The People You Meet When You Play The Blues 

(Act 3 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

 

Robert had taken to spending the evening at Ann's house whether or not they'd planned anything or not. He found her huge library a good place to sit and think, and most evenings would find them ensconced at either end of the room, Ann working at her computer, Robert reading or, when he had a case, turning plans over in his mind.

Tonight was not much different. He had called from a few blocks away to make sure she was home. Ann had seen how distracted he was and limited herself to a kiss and an offer of a late dinner. Robert had accepted the first and declined the latter. Smiling to herself, Ann had invited him upstairs to keep her company as she worked on a stubborn program.

Finally, she reached a section where the rest of the program was self-evident and took her mind out of the semi-trance of computer logic. She leaned back with a sigh and looked over at Robert. He was sitting in his favorite wingback chair, still staring at the toe of his right shoe. A glance at the clock showed almost midnight. He hadn't moved in three hours.

"Sweetheart?" she called softly. If he was still deep in concentration, she wouldn't disturb him. In the first few weeks she'd known him, she'd been afraid of disturbing his brown studies. It had finally dawned on her that one could practically set off a firecracker next to him and he wouldn't notice. If he answered, then his cogitations weren't critical.

He blinked twice, looked around in mild puzzlement, then smiled at her. "How long was I gone?"

"Three hours, more or less." She stood and stretched.

"You're very patient."

"Not a bit of it. I was off in a trance of my own. I'm hungry. Do you want something?"

He looked at his watch thoughtfully. "I could probably use some coffee. I have an appointment in a couple of hours."

Ann didn't ask. Any appointment he had in the wee hours was none of her business. "How are you doing sleepwise?"

Robert smiled at her restraint. "Well enough. I'm after night creatures, so I have to match their hours." He saw her smother her curiosity. "And if you don't mind, I'd like to get your opinion on what's going on."

"Really?" She couldn't decide if she was flattered or dismayed. He rarely mentioned his cases, unless they ended very well or horrifyingly bad. "What opinions I have are yours." As she headed for the door, she paused to kiss him.

Robert put his arms around her to hold her close. "You're so wonderfully sane in a mad world," he murmured into her ear.

"Sanity is relative," she answered, kissing him briefly. "Whatever gets you through the night."

He thought of some of the things he was currently seeing in the night and returned the kiss with passion. Holding Ann was sweet delight and chased some of the bitter taste from his psyche. Coffee could be had in any all-night diner or convenience store, he thought as he held her tight. By her response, she wasn't unwilling to forego whatever midnight snack she had planned.

The doorbell interrupted the undoing of buttons.

"Blast," Robert muttered.

Ann stared at her watch. "Who at this hour--"

"I assume it's Mickey," he said, gesturing her to lead through the door.

She gave him a puzzled look. "You told him to meet you here? At this time of night?"

"I apologize for presuming--"

"Oh, no, no. I was just wondering what he thought." She studied the preoccupied look on his face. "He'll want coffee too, I imagine."

He stopped her at the bottom of the stairs to give her a kiss. "I take advantage of you."

"Someday I'll hold you to that," she grinned. "Button your shirt."

"You'd best as well," he replied, caressing that which he could reach before heading down to the door.

A glance out the spyhole confirmed it was Mickey, who seemed mildly flustered.

"You sure this is OK with the lady, McCall?"

"She's making coffee for you as we speak."

Mickey spared a covetous look for the pool table as he followed Robert upstairs to the kitchen. Ann was communing with her fancy Italian coffee machine, flanked by the cats. Ankh, the female, immediately came over to strop Robert's leg. Tut mumbled in disapproval.

"Jealous fur," Ann said, rubbing his ears.

Mickey leaned down to scratch under Ankh's chin. She abandoned Robert to chirp hopefully up at her new friend.

"That cat loves everyone," Robert commented.

"But I don't want to pick you up," Mickey told Ankh.

"Mow?" she replied in crushed disbelief. Her little ears drooped as she gazed up at him with sad blue eyes.

"Oh, all right." Mickey reached down to pick her up.

Ann laughed as she poured the coffee. "She takes lessons, you know. And she's got Robert wrapped around her paw."

"She does not," Robert said, feeding her a sardine from a can he found in the refrigerator. Tut grumbled again. Robert went over and gave him a sardine, which Tut hooked out of his fingers with a claw. The cat hid behind the can opener to eat it.

