Nicko, she mumbled dreamily.

Well, I talked about our sandy beaches and beautiful mountains, the roos, the koalas and the rest of our wildlife in general.  This imminently led me to the birds and the bees.  I think Angela had sensed that her perfume was starting to do strange things to me.  She suddenly rose to her feet.  Its getting late, she said, and you have a long drive ahead of you tomorrow.  Youd better have an early night.

Thats an excellent idea, I said close to her ear, but much to my disappointment, she only smiled sweetly, said bouna notte and was gone the next minute.

You contact my uncle? Gino asked anxiously the next morning as I was preparing to leave for Tolfa.

Seems your uncle Aldo is away on business right now, amico, I lied.  Hell only be gone for a week or two.  And with Angela looking after you so nicely, theres no great hurry for you to be leaving right away, is there?

He smiled and shook his head.

Im going to see your mother, I said quietly a moment later, then waited for his reaction.  His brooding eyes ran expectantly over my face, he was waiting to hear more.  And for a moment, it seemed as though he wanted to ask me to take him along.  But then his chin dropped.  Tell ... her...Im all... right, he stammered.

I will, I nodded, but before I go I need to ask you something.  I forced him to look at me and stared him square in the eye.  Did you like working for Signore Francesi?

His reaction was more or less as I had expected.  His eyes flashed strangely; almost hateful for a second then he quickly turned his head away.  That was all I needed.  I saw no reason to pursue the matter any further at that point.

Angela looked absolutely edible in her floral halter-neck dress, with her long hair streaming down her sun-tanned shoulders.  For a moment there, I would have given my eye-teeth to stay with her, but the commitment I had made was much more important than my own personal needs.  I chucked my good suit on the back seat of the car, blew the angel a kiss, and pulled out of the drive.

It took me just under two hours to reach the Tolfa turn-off and to travel a few miles up the road.  Gino must have come along this way, I remember thinking when I saw the elaborate white building to my right.  I figured that it had to be Francesis villa.  I pulled into the curb, quickly changed from my jeans and T-shirt into my Fletcher Jones suit, then turned into the pebbled, circular drive with the flair of a high society snob.

I had expected the place to be more or less deserted and was surprised to see an old bloke pottering around in the garden.

Salve, I called out.  Do you work here?  Startled by my sudden appearance, he dropped his rake and slowly came closer.

Si, Signore, he eyed me suspiciously, Im Signore Francesis gardener.  What do you want?

Sorry to bother you, I said, and introduced myself as Aldo Comanicci, Maria Pasquales brother.

At first he gaped at me like a stranded fish then said: my name is Giuseppe Riccuti.  I have been working here for the last twenty years, he added sounding proud of the fact.

He must be the one Mobilia talked about, I thought and pressed on.  Maybe you can help me.  Ive only just found out about the awful dilemma my sister is in.  I tried to look suitably upset.  Im terribly worried about her and left Cerveteri as soon as I could.  I always believed I could have made a great actor and Giuseppes reaction proved that I played the part of the concerned brother well.  The man clapped his hands together, saying that it was all such a terrible tragedy and that he wished I had come much sooner.

I know, I nodded in a subdued tone.  l shouldve come much, much sooner.  In fact, I had planned more than once to visit Maria, but there was always some sort of urgent business to take care of.  Still, Im here now, and Ill see what I can do (and that wasnt even a lie).  Im sure someone has made a dreadful mistake.  My sister couldnt hurt a fly, let alone try to kill someone.  This was a stab in the dark, but there was no surprised reaction from the gardener.  Do you know what happened exactly?

Si, Signore, he nodded. Then he looked furtively over his shoulder as if to make sure that no one else was around.  I saw what happened, he whispered.

So you know the attacker and still let Maria take the blame?  I remarked astonished.  My luck held out and I found my suspicion confirmed.

This time, it was the gardener who looked guilty.  Im an old man, Signore.  But I had no choice.  She made me promise.  How could I say no to someone whos always been good to me, after my wife died?  Maria often cooked for me and cleaned my house.  I couldnt act against her wishes.  I told her that I didnt think it right for her to take the blame, but she said she had nothing to lose as long as the boy was safe.  Im sorry.  Ive already said too much, Guiseppe cut himself short.  You must go now.

I had heard enough anyway.  The Pasquale jigsaw puzzle was almost complete.  Molto grazie, Giuseppe.  Im very grateful.  I shook his hand and shoved him a few lire.

         I arrived at the local hospital a short time later.  This time I introduced myself as Nick Russo, a close friend of Francesis.  I only just heard about the tragedy, I said to a broom of a matron whose eyes swept over me with a suspicious look.  May I see him, please?

Impossiiible, she growled.  The patient is in no condition to receive visitors.

Oh dear, I muttered.  That bad, huh?

She offered no further comment.

Can you tell me at least, I gave her a doleful glance, if my friend is getting any better?  I am extremely concerned about him.

He has regained consciousness and is improving, she said abruptly.  And now you must excuse me.  I am very busy.

I was about to say yes, sir, sergeant, when a young doctor come rushing in.  Signore Francesi wants to see his solicitor, he told the broom.  Get someone to send for him.  Then he went off again ignoring her raised eyebrows and curious glance.

I had heard all I wanted to hear and then some.  Francesi was on the mend.  But why would he want to see his solicitor?  I wondered as I went back to the car.  Maybe I would find out before too long.

My final and most important call was at the Tolfa Prigione.  The drab barbed-wire fence and ghastly concrete building looked awfully forbidding.  Although not even a quarter the size of The Coburg Pentridge, it was just as intimidating.  I switched back to the role of Aldo Comanicci and asked the guard if I could see my sister.

Visiting hours are from two to three, he said with an authoritative air.  Its ten past three now.

Have a heart, I pleaded, Ive come a long way and have no idea of the visiting hours. Couldnt you make an exception, just this once?

Youll have to get special permission from the Head, he informed me, and he isnt here right now.

Oh no, I said trying to sound very disappointed.  I must get back to Ceveteri this evening.  Its an awful long drive, you know.

All right then, the guard conceded after some thought.  Half an hour is all I can give you.  But keep it quiet.

Molto grazie, Signore, I buckled with relieve and didnt even exaggerate.  He frisked me quickly, then he led me to Marias cell.

At last, I stood in front of the woman who had been on my mind so much lately.  Apart form the dark-ringed eyes and drawn face the terrible experience had left her with, underneath it all, she was quite an attractive woman in her late thirties.  She was dressed in jeans and a checked flannelette shirt instead of the usual prison garb, and had the same short cropped wheat-coloured hair as her son.  The likeness between her and Gino struck me as quite uncanny.

The expectant smile Maria Pasquale wore at my entrance immediately changed into a shocked expression when she saw me.

Youre not Aldo! she exclaimed.  Who are you?  And what do you want?

Im sorry I used your brothers name, I apologised, but it was the only way they I could get to see you.  Theres no need to be frightened.  My name is Nicko and Im Ginos friend.

            She quickly sat down on the straw-filled mattress.  How is my son?  Has he contacted my brother?  I could see how eager she was to hear about both.

One thing at a time, Signora.  I pulled a wooden stool from the corner and sat down in front of her.  Your son is fine, I reassured her, and Im glad youre sitting down, because Ive brought you some very good news.  Then I told her about Ginos remarkable recovery.

He ... he talks?  The way the womans face lit up was unbelievable.  It made her look ten years younger.  But then, something like fear crept back into her eyes.  Is he with Aldo?  And do they like each other? she asked anxiously.

Unfortunately Signora, I had to tread very cautiously here, you must now prepare yourself for some bad news as well.

Her body grew tense.  D...did Gino say something?

Although I knew what she was getting at, I pretended I had no idea what she was on about.  Instead, I said that her son sent her his love.  Then I told her about the accident as gently as I could, neglecting to mention her brothers drinking habit.  That was before they had actually met, I added.  Gino broke his leg.  But its mending nicely and he is being well looked after.

Tears had started to well up in Marias eyes as I talked and by the time I finished, they rolled freely down her cheeks.

Its so sad, she cried softly, to think that they both sat on the same bus and never knew each other.

Here, I offered her my handkerchief and apologised for being the bearer of bad news.  At least be grateful, I reminded her, that your son is still alive and has his hearing back, and in a few weeks time, hell be able to come home again.

No! she screamed at once.  He must never come back here.

Dont you want to see him?  I acted surprised.

            Of course I do, but its just....

Are you afraid that the truth will come out and Gino may end up in here instead of you?  Is that it, Maria?

The blood had drained from her face.  Wh ... what are you talking about?

I know everything, Maria.

Everything?  She stared at me almost terrified.  Who told you?

No one, I lied.  But as I am a Private Investigator, I take an interest in things.  The truth is, that Gino attacked Francesi and you took the blame because you didnt want your son behind bars.  Isnt that right?

Her tear-stained face looked up at me pleading.  You must never tell anyone.  Please.  Ginos future must not be ruined!

But what about your future?  Is this what you want?  I gestured at the ugly brick wall, to sit in this hole for the rest of your life?

Better me than my son, she mumbled.  I have nothing left to lose.

But Gino is still a minor, I reminded her.  All he might get are a couple of years in a detention centre.  And what is he going to do without you?  Who will take care of him now that Aldo is gone?

