STEELE IN COMMAND
When the cat was away, the mice were supposed to play. It was tradition. More than tradition - it was immortalised in rhyme. That gave it a status far above a mere saying, and elevated it to little less than a law. And so, with Laura Holt away at a private investigators' convention in Denver, Remington Steele was quite determined that he was going to play. The problem was, he couldn't seem to think of anything to do. Not anything that really seemed worth the effort, anyway; that really seemed to earn for itself the splendid, wonderful, glorious title of true play - of true irresponsibility. Nothing out of the ordinary. He had gone gambling the first night, staying out late, having one drink too many (vodka martinis, shaken not stirred, and more or less guaranteed to go straight to the head), and had stumbled into the office at half past one in the afternoon with his tie askew, and his embarrassingly large winnings dangling out of his breast pocket. Laura would have glared, fumed, shouted, and manhandled him into the nearest office. Mildred, on the other hand, gave him her usual cheery greeting, brought him a cup of tea and a newspaper, and told him that his diary was free for the day. So, pride as rumpled as his suit, he had spent the second night at a movie marathon in a fabulously ancient cinema, muttering Bogart's lines along with him, and winding up seeing in the new dawn in the company of a projectionist who looked at least as old as the building - possibly as old as Hollywood itself. They had made their way to a tiny bar with a rickety pool table, drunk what had felt like enough whisky to make Bogart himself proud, and Steele had hustled seventy-five dollars from the regulars around the pool table. He had told them that his name was Mick, and had danced at six o'clock in the morning with a doe-eyed Irish barmaid who had fabulous eyes, a club foot, and an almost unparalleled collection of John Wayne trivia stored away in her brain. He had wandered into the office at noon, with his tie in his pocket, a whisky glass still in his hand, and one shoe inexplicably missing; to be greeted once again with a cheery smile, a cup of tea and a newspaper. It really was most disheartening.
The problem, he had decided, was that with Laura away there was nobody to frustrate. True irresponsibility was made properly diverting only when there was somebody present to be annoyed by it. To turn pink, to steam, to fume, and to otherwise generally be entertaining. Steele had long ago realised that he enjoyed getting Laura annoyed. It lowered her defences. It made her just that little bit less proper, and just that little bit more unpredictable; and that was often the precursor to a very pleasant evening. With Mildred, that kind of entertainment just wasn't forthcoming - which in all honesty was probably a good thing. He was going to have to think again.
So he rang around. There was Phil, who had once helped him to steal sixty-thousand dollars worth of jewellery from a vault in Monte Carlo, and had recently turned up in a museum in downtown LA - but Phil, it seemed, had recently vanished, along with one of the museum's most prized exhibits. When he heard which one it was, Steele wasn't in the least surprised, and had to fight to keep the grin from showing in his voice as he spoke to the incensed proprietor at the other end of the telephone. So he tried again. Lisa and Kenny, the brother and sister who had helped him with more cons in more European cities than he could remember, were at present living in San Francisco. He was sure that between the three of them they could come up with something that would satisfy his desire for bad behaviour; but the number they had given him was disconnected, which left him fairly sure that they had already come up with something badly behaved all on their own. With Monroe now strictly on the level, that seriously limited the number of old ne'er-do-well associates that were currently within reach. He scowled at the telephone, and wondered if he should go back to that little out of the way bar, and see if he could hustle any more of the locals. It wasn't exactly playing away, though. Pool games played in anonymous bars, with another name to protect the identity of Remington Steele, were not even all that rare for him, especially when he was wound up after a tough and dangerous case. He was in the mood for misbehaviour. Just because the universe seemed determined to prevent him, was no reason that he could see for giving up.
"Er... boss?" It was Mildred, peering around the door at him as though suddenly overtaken by timidity. He smiled at her, somewhat distracted.
"Yes Mildred. What can I do for you?" He hoped that it wasn't a client, turning up unexpectedly and hoping for an audience with the great Remington Steele. The great Remington Steele, after all, still had a shoe missing, and his $100 silk tie stuffed into a pocket of a suit that had now seen better days. She smiled at him, looking oddly nervous. Nervous was not Mildred Krebs' most common look. Far from it.
"Er... it's a little complicated, boss." She smiled again, looking rather more awkward than was at all normal for a woman more usually given to striding through life with a gallant display of self-confidence. He put the phone down at last, her manner cutting through his preoccupation, and leaned forward. Mildred, at some point during the last couple of years of their acquaintance, had come to mean a great deal to both of her employers, and Steele in particular had become immensely fond of her. He gestured to a chair.
"Thanks, chief." She sat, still looking hesitant, and he frowned, painfully aware that he probably didn't look terribly reassuring just at the moment. Playing whilst the cat was away could have its disadvantages as well as its benefits. He tried out an encouraging smile.
"Trouble, Mildred? If you need some time off or something..."
"No, it's not that, chief." She sighed. "Well, it's a little... delicate."
"We've been friends a long time now." Two years was a fairly long time for him, anyway. He could only hope that she agreed. She seemed to.
"Yes. Well it's like this, boss. My housekeeper has been off sick for a while. She had an operation to sort out a bad back, so I've had this woman round lately, to help with some cleaning at my place. To take the heat off a little. You know how I put in some pretty long hours in the office..."
"I know, and it's appreciated. Much appreciated."
"Sure. I know it is." She paused. "Well, she's a nice woman. Has the sweetest little boy, about four or five years old. Only... well, she just rang. She didn't know who else to call, I guess. I told her I worked for this great private eye, you see, so she probably thought I could help..."
"And?" he prompted, as gently as seemed appropriate. She shrugged.
"Her car vanished today. A little while ago it came back."
"Well that's good."
"Not that good, no." She paused again. "See, when it came back... there was a dead body in the trunk."
"A dead..." He frowned. "Interesting rental charge."
"Boss..." Her tone was mildly reproachful. "She's upset, and she'd like to know what's going on. Like I said, she's got a little boy. She doesn't want there to be any trouble."
"No, of course not. The police..."
"That's sort of the problem." She lowered her eyes briefly. "See, Ada... that's her name... she's... well I don't think she's exactly... that is... she's not really in the country legally. If you get what I mean."
"I get what you mean." He had to smile then. Mildred Krebs was about as straight as it was possible to be; or always liked to give that impression. Either he was rubbing off on her, or she possessed the sort of hidden depths that he had always suspected she had - and that he approved of most highly. "Given that I'm not exactly in the country legally myself, I'm not likely to pass judgement on that, am I."
"Fair point." She flashed him a smile in return, the familiar lights returned to her eyes. "Well, I was rather hoping we could help her, you know? She's a good woman, boss. And--"
"And she has a little boy. Yes, I got that bit." He leaned back in his chair, staring at her across the wide expanse of his perennially empty desk. "Fine. I think we can manage that. Come on then." He rose to his feet and headed for the door, rather surprised that she didn't follow suit. "What is it? I thought you wanted to help the poor woman?"
"Yes..." She looked shifty again. "Well..."
"Ah." He got the point at last, and walked back to the desk, sitting on the corner nearest to her. "You were thinking more along the lines of Miss Holt's sort of help, rather than mine."
"She is the boss, boss. The... brains of the firm." She shuffled slightly in her chair. "No offence."
"No offence taken, Mildred." He sighed. "Things have changed rather, haven't they, these last couple of months."
"I guess they have a bit." She didn't meet his eyes. "It's not that I don't think you do a great job. You do. Mostly. Well... usually. It's just that Miss Holt is the senior partner here, and we both know that it's her who's the bona fide investigator. The real deal. The--"
"Yes, alright. There's no need to rub it in." He smiled at her then, eyes warm, rather touched by her concern for this woman and her young son. "But Laura is in Denver. She'll be there for three more days, and it's a break she's earned. She's out there now, with all her friends and colleagues, spending her time discussing cases and investigative theory with people who live for the job as much as she does. It's the first time she's seen Murphy Michaels since that birthday do last year, and I don't plan on bringing her back early. So if your friend wants this investigated now, she's going to have to make do with Remington Steele. Come on, Mildred. Trust me. You do keep saying that you want to do more investigating yourself, so what do you say? We close up the office for a day or two, and we deal with this one together. Steele and Krebs. Sounds like a partnership to me."
"I don't know, boss..." He had seen the lights in her eyes change, and knew that she was tempted. "Miss Holt wouldn't approve."
"Miss Holt need never know. I've investigated enough murders and the like in the past to be able to make a fair stab at it on my own. It wouldn't be the first case that I've handled without her help."
"True. I suppose."
"And there's all those years of experience that you have. We both have an instinct for this kind of work, Mildred. And instincts count for something."
"That is true." She frowned. "You really think we can do this, though? I don't mean any disrespect, chief... and you know that I think a whole lot of you..."
"Mildred, Mildred, Mildred." He took her hand, and flashed her the billion dollar Remington Steele smile, blue eyes ablaze. It didn't cut any ice with her these days, now that she knew that Remington Steele was just a fraud, but it did always make her smile back. At the very least, it made her relax. "Our own case, Mildred. Think about it."
"I am." Her eyes twinkled, with just enough of his own kind of fire. "We could do it, couldn't we."
"Of course we could." He gave her hand a quick kiss, and led her out of her chair. "You and me, Mildred. It's a winning combination. You know it is."
"Parts of me are a bit less sure than other parts." She looked him up and down. "Um... I'm not saying for definite that I'm convinced... but if I was, you'd be going to get changed before meeting Ada. Right?"
"Ah. Yes." He glanced down at himself, particularly at his one shoeless foot. "You did notice, then?"
"Yeah. I didn't like to say anything, though. Didn't seem appropriate." She smirked suddenly. "Or were you hoping...?"
"Misbehaviour does enjoy attracting attention to itself, Mildred." He sighed. "But it appears to lose much of its attraction when Miss Holt is away. Which is a shame. I seem to have lost rather a good shoe for no reason."
"We could go and get it," she suggested. He nodded.
"We could, yes. If I could remember where it is. There's a fair chance that it's currently floating out to sea in an empty orange crate. I'm not entirely sure. There had been quite a lot of whisky by that point."
"Some day you're going to have to give me a lesson in misbehaviour, boss." She was grinning again, looking far more her usual self, and with a faint laugh he ushered her out of the door.
"You just stay with me, Mildred," he told her, picking up her coat as they passed though the outer office. "Eventually, something always rubs off."
Fred had been given a few days off in Laura's absence, so Steele and Mildred took the Auburn. Steele loved to drive the car, a relic from the long gone days he so loved to watch on the cinema screen, and Mildred enjoyed being seen in it. With its sleek lines and open top it suggested at sophistication and a very particular kind of cool; and she liked to pretend that she was an idle millionaire being driven on a grand day out. Her doubts about the escapade had been all but driven away in the breeze by the time that they drew up outside Steele's apartment building, and she followed him to the his suite with a stride that was positively jaunty. When he emerged from his bedroom, tying a fresh tie and with every stitch and button perfectly in place, she was even more convinced that this could work. He might not be the Remington Steele that she had once believed him to be - but he was still Remington Steele. More or less.
"Are we ready, Mildred?" He settled the knot of the tie in place, with almost geometric precision, and ran a hand through his immaculate hair. She raised an eyebrow.
"I was ready anyway, boss. It wasn't me who set one of their shoes adrift last night."
"Not the nautical type?" He smiled briefly, a teasing glint in his eye, then held the door open for her. "Come on. Let's not keep the client waiting."
"Sure thing boss." Mildred led the way to the lift, glancing back at him as they walked. "Should I call Miss Holt?"
"Miss Holt will be in the middle of a seminar. She and Murphy are leading one today. Something to do with having a good working relationship with the coroner, I believe." He pressed the button for the lift, and was clearly pleased when the car arrived almost at once. "There you are. Fate is on our side."
"I sure hope so." She drifted into silence on the way down, trailing in Steele's footsteps as they returned to the car. "So, do you know what we're going to do? I mean, do you have a plan?"
"The usual, Mildred. The usual. Ask insightful questions, examine the evidence, search for clues, reach spectacular conclusions, and unmask a murderer. Possibly several murderers. There's often more than one."
"Right." She climbed into the car, nodding her thanks when he held open the door. "Well, okay..."
"Okay?" he queried, climbing in beside her, and gunning the engine. She looked a little sheepish.
"Sorry. It's just... that's more the sort of stuff that Miss Holt usually does, isn't it."
"Possibly, possibly. But she is, in the end, only Mr Steele's assistant. Whereas I am Mr Steele himself. Founder of the firm, creator of the legend, inspiration behind a thousand young dreams. Children want to follow in my footsteps, Mildred."
"Yeah." She looked at him pointedly. "But only because they don't know the truth. And I do, so maybe you ought to tone down all that 'founder of the firm' stuff, unless it's yourself that you're trying to convince."
"You used to be a lot more adoring, you know that?" He sighed. "Alright, so perhaps I might be embellishing the facts a tad."
"Well... possibly a little more than a tad. A lot of tad perhaps. A plethora of tads. But the point is that the client doesn't have to know that. She thinks that she's getting Remington Steele, and so Remington Steele she will get. Brilliant, insightful, renowned across the land for his expertise and instincts. His matchless investigative brain. She doesn't have to know that she's getting a fake. She needs help, right?"
"Right." Mildred nodded. Steele nodded as well.
"Exactly. And are we, or are we not, willing and able?"
"Yes." It was, as always, remarkably difficult to disagree with the man. Her smile broadened, and he matched it with one of his own.
"Well there you are then. Every bird must one day fly its nest, Mildred. Every tiny child must one day take its first steps without something to hold onto. Every--"
"I'm on your side, boss. I said so back at the office, didn't I?"
"Good." He beamed at her. "Well then. It's settled. Between the two of us, I think we can manage the insightful questions. We've both watched Laura questioning people before, and I've had to do it myself quite a bit in the past. And how hard can examining the evidence be?" He fumbled in one pocket as he drove, and produced a large magnifying glass. "I've even come prepared. In fact, I think the only area that we may possibly fall down on would be the reaching of conclusions. I do freely admit that I've had one or two issues in that... approximate region... once or twice in the past..."
"Like how you always accuse the wrong person of murder, chief?" She was smiling, because it was hard not to. A part of her mind was telling her that this was the investigation of an actual death, and that she should be a little more concerned about that - but the rest of her mind was enjoying the car ride, and the notion of adventure ahead. Steele nodded slowly.
"Well, yes. That has happened on a few occasions. But the way I see it, this is fairly cut and dried anyway. A car is stolen, and it returns with a body in the back. The dead man is sure to be a car thief himself. The whole thing is probably easily explained. The car was stolen as a getaway vehicle, and somebody didn't want to share the loot. We identify our victim, and finding the killer is sure to be a small step from there. No great mystery, Mildred. This is hardly The Hound Of The Baskervilles. It's not even one of those ones when it was always down to Moriarty."