Mickey slung Ankh up onto his shoulder so he could drink his coffee. He watched Robert watch Ann as she bustled around the kitchen. The man was seriously besotted. She wasn't much better: every time she was in reach of him, she ran a hand along his shoulder or down an arm. Finally she settled onto a stool next to him, a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the counter between the three of them.

"You said you wanted my opinion on something," she said.

The look of peace on Robert's face faded. "There's a fifteen-year-old girl, she ran away from home. Her name is Maggie. Her parents are trying to find her."

"It's a big town. Did they try Children of the Night?"

"Oh, yes. They've gone about this as intelligently as two frantic people can. They actually have a lead. Maggie sent them a letter four days ago telling them not to worry about her, she was living with someone named Pietro who was taking good care of her."

"Uh huh," Ann said cynically. "How many pimps named Pietro are in this town?"

"Oddly enough, she was fairly free with her description of where she was living. She described a Fifth Avenue penthouse and very expensive shopping trips."

"Could be just fantasies."

"Apparently not. I checked the stores she named and found Pietro Sandahl, a high roller with a penchant for lovely, very young girls. Van Cleef's says he's a regular."

"So she got lucky." Ann saw Robert blink at her in mild dismay. "If she's going to sell herself, she might as well get top dollar. Or what haven't you told me?"

"Sandahl's a drug dealer," Mickey said. "He's a middleman for the Colombians and the families. He rarely touches the stuff himself, but he knows lots of people who do."

"Your basic slime, then. So what's her status with him?"

"We're not sure," Robert said, absently munching on a cookie. "The stores I checked didn't recognize her picture, and Sandahl has a stable of girls who stay in the penthouse when they're not out shopping or partying." He looked grimmer. "Sandahl's famous for his parties. Apparently the girls are available for the entertainment of the guests."

"Can I see her picture?" Robert handed his copy of Maggie's latest school picture to her. Maggie had blonde hair, big green eyes, and a smile that looked forced to a woman who'd forced a lot of smiles in her own time. "It's no wonder no one recognized her from this."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't imagine she goes shopping at Van Cleef's dressed in a plaid blouse and her hair held back by barrettes. She looks like she escaped from the set of Father Knows Best." Ann handed back the picture. "What's her family like?"

"Fairly typical, except that their only child ran away from home. They're from Buffalo. Father's a heavy machinery salesman, Mother's a clerk at Wal-Mart. From what they've said, Maggie is the apple of their eye. B & C student, has a sometime boyfriend, isn't allowed to go on solo dates till she's sixteen. Her parents have been trying to do right by her."

Ann gave him a sympathetic look. He couldn't help thinking like a parent. "It sounds like she was about due, then."

"Darling, I don't think you're taking this quite seriously enough," Robert said tartly. "There's a fifteen-year-old-girl being used as an elegant party favor by a very appalling man."

Ann had lived in New York too long to be dismayed by much of anything. Besides, fifteen was almost age of consent. "True, I wouldn't want my cousins doing it, but perhaps she doing it fairly willingly."

"That's not the point--"

"It's not?"

Mickey saw a free will argument brewing. "Annie, the point is, nobody knows if she's willing or not. No one can get to her to ask. And Sandahl's been known to go through girls very quickly."

Ann sighed. "So she may be in trouble and not even know it." She patted Robert's hand. "It's just I remember when I was fifteen and anxious to see the world. If she's been as repressed as it sounds, she probably jumped into this wholeheartedly and eyes closed. I suppose Maggie's parents want you to get her out of there so they can take her back to the wonderful world of Wal-Mart and the junior prom?"

Robert studied his lover. "Why does that sound like such a bad thing to you?" He was learning that her opinions, even when vastly different from his, were usually worth listening to.

"How well planned was her escape from Buffalo?"

"She grabbed the college fund she'd been building with summer jobs and some savings bonds. She came in by bus."

"Straight into the meat market," muttered Mickey. He'd seen the hustlers who hung out at the bus terminals waiting for fresh meat.

"Would she want to go back?" she asked.

"I don't know," Robert admitted. "Even if she did, what would she go back to?" He looked at Ann, realizing where she'd been going.

She nodded. "Mom and Dad are looking for their baby back. But Baby doesn't live here anymore."

"We need to get the girl's opinion," Mickey said.

"Has anyone even seen her?" Ann asked.

