When you are struggling with a totally new application of microchip dynamics as applied to the Unified Field Theory, the last thing you need is to be stuck with rowdy neighbors. This should be one of life's more obvious rules.
Dr. Murray Bozinsky loved computers, and "Concentration" could've been his middle name, but even he had his limits. He was working in a very cramped space aboard a houseboat, the RIPTIDE; it was a hot, sunny California August afternoon; he had forgotten to eat either breakfast or lunch; and, worst of all, he and Albert Einstein were having a serious difference of opinion here. Maybe he could've lived with all that, but on his right he was also being bombarded by raucous party music, and on his left by a series of gunshots. Come on, world, a man has to have limits! Murray hit the wrong key for the third time in a row, sending an outline of his rebuttal to the Immortal Albert into computer heaven, and grabbed his spiky brown hair in both hands, moaning. Okay, so he and his partners were detectives, and had to get involved with murders and gun battles and stuff--but did it have to be now?
Enough is enough. Murray saved what he could of the morning's struggle, and stormed topside.
"I've a good mind to call Mama Joe and give her a piece of my mind!" he announced indignantly.
His partners, catching the last rays of sunlight on the deck of the RIPTIDE, glanced up. Cody Allen shaded his eyes to squint at him and asked sleepily, "Why is that Boz?"
"How can anyone think over the noise of that party?" he demanded, waved one hand at the CONTESSA and almost knocking off his glasses in the process. It was a good thing he caught them; he was out of black duct tape to repair the much-abused frames.
Nick Ryder sat up, scratching his chest. Murray was much in envy of that chest, because his own was slight and hairless, and he believed hairy chests were much more manly. "That's not the CONTESSA, Mur. It's the houseboat that moored beside her this morning."
"Oh." Somewhat deflated, Murray joined him at the railing, trying to catch a glimpse of the source of the pounding music, gales of laughter, and assorted party noises. Was someone vomiting out of the aft porthole? "Well, do they have to be so loud?"
Another gunshot whined from the boat on his right. Now fully awake, his partners exchanged alarmed glances, but Murray was already in action. Without stopping to worry about possible results, he leaned over the railing and hollered, "Hey! Hey, you, there! What do you think you're doing?"
The occupants of this boat seemed to be having a party themselves, without the benefit of rock-and-roll. There were a gaggle of giggling girls on deck, most of them in skimpy bikinis, surrounding the gunman as he lowered his handgun with a smirk. "I'm fishing. Leave me alone."
"Fishing?" Murray's voice hit an outraged speak; he never could sound intimidating, dang it. "That--that's dangerous! And it's unfair! It's probably illegal, too. Isn't it illegal, guys?"
Cody joined them at the rail. "Yes, it's illegal, Murray."
"There, you see? Who do you think you are, anyway?"
"I think I'm Ali Sharif, and I think I'm tired of you, you annoying little geek." The darkly handsome stranger raised his handgun again, turning back to the water. "Watch this."
"Put the gun down," Nick said.
"Why should I?"
Cody smiled sweetly at him. "Because we handle security for King Harbor, and in about thirty more seconds, we'll have to arrest you."
One of the girls pouted. "Party-pooper."
The stranger hesitated, obviously unimpressed by Murray...but Nick and Cody, staring at him, were another matter. Before he could decide what action to take, one of his harem tugged on his arm.
"Oh, forget them, honey. Let's go join the party, okay? You said we were gonna. Besides, I don't like fish, anyway."
Scowling, he thrust his gun into the back of his obviously expensive gabardine trousers, like some imitation Miami Vice star, and let the girls sweep him away.
"You know, I don't think I like the class of people the harbor's been attracting lately," Cody said, watching them swagger down the deck like a potentate and his retinue.
"Ahoy the RIPTIDE!"
"Now what?" Murray shoved the glasses back up his nose.
Nick grinned as he glanced down at the dock, adding charm to his dark Italian looks. Murray couldn't blame him, actually, since he was looking at a lissome lass in a turquoise French bikini, but he was too irritated just now to appreciate the sight. "Gee, Cody, I think some of the people around here are just great. Ahoy yourself, Heather."
"You guys coming to the party?"
Cody cleared his throat. "We, uh, weren't invited."
"That's funny." She put one hand on a golden-brown hip, cocking her champagne blonde head, frowning in thought. "We all were."
Somehow, they all managed to refrain from pointing out two of the more exposed reasons.
Heather shrugged, brightening. "Tell you what, Nicky. You guys help me carry this cooler over, and you can all crash it. It's loads of fun, honest. They won't mind."
"Sounds like a good idea to me. Come on, Cody, you heart the lady."
Murray hesitated, glanced back down the ladder to where his computer waited, but Cody caught his arm. "Murray, if you spend much more time down there, you'll turn into a microchip. You know the noise is just going to get worse. Like everyone says, if you can't beat them, join them."
Nick was already hefting the cooler himself, sucking in his gut and trying to pretend it was feather-light. This was a good thing, since Murray knew he would drop the cooler if he had to carry it instead. All three guys followed Heather to the next boat over, eyes glued to her. All things considered, it was a good deal more inviting than an evening with Einstein. The party was in full swing, rock music and ebullient voices throbbing out in powerful waves, with every visible square inch packed with women from the CONTESSA and the gun-freak's harem. Suddenly uneasy, Murray hung back.
"Look, guys, they may not like gate-crashers, and--"
"Aww, come on. Quince's a fun guy, he won't mind," Heather said. "Here, you guys bring the drinks. You'll be the most popular guys on board."
That seemed to confirm it for Nick and Cody, but Marry trailed behind them, feeling intimidated by the sheer crush of people. Besides, the guys fit right in. Nick was so macho: high school football star, Vietnam vet, chopper pilot, still in the National Reserves, the all-around hero. And Cody looked like Robert Redford, somehow seeming elegant in only white slacks and half-zipped blue jacket. Murray glanced down nervously at his own rumpled plaid shirt, the pocket stuffed with calculator, pencils, and pens. Sharif was right. Even though he pumped iron and ate raw eggs every single day, he was still, well, slight. Wiry, but slight.
Still, he had to concede that Heather was right about bringing the drinks in. Thirsty partygoers in colorful pseudo-preppie dress pounced on the guys immediately. Murray, on the other hand, was promptly elbowed aside by a woman built like a Green Bay packer, and found himself squeezed into a corner under a tall, thin, silver floor lamp that beamed into his face, making him feel like a murder suspect about to be mercilessly grilled in a 1940's movie. All anyone would have to do was sneer, "Who invited you?" and he'd confess at once.