"That does make sense." When he put it that way, it seemed odd that she hadn't thought of it herself. All murder cases didn't have to be fiendish, after all. There were any number that were easily solved. This would probably be one of those that the police would declare open and shut, if they had ever been allowed anywhere near it. The sort of thing that Laura Holt would barely consider worth her while. She smiled cheerily at Steele. They were well and truly on their way to success, she was sure of it. Or, she suddenly realised with a pang of mild concern, they eventually would be. Just as soon as Steele realised that he was enthusiastically driving without any idea of where to go to.
Ada's house was not hard to find, although it was in a part of town that Mildred didn't know. Ada had given her the address, and once she had passed it onto Steele, he found the place in no time. Either he had an instinct for navigating twisted sidestreets, or he knew the seedier side of Los Angeles as well as Mildred knew the rest of it. She had to conclude that either possibility was just as likely. Ada was sitting outside a rundown house, under a porch made of corrugated iron, watching a small boy play in the front yard. He had a metal bucket, and seemed to be making castles of earth. Steele drew up outside the house, a fabulously incongruous figure in his expensive suit, and seated at the wheel of his dazzlingly white vintage car. Ada scurried over as soon as she saw Mildred.
"Hi!" Mildred was all smiles, the picture of reassuring efficiency. "Ada, I'd like you to meet Remington Steele."
"Mr Steele." Ada shook the proffered hand with a look of unashamed scrutiny. She was a woman in her late thirties, with long black hair neatly tied back, the sides showing the first signs of grey. The hand that shook Steele's was tough, but well looked after, and the eyes that stared so surely at him were bright and thoughtful. Steele, who had had to rely many times on snap judgements about people, liked her straight away. There was urgency in her eyes, but it didn't show in her voice. The accent was Mexican, he decided, and not very strong. Either she had worked hard to hide it, or she had spoken English a lot in her life. He offered her a cheery smile, and made sure to pitch his performance at the required level. She didn't look like somebody who needed him to lay it on too thick, but he still had to be the very image of competence and professionalism. Things like that seemed more important when you were being confronted with an actual person, rather than your own excited imagination.
"Ada." He beamed at her, and let his cool blue eyes drift to the boy. The child had stopped playing now, and had come over to gawp at the car.
"You stay away from it, Ramon." Ada's voice was taut, uneasy at how her son was straying close to the expensive car. Steele flashed the boy a grin.
"We'll take it out for a spin later, if you're mother says that's it okay. How does that sound?" His answer was a mute, wide-eyed nod. Ada managed a rather harassed smile.
"You go to Auntie Lisa next door for a bit. Tell her that I said I need half an hour for some business, there's a good boy." Ramon seemed about to object, one eye still on the car, but he ran off after a moment, heading up the rickety white steps of the neighbouring house. Ada let out a long sigh.
"I wish I could send him away for a day or two, but there's nobody to send him to. When I opened the trunk of my car, and I saw what was in it... What would have happened, Mr Steele, if Ramon had been with me then? What would I have told him?"
"I don't know." He searched momentarily for some platitude, then decided that she would probably rather he got straight down to business. She wanted him to solve her problems, and put her mind at rest that way; not through the verbal equivalent of patting her on the head. "Still, the important thing is that he hasn't seen it. So let's try to get this all sorted out before he does, hey? Where's the car?"
"Over there." She pointed to where a battered station-wagon was parked at the side of the road. It was an indeterminate grey-brown colour, badly dented in places, and hardly the sort of car that Steele would have stolen, had he been looking for a getaway car. Not unless he had been extremely desperate. That looked rather like one good theory shot down before it had had a chance to go anywhere at all. He didn't allow the frustration to show, and instead nodded briskly.
"Good good. Keys?" He didn't need them, but it was, he had discovered, frequently a good idea to hide the fact that Remington Steele was an accomplished lockpick. She handed them over, her eyes beginning to dart about the street. "Oh, don't worry Miss, er...?"
"Just Ada," she told him. He nodded.
"Don't worry, Ada. I have no intention of opening it here, and risk letting the whole neighbourhood know what's going on. There's a little place nearby where we can examine things in private." He frowned for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. "Ladies, follow on in the Auburn." He threw his own keys to Mildred. "We'll soon have this dealt with, you'll see."
"Right you are, Mr Steele." Mildred led Ada over to the Speedster, settling in behind the wheel with her customary flash of pride. It was a wonderful car to drive, even though it could be a little unpredictable at times, and it was all that she could do to avoid puffing out her chest as she turned on the engine and followed in Steele's wake. He led them a twisting path, but in no time at all they were pulling up at a little garage, where a battered workshop that had seen better days stood in an overgrown yard. Steele led the way in through gates that looked as though they had once been locked, but had long ago been forced open by somebody, then made short work of whatever padlock held the workshop shut.
"What is this place, boss?" asked Mildred, drawing up outside the workshop. Steele flashed her an airy smile.
"An abandoned garage, Mildred. The owner was murdered some years back. One of the first cases that Miss Holt and I ever worked on together. I bought it from his widow. Seemed a worthwhile investment."
"Can't imagine what for," muttered Mildred, before realising exactly what he had bought it for. An out-of-the-way car workshop could have a number of uses, many of them nefarious. "Mr Steele..."
"Not now, Mildred." He got back into the station-wagon, driving it into the workshop, and she followed dutifully in the Speedster. Inside was a dark world of dust and cobwebs, and the looming shapes of abandoned machine parts. Mildred started to cough.
"Ugh. You sure know how to find a dodgy hiding place, boss." She climbed out of the car, and started hunting for a light switch. Steele pulled the doors closed, and pointed the switch out to her as he went. Three dusty light bulbs clicked on, illuminating a tangle of cobwebs that linked them, and a jumble of rubbish that was piled in irregular heaps against the wall. There were several cars as well, covered in tarpaulin. Mildred half-wondered if they were stolen, before deciding that it was best not to think about it. Nearby, Ada sneezed.
"Well, at least nobody will see us here," she observed. Steele flashed her a beaming smile.
"That's the spirit. Always look on the bright side, and... other similar sentiments that don't really help just now."
"That corpse isn't getting any fresher, chief," pointed out Mildred. He nodded, his enthusiasm suddenly seeming to fade slightly.
"Yes. Yes, I er... perhaps you ladies would like to step outside?"
"I've already seen him once, Mr Steele." Ada squared her shoulders. "I might be able to help."
"And I certainly don't need any protecting." Mildred also squared her shoulders, making the pair of them look like a faintly lopsided unified front. Steele nodded.
"Right. Well... Okay then." He unlocked the trunk, considered muttering a quick prayer to the patron saint of bogus detectives, then pushed open the lid and peered inside. He had plenty of experience with dead bodies, he told himself. He should be able to handle this one competently enough. It was all a matter of asking the right questions, and looking at things the right way. He would make Laura proud. With this in mind, he looked down at the slumped figure in the trunk - to find the very familiar, and now very dead eyes of a local police detective looking back at him. He blinked.
"Something interesting, boss?" asked Mildred. He nodded.
"Could well be, Mildred, yes. Complicates matters just a little."
"What does?" She came closer, peering over his shoulder to get a look at the body. "Say, isn't that that guy who came to check our security a few months back? Roy something?" She shook her head sadly. "I liked him. He was sort of cute."
"Yes, that's him." Steele slid his hand into the man's jacket, and produced a black wallet, that he flipped open for Mildred's benefit. "Roy Groper. Sergeant Roy Groper. LAPD."
"Oh." Mildred winced. "Ah."
"Yes, my sentiments exactly." He heaved a sigh. "This idea may not have been one of my best."
"Does this mean that you won't take the case?" asked Ada. Steele glanced back at her. If he was unnerved by the discovery of a dead policeman, then how must she feel, as the owner of the car he had been found in? He managed to find another reassuring smile, and sent it in her direction.
"Of course we'll take it." A dead policeman? He was almost certainly insane. Sensible people didn't hide dead policemen in abandoned garages, and hope that nobody noticed. Sensible people thought up polite apologies, and scurried away from situations like these as quickly as they could - or didn't get involved in them in the first place. But then, he supposed, his entire life had been anything but sensible. He pulled out his magnifying glass, and peered at the body through it. The cause of death at least was obvious - the large bullet wound was more than hint enough about that. That just left everything else. Somehow he didn't believe that the rest would be half so simple.
"Have you ever seen him before?" asked Mildred. Steele seemed absorbed in his work with the magnifying glass, so she had decided that it was down to her to attempt some questioning. Ada shook her head.
"You said that he was a policeman?"
"Looks like it. The boss says he was a detective. Maybe he was working on something locally. There anything you can think of where you live that the police might have been interested in?"
"Have you seen where I live?" There was a polite sarcasm in Ada's tone. "It's not exactly the most respectable part of town. I see drug pushers every day. There are many stolen cars, many guns. Many things for policeman to be interested in."
"Yeah, I guess so." Mildred glanced back at Steele, who as yet hadn't looked up from the corpse even once. "So did you see anybody hanging around before the car disappeared, or when it came back?"
"Nobody that I can think of. Nobody out of the ordinary." She frowned. "What I don't understand is why they brought it back with the body in it. Wouldn't they want to make sure that it wasn't discovered?"
"Maybe they were confident that you wouldn't report it?" suggested Mildred. "I mean, you're not exactly happy about going to the police, right?"
"Yes, but now that I know he's a policeman, I will have to. It's different if it's some drug pusher or thief who's been betrayed by his friends. I could have hidden from that and kept quiet. But this is a policeman. I have to admit to it, don't I."
"Not yet you don't, no." Steele straightened up at last, a frown still crinkling his forehead. Expecting him to elaborate, Mildred and Ada watched him expectantly. His frown deepened under their scrutiny. "What?"
"We were kind of expecting an explanation, chief." Mildred arched an eyebrow, pressing home the point. He nodded.
"Yes. Yes, quite. Ada... how well do you know your neighbours? All of them, I mean. Not just the ones who live next door."
"Not very well. Next door on one side I know well. I leave my son there sometimes. The others... I know very few of them."
"Hmm." Steele tapped his magnifying glass against one hand, looking thoughtful. "You asked why they left the body in the car. I think they thought it would be safe there. Are there any other station-wagons this colour in your street? Or does anybody else use yours regularly?"
"They might not have known that I owned the car?" She looked concerned. "Then they were planning to get rid of the body later and now it's gone. They'll want to find it. They'll ask questions."
"Yes, they will. I think it's best if you and your son move out of your house for the time being. They won't find the car or the body now, but that won't stop them looking." He sighed. "And we drove up the street in a vintage car. Hardly subtle."
"Subtle's never really been one of our aims in the past," offered Mildred, perhaps by way of consolation. He smiled a half-smile.
"True enough, true enough. Alright. What we need now is a plan of action. Something to get this show on the road. Right?"
"Right." Mildred could feel a certain sense of trepidation building, but when he spoke it was to suggest something simple and sensible enough. If he intended to become grandiose and outlandish, as was so often his way, perhaps he was saving that for later.
"Take Ada back home," he said, once again fiddling with the magnifying glass. "Pick up what you need for a few days, Ada. As little as you can cope with. Then Mildred will take you and your son to my apartment. It'll be safe enough for now. If they want to find you they can trace my car, but we're good for a few hours yet, and I'd rather have you there than at your own house. Stay with them, Mildred. I want you to get on the phone and see what you can find out about our friend in the trunk. Anything that might give us a hint as to what he was working on. I'll join you later. I'm going to have another look at the body and the car."
"You going to dump it, boss?"
"That probably depends on how he got in there. Doesn't help to cultivate good will with the local police force when you go throwing dead policemen about, though, and I can't see Miss Holt being happy either. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it." He frowned. "We'll have to be quick, though. He's not going to last long in this heat - and he could end up making a fine mess of Ada's car."
"Don't worry about the car, Mr Steele." Ada looked slightly green. "I shall be buying another one. This one is rapidly losing its attraction."
"I don't blame you, honey." Mildred went to open the doors of the workshop again. "Well, okay. If that's the plan, let's get it going. Hop on into the car, Ada. You are going to love Mr Steele's apartment."
"Make sure you're not followed. Just to be on the safe side. It might buy us a few hours." Steele turned back to the car, and opened one of the back doors, disappearing inside. Mildred watched him for a few moments, crawling about in the back of the car with his magnifying glass, like some weird take on Sherlock Holmes. She wondered if he had even the slightest idea of what to look for; or what to make of it if he found it. For now, though, that was his problem. She had her own job to do.
Steele barely noticed when they left, all but oblivious to the sound of the car engine, and the rattle of the doors as they closed once again. He should have thought to ask Ada how often she cleaned out her car, he realised. Too late now. Still, it had an air of cleanliness about it. There was no rubbish that he could see, and for the most part the floor seemed clean. There didn't seem to be any long-standing build up of grime, or a repeated pattern of footmarks. The occasional smudge of dirt looked new, and it seemed to him that it was perfectly reasonable to assume that they had been left by the murderer or murderers. The problem was that he had no idea what to make of them. Sherlock Holmes would frown thoughtfully, realise that they had been made by a type of mud found only in pine forests, and instantaneously pinpoint the place where the murder had been committed. Then he would see somebody with the same sort of mud on their shoes, and identify the killer. Somehow the life of Remington Steele had a knack of being rather more complicated than that. He considered taking a scraping of the grime, then realised that he didn't have anything to put it in. So much for coming prepared. Climbing out of the car, he went back round to the trunk, checking Groper's shoes. Sure enough there was a deposit on the soles, and it looked to be the same as the stuff in the car. He frowned at that. It was dirt, though. Dirt was dirt. It might be a breakthrough clue to Sherlock Holmes, but to Remington Steele it was merely brown stuff. Brown stuff stuck to some other stuff, and stubbornly refusing to be helpful. He let out a long, loud sigh, and shot Groper a glare.
"Well you could be a little more help. I'm trying to find out who killed you." The corpse showed no sign of becoming more forthcoming, and he turned his back on it, staring out at the dusty, cluttered workshop. Dirt. What did dirt mean? Mud from a park, perhaps? A garden? Or somewhere out of the city? Or was it city grime, the kind found in back streets and alleyways, and accumulated in gutters? Perhaps he could have it analysed. A vague notion played in his head that if it contained compost or fertiliser, it was more likely to be from a park or garden. Possibly. The truth was that he wasn't entirely sure, and he didn't really know what to make of such a clue anyway. With a scowl he slammed the trunk closed again, and stared accusingly at the car. It was no help either. He didn't have the means to check for fingerprints, and even if he did, he wasn't happy about taking them to the police just yet. If any of them turned out to be Groper's, things could get awkward. There had to be something, though. What would Laura do? It would probably be something tedious, involving legwork, and laborious research, and all the other things that she seemed to enjoy so much. Well, that was just hard luck. Remington Steele did not do legwork. Especially when he wasn't entirely sure what sort of legwork to do.