"She's one of Sandahl's current accouterments. They're all blonde."

"What is this thing about blondes?" complained the natural redhead. "Blonde is as close as the nearest peroxide bottle."

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Mickey grinned.

"See if I give you homemade cookies again."

"If it's any comfort," Robert said, "I find redheads very appealing."

"Thank you. So how are you going to get to Maggie?"

"The only way to get close to those girls is to go to one of those parties."

"Oh, joy."

"Yes, just the way I want to spend an evening. The person I'm meeting later is supposed to be getting me an invitation."

Ann felt nerves begin to twist. "And what are you supposed to be that will get you in there?"

"A small distributor looking to expand operations." Robert squeezed her hand comfortingly.

"Won't they wonder if you don't play with the girls?" Mickey asked.

Robert spared a small glare for his partner. That wasn't a topic of conversation he particularly wanted to follow in Ann's company.

But she didn't notice, not that she'd wondered in the first place. She was learning his tastes, and they didn't extend to fifteen-year-olds.

"So you'll look odd if you act respectable," she mused. "Sounds like a sick little New York soiree all right." She caught Robert's look of consternation. "I own a nightclub, sweetheart. I see what comes in out of the night. The twisted little predators and their tidbits d'jour. They don't hunt in my club, I don't let them. I won't have their sickness stinking up the place." She sipped her coffee thoughtfully. "But it sounds like you're going to need a good reason to leave their toys alone when you get to their own playground."

Mickey wondered just how streetwise she was. "Like maybe he brings his own toy?"

Ann slowly raised her eyes to his. "They might expect him to play nice and share."

"Just say no."

"Excuse me," Robert interrupted. "What are you talking about?"

"BYOB," Mickey grinned. "Bring your own--babe."

"Thank you," Ann nodded.

"No," Robert said firmly.

"Why not?" she asked.

"It could be dangerous. At the very least, I have no intention of exposing you to degrading spectacles."

"I appreciate the thought, sweetheart," she said with a smile, "but you needn't bother. I went to a public high school. A very nice one, true, but its own small niche of hell all the same. The kid with the locker next to mine did a booming pill business."

"What happened to him?" Mickey asked.

"She graduated with honors and went to Yale. She's currently an international investment consultant."

Robert's worldview twitched. He hated stories about people who'd gotten away with it. But it certainly explained Ann's casual approach to ethics. And as much as he disliked the idea of taking Ann into what passed for Sandahl's idea of a good time, he had to admit the plan had its benefits. His cover would be that much more secure if he had his own arm ornament. He looked at her thoughtfully.

"I must warn you," he told her, "I've talked to people who've been to those parties. Have you seen Fellini's Satyricon?"

It had been a covert classic in school, and her stomach twisted a little. "The similarities are strong?"

"Quite."

"So I keep my back to the wall, stay close to you, and drink water all night."

Robert weighed danger versus the merely appalling. "I suppose if you were careful ..." He shook his head at the enthusiasm on her face. "Darling, I do worry about what you consider fun." She smiled knowingly at him.

Mickey cleared his throat pointedly. "So what's her cover going to be?"

"I leave that to you, darling," Robert said.

Ann sat back to think. "Rented or kept?"

"Kept."

"Cheap or expensive?"

"Oh, very expensive," he smiled.

"Fallen lady or upscale bimbo?"

"I would not ask you to be anything but the lady you are."

She gave him a private smile behind her coffee mug. "How sleazy will you be?"

"I won't embarrass you."

"When?"

"Tomorrow night. Can you be ready?"

She considered the contents of her closets. "Time to give the American Express a workout. What time tomorrow?"

"Around eleven, the slimy creatures don't come out till late." He spent a moment to wonder what she was going to turn herself into and wished he didn't have to leave. "Then I'm afraid I have to leave you to your plans. I have an appointment to keep."

"And miles to go before you sleep." She stretched and walked them to the front door. Ankh followed behind, crying for the loss of her new friend. Ann picked her up and she stopped crying. "Manipulative little beast."

Mickey tactfully went outside as Robert put his arms around Ann. The cat, no longer the center of attention, jumped down to go looking for Tut. Ann snuggled against Robert and smiled up at him, but there was unease in her eyes. "You will be careful, won't you?"

"This isn't that dangerous. Honestly," he added, seeing her muted disbelief. "I'll never mislead you about that. Though I may not tell you at all if something truly difficult is going on."