I dont know, she moaned.  I really dont know.  She buried her face in her hands. I let her mull things over for a while then gently took her hands into mine and held them tight.  I looked straight into her big, sad eyes.  Do you want to talk about it?  And talk about it she did.  With each word she uttered, I could almost see some of the weight she was carrying lift from her thin shoulders.

I was nineteen when I first came to Tolfa, she began in a toneless, embittered voice.  Signora Francesi had employed me as a maid.  And then, her son Pino and l fell in love with each other.  Oh, we were both so very young.  The inevitable happened and I found myself pregnant.  Pino wanted us to get married right away but the Signora didnt think me good enough for her son.  As a farmers daughter, I was too low-class for her.  She kicked me out and sent Pino to America to forget about me.  Eventually I married Dominic to give my unborn child a name.  Dear, dear Dominic, may he rest in peace.  He knew that the baby wasnt his and never asked any questions.  I loved him for being so good to us both.  And Gino never knew that Dominic wasnt his real father.

That explains his missing birth certificate among the papers he has with him.  I interrupted her.

S, she nodded.  Foolishly, I had named Pino as the father when they asked me at the hospital.  A slip of the tongue I have regretted ever since.  Anyway, she went on, when Gino turned fourteen, he went to work with Dominic at the Francesi distillery.  And then the accident happened.

What exactly happened on that day?  I was all ears.

Well, a truck load of full wine barrels had tumbled to the ground after one of the ropes had suddenly snapped, Maria explained.  And Dominic, who had stood right behind it, was crushed to death.  Pino had just arrived from a visit to the city.  He immediately ran up to help, but then had to stop like everyone else and just watch it happen.  There was nothing anyone could do anymore.

            I still dont understand why your son...

I was just coming to that, she said and continued: A disgruntled worker, who had been dismissed for not doing his job well, used the tragedy to accuse Pino of negligence.  And although it was established that he was free of any blame, Gino, who hadnt witnessed the tragedy himself, believed the lies.  Not only did the shock of Dominics death cause his affliction, he also began to hate his natural father with all the passion of his young age.  He swore to get even with him some day, no matter how hard I tried to convince him of the mans innocence.

So Gino stabbed him, I concluded.

Si, Maria wiped a tear from her eye.  Unfortunately, he takes after my Dutch father who had a terrible temper.  I had sent him to Giuseppe, the gardener, with a cake that day, just as Pino returned from another trip.  As soon as he got out of his car, Gino dropped the cake, picked up the garden snippers and rammed them into Pinos side.  Then he came running home, with his face all flushed.  I did it, he told me in sign language.  I killed him.  I was aghast.  I knew I had to do something quick.  She then went on to explain how she had quickly changed into the clothes Gino had on at the time, and which she presently wore, sent the boy off to Cerveteri and ran back to the villa.  By that time an ambulance had taken the unconscious Francesi away and the Police had arrived shortly after.  She only had a few seconds to convince Giuseppe that it was best for Gino if he named Maria as the attacker.  And then I gave myself up, she concluded.  Gino trusts me completely.  I told him before he went that I would fix things up somehow.  He had no idea, of what I was going to do of course.

He knows now, I said gravely.

Oh no, she gasped.  How did he find out?

From the newspapers.  The case is certainly being talked about.  As usual when something tragic happens, the media is having a field day.  Especially since Pino Francesi is such a prominent figure.  How do you think Gino regained his hearing?  It was the shock he suffered at learning that you were in jail.

Padre mio!  She started to cry again.  My poor, poor boy.  What will happen to him if he learns that Pino will die? She asked anxiously.

Actually, I dont think he will die, I said and told her what the nurse had said at the hospital.  And yet, she still seemed filled with despair.  That will be the end for my son then. she muttered.  Pino will tell everyone what really happened and press charges.  How can I...

The rattle of keys stopped her in mid-sentence.  The warden had come to send me packing, I thought.  After all, he had been more than generous.  He had given me over an hour with Maria.

Can we have just a few more minutes, please, I asked.  Weve had so much to catch up on.

You can catch up as much as you like, he grinned, but no longer on my time.  Then he said something that left Maria and myself speechless.  Signora Pasquale, please sign this release form.  Youre free to go.

What ... what did you say?  It took her a moment to comprehend.

It seems that Signore Francesi has decided against all court proceedings.  Now both of you get out of here.  Veloce!

He didnt have to say that twice.  I grabbed Marias hand and we started to run.  Out of the cell, down the passage, through the gate a guard had opened, and past the barbed-wire fence.  We had gone about half a mile down the road when I skidded to a sudden halt.

  Hey!  Hang on, I laughed.  In all the excitement, I had completely forgotten about Doctor Verdes car.  Giggling like two silly kids, we hurried back to the parking lot.

In between giving me instructions on how to get to her house, Maria suddenly stared at me.  What if they arrest Gino now?  She still hadnt quite caught on.

They wont, Maria.  Didnt you hear?  Francesi wont point a finger at anyone.  This means that neither you nor your son will be held responsible for the attack.  Capisce?

She started to laugh again.  And this time it was a happy, carefree laugh.  But then she turned serious once more.  Do you think Pino will ever forgive our son?

That, my dear Signora, I cautioned, remains to be seen.

As we pulled up outside her house, I suddenly had a brilliant idea.  Why dont you come to Allumineri with me to see Gino?

Now?

Why not?  We could be there by about seven oclock.  Im sure my friend Angela wont mind putting you up for the night.  Just thinking about the angel, started to do strange things to me again.  I couldnt wait to get back to her.

While Maria rushed into her house for a change of clothes and whatever else, I hoped with all my heart, that Angela would offer Maria her own bed.  This could mean ... well, I certainly wouldnt mind if ... Cut it out Nick, I chided myself and hauled my mind back to above my belt.

We were on our way within minutes.  Just imagine the look on Ginos face when he sees you, I grinned.  Hell be over the moon.  And over the moon, he was.  So was Maria at hearing her son talk again.  So was I at seeing my angel again.  And so was Angela at seeing everyone so happy.  She produced a scrumptious pasta dish, accompanied by a bottle of good wine and our lively conversation, with Gino joining in of course, lasted well into the night.  Eventually however, our gorgeous hostess put up a folding bed in the boys room for his mother, then, remarking on how exhausted I looked, sent me of to bed as well.  On my own.

The following morning Angela organised for someone to drive the Pasquales back to Tolfa.  In a way, I was sorry to see my little mate go.  I had become quite fond of him.  According to his mother, they were both ready to face the music and place themselves at Francesis mercy.

Will you write to me, amico? I asked Gino as I shook his hand.  Id love to hear from you once in a while.

Si, he nodded emphatically and grinned with moist eyes.  Si, Nicko.  I had to turn away to blow my nose.  Angela was also quite moved.  So much so in fact, that she let me put my arm around her as we waved arividerci.

Well, Angel, I said as we walked back to the house, that only leaves me now.  I too will have to make tracks soon.  My staying with you on my own a while longer wouldnt worry me at all, but it could ruin your good reputation.

Her eyes darkened.  You could always board with some family in the neighbourhood, she suggested in a tiny voice.

Only if you promise to come to Aussie-land with me, I teased, but I wasnt joking at all.

I dont think I could, Nicko, she shook her head.  This is my home.  I belong here.

The tears that trickled from her lovely eyes chiselled away at my aching heart.  Nothing held me back anymore from taking her into my arms.  Maybe, I whispered, just maybe, one day you will come to me.

Maybe, mia caro.

            It was quite natural that I dried her tears with my kisses and quite as natural for her to lead me to her bed.  Who cared if it was ten oclock in the morning.  We had a lot of catching up to do and some wonderful memories to create.

I received a letter from Angela the other day.  She wrote that she often thinks about me, but I dont think shell ever come here.  Her roots are too deeply embedded in the soil of the Old Country.  Still, I can hope and dream, cant I?  Maybe one day, my angel - maybe one day - Ill see you again.

Gino writes to me too sometimes.  He recently sent me a snapshot of his parents wedding.  Dressed in a smart suit, he stood between his mother and Pino, his father, grinning from ear to ear.


*

CHAPTER 6.

TOUCH DOWN AT FRANKFURT

            My mind was still so much preoccupied with Angela Verde that I only caught the tail end of the flight captain's announcement:... 'a brief touch-down in Frankfurt to have this minor problem rectified'.  Although I was looking forward to getting back home, I didn't mind what seemed to be just a short interruption.  But the plane had hardly touched the tarmac, when we were asked to kindly collect our luggage.  The 'minor problem' had apparently turned out to be a major one, judging by the fire brigade and three ambulances that stood at the ready.  The passengers were given a choice of either continuing on with another airline or spending the next twenty-four hours at the International Hotel in Frankfurt, courtesy of Alitalia.'

Well, I figured that an extra day away from home wouldn't make me any poorer than I already was and welcomed the chance of taking a look at this old city, which had been home to famous storytellers, wealthy merchants, and Rothschild banks.

The Hotel was the swankiest joint I'd ever seen, with prices so astronomical that the cost of a beer alone would leave you with nothing but your underpants.  A mere mortal could never afford that kind of rip-off unless he loved running around in his jocks or his name was Kerry Packer.

The room they put me in would have suited the most arrogant types of our species with its thick burgundy carpet and cut glass chandelier.  At the sight of the silk sheets and two-foot thick eiderdown on the bed, my thoughts immediately returned to Angela.  Jeez, that luxurious recliner was just made for love between breakfast and lunch.  'Forget it, Nick,' I chided myself, 'better have a cold shower.  You're no longer in the Old Country.  It's over.  Finito.

