DUELING EGOS


Jane Leavell

My Great-Aunt Phoebe was a flapper in the Twenties; she loved a good party, and the members of the Algonquin Club--people like Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and George Kaufman--threw the best. But I think even Great-Aunt Phoebe would've been impressed by the small but select group partying at Robin's Nest tonight: a best-selling romance authoress, a world-famous Shakespearean actor, a recently-defected Russian ballet star, a brilliant scientist, an elegant society doctor, a stunningly beautiful millionaire businesswoman, and some minor royalty from an obscure middle-European country I'd never heard of.

The only thing missing was the host.

"What does Publisher's Weekly know, anyway?" demanded Alyson Amor, having cornered Dr. Walding behind the hors d'oeuvres table. Since she was built like a Mack truck, with a hint of a brown mustache on her curled upper lip, she easily cowed the quiet scientist, who nodded obediently, brown eyes glazed. "My last book--Lust in the Dust, you remember it--was on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks. Robin hasn't had a best-seller like that in months!"

"I, uh, don't read much fiction," the scientist confessed, clearing his throat uneasily. "Mostly I read works on genetics and biochemistry. There's a fascinating new breakthrough coming in the area of curing certain hereditary disorders before birth that I--"

Still scowling, Alyson snatched up her plate, which was already loaded with two of everything on the table. "Well, it was far superior to Robin's Golden Clipper crap, let me tell you. You ever write anything?"

"Some scientific papers--"

"No, I mean anything worthwhile? No? Why exactly did Robin Masters invite you here, anyway?"

"Because we're friends?" he hazarded.

Rolling her eyes, she turned away, and her full-moon face brightened as her blue eyes lit on a familiar, slim but very muscled form. Apparently giving up on Henry Walding as a hopeless case, she hastened around the table.

Unfortunately for Alyson, the black-haired dancer had already singled out more interesting feminine prey. His dark, brooding, thick-lashed eyes locked on her voluptuous figure--sheathed in a flowing ivory gown that had apparently been melted on--he asked abruptly, "You are businesswoman? American businesswoman?" The voice was almost too harsh to be coming from such Byronically handsome features, but then, ballet dancers didn't have to sing.

"I'm a married American businesswoman, at the moment," she purred. "The head of Colbyco, in fact."

Eyebrows raising, he looked up into fiery eyes. "Your husband is here?"

"No, Dexter is in Texas just now. Robin promised to...entertain me in his absence, but he doesn't seem to be anymore trustworthy than the rest of the men in my life."

Alyson contrived to bump into the dancer, yet not lose her hold on her food. "Have you tried the hot buttered snails?" Grudgingly; "You can try one of mine."

He moved away gracefully. "I am Dmitri Tchorovski."

"Oh, I know! They say you're as good as Baryshnikov."

He made a face. "Bah! He is old, overweight. Too much of the American social life." He turned back to the businesswoman, his full, sensual lips parted. "I will dance for you." He stroked one ivory-clad arm gently with a square forefinger. "You will judge for yourself."

The lovely brunette woman's inviting lips curled in an amused but intrigued smile. Forgotten by her side, Dr. Govind Khan Neta tried to rejoin the conversation.

"It is a simple matter to lose weight, you need have no worries." The short, slim doctor gazed from one to the other with liquid black eyes. "I have a prescription for pills--excellent pills, very strong--they could melt off the fat like that." He snapped his fingers.

"Really? Alyson, have you met Dr. Neta? You really should."

Alyson scowled and popped another snail into her mouth. Apparently preferring men who seemed a little harder to get, Alexis let her eyes stray past her retinue to the tall, handsome man with the thick brown mustache and amused green eyes. "Is that the star of that new TV movie about Lance White?"

"He is no actor," Neta decreed, with the voice of experience. "No, I believe he is the security expert here."

"He can guard my body any evening at all," Alexis murmured. Like Alyson, she moved on, focused on the man with the curly brown hair and high-pitched giggle, but like Alyson, she was doomed to fail in her quest.

"Good people, I have arrived at last!" a mellifluous, very British voice boomed from the doorway. As everyone looked up, he raised modest hands. "No, no, no need for applause." No one had clapped, which fact obviously escaped him. He positioned himself near a pale blue tapestry that set off his dark suit, the candlelight glinting off a shock of well-groomed silver hair, in the process cutting off Alexis's prey. "No doubt you're all seen the reviews, but I was merely endeavoring to do justice to the poetry of the immortal Bard."

Thomas Magnum said politely, "Reviews?"

"But of course, my dear boy." The puffy hazel eyes were disappointed. "I've just returned from a magnificently successful tour of Russia."

"Because no one in America would pay to see him," Alyson muttered, savagely thrusting a crabmeat ball into her mouth.

Oblivious, the strong-featured, aging actor sketched a headline in the air with a flamboyant gesture. "'Leonard Wilson Churchill Conquers U.S.S.R.'"

"It is most unfortunate. I myself have recently come from there, but I did not see you," Dr. Neta confessed. He stroked his luxuriant black mustache thoughtfully. "I did, however, hear a most amusing tale. It seems that the Premier suffers most terribly with hemorrhoids. I have excellent drugs for this, but the medical studies there suggested--ah! Thank you!" he broke off to half-bow, beaming delightedly, as Robin Masters' majordomo unobtrusively refilled his wineglass. "Excuse, please. Could you tell me what has become of the Countess Anguis?"

The short, plump, but immaculately garbed Higgins freshened the other goblets. "I believe the Countess will be joining us shortly."

"Unfortunately," Alexis appended, sipping her wine.

Dr. Neta forgot his story. "I see you have met the lady?"

She shrugged one elegant shoulder. "The Countess doesn't seem to realize that I could fit her entire moldy little country into the maintenance office at Colbyco."

"However, I rather doubt that your maintenance office has as fascinating a history," Higgins said stiffly.

"There she is now!" Magnum pointed out loudly. The coldly imperious expression on the face of the woman hovering in the doorway didn't change. He joined her, narrowly escaping a wine spill on his cummerbund. "Uh, hi, Countess. My name is Thomas Magnum. I'm in charge of security--"

She stared past his outstretched hand. "I am waiting," she said through gritted teeth, "to be announced."

"Announced? Oh." He faced the rest of the party and cleared his throat. "Uh, listen up, everybody, this is the Countess Anguis. Countess, this--"

She stalked past him, blonde head held high. In contrast to the pure, unstained ivory of Alexis, the Countess had chosen a royal purple gown, low-cut to emphasize the garnet-and-diamond pendant on her small chest. Her near-platinum hair was swept back with a small diamond tiara. Neta stared happily at her bosom, which was just about at his eye-level, but Churchill seemed to be eyeing Tchorovski far more hungrily. Wine bottle cradled to his chest, Higgins was glaring at Magnum, evidently feeling the introduction had not been well-handled.

So much for High Society. Magnum drifted back toward the table, where Dr. Walding had prudently removed himself from the rather tense social exchanges. Like everyone else at one of Robin's parties, he was far from poor, so his rather bland, worn gray suit must be worn for comfort. No doubt he was one of those abstracted, lost-in-the-clouds types--it would explain why the rumpled, silvered mouse-brown hair needed cutting. Magnum tried to smile. "Great party, huh?"

Walding looked incredulously from the center of the room, where everyone seemed to be jockeying for positions near someone else, to Magnum. "Oh, really?" he asked.

"Well, things will lighten up, you'll see. Once Robin gets here--"

The telephone rang. "Perhaps that is Mr. Masters now," Higgins suggested. Setting the wine bottle on the gleaming oak stand, he switched on the speakers so that everyone could hear. "Robin's Nest."

Although there was some distortion from the phone, the voice that answered was clearly not Robin's near-basso. "I understand Mr. Masters is having one of his famous parties tonight, and I wondered if--"

"Who is this?"

"Jack McGee. Who are you?"

Virtually bristling with righteous indignation, he snapped, "I am Jonathan Quayle Higgins, and your name is not on the invitation list."