Desperately, he stood on tiptoe, and caught a glimpse of Cody making a horde of new friends by busily passing out cold beers. Was that Nick over by the starboard sofa? That was just close enough to reach safely.
"Excuse me. Pardon me. I'm just...oh, I'm sorry." Hastily, he retrieved a pen that had inexplicably plopped into someone else's beer, wiped on his shirt, and jammed it back into his pocket, in the process knocking a pencil down someone's back. "Could I just get through here?"
"...so then I cut the stomach open," a balding goateed man was saying, demonstrating on a ham sandwich, "and the intestines were full of maggots."
Murray snapped around, his pencil forgotten, but was carried onward by a small group of people under the impression they were on a dance floor. What sort of party was this, anyway?
By making swimming motions with both arms, he was able to squirm to his partner's side, only to discover the black-haired man he'd spotted was the obnoxious fisherman, not Nick. He quickly tried a backstroke, but the dancers jostled him up against Sharif, who flicked him away as if he were lint on a brand new tuxedo.
"They let you in? This party sucks. They let in ignorant trash like Reiner, and geeks like you--"
"--and rude fascists like you," someone chimed in helpfully. "Hi. I'm Ignorant Trash Reiner, but my mother always called me Jerry."
"Hi. I'm Cody Allen. Have a beer." Cody popped up from somewhere, pressing a dripping can into the man's hands, and glanced at Murray. "Boz, I've told you a hundred times, don't make a fist around your thumb. You'll break it when you punch this moron in the nose."
Murray obediently relaxed his fists; he had more pressing matters on his mind. "Cody, have you been listening to these people? I mean--there. Right over there."
Not two feet away, a young Japanese male was earnestly explaining, "Removing a human brain, that was what really got me. I mean, here's the most fascinating, complex, puzzling--"
Murray swallowed hard, pointing. "Did you hear that?"
Before Cody could reply, someone grabbed Murray's outstretched arm and whirled him into what appeared to be a conga line. By the time he stumbled away, Cody and Reiner had disappeared. Either that, or he wasn't where he'd started from, which was likely but hard to tell in this crush.
Maybe the guys were right, and he wasn't as social a being as he'd been back in high school, when he was top-scorer at Polish Basketball, outside of Judith Elizabeth Horwinkle--nobody knew Polish royal genealogies as well as Judith--but if this was what he'd been missing, he'd still stick to his computers. Who would he run into next? The Hillside Stranglers? Jack the Ripper's great-grandson?
Somewhat desperately, Murray took refuge in the next cabin, but it was almost equally crowded. He found himself standing near a balding man with a bloodhound face, pleading with a telephone.
"Honest, honey, I'm miserable without ya. Sam and me are busy workin' every minute--what? Party? Yeah, that's the boat next door. Can't concentrate for all the noise. We asked 'em to turn it down a dozen times already, but--"
Now, that was adding insult to injury, blaming RIPTIDE for this outrageous disturbance of the peace! Fuming, Murray tried to wriggle over to that liar and give him a piece of his mind.
"Have you met our host?" someone said in his ear.
Murray twitched. "What? Oh. No, I haven't, actually," he said rather miserably, suddenly remembering his gatecrasher status. He looked around, didn't see the speaker, and then looked down, smiling.
She was the first halfway normal person he'd seen at this party, a small, plump, white-haired woman who reminded him of his fourth-grade science teacher, and she smiled warmly, inclining her head toward the man on the phone. "I must admit that Quincy knows how to throw a lively party." Between the party noises and her faint guttural accent, it was hard to make out her sweet, thin voice. "This more than makes up for the dullness of the convention, don't you think?" She offered him a dainty, age-spotted hand. "I am Dr. Hilda Braunschweig."
"Uh, hi. I'm Dr. Murray Bozinsky. You're here for a convention?"
"The coroner's convention, of course. Aren't you?"
He swallowed. "You're a coroner? You?"
"Yes, of course. Did I see you at the opening today?"
He tugged nervously at the Mickey Mouse tee-shirt under his flannel shirt. "Um, no. I'm a gatecrasher, actually. See, the guys and I--Cody Allen and Nick Ryder?--we're private investigators. So you could sort of saw we find 'em and you cut 'em up, right? Except...you're not from around here, are you? I mean, your accent's Bavarian--"
"Viennese," she said. "A common mistake." She studied him thoughtfully for a moment, then took his arm. "Come. Introduce me to your friends."
Apparently, the conga line had swept some of the crowd topside, because he was able to track down his partners rather quickly while staying anchored to Hilda. The guys were staring in sick fascination at Ignorant Trash Reiner, who on closer inspection was an amiably goofy young man with fine, flyaway brown hair, slightly tilted eyes, and a small, downturned mouth. Nothing about his appearance seemed to justify their reactions.
"She what?" Nick was asking in a strangled voice.
"See, her husband was an electrician, so what he did was, he took her electric vibrator and--oh, hi, Hilda. I didn't see you at the session on Forensics & Legalities."
"Guys, this is Hilda Braunschweig. She's here for the coroners' convention."
Cody and Nick exchanged glances. "Really? What a relief! I mean, uh--" A shapely redhead joined them, slipping her arm around Reiner's waist. "More shop-talk, huh? Don't you guys ever let the dead rest in pieces?" Behind her powder-blue glasses, her hazel eyes sparkled with sly amusement. "Ever since Jerry won the Golden Gut Gouger or whatever it is, that's all he can talk about. Oh, sorry, Hilda, I didn't mean to rub it in."
Hilda smiled, rather thinly. "I guess they picked looks over experience, eh, Jerry?"
"It wasn't a Golden Gut Gouger, it was just an award," he objected, looking embarrassed.
"You know how they call Academy Awards 'Oscars'? Well, we're planning to call this one a Quincy. What do you think?"
"I think it is time for a drink," Hilda said softly.
The redhead held out her glass. "Try mine. It's my own recipe. I call it Tequila Mockingbird."
All four turned to Jerry accusingly. He shrugged. "She, ah, has a kinda weird sense of humor. What can I say?"
"You can say, 'the next round's on me,'" Cody suggested. "I think it's going to be that kind of party...."
Men with big leather Gestapo boots were trying to use his head for a soccer ball. Murray Bozinsky moaned and curled into fetal position, his head throbbing. With any luck at all, they'd decapitate him quickly and the pain would go away.
After a moment, when he saw no sign that the soccer game would end soon, he cracked open one eye, and winced. The early morning sunlight was even worse than jackbooted attackers. What had happened to him?
Somehow, Murray managed to get on his hands and knees, swaying. His mouth felt like those Nazis had poked a soldering iron in it. Dragging himself to his feet, he scowled. Why was everything so blurry, halos with fuzzy edges? Oh. He wasn't wearing his glasses.