            Near noon I made my way to the dining room and hogged the biggest lunch I ever had: oxtail soup with egg noodles, and succulent roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut.  That sour cabbage stuff really isn't quite so bad once you get past the smell of it.  After topping that off with a huge slice of black forest cake under a mountain of fresh cream, I felt as though I was the size of a house.

No wonder that a lot of Germans are so well upholstered, if that's the sort of food they eat every day.

As it was a lovely sunny day, I decided to walk off the huge amount of kilojoules I had just consumed, by exploring this city after which a sausage had been named.  Or was it the other way round?  Who knows?

I took a leisurely stroll through the colourful ' Palm Gardens', where nearly everything stood in full bloom.  It reminded me very much of the Botanical Gardens back home.  I then made my way past the impressive St. Paul's Cathedral towards the Henninger Turm, which has a moving restaurant up top.  I watched it for a while as it turned like a slow merry-go-round, its many windows reflecting the sun, until I ended up half blind and with a stiff neck.  My walk then took me across the cobble-stoned 'Kaiserplatz' and the many market stalls.  The glib-tongued spruikers, who advertised their wares there, were rather fascinating to watch.  Pity, I couldn't understand a word they said.

Eventually, I found my way to the banks of the river Main and immediately grew homesick again.  This time for the old river Yarra.  It was just as filthy.  From the top of a bridge, I watched a few steamers drift lazily by, then turned, and headed for the heart of the city.

The pedestrians in the shopping centre all ran around as though they had missed the last train.  It was a bit like

Swanston Street, Melbourne
, during the pre Christmas rush.  Funny, I had always believed that Germany was mostly occupied by a blond and blue-eyed race.  But much to my amazement, the residents of Frankfurt were as mixed in colour and creed as they were in Australia.  'So much for Hitler's crazy notions about a master race,' I thought.  'If he saw what had become of his 'Third Reich, he'd turn in his grave, if he had one.  'Sieg Heil,' Adolf.

            A little exhausted after my long walk, I went back to my hotel room with a bottle of Rheinhessen Riesling, the most expensive on the wine list.  The three glasses I drank made me so drowsy that I went to lie down on that heavenly bed.  I was about to lose myself in daydreams, when I heard some commotion in the corridor.  I would have shrugged off a man's shouts and the hysterical screams of a woman as a matrimonial tiff, if I hadn't heard the whimpering of a child.  I jumped off the bed and into my jeans, ready to knock anyone's block off if I thought they were hurting a kid.  Moments later I elbowed my way through a small group of people who had gathered outside the room next to mine.  There was no sign of a child, but a young woman, sobbing hysterically, was just picking herself up off the floor.  As I approached, the bystanders scrutinised my stubbled chin, hairy chest, and large bare feet, as if I wasn't the full quid.  And I in turn, I thought for a moment, that I had run into a meeting of the Babylon Bricklayers Union as they all gesticulated and babbled at once in various different languages.

"I'm a private detective," I said pulling my credentials from my hip pocket.  "Can I help?"

"Mein Kind, (my child)!"  The young woman turned to me and wiped an invisible tear from her cheek.  As her gorgeous, blue eyes travelled all over me, her sobs grew even louder.  This made me wonder if I was really such a sorry sight.  But then she managed, between heaves and sighs, to explain in broken English that someone had just kidnapped her two-year old daughter.

"Details," I urged her.  "Give me some details."

Apparently, she had been about to enter the room with her kid, when a dark-haired man in a black jacket had run up, grabbed the child, then disappeared with her into the lift.

"She's blond and wears a red dress," the young mother sobbed again.  And as her blue eyes melted into mine, they almost wiped Angela's hazel ones from my memory.

            "I saw that man with the child only ten minutes ago," a latecomer drawled like an American.  "He ran out of the hotel just as l came through the door."

I wasn't going to waste another moment.  I ran back to my room, slipped into my jumper and sneakers, then raced down the two flights of stairs to the lobby.

The hotel manager watched me from behind the reception desk.  I guessed by his bulging eyes that he must have thought a marathon runner had invaded his elegant establishment.  He instantly poked a hole in the air with his huge nozzle, smoothed the jacket over his beer gut and growled as though he had a hot potato in his mouth: "this is not a jogging ground, mein Herr.  Would you please refrain from..."

"A child has been kidnapped!"  I shouted at him.  "Call the police!  And a doctor for that poor young woman upstairs!"

The blood drained from his flushed, fat cheeks.  His bottom jaw dropped, in shock I presume, and he began to quiver like jelly.  "Oh the disgrrrace," he lamented.  "What a terrrible disgrrrace!"

"Call the police," I reminded him again, with one foot already outside.  A porter in a gold-trimmed jacket stood by the door.  "A man ran out of here with a child ten minutes ago," I said to him, still catching my breath.  "Where did they go?"

The guy regarded me with a haughty expression, as though it was beneath him to talk to a scruffy looking individual like myself.  I grabbed his shiny lapels, nearly pulling them from their seams and shook him a little.  "Do you understand me?!"  I shouted at him.

"They left in a silver-grey Opel," he said at last with his nose still in the air, and in an accent as thick as pea soup.  Then he brushed my hands away as though they were something repugnant and pointed down the road.  "That way," he said efor turning his back to me.

'What an arrogant mongrel,' I thought, 'I hope someone knocks him off his pedestal good and proper one day.'

As I stood there frantically searching for some sort of transport, I spotted a taxi rank just a few meters away.  I dashed to the first one and hopped in.  The driver seemed to know I was in a hurry and immediately started the engine.

"Speak English?" I asked.

            "Not much," he shrugged.

'Bloody hell,' I thought, 'how can I communicate with this 'Charlie?'  As I eyed him with exasperation, I suddenly caught sight of the name badge on his chest.  It said: 'Leo Camilleri'.

"Parle italiano, Leo?"  I asked hopefully.

            "Si," he nodded grinning.  "Come sta?"

"Never mind how I am," I said abruptly, then introduced myself and quickly explained what I wanted him for.

"A kidnapper, huh?"  The Cabby's eyes first opened wide then squeezed together in a mean sort of way.  "I thought there was something wrong when I saw that man run down the road with the kid," Leo said.  "I wrote down the registration number of the car he got into, just in case.  It was a grey Opel.  We'll get him, amico," he assured me, then threw the car into gear and tore from the curb.

As we raced down the street, I studied the guy's profile.  'How helpful would this little fat bloke be if it came to a crunch?  I wondered. 'It could get tough.'  Although he could scarcely see over the steering wheel, Leo seemed extremely alert, however.  His eyes darted continuously all over the road.  Snaking in and out of the traffic at 100kph seemed like child's play to him.  "Any idea where this kidnapper might be heading?" he asked.

            "No idea.  But I'm sure he won't be hanging around anywhere for long and wait for the cops to pick him up."

"That's true.  So you've called the police?"  He threw me a side-on glance.

            " I told the hotel manager to ring them, but I'm not sure he understood."

Leo picked up his handset, called one Inspector Mueller, and explained something at length in German.  After a brief conversation, he said, "okay," then hung up.

"He wants us to keep our eyes peeled," Leo explained, "and expects me to call him as soon as we spot the suspect's car.  He's also informed his men and they are starting to patrol the city right away."  He made another quick call to his colleague, Helmut, telling him to alert all the other taxi drivers, to keep a look-out as well.  "I'm  convinced," he said to me, "that the bastardo will be caught within the next couple of hours.  In fact," he added with a grin, "I'll bet you fifty American dollars, that I'm right."

"Is the Euro that lousy?"  I returned his grin.

"Not really, but a dollar buys you more of 'em.  Unfortunately though," he frowned, "Yankee fares are hard to come by these days.  They're all going back home to Uncle Sam."

            " I think we'll head for the Autobahn," he changed the subject, "towards Austria.  That's probably the quickest way for the swine to disappear."

"Unless he drives to the airport," .I speculated.

"In that case the airport security will grab him.  I'm sure they've already been informed.  The German police are very efficient."  He pushed the accelerator down a bit harder.  "It takes everyone else a good half hour to cross the city, but you watch, Leo Camilleri does it in half the time."  He patted himself on the shoulder.  "So hang on, amico. It might be a rough ride."

            And it was.  My blood brother; so to speak, seemed to know every street in Frankfurt.  The cab squealed around corners at a speed that took even my breath away, especially as I wasn't used to travelling on the right-hand side of the road.

"Leo?" someone suddenly called over the two-way radio, and excitedly rattled something in German.

"That was Helmut," Leo told me just as excited.  "A grey Opel has just crossed Wilhelm Strasse and the driver was wearing a black jacket."  With that, his foot nearly went through the floor.  The Speedo climbed to nearly 160 kph.  Try this in Australia and see what you'll get!  Leo rounded a Volvo, dodged an oncoming BMW, and shot through a stop sign ignoring the waving arms and shrill whistles of a traffic cop.   As we were about to cross a bridge, I suddenly noticed a red light flashing from the top of it. "What's that light mean?"  I squashed through my teeth, which felt as though they were stuck together with Superglue.