"As omission is not the same as fibbing," Ann said knowingly. "I'm not trying to cramp your style, I--just need to say it sometimes."

He kissed her gently. "I know, darling. And it is nice to know there's someone in the world worrying about me." He held her close and wished again that he didn't have to leave. "I have work to do," he whispered in her ear.

"I know." She pulled away from him. "You've got people depending on you. I refuse to get in the way of that."

He bit back the words he dared not say and caressed her cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow. I'm looking forward to seeing what you turn yourself into." Provocativeness was easier to deal with than the emotion he kept shoving back down.

"I hope you'll be pleased. See you later." As she locked the door behind him, she cursed her inability to say it to his face: "I love you, be careful."

 

 

At eleven o'clock the next night, Robert pulled up in front of Ann's garage, and Mickey parked his van at the curb. Mickey raised his eyebrow slightly as Robert pulled out a key for the front door, but he swallowed his knowing chuckle before Robert could catch it.

The cats met them at the foot of the stairs and escorted them into the atrium. "Entertain them," Robert told Mickey. "Darling! We're here!"

"Hi, there," came Ann's voice from the next floor. "Almost ready."

"Which means another hour," Mickey muttered. "So how close do you want me to shadow you?"

"I wish I could get you into the building, but I can't think of a way to have you loitering around inside."

"We could try the--" Mickey broke off and stared over Robert's shoulder. "Oh, wow." Robert turned and blinked.

Ann stood near the bottom of the stairs, posing for best effect. Her dress was of some black clingy stuff, with a full, calf-length skirt and a low, draped neckline. A remarkable amount of cleavage was showing, and the cloth lay in a careless manner that looked as if she moved wrong a whole lot more would be showing. Her hair was a bit redder than usual, and the mass of loose curls was held back from her face by a pair of glittering combs. Diamonds sparkled at her earlobes; a necklace of carved jade and gold beads hung around her neck, with a polished jade pendant nestled just in the cleavage. She was either an elegant lady slumming or the classiest broad ever to hang on a crime lord's arm. It was an ensemble fit for the opera, but people would stare and whisper.

She waited for Robert's response, but he could just stare. "What's wrong?" she asked uncertainly.

He finally found his tongue. He was surprised not to find it around his ankles. "My dear, you look stunning."

She smiled in delight and came down the rest of the stairs. "You look quite nice yourself."

"Darling, once they see you, they won't spare a second glance for me."

Ann studied him nonetheless. He wore the black of his most secret and dangerous work, with a charcoal grey Italian jacket over the heavy silk shirt that was open at the neck. His whole look was just a bit more relaxed than was his wont, a little less restrained. She spied a pinky ring with a cabochon ruby on his right hand. He was quite fashionable, but a little--something. She didn't ask, but she was willing to take bets that he had a gun under that jacket, as well.

"I think you'll do," she finally said.

"Thank you." But he was still a little tongue-tied.

Mickey made no pretenses about looking at her. "If I said woof, would I get slapped?"

She blushed a little. "Not at all. Thank you. So what's the plan?"

Robert shook himself and got back on track. "Mickey is going to follow us over there. I can signal him if we need help. But all we need to do is try to make contact with Maggie."

Ann assembled her purse, a tiny black velvet thing into which she tucked house key, minor credit card, driver's license, and some folding money. "What's her last name, by the way? And is Maggie her full name?"

"Margaret Jane Anderson."

"She probably goes by something exotic now," Mickey commented. "Margaret Jane is not a very 5th Avenue name."

"Probably. Are you ready, love?"

"Sure, just let me set the alarm and we're out of here."

Ann hoped one of her neighbors spotted her as she walked to Robert's car, but she didn't see anyone. She felt like a film noir Cinderella. But what would happen at midnight?

Robert opened the passenger door for her and took her hand to help her in. As she stepped into the car, her skirt revealed a slit on the right side that climbed halfway up her thigh, displaying quite a lot of dark-stockinged leg. She saw his appreciative interest and took her time about pulling in her foot. She didn't even bother to adjust her skirt as she settled herself. Her innocent smile was belied by the gleam in her eyes. Robert's look was thoughtful as he closed her door.

Mickey cleared his throat. "I'll just go get in my van and get ready to follow you."

"You do that."

Mickey went quickly before he got himself in trouble.

