Story by Tony Haynes
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
I’ve never minded looking down the barrel of a gun, especially when there’s a beautiful woman on the other end of it and Carolina Zvonereva was as glamorous as they came. Her aim wavered slightly as she lit one of those fancy French cancer sticks that she had a penchant for. I wiggled around on the chair that her side-kick, Frankie Stein, had tied me to. It didn’t get me anywhere. Frankie grunted his disapproval. ‘He’s trying to escape again.’
Carolina exhaled like a dying princess. ‘Let him try.’
I strained so hard at the ropes I damn near broke into a sweat. ‘The heavies that you employ are getting better. Given these knots, I’m guessing Frankie can tie his own shoelaces. How’s his A-B-C?’
Carolina tried to suppress a smile. It didn’t quite work. Frankie was none too impressed though and he let me know with a vicious punch to my kidneys. I keeled forwards as far as the ropes that were binding me would allow.
‘Now, now Frankie. That’s no way to treat a guest. Especially one as prestigious as Mike Lasky. After all, we’re friends, aren’t we?’
‘This is how you treat your friends?’
‘No,’ she whispered in my ear, ‘only my lovers.’
My mind would have boggled if I’d allowed it to, only I couldn’t afford the luxury given the predicament I was in. ‘So, assuming you’re not going to do a Mata Hari for me, is there any chance we could speed up this interrogation, only I’ve got a reservation at Romanoff’s for eight.’
Frankenstein must have been angling for a pay rise or a promotion as he dutifully hit me again.
Carolina shook her head. ‘You’re a rare creature, Mr. Lasky.’
‘You’re a man who rarely disappoints.’
‘In that case, why don’t you slap a preservation order on me?’
Carolina laughed. ‘Convince me it’s worth doing.’
‘And how would I do that?’
‘By killing someone for me.’
I leaned forward and whispered, ‘Was it Frankie who looked me up?’
She looked vaguely puzzled. ‘As a matter of fact, it was. Why?’
‘That’s where your problem is. He must have flipped onto the wrong page in the phone book. I track ’em, I smack ’em, I try not to whack ’em.’
‘Please don’t think I’m foolish enough to believe that you have principles.’
‘Principles shminciples. I’m talking business. If I went around clipping every two-bit low life I investigated, pretty soon I’d put myself out of a job, but if I throw them to the boys in blue, not only do I keep detective Calloway off my back, I also ensure a little repeat business down the line. It’s one of the few guarantees in life. The minute their sentence is up, most of the guys I pinch revert to crime and, the chances are, I get to go after them all over again. It’s like a stocks and shares investment, only a safer bet.’
‘What if I were to say two magic words to you?’
‘Money and sex?’ I suggested, hopefully.
Now I knew that she was kidding. I sat back in my chair and laughed. ‘He’s dead.’
‘You’re absolutely certain of that?’
‘Positive. I’ve killed him at least twice.’
She flipped a photo into my lap. ‘Do you know when that was taken?’
‘I’d say at least six years and three months ago because six years and two months ago he was lying on a slab at the hospital morgue with two .38 caliber’s in his gut.’
Carolina threw another photo at me.
‘What is this, amateur snapper of the year night?’
‘Please, just look at the picture.’
I looked down. I could just about make out what was left of a mortician lying in a pool of his own blood. My stomach lurched, and my heart began to beat a little faster. ‘It’s not possible.’
Carolina stubbed her cigarette out. ‘Do you always find hard evidence so difficult to believe?’
‘Montanes was in no state to walk out of that morgue, let alone overpower someone and do that to them.’
She smiled, thinly. ‘Mr. Montanes is a man of extraordinary talents. You of all people should know that.’
‘I don’t buy it. We’d have heard from him before now. There’s no way he would have been quiet all these years.’
‘He hasn’t been. How’s your knowledge of European affairs?
‘Mediocre to appalling.’
‘You’ve heard of Basque country?’
I gave her a blank look.
‘Montanes has been operating out of there and terrorizing the Iberian Peninsula these past six years.’
‘So why has he returned here?’
‘You really don’t follow the news, do you?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘The state visit?’
‘Still none the wiser.’
‘Princess Raisa Marchenko is visiting seven major U.S. cities over the next two weeks, on a goodwill tour. Can you imagine the diplomatic nightmare it would cause if she were to be assassinated on American soil?’
‘It keeps me awake most nights.’
Frankie loped forward and smacked me again. I forgave him that one. I figured I deserved it.