It means that we have to hurry," Leo grinned mysteriously and kept right on going.  It wasn't until we were halfway across when I suddenly realised that the bridge consisted of only one single-lane!  "Padre mio!" I muttered under my breath.  "Another car could be coming towards us at any moment and we could be shooting through the bridge's railing into the river below.  My knees suddenly felt like soft rubber.  But luckily, we made it across safely and ended up at the tail end of a mile of banked up cars.

"Scheisse," Leo swore.  "That's the turn-off to the Autobahn.  We could be delayed for hours."

Suddenly, I spotted a grey Opel about six cars ahead of us.  "Look, Leo, I gasped pointing at it. That could be our friend up there.

Leo let out a shout of triumph.  "Let's check him out, amico," he yelled.  I was already half way out of the cab.  He too, scrambled to his feet, and together we sprinted past the waiting cars towards the Opel.  I wouldn't have thought the little bloke had so many beans in him, but much to my surprise, he moved like a balloon caught in the wind.  A quick look at the Opel's number plate told us we had our man.  Leo ripped the passenger door open, grabbed the frightened, screaming kid and ran back to his cab with her.  I tried to stop the guy from following, but he kept on struggling and wouldn't give up.  In the end, I had to deliver a blow to his chin to knock him out.  Then I turned, ran back to Leo's cab and yelled: "call the cops, mate, hurry!" in Italian. We were causing quite a commotion.  Some gaping onlookers must have thought that we were kidnapping the kid instead of it being the other way round.  They started to shout, tooted their horns and  one bloke actually jumped from his car and tried to block my run.  I brutally shoved him out of my way.

Leo was already in his car with the engine running, hanging on to the kid with all his might at the same time.  As soon as I joined him, he pushed her into my arms,  took a sharp U-turn, then raced off like Sterling Moss might have done on a good day.  "We'd make a good pair, huh?"  He laughed while the kid still screamed her head off.  Then he picked up his handset again and informed the police of our action and the kidnapper's whereabouts.

As we were heading back to the hotel, I tried in vain to calm down the child, but with little success.  "Do something, Leo," I said exasperated.  "Say something to her in German."  Well, I couldn't have asked for anything worse.  Whatever he had said brought on the opposite effect.  Now the kid really let lose.  Kicking and screaming, she tried to wriggle from my grasp and I really struggled hard trying to hang on to her.

"Did you have to threaten her with the boogie man, you idiot?"  I yelled at Leo.

            "But I didn't, I swear."  He sounded bewildered.  "I only told her we would take her back to her mum."

"Then why would she carry on like that? That's weird.  You'd think she'd be all smiles."  Neither one of us could understand her behaviour.  In the end, we agreed that perhaps she was suffering from after-shock.

Suddenly, a police car with a blaring siren, came racing up behind us, just as Leo pulled up outside the 'International'.  "What the hell is going on?"  I exclaimed.

The cop car also screeched to a halt and before I knew it, a double-chinned, masculine policewoman had flung the cab's passenger door open, tore the kid from my arms, and dashed into the hotel with her.  Next, four fierce-looking cops pulled us both from the cab and shackled us in handcuffs.  It all happened so fast that neither Leo nor I had time to wonder why we were being arrested.  My little mate protested loudly about the unfriendly reception, in a mixture of German and Italian, while I did the same in my best Aussie English.  Our strong objections, however, fell on deaf ears.

"Just what are you trying to pull here?"  I glared at the cop closest to me as they dragged us into the lobby.

"I'm Insh-pector Mueller," the clown introduced himself in perfect good English.  "You're both under arrest for being an accessory to a kidnapping."

"We are what?!"  I didn't think I'd heard right.  "We have brought that child back, you fool," I thundered.  "Leo told you that we were chasing the guy and he also called you again after we had rescued the kid.  So what sort of garbage are you on about?"

"First of all let me warn you," he growled, "that you have just insulted a police officer.  Another similar outburst and you will be charged.  Secondly, I believe that you tried to mislead us with your calls, and that in fact, you are accomplices of the child's mother.  You have also assaulted an innocent man."

For the first time in my life, I was left speechless.  How on earth had this peanut in uniform arrived at his idiotic conclusions?  "I would appreciate it, Insh-pector Mueller," I said sarcastically, "if you could explain these ridiculous accusations, mein Herr.  Have you spoken to the child's mother yet?  I'm sure that she will verify.."

"Not that it is any of your business," he interrupted, "but the child's mother, Karin Haslinger, has already been arrested."

"What!? I gasped. Now I don't understand anything anymore," I scratched my head in confusion, trying to comprehend what he had just said..  "Either I've gone through a time warp, I muttered, or I've somehow ended up on another planet."

"Watch it."  Mueller glared at me again and demanded to see my passport.

"Sorry, I can't help you," I quipped.  "My hands are tied as you can see.  You'll just have to help yourself to my wallet."

Leo, in the meantime, went through a similar procedure, except, his was a German version.

Anyway, after a lot of questioning and rigmaroling, I finally learned that Karin Haslinger who, I thought was a very good actress by the way, had indeed abducted her own child from her ex-husband's home that morning and planned to leave the country with her.  The father, who had full custody, had somehow gotten wind of this, and notified the police at once.  But he had also taken matters into his own hands and had come himself to get his daughter back.

"The victim of your assault, Mr. Private Detective," Mueller presently said with a sneer after checking my credentials, "may also press charges against you."

"Ouch" I said, and added sheepishly: "would he be happy with an apology?"

"We shall see," Mueller's voice dripped with sarcasm.  "Kessler," he ordered one of his subordinates, "keep a sharp eye on these two," he gestured at Leo and me, "or I'll have your hide."

For the next hour or so, Leo and I sat handcuffed under the watchful eye of Sergeant Kessler in a small room off the hotel's lobby. After what had seemed like an eternity however, Mueller re-appeared and ordered to have our handcuffs removed.  He appeared to have lost a bit of his he-man image as he, liking it or not, had to admit that he had been mistaken about our good intentions.  Apparently, the child's mother had signed a full confession.  "Still, Mr. uh Russo," he wasn't quite finished with me yet, "there is the matter of your assault on Mr Haslinger to be dealt with yet."

"I'll be more than happy to apologise," I said sheepishly, thinking at the same time: 'I'll do anything to get out of here in a hurry.'

"Mr Haslinger is in the lobby now," Mueller said.  "If you'll both follow me?"

As it turned out, the poor bugger accepted my apology.  Mind you, it took much talking and gesticulating.  I even tried to squeeze out a tear.  But it worked.  At last, Leo and I were free to go. We headed straight for the hotel's bar in desperate need of a stiff drink after all that.  We sat there talking and enjoying each other's company, for a good while, but eventually, the time had come for us both to move on.

 "It was nice knowing you, Nicko, Leo said as we shook hands.  Thanks for the drinks. And the taxi fare is on me of course.  But you still owe me fifty American bucks for winning our bet," he added grinning.

"That's something I haven't got, mate.  I'm sorry," I shrugged.  "You'll have no choice but to fly across the ocean to collect some Australian ones.  They're much prettier than the 'Greenback' anyway.  But first, you'll have to improve on your English."

"I know enough," he grinned again.  "I can say 'thank you,' when I get a decent tip and: 'not very much,' when I get a lousy one, but, I just might take you up on that invitation one day.  They tell me Australia is a beautiful country."

"So it is, mate, I nodded.  So it is.  Ciao, amico."

And that was the last I saw of little Leo Camilleri.

At eight o'clock the next morning, I went back to the airport to continue my flight to Australia.  And to be honest, I couldn't get there fast enough.  I had no wish to prolong my stay in a country where I'd made the first and biggest booboo in my career ever.  Stupid fool, that I was.  I should have changed planes the day before and bought some postcards of Frankfurt to look at instead.

Australia - here I come!

*

CHAPTER 7.

I DIDN'T DO IT

I was finally back where I belonged, in Melbourne, Australia.  In Carlton to be exact.  My mother had cooked so much pasta for my homecoming that it could have fed two dozen orphans.  But her initial high-beamed smile soon dimmed to 'parking' as she started on the same old subject: "You meeta the nice gal, Nicko?  She pretty?  How old?  She comin' here soon?"
    
I shook my head and hugged her.  "Mama, mama. When will you learn to leave my life to me?"  It was then that she announced she hadn't expected much of an inheritance from the old country anyway.  My cunning mother had planned the whole thing, hoping I'd bring back the future Signora Russo junior.

"Oh Nicko," she sighed, "you make a me sick, naughty boy."  She would have gone on with her favourite lament if my father hadn't pushed a glass of Grappa in my face.  This ended the subject.  On principle, my mother doesn't talk to men when they're having a drink.  Winking at me behind her back, he pulled me into the lounge room out of harm's way.

A good night's rest took care of the jet lag, and early the next morning, I was back in my office ready for work. As my bills were mounting up to near-catastrophic heights,  I had no choice but to accept the Paul Waring's assignment.  At least, I'd be getting a decent pay on completion of this job. He was a well-to-do factory owner (so I thought), and he was loaded.  He asked me to observe his wife, who, he suspected, was having an affair with his accountant.

Is that so?  I asked.

"Yes, he nodded.  She must be ringing him every she knows that I have to work late at the office. And apparently he comes running to her like a dog on heat.  I hate to imagine what goes on behind my back."

How do you know this?

"The neighbours have told me," he said.  "They often see his car parked in the street.

Stupid bugger, I thought. Why dont you come home early one night when youre supposed to be working overtime?