Fumbling blindly along shelves and bits of furniture in search of the missing spectacles, Murray tried to remember how he'd gotten in this condition. He could recall a pretty brunette medical examiner from Marin County, and Nick warning him not to mix his drinks--the beer followed by Jerry's bizarre fruit/rum/brandy/vodka mixture probably had been a mistake, even if Jerry added an Alka-Seltzer tablet for a kicker, and even if Jerry was a doctor of sorts--and at one point he seemed to remember acting out Einstein's Unified Field Theory in pantomime. Groaning, Murray snatched up his glasses, which turned out to be dangling from a lampshade. The left arm was broken again, so they sat crookedly on his face, adding to his woes.
"Guys?" he croaked.
Where was he, anyway? This wasn't the RIPTIDE. Holding his glasses on with one hand, he spun around for a better look, and tripped over a body. "Oh! Excuse me."
The coroner with the funny stories and bad drinks was passed out on the sofa, smiling peacefully, wearing a stained white doctor's coat over his blue jeans and clutching some kind of foul-smelling pump to his chest. There was--
Murray froze, replaying the events of the last few seconds. Slowly, he lowered his head, praying it had been just a hangover-induced hallucination. But there it was, a quite dead naked body sprawled out on the floor.
Even worse, the body had no head.
Horrified, Murray swallowed an enormous hiccough. The guys. He had to find the guys. They would know what to do.
By the time he stumbled down the pier to slip seven, the full-blown hiccough attack was making his hoarse shouts almost incomprehensible. "Nick! Co--Hic!--dy! Help!"
His partners staggered on deck, seeming half-asleep. Nick was wearing only blue jeans. Cody was fully dressed, but his hair was tousled, and he was yawning. "Calm down, Boz, we can't understand. Take a deep breath."
"There's a bo--hic--"
"Murray, take two deep breaths."
"You know he only does this when he's really upset. Calm down, Mur, it's okay."
He tried to obey, but another nervous, high-pitched hiccough whooped out of him, shaking his entire body. Heather casually strolled onto the deck, fastening her turquoise bikini top, and he was startled that the hiccoughs broke off entirely. In fact, he stopped breathing entirely.
"That's better. Now, what's wrong?" Nick asked.
Remembering, he gestured wildly. "It doesn't have a head!"
Nick's dark eyebrows flew up. "What doesn't have a head?"
"This--hic!--body. It's dead!"
"I'd imagine so," Cody agreed, taken aback. "Listen, Nick, I'll call Lt. Quinlan. You go see what's going on."
Lt. Quinlan was not amused. He never was.
"What is this, persecution?" snarled the grizzled detective in the sweatshirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. His scowl swept the deck of the houseboat, which was still littered with empty cans and dirty glasses. That didn't seem to bother him as much as the sight of the three detectives. "Can't I even make it through one lousy weekend without you Three Mouseketeers coming up with another corpse?"
"Oh, now, that's not fair, Lieutenant!" Boz protested, his hiccoughs forgotten. "It's not as though we killed him or something. When we find a dead body, it's our duty as patriotic law-abiding citizens to--"
"Yeah, yeah." Quinlan ran one weary hand over his short-cropped, receding black hair. "The M.E.'s on his way. Meanwhile, I want everybody who was at this orgy of yours on this deck, answering questions. That includes you chowderheads."
"It wasn't our orgy."
Cody said, "Look, Lieutenant, most people have gone home. Maybe Quincy'd know who all was here, but...."
Quinlan gave him a shark-toothed smile. "Why don't you stay right here and tell this trooper every name you remember. Who found the stiff?"
Murray held up his hand, like a shy kid at school. "Me."
"Figures. Okay, let's see it." Murray hesitated, complexion turning slightly green at the idea of a wide-awake, close-up view of the corpse. Lt. Quinlan, possessed of a stronger stomach, impatiently shoved him toward the cabin. "Move it, bozo."
Reluctantly, Murray led the way, trying not to break any of the scattered dirty glasses. In the main cabin, Jerry Reiner was somewhat awake, apparently engaging in a desultory search. At least, he was raising sofa cushions and inching chairs aside. The headless corpse was still sprawled on the carpeted deck, wearing a placard around its truncated neck on a piece of bloody string. Quincy was studying it carefully, hands at his side, while the Japanese male from last night's party took notes on a yellow legal pad.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Don't touch that thing! This is the scene of a murder investigation!"
The middle-aged, rumpled man with the thinning salt-and-pepper hair glanced up, surprised. "I'm not touching anything. Anyway, it's not a murder scene. He wasn't killed or decapitated here. For one thing, there's no blood."
"What makes you the big authority, buster?"
"Quincy's the head of the L.A.P.D. Forensics division," the Oriental explained.
"Yeah? And who are you?"
"Sam Fugiyama, my associate," Quincy said absently, his attention back on the corpse. "What does that say? 'I've lost my head over you'? Cute."
Quinlan wheeled around. "And just what do you think you're doing?"
Reiner pulled open a two-inch high desk drawer and peered inside hopefully. "Looking for the head?"
"Jerry Reiner was, uh, sleeping in here with the body when I saw it," Murray offered. "Well, I mean, not sleeping with it, exactly, but--"
"So maybe he offed the guy somewhere else and was too drunk to dispose of it properly." Quinlan's sharp eyes narrowed. "There it is. Musta rolled behind the table." Murray gulped and scurried topside. Reiner bent over for a look at the red-veined, pouchy, straggle-toothed head leering like a forgotten Halloween jack-o-Lantern from beneath an end-table laden with overflowing ashtrays. "Hold it! Nobody touches anything until the M.E. gets here."
"I am an M.E.," Jerry objected.
"You, too? What is this, some sorta M.E. convention or something?"
"As a matter of fact, yeah."
Ignoring them, Quincy told Sam, "White male, Caucasian, age approximately 48, in good condition...say 5'11", 160 pounds. Evidence of rigor mortis...."
The scar running from Quinlan's right eye down his cheek pulsed, turning an angry red. "You. Reiner. What happened?"
Reiner shrugged. "It wasn't here when I, uh, fell asleep." He glanced over Quincy's shoulder at the corpse in question, with apparent professional interest. "Must be someone's idea of a practical joke."
"Well, this is a coroners' convention, you know." He smiled reminiscently. "I remember when I first started working at the morgue, they got a big kick out of putting spare parts in my lunch box all the time."
Nick gagged. "Listen, I, uh, think I'll go check on the Boz, see if he's okay." He headed topside with alacrity.
