THUFFERIN' THUCCOTASH!
by Jane Leavell

Washing and waxing Robin Masters' Ferrari until it had the spotless glow demanded by Higgins was a long, slow, boring job that had taken up most of a beautiful morning in Paradise, but I was finally done. One last buffing with a soft cloth, and the scarlet sports car had a halo. After all that work, I deserved one, too--or at least a few favors from Higgins.

I know what you're thinking, and you're right. That's where things started falling apart.

"This is totally boss. Isn't this boss, guys?"

"It's...pretty impressive, Murray," Nick Ryder conceded, emerging from the cramped, rented sub-compact car.

Murray absently showed his thick, masking tape-swathed black glasses up his nose with the damp glass holding the remains of his drink before fingering the slide rule and assorted pens crammed into the pocket of his blue plaid shirt. Throwing his skinny arms out to encompass the 200 acre estate, he spun slowly, nearly overbalancing. "I mean, just look at it! Palm trees...gardens...tennis courts...."

"And the house." Pocketing the car keys, Cody Allen joined them. "It's like a cross between Dallas and Dynasty, you know?"

"Yeah. It's hold my entire National Guard unit, and they'd get lost between the bedrooms and johns." Nick started up the long, curved driveway toward the mansion. "Maybe we oughta go into the writing business instead of being detectives, whaddaya think?"

"Yeah, right. You have trouble sitting down to write one lousy postcard."

"Short things are harder to write than long things," Ryder reasoned. "I mean, everyone knows that. You have to cut out so much, and condense it all. Writing one of those fat glamour and adventure books must be lots easier."

"Like we know anything about a glamorous life."

"Well, we got put the girls from Mama Joe's boat in it. You gotta admit they're all gorgeous."

"So far, you've got a Sports Illustrated calendar started, not a novel."

Uninterested in their squabble, Murray was so busy admiring a hedge sporting crotons the color of raw beeksteak that he walked right into the parked red Ferrari, spilling the last of his flower-topped pina colada all over the gleaming trunik. A man rose from the other side of the car, buffing cloth in hand, hazel eyes wide with horrified disbelief. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he roared.

Confronted by a hairy-chested, 6'4", dark-haired man in cut-off jeans and a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt, Murray quailed. "Gee, I'm--I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to--I hope I didn't--that is--"

Cody and Nick swiveled on their heels as two snarling black-and-tan Doberman pinschers raced down the drive. The big man leaped onto the hood of the Ferrari just instants before gleaming ivory fangs could sink into his ankle.

"Down, Zeus! Apollo...good boy...down!"

One of the Dobermans, scenting new prey, scrambled around the rear of the car. Alarmed, Nick and Cody went back-to-back, fists raised. Murray, however, crouched and held out his right hand, beaming.

"What a beautiful dog! Hello, there. You're an absolutely magnificent specimen of purebred Doberman." Zeus sat at attention, head cocked attentively. Apollo ran to join him, eagerly trying to wag his cropped tail. "Look at those profiles! Aren't they magnificent, guys?"

"Magnificent," his partners echoed hollowly. Nick looked at Cody. "How did he do that?"

"You have a good eye for dogs," said a calm, slightly pompous British voice. "The Lads have extensive championship bloodlines. Their pedigrees are virtually as long and distinguished as my own. Of course, had they been on patrol, they wouldn't have been so easily distracted." The portly man in British tropical casual wear extended his hand. "I am Jonathan Quayle Higgins, caretaker of Mr. Masters' estate."

"Murray Bozinsky. But you know that, because we just spoke when we rang the bell at the gate, right? Mr. Masters hired me to check out the computer security system?"

"Quite." Level brown eyes appraised Boz's companions disapprovingly; darkly handsome Nick, his red sports top open far enough to reveal a hairy chest, and Cody, the former preppy with well-groomed sandy hair and a Robert Redford mustache. "And you are...?"

"Oh, these are my partners. Riptide Investigations, maybe you're heard of us? Nick and Cody have read all of Robin Masters' books. Well, maybe not all, but a couple, anyway, and they wanted to see what the estate looked like, so I brought them with me." Suddenly appearing to realize this might not be a popular decision, Murray looked worried. "They'll be a big help, really, being private investigators and stuff."

"Investigators? Robin hired outside investigators?"

"Thomas Magnum. In a moment of apparent insanity, Mr. Masters hired him to provide security for the estate," Higgins informed Murray.

"Magnum started to climb down from the hood of the car, and the dogs' heads swiveled with identical growls.

"Look, guys, I promise to bring you some steak as soon as my check comes through, okay?"

Higgins closed his eyes briefly, took a deep breath, and opened them again. "Really, Magnum, this is inexcusable. What on earth are you doing up there? A Ferrari is not a trampoline." His nostrils twitched as he distastefully eyed the frothy white mess trickling down the car's trunk. "Drinking again, I see. Not only are you scratching the hood, the fruit juices are undoubtedly eating into the finish even as we speak. I demand that you wash and polish this entire car immediately!"

"But, Higgins--!"

He turned away. "Lads, patrol." Simultaneously, the dogs wheeled and trotted away. "If you and your, er, 'associates' will follow me, Dr. Bozinsky, I shall explain our problem."

Nick grinned. Cody shrugged apologetically at Magnum, and the four men walked toward the main house, leaving Magnum with the ruins of his morning's work.

You see what I mean? It was going to be one of those weeks.

