The Last Dance

 Part 1 by Bryan Smith

The sun came up bright and early through the window, giving the dead body on the bed a white halo of light. Louie Cantrell wasn't going anywhere for quite awhile, not with that bullet hole in his left temple.

The room had not been used for years, and everything within was tidy and arranged in perfect order, as it had been for nearly a decade. But the bedspread and the pillows were now stained a shade of vermilion, and the injury to the dead man's head looked a ghastly sight. At least, that's what Ms. Rumford thought. Of all the absurd things Helen Rumford had done in her life, she had never killed anyone. At least, she couldn't REMEMBER killing anyone...

"You think she'll bury the body?"

Mitchell passed the binoculars over to his superior before Carpenter even had to ask.

"I hope so. It would make our job a lot easier if she did." Mr. Carpenter focused the binocular lenses on the window and looked. Lo and behold, there was the old lady, pacing back and forth in front of the body.

Carpenter smiled and took his hat off. His white hair and graying beard made him look older than he was, but his precise English accent and quick wit made a liar out of his looks. "You know, it's a shame these things have to happen to innocent people. I mean, she kind of reminds me of my grandmother when she was alive."

"Yeah?" asked Mitchell, who was obviously only asking to be polite, since he was looking in the van's glove compartment for god knows what at the time.

"Yeah. But fortunately I never knew my grandmother. She died of polio before there was an established cure."

Mitchell yawned, though not trying to be intentionally rude to his superior in the slightest.

"Well," said Carpenter, "I guess it's not that interesting anyway. Everybody's gotta die sometime."

Mitchell shook his head. "It's a shame Louie had to die."

Carpenter looked at his assistant ingenuously, put his key in the ignition, and started the engine. "No, it isn't. Louie's being more helpful to us now than he ever was when he was alive."

And with that, the van drove away.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"Robert McCall."

"Mr. McCall, thank heavens! I've been trying to reach you all day!"

"Yes, well I'm here now. Who's calling?"

"This is Helen Rumford, silly."

Robert's face brightened. He pulled the phone closer to his ear and smiled.

"Helen! It's so nice to hear from you after all these months! I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about me."

Robert envisioned the kindly old woman he'd helped once many years ago. She fondly reminded him of pictures he'd seen of his grandmother on his father's mantelpiece.

"I'm sorry, Mr. McCall. I wish this were a friendly social call, but I'm in trouble again."

A pause. Then: "Stay there. I'll be right over."

Robert parked his Jaguar by the curb and closed the car door. At that moment, he heard footsteps coming from within the apartment building. Robert put his hands in his overcoat to keep warm and hurried to the door, which was quickly opened by Ms. Rumford.

"It's inside, Mr. McCall."

Robert paused in the doorway for a moment then looked up the staircase to her apartment. He leaned over toward her and said gently, "WHAT...is inside?"

~~~~~~~~~~~

"Oh, for heaven's sake, why didn't you call the police when you saw this?"

They both stood in the little bedroom silently for a moment, staring at the body of a dead man.

"Well do you know the man?!" asked Robert incredulously.

"No, of course not, silly. I just found him...lying there!"

"When?"

"When I woke up this morning."

"And you didn't hear anything previously? No gunshots, no screaming, no sounds of forced entry into your apartment?"

Helen sighed and shook her head. "No."

Robert took a deep breath and looked around the room. "This man was shot in the head. I'd say at pointblank range. The question is, how did he get in without your knowledge? You did say you were here all day and all evening didn't you?"

Helen looked like she was about to cry. "Yes, I've already told you..."

Robert walked over to her and put his arm around her.

"All right. Everything's going to be okay. We'll call the police and tell them everything."

Helen peered up at her counselor with tears in her eyes. "But why did this happen to me?"

Robert suspected he knew the answer to that question, but didn't want to seem impudent. He remembered Ms. Rumford's tendencies in the past to have blackouts, to do odd things one day and have no recollection of those things the next. It was called schizophrenia, and Robert knew this situation wasn't going to look good to the police when they arrived...

~~~~~~~~~~~

Within twenty minutes the place was full of NYPD officers, who upturned the apartment to search for evidence, with no reservations of any kind whatsoever.

"Come on, McCall. You know how this looks, and you know I can't do what you ask."

Robert bristled at the man with all the intensity of a madman, though he fully expected this sort of thing would happen.

"It's disgraceful!" said McCall, "It's utterly disgraceful. I don't care HOW it looks, you can't take an old lady to jail!"