"Some profession you're in, isn't it?" Quinlan grated.
"Oh, it's not so bad. Your patients never talk back to you, and you don't get many malpractice suits."
The King Harbor medical examiner finally came down the steps from the deck, and Quinlan, looking relieved, gestured. "Okay, it's all yours, Doc. Reiner, come with me. You got any way to account for your whereabouts last night?"
Reiner followed him topside. "Sure. I was at the party."
Quite a few of the previous night's partygoers were already huddled together on the deck. The redhead joined Jerry, squeezing his hand. Hilda was at the railing, patting Murray's back comfortingly as he fed the fishes with whatever he'd had last night. Even Ali Sharif was there, dark bags under his eyes, glowering.
"Any of you see Reiner last night?"
"He was here when we came, around five o'clock," Cody offered.
"I was with him for an hour so, around eight, nine o'clock. He told us some pretty wild stories."
"We were skinny-dipping at eleven," a subdued female voice admitted. "A whole bunch of us, I mean, not just him and me."
The redhead said sharply, "Why are you singling out Jerry? You should be asking everyone where they were, not just him."
"It's obvious that the lieutenant, a man of perception, knows exactly what Reiner is capable of," Sharif said.
She objected, "You're the one who was firing off guns right and left!"
"And I'm sure I'm not the only one who heard you screaming like a fishwife on the deck late last night. Maybe you--"
Hilda stepped between them, her voice soothing. "There's no need for hysteria, is there? The lieutenant is just doing his job." She turned to Quinlan with a thoughtful expression. "I believe I last saw Jerry getting in a cab. It was perhaps 2:30 in the morning."
"Anybody here see him after that?"
Blank looks greeted the question. Some of them were obviously too hungover to even remember being at the party themselves. Reiner turned to the redhead, but she released his hand and slowly backed away.
"Hey, Lieutenant!" The King Harbor M.E. stuck his head out of the cabin, excited. "I recognize this one! It's John Doe 44."
"John Doe 44. The meat wagon brought him in yesterday afternoon, only I didn't have time to cut him open yet. Some bum they found under the Clearwater Bridge."
Quinlan growled, "So it's not even murder, and these clowns wasted my weekend for nothing. All we've got him for is getting drunk and robbing the county morgue. Mutilating a dead body's hardly worth the bother of a trial."
"What? Now, wait just a minute, Officer, I didn't rob anybody. Anywhere, I mean. I mean, I never saw that corpse before in my life. Besides, what would I want it for? I mean, I see corpses everyday. It's no big deal anymore, right? You see one corpse, you've seen--"
"It was murder," Quincy announced, emerging from his living room.
The local medical examiner followed him, shooting him a contemptuous glare. Everyone fell silent. "Look, mister, I recognize that head."
"You probably do. But that head didn't come off this body. Whoever decapitated them did a good job--the necks match up almost perfectly--but that body didn't meet that head until about nine hours ago." He beamed at the stunned M.E. "Don't worry, Sam and I'll be glad to help with the autopsies. The convention was getting pretty dull, anyway."
It took a major Quincy temper-tatrum--alternating bouts of urgent pleading ("After all, it was found in my own living room!") with enraged shouts, while he used his forefinger like a blunt instrument to drive the harried King Harbor M.E. into a corner of his own office--but he and Sam were finally allowed to participate in the autopsy. In fact, this melodramatic display so completely cowed the local man that L.A.'s finest practitioner of forensic medicine ended up conducting the entire affair himself, with Sam and the coroner as an admiring chorus.
Spreading the sliced skin and muscles wide, Quincy pointed briskly. "Of course this isn't John Doe 44. Your head over there has the mottled coloring, features, and smell of a long-term alcoholic, but look at this liver! It's in great shape. No...what you have here isn't an alcoholic...a musician, though."
"How do you know that?" the local man asked humbly.
"Hmm?" Quincy was running a thumb along the corpse's wrist, noting a slight discoloration. "Oh, that's easy. Didn't you notice the calluses? Left fingers, right thumb. He probably played a guitar. Folk guitar, not electric--he didn't use a pick. Sam, here...take a look at this. See anything unusual?"
"Not really, Quince."
"Here, hand me that scalpel...."
Having a hangover was bad enough; having a hangover and sitting in a police station was almost as bad as having your hard drive wipe out. Murray Bozinsky sat meekly in a corner of a long, harshly-lit visiting room and wondered why he had ever consented to being a private investigator.
Maybe Cody was having second thoughts about the career, too. He was elaborately patient as he said, "Let me get this straight. You want us to prove you're innocent?"
Jerry Reiner ran one hand through his fine brown hair. It was too long in the back, like Murray's; maybe he forgot to go to the barber sometimes, too. "Well, yeah. Well, actually, I wanted Simon & Simon Investigations--they're old buddies of mine, and they owe me a favor--but their mom says they're in South America right now. Anyway, I figure if Lt. Quinlan hates you, you can't be too bad, right?"
The logic behind that bit of reasoning temporarily stumped Murray, but it didn't seem to faze Nick. "As in Rick Simon?"
"Yeah, you know him?"
Nick glanced at Cody. "You remember when we went to D.C. and I visited the Wall? I met him there. We got to talking, found out we were both p.i.'s, and ended up getting drunk together. He's a vet--Marine Corps. Seemed like an okay guy, anyway."
Murray objected, "But they have witnesses. The cab-driver--"
"I know, I know. Look, I was at the morgue last night, yeah, but I never saw this John Doe, or anyone else. I was with Lynda."
"That really stunning redhead? From the party? Tequila Mockingbird?"
Cody flipped open his notebook. "What's her last name?"
Jerry coughed. "I, uh, don't know."
Murray was so surprised that his voice squeaked. "You don't know? But--at the party, you seemed like such good friends--"
He shrugged. "Look, I've met her at three, four conventions now. She's a lot of laughs. Great sense of humor."
"As in 'I've lost my head over you'?" Nick asked.
"Well, you've gotta admit that was pretty funny," Jerry said judiciously, "but that doesn't mean it was Lynda's joke. Lots of medical examiners have a sort of different sense of humor. It comes with the territory."
Murray tried to salvage things. "She's a coroner, right? So we can track her down through their lists. I'll just get on my computer and--"
He broke off, because Jerry was shaking his head. "She's not an M.E. She's a sort of coroner cu--er, morgue mama."
"Death groupie. We run into them all the time. Really turned on by the lab coat and stuff." He was a little embarrassed. "We, uh, make love on the dissection table."
Murray was shocked. "That's disgusting."