~^~^~^~^~^~
The inside of Robin's Nest was even more palatial than the exterior estate, so much so that even Cody was impressed. Nick and Murray, who didn't come from money, were practically speechless. Watching their reactions was even more interesting than looking at the elegant interior. Cody smiled a little, feeling like a fond father with two boys at a birthday party. This trip was exactly what they had needed, after the way the last case ended, with Murray's magician buddy Martin apparently dying again. Although Murray said he was a ghost all along, it was still a shock.

Pretty girls and sandy beaches aren't that different in California and Hawaii, but Murray was tickled to be the one providing the vacation. Granted, it was a working vacation, but there was no crime to investigate here, and most of the work would be computer-oriented, the Boz's expertise; there would be plenty of time to introduce their young friend to the joys of Hawaii. If he thought New Orleans was the height of decadence, he was in for a surprise.

"You coming?"

"Yeah, Nick, just admiring the artwork."

"No doubt you've heard of the controversy surrounding this incredible find," Higgins said pedantically. "A new, previously unknown Vermeer painting is a treasure beyond price, so it is quite understandable that many critics doubts its authenticity." Higgins pulled the gold satin cord, and brocade curtains parted to reveal a small painting on a wood panel: a head and bust portrait of a young woman wearing a blue -and-yellow Spanish gown and mantilla. "Note, however, the use of Vermeer's favorite colors, as well as his use of a clear, soft light. As in his other portraits, the outlines of the forms are slightly blurred."

Murray rested his chin in one hand. "Didn't he always use a relatively dark, figured background, too?"

All them of them glanced at him in surprise. Higgins elevated one eyebrow. "Precisely. For these reasons--and on the basis of the picture's history, which will be revealed to the art world when Mr. Masters returns from his tour of China--we have had the painting insured for $12 million."

Murray's chin slipped out of his hand. Nick choked, and had to be pounded on the back by Cody. "So much? But--it's so tiny!" Nick said.

"Each square inch is insured for $200,000," Higgins explained. He paused for another moment, letting them relish the air of quiet, timeless happiness and the cool harmony of colors that were the Dutch painter's trademark, then reluctantly drew the curtain again. "As I'm sure you can imagine, Mr. Masters is eager to do everything humanly possible to safeguard the Vermeer."

' "Your security shouldn't be a problem," Nick said. "I mean, we don't want to turn down the job, but you've got the fence, the dogs, that P.I.--Magnum? Masters has poured a fortune into his security already. Why send to King Harbor for us?"

"You have no idea how many times this estate has been invaded," Higgins said. He made it sound like something from World War II, complete with tanks, bazookas, and troops. "We need a thorough inspection of the Omega security system. I haven't really trusted it since Magnum 'crashed' the computer during last January's jewelry design contest."

"The Omega costs over "$100,000," Boz objected. "It's state of the art. How could he crash it?"

The Englishman sighed. "While playing a computer game, he became angry and typed in a command to 'drop dead.' Which it promptly did."

Murray winced. "Ouch."

"Quite."

Seeing the glow in Murray's eyes, Cody grinned. Computers were Murray's life. During the war, he'd been a colonel in covert ops, despite the fact that he was barely out of his teens, just because of his computer skills, at least until he decided he didn't want his talents used for warfare. After the war, he'd built a multi-million-dollar career in computer games, until he became enraged at the way the corporation was using his games. The Boz would have the Omega system wagging its tail for him even faster than he'd won over the guard dogs.

And then it's wine, women, song, and sun. The sad look that sometimes still came into Murray's dark eyes when he was on the RIPTIDE's deck and glanced at the spot where Martin had vanished would finally be washed away on a tide of pina coladas at touristy luaus.

"If you'll follow me, I'll show you the control room. The sooner you can begin, the better."

"You've got that right," Cody murmured.

~^~^~^~^~^~
Returning home late that afternoon from the monthly meeting of the Anglo-Hawaiian Cultural Society, Jonathan Higgins was content. His fellow members were positively agog over the newly discovered Vermeer, and anxious to be afforded at least a glimpse of "Girl in a Mantilla." After the meeting, over a cup of Earl Grey tea, Agatha Chumley had confided to him her certainty that he would be elected director in next month's election. Added to that, the gawky young computer expert had seemed to know what he was doing as he overhauled the Omega, reassuring him on the estate's safety. Finally, Magnum had been so tired after cleaning the Ferrari that he'd fallen asleep rather than taking the car off-grounds. (Really, Robin should never have offered him the use of the car in exchange for his alleged work here.) In fact, given the sunny spot he'd chosen to slumber in, the man had virtually guaranteed himself a bad case of sunburn.

In short, all was right with Higgins' world.

There was just enough time to take the Lads for a brief stroll before starting a late dinner. He whistled to the dogs, then, on impulse, stopped for a last lingering glance at the painting.

There was nothing behind the brocade curtains. The Vermeer was gone.

"Oh, my GOD! MAGNUM! We've been robbed!"

~^~^~^~^~^~
Sprawled in the golden sand before a steaming pit, surrounded by flaming torches, lulled by the music of ukeleles and ocean spray caressing the beach, Nick beamed. "Now, this is the life."