"Well, no. You see, I'm a reporter from the National Register--maybe you're heard of it? If you could let me interview some of the guests--"

"Certainly not!"

"Oh, come now, Higgins, if the dear fellow has come all the way to Hawaii to see me, surely you won't deny him," Churchill interjected, patting his bushy silver eyebrows down with one hand as if preparing for a photo shoot.

"--or at least tell me a little about the party and--"

"Mr. Masters' parties are not for publication," Higgins said stiffly. "Good night." He switched off the speakers. Churchill watched, disapproving. "I'm sure we're all used to a little harmless press coverage of these media events--"

"I would never betray my employer's privacy to some--some reporter," Higgins replied, rescuing the wine bottle as Alyson tried to tuck it under one arm. "More wine, anyone?"

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Slumped in the driver's seat of a cheap rental car, Jack McGee made a face and hung up his cellular phone. He would have to get in another way. After all, this party was the excuse he'd used to convince Mark, his editor, to send him to Hawaii at the Register's expense. Mark didn't really believe in the Hulk. Oh, sure, he'd admitted that it wasn't really a hoax after the creature stormed through the building, smashing the printing press in the process, but he still made cracks about the Mean Green Thing. When reports came out about a giant green monster throwing a temper tantrum at the airport during a storm that kept planes trapped on the runway for hours, the only way Jack could get a ride out to cover the story was to promise to infiltrate one of Robin Masters' high-society gigs.

"So now I'm a fashion and society writer," he muttered in disgust. "How are the mighty fallen."

Locating Robin's Nest--an internationally known mansion, owned by an eccentric but wealthy schlock writer--was easy. Masters probably had to bribe the local tour guides to keep them from making it a stop on their tours. Getting inside, though....

McGee got out of the car, slinging his light suit jacket over one narrow shoulder, and approached the wrought iron gates. Two black-and-brown Doberman pinschers detached themselves from the shadows, growls rolling softly in twin throats.

"Nice doggies," he told them, although he suspected that was a lie.

Not as old-fashioned as they appeared, the gates were electronically controlled, and those dogs convinced him that climbing in was not a good idea. If he'd gotten to the Big Island a little earlier, maybe he could've bribed somebody for a uniform and a shot at posing as a caterer, but it was too late for that now.

Regretfully, Jack returned to the car, but didn't start it. For a moment he frowned at the starlit sky, long thin fingers drumming on the steering wheel, narrow oval face thoughtful. Then he lit a cigarette and settled back.

He was used to long, patient stake-outs. He could wait.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
I know what you're thinking. As the guy in charge of security, I should've gone out to the gates to make sure that nosy reporter went away. But Robin didn't mind a little publicity, anymore than the rest of his guests did, and at the moment my place was here, keeping the guests from each other's throats.

"We have to at least try to mingle," Thomas told the scientist.

"We do?" Thomas nodded silently. Walding straightened his slouched shoulders, like a man about to face a firing squad. "We do." Grabbing his half-filled wineglass for support, he edged toward Govind Neta, no doubt figuring there'd be something to talk about with a fellow doctor.

The Countess Anguis swept Walding from head to toe in one calculating glance and then turned away, dismissing him as one of the peasantry. Churchill eyed Magnum with more interest, then glanced back at Dmitri, like a shopper trying to decide between two cuts of prime rib. Smiling politely, Magnum veered to one side, as if suddenly noticing the food-laden table.

Neta's faint, halting accent was barely noticeable as his hands gestured fluidly. "--but this movie actor, you see, had reached for the pills for constipation, not the 'pep' pills I prescribed, and the results--" He rolled his eyes. "--were most distressing."

"The fellow positively begged me to appear in his next movie, as the second lead, but of course I had to refuse." Churchill's sonorous voice became solemn. "My first duty is to the stage."

Unable to get Tchorovski's attention, Alyson Amor was gnawing on a frog's leg. She piped up spitefully, "Oh, really? I heard from Liz Smith that you were being shoved down to character roles."

Higgins popped up at her elbow, like a tubby genie with a pencil-thin black mustache instead of the traditional goatee. "Actually, I believe some of the finest actors in this century have been classed as 'character actors.' Consider such talented performers as Thomas Mitchell, Edmund O'Brien--"

His attempts to conciliate were ignored. Churchill lowered silver eyebrows at the authoress. "If you weren't so incredibly obese, my dear, I've often thought you yourself might perform a creditable imitation of Cinderella's coach for Fairy Tale Theater."

The graying romance writer choked, nearly swallowing her frog's leg whole. Neta patted her back quickly, one hand snaking around for a surreptitious fondling of an ample breast. "Perhaps the Heimlich Maneuver is called for?"

Relaxing into somewhat hammy bonhomie, Churchill turned to Tchorovski. "If you're at all interested in acting, my dear boy, I should be quite gratified to help you. Such a handsome face simply cries out for the camera's caress."

He shrugged bonelessly, like a cat. "Acting is nothing. It is the ballet that is true art, and at the ballet I excel."

The countess sniffed. "Must we dwell on such mundane topics? In my country, we find performing, and performers, quite...lower class."

"I doubt that Sir Lawrence Olivier would agree," Higgins told her severely, and then looked as if he wanted to bite his tongue for insulting one of the guests. Both Dmitri and Churchill were glowering at the countess. "Excuse me, I believe I hear the telephone again."

Magnum mouthed the word 'coward' at him, but Higgins ignored him.

Casting about for a safe conversational gambit, Walding announced, "I'm really enjoying my stay here in Hawaii. Being met at the airport with a lei was a nice touch."

"Quite tacky," the countess murmured witheringly.

He plowed on resolutely. "What I saw of the estate this afternoon was magnificent. All the gardens, the tidal pool, the--"

"Capitalist extravagance," she said clearly. "A lowborn nobody cannot simply buy aristocracy. It must be inherited, bred in the blood."

He drained his glass and cast about for another, giving up. Returning, Higgins caught his elbow and gently eased him back into the group. "As an amateur genealogist, I can assure you that we all, regardless of our social standing, are descended from the same set of ignorant cavemen. Some of us can merely trace our descent a little nearer to them than others."

Alexis Dexter inclined her head with a smile, lightly applauding. Churchill's plummy, resonant voice declaimed, "A hit--a very palpable hit."

Mortified by his rudeness to a guest--royalty, no less--Higgins cleared his throat. "Regrettably, that last caller was Mr. Masters. It seems that his Lear jet has run into weather problems in London."

"Writer's block, more likely," Amor sniped, "assuming that story about him only writing while airborne wasn't just a publicity stunt."

Deliberately ignoring that, Higgins continued, "He cannot be with us here tonight. However, he has arranged for you all to be his guests at the exclusive King Kamehameha Club tonight, and hopes to join you for the originally-planned party, tomorrow. He asked me to extend to you his profuse apologies."

"That's great!" Magnum blurted. "The Club has fantastic food and--"

Higgins quelled him with an acidulous stare. "I shall take some of you in the Rolls, while Magnum drives the Ferrari. He will drop his passengers off, and then return."

"I will what?"

"Your job is to provide security for the estate," Higgins pointed out, "not to party at Mr. Masters' expense. In addition, some of the luggage may yet be recovered from that contretemps at the airport." He glanced at the others. "Chilled Dom Perignon will, of course, be awaiting us there."

That galvanized them. There was a general rush for the door, fueled partly by anticipation and partly by the desire to get in whatever car the Countess didn't ride in. Alexis slid into the Ferrari beside Magnum.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Hawaii is no place to be broke in. Everything is real expensive when it has to be shipped over from the mainland, and then prices are raised for the tourist trade. Some people come to Hawaii for the surf and the sunshine and the women, and then find out the hard way that it all costs a lot more than they can afford.

Of course, some people come for other reasons.

By the time a haggard and desperate David Bruce Banner reached the King Kamehameha Club, he was flat broke, and he had worn through his third pair of sneakers this month. He had also become intimately familiar with the local Salvation Army store, the way he did in pretty much every town he visited. It would all be worthwhile, though, if Dr. Henry Walding provided the key to free him from his self-made prison.

