Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
I let my eyes run over the big stone castle. They touched the sleek Amante GT/XM with its silvery body gleaming in the moonlight, they roved on to where I knew there was a classical garden on the broad acres behind the castle, where a swimming pool was situated. When Claudio della Fanzio had begun his shipbuilding programs, this stone building was almost in ruins; now it was one of the finest homes south of Naples.
“The hell you say,” I snarled. I was mad. Mark raised his eyebrows. “How’s that again?”
“I won’t let them quit, dammit!”
“Cherry, don’t be an idiot. You can’t force your will on these people. Sure, sure, I know how you hate the Mafia, their tactics and all they stand for, but you’ll put yourself in their position if you try to ram your wants down the della Fanzios’ throats.”
I grinned at him, mirthlessly. “Not my wants, Mark—but theirs. Come on, follow mamma.”
Armed with two black bags filled with bombs and a fiery temper that matched my fiery red hair, I set sail for the big double doors of the entryway. Those doors were of imported English oak, reinforced with great iron hinges out of the Middle Ages. My heels clicked on solid oak floors.
The della Fanzios were in the baronial living room. At one time, this had been the great hall of the castle, in those days when Robert Guiscard had made himself master of this land. Ancient battle flags still hung from wooden poles affixed to iron sockets in the walls, there were swords and gisarmes, pikes and crossbows, and suits of armor.
Ines della Fanzio was at the bar, pouring herself a drink. She was a gorgeous woman in her late twenties or early thirties, wearing a pair of tight black Veneziani slacks and an Emilio shirt. She wore clogs on otherwise bare feet. Her plucked brown eyebrows rose at sight of me with the two bags and in my peasant clothes.
“Well, greetings. What brings you here at this time of night?”
As if she didn’t know! I got madder by the second. I gave a brief glance at Mario who lounged in a big easy-chair, his curly black hair giving him the appearance of a Greek god, then touched his older brother Rafaelo with my stare. Rafaelo was lean and hard, very wiry.
I plunked the bags on the big refectory table that had once belonged to some monks, and upended them. Four bombs rolled out and lay there with the electric lights beaming down on them.
“I killed three men tonight—for you bastards!” I said calmly. “One man fell from one of the walkways and I couldn’t get his little black bag. But I got these, and you can see for yourself that they’re pretty deadly things. They were going to set them off in the Condottiero.
Rafaelo winced. The Condottiero was his baby, it was a luxury liner destined hopefully to be the first of a series of ships that would bring tourists from all over the world to Rome and Milan, Venice and Florence, The della Fanzios were staking a lot on its success. They knew as well as I that if those bombs had gone off, they would have lost half a billion dollars in damages, not only to the ships but also to the shipyard.
Ines came across the room, hips swaying. She was lovely, she had a perfect profile, perfect features with perhaps slightly overlarge lips. They did not detract from her beauty, they merely added a touch of sensuousness to her already great sexual appeal. Under her Emilio blouse, her big breasts bobbled lazily, unfettered.
Her brown eyes stared at me, a strange light deep inside them. Excitement? Flirtatiousness? I couldn’t make it out.
Then Rafaelo was at my elbow, touching one of the bombs with a forefinger. The pained look was still on his face, and there was a sullen fury to the set of his lips.
“They look dangerous, indeed,” he murmured. “If they’d gone off, it would have been, ‘Goodbye, Condottiero!’ ”
Mario uncrossed his legs, smiled at me from the depths of his easy-chair. “Much ado about nothing. What harm’s been done? She prevented the bombs from going off. We owe her a reward. Pay her, Rafaelo.”
I could have hit him. I put both palms on the table and leaned on them, staring hard at him. I was furious, but it was a controlled anger.
“Listen, buster! I’ve had dealings with the Mafia. You haven’t—as yet—other than to lose a few ships and get some threatening letters.”
“Do you call that nothing, Miss Delight?” Ines asked softly.
“Hah! That’s only a calling card. They threaten, they warn. If they can’t scare you, they move in with bombs like this, to hurt your pocketbook. Then if you still don’t scare, they use strong-arm methods. They’ll have you beaten up, Mario—or you, Rafaelo.”
I glanced sideways at Ines. “They’ll do worse things to you,” I told her.