"You can say that again," Cody agreed. A slender half-Hawaiian woman with straight, onyx-black hair framing snapping brown, Japanese eyes rustled by in a grass skirt, smiling as Cody's eyes followed her. She waggled her hips invitingly, paused to trail long fingers over Nick's broad forehead and through his slightly receding dark hair, then deftly twirled a lei over Cody's head, staring meaningfully into his eyes. When he grinned charmingly and nodded, she winked and danced away, but he knew she'd be back. Cody fingered the pale yellow ginger blossoms, suffused in a heavily-sweet, drug-like scent. This was shaping up to be the best vacation they'd had in years. "What do you say, Boz? Is this luau living up to your expectations?"

"It, um, has definite possibilities," the Boz admitted, "but all this sand makes my feet hurt."

"That's because you're wearing shoes, Boz. No one wears white socks and penny loafers to a luau."

"Really?"

"Really. Take them off and go barefoot. Let it all hang loose. I don't think you're going to need that slide rule, either. This is supposed to be a vacation, remember? I mean, you took that Masters job to help finance it, but this is free time, okay? Relax."

Another hula girl spun a lei over Murray's spiky dark brown hair. Before she could move on, he stammered, "Uh, miss, uh, what kind of flowers are these?"

This one was shorter, with curly black hair and an Irish snub nose. "Pua melia." She bent over him to finger the five crisp petals that overlapped in perfect spirals, white on the rims and pale yellow at the center. "Frangipani, you'd call it."

"Oh, really? That's--that's very interesting. I've, uh, never seen it before." With an effort, he wrenched his eyes from the two pendulous breasts hovering near his face. Watching with paternal pride, Cody grinned.

Grinning, she shook the lei loose and planted it under the mended arm of Murray's thick glasses. Even in the torchlight, you could see him blush. "An orchid. Are you interested in flowers?"

"Uh, not rea--yes. Yes, I am."

"Maybe later I could show you my family's flower garden," she suggested, and was rewarded with a beatific grin. Cody gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.

Nick poked suspiciously at a bowl of faintly-purple, runny goo. "This stuff is awful. It tastes like wallpaper paste."

"You eat a lot of that, do you? Have another drink," Cody suggested. He nudged Nick and nodded toward their partner's puppyish excitement. "Is this as much fun as New Orleans, Boz?"

He'd lost his virginity in New Orleans when Nick and Cody were sent to escort him to the brig, but from the way he watched the hula dancer beckon invitingly with graceful arm movements, it was clear that Murray suspected he'd learn even more interesting things here. "It has definite possibilities," Boz murmured happily.

The ukuleles hit a sour note and faltered. Surprised, Cody looked up from his sticky bowl of poi to find a pair of blue-uniformed legs on either side of him. Police, here?

"Dr. Murray Bozinsky?"

Nick elbowed him, and Murray tore his eyes from the short hula girl. "Huh?"

"Dr. Bozinsky?"

Murray swallowed and nodded.

"You're under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used--"

"Arrest?" he squeaked. His dark eyes were very wide. "For--for what?"

"The theft of a twelve-million dollar painting by Vermeer," said the officer sternly, and all three Californians blinked as a flashcube went off in their faces.

~^~^~^~^~^~
When they buzzed at the front gate, I let them in. I know what you're thinking; if Higgy was here, he'd blow a gasket. But when you're a private investigator, you feel a certain brotherhood with others in the same field, and they'd been in Vietnam, too, like me. Besides, I've been in that boat, before, too, accused of something I wasn't guilty of...mostly accused by Higgins, as a minute of fact. Besides, as Robin's security expert, I felt responsible for what happened. So I let the guys in. What could it hurt?

"Look, guys, if you can convince him to return the painting, it'll go a lot easier on him."

Ryder muttered an obscenity and walked away, thrusting his fists deep in his jeans' pockets. Cody slapped the morning newspaper onto the table. "Does this look like the face of an art thief?"

Thomas cocked an eyebrow dubiously at the picture of Bozinsky: mouth open, an orchid tucked ludicrously behind one ear, eyeglasses askew. "Well, no, but that's the hallmark of a great thief; they always look innocent."

"It's also the hallmark of an innocent man!" Nick snapped. "Murray collects computer stuff, not art. The only picture he's got that isn't a photograph is the one of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe that he keeps tacked over his bunk."

"Albert Einstein and Marilyn--?"

"We're p.i.'s, like you, not thieves. The police searched our rooms, and didn't find anything," Cody Allen said.

Ryder added, "Where would we hide it? We only got here three days ago!"

He sighed. "The police say it had to be an inside job. For one thing, the Lads never barked--and your friend got on real well with them." Allen started to speak, but Magnum held up one finger. "And the security system was on. Only a handful of people have ever had their hands on it, and the last one was Murray Bozinsky."

"Were you playing computer games again?" Ryder asked.

"Nick." To Thomas, Cody said reasonably, "Fine. Give us the names of the handful of people. We can start digging there."

"Your licenses are for California, not Hawaii."

"Gee, maybe we should hire you," Ryder muttered. He didn't sound particularly sincere.

Magnum pushed back his DaNang baseball cap, wincing when it rubbed on the sunburn. "Listen, there's no way any of us were responsible. The only people with access to the control room were Robin, Higgins, me, Bozinsky...." A sinking feeling assailed his stomach. "And Mac."

"Mac who?"

"Well, Mac isn't really his name. I just call him that because he looks so much like an old friend of mine."

Allen's patience was wearing thin. "Well, what is his name, then?"

"Uh, maybe Jim Bonnick. Or it could be Neville Thompson. It's definitely not Father Jim." He gave both men a sickly smile. "See, he's sort of a...a jack-of-all-trades. When I crashed the computer, he's the one who brought it back online."