Walding was brilliant--graduated summa cum laude from Harvard at age 22, won the World Science Prize, elected to the Science Academy, with a doctorate in biochemistry and genetics and a reputation for outstanding breakthroughs in those fields. When David was immersed in the study of adrenaline surges, emotion, and the effects of gamma radiation, it had been rumored that Walding and his brother Charles, a prominent research chemist, were on the verge of a breakthrough in creating artificial life, but in more recent years Walding had apparently abandoned the whole field of DNA applications to diseases.

He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in frangipangi and orchids mingled with car fumes. The car fumes and the sound of passing traffic triggered a brief flicker of memory: rain pouring down his body, and huge bird-like shapes sitting motionless, glittering silver when washed by lightning overhead, while the rage and frustration bubbled inside him, making him scream.

David shook his head, throwing the memory away. It had been a long time since he had led a normal life. With Dr. Walding's help, maybe he could lead one again.

First, he had to get in Hawaii's most exclusive club.

"I'm sorry, sir." The doorman, face carefully expressionless, took in the uncombed brown hair, the duffel bag slung over one shoulder, the worn khaki jacket, the torn sneakers. "You need to be a member, or invited by a member."

"You don't understand." He could hear the strain in his own voice. "I have to speak to Dr. Walding--Dr. Henry Walding. He's a guest of Robin Masters. It's--it's a matter of life and death."

The doorman was courteous, but unyielding. "Members only, sir, and their guests. I'm sorry."

For a moment, he felt some of that rage again, and blinked as the air around him seemed to take on a green tinge, then it was washed out by despair. David turned away wearily, shoulders drooping.

He couldn't send a message to Dr. Walding; the man didn't know David Banner, and in any case Dr. David Banner was dead, killed years ago in a laboratory fire. Maybe he could try a phone call, speak personally to Walding, describe the work he'd already done on gamma radiation and adrenaline overflow. Scientific curiosity might be enough to convince Dr. Walding to meet him.

Shifting the duffel bag to his other shoulder, David slowly dragged himself around the brightly-lit club, far enough back to hear the wind rustling the palm trees, and smell the fragrant plumeria filling the warm night air, searching in vain for a pay phone booth. It was purely luck that he was by the service entrance when the liquor truck pulled up with a late delivery.

Electrified, he waited in the shadows until the driver and a Club employee carted a heavy crate inside, then he slipped into the building behind them.

Stashing his bag of all-too-few personal belongings in a corner, Banner slipped into a a slightly too-large white serving jacket, and set off in search of Dr. Henry Walding.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Shooting his immaculate shirt sleeves and adjusting the solid gold cuff links, the manager of the King Kamehameha Club surveyed his domain, and found it good. As always, the club was full of beautiful people, especially beautiful young women, and music perfectly suited to the mood, and staff who were efficient, one step ahead of the customers, and charming when they weren't almost invisible. Yet there was a tiny smudge on this perfect picture. Most people would never notice it, but Rick Wright was paid very well to attend to every minuscule detail.

"I dunno, Keoke," he complained, shaking his head. "Maybe Robin's slipping."

"Huh?" Keoke looked at him as if he'd suddenly ripped off the gold chains and rings and launched into a Chippendale routine.

"Look, sometimes he has some pretty odd guests, but usually he at least tries to get a good mix. But look at 'em. None of these people even each other." He found it personally offensive, this discordance in his Club.

"Oh, I dunno, Rick." Keoke casually wiped the bar with a damp white towel. "That Russian dude sure has an eye on the older chick. And the actor's been on his tail all evening."

Rick grimaced, watching Leonard Wilson Churchill 'accidentally' bump up against Tchorovski's tightly muscled buttocks. "Swell. And then there's Mr. Big Spender over there--been nursing the same stale ginger ale all evening. How am I ever gonna get rich on guys like that?" He took a second look, squinting suspiciously. "And how did he get in here, anyway? Who is he?"

Keoke shrugged. "He's new."

"You don't think the new doorman's takin' bribes, do you?" Keoke remained noncommittal, mixing a drink and passing it to his boss, who accepted it automatically. "Keep an eye on him, see if you can find out who brought him in, okay?"

"No problem."

"Give me whatever the Countess has been having. I'll try to make her happy." Rick ran a hand through his thick brown hair, making sure it was in place, then scooped up the drinks and walked past Mr. Big Spender, checking him out.

The man in question was just refusing a refill from a pretty Hawaiian-Japanese waitress, his thin downturned mouth lifting into a charming smile that revealed a slight overbite. When Rick passed, the man surreptitiously slid a black notebook from his pocket.

Oh, great. Reporter? Private detective for some sleazy divorce case? Rick put on the brakes and leaned over the table, keeping his voice low, the picture of amiability.

"I'm Rick Wright, the manager here. How's everything been so far?"

"Oh, fine, fine."

"Is there a problem with the service? I notice you're not eating yet."

He smiled sourly. "No, the food's just a little too...rich...for me. This drink's plenty."

Craning his head, Rick caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a page and a half of foods consumed by Alyson Amor. Society columnist? Personal dietician? "I'm sorry I didn't see you when you came in, Mr.--uh--?"

"McGee. Jack McGee."

"Did you come in with the Masters party?"

"No, unfortunately. But I did meet Mr. Churchill." McGee shifted position uncomfortably. "He, uh, pinched me."

Rick winced. Just what he needed, Leonard Wilson Churchill upsetting the other customers. Assuming McGee really was a legitimate customer, which was a bit of a stretch. "I'm sorry about that, Mr. McGee, I'll have a talk with him. Maybe you should just...try to take it as a compliment?"

McGee looked dubious, and Rick didn't blame him. Scooping up the drinks again, he beat a hasty retreat, wishing Thomas was still here, so he could sic him on the actor. Instead, he settled for standing behind Churchill's chair, prepared to distract him if necessary. Better make sure they only send female help to this table, he reflected. "Let me replace your drink, My Lady Countess," he offered.

The Countess accepted the replacement without comment. Higgins looked pleased, as if he hadn't expected Rick to know how to address a countess. Every time Higgie came to the Club, Rick felt like a Chicago grade-schooler getting graded by a strict teacher.

"How about more food?" Alyson asked. Rick nodded, signaling to Belita.

At least the rest of the table seemed happy. Dr. Walding was removing a photograph from his wallet. "That's my daughter, Susan Steele, and the twins."

Alexis leaned over. "The fashion designer? She does the most incredible things with satin and leather."

He beamed paternally, passing her the snapshot of a trendy blonde woman and dark-haired children. "That's Cameron and Katie--she was named after my cousin's wife, a Swedish girl from Nebraska."

"Your cousin...?"

"Congressman Morley."

"You know, I thought you looked familiar. Yes, I met your cousin at the hearings on the oil tax. You look very much alike."

At least if McGee is some society columnist, he's not getting earth-shaking gossip from this group, Rick reflected with satisfaction. Neta was rooting through a silver pill-case. The romance writer was bent on drowning her failed love life in gravy, having finally given up on the ballet dancer. Churchill was trying to woo said dancer with flattery, with no success; Tchorovski agreed completely with the flattery, accepting it as his due. Higgins, of course, was never a behavior problem, although the glazed look in the Countess's eyes suggested she wasn't really interested in his long story about the time he and Pooky Attley faced down a charging elephant in India after The War.

Reassured that the Robin Masters table was settling down, Rick did an automatic scan of the rest of the Club. Nothing was out of place...except that waiter. Who the hell was that? As Rick stared, the handsome brown-haired man, not much bigger than Rick himself, suddenly stopped short halfway across the Club, face draining of color. Oh, great, that's all I need, one of the help passing out in front of the customers! Rick set down his glass, but before he could move, the 'waiter' veered sharply right, toward the Masters party. As he passed the reporter guy, he ducked his head, raising one hand as if to shield his face.

Well, let him come to me. There'll be less of a scene with I collar him. Rick had no doubt of his ability to take care of the guy, whoever he was.

The 'waiter' stopped in front of Dr. Walding, still pale, sweat standing out on his temples. "Excuse me. Dr. Walding?"