Detective Isadore Smalls turned his gaze away. He could never look McCall in the eye when he was being scolded, probably because Robert reminded him of his father, despite the absurdity of the idea. Isadore could never give eye contact to his dad when he was being punished, and when the "Equalizer" was around, similar lectures came with the territory.

"I've got no choice," Isadore hissed through his clenched teeth. "She's certifiably schizophrenic! I've got the paperwork that proves it right here. She probably did this without even knowing it, like a sleepwalker."

"Somnambulism has got nothing to with it!" urged McCall. "We both know she's perfectly harmless! She doesn't even OWN a gun."

Isadore turned away again, choosing to watch his police officers search for more evidence in the bedroom.

"We've got to keep an eye on her until we can interrogate her. There's no telling where she could go 'in her sleep,' McCall."

"Let me do it, Isadore. My men can protect her...and watch her."

Isadore looked Robert right in the eye this time, and McCall knew he had won...

Ms. Rumford came walking in slowly, and looked up at Isadore. "My apartment is a mess now, no thanks to you. Does this mean you're going to take me back to the loony bin?"

Isadore appeared to be shocked by the honesty of this question, so Robert answered for him. "You're not going anywhere."

Robert walked out the apartment building's double doors and bundled up again. He walked to the driver's side of his car and opened the door, leaned over, and emerged with a cellular phone.

Control picked up the ringing phone after the fourth ring, irritated.

"What?"

The voice on the other end of the line was indignant, and irrefutably Robert McCall.

"'What'? Is that any way to answer a phone, oh, dear me. You must be having serious problems at the moment to opt for warm pleasantries like that."

"I'm sorry, Robert. There's a lot going on here. I wish I could tell you the details but -"

"Oh, of course, of course." Robert went back to his condescending tone, the way he usually spoke to Control, when he wasn't angry with him, that is. "Hush hush, is it? Nevermind, I don't think I want to know, actually. I just need to use one of your available agents on a protection assignment as soon as possible."

"No can do. All agents have been assigned to a search-and-protect mission of their own here in the city."

"What?! All of them?! Who the bloody hell is so important -?"

"You know I can't tell you that, old son, now-"

"Come on, Control. Just a name, that's all. I might be able to help."

Control paused for a moment to think, then abandoned all logic, a practice which he found particularly helpful on bad days like this.

"Louie Cantrell. Heard of him?"

"Can't say that I do. Why do you want him?"

Control knew his limits. "I can't disclose that information. Suffice it to say, if he dies, the Company is in big trouble

~~~~~~~~~~~

Part 2 by Adrienne Katz and Barbara Robertson

Robert McCall, world traveler, agent extraordinaire, sat on an overstuffed couch, glasses in one hand resting on his lap, the other hand rubbing his forehead. Nothing. Nothing is going as planned. With Detective Smalls' help and a few kind words from Robert's friends in high places, Robert was able to walk Helen Rumford through New York City's remarkably messy and complicated legal system.

He had wracked his brain and darn near punched the buttons off his phone trying to find an appropriate baby sitter for Helen. He thought he had had a remarkable epiphany when he remembered Kelly Stirling.

Kelly would be in her seventies now and although her last working assignment for Robert had not turned out to be a stellar success, Robert thought that she could, at least keep Helen company and not let her wander off.

Robert had left a message for Kelly. It explained what little was needed from her, and that he would expect her at Helen Rumford's apartment, ASAP.

Kelly had sashayed into the apartment and had proceeded to take over. Her hair and lipstick were the same bright shade of red, and when she saw Robert she kissed him so hard that he had lost his breath.

With cries of "This old girl is back in top form, thanks to you." Kelly explained that she had brushed up on all of her considerable former talents, including karate, sharp shooting, and ballroom dancing, all because she hoped Robert would someday call upon her again for help.

She took one look at Helen and decided that Helen needed a make over. "A girl our age is brightest when we get our hair done." Robert was powerless to stop her and both women had left the apartment leaving only the faint scent of Kelly's "Lola" perfume.

When Robert had tried to get the NYPD to tell him who the body was, Detective Smalls had told him that the dead man had no finger prints on file. All they had to go on was the fact that the man had a mouth full of gold and platinum fillings and bridges. "Who the hell uses gold and platinum to fill their mouth?" Smalls finished the conversation by bellowing, "And I want to thank you, McCall, for bringing me in an unsolvable murder. All we have is a crazy old lady who comes out negative as the shooter, and a man with a mouth full of teeth which are worth more than my pension! Always a pleasure to see you, McCall." And he slammed the phone down.

Robert had canvassed the neighbors to try to see if anyone had heard or seen anything. They were all native New Yorkers. No one had seen anything, no one had heard anything, and anyway no one had been home that night.

Robert leaned back on the couch. "What to do next?" he thought. All at once the front door flew open and the level of noise in the apartment went up 300 decibels.

Kelly and Helen, screeching with laughter and loaded down with parcels descended into the living room.

"Oh, Robert. What a time we had!" Helen said as she dropped her parcels in the middle of the room. "I feel so alive. How do you like my new do?" Helen's hair had been sprayed to within an inch of its life and set into a rather pleasing shape on her head.

Kelly had already shrugged out of her fake fur coat and plopped down beside Robert on the couch. She propped her long dancer's legs on top of the coffee table.

"You'll never guess who I saw, Robert!" Kelly said. "I thought this car was following us and, well, a girl can never be too careful nowadays, so I ..."

"She walked right up to the driver of the car." Helen interrupted with exuberance. "She put her hand on her hip, like this," Helen mimed, "and says..."

"Real loud so people would look. There's protection in crowds." Kelly chimed in, "I yelled 'Hey, are you following me, fella?'" Both women laughed uproariously as Helen plunked down on the other side of Robert, squeezing him between the two women.

"You'll never guess who it was." Kelly said as she wiped a tear carefully away from her perfectly made-up eye. "Carpenter, you remember that 'pal' of Louie's? You remember? Well, anyway, his hair's all white now and he's got a cute little gray beard. I screamed 'Carpenter, sweetie! How are you?' He looks at me, his eyes go wide, his face goes red, and I swear he hits the gas and goes speeding off, like a scared rabbit. I told Helen a few of the cleaner stories about that Carpenter and Cantrell duo, and we nearly bust-a-gut laughing."

Robert sat half suffocating in a thick haze of perfume and hairspray. He looked at Kelly, dazed. "Louis Cantrell, did you say?"