"Have you tried to surprise them?"  I asked.

            "Yes, he nodded, but apparently, when they hear my car pull into the drive, he takes off through the back-door."  I found his story a bit hard to swallow and wondered why he didn't park his car elsewhere, then creep into his house, or just wait next to the accountants car until he comes out.  But then again, a job is a job, and I wasnt going to give him any ideas.  If he was that stupid, then that was his problem.

Anyway, he went on, I have to work late again tonight, so I want you to go to my house and get me some concrete evidence.  I've already hidden my front door key under the mat for you.  And oh, before I forget, my accountant drives a black Ford Falcon.  You'll see it parked on the opposite side of the road, a few meters from the junction.  I'll make it well worth your while, Mr Russo."

'Just what makes some people tick sometimes?'  I wondered aloud after he had gone.  I mean, don't they get married because they love each other in the first place?  Then why do they have to carry on with someone else behind each other's back?'  That really beats me.  Mind you, there's nothing wrong with some good mattress exercises.  I indulge in them myself when I get the chance and in fact, I could do with a few right now, but still, one has to draw the line somewhere and not cheat on a partner who trusts you.

That evening I drove down Glendale Road to check out Warings house; and as he had predicted, a black Ford Falcon was parked just around the corner.  I parked my little Ford Laser a few metres away, shoved my camera into my coat pocket, and made my way back on foot to number fourteen.  The large house - boy, what a house - stood silhouetted against the dark sky, half-hidden behind a big apple tree.  Some lights were shimmering through drawn curtains, but I didnt detect any moving shadows.
             
Waring's key was indeed under the mat as he'd said.  I took off my shoes ever so quietly, unlocked the door and myself inside.  Then I stood listening.  But no matter how hard I pricked my ears, I couldn't hear a thing.  I tiptoed down the hall as quiet as a little mouse and carefully approached an open door to my left.  It happened to be an ultra-modern kitchen and it was empty.  Only the fluorescent ceiling lights reflected in a stainless steel fridge/freezer pair and fancy stove.  Next, I caught a glimpse of the lounge room through its open door on my right.  Other than a humongous leather lounge suit on a shaggy carpet, some fancy crystal cabinet, and a crystal chandelier, nothing else occupied it.  The study was next, and then the bathroom, but they too, were empty.  There wasn't a sign of life anywhere.  'Honestly,' I thought, 'if I were a burglar, I'd have a field day here.'

At the end of the passage, however, there was another room.  This must be the master bedroom, or playroom as some people called it, I presumed.  The door stood slightly ajar and it was dark inside.  If anything was going on in there, I didnt hear a single sound.  Maybe they'd had a good workout already and were now fast asleep, which would have been a stupid thing to do if Waring was due to come home soon, or else they were doing things without the usual moaning and groaning.  If the had fallen asleep, it would make my job a lot easier.  All I had to do was to snap a few photos and take off again.  If the lovers were awake, the sudden unexpected flashes from my camera would blind them so much, that they'd hardly know what had hit them.

With my camera at the ready, I pushed the door open with my foot and quickly took several photos of the entire room.  As the flashlight lit up a bed in front of me, however, I noticed much to my horror that a woman was lying there with her body somewhat twisted and her blouse saturated with blood.  I froze with shock at the sight.  This wasn't at all what I had expected to find.  I quickly pulled my torch from my pocket and was about to take a closer look, when the overhead light suddenly came on and a voice from behind me said: "Good evening, Mr Russo.  I knew that you were the right man for me.  Exactly the type of person I needed." 

It was Waring.  He held a pistol in his gloved hand, which he was now pointing at me.  For a moment I tried frantically to come to grips with the situation, but then, despite the fact that my knees had suddenly grown quite weak, I thundered: "What in hell are you trying to pull here, Waring?"

"Nothing much," he grinned maliciously.  "Ill just tell the cops that I heard my wife scream when I came home.  And that I ran into our bedroom to find that a burglar had killed my wife.  Ill even place a bag of goodies next to you when Im done. And then Ill tell them that I shot him - in that case you - in self-defence.  In fact, Mr Russo, your finger prints will be leaving their mark on this weapon."

            I suddenly realized that he had set me up.  And foolish me had walked straight into his trap.  Most likely Waring had killed his wife himself for whatever reason and needed a some bunny to blame for her murder.  He had chosen me to wear the tag of her killer.

            "Very clever, Waring," I crunched through clenched teeth in order to gain a bit of time.  "There must have been something about your wife that you didn't particularly like."

            "Well," he grinned his devilish grin again.  "All of us have a weakness of some sort, don't we, Russo.  Mine happens to be beautiful young women.  And as you can see for yourself, Janet was nothing of the sort.  She threatened to throw me out of the firm her father had so graciously left her.  But I'm used to certain luxuries and really don't want to go without them."

            While he talked, I let my finger crawl slowly to the release button on my camera then said: "it seems that you have forgotten something, mate."

            "Oh yeah?" he sneered.  "And what might that be?"

            The fact that I'm not working alone."

            "You're lying," he said a little nervous now.  "I've had you checked out."

            "Whatever you were told was wrong."  This time it was my turn to grin, although, I still barely managed to expose my teeth.  "As of this morning I have a partner, you see," I added stepping a little closer.  "As a matter of fact, John is sitting in my car right now.  And if I'm not out of here in five minutes or he happens to hear a shot, he'll have you by the short and curly in an instant."

            Even before Waring had time to answer, I had my camera close in his moosh then pushed the button over and over in quick succession.  The flashes that exploded into his eyes blinded him so much that he had to cover them with both hands whereby his gun went off.  Luckily, the bullet shot past me, nearly giving me a new hairstyle, and hit the opposite wall.  I quickly grabbed a bronze vase from a dresser close to me and donged him over the head with it.  Then I ran from the house back to my car, forgetting all about my shoes at the front door, and called the cops on my mobile to explain the situation.  It didnt take long before a police car came racing round the corner.  I watched two burl guys dash into the house, and some ten minutes later, an ambulance, siren blaring, also stopped outside Warings house.  And another two blokes were running inside with a stretcher.  Holy crab! I thought. I hope I havent killed the bastard.  I quietly snug back to the house, retrieved my shoes, then raced out of there.

Needless to say that I was on edge for a couple of days, until two cops came to my door to arrest me.  I didnt know what to expect.  But much to my relief, I learned that Waring, that mongrel, was still alive.  I could almost hear the rock that fell off my chest.  The guy who interviewed me happened to be an old mate of mine.  Just as well.  He told me that, when Waring came to at the hospital a couple of hours after they had picked him up, he had accused me of murdering his wife, adding that he had caught me in the act, and that I had assaulted him.  But luckily, I was able to call that bastard's bluff by producing the pictures I had taken, including one of Waring's watch.  It showed that it was twenty past nine at the time in question, but the coroner had established that the poor woman's death had occurred around seven pm.  So, I was let off the hook again, but wasn't going to leave without demanding an apology, even if he was my mate, which was graciously granted with a pat on my back.  My mate also told me that the Ford Falcon belonged to Waring himself, and that his accountant was a happily married middle-aged lady by the name of Mrs Thelma Brown.  But what Waring had told me himself regarding his fancy for pretty young women, and that he wanted the business his wife had inherited had turned out to be true.

            As for Waring himself, - the mongrel never paid me for the job, but that's okay - he'll have to manage without beautiful young women and 'little luxuries' for quite some time yet, because there'll be very little supply of those things at the place where he'll spend the next twenty years or so.  But what I don't understand is that, according to Mrs Brown, Janet Waring had still loved her husband very much despite his frivolous ways.

And here I am, a genuine, sincere and caring bloke, if I say so myself, who would like nothing more than to be blessed with a loving wife.  And it wouldn't matter at all if she were as poor as a church mouse.

Isn't there some gorgeous girl somewhere out there who wants me?

*

CHAPTER 8

HOLIDAY IN MANILA

            I had recently bought a raffle ticket at the local shopping centre to aid some charity organisation in their worth-while cause and actually won, of all things, a trip for two to Manila, all expenses included. It would have been nice if I could have invited someone to come with me, but as there was no one yet, I had the prize changed to one only and went on my own thinking: why not go anyway? The break might do me some good.

             So here I was, sitting in a Philippine Airline plane, waiting for all the excitement to start.

Just before take-off, two more passengers climbed on board.  The first was a mink-clad, copper-curled doll.  She stowed a small carry-bag in the overhead compartment, then sat down opposite me, crossing a pair of very shapely legs.  Not bad, I thought, though the rest of her showed a bit of wear and tear.  By the way she wore that fur despite the warm temperature, I judged that it probably was her only asset and that for some reason she needed to make an impression on someone.  Mink coats usually travelled First Class, not Economy.  I was about to mentally work out a theory on her circumstances when an unusual sight of the second passenger appeared in the aisle.  It was a young woman who looked no older than about eighteen and seemed to be at least seven months pregnant.  She came waddling up to me and claimed the vacant seat to my right.  I relieved her of her small shabby suitcase to store it overhead and wondered how she managed to carry it as well as her enormous belly.  I also wondered why a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy would still be travelling on a plane.  Strange.

As she tried to get comfortable, I moved closer to the window, resigned myself to the few inches of seat I had left, and hoped to God that all would go well with her.  Id faint if she decided to give birth right next to me.  The Mink had retreated deeper into her seat and totally ignored the newcomer.  Not very nice, I thought.