"You're a fool," he told his reflection, staring back at him from one of the rear windows. His reflection seemed to agree with him, which wasn't exactly encouraging. Ignoring its less than optimistic expression, he opened the driver's door and slid in behind the wheel. What clues might there be? He hadn't noticed anything when he had driven the car here, but then he hadn't been looking especially. Any rare foreign cigarettes in the ashtray? Distinctive sweet wrappers in the litter bin? Highly unusual footprints on the floor? Of course there were none of those things, and nothing else that he could see seemed of any use either. The glove compartment had a few items in it, but all of them looked to be Ada's. A pair of sunglasses, a packet of mints, a few small toys. Nothing that seemed likely to be a clue to the identity of a killer. He bent over to look at the floor, and under the seats, but nothing there caught his attention either. It really didn't seem fair. Only then were his eyes drawn to the underside of the dashboard; the place where his own hands had reached so many times in order to hot-wire a car. His hands went there now, and found only cobwebs. Nobody had hot-wired this vehicle. Whoever had stolen it must have used a key. That rather seemed to rule out the likelihood of it having been taken by mistake.
"Curiouser and curiouser," he muttered to nobody in particular, and clambered back out of the car. He crouched down to give the tyres and undercarriage a cursory check, found nothing remotely useful, then stood up and gave the trunk a quick rap with his knuckles. "You alright in there, Roy? I'll try not to be too long, mate. Hang on in there, yeah?" The silence that greeted his reply seemed oddly morbid, and he wasn't very sorry to be locking up the car and leaving it behind. Turning off the workshop lights, he pulled the doors shut behind him and locked them once again. From outside the place looked as deserted as ever. He was confident enough that nobody would go disturbing Roy Groper. If they did, they wouldn't be the type likely to report their discovery. Musing on the case, Steele headed off in search of a cab. He wanted to get back to his apartment. There was a question that he very much wanted to ask his latest client.
There was a small boy asleep on his couch. A small boy with a decidedly worn toy rabbit in one hand, and an equally worn toy car in the other. He stirred when Steele entered, but didn't awaken. His mother, looking more than a little tired herself, smiled.
"I think your couch is bigger than his whole bedroom. He was delighted."
"I imagine that he was." Steele went into the bedroom, emerging a few moments later with a blanket, that he used to cover the boy. "Where's Mildred?"
"In the kitchen. She went to make some tea." Ada frowned slightly. "Something is wrong, Mr Steele. Am I sitting in your favourite chair?"
"No." He flashed her a brief smile. "No, it's nothing like that. Ada, you said that your car was stolen?"
"Yes, that's right. I wanted to use it, but it wasn't where I had left it. Why?"
"Because it wasn't hot-wired. You know what I mean by that?"
"I watch television, Mr Steele. I know what hot-wiring is. It's a way that thieves can start cars without having the keys. So you're saying that whoever took my car had keys?"
"I suppose I am, yes." He sat down on the arm of the couch, near to where Ramon's tousled hair poked out from under the edge of the blanket. Almost without thinking, he picked up a cushion, and slipped it gently under the boy's head. The movement didn't prevent him from keeping an eye on Ada. "Is there anybody who has a set of keys?"
"No, but I do have a spare set myself. Doesn't everybody? Somebody could have taken it, I suppose." She frowned. "I didn't give them a thought. I don't know if they're still in the drawer."
"Would anybody know where to find them? Have you been broken into recently?"
"A few people might have known. I locked myself out of my car a few weeks ago, and had to get the spare ones. There were a few people round at the time. It was Ramon's birthday." She shrugged. "But nobody I can point a finger at, Mr Steele. They're my neighbours. I know that I don't live in the best part of town, and that a lot of the people who live near me are up to some pretty shady things. But they don't tend to be the people that I invite round for my son's birthday."
Steele nodded slowly. "Other parents of small children?" he asked. She shook her head.
"No. There aren't many other children nearby. I asked some people that Ramon likes. The postman, as they like to chat in the mornings. The storekeeper who sometimes gives him free candy. A few of our neighbours who look after him sometimes. They came around to have a piece of cake, and he had a wonderful time being the centre of attention. It was a happy time, Mr Steele. A nice day. I don't want to think that maybe one of the people who was there might be a killer."
"Write down their names. Their addresses if you know them." Hopefully Mildred could find out something about them. Otherwise this was straying dangerously into legwork territory. Ada nodded, then all of a sudden fixed him with a very direct look.
"If it wasn't stolen by chance; if they had the spare keys... they know that the car is mine, don't they. And by now, they must know that I've found the body."
"I would think so, yes." A thought struck him. "Did you get home early, or was there any sort of change in your routine today?"
"Yes. My car was stolen. That made all kinds of things different." She shrugged. "Usually my days are very similar. There is very little change in the routine. Today has been a very long day, and very complicated."
"Okay." Clearly he had asked a good question. It was impossible not to be delighted, though he hoped that he didn't sound too surprised. "Well, of course. Your car was stolen. That's bound to be inconvenient. Um... why not talk me through your day. A typical one. Then we can... see how today differed. It might help."
"If you think so, Mr Steele. Well, most of my days are very similar. Ramon and I go to fetch the newspaper, and if the weather is nice we take our breakfast with us, and eat it in the park." She shrugged. "Well, it used to be a park, when this was still a well to do area, long before I moved here. Now it's a mess, but Ramon likes it. There are birds."
"And then we go home, and I take the car, and I drop Ramon off at kindergarten. Then I go back home again, and leave the car, and go off to do my cleaning jobs. It's too difficult to take the car with me. Too hard to park. I tend to use buses instead."
"Quite." Steele, who used public transport only as the very last of a long list of last resorts, nodded in an approximately understanding manner. It was remarkably easy to find a place to park when you arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine. That was one of the first things that he had noticed living the life of Remington Steele. "Carry on."
"At lunchtime I come home, and I take the car to fetch Ramon. We have lunch, and then he stays with a neighbour while I go back to finish my work, or sometimes he comes with me. Today, when I went home at lunchtime the car was gone. I had to take the bus to fetch Ramon, so I was late. I took him home for his lunch, and there was the car. Because we were late, I took that. I thought perhaps I had made a mistake before, about it not being there. I don't know what I thought, really, but I was in a hurry to get to my next job, and there wasn't much time for thinking. You know the story after that. I found the body, and I called Mildred. I was frightened."
"Hey boss. Thought I heard you get in." Appearing in the kitchen doorway with a tray of tea things, Mildred came over to set it down on the coffee table. "I brought three cups."
"Thankyou Mildred." He seemed to be on a roll just at the moment, his brain joining dots in a manner that seemed at least to him to be reminiscent of Laura Holt. He didn't want any major interruptions. "So that might explain why you were able to catch them unawares and drive off with the body. They didn't think that you'd take the car after lunch."
"Perhaps." She turned slightly to take a cup of tea from Mildred, and smiled in thanks. "But why would they leave the car outside my house with a body in it? Why not keep the car until they were ready to get rid of the body?"
"I..." He frowned, rather stumped by that one. Damn. Maybe the roll had rolled itself out. "Well, there's several possibilities. I don't want to bore you with the intricacies of the workings of a detective's mind, but..."
"What's going on, boss?" asked Mildred, both wondering what she had missed, and deciding that he was in need of rescue. He frowned.
"Detecting, Mildred. Quite a lot of it, too."
"Mr Steele has worked out that my car was stolen by somebody who knows me, as they didn't hot-wire it." Ada looked sad. "I hope you're not offended if I don't like that idea, Mr Steele."
"No, of course not." He was still frowning, trying to focus his mind. Laura considered all of the evidence and made it all add up into an interesting conclusion. All that he was adding up was a mighty tangle. "As I see it, they were expecting you to go back to work after lunch, and leave the car behind like usual. Instead you took it, with dear departed Roy in the back, and threw a spanner in their works in the process. They can't have seen you taking the car, though. If they had, they'd have tried to stop you, or followed you and got the car back."
"Sure." Mildred handed him a cup of tea, which he took without seeming to notice it. "But why would anybody steal a car, stuff a dead cop in the trunk, and then drive it back to its owner's place and leave it there? Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."
"No, me either, Mildred." He sighed, looking down at the cup of tea in his hand, as though it were to blame. "And we were doing so well, too."
"Any other clues from the car?" she asked, settling down in a chair nearby. He shrugged.
"Nothing that leaps immediately to mind. Looks like Roy was shot once in the chest, but I can't be sure without an autopsy - which is a little outside my field. And the police would get cross if I tried it."
"They get cross when their colleagues turn up dead in the back of your car, too," said Ada, rather mournfully. Steele nodded.
"That's true. I remember one time in Nice... although perhaps now isn't the time for that particular tale. Did you find out anything about our silent friend, Mildred?"
"Not a lot, boss. They said he was taking some time off. I asked if they knew when he'd be back at work, but they wouldn't give me a straight answer. Got me to thinking that maybe he's out doing undercover work."
"Sound theory." Steele leaned back, sipping his tea. "He was wearing a good suit. Off the peg, but nicely made. Expensive. That does suggest undercover work."
"Not all policemen dress like they fell out of a goodwill store, boss."
"A fair point, Mildred. But you met Roy Groper. Hardly the personification of sartorial elegance, was he."
"I guess not." She shrugged. "So he was undercover, and he was found out?"
"Found out by one of my neighbours." Ada stared into her mug of tea, clearly unhappy. "One of them is a killer, or a killer's accomplice. And whoever they are, they must know by now that I've found the body. They must have guessed."
"I should think that they probably have, yes. And if they haven't found out yet about the involvement of Remington Steele Investigations, they soon will." Steele set down his cup on the tray, then rose smartly to his feet and began to pace. "But what do they do then? Do they run, or do they stay to fight?"
"I think I would rather they run." Ada smiled at him, slightly bashful. "I'm sorry Mr Steele. I know that you want to catch them, and I know it's better if they're caught. But if they run, then I don't have to worry anymore. I'm sitting here in a strange place, and I can't go back home. I don't know which of my neighbours I can trust. If any of this gets out, I could be deported, back to a life that I very much want to leave behind me. This is not my idea of a good time, Mr Steele."
"No. No, quite. Quite." He was by her side in an instant, giving her shoulder a quick pat, clearly having no idea how to make her feel any better. "We can keep your name out of things, though. And even if for some reason you do have to speak to the police, you might be surprised how well we can cover up certain pesky little details concerning citizenship. It wouldn't exactly be the first time."
"Really?" She frowned at him, clearly confused. "I thought that Remington Steele specialised in rich clients. Respectable people. Surely they don't have green card issues?"
"You might be surprised." He coughed discreetly, avoiding Mildred's eye. "Anyway, our first priority is to try to find out who killed poor old Roy. At least that way we can make a stab at making sure that it's safe for you and your son to go home. You'd best write that list of all the people who were at your son's birthday party." He headed for the telephone, and collected a pen and a few sheets of paper from the pad that lay beside it. "Here. Addresses as well if you know them."
"What do you want to do then, chief?" asked Mildred. "Talk to them all? Make inquiries?" His answering expression of horror was so eloquent that she almost laughed. "Well, we have to find out about them somehow, you know."
"Remington Steele does not do legwork." He seemed almost to shiver at the very thought. "You get on the telephone, and find our what you can about them. Don't answer the door to anybody while I'm gone."
"I'd do better if I used the computer back at the office," she pointed out. He nodded.
"I know. I'm not sure it's safe for you to be back there just yet, though. If they're going trace this back to us, they might go to the office."
"Makes sense, I guess." She realised that he was leaving. "Where are you going to be?"
"At the office." He held up a hand to forestall her comment. "Yes, I know. I'm hardly going to throw myself into the arms of danger, Mildred. I'm far too fond of my own safety for that. There's a file there that I want to fetch, though."
"On Roy Groper?" she asked. He nodded.
"You know how thorough Laura is. I'm sure she's got his home address listed, and that's not the kind of thing that the police are going to give us. I might go over there and take a look around."
"Be careful," she told him. He nodded.
"I'm always careful, Mildred."
"You could have fooled me."
He laughed at that. "If it's any consolation, with no Miss Holt to patch up my injuries, I plan on being very much more careful than usual. Being battered and bruised isn't half as much fun when she's not around. I'll see you later."
"Okay, boss." She followed him to the door. "But don't hang around at the office. If they are the type to fight rather than run, they're bound to turn up there sometime."
"I know. But it's early days yet." He flashed her one of his warmest smiles. "Take good care of our guests, and remember what I said. Don't open the door to anybody. At the slightest sign of danger, take them down the fire escape and go to a motel. If this place turns out not to be safe, I'd rather you didn't risk going to your place either. Better to be on the safe side."
"Sure." She returned his smile, then closed the door after him, making sure that it was locked. When she turned back, Ada was watching her. She smiled.
"You have an odd relationship with him. It's nice."
"Yeah." Mildred smiled too, her mind drifting with faint concern back to Steele. She wasn't at all sure that she liked the idea of him going to the very place that he had just suggested might be too dangerous for her. "Well, Mr Steele isn't like most bosses." By quite a margin. "And I guess me being a bit older than him changes things. It's a pretty unique relationship, really."
"You're worried about him, aren't you."
"Yeah." She began collecting up the tea things, trying not to think about it. "He gets into trouble a lot. I tell myself it's none of my business, but you get to work with people for long enough, and I guess you wind up worrying. I work with good people. It's hard not to care."
"Do you want to go after him?" Ada went to help with the tea tray, putting her own cup onto it, and going to hold open the kitchen door. "Ramon and I will be fine here. I'm sure there's no danger. Whoever killed that policeman, they wouldn't come to a big apartment building like this, surely?"
"I don't know. People have come here before. Broken in here before, and tried to get at the boss. Besides, he was pretty clear. The three of us stick together."
"I hope he's alright." Ada looked back towards the door of the apartment, before they let the kitchen door swing shut behind them. "If there really is danger... well he doesn't look as though he'd be very good at dealing with it. I know that he's a famous detective, but he looks..." She shrugged, and began to help unload the tray onto the draining board. "Well, he's skinny. And he looks like a rich boy."
"I know. But he seems to manage okay. He's tougher than he looks, I guess." She shrugged and turned on the tap, rinsing out the cups. "He can handle himself well enough. And like he said, it's still early days. It'll be a while yet before they check out the office."
"But you're still worried," pointed out Ada. Mildred nodded ruefully.
"Yeah, I'm still worried. Lucky for me I've got plenty to do to keep me busy. Did you finish that list?"
"Good. You carry on with that, and I'll get started on the first few names. Sooner we get started on this, the better. When the boss comes back, I want to be able to give him something to work with." Always supposing, that was, that he could figure out what to do with it. Given Steele's somewhat haphazard investigating techniques, she didn't exactly hold out a great deal of hope.