‘The scars of Europe are not yet healed after the last war. We cannot afford another just yet, especially against a power such as the United States.’
‘You make it sound like you’re biding your time.’
A hollow smile played across her lips. ‘That is not the point.’
‘So how come Montanes doesn’t share your opinion?’
‘Your country has not experienced warfare of any notable kind on its soil for these past seventy years. You have forgotten the horror, devastation, and chaos it brings with it.’
Her expression changed completely, and her eyes betrayed a deep sadness that I could only guess at. If war could have that kind of effect on such a beautiful woman, I guess it must be true what they say about it being hell. When she resumed speaking it was almost in a whisper. ‘Amidst the backdrop of such an environment, some people thrive. It is their métier.’
She flung her chair aside, knelt down and clasped my thighs. ‘You’re only a second generation American yourself. Search your European sensibilities. Surely your heart has not been so corrupted by this land of the free that you no longer feel that primal European rage coursing through your veins?’
With her hands still resting on my legs, I could feel it all too well. ‘Well, now you come to mention it…’
Her eyes blazed gloriously. ‘Ah, you mock me.’
‘Far from it.’
‘Then you’ll kill him?’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Excellent!’ Carolina leapt up and kissed me fiercely.
If that was what these European passions led to then I was all for them. Reluctantly, Frankie cut my ropes. I stood up and tried to shake the life back into my wrists. ‘So, what’s my hourly rate?’
Carolina looked perplexed. ‘You mean the prospect of world peace is not enough?’
‘It may come as a surprise to you, but it’s never put food on my table.’
‘The gratitude of your great nation?’
‘Would not pay my rent for one month.’
‘Ten thousand dinars.’
‘Wouldn’t buy lunch for two at today’s exchange rates.’
‘My eternal gratitude?’
I bowed and kissed her hand. ‘Consider him dead.’
— ♦♦♦ —
Jordi Montanes was the second worst case I ever worked on. I’ll refrain from telling you about the worst in case you’re eating or just plain squeamish. Unlike most of the trash that I tracked down, Montanes didn’t just kill people, he made an art form out of it. He liked to paint pretty pictures with their blood. Who knows, if he had been born in a different era his work may well have sold for millions. You see, Montanes didn’t kill for love or money, he derived pleasure from the act itself. It’s why the cops never came close to catching him. They were too busy looking for a motive. With Montanes, there rarely was one.
I still remember the night I burst into his apartment to find him knee deep in his latest project. He almost looked happy to see me. He stood up and smiled. A little of what was left of his victim dripped from the heavy-duty plastic gloves that he was wearing. I waved my gun at him. It felt like a forlorn gesture. He held up his hands in mock surrender.
‘Mike Lasky. To what do I owe the pleasure?’
Although he was unarmed, I was the one who was nervous. My attention wavered as I got distracted by some of the exhibits that hung around his living room. Sensing I wasn’t concentrating, Montanes dropped on one knee, grabbed and threw. Something hit me in the face. I fired blindly. I figured I must have missed because he shot out of the window and began climbing the fire escape. I bolted after him. I can’t tell you what a pleasure that climb was. I couldn’t work out if the blood that was dripping on me was from Montanes, where I’d winged him, or if it was dripping off his gloves. The way he set out across the rooftops I figured it was the latter. I’d played chase-the- criminal-across-the-rooftops once too often in this city, so when I got to the top of the ladder I took careful aim and fired. Fortunately, I’d had a liquid lunch that day, which always improved my aim. Montanes went tumbling and lay prone. I leapt the narrow gap to the rooftop where he had fallen and approached him cautiously. He dragged himself up to a half-sitting position and stared down at two wounds in his stomach. A messianic fervor blazed in his eyes. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m shocked and disappointed. Don’t you take an interest in your work?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘Ah, but you should. It makes life so much more worthwhile if your profession is also your passion.’ I tried to imagine getting paid for aligning the seams on ladies’ stockings, only Montanes had suddenly become garrulous. ‘It’s glorious, you know.’
‘Personally, I’ve always found it overrated.’
‘Really? The last time you took a bullet, did you not feel that’ closing his eyes he looked close to rapture, ‘panic surge through your veins, as you thought it might be your last moment on earth?’
‘Can’t say that I did.’
‘How tragic.’ He genuinely looked sorry for me.
‘I’ll try and pay more attention next time,’ I said.
‘You should. Life is all about new experiences, is it not?’
‘Especially dying, for that is when you become aware of it most.’