“Oh, they’re mean and vicious and heartless, when you have something they want—like a shipping line and shipyards that—”
“I sure am. I’m trying to scare you because what the Mafia is going to do to you scares the hell out of me, and I don’t stand to lose a red cent. Mark!” I swung around toward my contact man, invited him to take the floor with a wave of my hand.
Mark smiled grimly, nodding. “Everything she says is true, I’m not happy to say. This is the Mafia pattern in our country. It will be repeated here. Whenever the Family sees somebody making money, a lot of money, they start to move in. They have no morals, no scruples. They even have wars among their own kind for control of certain sections of a city or a county for gambling and vice and other money-making schemes. What makes you think you’d be safe from them?
“No, no. If Cherry is frightening you, I’m glad. Because we’re both hoping she’ll be able to make you see sense and—fight back.”
“We can’t,” muttered Mario, sinking lower in his chair.
Rafaelo pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It seems to me that if we fight back as you suggest, we’ll only lay ourselves open to more bombings. The Condottiero will be destroyed, we’ll be in the same boat we’d be in if we gave in to the Mafia.”
“I agree,’ nodded Ines. “Except that we hope to break the Mafia’s back before they do any more damage,” I explained. “When we do that, you’ll own your shipyards and your shipping lines without fear. Outright, with nobody to cut in on your profits. You’ll be billionaires in a few years, each one of you.”
“But at what a risk?” exclaimed Ines. “Everything we do is a risk,” I answered. “I took one hell of a risk myself tonight, to keep the Condottiero from being blown up. For your sakes. But if you aren’t going to back me up, I might as well not have done it. The Family will find another way to strike at you, when I am not around.”
Rafaelo shook his head gloomily. “I still think we’d be better of cooperating with them. I can’t believe they’ll ask any more than twenty or thirty percent of the business.”
“Of the gross,” I reminded him, “not of the net. That will cut down on your individual profits more than somewhat.”
Mario grimaced. He needed all his share of the present profits to live the way he’d become accustomed to, anything less would mean he wouldn’t be able to afford new and expensive cars and women. Ines sipped her drink, staring at me with her big brown eyes.
I shrugged. “Okay, okay. So you won’t listen to reason. I guess that means Mark and I pack up and leave. Maybe we ought to go tonight?”
Ines exclaimed, “Why, darling! You’re making us seem to be ingrates. Don’t leave tonight or even tomorrow. You’re both going to stay a few days as our guests. We insist.”
Mario grinned and nodded. Gloomy Rafaelo, who knew better than either of them what the della Fanzios stood to lose, voiced his invitation as well. “Indeed we do insist,” he murmured, “as my sister says. It’s unthinkable that you should walk out of here after what you’ve done for us.”
Maybe the man had something. At least, I’d be on hand in case anything new developed. And there might still be a chance of getting the della Fanzios to develop some backbone; I was sure there’d be no chance of that, if ever I left here.
“Why not?” I asked Mark Condon. “We’ll tell the boss the della Fanzios are still undecided, that they haven’t made up their minds.”
Mark shrugged, grinning weakly. “Makes no never mind to me. I’ll be happy to have a few days off.”
Ines was full of enthusiasm, chattering about the sights she wanted us to see: the great Cathedral at Reggio, the Civic Museum next door to it, with its relics of the Roman world, the ancient baths, and then the ruins of the abbey of the Holy Trinity on the road to Monteleone. She mixed us drinks, soon we were talking of inconsequential matters, until I began to yawn.
Mario was overcome with concern at the sight of my yawns. He bounded from his easy chair and fussed over me. “You must get some rest. It’s terrible of us to keep you here talking when you’d be better off in bed.”
“You might have an idea there,” I nodded.
Ines bubbled, “Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’ll just laze about the villa, sunbathing and swimming and taking a long walk. Maybe we’ll even have a picnic.”
Mark tugged me to my feet. “Let’s go, let’s go.”
He and I were staying at the villa, pretending to be guests. We had rooms on the second floor, side by side. I know I was really bushed; it must have been three in the morning. I stumbled up the wide staircase with him and along the dimly lighted up-stairs hall.
My bed was turned down. It looked so inviting shucked out of my dress, unhooked my bra and dropped it, slid down my panties and dove naked between the sheets. I was asleep two minutes later.