The offices were deserted, which was just as Steele had expected to find them. They had been empty since Laura had left, after all; the clients carefully instructed to avoid calling into the offices, because Mr Steele would be away on holiday. He had bridled at that at first, but had let her have her way in the end. Wandering into the offices every day during her absence was a ritual performed largely out of hope. One case. One small case, snuck in under Laura's radar, and she might take him more seriously. Of course now that he had such a case, it seemed anything but small, and he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted it. There was a moral there, he told himself. Something about being careful what you wished for, wasn't that how it went? He scowled at his reflection in a picture, and told himself off for being so pessimistic. He could handle this. He would handle this. He might not have Laura's years of experience, but he did have a magnifying glass, a great deal of enthusiasm, and a particularly devious mind. You could do a lot with that kind of arsenal, even without Laura to help join up the dots.
Roy Groper's file proved easy to find, and he flipped through it slowly, sitting on Laura's desk. His own might be more spacious, more grandiose and aesthetically pleasing, but Laura's did at least have pens in it. And paper. All his had was a ticket stub for a Bogart marathon he had been to at a nearby cinema three weeks previously. The impressively work shy nature of his desk was by turns a source of great pride and great annoyance, and now that he did actually want to do some work, it seemed natural to use Laura's desk instead. He thought for one brief moment about calling her, but he dismissed the thought instantly. This was his case. His and Mildred's. They were going to work it all out themselves.
"Hello?" The voice came from the outer office - youngish, timorous, hopeful. Steele jumped off the desk and went to the door. If the voice sounded youngish, timorous and hopeful, there were, in his experience, two likely reasons for it. Either its owner was young, nervous and eager, or he was a bull-necked man mountain pretending to be something else. Stuffing the notes that he had made into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, Steele peered cautiously through the hinges, trying to see who was waiting outside. If he gave them no reason to suspect that he was here, they might turn around and leave. Possibly. When he saw three men, all with shoulder holsters, his optimism began to drain away.
"Search the place," ordered one of the men - who was, Steele now saw, a bull-necked man mountain. Great. Aware that he had very little time before he was discovered, he tried to find the agency gun, but came up with nothing more deadly than one bullet, some gun oil, and a photograph of John Wayne in Stagecoach. None of which seemed especially useful just now. Some day, they were going to have to agree on a place to keep the gun so that they could always find it in an emergency. In the meantime... he eyed the bullet, the gun oil and the photograph, and sighed. He could always try hiding under a desk. Somehow, though, he didn't think that that trick was going to work. The window was no use either, and as he turned towards the door that joined Laura's office to his own, he saw the handle begin to turn. Oh, great. Maybe, standing as he was in this office, they might not assume him to actually be Remington Steele.
"Steele!" It was more a growl than a shout, but as the door swung open and a man loomed in the entrance, the victory in his voice was plain enough. Steele summoned a nervous grin. So much for anonymity. Reflexively he straightened his already perfectly straight tie, and managed an innocently quizzical expression.
"Good day. How can I be of service, Mr...?"
"Never mind my name." The man came towards him with sudden, threatening speed, and Steele went automatically into reverse. The other door banged open behind him, and he froze.
"Do you gentlemen want something?" He half turned, looking back at the person in the second doorway, mind working at full speed all the time. The second man ignored him, and headed straight for the open file on Laura's desk. Roy Groper's file. Steele watched him flip through it.
"A missing person case, perhaps? Or a divorce? We often advise on security matters as well, though strictly speaking we're enjoying a little downtime at the moment. Perhaps if you were to call back later in the week, then--"
"Stop the prattle, Steele." The second man shut the file with a slap, and threw it in Steele's face. "We know who you are, we know what you do, and we know that you're investigating Groper's murder. What we want to know is where his body is."
"I don't follow you." Steele's innocent smile was beginning to waver. On the floor, a small photograph of Roy Groper stared up at him, grey eyes cold and hard in the black and white face. In a second the first man was upon him, twisting Steele's arms painfully behind his back.
"We want Groper's body, and we want to know everything you know. Who hired you? What's your interest in this? Who else is involved?" The second man bent to retrieve the file, and Steele, reacting instinctively to the situation, lashed out with both his feet. He caught the man a hard blow to the side of the head, and as the action forced all of his weight onto his captor, he felt the man's grip weaken. With a furious effort he tore free, and made a frantic dash for the door. Waiting for him there was the third man, with a compact black handgun pointing straight at Steele's chest. He smiled, eyes glinting with a mixture of satisfaction and mockery. Steele began to raise his hands.
"The car," said the man with the gun, in a tone of voice that said very clearly that Steele's innocent act would no longer be a very good idea. "And the body. I want them."
"If you're so eager to get them, gentlemen, perhaps you shouldn't have been so quick to give them away in the first place." Steele sensed rather than heard one of the other man coming up behind him, and was not surprised when his arms were seized once again. He gave a cursory struggle, but as he expected it proved fruitless. The man in front of him holstered the gun, and smiled coldly.
"Never mind what we did or didn't do," he said, his voice slow and deliberate. "But bearing in mind that I've already killed a policeman today, you'd better believe that I'll kill you as well if you don't tell me what I want to know. Where's Groper's body?"
"Kill me and you'll never find it." The words tumbled out of Steele's mouth in a fumble of hurried thoughts. He had no idea if it was the right thing to say, or even if it was in any way sensible, but he hoped that it would give him more time. He caught a glimpse of a flash of cold humour on the face of his interrogator, before the man holding his arms slammed him suddenly against the wall. Stars danced in front of his eyes.
"You'll talk," said a voice very close to his ear, and instinct and experience told him what to expect next. They weren't wrong. A fist ploughed into his kidneys, and almost at the same moment, a second fist grabbed at his hair, bashing his head into the wall. It bounced off again, and this time the stars that crowded his vision didn't fade away.
"Groper's body," reiterated somebody, apparently from very far away. This time Steele struggled as though he meant it, but was spun violently around to face the room. A second punch caught him in the stomach, and a third, before he could even think about avoiding it, landed squarely on his jaw. He slumped, but there was no shortage of hands to keep him upright. "The body," said the voice again. He turned his head towards the sound of the voice, but there was nothing there save an indeterminate blur.
"I don't have it on me," he told the blur, and offered it a crooked smile. He wasn't entirely sure why, but some part of his battered subconscious told him that it was amusing. The fist that collided suddenly and painfully with his stomach told him that he was wrong. His legs began to give way.
"Hold him up," ordered a voice, that somehow seemed to come both from near his head and half the room away. The grip on his arms changed, an arm now encircling his chest, holding him immobile. He knew where this went now. He had lived through it before, and witnessed others going through it as well. And unless he did something quickly, he was in serious trouble. It was a struggle to focus, but he managed it after an effort, forcing his eyes to show him the man standing before him. The man who kept insisting that he tell him where Groper's body was. As best he could, Steele forced his body to relax; to hang more limply in the grip of his captor. His head lolled slightly, and he told his newly refocused eyes to drift closed. There was little chance of the ruse working, and he knew it - these people seemed to be professionals, and professionals didn't tend to get fooled by old tricks. The patron saint of bogus detectives seemed to be smiling on him after all, though, for with sudden, shrill enthusiasm, the telephone on the desk nearby burst into life. The shock was so great that Steele nearly reacted; nearly gave away the tiny advantage that his play acting might have given him. The man holding him did react, surprised by the sound and turning slightly towards it; taking his attention just a fraction away from the slumped and apparently helpless figure in his grip. In that brief moment, Steele moved. With all the force that he could muster, he slammed his elbow into the man's stomach, stamped on one foot, and tore free. Fortunately the door of Laura's office was still open, or he would never have made it; but with the door standing open there were no obstacles. He ran through, into the outer office, struggling briefly with the outer door. A gunshot rang out from behind him, and the glass doors shattered into a madcap clatter of weird rain. He ran again, down the corridor, into the stairwell, down the stairs, footsteps echoing behind him. Desperation was on his side, though - desperation and speed, for his slighter, faster build gave him the edge now. Once or twice he almost lost his footing, and nearly took an even faster route down the stairs; but he stayed upright, hurtling at last past the bemused security guard in the front entrance, and out into the street. There was the Speedster, waiting faithfully, and he all but fell into her, gunning the engine and roaring away as his pursuers burst out of the building behind him. He would have liked to have taken the time to disable their car before leaving, but his few seconds head start had not been nearly long enough for that. As it was he could merely drive as best he could, and trust to his knowledge of the streets to lose all pursuit. Eventually, sure that he was not being followed, he drew into a small alleyway, killed the engine, and let himself relax.
"Take stock, Steele..." He whispered the words to himself, almost silently, staring up at the roofs of the buildings around him, and the dirty smudge of sky above. His head hurt, his arms hurt, his whole torso hurt... he was sure that he must look a mess. There was still so much to do, though. So much still to work out. First things first, he told himself, and starting up the car again, he drove towards a decidedly rougher part of town, towards the docks, once again hiding the car down a small alley. He was safe here, he was sure of it. Nobody had followed him, and nobody would ever think to look for Remington Steele in this place. Climbing stiffly out of the car, he pushed open a battered green door that led off the alley, and into the murky confines of an old Irish pub.
"Harry!" The old man behind the bar hailed him before the door had closed, and Steele offered him a tired smile. Pale old blue eyes turned serious in an instant, and the barman swiftly poured a shot of whisky. He pushed it across the bar, and Steele took it with a smile, all but collapsing onto a bar stool.
"Thanks." He drank it too quickly, winced, then once again allowed his body to relax. It was a more fulfilling sort of relaxation this time; one that didn't have any fear lurking inside it. In here he was safe. In here he was always safe. The barman made as though to fill the glass again, but Steele shook his head.
"No. No thanks. One was enough." He smiled weakly. "Gimme the phone, yeah?"
"Here." The barman pushed one along the counter towards him, and Steele nodded his thanks, calling his apartment quickly. Mildred answered on the second ring, her warm and jovial voice like music to his tired ears.
"Hello? Remington Steele's apartment. He's not in right now, but--"
"Mildred. Mildred, I--"
"Mr Steele!" She sounded delighted. "I was worried about you. I know, I know, you've not been gone long, but I had no idea what you might be getting yourself into, and--"
"Mildred... Mildred..." Still she seemed inclined to babble on, and he raised his voice. "Mildred!" She fell silent for a second.
"Thankyou." He was tired and in pain, and his guards were down. The voice he had used to speak to the barman had been his own - his real one - rough and hard, half-Dublin, half-London. It was an effort to switch back to something more refined now for Mildred's benefit, and he wasn't entirely sure that he had managed it. "Listen, they came to the office. If they found that, they can find my apartment." She began to inquire into his health, and he shook his head, exasperatedly and uselessly, rather touched by her concern. "No, I'm fine." The barman arched an eyebrow, and Steele shot him a glare. "Bit ruffled, that's all. Just get out of there, alright? Go to that motel that Laura was staking out a week or so back. Get a room, and stay there. I'll join you in a while."
"Okay boss." She still sounded concerned. "You sure you're okay? You don't sound quite yourself."
"I'm fine. Just get moving as soon as you can, and I'll see you in a little while. Bye Mildred."
"See you, chief." She hung up, and so did he. The barman folded his arms, eyeing his bedraggled customer with a hint of amusement.
"So what was it this time, Harry? Greedy fence? Jealous husband?"
"I don't know. They meant business, though." He smiled rather ruefully. "I'm gonna clean up. Any chance of cuppa?"
"Sure. I'll put the kettle on. You really do look banged up, though, son. You sure you're alright? I can get the first aid kit out if you want. Wouldn't be the first time I've patched you up."
"You don't need to tell me." Steele smiled a little more broadly. "Really Dave, I'm fine. Just a few bruises. Think I sprained my shoulder pulling free, and I've probably ruined another good suit, but it's nothing serious."
"Fair enough. You're the best judge." Dave pulled a face. "But if you want to go out there without looking like a bum, you'll forget about that shirt. I've got one you can have. Probably not as expensive as what you've got there, but it's a lot more respectable looking right now."
"Cheers, mate." Steele slid off the barstool and headed for the bathroom. "See you in a few minutes."
"Don't be too long, Harry. Cold tea is no kind of medicine." Dave went off to boil his kettle, and Steele let the bathroom door bang shut, sealing himself in the white tiled room that lay beyond it. He wandered over to the mirror for an appraisal, and winced. There wasn't much in the way of visible injury, but his jacket was torn, and his shirt was crumpled and dirtied. He tugged off his tie and put it into his trouser pocket, then pulled off his jacket and shirt, and tried as best he could to clean up with dampened paper towels. His shirt he stuffed into the bin, then slipped the jacket back on again, and did his best to tidy his hair.
"Oh Steele, Steele, Steele. If only Laura could see you now." He sighed. Laura would fuss over him, and clean him up, and offer to bandage his ribs. She would kiss his bruised lips, and then berate him for ever having got into trouble. He missed her. At times like this, it was definitely a good idea to have a beautiful lady associate to roll her eyes and tell him off for getting beaten up. Dave would smile and joke, and bang him on the back, and be the best kind of friend in adversity... but he was no Laura Holt. His kisses were unlikely to have quite the same effect on bruised lips, either. Wincing slightly when the thought made him smile, he gave his hair one last check in the mirror, and went back out to the bar. Dave was just coming out of the kitchen, with a tray in his hands.
"Here you go, Harry." He slid the tray across the bar, and Steele had to smile again. A mug of tea, almost preposterously large, a pair of aspirin, and a packet of chocolate biscuits, the latter clearly imported from Ireland. He opened the packet, tipping several of the biscuits out onto the tray. "Haven't seen these in a while."
"My brother sends them over. Thought you could use something to go with the tea." Dave folded his arms, looking serious now. "So what is it, hey? What are you mixed up in this time? I swear, you almost seem to get yourself in more trouble now you're legit than you ever did when you were running scams."
"Tell me about it." He drank some tea, wincing when the hot liquid touched his lips. "Somebody killed a copper. Looked like pros. I don't know what he was investigating, but whatever it was, it seems to have been messed up good and proper by somebody. Something's gone wrong, that's for sure."
"And you've found yourself stuck in the middle." Dave rolled his eyes. "That's quite a talent you've got."
"I know." He threw back the aspirin, and washed them down with more tea. "That's good. Nothing like a mug of your finest to chase the worries away, right?"
"Brewed just the way my grandmother taught me." Dave grinned. "I think she gave me the recipe one visitors' day, when she was doing five years for fraud."
Steele laughed, raising the mug in a salute. "Dear old grandma. Always wished I'd met her."
"At times I could swear you were a reincarnation." Dave smiled fondly. "What's next? Going to ground? There's always a spare room for you here, if you need it."