It was then that Rick's day really went to pieces.

Four men in khaki camouflage suits and jaunty black berets slammed into the King Kamehameha Club. Two fired short M-16 bursts into the ceiling and behind the bar, sending Keoke flying to the floor with a startled yelp. People and staff alike shrieked, sliced open by shards of broken glass. Alyson Amor actually dropped her sandwich.

"Hold it! Hold it right there!" Outraged, Rick planted his legs far apart and thrust up his chin, like the pugnacious Chicago streetkid he'd once been. This was his turf, damnit, and no one was going to invade it. "Just who do you think you are?"

One of the uniformed men swung around and slashed at Rick's head with the hot muzzle of his weapon. Rick staggered and fell.

Watching from Robin's private table, Higgins could only wince. Really, the man was virtually cursed. Scarcely a month went by without someone hitting him in the head. It was truly fortunate that his head contained more bones than brains.

"We represent the Moldavian People's Front!" Rick's assailant shouted.

Alexis Dexter moaned, "Not again, for God's sake!" Discreetly slipping off her pearl necklace and dropping it under the table, she slid down in her seat, trying to hide behind Higgins.

Obligingly, Higgins stood, realizing she was probably wishing Robin had hired a bigger majordomo. Very well, he would do what he could to avert disaster. He had worked most of his life with MI6, after all; he was more than capable of dealing with terrorists gone amuck.

"We come to this decadent wasteland for a purpose. Your ransoms will fund the further freedom of Moldavia!"

The countess shifted her chair, edging behind a pillar, but no one appeared interested in her. Instead, two of the armed men pounced on Henry Walding, yanking him from his chair as though he were no more than a teddy bear. The third hesitated before Amor's chair; she shrieked and fainted, falling back on Dr. Neta and nearly crushing him beneath her bulk. The Moldavian grabbed Dmitri Tchorovski's arm. Although Higgins' immediate thought had been that the waiter approaching Henry was merely a terrorist diversion, the fellow's reaction to the turmoil belied that: he rubbed his temples, and his somber brown eyes took on a bizarre whitish-green tinge.

Higgins straightened, every inch the Sergeant-Major of Her Majesty's armed forces, his clipped words a command. "Release them immediately. These men are the personal guests of--"

"Shut up, old man." One of the terrorists shoved him back into his seat.

Eyes wide with shock, Walding was struggling. "No! Let me go!" One of his captors yanked his right arm behind his back, twisting it, and he broke off with a gasp, sweating.

"NO!" screamed the waiter. There was a sound of ripping cloth.

Really, this was most bizarre. Higgins leapt to his feet, intending to fell the nearest Moldavian with a karate chop to the neck, but the sight of the waiter stopped him. The man seemed to be writhing in the middle of some sort of transformation. The handsome, if haggard, face had already swollen beyond recognition, acquiring a bulging forehead and Day-Glo green tint. An enraged animal growl reverberated deep in his throat as he grew. His hair lengthened, becoming coarse and the muddy green of a summer swamp. Muscles rippled like ocean waves in his arms and legs as they swelled. Even the kidnappers gaped in disbelief, giving Dr. Walding a chance to wrench his left arm free, but another twist of his right arm brought him to his knees, helpless with pain.

The sight seemed to inflame the hulking beast; with a subhuman roar, it leaped forward. One tree-trunk arm effortlessly hurled the lead gunman into the air and over the bar, smashing what few bottles of liquor remained. From the floor behind the bar came another yelp from Keoke.

In another stride, the creature reached Walding's captors. Snarling, it grabbed the man on his right in ham-sized hands, raised him into the air, and tossed him violently through the nearest window. The man on the left, terrified, released Walding and backed away, hands raised. Still on his knees, the scientist craned his head back to stare in disbelief at the green gargantuan looming over him.

Dear heaven, must he protect the guests from this monster as well as from terrorists?

As if galvanized into anger by the sight, Dmitri Tchorovski lashed out. The same trim, well-trained muscles that supplied power and grace to his ballet drove one fist into the last Moldavian's stomach; as the man sagged, Dmitri spun around, his leg flying out in a smooth, arched curve that came close to removing the man's head.

Bleeding from a dozen glass cuts, the lead Moldavian crawled from behind the bar and squeezed off another gunburst. The hulking creature roared bass defiance, but the Countess Anguis promptly slid beneath the table, clutching at Higgins' legs for protection. Unable to extricate himself without kicking her in the face, he was helpless to stop the invaders. Before the last echoes of gunfire had faded, the four terrorists were gone. Outside, car motor screamed to life.

"Stop!" Higgins shouted, to both the monster and the Countess.

The huge brute reached for Henry, who simply closed his eyes, too numb to react. With surprisingly gentle hands, it lifted him to his feet and placed him back in his chair, then turned and loped out of the club into the night.

Rick feebly sat up, looking dazed, and Keoke crawled out, wiping at Rick's bleeding head with the bar towel. It was soaked in so much spilled alcohol that it made a good disinfectant, but no doubt it stung, judging from Rick's shout.

"Who was that?" One of the Club's customers frantically grabbed at Higgins's arm. "That waiter! Did you see him? Who was he? Can you describe him?"

On the floor, on the other side of the woman scrabbling tearfully at Higgins' legs, Neta's face was turning blue. He tugged at Jonathan's trousers and gasped weakly, "Please...lift off...this woman!"

The King Kamehameha Club lay in ruins.

Taking it all in, Higgins lowered his head, cradled it in his free hand, and cried, "Oh--my--GOD!"

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Through the years, I've noticed that some of Robin Masters' parties come to--shall we say 'unusual' endings? For instance, there was the one where Higgins got hit on the head and insisted he was a silent film star. At another party, we ended up with a hurricane, escaped convicts, a birth, and two drunken Dobermans. Then there was that Halloween party where a couple of drunken guests in KKK outfits staggered into a hotel hosting an NAACP convention. But none of them matched this one for strange. Half the guests had little glass cuts, and all of them had this distraught, wide-eyed, glazed look, like survivors of an earthquake or some other natural disaster. All things considered, I was glad I wasn't invited to the Club after all.

Watching the survivors straggle into Robin's Nest, Thomas said, "Higgins? What happened to you guys?"

"Moldavians," Tchorovski said shortly.

"Moldy who?"

Alexis, her sultry face very pale, snapped, "Moldavian terrorists. They're a tiny comic opera country that likes to machine-gun weddings."

"Weddings?" he repeated, baffled. "Was there a wedding party at the club?"

She flung herself onto the sofa. "They wanted a ransom to fund their filthy little country."

Choleric with rage, Higgins disentangled himself from a hysterical Amor and advanced on him. "I intend to inform Mr. Masters of the completely inadequate job you've done of protecting his guests. My God, man, we were brutally assaulted by four terrorists and a horrendous green brute! Dr. Walding and Mr. Tchorovski were almost kidnapped, while you sat here watching absurd tapes on your VCR!"

"It's supposed to be absurd, it's the Compleat Weird Al Yankovic," Magnum said reasonably. Then, as Higgins' words sank in, he began to get equably angry. "Look, Higgins, you're the one who told me to stay here and watch the estate! I was just doing my job!"

Dr. Neta sat beside the still-shaken Dr. Walding, patting his hand sympathetically. "If you like, I have some pills--very soothing, after such a fright." Henry shook his head. "No? Well, one for myself, at any rate, eh?"

Leonard Wilson Churchill handed Dmitri a filled glass. "Do partake of some liquid courage, my boy. You were magnificent back there. Simply magnificent. A cross between Fred Astaire and Bruce Lee."

"Better," Dmitri said with simple assurance.

"Isn't someone going to do something?" the countess shrilled. She stamped one high-heeled foot, and the heel promptly snapped, nearly pitching her into Thomas's arms. "I could have been killed!"

Higgins said wearily, "The fact remains, madame, that you were not. Only Mr. Tchorovski and Dr. Walding were actually targeted--"

"Never mind them! Don't you understand? I am royalty. I demand protection!"