"Not really. I had a buddy, he did it with a nurse in an MRI tube and they got stuck--"
Cody said thoughtfully, "She had access to the body, she has the weird sort of humor that produced that sign around John Doe's neck--maybe she's the killer. Didn't that Egyptian show-off mention hearing her yell on the deck of the boat last night? Maybe she got in a fight with someone and lost her head. No pun intended."
"No. She was arguing with me. That was when she was trying to convince me to take her to the morgue. She was with me most of the night, guys. She can't be the killer."
Nick wasn't about to give the theory up that easily. "But she is a witness who can clear you."
He cleared his throat, avoiding Nick's level gaze. "Er, not exactly."
"What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"
"She'll never testify, even if you do find her. See, Lynda's in the middle of a messy divorce, and admitting to something...offbeat...like this would kill her."
"And if she doesn't testify, it could kill you."
Jerry grimaced, but rallied. "Look, they can't convict me of murder. I don't have a motive. Why would I want to kill anybody?"
"Maybe the stress of the job drove you a little crazy. Besides, what sort of motive did Charlie Manson have? At least, that's what Lt. Quinlan will say."
Cody closed his notebook. "Look, we'll see what we can come up with. Our fee is $200 a day, plus expenses, plus a retainer."
"The minute the banks open up on Monday--"
"Yeah. Right," Nick said, rather glumly.
Jerry gripped the cigarette-burnt plastic counter in white-knuckled hands, leaning closer to the glass separating them. "Listen, guys, I'm innocent. I swear to God. I didn't steal a body, and I didn't kill anybody. I just came into town for this dumb convention. Why would I kill somebody? I get along with people just fine. I don't even have clients who stiff me on their fees--all my clients are stiffs." He stared out at them like a puppy in a dogcatcher's truck. "I spend most of my time in a cold basement with dead bodies; I don't even have a chance to make any enemies."
"Don't worry, Mr. Reiner. Riptide Investigations will have your name cleared in no time," Murray said encouragingly.
"Just take it easy, and wait for your attorney," Cody agreed.
"That would be A.J. His mom said when they get back from South America--"
"We'll get right on your case. Come on, guys."
They left their new client staring glumly at the tile floor. Murray lingered to throw him an encouraging little wave, but it didn't seem to lift his spirits much.
Nick was muttering, "I've heard of some weird cases in my time, but this takes the cake. We've got a head with no body, a body with no head, a client with no motive, an alibi with no name--"
Murray wondered, "What do you suppose happened to the other head? And the body that goes with this head?"
"Well, a lot of weighted bodies end up at the bottom of the ocean, right?"
That sparked an interesting memory for him. "You know, guys, I heard once of a case solved when a shark was cut open, and the police found a man's arm inside. They identified him through his watch and wedding band."
"Yeah, well, I don't think we can count on a helpful shark this time," Nick said practically. "Maybe we better start with the autopsy reports."
As they walked down the hall toward the King Harbor morgue, Murray was still worrying at the problem. "Why do you suppose the killer switched heads like that?"
"To disguise the killing. If Quincy hadn't been there, we might've just passed it off as the wino from the County Morgue," Cody pointed out.
"And Jerry would just be charged with stealing a dead body, not murder. I don't think he's going to be very happy with Quincy, actually."
"Hold it. Isn't that Quincy's partner?" Nick raised his voice. "Hey, wait a minute! You're--uh--Sam--"
"Fugiyama." He waited courteously by the elevator, still wearing an apron splattered with things Murray would rather not think about. "You were at the party."
"Right. We're private investigators, and Jerry Reiner hired us to clear him. Could you fill us in on the autopsy reports?"
"We're not done yet, actually. I'm just digging up a couple Pepsis." Sam hesitated. "Jerry's a pretty nice guy. Okay. We've got a tanned white male, 48, 5'11 1/2", 160 lbs., circumcised, physically fit, well-muscled." He shrugged. "No indications that he wore a wedding ring or other rings. All we do know is that he played guitar, he was right-handed, he had hemorrhoids, and he was probably killed by being stabbed in the carotid artery. The decapitation may've been partly an attempt to disguise the neck wound."
Murray was feeling queasy again, but tried to concentrate on work. "I could use my computer to check for missing musicians. But it won't do much good if he was just an amateur. Aren't there any fingerprints?"
"Oh, Quincy sent those to the F.B.I. right away. They aren't on file, as far as we can tell."
"So we know he wasn't a criminal."
"No, we know he wasn't a criminal who got caught and fingerprinted. And he didn't work for law enforcement or serve in the armed forces or work for any industries that require fingerprints from all employees." Sam glanced at his watch. "Look, guys, if I don't get back soon with those Pepsi's, I'm in big trouble."
"Give us a call if you find out anything that might help identify this guy."
"I'll share whatever I can, ethically." Fugiyama smiled apologetically. "Good luck, guys."
The elevator door opened and Fugiyama slid inside just as a short, elderly woman with blue-rinsed white hair emerged, clutching a foil-wrapped tray. Murray brightened. At last, a normal human being. "Hi, Hilda! Guys, you remember Dr. Hilda Braunschweig? From the party?"
"Why, Murray!" She dimpled. "What a surprise. Whatever are you doing here?"
"We're here seeing a client. Are you here for some sort of convention thing?"
Daintily, she peeled back one edge of the foil, revealing a mouth-watering mound of chocolate. "I thought I would bring poor Jerry some homebaked German chocolate cake. Not that it will make up for being arrested, of course, but as a gesture, you understand?" She shook her head sadly, clucking. "Such a shame. I had hoped he had finally matured, was old enough not to do something so foolish."
Nick cocked his head. "You mean you think Jerry did it?"
Her blue eyes widened. "Don't you?"
"Well, actually, he's our client," Murray volunteered.
"Oh, that's too bad. Well, I'm sure you'll do the best you can, even in a case like this."
Cody cleared his throat. "Excuse me. What makes you think Jerry would kill someone and try to pass it off as an unclaimed body from the morgue?"
"It's not something one would expect, no, but surely you remember how drunk the poor boy was last night? I'm sure he never set out to do such a thing, but no doubt he and Lynda--I hate to gossip, you understand, but she is a terribly bad influence on young men--brought the John Doe back to the houseboat as a little prank. Lynda is married, but--"
"Jerry says she's going through a messy divorce."
Hilda nodded. "Precisely. No doubt this man saw them, and, drunk as they were, they panicked and killed him, then tried to disguise the killing with the John Doe they had so playfully borrowed. A sad, sad story. Such a waste."
"Isn't that a little unlikely?"
She peered at him over her gold-rimmed glasses. "My dear, in my profession, you hear stories. Indeed, I've heard of worse activities at the morgue--even necrophilia--and Jerry has always struck me as, well, somewhat flighty. Not a bad boy, but...different."
