Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
I froze there for about one whole minute. One minute is a long time, if you measure it on a watch. My brain was numb, I was crying inside me. The man who was to take me to Europe as an Uncle Sam agent unbeknownst to him, lay white and still beneath me. I had killed him.
Cherry Delight had struck again!
The only thing was, I hadn’t meant to kill him. It wasn’t part of the plan. He had to be alive, to take me to wherever it was he was going to meet the higher-ups in his Mafia family. Without him, I was a failure.
I scrambled off him, heart thudding wildly. Maybe he wasn’t dead, maybe he’d just fainted. I grabbed his wrist, felt his pulse. None. I bent over his chest, listening to his heartbeat. No heartbeat, either. And when I put a mirror to his lips, there was not the faintest bit of moisture on the glass.
Oh, Joe Turessi was dead, all right. And I’d killed him.
I sat on the edge of the bed and wanted to cry. Damn! It had been in the bag. He had been ripe to take me to Europe with him. I knew it, my female intuition told me as much. I had ways of pleasing him. No other dame did. And now-this
My common sense realized he’d had a heart attack, a massive thrombosis. A fat lot of good that knowledge did me. Wearily I rose from the bed, moved to pick up the black satin evening gown and carry it to the closet.
I paused, staring at those garments on their hangers.
They all looked brand new. I wondered for a second if Joe Turessi had bought them especially for me. My fellow workers at N.Y.M.P.H.O. had learned that the Mafia man had a thing for seeing girls dressing and then undressing. They’d wangled an order from him for a visit from a Femme Fatale: me. And N.Y.M.P.H.O. had counted on my going to Europe with Turessi.
Well, it was a cinch I couldn’t go with him. But—could I go without him? On my own. With his consent. No, better than that: by his orders. I glanced over my shoulder at his dead body. Hmmmm, I’d have to do something about that corpse. Still, with a number of empty coffins in the storage chamber, that shouldn’t be too insurmountable a problem.
I ran downstairs in my black nylons and garter-belt. Hell, it was after hours, it must have been thirty minutes past midnight. The mortuary was in darkness outside the mirrored room. I fumbled around until I found a light switch.
Then I went hunting for his office. It was a wood-paneled room, outfitted with a big mahogany desk and swivel chair, with sombre files recessed behind heavy green drapes, a mantle-piece and fireplace where once logs had burned when this building had been a private home. There was a typewriter on a stand, covered.
I found typing paper in the desk, drew the Remington a little closer, and started to bang the keys. I wrote a nice letter introducing me to the man our International Intelligence unit assured us was named Benito Castracia. His title in the Mob was that of Coordinator, which meant he might be the bossman of the entire Mafia empire.
It took me half an hour to phrase the thing properly. When I was done I had a neatly typed missive. It needed a forged signature. I let my rhinestoned evening pumps take me upstairs so I could examine the articles in Joe Turessi’s discarded clothes where they lay on the mirrored floor. I found a driving license with his signature. I practiced it about twenty times before I scrawled it across the bottom of the letter.
I folded the letter and stared at it. What do I do now? I asked myself. I had no money, not even a handbag. Still. . . .
Joe Turessi would have money. He was ready to take a jet from Kennedy to Paris. He needed spending money. There had been a hundred clams in the wallet from which I’d borrowed his driving license. This meant he had some bread stashed away somewhere else. The funeral parlor safe? It seemed a safe bet, no pun meant.
I have been trained by experts to open safes, at least of the wall variety represented by the old-fashioned one that was hidden by a bit of that same green drapery that kept the filing cabinets out of sight. It took only ten minutes to find the combo.
There was three thousand iron men in the safe, plus his airline ticket on an Air France jet to Paris, another ticket for a subsidiary line to fly him south to Nice. From Nice, he would travel by rented car to Saint Tropez. When he arrived in Saint Tropez, there were reservations for him at the Byblos Hotel.