~~~~~~~~~~~

Robert pushed open the door and the noise hit him like a brick wall. Taking a deep breath of the clear air outside, he made his way into the club. Typical of bloody Bagler, he thought to himself, he picks the cheapest nastiest dive in the city to hang out in.

He scanned the room carefully, checking faces. Looking for the one man that would be willing to tell him what the hell was going on at the Company. It would cost plenty, but Robert had accepted that as given when he began his search.

His eyes tracked over the crowd in the room. There, he had missed him at first glance but now he saw Rudy Bagler, sitting at a table with each arm around a young woman. Short with dark, thinning hair. Bagler was still without the mustache he had worn a year ago. Robert shook his head, it was incomprehensible to him what women saw in the failed con artist.

Robert walked circuitously, coming up behind his target. He didn't want to spook Bagler and have to chase him halfway across the city. Some instinct prompted Bagler to look behind him and he caught sight of Robert. He began to rise from his chair but Robert rested his hands on his shoulders and pushed him back into his seat. Robert's icy stare was enough to persuade the two scantily clad ladies that they needed to find alternative entertainment for the evening.

"McCall! What the hell are you doing here? I know I said we could do lunch sometime, but this really isn't your kind of place."

"That fact was apparent the moment I came through the door. I need some information, Bagler."

"Is it going on your tab?"

"Of course. But Bagler..."

"What?"

"Don't try to overcharge me, you know what happened last time."

Bagler shifted uncomfortably in his seat, remembering. "Yeah, all right, McCall. I remember."