"Necrophilia? Murray repeated. His partners just looked at him. "I know 'philia' is a Latin suffix for 'love of,' but doesn't 'necro' mean--" He felt himself flush. "Oh, that's just gross!"
Hilda patted his arm comfortingly. "Perhaps I'm wrong. I hope you'll be able to clear him. But for now, all I can do is bring him this cake, yes?"
Murray watched her toddle away, feeling electrical connections misfire in his stomach. Could Hilda be right? Could their client actually be guilty? After all, she knew Jerry. Of course, he had been very drunk, and maybe Lynda was the one who really did the stabbing, but still....
"Nice lady. That cake looked delicious, like one my grandmother used to bake."
"I used to have a grandmother," Murray said nostalgically, distracted from his dismal musings. "Until she heard about Christine Jorgenson."
Cody mouthed, "Christine Jorgenson?"
Nick shrugged and straightened up, all business. "Let's get cracking, guys. Murray, why don't you check cab companies, see if you can track down any other trips to the morgue? And see what you can find out about the morgue attendants. Cody, you can check with Lt. Quinlan to see if there're any more clues, and arrange bail for our client."
"Oh, really? And what will you be doing in the meantime?"
"Oh, I'll be working hard, too. I'll check with the girls on the CONTESSA and on Sharif's boat to see what I can find out about Lynda." He grinned. "It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it."
Cody was doing a slow burn. "Wait a minute. I have to get screamed at and insulted by Quinlan, while you sweet-talk the ladies? Why do you get the fun job?"
"Because I thought of it first," Nick said smugly. "We'll meet at Straightaways to compare notes in two hours, and then we can dig up the morgue's night shift and see what they have to say."
Murray hooted, catching on. "'Dig up'--that's not bad, Nick!"
"No, it's not bad," Cody muttered, punching the elevator button again. "It's awful."
Standing outside the door to the county morgue, Cody Allen pushed up the sleeves of his black sweater and glanced at his two partners. Murray was as rumpled as ever, his trust slide-rule sticking out of his blue flannel shirt's pocket in case of emergency, but obviously feeling dressed to kill in his brown corduroy suit jacket. Nick had his red Izod shirt open halfway to his navel, exposing his chest; he sported a sly smile and smelled like the perfume counter at the local department store. Cody sighed. They were probably as ready as they'd ever be.
"What was the other guy's name again, Boz?"
"The one that's off tonight? Barry Antrim." Behind the brooked glasses, his dark eyes were shining. "Boy, this is really going to be boss!"
"I still say it makes more sense for you to be back at the RIPTIDE, running background checks on--"
"I spend all my time at the keyboard," Murray objected. "I'm a detective, too, you know. If I don't watch how you guys interrogate people and do the legwork, how will I ever learn to do it, too?"
Cody said gently, "Murray, without you and your computers, we wouldn't solve half our cases, or at least not in time to do anyone any good." But the Boz had his chin stuck out obstinately, and he knew it was no use arguing, so he pushed open the door and strutted inside. With a practiced motion, he drew a leather billfold from his back pocket, flashed an impressive-looking gold shield at the startled man inside--too quickly for anyone to read the words "Ventura County Cub Scout Rodeo, 1958"--and barked, "Mr. Belzer? We'd like to have a word with you."
The pot-bellied man in the dirty white lab-coat shot quick suspicious glances at all three of them. "Who are you? Whadda you want?"
"We're here to ask a few questions about last night. It's official business."
"What about last night?"
"You were the one who let Mr. Reiner and a young lady into the morgue last night, correct?"
Belzer slowly masticated a wad of gum, his hazel eyes moving from one face to the next, like dragonflies darting over water. "So? Like I told Lt. Quinlan, he showed me his credentials, so I didn't see nothin' wrong in lettin' him in the morgue. He was a coroner, right?" They stared impassively at him. He shifted the wad to the other cheek. "If--and I ain't admittin' nothin'--but if he slipped me a twenty or two to let him and the broad in, there ain't nothin' so wrong with that, is there? But we was right here, Barry and me, and whole damn time."
"Really?" Cody exchanged a significant look with Nick. "Gee, Nick, that's not what Mr. Antrim told us."
Belzer paused in mid-chew. "Huh?"
"That's right, Cody. He was pretty clear about what happened."
"What'd that bum tell you?"
Cody lifted one shoulder. "Well, as I remember it, he said you took off for some R & R."
Belzer spat a purple-and-pink wad into an already juicy corner. "Why, that--listen, he was lying! He's the one who took off, not me! This place--it gets pretty dead at night, y'know?" He paused. "Hey, that's pretty funny, huh? Anyway, except for weekends, holidays, and full moons, not a lot happens. So last night I said he could take a little break, maybe lift a few at the bar down the street, and I'd cover for him, right? A little I scratch your back, you scratch mine."
He shifted position uneasily. "And I hadda go out on a call to pick up a stiff. Some pimp strangled one of his girls. When I got back, Reiner was gone. The door was unlocked.
"So almost anyone could've stolen the body?"
"Well, yeah, I guess so. Includin' Reiner." His face tried to twist into an appealing expression, but failed from lack of practice. "Listen, my job's on the line. If our boss found out--"
"We're always glad to work something out with cooperative witnesses, Mr. Belzer. But the key word here is 'cooperative.' Think hard. Did you see anyone else here last night?"
Belzer screwed up his forehead, as if thinking hard was physically painful. "Well...there was that guy hangin' around in the hallway when I left to pick up the hooker."
Sensing that Boz was about to leap in the air with glee, Cody half-turned to shoot him a warning glance. Murray promptly bit his lip and settled back into his role as silent observer. "What man, Mr. Belzer?"
"I dunno who he was, how could I? Just some guy. He was talkin' to somebody around the corner, but I couldn't see who it was, just him."
"Can you describe him?"
"Dark-haired. Kinda tan, like. A foreigner."
"How do you know he was a foreigner?"
"Well, duh. 'Cause he had an accent."
"What kind of accent?"
Belzer rolled his eyes. "How the hell would I know? What am I, the United Nations ambassador? A teacher at Berlitz? He just sounded funny, all right?"
"I see. Well, thank you for your assistance, Mr. Belzer. We'll get back to you if there are any problems, but for the time being I see no need to mention this to your superior. Shall we go, gentlemen?"
The other two guys followed him out obediently, but the moment the door closed behind them, Murray burst out, "It's Sharif! It's got to be him!"
"You just don't like him because he shoots defenseless, unarmed fish," Nick said.