What Joe Turessi could do, so could I. The name J. Turessi was scrawled on all the tickets, the reservations. I would become Josefina Turessi. Time enough to worry about his fellow Mafia men when I was safely inside the Byblos.
I ran upstairs, selected an A-line dress and slipped into it. There were no brassieres available, evidently Joe baby had liked to see breasts jiggle. So for the nonce, I’d be a member of Women’s Lib. I settled on the St. Lafrent skirt—it was not quite a mini but it was short enough—about my nyloned legs and fluffed my hair into some semblance of a coiffure. The many mirrors told me I was a real sexpot.
Then I started gathering underthings, spare stockings and such, and stuffing them into the two Tourister valises stamped with the initials I.T. I folded dresses and a couple of sheer nighties into the same bags. Joe baby had bought these clothes with an eye to their sexuality, and since I had the right kind of body to fill them out, I knew I was going to cause some raised eyebrows to Saint Tropez.
My Piaget wristwatch told me I had plenty of time to make the nine ayem jetliner to Paris. It was around four in the morning, now. But I was ready to travel.
I lifted the dead body onto my shoulder in a fireman’s hitch and staggered toward and down the mortuary stairs. I had to stop and rest every so often, Joe Turessi had not been a fat man, but he sure was a dead weight right about now. Finally I got him into a coffin and closed the lid, wondering how long it would take somebody to find him.
I ran back for the Tourister bags, carried them down the stairs and out onto the parking lot. My eyes touched a Ford Galaxie. I had car keys in my hand that I’d taken, along with his money and airplane tickets, from the dead man. I was betting those keys fitted the Galaxie ignition slot.
They did. Ten minutes later I was wheeling along a highway en route to Kennedy International Airport. A few miles from the turn-off I swung onto a side street and cruised around until I found a public telephone.
I dialed Mark Condon’s number. His sleepy voice answered me, but when I told him what had happened, he wasn’t sleepy any more. There was a pregnant silence. Then:
“You can’t go off by yourself, Cherry, you’ll be sticking your pretty neck in the lion’s mouth.”
“I have to, Mark. It’s the only way we can find out why Turner was to fly to the Riviera and what the Sicilian crowd wants with him. I’m posing as one of his operatives. I’m hoping the Mafia big brass will believe me.”
“All they have to do is make a transoceanic telephone call to learn Turessi’s dead. Then what do they do with you?”
“Don’t remind me. It’s a risk I’ve got to take. We may never get another chance like this.”
“I’m going to call the Controller. There’s no reason why he should be getting a good night’s sleep while we worry about the state of national security.”
“Just don’t let him interfere.”
“I don’t like it. You’re taking on more than you can chew.”
“I have strong teeth. Besides, this is as good a chance as any to let the upper echelon crowd know what I can do on my own.”
“You’re a newcomer to our organization. You may not have enough training.”
“Who has, for this kind of case?”
“All right, all right. But I’m going to phone the bossman.”
“Wait until eight o’clock. Tell him I phoned you just before takeoff. Will you do this for me, Mark?”
Usually Mark Condon is a very hardheaded case officer. He is my contact with the Controller, I take my orders from him. But Mark Condon knew just as well as I did that this was a one-in-a-million opportunity that might not come again. “Okay, okay. But be careful.” I hung up and ran for the Galaxie before he could change his mind. I drove at sixty miles per hour until I was at Kennedy, searching the lettered signs for the Air France pavilion. It was getting lighter in the western sky, pretty soon it would be dawn. I was early, but I figured to check in my bags and find a place to eat before they started calling flight time.
Everything went nicely. The girl clerk at the Air France desk was not suspicious. After all, J. Turessi could very well be Josefina Turessi. She stamped my ticket, attached markers on the Tourister bags, then handed me back my tickets. She did seem a little surprised that I didn’t have a handbag, and her plucked brows rose upward.