Ryder was doing a slow burn. "You had Murray thrown in the slammer, when some con man whose name you don't even know had his hands on the security controls and had every chance to boobytrap them? Is that what you're saying?"

It was beginning to be clear to him that he and Higgins might've made a big mistake here. The police said Bozinsky's record was completely clean, other than that time he trashed the computers at the corporation where he used to work, and Riptide Investigations had a good rep in the business, whereas Mac...Thomas remembered how just last month the chubby little guy got Rick involved with the Yakuza, smuggled aliens, and Icepick's thugs. He swallowed.

"Um, look, if you're right, we owe you," he said quickly. "I think I can locate Mac; I know these islands better than you do. Let me just call a friend."

"One whose name you know?"

"Nick."

"First, we've gotta bail out Murray."

"Where are we going to get the bail for a $12 million theft?"

"We'll put the RIPTIDE up for collateral. And if that isn't enough, there's always the Ferrari." Ryder transfixed Magnum with a dark glower. "Like you said...you owe us, big time."

~^~^~^~^~^~
Magnum's friend proved to be a short, brown-haired, well-dressed man draped in gold jewelry; if he didn't know better, Cody'd have figured him for a Chicago hood, somewhere in the lower range of the mob. He spent most of the trip across town muttering under his breath, complaining about doing favors for Thomas. Cody figured it was only fair, since Nick was probably muttering just as many complaints following Magnum around the island. Neither team trusted the other one, which was why they'd paired off.

Cody wasn't particularly interested. He kept reliving the quarrel with Murray in his mind, but for the life of him, he couldn't see any way around leaving Murray at Robin's Nest. There was no way Higgins would let Murray out of his sight, and no way they could do any investigating with a carload of quarreling investigators. Besides, Boz was the only one who understood computers; he did his best investigative work for the agency through the Internet, not out on the street.

Still, leaving the Boz behind left a sour taste in his mouth. The whole point of this vacation was to help Murray relax after a rough experience and getting arrested for a $12 million theft was not exactly a smooth experience, either. What a mess.

Rick Wright parked in front of an unprepossessing delicatessen and hesitated. "Listen, Icepick is, um, sort of sensitive about his name. I mean, I call him that, but...actually, I think the best thing you can do is just keep quiet and let me do the talking, okay?"

Cody shrugged. "This is your contact?"

"If anything's going down anywhere in Hawaii, chances are he'll know about it."

Now, that was interesting. "Could he be involved?"

"I don't think so. He's, uh, semi-retired. Sort of. Most of the time."

Wright led them into Smitty's Deli, nodding to the middle-aged heavyset woman behind the meat counter. She wiped ham-sized hands on her soiled apron. "What'll it be?"

"Roast beef and gefilte fish on white, with mustard, and light on the--"

Without waiting for the rest of his order, she crossed to the opposite side of the room and knocked twice on a closed door. Cody, gagging, prayed fervently that it was a code. Surely nobody would be sick enough to eat such a concoction?

The door opened, and Wright led them inside, walking jauntily but with a certain nervous quality to his smile. Inside was a featureless, windowless room. Two huge plug-uglies stood on either side of the door, arms folded. In the back, behind a desk, sat a small skinny old man with sparse salt-and-pepper hair, a sagging face, and small, very cold pop-eyes.

"Well? What is it this time, Rick?"

"The Vermeer."

Icepick nodded. "I figured. Masters hasn't put out a reward yet, has he?"

"Uh, no. Not yet."

Icepick studied his liver-spotted hands. "My niece Hilda says you haven't been calling her."

Wright cleared his throat. "Business at the club has been pretty hectic lately. I was, uh, planning to call Hilda next week, though."

"There's a concert this weekend she wants to see. One of those punk rock groups."

Wright grimaced, but forced another smile. "Right. We'll have a great time."

One stubby finger flew at his chest like a gun barrel. "But not too great, Rick. I want her home at a decent hour, you hear me?" Wright nodded, and the old man subsided. "The Vermeer's a big mystery. Nothing."

"Nothing? Didn't anybody try to hock it?"

"Nope. Whatta ya think, they'd drop into Paul's Pawn Shop and ask for a few grand?" Sharp blue eyes scanned them, one by one. "If I was you, I'd be lookin' into the art world. The hoity-toity set, and the people who wanna join it. Someone with money, a lot of it."

"You have a name?" Cody asked.

Icepick's eyes swept over him contemptuously, two ice chips soaked in cobalt. After a moment, Rick cleared his throat.

"Any suggestions?"

Icepick turned back to him genially, as if Cody had never spoken. "Abner Metcalf, that guy from the mainland."

"The Succotash King?"

"That's the one. He's into collecting things--you know, artsy stuff--and he's desperate to get accepted by that cultural crowd. Might be worth a look. Might not."

"Thanks, Icepick. Thanks a lot. I knew we could count on you."

"This Friday, Rick. Don't be late."

Wright swallowed hard. "Right. I'm...looking forward to it."

The grim-faced thugs never moved as they passed through the door. They might have been glowering Asiatic totem poles but for the way their cold eyes flicked to one side to watch the outsiders pass.

Cody took a deep breath of lox, pastrami, and salami. "I was going to ask you where he got the nickname," he said quietly, "but I don't think I want to know."

"Believe me, you don't." Rick slid behind the wheel of his silver Mercedes 450 convertible. "Metcalf. Yeah, he's the guy who made a killing selling vegetables to schools, institutions, places like that. He tried to join the King Kamehameha Club last month, but he got blackballed."