"I know. And thanks, but no thanks. I've got a case to solve." Steele set the mug down, staring at the dregs of the tea. "Don't have a clue how, but I've still got to solve it. Got a bloody brass band tuning up inside my head at the moment, too. It's not exactly helping."
"Give the aspirin a few minutes." Dave gestured at the mug. "Refill?"
"No, better not. I should get moving." He rose to his feet, then glanced down at himself, rather self-consciously. "Ah. You mentioned a shirt?"
"You do look a little underdressed just at the moment. Hang on." Dave disappeared again, then returned carrying a shirt on a hanger. "Here. No fancy designer names, but it's better than walking around without one. You look like you're auditioning for a pop group at the moment."
"Ouch." He took off the jacket, slid into the shirt, and did his best to tidy himself up again. With the tie restored and the jacket once again in place, he felt far more ready to face the world. Dave nodded.
"That'll do it. Where are you off to? If it's trouble you're heading for, I could always tag along."
"Thanks." Steele smiled warmly, appreciating the offer. "But you've got your own problems to worry about. I thought I'd check out the copper's gaff, see if I can pick up some clues. I'll drop by in a day or two. Tell you how it all turned out."
"You'd better." Dave reached beneath the bar, lifting up a chunky looking handgun that had been hidden beneath the cash register. "You want to take it? Might come in handy."
"You know me better than that." Steele gestured to his attire. "Thanks for the shirt, though. Far more use to me than a gun."
"Yeah. Well don't go getting any holes in it. Especially the bloodied kind."
"Sure." Steele offered him a grin and a wave in goodbye. "See you." Dave merely nodded, and bent to slide the gun back into its secret den. Outside, Steele was still smiling as he climbed into the Austin, and gunned the engine once again. His talk with his old friend had served to recharge his batteries, as well as sorting one or two things out in his mind. Going to Roy Groper's house did seem the best course of action now, and checking that the notes he had made from Groper's file were still in his jack pocket, he slid the car out of the alley, and went on his way.
Groper's house was as ordinary as Steele had been expecting; a simple, plain building, with a small, unfenced yard, in which a vague stab had been made at growing some rosebushes. The security was a little tighter than was normal for a domestic house, but given that its owner had been a policeman, that wasn't a great surprise. Steele broke in without too much difficulty, and gave the place a cursory look around. Small kitchen, apparently with nothing exciting hidden in the freezer or the microwave; medium-sized front room, with an old television that didn't look like it got watched much, and a scattering of books on a slightly sagging shelf. Steele looked through them all, mindful of a hundred and one detective movies - but none had anything slipped between the pages, and none had been hollowed out to make secret compartments. The first letters of the titles didn't seem to spell anything out, either, unless it was in some fiendish code. Even he had to admit that his imagination might be working overtime with that one.
It was much the same story upstairs - a small bathroom, annoyingly devoid of hidden clues; and a bedroom that didn't appear to have so much as one secret panel in the walls, or trapdoor beneath the bed. The carpet hadn't been lifted in ages, there was nothing hidden beneath the mattress, and there was nothing slipped inside the hems of the curtains. Steele sat down on a chair beside the bed, and sighed. There was nothing for it - he was going to have to attempt a Laura-style search, and be thorough. It was a depressing prospect, but if his favourite searching places proved fruitless, what else could he do? So he carefully checked all of the drawers - in, behind and underneath - and gave all the socks an experimental shake. Having already checked the cistern and the laundry basket, and made sure that nothing had been slipped behind the medicine cabinet or the mirror, he didn't bother checking the bathroom again, and instead went back downstairs. He was nearly down when he realised that the door was open a crack, moving slightly in the breeze from outside. Hadn't he shut it? It wasn't like him to leave a door open, and announce his entry to the world. Very slowly, very quietly, he took one more step down the stairs, to try to get a look into the front room. The sound of a gun hammer cocking made him freeze in his tracks.
"So what do we have here?" A local accent, tempered just slightly with a hint of Mexican. That at least didn't match in his mind with the three men who had waylaid him earlier. He turned his head, and saw a man coming into view from beside the staircase. He was in his late forties, rumpled and slightly overweight, wearing a cheap suit and carrying an old gun. Definitely not one of the men from earlier, then. Steele wasn't sure if that was entirely a good thing, but he was glad anyway.
"My name is Case. Johnny Case." He smiled ingenuously. "Professional plant-waterer, you know? I come in when people are away, make sure their houseplants are okay. I feed pets too, if you're ever interested in--"
"Shut up." The man reached over, grabbing Steele's wrist and hauling him down the last few steps. "You're Remington Steele. You think we don't know that?"
"We?" Extricating his wrist from the other man's grip, Steele felt his heart sink. As if on cue, two more men emerged from the front room. "Ah. I see."
"We were going to go looking for you at your office later," the man with the gun informed him. "But this is as good a place as any to ask a few questions. What did you do with the body?"
"Suddenly everybody wants the body." Steele eyed the gun, not at all happy with his proximity to it. "Why do you want it?"
"I'm asking the questions." It was always rather insulting to be confronted with clichés, but it wasn't generally such a good idea to mention that. Steele nodded slowly.
"Okay... but can I at least know why there are so many people after this blasted corpse? You're not working with the three rather better dressed gentlemen who chatted with me earlier, are you."
"They're looking for the body too?" The man with the gun shot a look back at his two confederates, and Steele, taking advantage of his distraction, edged a little way towards the door. The man responded by punching him hard in the stomach.
"You stay there," he muttered. Half-slumped against the wall, Steele didn't have a great deal of choice.
"Do you think he's alone?" asked one of the other men. Steele considered claiming that he had half a dozen accomplices upstairs, but in the event didn't bother. The man with the gun looked him up and down.
"He's alone. Why would he bring other people here? Besides, we'd have heard them the way that we heard him." He caught Steele by the collar and pushed him towards the front room. "Somebody shut that front door. I don't want anybody to know that we're here."
"What do we do next?" asked one of his companions. He was younger, thinner, somewhat harassed-looking. None of these men were giving the impression of being serious criminals, and Steele began to feel himself on surer ground. As he was pushed into the front room, he made a show of straightening his jacket, and sitting down on the nearest chair. He crossed his legs then, and regarded the men with coolly thoughtful eyes.
"You're out of your depth, aren't you." It was pure guesswork on his part, but if there was one thing that Laura had always complimented him on as a detective, it was his instincts. Returning from shutting the front door, the third member of the gang blinked uncertainly.
"No," he answered, not sounding in the least convincing. Steele smiled slightly.
"Come on. There are three men with a very good tailor and a much more up to date arsenal than yours who are also looking for the body. You're not in the same league as them, and we all know it. So what happened? Did you get caught up in something with them, and they stiffed you? Left you high and dry with a dead cop on your hands?"
"Shut up." The man with the gun made as though to strike Steele, but apparently thought the better of it. "What do you know, anyway."
"More than you might think." Or, more truthfully, absolutely nothing at all. "Ada said that only a friend could have got hold of the spare set of keys for her car; so one of you is a friend of hers. And even though I've not known her for very long, she doesn't strike me as the kind of person to go around making friends with murderers. And if you don't mind me saying it, you don't exactly look like you're the killing type."
"We're not." The second man sat down rather heavily in a nearby chair, his shoulders suddenly slumped. "I suppose you'd call us thieves. Not hugely successful ones if we're honest."
"Shut up," the third man told him, but his companion shook his head.
"What's the point? We might as well talk. Can't get us any deeper in trouble, can it. We were shifting some stolen goods. Nothing special, but enough to make us a little money. Ada is always out during the day, so we took her car. It was the right size. But when we were at the warehouse where the stuff was hidden, we heard..." He exchanged a look with his fellows. "I'm not sure what we heard. They were talking about drugs, I think, and then they accused one of the people with them of being an undercover policeman. They shot him. That was when we ran, but they chased us. We got away, but it took a long time to lose them, and we were late getting the car back." He looked rather sorry. "Poor Ada. She must have wondered what had happened to it. Anyway, we all went home and tried to pretend that everything was alright. They must have done something to trace the car, though. I saw them putting the body in the trunk, when I was on my way round to see Ada." He looked sheepish. "I was going to apologise for taking the car. When I saw what was happening, I thought maybe if I waited until they were gone, I could take the car and think about what to do next, but then Ada took it, and there wasn't another opportunity after that. And then you took it."
"Yes, I did." Steele shook his head slowly. "And you came here to try to find out more about the dead man, I suppose. You're just digging yourselves in deeper, you know. If you'd come clean to begin with..."
"Told the whole story? Hardly." The larger of the three men, the one with the gun, waved the weapon with sudden emphasis. "Another conviction, and I go down for life. You think I'm going to risk that? I'd have to tell the police what I was doing there. We all would. They might be grateful to us, but I don't plan on taking the risk over how grateful."
"Besides," added the other member of the group - the nervous-looking one - "I want to know why they put the body in the trunk. A warning, maybe. A threat, sure. But what if it's something more? Like a frame-up?"
"Could be." Steele nodded slowly. "The murder weapon is probably in the car somewhere."
"Exactly." The man with the gun was looking steadily more determined. "So we have to know where the body is. Where the car is."
"They're safe. Nobody is going to find either of them in a hurry." The garage had been bought under one of his many aliases, so even if the three men he had met earlier tried to investigate Remington Steele more thoroughly, they shouldn't find any mention of the place. "There are other things worrying me just at the moment."
"That's very nice for you." The gun was tapped against the side of his head. "We have more pressing concerns. I want to search that car."
"I already searched it. Unless they had time to start taking things apart to hide it, the only place a weapon can be is in the trunk. It's safe for the time being. What interests me, is if they left the body in the car to keep you lot quiet, why are they looking for it themselves now?"
"Doesn't make much sense," commented one of the gang. Steele made a mental note to try to put some names to faces. It was rather annoying not knowing who any of these people were. He nodded slowly.
"True. But they tried to beat its location out of me earlier. If they're so sure that the trail leads to you, what are they so worried about?"
"Maybe things are getting hot for them?" asked one of the men. Steele nicknamed him Stan. He was fairly tall and thin, so it could almost work. That made the fatter one with the gun a reasonable Ollie.
"Could be," he conceded. "If they thought he had some evidence against them, and they checked this place out and didn't find anything, they might have wanted to check him over again. Clumsy, though, not to have done all that before dumping the body."
"Maybe they didn't think about it before," suggested the last of the group. He didn't have glasses, which ruled out Harold as a nickname. Buster quite suited him, though. "Not everybody's a famous investigator with some sort of super brain."
"Ah... no. No, that's true." Steele flashed him what he hoped was a modest and super-brained smile. "And you could be right. Either way, they certainly seem eager to get it back."
"So are we," interjected Ollie, beginning to look forceful again. Steele offered him a calming smile.
"Gentlemen, please. Your story adds up. I'm quite prepared to accept that the three thugs who waylaid me earlier are the real villains of the piece, so why the continued hostilities? We've just worked out the case together. We're colleagues. So how about a little trust?"
"What do you mean?" asked Stan. Steele shrugged, keeping up the easy smile, the easy tone of voice, the relaxed body language that spoke of a man in his element. A detective at the height of his powers, doing as he always did.
"If you go messing about with that body, you might wind up implicating yourselves. Forensic samples, that sort of thing. Things the police can check against their records. Let me deal with this. Remington Steele doesn't have criminal convictions hanging over his head, and half the local police force is eating out of my hand. I'll see to it that you don't take the fall. I only want the people who killed Roy Groper and roughed me up. I'm not going to go grassing up a group of small-time thieves."
"So you say," sneered Ollie. Steele eyed him with just the right air of hurt pride.
"Remington Steele's word is his bond. You have nothing to fear from me, gentlemen. Besides, I've always had a... sort of affinity, shall we say, for men such as yourselves. Eking out a living on the wrong side of the law. Ducking and diving, taking a little here, a little there. As far as I'm concerned, you can go back to doing what you've always done. Just as long as you don't use Ada's car anymore."
"Sounds fair to me," offered Buster. Ollie shook his head.
"I don't like it. We've got no reason to trust this man. Look at him. Expensive clothes, fancy car. Why should he let us get away with anything?"
"Because I was hired to investigate a dead body. I've done that. I'm not interested in you." Steele rose to his feet, slowly and smoothly, holding his hands away from his body. "Those three men are going to come after you eventually, you know. Why not let the Remington Steele Detective Agency get rid of them? Them, and the body. A clean sweep."
"Makes sense," said Stan. Ollie rolled his eyes.
"So it's two against one. Yes, alright. So we trust him. But we know you, Mr Steele. We can soon find out all about the people who work for you, and where you all live. If you betray us..."
"Yes yes yes. Kneecaps and that sort of thing. I know the drill, gentlemen. So do we have a deal?"
"Yes," said Buster. Ollie muttered something under his breath.
"Tell us where the body is," suggested Stan. Steele hesitated. Being the only person who knew where poor old Roy Groper was hidden was his only trump card, and it was knowledge that he didn't want to share. He shook his head.
"What you don't know, you can't tell," he said in the end. He was expecting an argument, but Ollie actually nodded.
"Fair enough," he said, apparently deciding that this made sense. Steele almost grinned. It was always good to find that he had said the right thing. That was far from being a regular occurrence when wearing the mantle of Remington Steele. He nodded.
"I'm glad that we see things the same way."
"Sure." Ollie's eyes narrowed. "But we will be in touch, Steele. Sooner or later."
"Of course you will. Er... how will you be in touch, exactly?"
"You'll find out." Ollie looked him straight in the eyes for a second, his expression hard and meaningful. "And we'll be expecting answers, Mister Steele. Results. Understand?"
"Completely, dear fellow. Completely." He offered a hesitant smile, wondering if there was any chance of the hand of friendship being extended any further. "And if I want to contact you?"
"You won't need to. We're going to leave here in a minute, and you're not going to try to follow us. Understood?"
"I have no desire to follow you." He meant it. He had far more pressing matters on his mind, and the last thing that he needed was something else to worry about. Ollie just smiled, and nodded.
"Glad to hear it," he said - and with a sudden, fast movement that Steele had no chance to counter, he lashed out with the gun. It connected with a solid, painful thump, and the world blurred. Damn, thought Steele, as the floor rushed up to meet him. Shortly afterwards, everything was black.
It was several hours later when he arrived at the motel. Mildred was on the telephone, and it was Ada who let him in. Tired, battered and bedraggled, he wandered over the threshold looking distinctly less than happy. Mildred hung up straight away.
"Boss! What on Earth...?!"
"You name it, Mildred." He wandered over to the bed, and flopped down onto it. "This has not been one of my better days."
"I didn't hear the car." She took in his clearly exhausted state, and practically boggled. "You didn't walk here?"