I flashed her a sweet smile and beat feet. Nobody knew any better than I that I needed a handbag, some sort of gadget to stow away the wallet, car keys, and other assorted objects a woman needs that reposed now in the pocket of the one coat Joe baby had bought for his lady to wear. It was a fun-fur thing and looked absolutely hideous. I planned to ditch it as soon as I could and buy myself a new one.
I dozed a little in the big waiting room until about six-thirty. All the time I catnapped, I did so with one eye open, because I wouldn’t have put it past Mark Condon and the Controller to come racing in through the glass doors and carry me back to my city pad telling me to forget the whole thing. Maybe Mark did some hot arguing, or maybe he did what I asked, didn’t call until eight o’clock, because nobody showed.
I ate in the terminal grille and found a store open where I could pick up a fringed shoulder bag. It didn’t go too well with my St. Laurent A-line, but it held all the things I crammed into it.
Naturally, I would much rather have had a couple of weapons in that bag, say a snub-nosed revolver and a little gas-gun or two, but beggars definitely can’t have their druthers. Unarmed but filled with ham and scrambled eggs, toast and coffee, I headed for the boarding ramp.
At eight-fifteen, the Air France jet went down its runway and up into the blue morning sky. I lay my head against the pillow and closed my eyes. The seat-belt had me secure, nobody was going to cancel my flight at this late date, so I felt I could relax.
I slept for a few hours. Then it was time for lunch, so a stewardess in an Air France blue cap and dress woke me. I feasted on braised boeuf a la mode, salad, and a chocolate souffle served with hot coffee, curled up and went back to sleep.
We descended through clouds and a squalling rainstorm onto Orly Field in darkness. A little checking with the stewardess told me I’d have an hour’s wait before another plane would pick me up and deposit me in Nice.
This would give me the chance to change my American dollars into French francs. Even at the present rate of exchange, I’d get a lot of new francs for a thousand of those iron men. Hell, the money wasn’t mine. What did I care if I couldn’t buy as much in France as I could in Uncle Sam land for them? I was here as a guest of Giuseppi Turessi, whose money was tucked neatly inside my fringed shoulder bag.
I would have dearly loved to do a little shopping in Paris, being a female sort of girl who loves fine clothes and other assorted goodies, but this would have to wait. I marched myself to a branch of the national bank and tendered a night-time teller a thousand American bucks. I got back a lot of new francs, and stuffed them into my bag.
As I was turning away, a man said softly, “S’il vous plait, vous serez bien servi. Un monsieur veut vous voir.”
The man was telling me he wanted to serve me, and that a man wanted to see me. He didn’t pause, he’d spoken out of the corner of his mouth, almost inaudibly so only I could hear him. I did a right face and trotted off at a little distance behind him.
He was well dressed, he might have been a lawyer or some sort of professional man. My hunch was he worked for N.Y.M.P.H.O. He halted near a door and lighted a Galoise.
I came to a stop near him, fiddled in my shoulder bag. “You wanted to see me?”
“You’ave come to go to Saint Tropez, no? You are from the New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organization, no?”
“Right on both counts, dad. What gives?”
“There will be a third piece of luggage waiting for you at Nice. It contains what you may need. And m’sieu le controller says to be goddamn careful.”
He drew a deep puff from the Galoise, blew out the smoke slowly as though savoring it, and walked away. I found I had no compact in my bag, made a moué of displeasure, and marched to a pharmacie where I bought a lipstick and an Estee Lauder compact.
Thus reinforced, I went to board the jetliner. Everything went off smooth as cream, at first. The jet landed, I disembarked and marched into the airline terminal to retrieve my luggage. But as I put my hands on the handles, two beefy men with hard eyes came up on either side of me.
“You are not Joseph Turessi,” one of them said. “What are you doing with his luggage?” the other asked.
I smiled brightly. “Well, of course I’m not Joseph Turessi. I’m here in his place. Joe baby couldn’t come.”