"How would he get into Robin's Nest? What's the connection?"

Wright frowned, twisting one gold chair around his neck. "Maybe T.M. and your buddy can come up with that. We don't meet 'em for another hour; you wanna stop at the club for drinks?"

"Let's check in with Mur, first. He's a whiz with computers--I want to see what he can dig up on this Metcalf guy."

"Robin's Nest it is, then."

Cody caught his eye as he turned the steering wheel. "So, this Hilda...?"

"You know how Icepick's hair is wispy, and the way his eyes bug out?"

"Yeah?"

"Hilda takes after him."

Cody winced. "Sorry, man."

It seemed that Thomas Magnum was racking up some fair-sized debts here.

~^~^~^~^~^~
Really, this was exasperating. Jonathan Higgins leaned over one skinny sloped shoulder. "Haven't you found anything yet?"

His long fingers flying over the keyboard, Bozinsky scowled at the readout unrolling on the monitor. "This isn't easy, you know. Whoever put a glitch in this system knew what he was doing, and this is a complicated system. That's why it costs so much."

"Why do I get the feeling you're patting yourself on the back for understanding it?"

The fingers stopped. "Listen, I'm not exactly used to spending half the night in jail, and having every TV station in the country call me a crook, and I'm not going to take your insults on top of it!" His voice rose, and he gestured angrily, short jerky arm waves. "Why don't you just get this Mac person to come check it out, if he's so much more trustworthy than me?" Righteous indignation blazing from his thin face, he folded his arms, obviously going on strike.

Higgins paused. "The Lads do seem to trust you," he finally admitted. "Their judgment is usually quite sound."

Still angry, Bozinsky turned back to the keyboard, and more lines of arcane numbers and symbols sped by. Abruptly he leaned forward, adjusting his glasses. "Aha! I found it!"

"Found what?" Intrigued, he peered at the screen, unable to make anything of the obscure data. In the main house, the dogs began to bark, but he was too absorbed to pay it any mind. No doubt they'd spotted those blasted peacocks again; the Lads were convinced that the peacocks were overbearing snobs who deserved to be taken down a peg, or perhaps eaten. "Does this tell you something useful?"

"It was some sort of audio signal." Bozinsky cleared the screen and called up a simplified musical score. "They programmed it to completely lower its defenses--right down to the lock on the main gates--when it heard a certain series of notes."

"What notes?"

"I'm trying to decipher the notation now." He tapped a few keys experimentally, producing an off-key run of unrelated notes. "No. How about...?" He reached for the keyboard, but froze as the familiar alien signal from Close Encounters of the Third Kind filled the small room. "Hey. I didn't play that."

"We did."

Perhaps it hadn't been the peacocks, after all.

They spun around to face two strange men, one grinning and holding a small tape-recorder. The estate had, once again, been invaded. Reminding himself that anger interferes with the flow of chi, Higgins let his hands fly up, slightly curved, and without changing his expression he launched into a series of stylized karate blows that shattered the cassette-player against one wall and its bearer against the other. Although it was wrong to take pride in mastering one's body, he was pleased at his success. He turned to similarly dispose of the other invader.

"Hold it!" Sweating, the man was pressing a revolver to Bozinsky's dark head. "One more step, and I waste the geek."

Higgins froze, but permitted one acerbic eyebrow to rise. "Who are you? Just what do you think you're doing here?"

"Who we are don't matter. We came for Murray Bozinsky."

"Then it hardly makes sense to threaten his life."

"Ha! Who d'ya think you're fooling? The boss's seen him. He's short, fat, no glasses, brown hair and mustache. And that's you, Mister."

He bristled. "I assure you, I am not fa--"

"He's not Murray Bozinsky. That's Mr. Higgins, Robin Masters' assistant," Bozinsky protested, with a skittish sideways glance at the gun.

"Help my partner up. You better not've killed him."

Higgins bent over his victim, who was stirring groggily. "I assure you, you're entirely mistaken. As the identification in my wallet will readily prove, my name is Jonathan Quayle Higgins, and if you were a member of any of this island's cultural programs you would recognize--"

"Save the stories for later. You're in enough hot water as it is," the gun man advised.

"But he's telling the truth! He's not me; I am," Bozinsky protested. "He doesn't look at all like me. Look, didn't you see my picture in the papers?"

"If it wasn't on the sports page, I didn't see it." He glowered at both of them. "You don't fit the description the boss gave me, and he does."

"He wouldn't know a vacuum tube from a microchip!"

Higgins said, "I am not completely ignorant of computer operations."

"Aw, the hell with it, we'll take both of ya." He waved the gun toward the open door. "Move it!"

~^~^~^~^~^~
"You don't have any idea where this Mac guy is, do you?" Nick demanded in exasperation as the rented subcompact creeped along Kalanianaole Highway.

"I'm looking, I'm looking," Magnum said testily.

It was a humid ninety-two degrees, and being crammed into this sweatbox with the local p.i. was like being the bottom sardine in a tightly-packed can. Nick leaned a little farther out the window, looking futilely for a breeze.

"Some vacation," he muttered in disgust. "Boz'd've been just as happy with New Orleans, but I wanted him to really relax, have a good time." He snorted, drumming his fingers on the rim of the window. "For all I know, you and that Brit have decided Masters owes you a little extra for all your work. Or maybe he's ripping off his insurance company with a fake theft. It must cost a hell of a lot to keep his Lear jet flying while he writes his latest three hundred page blockbuster entirely in mid-air."