Robert climbed in behind the wheel and studied the lady next to him for a moment. She fastened her seatbelt and made a show of adjusting her neckline. Then she pulled down the passenger's sun visor to check herself in the mirror. Finally she crossed her legs and smiled at Robert. "Any time you're ready," she said in a voice half an octave lower than usual.

He gave the line of her leg the attention it deserved. A fine gold chain around her right ankle caught his eyes, then he noticed her shoes. A maze of intricate strapwork held the two inch heels to her feet. He found himself wondering how one would get them off. He'd always liked women's feet, so small and delicate. And the curve of the back of the knee, the way the muscles of the calf and thigh flowed through a sine wave into each other. He started thinking of his taxes to keep from running his hand along the view presented. Then he decided he might as well start getting into character. Yes, just as smooth as hinted at. "Silk?" he asked as he traced a tendon up the back of her leg.

Ann was trying not to twitch. "Of course. Only the best."

"Indeed," he smiled, then reluctantly turned to the business of driving. "You'd best stay as close to me as practical tonight."

"Why?"

"When the wolves see you, they'll be circling. I intend for there to be no doubt as to who you belong with."

Ann smiled in anticipation and stage fright. "So what should I call you tonight?"

"Our normal names. If you can answer to Anastasia, it would help. Exotic is the best way to go."

"Robert isn't very exotic."

"I don't need exotic, I have you."

She smiled an invitation at him, then continued down her mental checklist. "If I run into this girl, what should I say?"

"Try to find out if she wants to leave and what Sandahl might be doing to keep her there. I trust your judgement." He glanced over at her seriously. "Darling, the person I'm playing isn't a nice man. The person you're playing is a very elegant status symbol. If I treat you like that, know it's in the interests of the job."

"Of course. Just try not to get extreme. You want me to be genteelly obsequious or act like it's a job I'm proud to do well? Loyal or terrified?"

"Can you manage a little of both? As if you know I have an uncertain temper but you have free rein within limits?"

Ann nodded absently. "Arrogantly self-assured but keeping one eye on you for a mood barometer."

"Exactly. My darling, you have a flair for this."

"What, floozying? I'm just doing my Barbara Stanwyck impersonation. 'Is that your girl?' 'I'm my mother's girl.'"

"Good movie, that," Robert commented. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Mickey's van was two cars back. "Not far to go. Start getting into character."

"Yes, sir."

A guard waited in a kiosk at the entry to the private garage under Sandahl's building. He waved them through after checking a list.

"What floor is it on?" Ann asked.

"Half the penthouse on the 44th floor." Robert parked the car, then studied the woman next to him. She gave him a sultry smile, as if to challenge his doubts. "Shall we go?" he finally asked.

"After you."

Ann cursed her shoes silently, so lovely and so impossible to walk in. Maybe she did spend too much time in Nikes. It was hard to concentrate on being sexy when your feet hurt. Since they had the elevator to themselves, she reached down to massage her arches. She stopped at Robert's warning look.

A group of people got on at the 29th floor and rode up to the 36th. The two women looked at Ann with very superior looks, but one of them poked her escort hard in the ribs when she caught him ogling. He was protesting his innocence as the group exited at their floor.

"Don't giggle, Anastasia," Robert said firmly. "This is serious."

Ann bristled at the scolding but sobered at the reminder of what she was about to walk in to. It was just that she'd never thought of herself as the kind of woman others would find a threat.

Robert glanced at her, checking to make sure one last time that she'd fit in. He found no complaints, and remembered the admiration in the young man's eyes. "Feel free to smirk, though," he added. He was rewarded with a low chuckle and naughty smile as she curled around his arm.

On the 44th floor, the elevator opened onto a small foyer. Before Ann's eyes, Robert became something a little less respectable, a good bit more dangerous. She steadied her nerves and prepared to act like she belonged at this man's side.

The man beside the right hand door in the lobby was very understated for a guard. "Good evening, sir," he said as Robert and Ann approached. "Your name, please?"

"Robert McCall."

Another clipboard was checked. "Yes, sir." He knocked twice on the door, which was opened from inside. "Robert McCall and guest," the guard said to the young blonde girl at the door.

Ann studied the girl closely. Age sixteen, tops. Her hair and makeup were styled to within an inch of her life, and her skimpy blue dress kept no secrets.

"Hi, Robert," the girl said brightly. "Come on in." She looked at Ann with ill-cloaked disapproval. "And you are?"

