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***CHAPTER NINE***

Hutchinson held the phone away from his ear while he let Captain Harold Dobey blow off the full head of steam he’d been waiting to let go of since the blond detective and his partner left the city. Even though the man had been their superior officer for several years now, it was still amazing to him how far the man's voice could travel when he got really angry. As soon as the captain paused to take a breath, Hutch put the phone back to his ear. "Yeah, Cap’n. I got you. We’ll wrap up our visit here as soon as possible…Um, no, Starsky’s not with me right at the moment, but I’ll tell him you said hello." He pulled the phone away from his ear once more as Dobey gruffly and loudly reacted to his last statement. "Okay, right, Cap’n. We’ll talk to you later…Yeah, ten-four, over and out." He hung up the phone and rolled his eyes. This was definitely the last time he was letting Starsky talk him into doing something this impulsive again. He checked his watch for the time: four o’ clock, and there was still no sign of him.

Where in the hell are you, Starsky?

As if in answer to his question, the curly-haired detective walked in, his female charge trailing not far behind him. The blond man wasted no time marching over to reprimand him. "What took you so long? I was just on the phone with Dobey and he’s fit to be tied."

Starsky walked past him without seeing him, ignoring the wagging index finger Hutch had pointed in his direction. Then he dropped defeatedly onto the couch without a word. Angel leaned against the arched doorway that led into the parlor, she was trembling and the whites of her eyes were veiny and red, as though she’d been crying for a while. Hutch slowly lowered the finger he’d been holding up and sat down on the couch beside his partner. It didn’t take a crystal ball to see that their plan wasn’t working.

"Didn’t go over too well, huh, buddy?"

"How’d you guess?"

"I’m a detective, dummy, I get paid to know these things. What happened over at Colchetti’s place?"

Starsky looked up and over at Angel with a doleful smile. "Both of them have a verifiable alibi. I talked to one of the officers at the police department who worked the accident. Both husband and wife were at home when the whole thing happened."

Angel walked over to the sofa and dropped down beside him, her head finding his shoulder, her left arm slipping into his right. "What am I supposed to do now?"

He leaned toward her. "Don’t worry, we'll get another lead. Something will turn up."

"Yeah, who knows, with any luck somebody will get antsy and do something stupid."

Starsky stared at his partner disapprovingly. "You know, sometimes you’re about as useless as a pulled tooth."

"Yeah, well, I do my best."

Starsky patted Hutch’s knee and smiled weakly, signifying that he understood the well-intentioned meaning of the statement. It wasn’t Hutch’s fault if questioning the parents hadn’t led to anything tangible they could use. He was just angry that there was nothing for them to go on and it was frustrating. Starsky got up and reached out his hand to the girl and she took it. "Hey Hutch, I’m just gonna make sure she gets upstairs okay."

"Good idea, Starsk. I’ll be right here."

Hutch watched his partner and the young woman until they disappeared up the stairs. He already knew that it would take a lot more than some unfocused nosing around by the two of them to figure out if anything out of the ordinary had happened to Angel's mother. What they needed was some help, what they needed was a good lead.

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Mrs. Jessie Colchetti blissfully lounged beneath a flowered canopy set up beside the main swimming pool located at the rear of the estate. Her eyes were closed, and her shapely legs were crossed at the ankles, the canopy lent just enough shade from the sun to keep her fair skin from burning under the it's unrelenting rays.

The Olympic-sized pool was a masterfully executed merging of imported masonry and exotic flora, a visual monument to the pleasures and excesses of hedonism. With its dramatic crystal blue and gold tiled walls and green cove-like spa area, the temptation to indulge in its delights seemed hard to resist. Though it was magnificent, the pool was secondary in attractiveness to the woman who lay beside it. Jessie Colchetti fairly glowed in a white two-piece swimsuit that boasted a matching swim cap flecked with real gold. A pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses shielded her eyes, and a pair of expensive-looking white heels shod her feet. It was obvious that she had no intention of re-entering the water.

Another butler, an Asian man named Liao, brought out a sterling silver-serving tray that bore two half-filled glasses of liquor and an antique phone set. He put the tray down on a table well within her reach and then departed. The phone was off the hook and she picked up the receiver.

"Hello, Bruce."

"Hello, Sharon," a man’s voice answered.

She checked her surroundings. "Jessie, please. We don’t know who might be listening."

"Right. So how’s it going, doll? How’s it feel to be Mrs. John Colchetti?"

"It feels all right. I mean it’s not very hard to get used to all this. But I am worried. There was a cop nosing around here yesterday."

"Aha. I don’t suppose it was a social visit?"

"No, Colchetti’s kid brought him around to ask us questions. His name was Starksy or something like that. The little smart aleck seems to think her mother’s accident wasn’t an accident after all." She picked up one of the drinks and took a sip, closing her eyes as it went down.

"So she’s a smart kid. How’s she looking these days?"