After the plane had taken off from Tullamarine, I decided to introduce myself since we were going to be stuck with each other for the next few hours.  The Mink did likewise.  I learned that her name was Madeleine Boswell, an Australian actress according to her, but one Id never heard of.  I reckoned that despite all her airs and graces, she had never made it to the limelight.  Her fur coat was most likely the only success shed ever achieved and I wondered how she managed to even get that.  The pregnant girl said nothing.

After a few dribbles of small-talk with Ms Boswell in which she largely featured, I turned to the girl.  I spose you have a name as well, I grinned.  Or do you travel incognito?

She threw a quick glance at the so-called actress, as if seeking her permission to speak, then after a moments hesitation said: its Jackie.

That was all I got out of her.  A pretty stewardess brought me a glass of wine, which I whole-heartedly consumed, then stuck my nose into the Newspaper Id bought at the airport.  Eventually, I closed my eyes and dozed off.

Several hours later, I was woken up by the flight officers announcement that we were about to land at Manila airport.

After the 747 had touched down, I helped the young girl to her suitcase then let her waddle ahead of me down the gangway.  She had barely set foot on the ground, when she suddenly dropped her luggage and doubled over.  In severe pain, I presumed.  Alarmed, I ran to her side, put my arm around her waist - if you could call it that - to support her then picked up her case and helped her along.  For some reason though, she didnt like my arm around her and pushed it away as she staggered on.  When I noticed small beads of sweat on her forehead, I thought that the humidity around us was getting to her as well.  (But that wasnt the case at all as I was to find out later.)

At the customs checkpoint, much to everyones unpleasant surprise, a sour-looking female with inquisitive hands frisked each passenger from top to toe under the watchful eye of a heavily armed policeman.  There were more of his mates all around us.  In fact, wherever I looked, I couldnt help but notice a cop.  It almost seemed as if the entire Philippine police force had turned up to guard the place for whatever reason.  Intimidated by this sinister atmosphere, my fellow passengers initially light-hearted conversations had turned into subdued murmurs.

Maybe they think were all drug dealers, a man in the front of the queue laughed a little too loud.  That was his big mistake.  His statement, which was meant to be amusing, brought on the opposite effect.  He suddenly had the watching policemans gun poke into his ribs.  And despite his loud protests was led away with everyone else watching in stunned silence.

How dare you?  A woman shouted from behind and next thing Madeleine Boswell came running up, her fur coat flapping.  Hey, you, she yelled at the arresting cop.  Leave him alone.  She pulled at his sleeve to try and stop him.  Do you know who I am? Im Madeleine Boswell, in case you didnt know.  And this man is my manager.  I will sue you if you dont let him go at once.  And then a very un-lady-like curse flew from her painted lips as if to punctuate her outburst.

The cops stoic expression however, had remained unchanged.  He merely brushed her hand away as if it were an ugly insect, then pushed the bloke ahead of him towards the exit.

Now that is rather weird, I thought.  If he was Boswells manager, then how come they werent travelling together?  Just then, another strange thing happened.  The Boswell woman was still ranting on when another cop appeared out of the blue and arrested her as well.  She was still screaming and carrying on as he led her away.

I barely had time to puzzle over what had just happened and why, when Jackie, who was next to be frisked, suddenly let out a painful cry and appeared to want to collapse again.  She stumbled and was groping all over the place for something to hold on to.  I quickly grabbed hold of her and yelled at the sour faced frisker: quick.  Call a doctor.  This young lady needs urgent help.

The woman appeared to have a bit of compassion after all.  She waved for someone to take over from her, then helped me escort the pregnant Jackie through the check-point into the airports lounge without neither the girl nor myself having been body-searched.  But again, for some unknown reason, Jackie fended off our helping hands.  Anyhow, once we had helped her into a seat, the Frisker dashed off to get a doctor.  So I presumed.

Would you like me to get you a drink of something?  I asked Jackie.

            Water would be fine, she muttered.

It took me a little while to locate a water dispenser of some sort before I got back to the lounge.  And all the time my heart was aching for this poor kid.  I was still racking my brains as to how I could help her when, much to my concern, I noticed that she was no longer sitting where I had left her.  In fact, I couldnt see her anywhere at all.  I ran around the large hall like a fool, still carrying a paper cup full of water.  Im sure some observer thought me a bit of an idiot.  One local wanted to take a souvenir photo of me for five American dollars.  I nearly told him what to do with his camera.

No matter how much I searched, Jackie was nowhere in sight.  However, I noticed a ladies toilet just a few meters from where I stood, and somewhat relieved, presumed that she had gone in there.  I ran up and stuck my head into the entrance.  This brought me a suspicious look from a female toilet attendant who tried to push toilet paper through the gaps under some closed cubicle doors.  No thanks, I heard one female snap indignantly.  Ive got my own and no money to spare.

Jeez, I thought, some people will do anything for a buck around here.  I called out Jackies name, but there was no reply.  I feared that she might have fainted or something in one of the cubicles.  Bloody hell.  Now what?  Did you see a pregnant young woman come in here?  I asked the attendant, but she only looked at me as if in disgust, then shooed me away from the door.  So there I stood, next to a womens toilet with a cup of water in my hand and feeling quite stupid, when a smartly dressed young lady walked out.  She was of slim built, carried an average size leather bag and headed towards the airports exit.  Although I only saw the back of her, I recognised her at once.  It was Jackie minus her big stomach.  I called her name, but she just kept going without a backward glance.  I dropped the cup where I stood, ran after her and grabbed her shoulder to make her turn around.

Take your filthy hands off me, she hissed.  At the same time, the woman who had previously body searched the passengers and whom I had asked to get a doctor, came running from behind us with two policemen.  And Jackie and I were both arrested.

I had no idea at all about what was going on and protested loudly with all the Aussie and Italian swear words I knew.  But to no avail.  My fellow prisoner said nothing at all.  We were marched into a small office of the airport building where a burly police sergeant was sitting behind a desk. We are holding you under suspicion for drug trafficking, he said.

            What?!  I couldnt believe this.  You must be out of your mind! I yelled.  What in hell gave you that idea?
          
Your passport, he demanded holding out his hand.

            Here, I snapped, throwing the item on his desk.  And here.  I chucked one of my business cards after it as well.

Aah, he suddenly grinned after checking my credentials. Aahh, you are a Private Investigator?

Indeed, I said. I have been watching this young lady here, I pointed at Jackie, who walked pregnant into a toilet and came out minus her big belly.  No sign of a baby either.  (This hadnt quite been my initial intention, but I had to say something, didnt I?)

I know, the officer said. Her suitcase was found in the ladies toilets.

Jackie still hadnt said a word.  With her chin resting on her chest, she looked as though her body had collapsed into itself.  Then the Sergeant suddenly hopped up and held out his hand to me.  I want to thank you, Mr Russo, he said, for helping us catch a trio of drug dealers.

Pardon?  Things still didnt make any sense until he elaborated.  The incident which took place at the customs checkpoint, he said, was a manoeuvre by a certain Ms Boswell and her so-called manager so that this young lady here, he pointed at the utterly miserable-looking Jackie, who is actually Ms Boswells daughter, could avoid a body search.  That was also the reason why she had pretended to feel unwell.  After you had helped her so gallantly into the lounge, she unloaded hererbaby in the toilets and transferred it into this carry bag here.

            And she had carried the goodies together with a change of clothes in that big suitcase, I deduced.

            Correct.  Our very observant and efficient toilet attendant will testify to that.  With that he opened Jackies bag to show me its contents.  The bag was full of little cellophane packets filled with white powder.  This is heroine, Mr Russo.

I was still too dumbfounded to utter a word, but thought to myself: now isnt that a switch?  Usually, drugs get send from here to Australia, but in this case, it was the other way round.

We have been working with the Australian Drug Squad for some time now, the sergeant said as if he were reading my mind.  A gang of criminals were producing this heroine cheaper in Australia than they could do here.  The gang leader has already been arrested by your authorities, and Boswell, her lover and her daughter tried to get into our country with this little nest-egg.  No doubt, they had planned to sell it here. We are very grateful for your help in this matter.  Thank you, Mr Russo.  He shook my hand, even though I hadnt done a single thing in helping with the dealers arrests.  But I didnt say so.  It never hurts to get an extra feather in your cap.

So, what do you have to say for yourself, Jackie? I turned her.

            My name is Miriam, she snapped.  And you can get lost.

Im charmed, I muttered and left it at that.

            After Jackie/Miriam had been hand-cuffed and led away, I was free to go.  Good riddance to them, I thought as I went to collect my suitcase.

            A few minutes later I stepped out into the sunshine.  And still, I couldnt get that girl off my mind.  Maybe if I did some sight-seeing and a bit of relaxing on the beach when I found it, I  thought, I might forget about what she has to suffer now thanks to her no-good bloody mother.  The woman had thought nothing of sacrificing her own daughter for the sake of a few quick bucks.  But first, I badly needed a stiff drink.  The beach could wait.

            I made my way down a colourful, busy street in search of a watering hole until I found a hotel and walked in.

             As I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned lounge, I noticed a gorgeous Filipino girl sitting at one of the tables.  She was smiling at me. Well, I thought pleasantly surprised, this might turn into a nice holiday yet.  But when I was about to ask her if I could buy her a drink, a gentleman, nearly twice her age, came up and joined her. Now, my dear, he said, what would you like to drink?