‘Aware of what?’
‘The will to live. I have seen it many times in the eyes of my victims. It transcends beauty. The closer they are to death, the more exquisite it becomes. Gaze upon me and treat yourself.’
So, I did, right up to the moment the ambulance arrived. It was only as I knelt beside Montanes that I realized quite how insane he was. Despite the beatific smile on his lips, I could see nothing but pain and misery.
— ♦♦♦ —
The events I’ve just described took place more than six years ago. Despite the fact Montanes’s body went missing that night, it was always assumed that his cadaver had been spirited away by the relatives of one of his victims in order to exact some kind of gruesome revenge. As the number of murders inside city limits fell dramatically, it was considered a safe bet that Montanes was no longer around.
It was only after his supposed death that the rumors began to circulate as to who he really was. Montanes wasn’t some poor Hispanic who had drifted across the border, he was a European blue blood. Some said that he had served as an officer in the Great War, only to be court-martialled when he was discovered decorating staff headquarters with his platoon. Others believed that he was a prominent surgeon who practiced on both the living and the dead. The most fanciful stories sprang up in the East European quarter of the city. Parents there struck fear into the hearts of their children as they told them bedtime tales of terror about the Monster Montanes who owned a castle, kept vestal virgins in his dungeon and only came out at night.
I didn’t buy any of it. What I did believe was that whoever Jordi Montanes was, whatever his background might be, he had embraced the nightmarish quality of American City life and happily made his home in this environment. Maybe it was that which had brought out his true potential. He was one of a new breed of predator, who preyed on victims in the asphalt jungle.
— ♦♦♦ —
I knew that I had no chance of being allowed to see Princess Raisa Marchenko, but professional pride made me try anyway. Naturally, she was staying in the penthouse suite at the best hotel in town. I got within three floors the first time of asking. The operatives on guard didn’t look like your average rent-a-goon, so I dispensed with the full-frontal assault and decided to lay on the charm instead.
‘No,’ the goon replied.
‘All I’m asking is five minutes of the lady’s time.’
‘Members of the general public, and scum such as yourself, should address the Princess as her majesty.’
‘Look, I only want…’
‘Ok, two minutes.’
His clipped accent wavered momentarily. ‘Allow me to put it another way.’
It was the most polite beating I ever took. After he threw me out into the alley, at the back of the hotel, he dusted me down. It was a touch of class I wasn’t used to.
The goon bowed as he slammed the staff-entrance door behind him.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. Whilst I personally doubt the saying, the goon had deposited me at the foot of the hotel fire escape. I smiled, then began to climb the ladder. Fifteen minutes and two scared pigeons later, I hauled myself over the balcony of the penthouse suite. Maybe the Princess’s bodyguards weren’t so bright after all. They clearly hadn’t anticipated an assault from such an angle, because Princess Raisa was lying on a sun lounger looking decidedly un-Princess-like in one of those skimpy new European bathing garments that I’d heard about. I couldn’t help whistling in appreciation.
Princess Raisa lowered her sunglasses and gazed at me as if I was a mirage. ‘I must confess, I’ve always had a soft spot for servants who display a degree of ingenuity.’
‘I’m not one of your servants, Ma’am.’
She almost looked impressed. ‘Insubordination? Now I am intrigued.’
‘Sorry. I meant to say, “Your Majesty”.’
‘I think I preferred the Ma’am.’
‘Have it your own way.’
‘I usually do,’ she murmured.
‘If I could just take a minute of your time before you summon your private army to throw me out.’
‘Why on earth would I want to go and do a silly thing like that?’
‘You’re not afraid of me?’
‘What’s the worst you can do?’
A flurry of naughty thoughts crossed my mind. Manfully, I suppressed most of them.
‘I promise I mean you no harm,’ I assured her.
‘Pity.’ She looked as if I had let her down. ‘Never mind. Now, may I offer you a drink Mr.?’
‘I’m not sure I’ve heard of such a drink. Is it one of these new cocktails that are all the rage in America?’
‘You mean like sex on the beach?’
A faint look of amusement played across her lips. ‘What an extraordinary idea.’
Returning to the point, I explained that Lasky was my name and that I had some very bad news.
‘Someone’s trying to kill you.’
She looked nonplussed.
‘Doesn’t that bother you?’
‘In case it had escaped your attention, I’m a Princess. There would be something seriously wrong with the world if someone wasn’t trying to kill me.’
‘It’s different on this occasion,’ I said.