The man blinked. They were what is known as buttons. In other words, they were the lowest in the Mafia scale, the workers, the goons, the muscle boys. They did not think, they just took orders and carried them out, no matter who got hurt.
My hand gestured at the bags. They bent and lifted them easily in their ham-like hands. Then we stood there for a few seconds while they stared at me. So I said, “Well, let’s get a move on. Take me to your leader.”
“The capo didn’t say anything about a dame.” I sighed. “Joe said I might have trouble. But he gave me a letter to hand to your capo or even to your head man, the rappresenta, if he’s around.”
They blinked in unison, then they looked at each other. One of them shrugged, as if to say that he didn’t know what to do with me so they might as well take me to somebody who did. I went on smiling like a child anxious to please.
Apparently we were going to stand there all day because neither one knew what to do with me and neither wanted to assume the responsibility. If I was ever going to get this show on the road, it was up to me. So I turned on a heel and began walking.
“I have a rented car waiting for me,” I called over my shoulder.
“Plans have been changed,” said a button. They guided me toward a waiting black Mercedes Benz. I walked between them with my heart pounding a little faster than normal because, while I told myself a bold face was the best face to put on at a time like this, their attitude was a threatening one. It told me I was going to have to prove myself.
The ride in the black car was a silent one. We went by way of lonely coastal roads between stone fences and rows of twisted pines that must have been here at the time of the Crusaders. It is an old land, this Provence, and a lovely one with its little walled-in farmhouses called mas, and the olive trees shading the little hillsides, beside great vines hung on frames. It was a peaceful scene, something out of a Van Gogh painting.
The Mercedes-Benz swung down toward the sea after a time, heading for a little town where the houses seemed to grow row on row, one a little higher than the other, like huge stepping stones. They were built of sun-faded brick and stucco and each one boasted pink tile rooftops. They formed a maze to my eyes, kept apart by narrow little alleys and cul-de-sacs. I could see the Mediterranean from here, a boat or two moving across its placid surface, and rows of fisher-men’s smacks drawn up on a pebbly beach.
Somewhere in among the houses, in front of a narrow building with awnings and an upper balcony, the car braked to a stop. One of the beefy men grunted at me so I got out of the car and stretched, taking in the cobbled street, the houses side by side with one another so that they looked like twins. The air was fragrant with salt, and cool.
“Inside,” said the beefiest of the duo. He opened a street door for me and I walked into cool darkness where the smell of cooking seafood came to meet me. The hall was paneled in wood, there was carpeting on the floor and a staircase to the left. A hand indicated I was to mount the staircase.
Two men were waiting in an upstairs room at the rear of the house that overlooked a little garden where an orange tree was growing. They sat behind two desks, like twin presidents of some big American corporation, dressed in Pierre Cardin suits and wearing ties designed by Christian Dior. They were neat, impeccably dressed, and much more sophisticated than the two bully-boys who’d come to the airport to fetch me.
One man was dark, with blue-jowls and a craggy, tough look about him, despite his clothes. His eyes were hard, emotionless as black marbles. His big hands, their backs covered with hair, lay unmoving on the desktop. I would get no sympathy, no understanding from him, my female intuition told me.
The second man was blonde, I felt he came from northern Italy where the golden-haired Vandals had left their mark, centuries ago. His eyes were blue as the Mediterranean sky, he wore his hair long, and neatly coiffed, and there was a shaggy, handlebar mustache framing his rather full lips. He even gave me a smile.
I decided to focus on him. “Hi,” I exclaimed lightly, teetering a little so he’d see I didn’t have a bra on. “Joe baby sent me.”
The blonde one smiled faintly. The other just scowled.
“Joe Turessi,” I went on bravely. “You know. Giuseppi Turessi, he’s a capo in the Outfit.”
“And what are you in the outfit?” asked the dark guy.
“I’m Joe’s deputy. An amico nostra.” I sighed. “He told me I’d have trouble, convincing you. He said you’d be very suspicious. I said you might be suspicious, but you wouldn’t be stupid. Right?”