"Anastasia." They locked eyes for a moment.

The girl broke first. "I'm Hyacinth." She led the way into the penthouse. "Pietro will be right out to meet you." She sidled closer to Robert. "If there's anything I can do for you, just ask," she said significantly. She scurried away at the look on Ann's face.

Ann glanced defiantly at Robert, who responded with a faint smile of approval. Then he nodded towards the approaching man.

"Robert McCall, so nice to meet you." Perfect teeth flashed in a darkly handsome face under black hair. "Marty's told me so much about you. I'm Pietro, of course." He turned to Ann. "Anastasia, how delightful." He lightly touched her chin to study her face, then made a very obvious visual study of her figure. "My nymphs will be most displeased to meet you."

"How tragic for them," she said coolly.

His smile became more predatory. "I do hope we get a chance to get to know each other better."

Robert put a possessive hand over Ann's. "Perhaps," he said.

Sandahl gave him a knowing look. "Come, you must meet the others."

The entryway led to a huge living room, with immense windows looking out over the city. A small bar occupied one corner of the room. Hyacinth was just leaving it with two glasses of champagne, one of which she handed to a fortyish gentleman who pulled her into his lap. Another man, also with a young blonde on his arm, waved and came over.

"McCall, you made it." He wobbled a little and held on to the girl next to him.

"Hello, Marty," Robert said. "Thank you for working out this invitation for me."

"Oh, sure, sure. You want to expand operations, Pete's the guy to talk to." The girl shifted her hold on him as he slipped. "You're a good girl, Jenny. Let's go rest our feet." He led her off down a hallway.

Ann felt Robert tense. Nothing upset him more than children being hurt or taken advantage of. She squeezed his hand reassuringly.

Robert forced himself back into character. "Marty says you prefer not to discuss business at these parties."

"No, business is for the day time. These little gatherings are just so I can get to know the people I work with." He smiled at Ann. "Feel free to mingle."

Another blonde came up the hallway Marty and Jenny had entered. "Pietro?"

"Marguerite, my love." Robert and Ann glanced at each other. Sandahl went to kiss her. "Where's William?"

"Throwing up all over my room," she complained.

"Oh, dear. Before or after?"

"During. I was able to get out of the way. He'll probably pass out when he's done."

"I'm sorry, my pet. Well, let him collapse there." He patted her cheek. "You can be in my room tonight."

Marguerite lit up like a Christmas tree and kissed him swiftly. "Pietro, have I told you today that I love you?"

"Probably so, but I'm glad you think it bears repeating." Sandahl glanced at his guests. "Marguerite, this is Robert, whom I'll probably be working with, and this is Anastasia. Make sure they enjoy the evening." There was another knock at the door. "Excuse me."

Marguerite smiled at Robert. "Welcome to Xanadu. Is there anything I can get for you?" She ignored Ann.

"No, thank you, Marguerite," Robert answered. "Perhaps later."

"I'll hold you to that. I'd best go check on William." She gave Ann an unfriendly glance before departing.

Robert led the way on a slow promenade past the windows towards the bar. "That was Maggie."

"I think you're right," Ann replied. "She's the only one with green eyes and natural blonde hair." She studied Robert. "You can't start beating up all the men here. You're outnumbered."

"I can still want to. We have to get her out of here."

"I hate to say this, but she seems perfectly happy."

"I'll have to see if I can talk to her." They arrived at the bar. The large young man behind the bar was preparing a tray of drinks. "Good evening," Robert said.

"Good evening, sir. What can I get for you?"

"Champagne, please." As the bartender turned to the open bottle chilling in the ice bucket, Robert leaned closer to Ann. "Don't drink it, just carry it," he whispered. "Pour it into plants occasionally." She nodded.

Sandahl came into the living room with three men. One of them grabbed Marguerite as she came back from checking on the sick William and gave her a sloppy kiss. Sandahl smiled benignly as he fondled her.

Robert turned to look out the window, hiding his growing outrage. Ann watched a moment longer and saw Jenny return to be greeted by the other new arrivals. Ann snuggled into Robert's side. "She's doing it willingly."

"She can't be."

"She thinks she's in love with him. He probably tells her he wishes he could keep her for himself. We can't just go up to her and say, 'Maggie Anderson, your parents are worried sick.'"