"For all I know, this is all just an act on your part. Your buddy's still the last one to mess around with the Omega," Magnum retorted.

"First of all, the only way you'd get Boz to steal is to convince him someone's life is at stake. Then, even if you got him to agree to it, he'd just trip and put his elbow through the canvas," Nick said. The amusement quickly died. "But of course a well-known and respected professor is a lot more suspicious than a guy with three different aliases and no known address, right?"

With controlled dignity, Magnum said, "Hey, I'm not worried about finding Mac. I can always have Icepick look for him. What we're doing now is, uh, checking with a local art expert I know about."

"For what? We don't even have the painting any more."

Magnum shrugged. "Todd Morris got canned by the museum--he's got a sort of shady reputation. If there's anything funny going on in the art world, he'd know about it."

"Isn't that a little far-fetched?"

"Call it intuition. Didn't that ever happen to you, working on a case? When it's like there's a little voice somewhere in the back of your mind, telling you to check something out?"

Nick was silent for a long moment, staring at the unwinding road, then he said lightly, "With Mur and the Roboz, we don't need intuition." He waved one hand. "Go ahead. Check out your little voice."

"I intend to." Magnum swung the subcompact into an open spot before a broken parking meter. As he started to open the door, he stopped, took his sunglasses, smiled, and muttered, "Bingo!"

"What?"

"See that chubby, cheerful little guy coming out of the brick building on the corner?"

Nick shaded his eyes with one, focusing on the man in question, a dark-haired, mustachioed man with a briefcase swinging from one hand. He was whistling cheerfully as he started down the sidewalk. "Your Mac?"

"Also known as Eddie, Neville Thompson, Father Jim, and half a dozen other aliases. Yup."

As Mac strolled past the drooping meter, Magnum squeezed out of the tiny car. Some sixth sense must have warned their quarry, for he abruptly glanced over his shoulder and spotted Thomas's grimly pleased visage. Alarm flitted across his round, cherubic face and he dashed right, toward the street. Nick ran after him. Surprisingly light on his feet, Mac speeded up. A touring bus cut between them.

Magnum held up one hand to stop oncoming traffic, running across the street. Dodging around a bag-lady with a filled shopping cart, he angled left.

Mac glanced back at him, clutched the briefcase to his chest, and rushed around the corner...smack into a cart selling little Styrofoam bowls of saimon. Before he could pull himself together and out of the spilled soup, Nick Ryder had collared him and thrown him against the side wall of a drugstore.

"Hey, wait! There must be some mistake here--I don't have any money, honest!"

"Yeah? How about some pictures?"

"Huh? Oh--Tom! Thank God you're here! This guy tried to mug me!"

Nick glanced back at Magnum, whose grin was stretching under his dark mustache. Magnum reached out to pry the briefcase loose. "Hi, Mac. I think we're about to have a long, serious talk."

~^~^~^~^~^~
This was terribly embarrassing. Not only had he grievously misjudged Dr. Bozinsky and his friends, he had allowed them both to be abducted. What would his friends in MI6 say if they knew? Perhaps his years at Robin's Nest had made him too complacent.

Well, the thing to do was to keep his companion's spirits up. Granted, they hadn't been able to escape during the car ride, but Dr. Bozinsky had made an admirable attempt in swinging the car door into the groin of the gun man. Had he not tripped on his way through the door, he might actually have given them a run for their money. Unfortunately, the kidnappers were already aware of his own aptitude in karate, leaving him unable to help, and they had ended up in this grungy little windowless room. Jonathan didn't think much of their prison. Their kidnappers hadn't even bothered to provide chairs. The room was unfurnished, other than a small desk, and their guard had appropriated the desk chair, dragging it over by the door. Sitting cross-legged on the floor felt rather juvenile, but it was less wearying than standing.

"Actually, this reminds me of the occasion in North Africa, when my regiment, the Prince of Wales West Yorkshire, was assigned to--"

"Ahh, put a sock in it, Pops."

Murray gave their guard a reproachful look. "Don't say that. This is fascinating. Go on, Mr. Higgins."

The guard groaned. Jonathan shot him a single contemptuous glare. "As I was saying, young Pequod Melville was the victim of an absurd case of mistaken identity which resulted in his partial dismemberment by an angered Mau-Mau warrior."

"Wow!" Murray breathed. "What happened?"

"Well, it seems that Melville bore a slight--but, as it turned out, quite fatal--resemblance to one--"

He broke off as the door to their room opened and a sharp-faced, preternaturally thin man with spindly arms and legs tightly covered by taut sunbaked skin peered inside. His colorless, narrow eyes swept over the two prisoners, then he snapped in a scratchy voice, like an old phonograph record, "That isn't Murray Bozinsky!"

"Precisely as I've been endeavoring, without success, to convey to your remarkably ignorant assistants."

"I do, too!" Murray blazed, standing up. "Of course I look like me! I am me!"

Bland eyes took him in without much interest. "That may be, but you're not the man I met who called himself Murray Bozinsky."

Sitting on the floor might have been a mistake; rising with dignity was proving difficult. "Fine. Then no doubt you will now instruct these ignorant oafs to release us."

"I'm afraid," said the scrawny man, his hawk-like eyes half-closing, "that it's much too late for that."