“I don’t like it,” the dark one said in Italian, which I understand very well indeed, having learned it from my father. My mother is Irish, that’s where I get my red hair.
In Italian as fluent as his own, I caroled, “I don’t blame you.” They looked surprised at my knowledge of their language. “In your boots I wouldn’t be too happy, either. But it was me go or nobody. Joe’s having trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” snapped the blonde. “His phone is bugged. He thinks the narc boys are on his tail. You know, the narcotics gang, the Treasury Department. He said if he went, it would make them suspicious. So he sent me in his place.
“As a matter of fact, I have a letter from him. May I show it to you?”
Blue-jowls nodded and held out a ham-like paw. I dug the forged letter out of my fringed handbag and handed it over. He read it twice, slowly, then handed it to the blonde. When the blonde had read it, he gave me a faint smile.
“It seems in order. Just the same, we must be absolutely certain you are who you say you are. Capisce?”
I knew I was in for it, with these two. They had been expecting Joe Turessi, and by God and His angels, they were going to know why Joe Turessi wasn’t here and why I was. My explanation might satisfy them, I blessed my foresight in writing that letter, but for a time I was going to walk on tenterhooks.
I shrugged, “If you want to risk that bug, you can call Joe up. He’ll vouch for me.”
Now while the mortuary was bugged, even my organization could not prevent the news of Joe Turessi’s death from leaking out. Sooner or later, somebody was going to tell blue-jowls and blondie that I was an impostor. I crossed mental fingers in the hope that I’d get what I was after and get a chance to execute the Mafia head man before my cover broke.
I tried not to show how nervous I was. Visions of being tortured ran through my head like sugar plums at Christmastime. Once they were through torturing me they’d put a cyanide pellet in me and feed me to the Mediterranean fish.
Yeccch! The blonde man said, gesturing at his companion. “This is Francesco Galuppo. I’m Bocca Carducci.”
“Me, I’m Cherry Delight.” The blue eyes widened as a grin struggled with those full lips. “What’s that you say? Cherry Delight? That’s a name?”
“Well, sort of a nickname. My real moniker is Cherise Dellissio.”
The dark one, whose name was Francesco Galuppo, said hoarsely, “One thing, Miss Dellissio. Have you any objections to being our guest for—oh, say about a week or so? We must wait for the—ah—shipment, before we can turn it over to you.”
“Whatever you say. You’re the bosses.”
“Good. Oh, one more thing, then you can unpack. We may send one of our men to the United States, a man who knows Joe Turessi well. He will speak with him, learn from him if he sent you here in his place. If he has, there’s been no harm done, eh? If he didn’t. . . .”
He let his voice trail off while danger for little old me leaped into his black eyes. I would die if his emissary didn’t find Joe Turessi and get his stamp of approval for Cherry Delight. Which was an impossibility of course, Joe baby being stone cold dead.
I had about four, maybe five days until then. Bocca Carduccio smiled at me. “There’s to be a party this evening at the Villa Fouquet, where the Countess Colette De Vaux lives.” His eyes got a faraway look. “The Countess is very partial to strangers, she made us welcome with both arms when we arrived. She will be delighted to see you and make your acquaintance. You will go with us, of course?”
“How could I refuse?” I asked sweetly. “She is the daughter of a French conte,” Frankie boy told me. “Her title is an empty one, France having no more nobility today than the United States of America. Still, here in lower Provence, one indulges petty whims like this, eh?”
His hand reached out, touched a bell. Almost instantly—she must have been waiting in the hall just beyond the door—a pretty girl in the black and white lace uniform of a maid came in.
“Donna will see you to your rooms. For the moment, then, we say farewell.” His head made a slight bow. I nodded and turned toward the door.
The maid gave me a brief, almost frightened smile, then wheeled and half ran out into the hall. When I came to join her, she said. “They have taken your bags upstairs. Will you be good enough to follow me?”