It was late morning when I woke, Ines della Fanzio was standing beside my bed in a skimpy bikini that showed most of her gorgeous body with a bronzed sun tan. Her breasts were big and heavy in the thin print cups that tried to hold them in. Whenever she moved they bobbled halfway out of the thin stuff binding them. Her belly was slightly mounded and set with a deep navel. Where the bikini triangle hid her mons veneris, I could see Some brown hairs escaping.
“Slug-a-bed,” she laughed, grabbing the covers and throwing them back.
There I lay in all my nakedness. Her eyes got big as they ran down over my nude body and then back up again. Laughter glinted in her eyes, and a bit of something else. I remembered the tales I’d heard that Ines liked lady lovers.
“Coffee down below, with croissants,” she told me. “Just slip into your swimsuit and come on.” She hesitated, then asked, “You want me to wait downstairs?”
“Why? You’ve seen it all,” I laughed, slipping my legs over the edge of the mattress. I looked very pale beside her sun tan, but I figured that could be remedied with a few days of loafing under the hot Calabrian sun.
I moved naked to the bureau that held my clothes, slid into a bikini that was every bit as daring as the one Ines wore. I might just as well have stayed naked, I thought, seeing my reflection in the mirror. I wondered, as we moved into the hall and down the stairs, when and where the Mafia would strike again.
Because the Mafia would hit the della Fanzios. And Soon. It was their modus operandi, their way of doing things.
The question was: where and—when I lounged in the sun, I swam in the pool. I loafed all day. Mark and Mario joined us, each man wearing le minimum of the French Riviera, which meant that they were just about stark naked except for a little cache-cease that hid their genital organs. It was almost like being in a nudist camp.
We all reacted to the nudity. Ines found occasion to brush her hand over my bare back, to pat my behind. Mario came up behind me and nudged his overdeveloped dong against my buttocks. And Mark got in a few feels while we were in the pool. The day was soft, warm, like a caress on the flesh. From time to time, I told myself that we were going to have sex pretty soon, one way or another, before the sun came down.
One of the three was going to invite me to a bed romp.
It didn’t happen that way at all. Mario finally said to me, “How about running into town with me, Cherry? I have to pick up some cigarettes, I have them shipped to me from New York. Only good cigarettes are American ones, I buy them by the bushel.”
“Why not?” I changed into a halter that did little more than show my breasts behind see-through black chiffon, and black culottes. Mario was bare-chested, with slacks and leather loafers. We went down to town in his Porsche.
He filled the trunk with cigarettes, then suggested a drive along the mountain road. There were some great views of the sea from those heights, here and there trees had been felled to form a scenic spot. I was all for it.
We were a few miles out of Reggio when I noticed the red Alfa-Romeo following us. There were two beefy men in it, they filled the two-seater convertible to overflowing. Maybe it was my feminine instincts, developed over the years of fighting the Mafia, or maybe it was just the fact that the two men in the Alfa-Romeo sat like dummies with their eyes always on us, like hounds with their noses to the ground, hot on a scent.
“Mario,” I murmured, “trouble’s on our tail.” His eyes touched the rear-view mirror, and he grinned. “I’ll lose them,” he said confidently. “You watch.”
He might have done what he promised on a straightaway, but on these narrow mountain roads, he could not let the Porsche out to full power. And that red Alfa-Romeo was no slouch; its driver was a master. Slowly but surely it overtook us.
I cursed my stupidity in not having brought along some sort of weapon with me. Those men behind us, especially after the fiasco of last night, would be in no mood to accept failure. I wasn’t quite sure what they intended, but it would not be pleasant.
Mario alternately ground his teeth together and muttered curses in Italian. He was a deft, sure driver, but so was the man in the Alfa-Romeo. Inch by inch he came closer. He was fifty feet away, then twenty, then ten. Tires squealed at the turns and twists in the road, dust flew on those little stretches which were more or less straight.
Then he was tailgating us at eighty miles an hour.
On either side of the narrow road were trees. One long slide and the Porsche would wrap itself around a tree-trunk. The Mafia wheel man behind us had been chosen for his ability to handle a car, I figured, because he was nudging our rear bumper, trying to force us into a skid. I felt damn helpless. If I’d had a gun with me, I could have picked them both off with just two shots. As it was, I had to sit and suffer, whispering what few prayers I knew that we’d get out of this with whole skins.