~^~^~^~^~^~
"Look, I was doing it for a good cause," Mac said reasonably. "The money was going to fund an orphanage--a good Catholic orphanage--for homeless children, so they wouldn't have to roam the streets, the way I did."

"Save the hearts-and-flowers routine. We don't buy it."

Magnum slowed the cramped subcompact at the entrance to Robin's Nest. Mac's voice speeded up.

"Hey, if you think about it, I actually did Robin Masters a favor. I exposed a potentially very expensive flaw in his security--"

"The gate's already open."

Nick leaned over the seat. "Trouble?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

Rick's silver Mercedes was parked near the mansion, but no one was in sight. As he left the car, gesturing to Ryder to stay with Mac, Magnum could hear the dogs somewhere in the house, barking somewhat hoarsely, as if they'd been doing it for a long time. He entered cautiously, wishing he'd bothered to pack a gun.

"Rick? Higgins?"

Cody Allen leaned out of the living room, his handsome face taut. "The sonic alerts, the Hitchcock stun fence--they've all been turned off. We can't find Boz or Higgins anywhere."

"You mean they've been kidnapped?" Thomas heard his voice crack. "Oh, great."

Ryder followed him in, propelling Mac by the right arm, which was twisted against Mac's back. "Maybe we can work out a trade." He shoved Mac into the carpeted, antique-filled living room. "This sneak, and the painting, for our friends."

"You got the Vermeer?"

Thomas set Mac's briefcase on top of the grand piano and fumbled with the lock. "He was commissioned to steal it by Abner--"

"--Metcalf, the Succotash King. It figures. Rick says he has a rented house in the mountains." Cody watched in fascination as Magnum removed the small painting of the smiling Spanish lady. "We were just waiting for you to get here before heading out for a frontal attack."

Magnum kicked the briefcase under Higgins' desk and stuck the Vermeer into a manila envelope.

"Hey, you be careful with that! That thing's a masterpiece!" Mac cried aggrievedly.

"You--shut up," Thomas told him. He tucked the envelope under his arm. "Rick? Come on, let's go."

~^~^~^~^~^~
We took both cars, so at least my muscles weren't aching from sitting in that little rental car. On the negative side, I had to listen to Mac's excuses the whole way to Metcalf's rented place--each escuse different, and all pretty convincing, if you didn't know him. Still, I wasn't really listening. I was worrying about Higgins, and about what would happen to the Ferrari if Bozinsky didn't show up at court for his hearing, and about whether Higgins would irritate the kidnappers so much that they'd shoot him just to shut him up. I know myself how tempting that could be. To make things worse, Mac still smelled of spilled saimon, and the combination of heat, sweat, paint, green onions, noodles, and pork was making me really sick.

As we planned, Rick and Allen went first.

If there was any role Cody could play to the hilt, it was that of preppy. He'd changed from jeans and a teeshirt to tailored slacks and a silk shirt with the top two buttons open, taking on the air of Money so powerful that it didn't need to work at creating a good impression. Nobody would suspect him of being a cop, or even a salesman; he was clearly above such mundane considerations. The man who opened the door to Metcalf's rented place didn't seem worried about what he was doing here, just eager to shut the door and forget about him. "Look, I already told you, Mr. Metcalf isn't expecting guests."

"Oh, we're not guests," Cody said easily, with his most charming smile. "We're bearers of good tidings, actually. Surely you recognize Mr. Wright, the manager of the King Kamehameha Club?"

The big man's obsidian eyes shifted without expression to Rick, who grinned nervously. "Uh, hi, there."

"We've come with good news. The member of the Board of Directors who blackballed Mr. Metcalf has finally been convinced to remove his objection. Mr. Wright and I are here to extend our apologies for the insult, and to welcome him to Hawaii's most exclusive club." He locked gazes with the man. "I'm sure Mr. Metcalf will want to see us."

Apparently Metcalf's rage at being blackballed was no secret. "I'll, er, see if he's in."

Cody eased through the door before he could close it, with Rick tight on his heels. "Fine. We'll just wait here."

The big man scowled, but they looked back innocently, and after a tense moment he turned and vanished through a teakwood door. Rick promptly eased the front door open again, while Cody slipped a borrowed gun from the small of his back and tiptoed to the teakwood door. Hearing nothing, he eased the door open, then gestured to Rick to follow.

Behind the teakwood was a spacious living room with teakwood floors, wicker basket chairs, and stylized Hawaiian ritual masks displayed on the walls. Here and there, someone with no sense of decor had haphazardly hung oil paintings from wildly varying schools of European art. At the far end of the room was another door. Rick plastered himself against one wall as Cody pushed the door open, holding the gun out in both hands. Rick plunged in after him.

"Cody!" Murray was on his feet, face red, obviously angry. "This guy--this guy is going to kill us!"

"Not now he isn't," Cody said grimly. "You two okay?"

But Higgins was looking past him. "Oh, my God!" he groaned. "Have you been taking lessons from Magnum?"

With a sinking feeling, Cody followed his unhappy gaze, keeping the gun steady on the spidery tanned man in the center of the room. To his right was a squarely-built ex-football tackle type, and his gun was squarely aimed at Wright's midriff. Rick, his hands raised, gave Cody an embarrassed shrug.

"You can shoot," the skinny man said softly, a grin stretching the skin taut around his skull, "but your friend will die, and you are outnumbered."

Reluctantly, Cody raised his hands, the gun now pointing at the ceiling.