Donna was a brunette, built on that lush Italian style of female body which is my own, with heavy breasts and rounded hips and all the other necessary curves that make men drool. Her legs were columns of shapely flesh under the short uniform skirt as she trotted up the stairs ahead of me. From her thighs, I eyed her buttocks that wobbled sweetly to her every stride.
She helped me unpack my things. It didn’t take an expert to see that my dresses and such had been disturbed, and not by female hands. Over the open Tourister, Donna and I stared at each other, as females and not as Italian and American.
“These men,” she sighed. “Always they are so clumsy.”
I was dying of curiosity to examine the contents of that third bag which had joined my luggage at Orly Field, according to the agent who’d talked to me. Now my organization wasn’t concerned enough about its female agents to care whether they wore the latest Yves St. Laurent or Givenchy creations. Those agents had put weapons in the number three Tourister. And disguised them as well, I hoped.
Bocca Carducci and Francesco Galuppo had kept me downstairs answering questions, while somebody had gone through my three bags. My heart felt like lead in my rib-cage. If that agent in Paris had smuggled me some weapons, I felt sure the Mafia boys would have spotted them by this time.
My hands trembled when I lifted the last bag and threw it on the bed. What was I going to find? I undid the snaps, lifted the lid.
There were a couple of French dresses. And quite a bit of body jewelry. Gold chains, links, medallions looped together here and there. The most prominent article in the bag was what the Decadent Chic call a bullet belt. No, no, not the kind Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok carried. This was a body belt of metal to which are fastened brass cartridges, big ones like for a .30-30 rifle. There was also a matching necklet.
Now these bullet belts are a mild smash in socialite circles in Little Old New York and wherever the haute monde gets together. The authorities have clamped down on them, telling their makers not to use live cartridges but make-believe. Otherwise a girl could carry enough ammo on her for a mild guerrilla war.
Still, I had the feeling that these might be dummy dummies, if you follow me. They weren’t real bullets, but one or two of them must be some kind of weapon. I was anxious to test them, but I couldn’t do it with Donna looking on. What struck me as odd was the fact that the Mafia men, since they’d examined the contents of my suitcases, had let such an obvious hiding place for lethal weaponry go unremarked.
Maybe they were just biding their time. Or—they might have substituted a harmless bullet for the real gadget. I was going to walk on eggs for a little while, I could see that. All this time, I’d kept my features in a poker face. Thoughts were exploding in my head like an active volcano, but you’d never have known it by looking at me.
When the dresses were hung and my undergarments and stockings and body jewelry put away, Donna wanted to know if there was anything else she could do for me. I shook my head and smiled a no—no.
“I’m tired,” I explained. “I’ve been traveling for the past ten hours or so, and I need some shut-eye, if I’m to be at my best tonight for that party.”
There is a time differential that seasoned plane travelers encounter which disturbs what is known to the cognoscenti as our circadian rhythms. In other words, the biological timekeeping of our bodies goes into a freak-out because we travel across different time zones when we travel by jetliner these days, that results in a weakening of our thinking processes.
When Donna went out and closed the door behind her, I dropped across the big bed and just lay there. I had things to do: I wanted to search the room for bugs, maybe even a television camera or a one-way mirror, but all that could wait. I needed to be at my most alert to do any searching.
A knock sounded on the door. “Come on in,” I called, expecting Donna with some towels, maybe.
Bocca Carducci opened the door. His blue eyes got a little big at the sight of me stretched out on the bed. An apologetic smile came to his lips.
“I am sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to let you know that we decided to put through a transatlantic phone call to Joe Turessi.”
I died the death, right there. “He was most profuse in his apologies for not having been able to come over himself,” the big blonde man went on. “He vouches for you, says you are an American citizen who’s been working with him as part of his family. He trusts you, he says you’re very clever. I thought you might want to know.”
He smiled, bowed, and went out of the room.
I told myself I was going crazy.