"Let's talk outside, I can't here hear myself think in here."

~~~~~~~~~~~

Outside the sudden cessation of noise left Robert feeling deaf, he shook his head slightly to clear the ringing noise in his ears but it did no good. "I need to know about Carpenter and Cantrell. They worked together for the Company."

"They did, up to about three or four years ago."

"What happened then?"

"You got to understand, McCall, a lot of this is rumor and hearsay."

"But, Bagler, my friend, rumor and hearsay is what you are good at. Tell me what you know, or I might be tempted to tell Control about the arrangement you have with the DEA."

"How do you know about that?"

"Let's just say I make it my business to know things. Now, stop stalling and tell me what you know."

"Okay. Until four years ago, Cantrell and Carpenter worked as a team, mainly in the Far East. Then Carpenter tried to smuggle some drugs back home in the diplomatic pouch and was found out. So Control dismissed him."

"What? For drug smuggling?"

"No, for incompetence. Control said that he didn't want anyone stupid enough to be caught smuggling working for the Company."

Robert tried to hide a smile. That sounded like Control. "What is Carpenter doing now?"

"He set up his own business. He has a group of heavy looking dudes working for him. He can supply hired muscle, bodyguards or do private investigations. He fixes things too. You get my drift? With his looks and accent he appeals to the ladies."

"What happened to Cantrell?"

"Oh Louie? Well, he lasted another six months or so but he wasn't happy, so he quit. He freelances, and he gets steady work from Carpenter's outfit. You know, simple deliveries or pickups, some dead drop work. Thing is, Carpenter blames Louie for Control finding out about his get rich quick scheme. Carpenter keeps Louie on a leash. He likes to keep his friends close, but his enemies closer." Bagler touched a finger to the side of his nose, "I think he's a little bit of a nutcase, McCall. I hear he hasn't spoken directly to Cantrell in years."

"Well, he won't again. The police found Cantrell's body yesterday. He had been shot in the head."

Bagler looked thoughtful, "You know Carpenter always said he'd get even. Maybe he did? So they finally found Louie, huh?" Bagler chuckled, "The Company had everyone out beating the bushes for him. Did Control get his microdot back?"

"Microdot? What microdot?"

"The one Cantrell got hold of by mistake. Control gave him some work to do from time to time and Louie somehow got his hands on a real sensitive microdot. Control was really pissed when he found out that Cantrell had it, and then Louie disappeared. That's why Control had everyone out searching for him."

"What's so important about this microdot?"

"Nothing, unless you happen to have friends that are working for the Company in South America. There's been a reorganization and all the information about the agents working down there is on that dot."

"Do you think Carpenter killed Cantrell to get his hands on that information?"

"Hey, McCall, you know as well as I do that that sort of information is worth a lot to the wrong people." Bagler sighed wistfully, "If only I had gotten it instead of that gold toothed fool, Louie."

Robert mused for a moment, "That still doesn't explain why Cantrell's body ended up at Helen Rumford's, but I mean to find the answer."

~~~~~~~~~~~

Back at Helen's apartment, Robert sat on the living room chair, puffing slightly and guzzling water. He had gotten back from his meeting with Bagler and Kelly had immediately forced him into a practice dance session. He had an idea that permitting Kelly to involve him in Helen's new hobby, dancing at the YMCA, was going to be his downfall.

The two women were now huddled in Helen's bedroom where Kelly was putting the finishing touches on Helen's dance costume. Helen was going to be waltzing with her new beau, a Mr. Bloom from down the hall, and the two women had not stopped talking since Robert had returned from his meeting. How Kelly had the energy for all of this he couldn't guess.

"Oh, Robert!" Kelly sang out from the bedroom. "Close your eyes."

"My Lord, not again, " Robert swore softly and closed his eyes, "yes, yes Kelly, my eyes are closed. I shan't peek at Helen in her altogether. I do so swear, I assure you."

"No," Kelly whispered. The sound of swishing cloth seemed to fill the room, "Just a moment, wait just a second... Now!" she ordered. "Look!"

Robert opened his eyes and was greeted with a vision, or closer to an apparition, in pink. Helen was dressed in a frothy, huge, multi layered, crinoline skirted, sparkle studded, pink ballgown. Her gray hair had been teased and curled and she was wearing makeup! Robert eyes were opened wide with surprise.

"My word, Helen. You are a ... vision." he proclaimed. Helen giggled and blushed, "Do you mean it, Robert?" she asked.

Robert saw a new Helen standing there. The small elderly woman's eyes were clear, and her coloring was healthy. She looked happy, Robert decided, not at all like the drab, confused old lady he had known.

He stood up and took her hands in his. "I wouldn't have recognized you."

"I know the dress is a bit outrageous." Helen smiled shyly, "but..."

"You happen to look like a dream, " Kelly interrupted," This is a Ballroom Dance Evening. You dress for the glamour, for the joy of the evening." She beamed proudly at Helen like a mother getting her daughter ready for the prom, "And you're gonna be the belle of the ball in that outfit, sweetie."

Robert decided that one good thing had come of this case already. Helen looked better, sounded better and seemed brighter than he had ever seen her. She no longer looked anything like the picture he had of his own little old granny. Not anymore. He lifted her hands to his lips," It will be a pleasure to watch you dance," he whispered. And then he kissed her hands.

Suddenly the front door opened with a crash. A woman, of about fifty, stood in front of the entryway, staring gap mouthed at the tableau in front of her.

"What the hell have you gotten yourself into now, Aunt Helen?" The woman stomped into the room and stood in front of Robert and Kelly, "And who the hell are you two?" she bellowed. She gasped when she looked at Helen's dress, " And what the hell are you doing with my aunt?"

Helen started to look confused and frightened, "Please, Denise, these are my friends..."

"Right! Friends?" Denise sneered. "Did you sign anything?" she suddenly screamed at Helen, "Did these two 'friends' tell you to sign over anything to them?" Her voice was shrill and Helen had started to weep.