‘And why is that, pray?’
‘Because of the nature of the man seeking to kill you.’
‘You know something of the nature of men?’
‘As do I. So, let me assure you, the thought of someone killing me is extremely low down on my list of present concerns. Far worse things can happen to a Princess alone with a man.’
‘I apologize, I must have made a mistake. I thought you were the kind of person who would be able to work that out for himself.’
She sidled up to me and smiled. I felt like the bad guy in one of those fairy tales that my mother never used to read to me when I was a kid. Raisa was close enough to kiss. I decided I had to break the spell. ‘His name is Jordi Montanes.’
Raisa looked bemused. ‘You are quite an extraordinary individual.’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘There are very few men I know who value my life above my lips.’
As she uttered the words she leaned towards me. Unable to refuse the invite any longer our lips met. I wasn’t sure of the exact etiquette when it came to kissing Princesses, but I must have done something right because she lingered longer than most commoners did. She smiled at me, turned on her heel and slid back down onto her sun lounger. ‘Now, you were saying?’
I coughed and tried to regain a degree of composure. ‘Jordi Montanes.’
‘He’s trying to kill me.’
‘You know him?’
‘He hails from Europe.’
‘So do four hundred million other people.’
‘Montanes has certain pathological tendencies that make him stand out from the crowd.’
‘Then I shall make sure that my staff pays extra special attention when tucking me up in bed at night.’
‘And maybe have someone watch over that fire escape. Any low-life could climb it.’
‘Be assured, I will give your suggestion serious thought, however, balanced against your recommendation, I have to take into consideration the fact I may be cutting off my only form of entertainment.’
‘The next person who makes it up here may not be as nice as me.’ To emphasize my point, I handed her a photo of Montanes.
She took one look at it and cocked an eyebrow. ‘Oh, I don’t know, he looks quite a handsome brute. If he were to pay me an unscheduled visit, I’m sure I could distract him somehow.’
I resisted telling her that she’d probably have to lose quite a lot of blood to do so.
‘It’s been a pleasure, Ma’am.’ I cocked my leg over the balcony.
With that, I bowed as gracefully as one can when standing on the top step of a fire escape and made my way back down to the alley, where I probably belonged.
— ♦♦♦ —
I had no intention of killing Montanes until I met the Princess, but nothing as beautiful as Princess Raisa deserved to die and, as far as I could see, killing Montanes was the only way I was going to stop him. Praying that lightning wouldn’t strike twice and that the Princess was sensible enough to position at least one of her men at the top of the fire escape that night, I made my way home.
Carolina Zvonereva was waiting for me. I invited her in and offered her a drink. She accepted my offer, so I went across to the sideboard and poured two very generous measures from the bottle of scotch that had been waiting for just such an occasion.
Either there was more fibre left in my carpet than I suspected, or Carolina was wearing mufflers on her heels because I didn’t hear her sneak up behind me. I turned to find myself virtually in her arms. I smiled and waited for a kiss that never came. Instead, the knuckles of her right hand neatly connected with my jaw. I tried my best to ride the blow and, more importantly, not drop the drinks. A blow to the solar plexus put paid to any notion I had of saving precious scotch. As I fell to the floor I watched as the contents of the two glasses drizzled into the carpet. I tried to get up only a heel on the back of my neck warned me that I ran the risk of turning into a cocktail snack.
‘Frankie’s just for show then?’
Carolina lit a cigarette and exhaled contemptuously. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, judging from that little demonstration, you seem to be able to take care of yourself. In fact, you’re so impressive, it begs the question why the need for me at all? I reckon, given your talents, you’d stand as good a chance of killing Montanes as anyone.’
‘And how do you think it would look if that got into the press? Head of Princess Raisa’s security suspected of murdering a murderer. That would hardly do.’
‘But it’s OK if I kill him?’
‘Precisely.’ She lifted her heel a fraction. I took it as a hint that I should get up. I made it to my knees before a fierce blow sent me sprawling once again.
‘Are you going to keep that up all night?’ I asked.
‘Not at all.’ I noticed that she replaced her foot on the back of my neck as she said this though. ‘Each of those three blows had a purpose.’
‘And may I ask what that purpose is?’
‘The first to get your attention. The second to prove to you that I wasn’t joking.’ She paused for effect.
When she didn’t continue I asked the obvious question. ‘And the third?’
Carolina treated my question with the contempt it probably deserved. ‘To teach you some manners, for daring to kiss a Princess.’