"You're right," he sighed. His face twisted. "They're children, for god's sake."

"You knew what was going on before we got here."

"It's different from seeing it." He looked at her. "I'd have thought you'd be outraged at this demeaning of women."

"The hetaera of Greece were respected members of the community, as were the geisha. If a girl looks at it as just another career, fine by me."

"None of them are over sixteen."

"Girls start very young these days."

"Are you defending this?"

Ann gave him a narrow look at his tone of voice. "No, but only because that sleazoid obviously could not care less. If there was only one girl and he cared what happened to her, I'd have very few objections." Robert looked at her in dismay. "You look at them and think daughter," she continued. "I look at them and think of all the stupid girls I knew in school."

"Surely you're not saying they deserve what's happening to them."

"The girls in the street turning tricks in doorways for food don't deserve what's happening to them." She glanced over her shoulder and saw Hyacinth disappearing with the man whose lap she'd been sitting in. Jenny and Marguerite were curled up with the new arrivals. "These girls don't deserve having men getting in line for them." She looked back at Robert, "Yes, I'm on your side in this. But then, I generally am."

He smiled at her. "Believe me, I do appreciate that." He took a deep breath. "Here's the plan. I'm going to see if I can get Maggie--Marguerite alone. I'll tell her I'm trying to figure out how best to do business with Sandahl." Ann nodded, and Robert waited for obvious remarks on how he planned to get the girl alone. They didn't appear. She did understand him. "I want you to watch your back and chat with these people as much as self-preservation allows. See what you can find out about other girls and where they've gone."

"Assessment of potential threat, got it. A little jealousy never hurt anyone."

Robert nodded in approval. "Hopefully we won't have to stay here long." He squeezed her hand then headed off to the giggling gathering.

Ann strolled the room, trying to give the impression of well-bred annoyance as she watched Robert work his way to Marguerite's side. The girl looked up in surprise and smiled, then glanced over her shoulder at Ann. The smug look caused a churning in Ann's stomach that didn't have to be faked. She pointedly turned away as Marguerite curled around Robert's arm.

Marty appeared at her side. "You've been abandoned, pretty lady. That's not right."

"Please go away."

"Oh, come on, sugar. If McCall's going to play with other toys, he shouldn't mind sharing his." He put an arm around her waist, but Ann put a hand against him. "Just a little kiss."

Robert glanced up and saw what was happening. Before he could untangle himself, Marty tried to yank Ann close and she threw the contents of her champagne glass into his face.

Marty let her go and stumbled back, then he got mad. "I'll teach you, bitch." He charged.

"Damn it," Robert muttered, moving even though he knew he wouldn't get there in time. But just as Marty got a hand on her, Ann grabbed his arm, swept his feet out from under him with a graceful foot, and executed a neat hip throw that sent him smashing into a coffee table.

The room froze.

Marty brushed part of a table leg off his chest and stared up at Ann. "Good Christ, you must be fun in bed!"

Ann blinked at him then looked at the rest of the crowd. Robert was standing with one hand covering his mouth, a look in his eyes that said he was trying very hard not to laugh. Everyone else was just staring. Robert sat back down and put an arm around Marguerite's shoulders. The girl gave Ann a half-scared look before turning her attentions back to Robert. Ann smiled contentedly.

"No hard feelings?" she said to Marty, who was still on the floor.

"No, ma'am, but consider my offer still open."

"Certainly." She glanced once more around the room, then went to find a quiet corner near the windows where she could giggle in peace.

Robert chuckled. "You were saying?" he said to Marguerite. He spared a proud moment to check on Ann. He relaxed when he spotted her. She'd found a piano.

A short scale to check the tuning, then she sat down. It was a good night for the blues.

When next she looked up, Robert and Marguerite were missing. Her stomach twisted before her inherent trust of the man reasserted itself. But to think that blonde tart was undoubtedly trying to get Ann's lover into bed ... She put a little more venom in her playing.

A drunken giggle attracted her attention. Hyacinth had taken Jenny's place on the couch. She was being tickled by the man she was fondling. She kissed him and began undoing his pants. Ann missed a note. Surely not, not in front of everyone. But yes, she was, kneeling on the floor in front of him. One of the other men watching put down his glass with a grin and went to kneel down behind Hyacinth.

Ann dove back into the trance of the music, closing her ears to other sounds.