"My Lady Countess," he said sharply, wheeling on her, "as the second son of the Baron of Perth, I have the utmost respect for true nobility, and I can assure you that I have yet to see it in you."

The quarreling set Alyson off again. "We could have all been killed! I--I haven't even been on the Merv Griffin show yet." She looked around the room pleadingly. "I need a drink!"

Since this sounded like a good idea to him, as well, Higgins turned toward the liquor cabinet, only to be stopped by the sound of the front gate buzzing insistently. Magnum, patting Alyson's broad shoulders paternally, told him, "You get that, and I'll get her a drink."

"Make that two," Alexis suggested, putting her pearls on again. "Maybe Alyson would like one of Govind's little pills. Thomas, could you fasten this for me?"

"How on earth am I ever going to explain this to Mr. Masters?" Higgins muttered despairingly, and punched the speaker. "Yes? Who is it?"

"Jack McGee. I have a proposition for you."

Steaming, he barked, "For the last time, there will be NO interview--"

"I had in mind a trade. I already have a story: 'Monster Destroys Exclusive Hawaiian Club; NATIONAL REGISTER Reporter is Eyewitness.' But I 'd prefer something a little less flamboyant, for the wire service."

Magnum paused in the doorway with a half-empty bottle, head cocked, hazel eyes inquisitive. A hand snaked around his body and snatched the bottle from him.

Higgins told the speaker, "This is absurd. What could you possibly offer in trade that would interest me?"

"Information about the Hulk." Even over the tinny distortion of the speaker, his voice was smug. "I'm probably the world's greatest authority on him."

"Don't be ridiculous!"

Magnum said slowly, "You know, he's right. I think I've read some of his stories."

Higgins wheeled to stare at him. "You mean you actually buy that trash?"

He said uncomfortably, "Well, no. Not exactly."

"'Not exactly'?" His voice rose.

"Well, you know how it is: there's a long line in the supermarket, and you sort of thumb through it while you're waiting..."

From the contemptuous, acerbic glare he received, it was clear that Jonathan Quayle Higgins had never done anything of the kind. The Briton turned back to the speaker. "Mr. McGee, how do we know that you are not part of that terrorist group?"

"If I am, you've got me outnumbered, right?"

After a pause, Higgins said, "Magnum will escort you in. He will, of course, be armed."

Discovering the bottle was gone, Magnum patted his body, as if expecting it to reappear. "I will?"

Marching to the door, Higgins opened it, withdrawing a silent dog whistle from his pocket. "The Lads will accompany you; you'll be quite safe." He raised one eyebrow. "Unless you would rather chance greeting four or five Moldavian terrorists at the front gate whilst completely unarmed?"

Magnum liberated a revolver from the closet. "I'm on my way. Oh, and while I'm gone, Higgins, think about this: if they wanted ransom, why take those two? Why not one of the women, jewelry and all? And why come all the way to Hawaii to get it?"

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
"I've followed the Hulk all over the country," Jack McGee told a heavily-drinking crowd. The wide-eyed audience almost gave him a twinge of stagefright, although some of them seemed medicated to the point of stupor. "He isn't always a monster, which is what makes catching him so hard. Part of the time, he's a drifter, a man in his late thirties. He always uses the initials D.B.--maybe to remind himself of his first victim."

"Victim?" one of them squeaked.

He sighed. "Shortly after its first known appearance, the creature I call the Hulk killed two prominent scientists. One was named Dr. David Banner. The drifter seems to have a conscience, but he becomes the Hulk unpredictably--I can't tie it in to weather, phases of the moon, any regular pattern--and the Hulk is rage incarnate. Completely uncontrollable."

Walding, shaking, held out his glass, and Neta obligingly refilled it, taking the rest of the bottle himself.

"Is there a reason to think it might be allied with the terrorists?" That was the good-looking bodyguard-type who'd escorted him into the mansion.

"No. It's a loner--I don't think it's capable of following directions. It doesn't even speak. Sometimes it seems to help other people out, whether by accident or design. Hell, it saved my life twice. But it has killed before."

The countess shuddered, staring at the night-darkened picture window. "This--this beast could be out there now, watching us, waiting to attack."

Alcohol might be a depressant, but it certainly hadn't done anything to calm down the guests. Another reason why he'd given up the bottle, after losing his column and his reputation.

In confident, authoritative tones, Masters' majordomo assured them, "Robin's Nest is virtually impenetrable. We're completely safe here."

"That's what we thought at the wedding," Mrs. Dexter told her glass.

Alyson wailed, "They had guns!"

"And so do we. Thomas Magnum--Robin's full-time security guard, a licensed private investigator--is a crack shot, as am I. But in this case, guns are superfluous. Not only are two trained attack dogs on patrol, and the Hitchcock stun fences powered, but we are also surrounded by the most powerful, up-to-date defense system available."

Alexis drawled, "And any security system can be breached."

He gave her a deprecating smile. "This, Mrs. Dexter, is the Dracos III." He walked to the door. "In fact, if you'll follow me, I shall demonstrate just how this computerized system works. It should reassure all of you."

The sophisticated beauty rose, shaking her head. "Thank you, no. I intend to retire to my room, where--safely locked in--I will make arrangements to fly to California." She paused. "Kindly bring to my room a bottle of that liqueur Robin's so fond of."

Aghast, the bantam-cock little majordomo said, "Aquitine? But that's his most rare, most expensive--"

"I know. Nobody can match those Swiss monks for quality, can they? And it's the least he owes me, after this." She smiled, malice incarnate. "I'll be expecting you. Shall we say five minutes?"

He nodded grimly. "Now, if the rest of you will follow me...? Fine. The system combines thermal and audio sensors which pick up body heat, movement, strange noises...."

Sorry to see the most attractive member of the group leave, Jack started to join the parade of semi-hysterical, three-quarters drunken guests, then realized Dr. Walding wasn't among them. He hesitated in the doorway. Well, after all, if he needed it for the story, he could always ask the manufacturer to describe the system for him. Aside from the Hulk's two surprise appearances, he had cobbled together a piece on a local kahuna named Leholiho and his cult of Pele-worshipping firewalkers, the sort of stuff the National Register's readers lapped up, but he needed a much bigger story than that to break back into the big leagues. "Aren't you coming, Doctor?"

"Hmm?" The scientist looked up, surprised. "Oh. Yes." He smiled weakly. "Just thinking about the club. I guess kidnapping's one thing you never really get used to."

Now, this was truly interesting. McGee stepped back into the room. "It's happened before? Like this?"

He gestured deprecatingly. "Years ago. Nothing to do with Moldavians. In fact, I've never even heard of them before."

"How do you know there's no connection?" McGee's eyes lit up. "Maybe that Moldavia crap is just a cover. After all, there must be plenty of diplomats, businesses, and low-level royalty they could kidnap a hell of a lot closer to home."

"You mean they wanted me personally?" Dismayed, the older man finished his Glenfiddich in one gulp and looked around the room for a refill. His fellow partygoers appeared to have finished off anything readily available.

"It's sure possible." McGee loosened his tie and produced his notebook. "Tell me about the last time."

"There's no connection, there can't be. Charles has a motive, at least in his eyes, but his neck was broken during my escape. He's a quadriplegic, and the sanitarium would call me if he escaped somehow."

"Wait a minute. I remember now." He'd been drinking pretty heavily back then--just fired from the Daily News, in fact--but the story was so bizarre that it had stuck in his mind. "Your brother framed you for his murder, then spent two years building this huge underground lab at Happyland Amusement Park. That escape-artist got you out--what's his name--Cameron--"

"--Steele." Walding nodded absently. "I had nightmares off and on for two years after that. I was drugged, riding through a chamber of horrors...woke up to my brother's face, burned and scarred from the fire...I remember my daughter screaming when he--" He broke off. "It can't be happening again."

"What was he after? Could it be the motive now?"

He shook his head. "Charles and I had created a new form of life with the potential to do terrible harm. Afterward, Steele and I burned the organism--fire stops it, that's why I'd burned the lab in the first place--and he dug up a hypnotist. I don't know how to create the organism anymore, not even to save my own life--the hypnotist erased my memory."