She opened her eyes. "I hadn’t really noticed." There was a significant pause after she said it. "I still don’t understand why you thought it was necessary to do what you did to her, couldn't you have gotten what you needed any other way?"

"I did it the best way I knew how. Just remember that whatever I did, it was always in deference to you, my sweet. Besides, it’s to your credit that she’s still around. I would have…" He stopped cold. That was too much information. "Anyway, she’s out of the way for now, and she doesn’t know a thing, so don’t worry about her."

"All right. Where do we go from here?"

"I’ll let you know when you need to know. Like you said, we don’t know who might be listening in, so the less said the better."

She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder and leaned forward in time to see John Colchetti standing in the foyer handing off his hat and coat to Liao. "Look Bruce, I’ve got to get off the phone now. The master’s home."

"All right. I’ll be in touch. Remember, stay cool until you hear from me."

"I will," she said, and gracefully ended the call just as her husband was making his way toward her. She put on a warm smile and stood up, pulling the bathing cap off and shaking out her auburn mane seductively as he came near. He greeted her warmly and kissed her, wrapping his arms around her waist. When he drew back from her she sighed dramatically.

"Hmm, that was nice. You must have been thinking about me."

"All day long," he answered. "Did you have a nice swim?"

"Wonderful." she answered, sitting down and patting the end of the lounge chair, indicating that he should sit. He glanced at the serving tray on the table and noticed the second drink.

"That for me?"

"But of course."

He reached over and took the glass off its coaster, drinking the contents down and savoring the cooling sensation it gave as it ran down his throat. He dabbed at his lower lip with one finger and returned the glass to the tray. When he turned back to her she made a sensuous movement across the fabric of his trouser leg with her finger." So what did you think about the visit we got yesterday?" she asked him coyly.

"What? Oh that. I hadn’t really thought about it."

"Oh, please. Your only daughter, whom you haven’t seen in almost four months, drops by for a visit and brings a policeman around with her, he asks us strange questions about your dead wife, and you say you haven’t given it much thought."

"Well, okay, maybe I have." A hint of worry marred his face. "How did she seem to you?"

She shrugged. "Grown up. Life’s stressful; and stress can age a person very quickly, you know that."

"But she’s only seventeen. I guess my marrying you so soon after her mother died really did affect her."

"Don’t worry, my darling, she’ll get over it." She brushed her fingertips over his lips. "Children have a rare and unique ability to adapt to all situations." Her eyes caught his seductively. "Now what, if anything, did you have anything in mind for tonight?"

"I thought we could watch the 76ers play the Lakers in the playroom. Dr. J’s in rare form tonight."

"Sounds like fun," she said, then she embraced him as if there were no one more interesting she'd rather be with and nothing else more interesting she’d rather be doing for the evening.

 

***CHAPTER NINE***

Bruce Emerson sat in his private office smoking a cigar and talking on the telephone, his feet elevated on his desk, the smoke enveloping his blond head like a wispy cloud. Emerson was a big man, solidly built, with hair that was cropped military short. He wore a neat beard that enhanced his well-chiseled features and when he smiled, his eyes twinkled and made him look much younger than his thirty-two years. He reclined in a leather chair, a pencil in his left hand tapping out a nonsensical rhythm on the desktop. When he was finished with the call, he stood up and stretched, his upper body expanding into his business suit, the physique of a college quarterback, very big, very lean and very muscular. From the muscles in his neck to the size of his hands he stood out significantly from the average man.

He was staring out of his office window when he heard a cautious knock at his door. He responded to it from his desk and presently his secretary came in holding a cup of coffee. The secretary was an older woman with a tight, put-upon expression on her face, apparently unhappy with her lot in life. She sat the coffee cup down on his desk and left without waiting for a "thank you" from him, not that it appeared he would offer one. When the door closed he picked up the coffee and looked out the window again, blowing on the surface and sipping it with care. He seemed preoccupied, glancing at his watch more than once, as if he were waiting for something or someone to arrive.

Suddenly an abrupt knock that was noticeably different from the secretary’s made him jump. He put down the cup quickly and laid his cigar on an ashtray nearby. "Just a minute," he called out.

When he opened the door a gaunt man stepped into his office and stood between himself and the office desk. Emerson shut the door and took in his visitor from where he stood. The gaunt man was wearing a beige service uniform that bore no identifying marks, and a beige and white baseball cap that was pulled low across his forehead. He wore dark sunglasses to cover his eyes and didn’t speak at all. Emerson walked back his desk, picked up the coffee cup again and took another sip, letting his eyes rest on the man’s blank face. "Would you like some coffee?" he asked.

"No. Thanks."

"Did my secretary see you come in?"

"No, I waited until she stepped away before I knocked."

"Good. You might want to have a seat." He motioned to one of the visitor chairs in front of his desk.

"I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind."

"Suit yourself."

The man folded his arms and true to his word, remained standing, the glasses and the cap stayed on. "When can I expect payment, Mr. Emerson?"