"Not only here, Mildred, but backwards and forwards over what seemed like half the city." He sighed, and forced himself to sit up. "There seemed to be altogether too much interest in me. The car is hardly inconspicuous. I thought it best to leave it behind, and... and zigzag."
"Zigzag. Profusely. I have zigged, and I have zagged. Here, there and everywhere, until my shoes were almost ready to abandon me in protest. I am, in short, not entirely overjoyed."
"I'll put the kettle on." She was halfway to it when she stopped and looked back. "Or maybe the mini-bar would be a better idea?"
"I appreciate the sentiment, Mildred." He flashed her a warm smile. "Best not though, hey." She nodded, and switched the kettle on, before turning back towards him.
"So what else happened, chief? You look like you tried to fight King Kong. And that's not the same shirt you were wearing this morning, is it?"
"Is it that obvious?" He glanced down at himself automatically, then clambered off the bed, and headed for the bathroom in search of a mirror. A second later he reappeared, looking rueful. "I've looked better, haven't I."
"Large amounts of it, and in both cases travelling in threes." He sat down on the edge of the bed, and sighed. "On the upside, I've sort of cracked the case. Or part of it. Sort of. Except the figuring out was mostly done by a gang of thieves I ran into, but we don't have to tell Laura that bit, do we?"
"I..." She had to smile. "Time out, boss, okay? Why don't you try explaining things in words that actually make some sense." The kettle clicked off, and she gestured towards it. "Tea or coffee?"
"Yeah. Thanks." He frowned suddenly. "My apologies, Ada. I usually make more of an effort to look my best in front of clients."
"I quite understand, Mr Steele." She smiled sympathetically. "I just hope that I haven't caused you too much trouble."
"Not at all. Not at all. What's a day in the life of an international supersleuth if it doesn't have a little peril in it, hey? Where's, er... the little fellow?"
"Ramon is next door. Mildred got us three adjoining rooms. He's watching television."
"Good. I'm sorry to be inconvenient, but it's probably best if he doesn't go outside."
"I understand." She looked from one to the other of the detectives, then stood up. "I'll leave you two alone to talk. Why don't I order us a pizza or something? You must be hungry, Mr Steele."
"I am, yes. Pizza, hmm?" He frowned, but the smile was as polite and as genuine as ever. "Very well. Thankyou." Ada nodded and left for one of the adjoining rooms, and Mildred stifled a smile.
"I've eaten far worse. Has that kettle boiled yet?"
"Yes." She waggled two tins at him - one marked 'coffee', and the other marked 'tea'. "I was hoping for a decision." He had gone over to the window, obviously on the look out for possible threats, and no longer seemed to be paying attention. "Never mind. So what happened today?"
"I went to the office, and ran into three men. Serious types. Tailored suits, bad attitudes. Career criminals. They wanted the body."
"I see." She made an executive decision, and brewed him a cup of tea. "Doesn't look like they were very happy about your answer."
"Not really, no. Then I went to Roy Groper's house, and I ran into another three men. Definitely not in the same league. No tailored suits for starters."
"They were amateurs, nothing more. They had some stolen goods to pick up earlier today, and thought it would be okay to borrow Ada's car to carry everything in. Seems they saw Groper's murder and only just got away in time."
"And the body was dumped in what the killers' thought was their car." Mildred nodded. "Makes a certain sort of weird sense."
"And they're convinced that something in the car will tie the murder to them." He rubbed his head, where Ollie had hit him with the gun. "I did think that we'd come to some sort of understanding. Anyway, they're not the type to be dissuaded, and they have access to a far better bush telegraph than we do." He seemed to notice the tea for the first time, and drank some. "I haven't come up with a sensible reason why the killers want the body back, though. They seemed happy enough to get rid of it to start with."
She smiled at that. "For a guy who loves his own legend, you don't seem to have a very good grasp of its effect on other people. Your name puts real fear into a lot of people, boss. Or Remington Steele's name does, anyway."
"You wound me, Mildred."
"I doubt it." Her smile grew more fond. "It's the truth though, chief. They heard that Remington Steele had the car, and the body, and they wanted to get it back, fast. It's one thing to dump a body where only some small-time thieves can find it, or maybe the police - but it's another to have the Remington Steele Detective Agency looking it over. They must think that you'd pin the murder on them."
He raised an eyebrow. "I wish I knew how."
"Still determined not to give Miss Holt a call?"
"Still standing firm, Mildred, yes. Or nearly firm. Slightly tenderised, possibly."
"You should see a doctor."
"Oh, it's nothing." He sat back down on the bed, badly disguising the wince that passed involuntarily across his face.
"Aches and pains. A few bruises. Don't fuss."
"I'm not fussing, I'm caring." She shook her head. "Sorry. Seems to be some sort of mother hen instinct coming out. I'll try to fight it."
"It's appreciated, in a roundabout sort of way." He stifled a yawn, and she shook her head in exasperation.
"Here, let me take that mug. Now you go into the bathroom and have a shower. By the time you've finished, the pizza will probably be here."
"Okay boss." He stood up, but paused halfway to the bathroom. "Some chief investigator I am. I didn't think to ask about what you've been doing. Did you find anything out?"
"One or two things, yes. We'll talk about them over the pizza."
He nodded "Fine. In a few minutes, then. And I'll be sure to wash behind my ears."
"Glad to hear it." He vanished into the bathroom, and after a few minutes she heard the sound of the water beginning to run. Ada came back into the room a few minutes later. Through the adjoining door, Mildred could see young Ramon sitting cross-legged on the bed, watching cartoons. She smiled at the sight, and Ada blushed.
"I feel like a bad mother. He's watched TV all day, and he should probably be in bed by now."
"It's a holiday for him. Don't worry about it." Mildred waved her to a chair. "Pizza on the way?"
"They said they'd be here in a few minutes. I rang the manager here first, and asked for a takeaway place close by." She looked around. "Where is Mr Steele?"
"Cleaning up. He likes to look his best."
"Somebody should tell him that the rumpled look suits him." Ada laughed softly, shooting a guilty look through the door, as though to be sure that her son couldn't hear her. "But I suppose he doesn't date clients."
"I shouldn't think he has any personal rules against it." Mildred smiled fondly to herself. "He's sort of already spoken for, though."
"Really? I had no idea. I thought that the two of you were--"
"Not me!" Mildred had to laugh. "I'm not sure exactly what my relationship is with him these days, but it certainly isn't that. No, there's another woman who works with us. I think they're together. Or sometimes they are, anyway. It can be a bit difficult to keep track."
"They say that all the best ones are already taken." Ada shrugged. "Oh well. Still, he did look a bit bruised. If he needs any nursing, I'm happy to oblige."
Mildred laughed again. "Fair enough. I'll point him at you if he asks for medical assistance. Here. Help me straighten things out, could you? If we put the bedside table more in the middle of the room, we could use it as a table. How many chairs have we got?"
"Two in here. I'll bring the two in from my room." She hurried off, returning with two chairs, then helped Mildred to manoeuvre the ungainly beside table away from the wall. "Here, let's have one of the pillowcases as a tablecloth."
"Very good. Picnicking 101?"
"I've done a lot of making do. And it's nice to try to make things look good sometimes. Even if it's just me and Ramon in a bedsit." She looked towards the bathroom door. "I suppose Mr Steele is more used to silver cutlery, and caviar hor d'oeuvres."
"Don't be so sure." Hiding a smile, Mildred went over to the window. "Now where's that pizza guy? I'm pretty hungry myself."
"It shouldn't be long. I'll get Ramon to wash up a bit."
"Good luck with that." Left alone, Mildred paced up and down by the window, doing her best to look out for anybody who might be watching the place. She didn't see anything suspicious, and when the pizza came, she went out to meet the delivery boy, hoping for a better look around. She still couldn't see anything.
"Looking out for trouble?" asked Ada, meeting her at the door. Mildred nodded, though she didn't elaborate. Ramon wasn't listening, but there didn't seem to be any point in risking alarming the boy. Instead they abandoned the subject, and took the pizza inside. There was a six-pack of Coke bottles as well, and Ada set about opening four of them with a makeshift bottle opener. Mildred knocked on the bathroom door.
"Come in, Mildred." The sound of running water had stopped, and when she opened the door she found Steele already half-dressed. His shirt hung undone, displaying a fine collection of bruises, but she decided not to mention them. There was no sense in fussing over somebody who was determined not to be mothered.
"Food's here, boss," she told him. He flashed her a huge grin.
"Mildred, you are, as ever, a beacon of all that is fine and good." He buttoned his shirt, attempting to smooth out some of the wrinkles in it. "Blast. I look a mess."
"Ada says that the rumpled look suits you, if that's any help."
"Really?" He frowned at his reflection in the mirror. "Well, I'll take her word for it. Where does she stand on the battered look?"
"I didn't ask. But since we're on the subject, that's quite a bruise you've got on the side of your head."
"Yes, I know. He touched it gingerly. "Had an argument with a gun. It looks worse than it is, though."
"I'll take your word for it. But rather you than me." She watched him towelling his wet hair, and had to smile. He had an endearing ability to look ten years younger than he was, which didn't do much for her determination to fight the mother hen instinct. He caught sight of the smile, and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Nothing. You ready?"
"I'm not sure." He tossed the towel to one side, and made an attempt at raking his hair into place with his fingers. "What do you say? Do I pass muster?"
"It's a motel room, not the Ritz. I don't think there's a dress code." She looked him up and down anyway, and nodded. "You look fine. Now come on. We've got Coke as well as pizza."
"Oh be still my beating heart." He gestured for her to go before him, as he busied himself with his tie; and somehow, by the time they were through the door, he had managed to perform a complete transformation. The clothing and the hair might have been rumpled, but with his impeccable manners on display, he might just as well have been dressed in a brand new three piece suit. Somehow he even managed to eat the pizza without making a mess.
"You had something to tell me, Mildred," he said at last, whilst sipping Coke from the bottle with all the finesse that he might have employed to drink the finest champagne from a crystal goblet. Mildred could see that Ada was utterly charmed, and had to fight away a smile.
"Sure, boss." She wiped her fingers on a paper napkin. "Checking up on Ada's neighbours didn't seem to be getting me anywhere, so I decided to change tactics. Since the police wouldn't tell me anything about Roy Groper, I tried calling a friend - somebody who still has access to a computer. Old friend from the IRS actually. He got me the names and addresses of some of Roy's neighbours, and I spoke to a few of them."
"Good thinking, Mildred. And?"
"Well, I called a lovely couple who live just down the road from our guy. They weren't too happy about talking at first, until I said I was his sister. They told me after that that he's been going backwards and forwards a lot lately at odd times. They know him pretty well as it turns out. He helps them with their garden sometimes, so they know all about him being a cop. I sort of said that I was one too, and they really got chatty then. The husband used to be on the force, way back in the sixties or something. He'd worked out that Groper was working undercover."
"Well if the neighbours know his life story, no wonder the bad guys were able to figure it out." Steele shook his head. "Sorry. Carry on."
"Turns out this old guy likes to play at good neighbours, and he didn't like the look of some of the people who were coming and going at Groper's place. Well-dressed types, and he seemed pretty sure they were armed. Makes you wonder just how closely he watches his neighbours, but I guess if it helps us we shouldn't be too judgmental. Anyway, he took their license plate number."
"Nosy neighbours be praised." Steele flashed his associate an appreciative grin. "You're a marvel, Mildred. Every firm should have one of you."
"Thanks, chief, but that's not the end of it. I didn't want to go to the police with something like that, so I got back to my old friend, and he got onto an old friend, and... well, there was quite a chain in the end. There's a lot of bored secretaries in the States, and it seems like half of them used to work for the government. Anyway, the end result was this." She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket, and waved it in the air like a trophy. "The car is registered to a Marcus Gilles. He doesn't have any convictions, but by the look of things that's not through lack of trying on the police's part. I don't have much of a description, but I do have his address."
"Mildred, you're an absolute star." He went over to collect the piece of paper, which was a virulent shade of pink, and bore the motel's name in white at the top. "I think that's our next move decided, then." He frowned, clearly thoughtful. "Probably."
"Our next move?" queried Mildred. Steele winced.
"Ah. Well when I say--"
"Oh no you don't. We're supposed to be a team on this one. Solving the case together, you said." She folded her arms and looked determined, and Steele sighed.
"Fine. But just the two of us. I'm not turning this into a family outing."
"That's quite alright, Mr Steele. I have no desire to go anywhere near this man Gilles." Ada glanced over at Ramon, now engaged in offering his pizza to a gargantuan house spider. "I have other things to worry about."
"Of course." He nodded slowly. "You have to understand, though, that neither of you can leave this place. There's no reason to suppose that you won't be safe here, but I won't have you taking any chances. You stay inside. Order any food you want by phone, and charge it all to the office. I'm sorry to be insistent, but I can't be sure how much our friends out there know."
"That's fine, Mr Steele. Really. But please, you must promise me that you'll be careful. If anything were to happen, I--"
"Nothing is going to happen, sweetheart. Don't you go worrying about us." With a bright smile due partly to a desire to put Ada's worries to rest, and partly to her own real enthusiasm, Mildred turned to Steele. "Come on, boss. We've got work to do."
"Yes..." He didn't look wildly delighted by the situation, and gestured around at the remains of the pizza. "In a little while, hey. Think of your digestion, Mildred."
"I'm too busy thinking about you changing your mind." She finished her Coke, watching him carefully all the while. "You're not going to change your mind, are you."
"No." He looked faintly regretful, but the smile that he sent her way was genuine enough. "We're in this together. But this could get dangerous, Mildred. You're going to have to follow my lead. Do what I say, and don't argue, okay?"
"Sure, chief." She raised her empty bottle in a sort of salute, her face a bright, beaming mass of smiles. He had to smile in return - it would have been impossible not to. All the same, he felt uncomfortable. Mildred was hardly a field agent.
"I'm sure there will be no danger," said Ada, clearly picking up on his concerns, and attempting to lessen them. He nodded, mindful of the fact that she didn't want to feel that she was putting them at risk on her behalf.
"You're right. Everything will be fine, of course." He returned Mildred's Coke bottle salute at last, still smiling in his usual cheerful fashion. She didn't know the darker side of his personality well enough to recognise the look in his eyes, though; the gleam that was most certainly not a smile. Laura might have seen it, and known what it meant; but not Mildred. Whatever he had said in front of the others, Steele was expecting trouble; and no matter how sure he was that Mildred could take care of herself, he couldn't picture her by his side if it came to a fight. Mildred had only ever really seen the side of him that was Remington Steele. He wasn't sure that he ever wanted her to see what else lay behind that masquerade.