‘I thought she rather enjoyed it.’
Carolina teased her foot around my neck until the point of the stiletto rested against my right cheek. Although I knew it to be wrong, it felt strangely arousing. Carolina admitted to having similar feelings over breakfast, the following morning.
— ♦♦♦ —
I arose early, the second time in as many days, and immediately determined not to do so again that week, Montanes or no Montanes. Three times within any seven-day period was habit forming. Having already killed Montanes twice I had some idea of his habits and so I made my way downtown to a venue where Sol Guggenheim had begun to display what the critics referred to as ‘Abstract art.’ When he wasn’t working, Montanes enjoyed nothing more than admiring the work of modern artists. Personally, the stuff left me cold. For all I could make out, the random squiggles and swirls might have been what gave Montanes his inspiration.
I wandered the gallery for an hour before resting on one of the benches in front of an unsettling Kandinsky. I tried my best to understand the piece. After ten minutes, I gave up. I was just about to resume my journey through Dante’s seventh circle of hell when I felt a dark presence at my side. It was typical Montanes. I’d spent the morning trying to find him, to no avail. In the end, he’d found me.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘If you say so,’ I replied.
‘Are you armed?’
‘Why’d ’you ask?’
‘I have heard about Carolina’s proposition and it struck me that if you still carry that silly little thirty-eight caliber, you probably won’t get a better chance to use it on me.’
‘I’m not a murderer, Jordi.’
He shook his head, whether out of disgust or disappointment I couldn’t tell. ‘No wonder you don’t appreciate Picasso.’ He got up to leave, but before doing so held out his hand.
To this day I’m still not sure why I shook it. Touching his skin made my flesh crawl. His grip was surprisingly light.
‘Good luck with your assignment,’ he said. ‘May it reach a conclusion quickly, one way or another.’
‘You seem awfully concerned about my well being,’ I countered.
‘Why so?’ I asked.
‘For whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster, for if you stare into the abyss, do not forget that the abyss stares into you.’
‘Nietzshe.’ For a moment I thought he was going to kiss me.
‘I beg you not to get in my way, Lasky. It would be a crime to kill you.’
‘But I made a promise.’
He lowered his voice. ‘So? Break it. In case you hadn’t noticed, people break them all the time, especially in this wonderfully insane country of yours.’
‘Talking of insane…’
‘No, don’t spoil it.’
‘Don’t accuse me of being mentally unstable. You’re better than that.’
‘Yes. You know the real reason why I kill.’
‘Actually, I don’t.’
Montanes weighed my remark up before replying. ‘Very well, let us say that you suspect.’
‘It doesn’t matter what I suspect, I’m going to stop you.’
‘No, Mr. Lasky, you are going to try.’ With that, he walked away.
‘You know I’ve posted guards at every exit,’ I called after him.
‘I’d consider it an insult if you hadn’t.’
He vanished through a door that led into another room full of monstrosities. Unsurprisingly, the guards failed to apprehend him. A part of me would have been surprised if they had.
— ♦♦♦ —
I asked Carolina for a copy of the Princess’s itinerary. It looked horribly full, which left me with no choice other than to tail her for the duration of her stay. Fairy stories would have you believe that it should be considered a privilege to follow a Princess around; personally, I found it hard work.
Amazingly, the week passed off without incident until her final night in town. Being a Princess, she declined to play it low key. Her parting bow was a spectacular Masque ball at the Audubon. I’d suspected all along that was where Montanes would strike, given his sense of theatre. If only I’d been certain I could have saved myself a lot of shoe leather.
I dusted off my tux and wangled an invite on the guest list, which I was granted so long as I agreed to keep a respectable distance from the dignitaries. The instant the meal was over, the ballroom was cleared for the dance. I made a beeline for the Princess. She looked stunning, dressed resplendently in a flowing emerald number, black elbow length gloves and a jeweled hairpin that looked as if it cost more than I could earn in a lifetime. One of the Princess’s goons barred my path.
He was just about to do something unpleasant to me when the Princess cried, ‘Mr. Lasky!’
She sounded genuinely pleased to see me. Her bodyguard glared at me, then reluctantly stepped aside. I bowed. She slapped me playfully on the left arm. ‘Oh really, there’s no need for any of that nonsense.’
I held out my hand as the orchestra struck up a Strauss waltz. ‘May I have the honor?’
My request clearly took her by surprise. ‘You’re actually rather a refined creature at heart, aren’t you?’