"When the job is completed, that’s when."

Emerson got his cigar into his mouth and tried to get a pull off it, but the flame had gone out. He laid the dead stogie across the ashtray and set his coffee cup down once more. Then he turned towards the dark man and tensed. What he could see of his face was nothing more than a scarred and pockmarked network of lines and wrinkles. Dangerous, he thought. Through the dark glasses, Emerson could barely make out the pair of cold and vacant eyes that stared back at him. But he was as blithe about fear as he was about how he got his money, and he didn’t flinch a muscle.

"I have one more job for you. And I believe I’ve made it clear to you before that I don’t want to know how you do it, when you do it or where it's done. I just want it done. After that, you’ll get your entire fee."

"Sounds like a renegotiation of the terms to me, Emerson."

Emerson's fear suddenly turned to vinegar. He slammed the palm of his hand down on top of his desk with enough force to ruffle the papers on top of it. "There will be no renegotiations! I told you that on the phone before you came over. The fee stays the same!"

Before the words were completely out of his mouth the gaunt man was in on him, slamming his own hand down firmly over Emerson’s flattened one. His bony but strong fingers clamped down unwaveringly, inflicting considerable discomfort. Emerson tried relaxing his hand, which seemed to lessen the pain and the pressure, but it still hurt. As they stared each other down, Emerson looked him over. The guy was just slight enough that he thought he might overpower him and win. But then again, he thought, there was also the chance that he might lose. He backed down. A wise decision, he thought, given the fact that this man killed people for a living.

"Emerson, this is a business deal," he snarled. "When the stakes rise, so does the fee. I’m warning you--don’t try to stiff me."

Emerson swallowed almost imperceptibly. "Okay. Okay, you win. Name your price."

The dark man lifted his skeleton-like hand and returned himself to the spot where he’d been standing before, and he did so swiftly that it was almost as if he hadn’t ever moved. "The fee was a hundred and fifty thousand before. It goes up one sixty."

Emerson scowled a bit at the amount and rubbed his hands together self-consciously. At the same time his mind was racing. If he’d figured correctly, he stood to gain much more than a hundred and sixty thousand dollars if his scenario played out. Additionally, he would only have to share the fortune with one other person. Seen in that light, the answer was obvious. Give the man the money.

They shook hands on it, a gesture that bound him to the mercenary’s terms, and then the gaunt man left. As soon as he was gone, Emerson's trepidation disappeared. He snipped off and relit the end of his cigar, inhaled, and then settled back into his chair to take a much-needed breather. The remainder of his plan was in motion. There was nothing left to do now but wait.

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The dark man had parked not far from the main road in town. He was sitting in a military jeep, a bland green model with a camouflage motif, his presence obscured behind a high wall of untrimmed shrubbery. His uniform, the dark sunglasses and the plain cap from the day before remained, the hardness of his look completed by the nearly spent cigarette that hung his lip at an angle. He took a last draw on it and the flame got brighter and it seemed as if the embers might singe his skin if he continued, then finally he blew out the smoke, wincing as it drifted toward his right eye. At the last minute he released the stub and watched it freefall from the jeep's window, landing and rolling on the asphalt, the ashes dispersing in the arid wind. He picked up a pair of Bushnell’s and targeted the lens at the entrance of the building that served as the main headquarters for the Colchetti Motor Company.

Once his target was out of the building, his attention became more focused. He watched closely as two well-dressed men, perhaps salesmen or clientele--he didn’t know which--made what appeared to be small talk with his subject. What they were conversing about was of no importance to him. What was important was that he observe for himself the day-to-day activities of this person so that he could accurately plan his next move. It was not an easy job to make murder look adventitious, but he was nothing if not good at what he did. If that hadn’t been the case for the last fifteen years, he and his employers might have ended up doing hard time long ago, or worse, sitting on death row in some penitentiary somewhere. He didn’t intend on letting either of those things happen anytime soon.

After the two men departed, the dark man watched his subject get into one of his own cars and drive it off the lot. He followed, mindful of keeping a safe distance away from the brand new Jaguar as it sped down the road. When it came to routines, this particular man’s was a simple one: for three successive mornings in a row, he ate breakfast, a boiled egg, buttered toast, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee, with almost no variation. Then a mixed drink, maybe two, followed by some time in his Jacuzzi and finally a visit to the office. After work he would either a stop at his favorite tobacco shop, or grab a sandwich at a nearby deli, depending on his mood for the evening, always invariably ending up at his place of residence.

The dark man usually needed several days to stake out his target and implement a satisfactory strategy of elimination, but if the legwork had been done for him ahead of time, all he needed to do was verify the information. Such precautions enabled him to do his job more quickly and effectively. He sought a method that would be precise and clean, which left no indication of foul play. In this case he would take his target out in familiar surroundings, under entirely plausible circumstances. Who would suspect the accidental death of a man who drowns in his own pool after imbibing too much liquor?

CONTINUEDŽ