"Really," Higgins told Metcalf, "one cannot expect to rise in society by indiscriminately massacring its leading members. Give it up, man! The whole thing's completely absurd."

"Not only that, the odds are closer than you think," Thomas Magnum said brightly. Nick shoved Mac into the study behind him. "We brought a friend of yours along."

Cody relaxed, lowering his hands again.

Abner Harold Metcalf stiffened. "Bozinsky!" he hissed. "I paid you a commission to get me that Vermeer, and you tricked me!"

Mac was the picture of innocence. "How can you say that? I got that painting out when no other man on earth could've done it, and this is the thanks I get?"

"In fact, we brought it to you," Magnum added. He slipped the painting and a blue plastic cylinder from the manila envelope. "'Girl in a Mantilla.'" He held it up, letting the Succotash King feast his eyes on the beauty. "Gorgeous, isn't it?" He cocked his dark head, hazel eyes sparkling. "Frankly, I'm surprised. From what I've heard and seen, I figured your artistic taste ran more to black velvet paintings of Sylvester the Cat."

"That's mine!" Metcalf said. "I paid enough for it, God knows. No one can say I don't appreciate art. If you could see the treasures I've gathered--all mine, not for anyone else's eyes--"

"Tell your men to put down their guns." Magnum held the blue cylinder to a corner of the small, dark-figured sketch. "Or I flick my Bic, and this Vermeer will never be seen again by any eyes."

"You--you're bluffing."

"Am I?" He flicked the lighter, but held it just short of the wood.

Metcalf licked his lips. "Wait. We can work out a deal."

Unnoticed in the tense stand-off, Nick edged to the right. Murray looked alarmed.

"Mr. Magnum, be careful, that painting is--"

"The guns," Magnum said firmly, ignoring him.

"Give me the painting, and we'll release your friends when we reach the airp--NO!" Metcalf screamed in anguish, lunging forward as Magnum set fire to the long-lost Vermeer.

At the same time, Cody tackled the gunman by Rick, who dodged down and to one side. Higgins yanked the startled Bozinsky behind the desk, out of the line of fire. Cody, gun braced in both hands, shot the pistol from the second thug's grasp. Dropping the painting--which burst into flames as though it had been soaked in kerosene--Magnum drove a fist into a third man's face.

As quickly as that, it was over. Murray and Higgins cautiously peered over the edge of the desk, equally appalled. Assured that the villains had all been successfully apprehended, Higgins rose, staring in horror at the charred remnants of a twelve million dollar masterpiece.

Kneeling over the burnt wood, Metcalf stifled a sob, seeing his dreams of culture go up in smoke.

Higgins turned to Magnum, his face white. "Magnum, do you have any idea what you've done? You've--you've committed an atrocity. You've wantonly destroyed a priceless, irreplacable treasure, a--" Words, for once, failed him. Nursing a sore hand, Magnum helpfully supplied them.

"--a fake. A lousy one, too." He rubbed two fingers together, displaying a smear of blue paint. "See? It was still wet. The real Vermeer's under the desk in your study at the estate."

Metcalf froze in the act of reaching for the ashes. Higgins stared incredulously. "You're joking."

"Tell him, Mac. Mac?" Magnum looked sheepish, realizing the tubby con man was gone. "I, uh, guess he slipped out during the fight. See, he always intended to return the painting."

Higgins snorted derisively, but Magnum plowed on.

"Metcalf had him roughed up, so he stole it under duress, partly because it was the only way to get enough evidence to put Metcalf behind bars."

Higgins cleared his throat. "How, then, do you account for this fake?"

"Well, now, that is Mac's fault," Magnum conceded. "He hired a forger to paint copies of the Vermeer. After he returned the original, he could peddle the fakes, telling each buyer the fake was the original, and Robin had the fake. It was shady, but not really illegal. I mean, the only people he'd be robbing would be criminals, people willing to buy stolen goods, right?"

Assured that his partners were unharmed, Cody opened the humidor on the desk and ran a thin cigar under his nose. "Hey, not bad. But I thought it was illegal to import cigars from Cuba."

Metcalf shot him a furious glare.

Magnum said earnestly, "The important thing is, we've got evidence that Metcalf is a crook. He may've stolen other important paintings, too. Thanks to Mac, we stopped him."

"Indeed." Higgins wheeled around. "Dr. Bozinsky, it would seem that we owe you copious apologies. You were falsely accused. I shall notify the media, of course, but for the rest of your stay I insist that you take full advantage of the estate."

"Bodacious! Nick and Cody, too?"

"Certainly. The sauna, hot tub, wide-screen TV, greenhouse, tennis courts--all are at your disposal."

"Hey, Higgins, wait a minute. You said I could use the TV this weekend. The game--"

"This is so great. You've got to tell the guys some of the stories you told me." Murray told his partners, "You got to hear this. He tells the most fascinating stories."

Magnum chortled. Cody and Nick looked uneasily at each other. "He does, huh?"

"You know, I believe your presence will be a welcome protection for the real Vermeer, since Magnum doesn't seem capable of keeping his friends' hands from it. Magnum, watch those blackguards until the police arrive." Leading the three Californians to the door, Higgins added, "I shall be certain to tell Mr. Masters of your aid, and highly recommend the use of your agency in the future."

Magnum's jaw dropped. "Recommend--you can't do that! They live in California, for crying out loud! Higgins? Higgins!"

Like I said before...it was going to be one of those weeks....

--Tuesday, March 26, 1985, copyright J. A. Leavell, all rights reserved.

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