Then it happened. Mario made too wide a swing, the Porsche skidded. The left rear fender hit a tree bordering the edge of the road. The fender crumpled, the car stalled. The Alfa-Romeo bucked to a halt alongside us.
The two men came out and I caught the glint of sunlight on brass knuckles as they went on over ham-like hands. I was shaken up by the collision, I just couldn’t untrack myself. I sat there and sobbed, trying to gather my wits and muscles together and get them to perform.
Mario was in even worse shape than I; he was bent forward over the steering wheel and wheezing.
The musclemen went for him. I watched them open his door and lay hands on him. They lifted him bodily and carried him between them out into the road.
One man held him. The other rammed a brass-knuckled fist into his belly. Mario bent over as if he’d been cut in half. He was out, hanging limp in the hands of the big bruiser who gripped his arms.
The other hood slugged him again, same place.
“You’ll kill him,” I screamed.
The bruisers paused, grinning. The man who had been doing the hitting turned his face toward me. “No, we won’t, lady. We’re just going to make mincemeat out of him. Teach him a good lesson. He won’t be so pretty when we get done, but we can’t help that.”
He turned to slam that fist into Mario a third time. I didn’t bother opening the door on my side. I slid feet over it and came down into the road. I was so mad there was a red haze in front of my eyes.
“The lady’s angry,” grinned the man holding Mario.
The other button-man saw me coming for him. He turned and took a step toward me, saying, “I wasn’t going to work on you until later, baby, but since you can’t wait to get your face busted up here it is.”
His right hand with the brass knuckles came for my face. If it had landed, it would have caved it in. I saw that fist and the metal knuckles get bigger and bigger in front of my eyes, then my hands shot up and caught that fist, closed around it, twisted it to one side while I whirled my body and applied the uki goshi.
The uki goshi is a floating loin throw, used quite often against a punch. In it, I bend my legs and hit him with my rump, still hanging onto his right arm. As I straighten up, my body is supposed to lift my opponent off the ground and drape him over my right hip. Then when I turn my body to the left and apply some pressure, my man is going to sail through the air and land on his back.
The loin throw worked perfectly. My opponent landed across the hood of the Alfa-Romeo and sagged a moment, trying to catch his breath.
I was on top of him, the edge of my right hand coming down in a hammer chop for his Adam’s apple. He saw my hand descending, he knew what it would do to him, he tried to yell as his eyes got big. There was a thump as the edge of my hand made contact.
I whirled. My opponent was out of the fight. He might even strangle, if his throat was filled with blood, I knew, but I put all thought of that out of my head as I swung around.
The thug who held Mario was staring at me with wide eyes. He let Mario go as I came for him, and backed up a pace or two. Mario della Fanzio crumpled up and lay inert on the ground.
I moved forward cautiously, not sure whether he had a gun on him. I didn’t think so, he was in slacks and loose shirt and while there may have been a rod in his hip pocket, I hadn’t noticed any. Besides, his pal lying on the Alfa-Romeo was clean.
They probably hadn’t anticipated any need for guns. After all, Mario della Fanzio was a playboy, not an international spy, and I was only a girl. The man staring at me now had seen what I’d done to his companion and I got the feeling he wanted no part of me.
Then he got some second thoughts. All he saw in front of him was a gorgeous redhead with bare breasts visible under a black chiffon halter, her midriff bare above black culottes. I was just a little more than half his size, if that. He gave me a weak grin and rubbed the palm of his left handover the brass knuckles on his right fist. He had seen what had happened to his pal, but the more he looked at me, the more he decided he could take me.
But not by throwing a right fist at my face. He began to circle, moving his arms. He was ready to throw a left fist in my jaw, sort of stun me, and then move in. Well, I had the answer to that. So as he stalked me like a boxer, I waited for him, tensed from toes to the top of my head.
I saw the blow coming in his eyes. A boxer’s eyes will almost always signal when he is ready to attack. I dropped to my knees, not to avoid the blow especially, but with the idea of grabbing his left ankle with my right hand and his left leg just above the knee with the palm of my left hand.
The blow sailed over me. At the same time I pushed against his left knee with my left hand and jerked at his left ankle with my right hand. Judo is based upon an opponent’s center of gravity. My sudden action, the combined push and pull, acted to throw him off balance. He went down backwards onto the dirt road.