            Darn, I thought, missed out again.  I crawled onto a stool at the bar and ordered a double scotch.  I felt that I deserved one.

            While I sat there nipping at the glass, the elderly gentleman stepped up.  A nice cool beer for me, he said to the barkeeper in an Aussie accent, and a glass of lemonade for the young lady.  As I was in no hurry to go anywhere, I hung around and, Im ashamed to say, did a bit of eavesdropping.  From what I could gather, the bloke was a tourist from New South Wales who, by the looks of it, tried to pick up this young woman.  She seemed to have no objections and even encouraged him.  There was a lot of sweet talk and giggling going on during which, the bloke came back a couple more times to order the same as before: a lemonade for the young woman and a beer for himself.

            He was at least twice the womans age, and the way she was coming onto him, made me suspect that something wasnt quite right.  I decided to keep a closer eye on the pair.  Fool that I am, I just cant help myself.  So, when I heard her suggest that they go for a walk through the nearby park and he agreed, I decided to follow them.  I asked the barkeeper to keep my suitcase for me then stepped outside.  Two street urchins had spotted me on the footpath and came running up to beg me for money.  I could see the hunger in their eyes and fished a few coins from my pocket to put into their grubby little hands.

            I crossed the street into the park and noticed the flirting couple several meters ahead of me as they were strolling arm in arm along the gravel path.  Every so often the woman planted little kisses on the Aussies cheek and he was lapping them all up with obvious pleasure.  Jeez, one should be so lucky.

            To take my mind of the slight sense of self-pity I felt, I tried to listen to the birds in the surrounding trees and stooped here and there for a nose full of sweet scent that drifted from the flower beds.  But when I looked up again, the lovebirds had disappeared.  I was wondering where theyd got to until I heard the sort of soft murmuring that couples make when theyre about to indulge in some exercises.  And then I saw them through a gap in the branches of a shrub.  His shirt was unbuttoned and she was all over him.  But suddenly, she jumped up and ran giggling towards a nearby toilet block.  The bloke straightened himself up a bit, pulled his shirt into place and adjusted his trousers, and then he suddenly yelled: Shit!!  My wallets gone!! 
         
  So, the gut feeling Id had about that female had turned out to be correct.  I sprinted as fast as I could to the toilet block and barged into the Ladies without hesitation.  And there she was, busily emptying the blokes wallet and shoving the bank notes down the front of her dress.

             Hey, I yelled, stop right there.  She nearly shot out of her shoes at my surprise attack.  I snatched the wallet off her, then shamelessly shoved my hand down her bra to fish for whatever else I could get - money, of course - what did you think?  Then I twisted her arms behind her back and marched her back to the bloke who was about to tear his hair out.  He didnt look half as happy as he did in the beginning.

            I found your wallet, I called waving the item through the air with one hand while the other  held on to the female with an iron grip.

            You thieving little piece of shit, the bloke yelled at her and would have whacked her one if I hadnt intervened.

            I wouldnt do that if I were you, mate, I said.  She might report you for assault.  Youd better help me with taking her to the cops.  Theyll give her what she deserves.

            I spose youre right, he agreed.  But gee, I dont know how to thank you, mate.

            Think nothing of it, I shrugged.  But maybe youll be a bit more careful with your money the next time you want to pick up a sheila.

            I certainly will, mate. Thats for bloody sure.

Although the young woman tried to struggle lose a few times as we dragged her along, she didnt have a chance of breaking free despite all her swearing and spitting.

            When at last we delivered her to the cops, I came face to face with the same sergeant whom I had met at the airport earlier.  Aah, Mr Russo, he beamed, you have helped us again.  We have had this young woman in custody before for trying to swindle people out of their money.  This time she wont be getting off as lightly.

            Glad to be of service, I grinned.

Later on, out on the street, my fellow Aussie traveller and I got talking.  Apparently he had arrived on an earlier flight to mine and was taking a much needed break from his farm, which had suffered a great deal during the drought.  So he wasnt exactly loaded with cash.

Ive got to find a cheap place to stay at, he said.  You wouldnt know of one, would you?

            No, I dont, I said, but I tell you what.  You can have my free bookings at the Hotel. We can go and arrange that now.  Then I told him about the prize I had won.

            Lucky you, he said. I would really appreciate that, mate.  But dont you want to stay and enjoy a bit of Filipino life yourself?

            Well, I thought about it for a moment and then I shook my head.  No, I dont think so, mate.  The experiences Ive had already since I arrived here this morning, are going to last me a lifetime.

            I delivered him to the hotel, gave him all the free passes I had, then shook his hand and wished him all the best.  Then I fetched my suitcase from where I had left it earlier, went back to the airport and booked a return flight.  Luckily, I was able to get one that very evening.  I couldnt wait to get home again.

*


CHAPTER 9.

PLAYING SANTA

I felt rather stupid sitting on a cloth-covered stack of warehouse pallets, roasting in a padded red suit, wearing a cotton wool beard and white wig, and making noises like 'hohoho for the whole day.

It had all started a couple of days earlier when I popped into Cousin Luigis Pizza shop.  His older brother Dino, several years older than me, happened to be there as well.  Im in a bit of a dilemma, he said.

Why, whats up man? I asked.

I dont know if Luigi has told you but as Im currently without a regular job, Bill Bennett from the Toy Emporium had asked me to play Santa during the Christmas rush.  But this Saturday I got to take our eldest to Lakes Entrance for a surfing contest, and that leaves the kids in the shop without a Santa.  You wouldnt like to fill in for me, would you, Nick? he grinned.

Youre not serious, are you?

Yes, I am, he nodded.  Wouldnt hurt you for just one day, would it?  Unless youve got more important things to do, that is.

Well, I had given it some thought and then decided that I would do it.  Okay, I said. Why not? But only for one day, okay?

Sure, mate. Dino slapped me on the back.  Thanks a million.  Ill owe you for that. So I had gone with him to meet this Bill Bennett who didnt seem too impressed with the idea, but I guess he had no choice.  

I had to put up with all the side effects, like having to put up with Mummys little treasures who took great delight in prodding my stomach, stomping on my toes and trying to pull off my false beard.  Not to mention the ones who left their calling card - a smelly wet patch on my thigh.  They were the worst. 

At any rate, the very efficient sales-conscientious manager had assigned one of his shop assistants, dressed in an angels costume, to herd the little monsters onto my perch.  My official job was to coax the kiddies into telling me their Christmas wishes while their mothers listened closely in between gooing and gurgling in adoration.

Unofficially however, I kept a bit of a look-out, as was my habit, for thieves and pick-pockets, which always seemed to be overactive during this time of year.  Although they wanted the same as the efficient Mr Bennett peoples hard-earned cash and whatever else - they just happened to use a different method.  To my mind, a robber was a robber whether he charged hair-raising prices for the goods he sold or lifted someones wallet.  Still, two wrongs dont make a right, do they?

Anyway, I carried on with what I was doing, even though it was a bit nerve-wrecking, mind you, I dont have any aversion to kids in general, but some of them can be little horrors at times, when I suddenly noticed a dubious-looking character among the crowd that surrounded me.  He seemed to be pushing himself quite close to group of women.  Somehow he looked rather familiar to me.  I was sure I had seen him before.  I tried to imagine him with a naked face instead of a bearded one, with blond or red hair instead of black, and with a somewhat longer hairstyle instead of the crew cut he wore, but things just wouldnt click.  Unfortunately, a schoolboy, of about twelve years of age, rudely disrupted my observations.  He jumped in front of me and eyed me as though I wasnt the full quid.  But regardless, I went hohoho and asked him what he would like me to bring him for Christmas.

He gave me one of those Im not as stupid as you think-looks, the way some half-baked teenagers do, and sneered: you cant fool me cause youre not real.  I'm going to buy my presents myself, anyway.

And what might that be, young man? I asked.

            A Play Station Two and an X box, and some games to go with it, he boasted.

            Then maybe youd like me to show you my reindeers? I grinned.

            You're talking rubbish, man, he scoffed.

At any other time, I would have gladly boxed the little buggers ears, but as a loving Father Christmas, I had to control myself.  You must be a budding millionaire then.  I tried to keep my good humour.

Im going to be like my dad, thats all, the kid said, then out of the blue rammed his fist into my stomach.  I knew it, he said.  Its all stuffing.

The bugger had half knocked the wind out of me.  But regardless, I uttered another but much weaker hohoho and gasped: blimey, mate.  You nearly killed me.  Where did you learn to throw a punch like that?

He seemed to grow a few inches taller at my question and said: from my dad.  Hes given me boxing lessons, if you must know.  I could kill you if I wanted to.

Then youd end up in jail, I said, thinking at the same time that this was a strange thing for a kid to say.

No, I wouldnt, he retorted, I'm still too young to be put inside.  And as if to punctuate his little speech, he gave me another punch in the gut, then shoved a lollipop into his mouth and strutted off like a prize boxer.