Steele had a plan, he assured Mildred; which might or might not be cause for concern. She wasn't sure. He explained it in bits and pieces, much as though he had not yet quite worked it all out himself, as they made their way to the garage where they had left Ada's car. It left her none the wiser, though the journey in itself was oddly informative. They took a long route, as Steele had done on his way to the motel; criss-crossing through sections of Los Angeles that Mildred had never seen, and taking a succession of mini-cab rides with decidedly disreputable looking drivers. Each seemed to know Steele by a different name, and none asked for payment, though one or two told him that he owed them a drink. When they finally reached the garage, Mildred was beginning to feel somewhat bewildered.
"Are you really sure we should be doing this, boss? You did say that you didn't want to move the body."
"I also said that circumstances might alter that. This way, the police find the body with the killers."
"We know who the killers are now - but we have no proof, some witnesses who won't come forward, and a client who can't go to the police. We're not exactly drowning in options."
"So it confuses the coroner a little."
"Or a little more." He shrugged, waving one hand dismissively. "You found the killers, Mildred. Be proud of that. Now let's not let that little victory go to waste, hmm?"
"You're crazy." She sighed. "And so am I. I must be."
"Good. Then as one crazy to another - give me a hand with this tarpaulin, could you?" He was over at the far side of the workshop, away from Ada's car and its grim cargo. Brushing aside dangling cobwebs, and trying not to trip over scattered tools, she went over to join him. The tarpaulin covered one of the cars she had been suspicious of earlier; in this case quite a newish sedan. She gathered up the abandoned cloth as he set about examining the car's engine.
"You know what you're doing, boss?" she asked him. He nodded.
"More or less. Well... in a manner of speaking. All looks nice and shiny, anyway." He gestured at the engine as though for her approval, and she nodded mechanically.
"Lovely. Won't the battery be dead, though?"
"Probably. We'll jump-start it with Ada's car. That's working okay. Right..." He looked from one car to the other for a few moments, then opened the trunk of the sedan, and headed back over to the station-wagon. "If you dump that tarp over there, you should find some jump leads. I think."
"Okay chief." She did as he said, returning just as he guided the station-wagon alongside the sedan. He popped the hood before climbing out, and gestured towards both cars.
"Great. Hook them up then, could you? Unless you'd rather..."
"No thanks. I'll do the hooking, you can do the hefting." She busied herself with her task, trying to ignore the spectacle of her employer manhandling the stiffened body of Roy Groper out of one trunk and into the other. He chatted to the corpse as he moved it, encouraging it gently, and warning it to watch its head.
"Do you have to, boss?" For some reason she found his attitude oddly grim. He flashed her a brief smile as he went back to look for debris in the other trunk.
"Sorry. Force of habit."
"You have some interesting habits, you know that?"
"It has been mentioned on occasions, yes." He settled the body in the trunk of the sedan, and went back to look in the station-wagon. "Ah ha."
"A gun." He held it up, carefully wrapped in his handkerchief. "I don't think we'd get great odds on this being the murder weapon."
"Sloppy," she suggested, checking over the leads one last time. He dropped the gun into the trunk alongside its victim, then shrugged.
"Oh, I don't know. They thought they were warning off potential witnesses, and getting the body and the murder weapon disposed of for them. They just didn't count on us." He slammed both trunks closed. "Well, what you say, Mildred. Ready?"
"For something, yes. I'm just not quite sure what." She smiled. "Actually, right now I feel like Doctor Frankenstein. If we jump-start the car, will we jump-start Roy, too?"
"Thanks the spirit, Mildred." He clapped her on the back, then slid behind the wheel of the sedan. "Now let her rip, and we'll get this show on the road."
"Okay boss." She did as he asked, and couldn't resist a slight cheer when the sedan's engine growled into life. "Maybe I can get a job as a mechanic if this all goes horribly wrong."
"I wouldn't go counting on getting much chance for a change of career if it does." He nodded at the station-wagon. "Shut that up, then get the workshop door."
"Right with you, chief." She scurried to do his bidding, locking the workshop door behind him again as he drove out into the forecourt. When she slid into the back seat of the sedan, she saw that he was wearing a chauffeur's cap. "Hey, nice touch. Where'd that come from?"
"It came with the car. I won it in a poker game some months back." He grinned at her in the rear-view mirror. "Where to, Miss Krebs?"
"The country club, James." She fished around in her pockets, eventually coming up with the gaudy piece of motel notepaper that bore the address of Marcus Gilles. "Or maybe here."
"Be there in a jiffy." He guided the car out onto the street. "Though if we get pulled over, I've never seen you or this car before."
"Very funny." She hesitated. "You sure about this plan, boss? I mean, it's getting late. Are they really going to let us in?"
"I think so. That's a pretty upmarket area that Gilles lives in. Status Symbol City, as it were. I don't think he's going to want to miss the chance of getting his name in print, and pictures of his house splashed all over a magazine." He shrugged, and she saw his eyes glinting briefly as he watched her in the rear-view mirror. "I've been doing this sort of thing since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, Mildred. It'll be fine."
"If you say so." It was all very well, she thought, having years of experience in risky plans. She just didn't like to ask him how many of those plans had failed.
The Gilles house proved to be a large place, with a huge wrought iron gate guarded by a man in uniform. With the peak of his cap pulled down as low as he felt he could get away with, Steele leaned out of the driver's window, and spoke in a gruff voice, with a creditable American accent.
"Miss Honeysuckle Jones," he said, with a jerk of his thumb at the back of the car. "She's from Gardeners' Quarterly."
"I don't recognise the name." The guard checked a clipboard. "We don't usually let people in after five. You sure you've got the right day?"
"Hey, don't look at me, pal. I just pick 'em up and drop 'em off, you know?" Steele shrugged. "I can take her away again. Not me that's going to get into trouble about it."
"Yeah. Good point." The guard pulled a walkie-talkie from inside his jacket, and spoke into it. "Greg? Got a car here, with a reporter from one of those gardening magazines." He was answered by the tinny voice of one of his colleagues, though neither Steele nor Mildred could quite work out what this Greg was saying. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be especially welcome. "I know," came the reply, "but you know what the boss is like about the gardens. If he loses out on getting all this stuff featured in some big magazine, he'll be furious for months. I don't want to be the one who sends this woman away." He nodded at whatever his friend was saying. "Yeah, sure. She'll meet you at the side door. Fine." He stowed the walkie-talkie away again, then went to the back door of the sedan. Mildred rolled down the window as regally as she could.
"Miss Jones?" he asked her. She nodded.
"Fine. Well, your driver can take you up to the house. You'll be met there by a man who'll take you inside, and we'll try to see if we can get you a talk with the boss. It's getting a bit late to see the gardens now."
"The primary visit is only ever for the interview. I like to get the feel of a place before I return with a photographer." Mildred smiled as warmly as she could manage, and hoped that she sounded convincing. "A man will meet me, you say?"
"That's right ma'am. Your driver will have to stay with the car. Sorry to be so brusque, but security is tight around here. That's the way the boss likes it."
"I quite understand. I visit a lot of grand houses. There are a lot of very rich people in Los Angeles who like their security." She smiled patiently, trying to appear as harmless as possible. "No doubt I'll see you on the way back out again."
"Sure, ma'am." Obviously pleased by her acceptance of the rules, he stepped back and waved the car on. The gates slid open, and Steele guided the car onwards up the drive.
"Show time," he said, as he opened the door for her. She climbed out, smoothing her clothes and trying to stay in character. There was no telling who might be watching.
"You think you can manage, boss?" she asked. He nodded.
"No trouble my end. Just try to play your part as best you can. I'll need a bit of time; and if you can get them to actually give you a tour, so much the better. I might be able to get a look around the house then."
"You don't need to, boss. Leave that for the police."
"We still don't actually have any proof that they killed old Roy, you know. If there's a safe somewhere inside, it might have something useful in it."
"This is no time for one of your sneak thief moments, chief." She sighed. "Don't take any risks. It's dangerous enough just being here."
"Yes Laura." He doffed his cap, back to being her chauffeur. "Good luck."
"You're the one who needs the luck. What if there are security cameras?"
"Act like you're supposed to be somewhere, and you can get away with murder." He raised an eyebrow. "In a manner of speaking. Trust me, it never fails."
"It might well do if you're wandering around with a dead body thrown over one shoulder," she pointed out. "Please be careful."
"I will. Now go on. I'll see you in a little while."
"I hope so." She drew in a deep breath, then turned away and marched off towards the house. He watched her as she was met at the door by a man in a dark suit, then he slid back into the car, and starting up the engine again, made as though to park it more neatly. This time when he turned the engine off, he was sure that the car was out of sight of the man on the gate, as well as a good number of the windows in the side of the house that was facing him. He gave a grateful pat to the large conifer hedge that was acting as his cover; then, hat firmly on his head, he went around to the front of the car, leant against it with his arms folded, and waited. He was more or less in view here, and he was sure that somebody would spare him the occasional glance, checking to see what he was doing. For a full five minutes he stood there, acting the part of a bored chauffeur; then performed a heart-felt sigh and wandered around the side of the car. Invisible now to most likely onlookers, he opened the trunk, slipped the gun into his pocket, then heaved out the corpse. Frozen into a curved position from the rigor, Groper was an awkward weight to carry.
"You should think about going on a diet," Steele told him, nearly losing his footing on the loose gravel of the drive. Groper seemed to grow heavier in reply, and it was a struggle to get the trunk closed again. "Now, where's the best place for you, hmm? I was planning on putting you in one of their cars, but that would be just a tad conspicuous. Any preferences?" He paused, glancing at the unresponsive form. "Oh be like that then. Just don't say I didn't try to make conversation." He skidded again, his centre of gravity badly affected by the dead-weight on his shoulder. "Blast. Don't take this personally, Roy, but you're lousy company. And something of an inconvenience. Where the bloody hell do I put you?" Looking left and right, he came to a sudden decision, and as carefully as he could, tipped the corpse over the hedge that bordered the drive. Clambering after it, he began to crawl along the ground with the dead man in tow.
"The forensics report on you is going to make fascinating reading," he muttered to the body as he heaved it along. Apparently this offended its policeman sensibilities, for it promptly snagged on the hedge. "Blast." He struggled to free it, and eventually had to tug hard. With the sound of tearing cloth it came free, and they were on their way again. A short time later they reached a wall.
"Ssh," Steele told his companion, then rose cautiously to his feet. There were several windows, one of which looked into a sort of sitting room. Expensive furniture stared back at him. Nobody was inside the room, but there was nowhere that suggested itself as a suitable hiding place for a corpse, so he sidled along to the next window instead. This showed a room much like the first, with old-fashioned prints on the walls, and heavy, floral print curtains. Again there was nobody inside, but this time the room boasted a large wooden chest. Steele looked from it back to Roy Groper.
"It'll be a tight fit," he admitted. "But at least you're not stretched out. Just give a minute with the window." He examined it carefully in case of alarms, then, happy that it was safe, gently slid it open. Somewhat harder was the task of manoeuvring his dead comrade through the discouragingly small space. He struggled particularly with the feet, then as gravity began to take over, the hardest problem of all proved to be preventing the body from going through the window too fast. It was a battle that gravity won, and with a heavy thud, Groper made his entrance into the house. Steele scrambled after, esperate to hide them both in case anybody had heard. Nobody came running though, and breathing once again, he hefted the corpse over to the chest.
"Much more of this, and I'm going to need a chiropractor," he muttered, thinking sorrowful thoughts of the lack of a Laura to give him a shoulder massage. He consoled himself with the thought that Ada might offer him one instead, then set to opening the chest. It was locked, but that was hardly an obstacle to him. After only a few seconds, he was lifting the lid. Assorted trinkets lay inside, but there was nothing especially large. Steele raised an appraising eyebrow. "It's not going to be very comfortable in there, mate," he told his companion. "You'll have to wriggle around a bit. Come on." He picked the body up again, and began to wrestle it into the chest. "Oh, come on. co-operate! I know it's not exactly a tailor-made coffin, but it shouldn't be for long." A sound caught his attention, and he froze. "Did you hear something?" When the sound came again, he redoubled his efforts to force the body into the trunk, managing it at last, and closing the lid. He was sure of the sounds now - people, coming closer, and for all he knew coming to this room. A second later he heard a voice right outside the door, and fancied that the doorhandle began to turn.
"Damn." He turned towards the window, remembering the gun at the last second, and whipping open the chest once more to toss it inside. Then he closed the lid, spun around, and sprinted for the window. There wasn't time to climb out, for the handle was turning properly now, so he slid behind one of the heavy curtains, and froze. Barely had he got himself into place when the door opened, and he heard the voices clearly.
"I've certainly got some pictures somewhere, Miss Jones. I had a series of photographs taken when the gardens were in the process of being landscaped. I think you'll find them rather interesting."
"Oh, I'm sure I will." Mildred seemed to be doing a good job of staying in character. Steele smiled to himself. Good old Mildred, always dependable. Now if he could just get back to the sedan before somebody noticed that he was no longer there. He didn't want to risk getting her into trouble as well as himself. He was thinking about trying to climb backwards out of the window whilst the others were busy looking at photographs, when somewhere behind him he heard the soft sound of a footstep. His heart raced, but even his quick and devious mind was no help to him now. A fraction of a second later, a heavy hand came down hard upon his shoulder. He found himself being hauled out from behind the curtain, his captive arm twisted painfully behind him.
"Boss?" There was a man outside the window, and he thrust his head and shoulders through it and into the room. Steele saw a tall, dark man standing several feet away, with Mildred by his side. Mildred, to her credit, masked her reaction well. "This guy was hiding behind the curtain, boss. I saw him when I was walking past." The man holding Steele began to clamber through the window, slowly and awkwardly, trying to keep his hold on his prisoner at the same time. He needn't have bothered, thought the detective ruefully. The man with Mildred had already pulled a large gun from some drawer or other, and was pointing it at the intruder. There was no way that Steele was arguing with that.
"He came with her," declared the man in the window, eventually thumping to the ground with enough force to make several ornaments rattle. Mildred let out a squeak.
"You mean he's a thief? The car company sent me out here with a thief?! I could have been killed! Mugged! Robbed and battered and thrown from the car!" She hurried to stand behind the man with the gun, trembling noticeably. "I feel quite faint."
"Calm yourself, Miss Jones." Her companion - who was, Steele was more or less sure - Marcus Gilles, guided her into a chair. "He's no thief."
"He's not?" Mildred wasn't entirely sure whether she should deliver that line with relief, or with trepidation. She certainly knew which she was actually feeling. "Then...?"
"His name is Remington Steele, and he's a private investigator. What is it that you were after, Mr Steele? I won't insult you by asking how you found me. I suppose I would have been disappointed if you hadn't."
"I don't suppose that I would have been." Steele felt himself being whirled around to face the wall, and frisked by his captor. Unsurprisingly the man came up empty. Steele offered him a regal smile, then turned back to Mildred and Gilles. Straightening his tie, he offered Mildred a short bow. "My apologies, Miss Jones. It was too good an opportunity to miss. I can assure you, though, that I had no intention of robbing you."