I was on him in a second. My knees landed on his solar plexus, driving much of his wind from his lungs, then I was grabbing his ears in both hands and hammering his head on the ground. I kept it up for quite a while, until I was sure he was out cold.
I got to my feet, moved toward the Alfa-Romeo. I found what I was after inside the Italian car: two Beretta automatics in shoulder holsters. The button-men hadn’t bothered with them, they figured they were going to have too much fun breaking Mario’s face as well as my own. With the shoulder harnesses in my hands, I turned back toward the two Mafia men.
Each man had seen my face. They could identify me, now. And they knew damn well I was no pretty plaything of Mario della Fanzio. I would be tabbed as one dangerous dame, in Mafia eyes.
I couldn’t kill them in cold blood. If they’d had guns in their hands, I’d have cheerfully shot them. But not without giving them a chance to save themselves.
I moved toward Mario. He was groaning; he was in some kind of pain, all right. His insides might be all smashed up, for all I knew. I had to get him to a bed where he could be examined and checked out by a doctor.
I knelt beside him, smoothed the curly black hair back from his face and asked, “Mario? Can you walk?”
His eyes opened. I could read the agony in them. There was blood on his lips. He nodded weakly, reaching for my arm. I got him to his feet, held him with an arm about his middle.
The Porsche was badly damaged, I saw at a glance; the rear end was caved in from the impact of hitting the tree. No sense in trying to use it as wheels. My stare went to the Alfa-Romeo.
It was undamaged outside of the dent in its hood made by the Mafioso whom I’d thrown through the air. I headed a wobbly-kneed Mario toward it. When Mario was in one of the bucket seats, I went around to the hood and dragged off the gangster who still lay there.
Then I got into the car. I fled back down the mountainside as though all hell was behind me. And maybe it was, once those guys recovered consciousness. They had a long walk back to Reggio. By the time they made it, I Would have Mario in a bed at the della Fanzio villa, but the Mafia would be out and hunting me.
Mario muttered, “No, Cherry. Not the villa. Don’t take me there. I can’t let then see me like this.”
I stared at him, “They didn’t touch your face. You just got your tummy all smacked up. A few days in bed will probably fix you up fine.”
He shook his head gloomily. He was hunched over, both hands on his belly, and was obviously in pain. Twice his lips parted to frame words, but he didn’t say anything. Then it all came out.
“I’m scared witless,” he babbled. “The Mafia is going to get me first, then Rafaelo. They sent me a warning by mail. They figure that if they beat up on us, disfigure us, Ines will have to give in to them. I’m not going to let them find me again, Cherry. They know I live at the villa, they’ll keep a watch on me.”
He smiled faintly. “Next time, you won’t be there to help me. My God, what did you do to them? You must be hell on two feet.”
I ignored that to ask, “What do you suggest we do with you, then?”
“There’s a little cottage I have in the hills. You can reach there by a branch road of this one, about five miles from here.”
“You ought to see a doctor,” I protested. He shook his head. “No, I’ll be all right. That bastard hit me pretty hard, but I don’t think anything’s broken inside me. My muscles ache like hell, I’ll be back and blue all over, but I’ll live.”
“There was blood on your mouth,” I pointed out. “That’s symptomatic of some sort of rupture and internal bleeding.”
“I bit my lip against the pain.”
Glancing at him, I saw his lower lip was puffy. Maybe he was right. It might do no harm to get him to bed in that cottage he mentioned. If he got worse I could always bundle him into the Alfa-Romeo and get him down into Reggio and to a doctor.
I made the turn where he indicated. We traveled for another half hour or so, moving higher into the mountainside all the time. It was heavily wooded here, I could see only a few feet between the trunks of the trees that surrounded us. I wondered who had put a road through this kind of country, and why.
Maybe Mario guessed at my thoughts. He chuckled, said, “I keep the cottage for girls to visit me from time to time, when we can be alone. It’s a good place to come to avoid the summer heat.”
A Calabrian love nest, I told myself.
Then I braked the car and swore.
Mario had other visitors besides girls, right now. For as I reached the flat where the cottage stood, I saw a car pulled close to the shrubs in front of it. There were two men lounging against the car.
Each man had a sub-machine-gun in his hands.