The small group of women around me who had witnessed his performance, shook their heads and muttered something about disgusting, loutish behaviour, while the little kiddies looked at me with big round eyes, apparently quite worried about Santas well-being.  But I thought to myself that the boys boasting was rather unusual for someone his age.  I still wondered who he might have learned it from when, suddenly, it hit me.  Judging by the way he moved, the tough talk and the red hair, he had to be non other, than Charlie Whites offspring!  It all figured.  He was the one I had seen moments earlier.  He must have dyed his red hair and grown a beard.  Now, he was nowhere in sight.  And neither was his kid.  I had dealt with Charlie before.  It was on the night I took a young lady - but that's another story - to a Carlton restaurant.  I had seen him lift someone s wallet and called the Police.  My mate Jim, who was a Sergeant at the Carlton cop shop, had come and arrested the mongrel.  That wasnt Charlies first offence, Jim had told me afterwards and added that Charlie had been behind bars before for the same thing.  My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a woman screaming: my purse has gone!  Someone stole my purse out of my handbag!! While some other women tried to calm her down, I quickly excused myself, told my angelic assistant that I needed a breath of fresh air, then dashed into the storeroom to for a change of clothes, and alerted security.  Then a bloke called Alf, and I, searched the large store.  It didnt take us too long before we found Charlie in the music aisle.  We nabbed him and dragged him into the managers office.

As we walked in, Bill Bennett was sitting behind his huge desk with a calculator.  No doubt, he was already working out the huge profit hed be making during this Christmas-rush.  I told him we were bringing him the culprit who I thought had knocked off the womans purse.  Charlie argued at first that he was being harassed and that this was a case of mistaken identity, false accusations etc. etc., until I threatened to call the Police.  He then admitted that he was indeed Charlie White and winced about being victimised because he had a previous record.  Nevertheless, I insisted on frisking him, hoping Id find what we were looking for, but alas, there wasnt a trace of the stolen money on him.  All he had in his wallet were a couple of five-dollar notes and a few coins in his trouser pocket.

Have you had your fun? he sneered after I had finished, then asked: can I go now?  Well, we had no choice but to let him go.  My kid is probably running around the shop right now looking for me, Charlie said before departing.

Bloody hell!  I swore under my breath.  His kid.  Of course!  Why hadnt I woken up to this before?  What was it that little runt had said?  Im going to buy my own Christmas presents, and my dads given me boxing lessons, and Im too young to be put inside.
        
I dashed out of the office, checked each aisle, then ran to the entrance in the hope that Id still catch him.  Seen a red-headed boy coming out in the past few minutes?  I asked a man who was about to enter the store.

No, he shook his head, only a boy with shoulder-length black hair.

            What did he look like?

            I guess he was about eleven to twelve years old, he said.  About this tall, he held a hand up to his shoulder.

I swore under my breath.  Where did he go?

            Got into a taxi back there, he pointed over his shoulder.  A couple of minutes ago, after chucking a lollipop on my foot, I might add.  That filthy little devil!

            I knew it, I muttered.  I shouldve realized how Charlie had managed to get away with the loot.  He had trained his offspring well, even to the point of having a wig concealed somewhere under his clothes.

I immediately went back to Bennetts office to ring the police and to report the incident.  They arrived a short time later.  Let them handle this, I thought.  That stolen money wont make the Toy Emporium any poorer, although I felt sorry for the woman who had lost it.

Bennett appeared quite irate at the fact that the theft had taken place in his store.  This thing should have never happened.  Your cousin told me that you are a private detective, he growled, and I would have expected you to keep a closer eye on our customers.

Youve gotta be kidding, I snapped.  I can either play Detective or Santa, not both.  It was your decision.  And anyway, I caught the thieves, didnt I?

He didnt say another word, but begrudgingly handed me a few dollars of my hard-earned fee.  At first I wanted to tell him to shove them you know where, but then pocketed the money, as I hadnt had any big jobs going for a couple of weeks.

Let him play Santa himself next time, I thought, and I hope hell get lots of big wet calling cards all over his fancy pants.

As for Charlies kid, well, I swear by the artificial fat gut I had been made to wear, that if I ever got my hands on him again, hed be sweating even more than I had to.

*

CHAPTER 10

BREATHING EXERCISES

            I hate to bother you, Nick, a family friend said when she phoned last Friday, but I wondered if you could pick up our Tania from her singing lessons tomorrow and drop her off at home.  The studio is not far from your office and it would practically be on your way.  I can take her there, but I wont be able to pick her up.  She went on to explain that her own car would be at a garage to be serviced and that her husband had to work overtime.

            No problem, I said.  I know where the studio is.  Consider it done.

Thanks a million, Nick.  Ill owe you one.  Maybe you can come over for dinner one night.  Oh, and before I forget, Tanias lesson finishes at ten thirty.

            Thatd be great.  Ill be looking forward to seeing you, Sophie, I said.  Give my regards to Bruno.  I really didnt mind picking the kid up.  Tania and I were pretty good mates almost from the time she was born.  I quite enjoyed the twelve-year-old's company whenever I saw her.  She was an outgoing, fun-loving kid whom I often shared a few belly laughs with.  As far as she was concerned, I was her Uncle Nick regardless of the fact that we werent even related.

            Now what time did she say I had to be at that studio?  I thought after Id put down the phone.  Was it half past ten or half past eleven?  Id already forgotten.  But rather than call Sophie back, I decided not to go to my office at all the following morning, but get to the studio by half past ten just to be on the safe side.

            Well, I arrived at the singing studio, which was in an old converted warehouse, just before ten thirty on Saturday morning.  My steps sounded hollow in the long passage as I headed for a double door at the far end.  The sign on it read: PAULAS SCHOOL FOR YOUNG ARTISTS.  I never got to read the smaller print underneath, as a young voice from behind me suddenly said: Hi, Uncle Nick.  How come youre here already?  It was Tania.  My lesson hasnt even started yet.

Hello, my love, I gave her a hug.  Seems that your Uncle Nicks got the time mixed up, hasnt he?  Ill go and have a cup of coffee somewhere until youre finished.

No, dont go, she said.  You could stay and listen.  Miss Paula wont mind. Please?

When she begged me like that and looked at me with her big brown eyes, I simply couldnt refuse.  She grabbed my hand and pulled me inside.  Miss Paula, she called, Ive brought a visitor.  Then she pushed me forward so hard that I nearly collided with the singing teacher.  This is my Uncle Nick and hes come to hear me sing.

Why, thats great, Tania, the attractive young lady smiled and turning to me said: Im pleased to meet you er Uncle Nick.

I like that, I grinned.  Im pleased to meet you too, er Miss Paula.

Are you going to sing as well? she asked next with little devils of mischief dancing in her lovely blue eyes.

No way, I said.  Ive got a singing voice like a foghorn.

            Go on, Uncle Nick, Tania coaxed, but I fiercely refused.  And this time, all her pleading and begging didnt change my mind.

            I know what he could do, Miss Paula, Tania suggested.  He could do some breathing exercises.  Couldnt you, Uncle Nick? she turned to me.  Its like going to the gym and good for your health.

            Thats an excellent idea, Paula agreed smiling, and before I knew it, they had me lying on my back on the floor with two telephone-books on my stomach.  Make sure you breathe hard now, Uncle Nick, Tania laughed, then ran to the piano with Paula.  I was huffing and puffing away like an old walrus while the little darling sang her heart out to the tune Paula played on the piano.  Tania had a voice like a little nightingale, and I wouldve enjoyed it a great deal more if I didnt have to breathe so hard.

            Suddenly, I heard a terrible scream coming from the corridor.  Pushing the phone books off me and jumping to my feet took me less than a second.  I ran to the door under the wide-eyed stares of Paula and Tania, tore it open, and saw a young lass standing in the passage.  I raced up to her to see if she was okay but she looked unhurt and appeared quite healthy.  Are you alright?  I asked trying to catch my breath.

            Why shouldnt I be?  She eyed me as if she thought I had a screw lose somewhere.

            But didnt you scream just then?

            Yes, I did.  She was grinning now.  I was practicing my scream for the part Im going to play in Miss Paulas new stage-play.  This passage here has a great acoustic.

            Well, Ill be ...  I was left speechless for a moment, but then I thundered: Now hang on.  What do you mean, practicing for a stage-play?  You had me scared half out of my wits.  And since when do people practice drama at a singing school anyway?  That was when I heard someone giggle behind me.  I turned around and saw Tania and Paula standing in the doorway.  They were both laughing their heads off.

Oh, Uncle Nick, Tania cried, that was really funny.

            Funny, I growled.  Youve got to be kidding.

            Didnt you read the sign on the door er Uncle Nick?  Paula had tears of merriment in her blue eyes.

            Of course I did, but I still dont

            It says here, she pointed at the small print underneath the sign: LEARN ALL ABOUT MUSIC, SINGING, DANCING & DRAMA.  And with a look at her watch she added: My drama group is about to start shortly.  Emily has come a little early.

            Stupid me, I said, smacking my forehead, how come I didnt see that?

            Never mind, Uncle Nick, Tania wrapped her arms around my waist.  I think we should make you the clown in the play, dont you think so, Miss Paula?

            What an excellent idea, she said with a twinkle in her eye.  Then three girls were laughing so much that I couldnt help but join in.

            After Tanias singing lesson was over, I had a chance to exchange a few words with her teacher and - lo and behold - Ill be taking Miss Paula out to dinner tomorrow night.  So maybe, just maybe, Lady Luck, together with Cupid, the God of Amore, will smile on me once again.  And hopefully, for good this time.  Wouldnt my mother, who always wants to marry me off, be over the moon with joy?

 

All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Ingrid Armstrong-Boehk.
Published on e-Stories.org on 02/14/2008.

 

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