"I don't believe you. I've heard all about you private investigators. Sleazy good-for-nothings, all of you." She shrank back into her chair slightly, her manner so completely different to normal that Steele felt like cheering. Perhaps she should be allowed to do more investigative work. At times she seemed like a natural.
"Well, sleazy or not, you've saved me a lot of bother, Mr Steele. I'm grateful to you for coming." Gilles was all smiles. "I want to know where... where certain things are. A certain... rhododendron bush, of which we're both acquainted."
"Ah yes, the rhododendron bush." Steele smiled. "I have no idea where it is, I'm afraid."
"And I'm afraid that I know you to be lying." Gilles waved the gun. "Tell me."
"Oh, you know these rhododendron bushes. Always wandering off." Steele shrugged. "I really can't help you."
"Now that's a shame." Gilles shook his head sadly, as though to illustrate just what a shame it was. "Because I know your reputation, Mr Steele; and I intend to make sure that soon enough, everybody knows mine." He whirled, and with a swift, sharp movement, dragged Mildred to her feet, and pressed his gun against her head. "Tell me where it is, or Miss Jones here will be preceding you to the next life."
"Oh dear." Mildred had gone alarmingly pale. "Oh dear. Suddenly I don't feel at all well."
"You won't have to worry about that for long," Gilles told her. He waggled the gun at Steele for emphasis, and as it moved away from her skull, Mildred made her move. Legs collapsing under her, a brief whimper escaping her throat, she crumpled to the ground. Feeling like applauding, Steele followed her lead by driving his elbow hard into the stomach of the man behind him. The man wobbled, and using both of his hands at once, Steele punched him hard in the jaw, then as he began to fall, hit him again on the back of the head. The man dropped like a brick. Gilles laughed shortly.
"Very good. But I still have the gun."
"Ah." He hadn't forgotten it exactly, but it had escaped his mind for the moment. "I was going with the flow, as it were. Don't suppose you feel like dropping it? Sorting this out on more even terms?"
"I don't really think that you expect me to do that." Gilles stepped past Mildred, sprawled in an ungainly heap on the floor. She didn't move. "I've heard great things about you, Mr Steele - but you haven't proved so hard to beat after all. I was worried when I heard that the body might have passed into your hands. Now I'm not so concerned. If I kill you, there's a good chance that nobody will ever find it. And even if they do, I doubt they'll have any reason to suspect me and my men."
"You might be surprised." Steele was fairly sure that the police would search this place eventually, once Roy Groper failed to report in. The question was whether they would do that before the smell of the decomposing corpse made one of Gilles's staff look in the chest. Gilles just smiled.
"I doubt it. You're not all you're made out to be, Mr Steele."
"Very few people are," observed the detective. Behind Gilles, Mildred was climbing to her feet as slowly and as quietly as she could. She was looking around for a weapon, but nothing came immediately to hand.
"Doesn't matter now." Gilles's confidence was absolute. "The only question that remains is what to do with your body. A trip out into the desert, perhaps? I'm afraid I don't have any construction interests, so I can't go with the old classic of dumping you in the foundations."
"Pity. I always did have a fondness for the classics." Mildred was taking altogether too much time. Steele felt like shouting at her to get a move on. "So do I get a last request?"
"I don't think so. They take time. I don't like to waste time." He took a step forward, and carefully levelled the gun. Behind him, Mildred's eyes alighted at last upon an umbrella. As a weapon it was not up to much, but as a distraction it might just be the thing. Holding it rather like a golf club, she took up position behind Gilles, and with all the power she could muster, swung it into his back. He let out a cry of surprise and stumbled, the gun swinging wide from its aim, and Steele didn't waste the opportunity. What he lacked in size he had always made up for in speed, and he closed the distance between them in an instant. Here was a man with a gun, ready to kill both himself and Mildred, and this was hardly the time for Marquis of Queensbury rules. The fight was fast and brutal. Gilles was strong, and at some point on his rise up the ladder had probably seen more than one brawl; but Steele was cold and determined. His fists were almost relentless, and with the gun finally twisted from his opponent's grip, he knew that he had the upper hand. He knew that the second man could reawaken at any time, though - that at any moment somebody might walk in, or overhear the fight and come running. His only chance was to defeat Gilles as swiftly and completely as possible, and to ensure that he had no opportunity to call for help. Even so it seemed an age before Gilles's legs began to buckle, and Steele was able to back him up against the desk. The other man began to bend over backwards, the desk edge pressing against him.
"You're... more than... you look, Steele." His voice was a mere whisper. Steele's smile was hard and cruel.
"And you're finished." His voice, much to Mildred's surprise, was nothing like the one that she knew. This was harsher, rougher, and clearly Irish. Gilles smiled weakly, and one of his hands groped on the desk for a weapon. Mildred opened her mouth to call out a warning, but it proved unnecessary. Steele had seen the other man's actions, and with one last, powerful blow, he knocked the his opponent out. It was a punch that had clearly taken a lot from the detective, but even so he seemed about to follow it with another, to be sure. Mildred's eyes widened.
"Boss, he's had it."
"Huh?" Steele glanced over at her, blue eyes bright and hot. He looked a picture, his hair awry, his clothing bedraggled. Mildred put her own hand over his, tangled in Gilles's shirtfront.
"Leave him, boss." He let go then, and took a step back, reflexively straightening his torn shirt.
"Yeah. Right. We should... we should get out of here, before the other one wakes up."
"The other one looks pretty out of it too." She couldn't help looking at him a little differently. "You, er... you know how to hit, don't you chief."
"Yeah. More or less." He drew in a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was more or less back to normal. "Come on. We need to make ourselves scarce."
"With a song in our hearts, Mildred." He flashed her a smile. "Never hesitate, never look unsure of yourself. We're going to walk right on out of here, get in the car and leave. Think you can do that?"
"No offence, boss, but you look like hell. I don't think you're walking out past those guards on the door."
"I wasn't planning to. This way." He headed towards the window, and she followed him, climbing out awkwardly. He swung himself out after her, his movements still agile despite his exhaustion; and when he jumped to the ground, he saw her watching him. It was a most off-putting level of scrutiny.
"Come on." It was a short distance back to the car; far shorter on foot than it had seemed on all fours. At any moment Mildred expected somebody to call out to them; for one of the guards to see them, and think that something was amiss. Nobody did. In no time at all, Steele was putting his chauffeur's cap back onto his head, and holding open her door. She climbed into the car, and Steele followed suit. If the guard was surprised that the chauffeur opened his window only a crack on the way out, he didn't show it, especially once the cheery Honeysuckle Jones opened her own window, and bade him a warm farewell. He was rather charmed, and opened the gates to let them pass. Nobody called to stop him; no alarms rang out; no cars came in speeding pursuit - though Mildred expected them to long after the house was far behind. Even when they were back in the motel, she didn't stop expecting somebody to come for them. Shut in his own room next door, the illustrious Mr Steele, that she had worshipped for so long, was no real comfort at all.
It was late in the night when he emerged, though she was still awake. She was sitting by the window with a cup of tea, watching the nightlife go by. Steele wandered over to stand behind her chair, not speaking for several moments. She left it to him to break the silence, though. Somehow it seemed like his responsibility.
"I called the police," he said. "They've had an anonymous tip that Roy Groper is dead, and that his body is hidden in that house. Then they got a call from Remington Steele, just to cover our tracks a little. I don't know what'll come of it, but since Roy was investigating those people anyway, it won't look good for them. Anyway, we got Ada off the hook. I think."
"It might help if you'd turn in those thieves you met," she told him, aware that she sounded rather disapproving. She couldn't seem to help it. He shook his head, and she saw the movement reflected in the window. It was an odd reflection, she thought. Pale and tired, like a ghost standing behind her.
"Their evidence isn't going to count for much. Besides, they're nothing special. If you want to clear the streets of every small time hood in Los Angeles, Mildred, you'll be at it until Judgement Day. And I rather think that you'd have to have me arrested too."
"Yeah." She returned her attention to the tea. After a moment he came around beside her, and pulled over a chair to sit down.
"Are we alright?" He sounded worried, and startlingly young. He looked it too, she realised; with the polish of Steele gone; with the bruises and the messed up clothes. Like a kid, afraid that he was in trouble. "I know I've been a disappointment to you lately. Nothing's been quite the same since you found out the truth about Remington Steele, has it. But I thought..."
"We're okay." She couldn't have said anything else, even if they hadn't been okay. She cared about him too much, and always had. Sometimes she wondered, in her more reflective moments, if the children she had never had might have been something like him, and like Laura. Today, though... today she had seen that no daydream of hers had ever been more wide of the mark. She might feel like a mother at times, but this was nothing like her sons might have turned out. Not unless she had ever planned on dumping them in some Irish street, and leaving them to fend for themselves.
"You're sure?" He sounded so gentle, and so refined, and so different to the flash she had seen during his fight with Gilles. She smiled at him.
"I'm sure. Things are different now. I can handle that, you know. I don't deny that I was maybe a little happier with the idea of Remington Steele before I found out the truth about him. But I don't dislike the truth. It just takes a little getting used to, when the guy I think I know suddenly turns into somebody else right in front of me. And where have you been? I was..." She hesitated, not wanting to admit that she had been scared. He looked rueful.
"Sorry. I called the police, like I said, and that took some time. And I arranged for a friend to take care of Ada's car. She can report it stolen in the morning, and it'll be found burnt out on some wasteground not far from the garage. She said she didn't want to keep it, and she should be able to get some insurance money this way. And if Gilles and his men ever tell the police about the car, she's covered." He shrugged. "And then I called Laura. Needless to say, she's not greatly amused."
"Ah." There didn't seem to be much else to say in response to that. Steele smiled wryly.
"Exactly. Still, she's used to being mad at me. I think she rather enjoys it."
"Sorry boss. After all, it was me who brought this to you."
"Wasn't you in charge of the investigation, though, was it." He leaned back in his chair, staring out of the window. "Needless to say, she thinks that we went about it all wrong. Presumably if she'd been in charge, she'd have got the whole thing neatly wrapped up, with all the evidence that the police need. And a big shiny bow on top, just to finish the deal." He gestured vaguely in the air with one hand. "But I don't think we did such a bad job. Did we?"
"It's been a bit of a mess, chief. Let's be honest."
"Yeah..." He seemed subdued, and she frowned slightly.
"Maybe." He shrugged, not looking at her for a moment. "It just didn't exactly turn out the way that I hoped, that's all. I mean, it was you who worked everything out. A few phone calls, a few favours from old friends. All I did was get myself beaten up for no good reason."
She smiled, his crestfallen expression rather endearing. "You did okay, boss. I'd certainly never have been able to break into Gilles' place and hide the body there."
"Oh, fine. So you do the investigating, and I do the breaking and entering. The great Remington Steele, always handy if you have a dead cop you want stuffed in a tea chest." He sighed. "Sorry. You were great, Mildred. You did really well today. I mean that."
"I'll see to it that Laura knows it too. You deserve the chance to do more investigative work."
"Thanks. Though I think I could do with a little less excitement on my next case. Less of the dead cop, if you don't mind."
"I'll see what I can do." He glanced sideways at her, and favoured her with a sudden, brilliant grin. "Still - it wasn't all that bad for our first attempt, right? I'll bet Laura and Murphy were all fingers and thumbs to begin with."
She couldn't help a small laugh. "They probably didn't ever drive around town with a dead cop in their trunk, trying to find somewhere to dump it. I bet they never tried to frame a crook, either."
"We didn't frame him. He was guilty. Or one of his employees was."
"Hmm. He's not going to be very happy, you know. And with no forensic evidence..."
He sighed. "Are you trying to rain on our parade, Mildred?
"Not totally." She laughed suddenly. "Sorry, boss. It's just not exactly how I thought my first big case would go - pretending to be a gardening journalist while you find somewhere to dump a dead body. And where did that name come from, anyway? Honeysuckle?!"
"I thought it was rather pretty." Her laugh brought a renewed smile to his face. "Oh, alright. So things didn't exactly run smoothly. There could, on reflection, have been one or two improvements. Next time we'll handle it differently."
"Certainly. I think we know where we went wrong this time. A bit too much improvising, and not quite enough proper planning." He nodded decisively. "Yes, I think we can do a better job another time."
"Next time Miss Holt goes away, I think she's going to leave you locked in her closet while she's gone."
"Yes, you could have a point." He shook his head. "It's a sorry state of affairs when one's own employees show such little trust in one's abilities. And me a former CIA agent."
"Quite how you ever managed to convince people of that little deception..."
"I fooled you for long enough, Mildred Krebs." He jumped to his feet suddenly, and for a moment she thought that she had hurt his feelings. "Come on."
"Huh? Where to?"
"Night's still young. Well - more or less. I'm taking you out to dinner. We can pick up the Auburn on the way."
"Dinner? At this time of night?"
"Well we'll consider it a particularly extravagant breakfast, if you'd rather. You've earned it - and I still have quite a store of poker winnings. We should be back before Ada and the little fellow wake up, and then we can drop them off back home. What do you say?"
"I'd be delighted." She couldn't help but smile, warmed by his sudden rush of enthusiasm. "Though strikes me that the dinner conversation ought to be about getting our stories straight. The police are going to have a lot of questions."
"Oh, the police always do. Who's going to listen to some drug dealer with a dead cop hidden in his house? Gilles is smart enough not to cause trouble." He opened the door, dropping into a bow to usher her from the room. "Or so goes the theory. If you don't count the bruises, the ruined suit, and the possible concussion, I'm prepared to consider this one a rousing success." He frowned suddenly. "Speaking of which... you don't mind if we make a little detour, do you? I should probably get changed."
"Might be an idea. Although I might just have a better one."
"Oh?" He followed her down the path that led away from the motel, heading towards the road in search of a cab. She nodded.
"Forget the restaurant. I know a place where we can eat, and nobody will care a fig for what you're wearing. It's a bit low on champagne, but I think there's rather a good bottle of white wine in the fridge - and you can save those poker winnings to buy something nice for Miss Holt. Might be prudent."
"Are you suggesting that we go back to your place, Mildred?" He pretended to be scandalised. "Why, people will talk."
She laughed. "Not at this time of night, they won't. Where I live, everybody's in bed by now. They're nice sensible people. Like I used to be."
"Nice, sensible people." A cab drew up, and Steele swung open the back door, once again bowing her through. "Aren't you glad you met me?"
"Which one of you?" She climbed into the back of the cab and looked back at him; at almost the antithesis of everything she had once imagined Remington Steele to be. He raised an eyebrow, and she smiled. "More than you'll ever know, boss." She gestured for him to join her, and wondered if that was relief that showed, briefly, in the strangely lit blue eyes. "Now come on, I'm starving. Let's go eat."