"Maybe these 'terrorists' don't know that," McGee pointed out. "Besides, if you created this organism from scratch before, you could eventually do it again."

His gentle face hardened. "I wouldn't. I won't." He held up the empty glass. "What the hell did Thomas do with the Scotch?"

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
His torn shirt and jeans flapping in the warm night breeze, Dr. David Banner listened to the almost subliminal hum of the electronic fence. Beyond it, the sprawling mansion gleamed in the darkness like an unattainable heaven.

He didn't remember what happened when he hulked out; he never did. He did remember spotting Jack McGee, his eternal Nemesis, in the King Kamehameha Club; it was as if the man had a psychic link to him, the way he always turned up. That had terrified him, because Jack didn't know the Hulk--or John Doe, the man doomed to become the Hulk--was really Dr. David Banner. One look at his face, and McGee would recognize him.

But he didn't let Jack's presence stop him, had approached Henry Walding anyway, recognizing him from a scientific conference they'd both attended, and then everything went crazy, and someone was taking Walding away, and the next thing he knew, he was waking up on the beach, his clothes torn apart.

There was no way to illicitly enter Robin's Nest, and no one would let a ragged scarecrow like himself in willingly. Drained by his hulk-out and by despair, David cursed, feeling his eyes suddenly well with tears. Damn it, he would not give in to self-pity! No. He would call in the morning and beg Walding to see him.

After someone tried to kidnap him in that club, he's not going to let a stranger near him, logic whispered, but he ignored it. No, he'd spend the night here. He'd often spent the night outdoors, in far less pleasant climes than--

Wait a minute. He cocked his head, surprised. The humming had stopped.

Why would they turn off the stun fence?

Hardly able to believe his good luck--something all too rare, these days--Banner picked up a long, scimitar-shaped puhala leaf and waved it over the fence. Nothing happened. Taking a deep breath, he jumped up, and shimmied over the brick wall.

As he dropped into the jade-green, well-manicured lawn, two sleek Doberman pinschers materialized, white fangs gleaming in the starlight. He tried to run to one side, then the other, but the dogs split apart and herded him back to the wall.

"No!"

Despite himself, he felt his temples begin to throb. One of the dogs threw back its narrow triangular head to call its master, but the bark faded to a terrified squeak as Banner's eyes began to glow a fluorescent green, his face and hair thickening.

"Not again, not now--"

The words choked off in a guttural snarl.

Apollo whined in confused panic. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The smell was suddenly all wrong--inhuman, yet not animal. This was something that called for The Master's help. Ears flattening, he growled at the Thing, to let it know it couldn't get away with intimidating him.

As if by telepathic agreement, the Lads simultaneously spun and dashed for the house. The Master would know what to do.

Halfway there, Zeus hesitated, cropped ears pricking. The monster loping behind them--already becoming human again--wasn't the only thing wrong tonight. Whining briefly at Apollo, Zeus swerved toward the beach. Apollo hesitated, taking one more step toward the house where The Master lived, then followed his brother.

There, emerging from a rubber raft, were four black-clad intruders. With a volley of furious barks, both dogs attacked, relieved to be faced with a problem they understood and could deal with.

The soft thwat of tranquilizer guns silenced their barks for the night.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Somehow he had finally gotten a sniveling Alyson Amor into one bedroom, and convinced the self-centered countess that to protect herself from anti-royalist forces, she must barricade herself in her room immediately. Leonard had retired to his bedroom alone, having futilely tried to convince Dmitri to join him. Dr. Neta seemed quite cheerful, even giggling at demonstrations of the efficacy of the security system. Now, having delivered a prized bottle of aquitine to Alexis--the woman was even more beautiful in her pale green negligee than when elegantly dressed for the evening--Jonathan Quayle Higgins headed for the dining room. God alone knew what mischief the unattended reporter was getting into.

Perhaps it was the stress of tonight's disastrous excursion making him so impatient. He had always prided himself on being a superb host, and he should have been delighted to entertain royalty. With his own intention to write his memoirs, he might have enjoyed discussing publishing with Ms. Amor. Alexis Carrington Dexter was fascinating, not only incredibly attractive but also a successful businesswoman. Dr. Neta and Leonard Wilson Churchill between them could provide enthralling details about Hollywood. Indeed, individually, any of Robin's guests should have been entertaining, or at least no problem for him. Yet the mix of this particular party produced nothing but tension. Whatever had Robin been thinking of?

In some ways, this reminded him of the time in 1942 when Lt. Fabersham kept delivering those frightfully verbose lectures on the morals of the British soldier. When they were surrounded by Rommel's men, the lads, understandably peeved with Fabersham--

"Psst! Higgins!"

"Magnum." He drew himself up indignantly. "What on earth are you doing in Mr. Tchorovski's bedroom? Mr. Churchill I might have expected, but you--"

"Higgins!" The private investigator yanked him inside and gestured at the bed. "I couldn't get an answer when I knocked, and I found him like that." The black-haired dancer was sprawled limply in his bed, features composed, one arm dangling out. Higgins frowned. "I wasn't aware he had drunk so much; nevertheless, I fail to see why you of all people feel compelled to point out a guest's minor peccadillo. After his frightful experience at the club, it is quite--"

Magnum, scowling, lifted Dmitri's arm. "He didn't pass out, Higgins." He pointed to the fresh needlemark on the inner elbow. "He was drugged."

Alarmed, Jonathan thumbed back an eyelid, revealing a contracted pupil. "You're right. We had a case like this at the Arlington Arms in 1957, when I--"

The younger man seemed suddenly embarrassed. "Uh, Higgins, there's something I have to tell you. You see, Robin had an ulterior motive when he called this party. You know how he likes the idea of playing detective? Well, he's convinced that someone in this group was responsible for stealing some top-secret diplomatic papers at a party they all attended in California."

He felt himself swelling up. "And why was I not informed of this?"

"Look, Higgins, I wanted to tell you, but Robin wanted you to give us an unbiased eye. You see, he already suspects one of them, but he wanted to see if someone else independently would suspect the same man."

In his most icy tones, Higgins said, "Obviously you mean the 'Moldavian terrorists' were more likely agents of a foreign power. Dr. Neta has just returned from Russia, as has Mr. Churchill, and Mrs. Dexter's company has business ties there, but this drugging would seem on the surface to indicate Dr. Neta's culpability. Other than that, I cannot help you. Had you not foolishly seen fit to leave me completely in the dark, I would undoubtedly be of much more help."

"See, it worked! Robin suspects Churchill--he says he caught his last performance in Moscow, and it was too good to be the real Leonard Wilson Churchill. But you're right, this could be--"

He sighed. "Magnum, your foolhardy culpability never ceases to amaze me. Knowing that we had a Soviet secret agent in our midst, you allowed us to go to the King Kamehameha Club unattended, and as a result two of our guests were nearly kidnapped!"

"Oh, come on, Higgins, they were never in any real danger. T.C. and I were right outside, and we had the police on call." He slipped a small walkie-talkie from his dinner jacket. "We wanted to follow them to their plane or boat or whatever and be sure we caught everybody, but then the Hulk showed up and ruined everything."

"The fact remains that I have the experience of a lifetime in MI6, whereas you, left to your own devices, let Dmitri be drugged."

Magnum grimaced. "Okay, so I slipped up a little. I was checking on Dr. Walding--he's still downstairs, he's okay--but I figured it'd be safe; T.C.'s watching Churchill right now. Rick was gonna help, too, but he had to go the ER."

"Apparently everyone on the entire island but myself knew about this," Higgins snapped, thoroughly miffed. "I suppose next you'll tell me Icepick has gangsters surrounding the estate, and Agatha is lurking in the bushes, shotgun in hand, spying on us."

"Now you're just being silly, Higgins."

"If T.C. is watching Churchill, he couldn't be the one who drugged Dmitri, assuming T.C. didn't fall asleep or do something equally inept."

Magnum thumbed on the radio. "T.C.?"