"Well, he's also rude, too!"
"You can't go jumping to conclusions. Just because you don't like someone doesn't make him a killer."
"How many nice people do you--"
Cody, who had borne enough shouting during his ill-fated visit to Lt. Quinlan, cut them off. "At least it's a lead. Let's see what Murray's magic fingers can call up on the computer."
Nick silently passed a beer to Cody, hoping the sound of the tabs popping wouldn't disturb Murray as he struggled with his computer networks. Boz'd been hunched over the keyboard for hours, sweat forming on his upper lip, eyes squinting, with no sign of success.
At this point, there wasn't much else they could do. He'd had no luck tracking down Lynda, the death groupie, who by now was probably haunting some other gathering of coroners. Cody had only succeeded in giving Lt. Quinlan a good laugh, trying to get bail for a murder suspect. So far, all they'd established that anyone in King Harbor, not just Jerry Reiner, could've stolen John Doe 44.
"I don't think this is gonna help us, guys." Murray leaned back in his chair, weary and frustrated. He rubbed absently at the wad of Scotch tape holding his glasses together. "I've tapped into the police computers, newspapers, everything, but no luck. Whoever he was, he just played the guitar in his spare time, for fun. And do you know how many people named Lynda attended the convention? Plus, since she's not a coroner, she wouldn't even be in the membership lists. And the only convictions Ali Sharif has are for speeding and a couple fist fights and--"
"It's okay, Murray."
"No, it's not okay! Jerry's already spent a night in jail, and who knows what could happen to him there?"
"That's in prison, not the local jail. Besides, do you think Quinlan would let scumbag hoods pull anything criminal on his turf?" Nick's gravelly imitation of the lieutenant's voice brought a weak smile to his youngest partner's face. "Like my football coach back at Lincoln High always said, if one strategy doesn't work, we try another."
Murray gestured awkwardly, utterly frustrated. "Like what?"
Nick glanced at Cody. "Well, I don't know. There must be something. Maybe somebody had a personal vendetta against Reiner, pulled the whole thing to frame him."
"Right," Cody said. "Little old Hilda Braunschweig, in between baking cakes, killed a total stranger and chopped off John Doe's head, just to get Jerry Reiner in trouble because he beat her out for some coroner's award."
"I still say it's that Ali Sharif." He ticked off the reasons on long, skinny fingers. "He's rude. He thinks because he's rich he can do whatever he wants. He hates Jerry. And he's a coroner."
Nick turned back to the Boz. "What makes you so sure the killer has to be a coroner?"
"There must be easier ways to hide a body." Murray fumbled for words. "I mean, you use what you know best. If I was going to kill someone, I'd use my computers and the Roboz." He gestured at the orange-red mobile computer in a corner of his cabin, waiting for repairs. "Nick's probably use the Mimi. Only someone really into forensics would automatically think of using the morgue. And look how well they trimmed the necks to match."
"Great." Nick drained the rest of his beer and crumpled the can. "That just leaves us with a convention full of suspects."
"Okay, so you use what you know. But this whole thing was still too elaborate, Murray. The killer should've just ditched the body of the guitar-player the way he ditched the body of John Doe. It disappeared; the other body would've, too."
"I heard they're checking the sewers, to see if it was chopped into tiny pieces and washed down the drain," Murray said.
All three of them shuddered. After a moment, Cody pressed on. "Maybe the killer had a good motive for killing the body without a head, but hiding the murder this way means the killer had to have some reason to want to get Reiner in trouble."
"Maybe Lynda's husband?"
"Wouldn't he be more likely to frame Lynda?"
The phone rang. Nick levered himself out of his chair to answer it, but was beaten by Cody, and sank back down. Cody was greeted by the excited, New Yorker voice of the forensics superstar who'd hosted the death party.
"Listen, Sam tells me you guys are working for Jerry."
"That's right, we are. Not too successfully, at the moment."
"Okay, so listen, I wanna help. Your Lt. Quinlan was in here ranting and raving about secrecy--boy, is he ever a pain! I thought I had it bad working with Astin and Monahan, but I sure don't envy you guys. Anyway, I don't like him. Besides, I do like Jer. He's a little goofy sometimes, maybe more interested in gambling than in forensics, but deep down he's a pretty good cutter. Maybe what I found out can help him."
"Did you trace his fingerprints?" From the corner of his eye, Cody saw his partners sit up eagerly, like dogs expecting a bone.
"No, he's clean." Cody shook his head, and they sat back, disappointed. "But the corpse had a tattoo removed from its left wrist."
"I thought tattoos were permanent."
"No, no, there's two methods that sometimes work. You can inject another dye, to sort of whitewash the old one, or you can abrade the skin layers off completely. That's the old way--hurts like hell. Anyway, he got most of the surface stuff off, but with some painstaking detective work, a damn good microscope, and a helluva lotta luck, Sam and I think we've figured out what the tattoo used to be from traces retained below the skin." A pause, while he apparently flipped open a notebook. Paper rustled. "Here it is. J3575841."
"Just numbers?" Cody repeated. "On his wrist?"
Behind him, he heard Nick and Murray cry out two words in a macabre chorus.
As if he could hear them, Quincy said, "Some concentration camp in World War II. The numbers may not be completely accurate, either. It's hard to be sure whether we've got a 3 or an 8, or a 5 or a 6. It took a long while just to get this much. Think you can do anything with it?"
"Hey, we'll sure give it our best shot."
"I'll see what I can do about getting Jerry out from this end. Maybe I'll see you guys later, right?"
"Right. Thanks a lot."
Hanging up, Cody repeated the numbers to Murray, who was waiting with his fingers on the keyboard like some sort of concert pianist at a symphony performance. As always, at the keyboard the shy awkward kid was replaced with a self-assured professional. Whether it was a video game or a computer, nobody could make the digital world sing like Murray. But suddenly he leaned back, glasses slipping to the end of his nose, his dark eyes suddenly abstracted.
"Well?" Nick prodded him. "Can you do anything with it?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure. I think so. I'm just trying to think where to start. I can tap into Quinlan's stuff, so that if he tracks it down first, we'll read it second. But maybe the nearest Israeli embassy...or a historical library that specializes in WWII...or maybe...." His voice faded as his long, bony fingers began flying over the keyboard. He finished apologetically, "It's probably going to take a long time, though."
"No sweat, Murray. Take all the time you need."
Already, lines of print were unscrolling across the monitor. Nick shook his head. Cody knew how he felt. What was gobbledygook to them was babytalk to Murray. Boz was clumsy as a drunken stork, and usually lost on some other mental plane, but he'd meant what he said: without Murray's genius, a chore like this could take days, even weeks. He and Nick provided the street-knowhow and social skills, the muscle and transportation, but it was Murray and his computer skill that really solved the toughest cases.