She'd just finished a long variant on "St. Louis Blues" when someone behind her began playing with her neck. It took half a second to come out of the music enough to realize that it probably wasn't Robert. She turned quickly.

Sandahl raised his hands. "You don't need to throw me anywhere. I was just showing my appreciation for the arts." She shied away when he touched her hair. "Relax, there's no one around who cares."

Ann glanced around the room. None of the girls were in view, and the two men on the couch were more interested in the lines of cocaine in front of them. She nervously wondered what was taking Robert so long.

Sandahl sat down on the bench next to her. "He keeps you on that short a leash, does he?"

"I am not on a leash. I was just wondering where he was."

"He's off with Marguerite. He wouldn't notice if you were to take a break and explore a little." He smiled significantly. "I'm very proud of the decor in the other parts of the apartment."

"Surely I'm too old for you. After all, I know what Watergate means."

"So do I. And the nymphs are delightful, but a man sometimes wants some spice to offset the sweet. Do you think he'd be interested in a trade?"

"I beg your pardon?"

He ran a finger along her chin. "I could lend him, say, Marguerite, and you could stay here for a while."

Outrage warred with the ludicrousness of the idea. "For one thing, I have no desire to be part of your stable, and secondly, Robert would never agree."

"Are you sure?" Sandahl checked his diamond Rolex. "He's been gone a long time. I don't think they're discussing world news."

"Yes, I'm sure." Ann's smile was more than a little smug. "I know him."

"Still, it's a dreadful double standard, and rude, to leave you alone while he's off doing ... well ..."

Ann pointedly turned back to the keyboard. "He and I understand one another."

Sandahl leaned against the support at the high end of the keyboard. "Sing something for me."

She looked at him for a moment. Her mother had warned her about the people she'd meet if she played the blues. The song followed naturally. "My mama done told me, when I was in pigtails, my mama done told me, hon, a man's gonna sweet talk and give you the big eye." Sandahl chuckled and nodded. Neither of them saw Marguerite come in on the other side of the room.

Marty stopped Robert in the hallway. "McCall, are you serious about expanding your network?"

Robert couldn't help being cool. "Yes, I am."

"Then let me make a deal with you. I'll give you two kilos a week out of my supply if I can have your girl."

"Excuse me? You want to trade me cocaine for Anastasia?"

"Yeah."

"I don't think so."

Marty grabbed his arm. "OK, OK, three kilos. I'll go up to five when I get my import raised. We'll both make money, you get to probably double your distribution, and I get the girl. The kind of money you'll be making, you could find a new girl easy."

Robert forced himself to act in character. "So could you, for that matter."

"Yeah, but I want that one."

"Because she threw you into a table? I'm not going to let you have her if all you're planning is to beat her up."

"Nah, nothing that wasn't a fair fight. A girl like that, you wouldn't know if she was going to kiss you or kick you in the head."

"She's never kicked me in the head," Robert smiled. "I don't think you could handle her. You didn't make a good impression."

"Well, can I try to make it up to her?"

Robert considered. "No. I think I'll keep her."

Marty's smile was unpleasant. "Then you'd better have a chat with Pietro. Last I saw, he was putting some heavy moves on her, and he hasn't gone flying into any furniture." He smirked as Robert left with a frown.

Ann was concentrating on "Blues in the Night" and trying to ignore Pietro, who still sat beside her, occasionally touching her lightly.

"Oh, look who's back," he said easily.

Ann looked up, saw Marguerite inbound and Robert in the doorway. The song drained from her mind.

"Hello, sweetheart," Sandahl said to Marguerite. "Having a good time?"

Marguerite glared at Ann. "They're not you," she said.

"I hope that's not too much a disappointment." He pulled her onto his lap. "Did you like Robert?"

"Him?" she said scornfully. "All he wanted to do was talk business. He kept telling me to put my clothes back on. But I didn't laugh at him. I know sometimes men his age aren't up to it," she said directly to Ann.

Ann tried to smother her guffaw but a lot of it escaped. "More probably he thought you were wanting a bedtime story and a glass of water before your nap," she said with an evil smile.

Sandahl locked his arms around Marguerite and held her down. "Ladies, really. Catfights are gauche." He saw Ann's face change and looked over Marguerite's shoulder. Robert was approaching, and he didn't look amused.

He held one of the two glasses of champagne he carried out to Ann. "I think it's time you took a break." She took the champagne and put her hand in his empty one.

 

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