As we glided across the floor I whispered, ‘Promise not to tell anybody. I’d hate to have my reputation ruined.’
‘And what reputation might that be?’ She sounded genuinely intrigued.
The waltz passed as a waltz with a Princess should – far too quickly – and soon I found myself relegated to the sidelines. I couldn’t take my eyes off her highness. She made the local high society look positively third rate. The few seconds I did manage to drag my gaze away from her I found myself vaguely impressed at the way her bodyguards had blended into the surroundings because it wasn’t obvious where they were hiding. I felt a tug at my shoulder, turned and found myself looking into a pair of very beautiful, but also very scared eyes.
‘He’s here,’ Carolina informed me.
‘How do you know?’
Carolina dragged me out of the hall and off into a little side corridor. She opened the door to the nearest closet, in which a neat pile of the Princess’s bodyguards was stacked.
‘I’ve called for backup,’ Carolina said.
I barely heard her for I was already racing back to the main hall. By the time I arrived a swarthy handsome stranger, who was wearing the best tuxedo on display, was in the process of cutting in on the Princess’s dancing partner. I willed Raisa to turn him down. Why would she? He looked enchanting. She accepted his hand as the orchestra floated dreamily into The Blue Danube. I turned, quickly, grabbed Carolina and hastily danced her through the crowd until we were within touching distance of the Princess and Montanes, waltzing almost back to back with them.
‘You’ll never get away with it,’ I told Montanes.
He looked at me, puzzled. ‘But I already have.’
Only then did I notice the glint of silver sticking out of his right cuff. The blade of the knife rested delicately against the back of the Princess’s neck. For her part, the Princess simply smiled, coolly. You had to admire her poise.
‘So, what’s stopping you?’ I asked.
‘Why, Mr. Lasky, what must you think of me? Every woman deserves a last dance.’
‘You know we’ll kill you the instant your hand twitches,’ Carolina said.
‘By which time it will be too late,’ Montanes replied.
We all knew that he was right.
‘Don’t I get a say in this matter?’ the Princess interjected.
Montanes inclined his head a fraction. ‘I fear not, your majesty.’
‘A final wish, at least?’
He looked stung by the comment. ‘What kind of monster would not allow one? Please, make your request.’
‘I’d like you to kiss me.’
Montanes seemed to grow an inch. ‘You are indeed a lady. What a privilege it is to kill a creature of such class. I shall do you the courtesy of making it a swift stroke. You shall be my masterpiece.’
Montanes inclined his head forward. As I twirled Carolina around in my arms, both of us looked on helplessly as we wracked our brains as to how we might stop him. Montanes kissed the Princess’s perfect lips and he closed his eyes. I knew it was a slim chance, but I had to take it. As the waltz came to an end the lighting in the room dimmed and the guests all fell silent as the midnight chimes struck. I darted my right hand across the Princess’s shoulder blades in an attempt to wedge it between her skin and the knife. I couldn’t believe that I was fast enough, for I felt my hand lodge between cold steel and flesh. I turned, triumphantly, to face Montanes. Only then did I realize why I had been successful. A hairpin was sticking out of his throat. Still, he managed to smile at the Princess.
‘What an honor,’ he whispered.
‘The pleasure was all mine,’ Raisa replied.
With that, Montanes collapsed into Carolina’s waiting arms. Carolina stopped Montanes from falling, shot me a look of gratitude, and then began to make her way through the crowd, pretending her partner had taken too much liquor. As the lights came up I found myself alone with the Princess. The music restarted. I offered her my hand and my compliments.
‘That was a neat trick,’ I said.
‘I told you that a girl has to know one or two, just in case.’
‘And I was employed… why exactly?’
‘As a distraction. Being an old enemy of Mr. Montanes, our hope was that if you were on the case, his mind might not be entirely focused on the job. And so, it proved. If he hadn’t spotted you on the dance floor, I’m not sure I would have had the chance to loosen my hairpin.’
‘So, I’m nothing more than a distraction, am I?’
‘A rather excellent one, if I may say so.’
‘Do distractions get rewarded?’ I asked.
‘Pray, tell me how?’
The Princess giggled in an extremely unladylike manner and proceeded to tell me as we glided away across the dance floor.
— ♦♦♦ —
Brian Russo was walking down Everett Street when he accidentally kicked the Book. He picked it up and ducked into a building front to have a peek. When he meets a stranger known as Louis, he discovered that he is literally holding someone’s life in his hands.