Quietly, so it wouldn't disturb the genius at work, Cody murmured, "Nick, why would he erase the tattoo? John Roe, that is, as opposed to John Doe."
"Why not? I mean, it's ugly. And a reminder of a nightmare."
Cody shook his head. "Most survivors--the Jews and Gypsies who were put in concentration camps--keep it, as a reminder to them and the world. Like saying, 'Never again.'"
"I don't know, man." Nick tossed his crumpled beer can into the wicker wastebasket across the cabin, already overstuffed with computer paper. "Maybe he didn't want people to know about his past. If he was an actor, or a model, or a crook, or a spy, or something like that, he'd want to get rid of it."
Cody stroked his mustache. "Let's see what Murray comes up with before we start guessing. Come on, let's rustle up some food."
Murray worked right through the meal, his eyes glued to the monitor, only breaking off long enough to absently accept a glass of iced tea. Respecting genius at work, Nick and Cody stayed out of his way. They were sitting on his bed, holding a soft-voiced, desultory conversation on the merits of Mama Joe's latest female crewmember when the Boz flunk one arm out in excitement, knocking his phone receiver off the work-table.
"That's it! Guys, I think I've got him!"
They joined him at the cluttered table. "Yeah?"
"I think I triggered some kind of security alarm at the embassy, though; almost like they don't want anyone finding him. I bet they track it to us and show up here later. But what I did was, I figured out a way to re-route through the passport--"
"Murray. Murray, who was he?"
"Oh. His name was Janos Narvitsa; he came in three months ago on an Israeli passport." Murray touched a button, and a copy of the passport application filled the screen. "See, he fits Quincy's description."
"Israeli?" Nick looked at Cody with new respect. "Maybe you're right, and the guy was an Israeli spy. Which could mean Murray's right to suspect Sharif. I mean, let's face it, Arabs and Israelis don't exactly get along."
Cody was vaguely aware of the deck overhead creaking, but dismissed it, absorbed in fitting Narvitsa into the puzzle. The RIPTIDE was a boat; she was always creaking. "What if the motive for killing him isn't his nationality, but the war?"
Murray glanced over his shoulder at the door. His eyebrows flew up. "Uh, guys."
"Narvitsa would've been just a kid during World War II," Nick pointed out. "In fact--"
Murray swallowed miserably. "Guys?"
"--the only people I saw at the party who would've been around then were Quincy and--"
"Hilda Braunschweig," a steely voice finished for Nick.
Belatedly, they followed Murray's stricken gaze. The white-haired little woman had boarded the RIPTIDE, and there was a revolver in her steady, liver-spotted hands.
"My God, Cody, you were right: little old Hilda really did chop him up in between baking cakes!"
"I knew that accent was Bavarian," Murray muttered. "The Viennese accent isn't at all Germanic, it's more sibilant and--"
Cody tried a weak smile. "Oh, come on, now. Why would you kill this Narvitsa guy? A nice lady like you?"
The gun she was pointing so unwaveringly didn't look very nice, but Nick stayed quiet, no doubt hoping Cody's famous charm would work. Hilda's lips grimaced in a tiny smile.
"It was all so pointless, really. He wanted to expose my work in the camps, destroy my reputation and the life I've built over here, over something that happened almost fifty years ago." Cody stretched out his hand, and she raised the gun an inch. "Don't move!"
So much for charm. Nick said, "There's no statute of limitations on murder."
"Those experiments produced valuable information to save lives!"
Murray, very pale, met Nick's eyes. He was sitting, and hemmed in by the computers, but Nick swiveled his eyes to his feet; he and Cody were casually inching apart. The Boz clearly got the message, and tried to distract her by asking shakily, "Why did you try such a--a weird way to hide the murder? Why not just get rid of his body the way you got rid of John Doe's, instead of drawing attention to him?"
"If Quincy hadn't interfered, the local man would've accepted the body as John Doe 44, and no one would be the worse. If that Jew hound were found dead, his countrymen would've known a so-called 'war criminal' was here. But with two bodies in parts, neither would be so easy to identify, and Reiner would only be charged with a drunken prank, and Narvitsa would simply have disappeared."
"But--but that wasn't fair to Jerry."
She shrugged. "It was no great problem. In any case, he's only a Jew, yes?" Murray looked confused. Cody said, "The name. You know, like Carl Reiner."
"Oh. Funny--he doesn't look Jewish."
Cody rolled his eyes. Hilda raised the gun purposefully; from this end, it looked like the size of a small cannon.
Nick said quickly, "Look, lady, you can't shoot us all."
"I have sufficient bullets, thank you," she observed. "But there is no need for such unpleasantness. I simply need your boat to escape. I had in mind to take this little ship on an ocean cruise."
"Where it will conveniently sink?"
The sweet-looking old woman snapped, "Don't put words in my mouth!" She gestured with the revolver. "You. Dr. Bozinsky. You and I will wait here, while your friends prepare to sail. I need not detail to such bright young men what will happen if--"
Footsteps thudded on the deck overhead. Quincy bellowed, "Ryder? Allen? You there? I told Quinlan about that tattoo, and--"
Automatically, involuntarily, Hilda glanced back at the ladder. Cody and Nick, at least a foot apart, lunged at her simultaneously. Cody grappled with her gun hand, but the tiny grandmother expertly kneed him in the groin, and squeezed the trigger as he collapsed. Her second bullet, however, slammed harmlessly into the bulkead as Nick socked her in the jaw, hard, and put her down for the count.
"Cody, you okay?"
Green-faced, Cody gasped, "Fine."
As Murray howled in agony, Nick spun around. "Murray! Mur, did she hit you?"
"Worse! Oh, God! No!"
There didn't seem to be any blood. Nick felt him all over, frantically. "Where are you hit? What's wrong?"
He groped despairingly at shattered screens and dangling electrical wires. "My computer! Nick, she killed it!"
Nick took a deep breath. "Look, Murray, we'll get you a new one, okay? The insurance'll cover it."
Quincy peeked in the doorway. Nick picked up the gun, watching him take it all in: Cody, bent double and clutching at his sore intimate regions; Murray, clutching a ruined motherboard in anguish; and plump little Hilda Braunschweig stretched out on the cabin floor, her chin already starting to swell. Quincy cleared his throat. "Excuse me, guys. Am I interrupting something here?"
Nick shrugged, unloading the clip from the gun. "Just the successful completion of another RIPTIDE case." He began to grin. "You might say we've got the murderer dead to rights."
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