The helicopter pilot's voice whispered back, "Churchill ain't left his room yet. Thomas, this is boring."

"I shall check on Dr. Neta," Higgins began, then stopped, raising his head, frowning.

Putting away the walkie-talkie, Magnum looked up. "What is it?"

"That's odd; a moment ago, I could've sworn I heard the Lads."

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Although the dogs' interference had been frustrating, it hadn't been enough to trigger a complete transformation, or maybe he was just too exhausted from his earlier rages to entirely hulk-out, but even a partial change was wearing. David stood outside a window, blearily trying to focus, hoping that he hadn't hurt the dogs. Maybe they were just frightened, and hiding somewhere on the estate.

The man with the graying mouse-brown hair, staring at a glass of amber liquid as though studying a DNA strand under the microscope, was unmistakably Henry Walding. If he leaned against the wall, he could even hear voices.

"Assuming they weren't Moldavian terrors, or working for your brother, they were most likely Soviet or Red Chinese agents."

Framed by the room's light, they were like two actors on a TV screen, and the villain was pacing the room excitedly. Jack McGee. Would he never escape the man's constant hounding? My God, now he was arriving on the scene even fore his prey did!

Banner clenched his fists, trying to tamp down the rising frustration, willing McGee to go to bed before Dr. Walding got too drunk to help him. He couldn't enter while the reporter was there; it wouldn't do for McGee to realize the Hulk was really the not-so-deceased Dr. Banner. With his picture in the Register and his fingerprints on file in national computers, he'd be caught in no time at all. All well and good, if the government was likely to devote considerable time and expense to curing him, as McGee claimed it would, but David was sure they would see the Hulk as a useful weapon. Usually McGee was more cynical than that. But then, Jack was so eager to get the biggest story of the century that he was probably trying to convince himself that capturing 'John Doe' was for John Doe's own good, so he wouldn't feel guilty.

It would be so much easier if McGee was just evil, if he could wish for the man to get shot or run over or really sick and die. It could happen, actually. David had no control over the Hulk, and one of his greatest fears was that one day he would wake from a hulk-out to find that, in a fit of rage, it had smashed a basically good man to a pulp.

Once again, his unending streak of bad luck surprised him, as four armed men in black calmly entered the room. Startled, David ducked beneath the window, then realized they couldn't see him for the light reflecting from the room, and cautiously peeked inside again.

The Scotch slipped from Walding's fingers and puddled across the gleaming coffeetable.

"Moldavian terrorists, I presume?" McGee asked, his voice strained.

One man, still sporting cuts and bruises from the Club encounter, lowered his M-16 to the reporter's chest; the other three closed in on Walding. Rising, the scientist grabbed his chair and upended it, thrusting the legs out like a lion-tamer in the ring. One jabbed at him with a rifle barrel, distracting him; the others caught the chair legs and pulled.

McGee's guard glanced at the battle, grinning. Jack lunged for the door, ducking awkwardly.

"HIGGINS!"

For one awful moment he thought he was going to see his wish come true--I didn't mean it! I don't want Jack dead!--but a short burst of bullets threw splinters from the doorway, slowing McGee just enough for a terrorist to club him down with a rifle. Still, David's heartbeat and breathing were too fast, and he wasn't sure whether to fight it, or hope the Hulk would somehow stop this for him.

Unperturbed by the attempted escape or by his desperate struggles, two of the kidnappers wrestled Dr. Walding's arms back. McGee's assailant kicked him and said something in a Balkan language; only the name "Tchorovski" was understandable. The fourth man quickly opened a small black box and withdrew a hypodermic syringe.

They're going to take him away before he can help you, and they'll probably kill Jack, too. And without a weapon, there's not a damn thing you can do to stop it.

The room behind the window took on a greenish tinge. He saw Walding futilely wrench himself from side to side, staring at the hypodermic needle. Smiling, the man holding it let a single silver drop ooze out. Mesmerized, Walding swallowed hard, no longer moving, like a rabbit facing a hungry snake.

A clenched fist the size of a jade-green ham thrust through the closed window behind him.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
I don't know why the little voice that so often helps me solve a mystery didn't speak up, but I heard that reporter screaming for Higgins, and that was all the warning I needed to know things had just gotten a lot worse. I had a revolver, and I figured between that and T.C. and Higgins backing me up, I could handle just about anything. I wasn't expecting to have to handle the Jolly Green Giant in Robin's living room.

The reporter was sprawled in the doorway, but he seemed to be breathing. Stepping over his body, Magnum lowered his revolver, both arms outstretched in the classic firing pose.

And then blinked.

The huge green brute bent its knees and roared, shaking broken glass from its mud-green hair , immense muscles bulging in its broad back and shoulders. One of the terrorist hurled something at it--a hypodermic?--like a dart. The Hulk snarled, flicking it from its chest with one finger, and charged.

Dr. Walding and his captors fell back and scattered, but the Hulk ignored them, concentrating on the man who had pricked him. Effortlessly, the creature grabbed him by his collar and the seat of his pants, and hurled him through the already-shattered window.

"Hold it right there!" Thomas yelled, but he wasn't sure just whom he meant it for.

One of the men shot the Hulk in its back. It spun around, flexing its muscles, and a crumpled bullet plopped onto the teakwood floor. Walding ducked as it stepped right over him to wrench the rifle away. It bent the rifle into a circle as if it were no more than a licorice stick, then dropped it to grab its owner and ram his head against his partner's with an audible crack.

"Don't just stand there!" Higgins yelled, kneeling beside McGee.

"It's the safest thing I can do right now!"

The last assailant lunged at Walding, apparently intending to use him as a shield. Relieved to have a clear target who would actually notice being shot, Magnum plugged him in the upper arm, spinning him over the coffee table.

Apparently reassured that McGee was still alive, Higgins rose and tried to see over the taller man's shoulder. "What on earth is going on in there?"

"I--I'm not exactly sure," Magnum replied, his mouth dry. What was he supposed to do if that thing kept on rampaging, attacked Henry or himself?

The Hulk scowled around the room, as if looking for someone else to beat up. Magnum stared unblinkingly at it, gun still raised, waiting. The Hulk glanced down at the fallen Walding and cocked its head to one side, as if trying to remember something, its neon-green eyes dumb. Abruptly it yawned, then looked surprised. Turning, it vaulted through the smashed window, used the terrorist body outside as a trampoline, and loped toward the dark tennis courts.

"T.M.?" That was Theodore Calvin, reaching past Higgins to shake his shoulder. "Thomas! What the hell's going on here? Where'd all these creeps come from?"

Still staring at the window through which the Hulk had vanished, Magnum said blankly, "I don't know."

T.C. activated his walkie-talkie, shaking his head. "Lieutenant Tanaka? You better bring the troops in; I think we caught us some terrorists."

Higgins squeezed under Magnum's arms to solicitously help Walding to his feet. "Henry--Dr. Walding--are you all right?"

"I...think so," he said cautiously, checking the room for green monsters. When no more appeared, he headed for the sofa, pausing on the way to stamp on the dropped syringe, grinding the broken glass under one heel.

Magnum lowered his arms slowly.

"Somebody had to switch off the Dracos II," T.C. said, surveying the fallen kidnappers and overturned furniture with interest. "Thomas, I swear Churchill didn't let them in. He never left his room 'til about five minutes ago, when he took a bottle of champagne to that dancer's room. Tchorovski wasn't there, so then he went--"

"Of course he was there. He was drugged."

About to sit down, Walding gazed past them and swayed wearily, closing his eyes. His lips moved as if prayer. What Magnum could hear of the soft, numb litany turned him cold. "First I'm kidnapped, then a green monster comes, and I'm safe...then I'm kidnapped again, then the green monster comes, and I'm safe...then I'm kidnapped again...."

Magnum turned slowly. Supremely self-assured, Dmitri Tchorovski waved a gun at them. "The black man is correct--there was no one in the room. Put down your guns."

"You were drugged!" Magnum protested, reluctantly obeying.

He shrugged gracefully. "A needleprick, some eyedrops...." When Walding opened his eyes, Dmitri smiled. "It's wasteful to lose this useful cover, but the orders were specific: to bring Dr. Walding at all costs." He gestured with the gun. "Come, Doctor. We have a boat to catch."

Dr. Walding took a deep breath, then his slumped shoulders straightened as his face tightened. He said softly, with complete resolve, "No. I'm not going."

"You will. Now."

He half-smiled. "What will you do--shoot me?"

Probably not, Magnum conceded, but there were three other men in the room that the Russian agent would have no compunction about shooting. He interrupted hastily. "They 'kidnapped' you at the Club, too, not just Henry. Wouldn't that be as bad as blowing your cover?"

The darkly handsome features briefly relaxed into a condescending smile. "I would return with flesh wound in one arm, and so-sad story of panicked terrorist killing Dr. Walding as we escaped. I would be hero, and no one would search for the 'dead' doctor." His eyes flicked back to the older man. "Enough time has been wasted. You will come, or--"

Higgins must've had the same idea as Magnum, for he cleared his throat. "I must say, you were thoroughly convincing. We had suspected Leonard Churchill--he is, after all, an accomplished actor. He could easily have fooled us. Your own performance comes as quite a surprise."

Magnum's eyes widened, but he fought to keep his expression blank. Wobbling drunkenly behind Tchorovski, a champagne bottle cradled lovingly in his arms, the silver-haired, slightly pudgy actor in question beamed. The proud beam disappeared as Tchorovski said contemptuously, "That old fart? He could not act his way out of paper bag!"

Choleric rage curdling his paternal features, Churchill swung wildly at the ballet star's head. His aim was off; the bottle crashed against the doorframe, champagne foaming over the spy like an ocean wave. But that was all the distraction Magnum needed. He dove for Tchorovski's gun, beating the hand against the door until the fingers loosened their grip.

"T.C., get the gu--oof!"

A fist drove so far into his stomach that it seemed to be drilling for oil. Magnum staggered back, bent double, and the dancer followed with a deadly kick, but Magnum managed to catch the ankle and twist.

T.C. tried to snatch up the fallen gun, but it slipped away in the champagne suds.

Magnum was learning first-hand that a ballet dancer may look slim, but has muscles to rival those of any Olympic athlete. Sweating, he barely managed to evade another pile-hammer blow, and clipped the Russian on his cleft chin, knocking his head back.Where's the Hulk when you need him?"

T.C. spotted the gun and grabbed at it, but in the fighting someone's foot kicked it away just before his fingers could close.

Tchorovski slammed Magnum back against the coffeetable, nearly breaking his back, as Higgins yanked Walding safely out of reach. The wounded kidnapper on the floor decided to take an interest, clawing at Magnum's legs.

Boxing the Russian's ears, Magnum yelled, "Higgins! For God's sake--!"

"Really, Magnum, this is your job," he said disapprovingly.

Since both Tchorovski's hands were now clamped around his throat, Magnum could only roll his eyes appealingly. Sighing, the Englishman assumed the classic stylized kung fu stance, and neatly chopped the back of Tchorovski's neck. Dmitri collapsed on Magnum, just as T.C. finally came up with a gun, and Lt. Tanaka burst noisily through the front door with squad of police right behind him.

Leonard Wilson Churchill emerged from behind the china cabinet, clutching a half-filled bottle of Scotch from God knows where. He gazed sadly at the dancer's limp form. "Dreadful waste of a superb body--and an even better champagne," he said ruefully, then smiled broadly at the approaching officers of the law, fumbling in his monogrammed silk pajamas for a pen. "Autographs, anyone?"

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Govind Khan Neta patted Apollo's stomach comfortingly as he injected a needleful of stimulants. "Soon you will feel frisky as pup," he assured the snoring dog. "Once I have used this same preparation on Hulk Hogan. He is a wrestler, of course, and you are a dog, but the principle is the same."

"Doctor, when you are quite finished with the Lads, I believe Mr. McGee needs your services."

"But certainly, Mr. Higgins," he said cheerfully.

Holding a bloody towel to his head, McGee said hastily, "No, no--I'm fine." He winced, shifting his hold. "One thing about the Register, they have a great medical plan. They figure the bills will substantiate the stories, and the doctors can vouch that I was coherent and not hallucinating."

Higgins nodded absently, standing in the center of the room and grimly cataloging the damages. Drugged dogs, battered reporter, shattered window, bullet holes, broken bottles and furniture--

Magnum said encouragingly, "Don't worry, Higgins, Robin won't mind. He'll just complain about missing all the fun."

Higgins glowered at him. "Fun? He can scarcely be amused by the way this party will no doubt be splashed all over that trashy tabloid. I can just imagine the headlines: 'Robin's Nest Hatches Spy Plot' and the like."

"Not bad," McGee admitted. "But first I'm going to be doing an exclusive story on Dr. Henry Walding, and interview the hypnotist who erased his memory. It's a gripper, and the publicity should help discourage any other attempts." He grinned at the scientist in question. "Guess you're got another couple years of new nightmares to look forward to, eh?"

"At least four," Walding sighed. "No one wanted to actually kill me this time, but then, three kidnappings and two encounters with the Hulk pretty much surpass that."

"The Hulk? You get used to it," McGee told him.

"I'd rather not."

Higgins said distastefully, "I would prefer that this entire event be forgotten."

"Look at it as good publicity for Robin's next book," Magnum suggested.

Before Higgins could attempt to silence him with an icy stare--which usually didn't work well, anyway--Alexis Dexter leaned in the doorway, all in pink, from her pumps to her dress to her broad-brimmed hat. "Henry? There's room on my jet, if you're interested. I have a business proposition I'd like to discuss with you."

The scientist jumped up with alacrity. "Just send my things to my home," he told Higgins.

"But Mr. Masters is on his way--"

"I've had enough of Robin's party, I think."

One of the federal agents wrapping up victim interviews caught his arm. "Dr. Walding, we can't let you travel unprotected."

Fingering her black opal necklace, Alexis studied the broad-shouldered blond agent, then cooed, "There's always room for such an...impressive FBI agent. Do come along."

T.C. told Magnum, "I smell romance in the air. Listen, I'm gonna go see how Orville's headache is doing. You can handle all this by yourself, right?"

"Right. Uh, Higgins, shouldn't someone tell the countess it's safe to come out of her room now? I mean, I know it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it."

With a pained expression, Higgins trudged down the hall, muttering something they fortunately couldn't quite hear under his breath as he went.

*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#
Exhausted, David Bruce Banner blinked sleepily at the late morning sunlight, listening to a peacock screech a challenge and rattle its spread tail. For a moment it sounded like a woman screaming for help. He rolled over, groaning. He was getting too old to sleep on the hard ground under bushes like this, even in Hawaii.

With some difficulty, he levered himself to his feet. Hulking out two-and-a-half times in one day had taken a lot out of him, and left him with a migraine headache and a raging hunger.

Was anyone dead? What happened after McGee was clubbed down and the kidnappers grabbed Dr. Walding? Was Walding still in Hawaii? He would have to find a newspaper stand; he could afford at least a current newspaper.

In the last hulk-out, he had split and lost his torn sneakers. Wincing at the feel of hot asphalt under bare feet, David wearily began walking back toward the beachfront club to retrieve his duffel bag, assuming no one had found it yet.

Just another incredible day in Paradise....

----Tuesday, October 8, 1985

In crossed universe stories, I like to let other shows make a cameo appearance, and this was no exception. Besides MPI and THE INCREDIBLE HULK, this tale involved Alexis Carrington Dexter (played by Joan Collins on DYNASTY), a reference to Congressman Glenn Morley (played by William Windom in a 1963 series called THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER), and a failed TV pilot called ESCAPE, for a series meant to showcase Christopher George and Avery Schreiber. The 1971 TV movie guest-starred William Windom as Dr. Henry Walding and a great sneering deep-voiced TV villain, John Vernon, as his evil brother Dr. Charles Walding. See pictures of him on STAR TREK, THE INVADERS, and other shows at William Windom Tribute.

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Copyright 1985 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.