"Hey you! Big-mouth!" Kelly moved to confront the woman, " I don't like your tone. You speak with some respect to your aunt, or you shut up."

The woman stood her ground, "Well, you both are too late. Aunt Crazy here, has already willed all her money to the damned Humane Society. There's not any money left for you to steal."

"That's it!" Kelly said as she stood closer to Denise.

Robert saw that Kelly was very angry. He remembered another time in South America when Kelly had gotten very angry. The result had not been very pretty. Fernando had done something to anger her, and Kelly had taken care of him - Lord rest his soul. Robert decided that caution was the better part of valor in this particular situation. He moved over to Helen, away from the two glaring women.

Denise pushed her face forward, nose to nose with Kelly. "You get outta here" she hollered. Kelly narrowed her eyes and in a flash, she had flipped Denise head over heels onto the floor.

"Oh my, " Helen exclaimed. "Kelly, don't hurt her. She is my only relative."

"After what you told me about how she treated you, she's in need of a good horse whipping." Kelly said as she patted her hair into place.

Helen walked over to the prone Denise and looked down at her. "Maybe you should go now dear? I am in rehearsal." Helen helped her niece up and walked her toward the door. "I'm quite fine and I'll see you soon."

Robert quickly opened the door and Denise stumbled out. She had just turned with her mouth open to say something, when Robert closed the door in her face. He heard her speak to herself in the hallway, "Wait, you old biddy. I'll fix you good. You won't get away again. I'll call Carpenter now."

"Rude woman," Robert noted out loud, but his mind was working furiously.

"She is, isn't she?" Helen asked. "She always told me that I was too confused. That I couldn't understand simple conversation."

"Forget her for now Helen," Kelly said as she turned the record player on. The sound of the waltz swirled around the room. "Let's see if that skirt is the right length or if it gets in your way."

Robert walked to the kitchen, "I've a phone call to make." He dialed the familiar number, "Control," he said quietly into the mouthpiece.

~~~~~~~~~~~

James Carpenter studied his reflection in the mirror carefully. It just needed a touch more powder around his jaw line to disguise the join between his own skin and the prosthesis he had applied. He dabbed at his face and looked again. Now he was satisfied with the results.

He had to go to the dance in disguise. He was in the Company files and McCall

- curse him - would know his face too well. He didn't like the overbearing, conceited ex-agent, but he had no intention of underestimating him either.

He pulled the tissue from the neck of his expensive white shirt and looked once more at his reflection. His own mother wouldn't have recognized the face staring back at him. He had decided to disguise himself as a much older man. At first he had toyed with the idea of looking like a very effeminate man, but he knew that with his good looks he would draw too much attention to himself. He had instead opted to add wrinkles and whiten his hair even more. He had even shaved off the front of his own hairline to make it appear to recede. He had changed the shape of his own beard by adding to it. It was now much fuller and luxuriant. His nose was larger and he had added a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses as the final touch.

He picked up his bow tie and put it around his neck. As he did so he caught a glimpse of the file picture of McCall lying on the bed. Instantly he was transported back to before his mother's death.

He remembered her telling him, time and again, of her long estranged brother William and his son Robert. Poor William, disinherited because of love. Poor William, losing his wife so early. Poor William, murdered so foully leaving his son all alone. Then, all he heard for years was: Robert had done this in the army, Robert had done that in the army. In the end, Carpenter came to hate the cousin he had never met. Even his clear dislike hadn't stopped his mother gloating about the exploits of the hated relative.

And his dislike had been strengthened when Robert had chosen to further his career, in the Company. That he had made a triumph of that career only embittered Carpenter more. He was certain that his own lack of success was because of the sly influence of Robert McCall. He was sure that Robert McCall schemed to keep him down. After all, he was probably jealous of him and his unblemished connection to the McCall family. McCall had never even deigned to speak to his own cousin, Carpenter seethed.

His bow tie straight, Carpenter put on his jacket. His suit was very expensive; simply, it was the best money could buy. He loved ballroom dancing and even though he was in disguise, he still intended to look his best. Too bad he wasn't dancing, he would show up Robert McCall. McCall could never hold a candle to him as a ballroom dancer. McCall was most likely inept and clumsy, Carpenter smiled.

He smoothed down the jacket and touched the hard outline of a small stoppered tube and the pin. His plan was amazingly simple. Sometime before the tango, he would prick McCall's partner, Kelly with the pin and the poison on the point would kill her within the hour. He remembered that he and Kelly had been friendly for a few years, long ago, but now she was in cahoots with that stain on the family name. Dying on the dance floor in McCall's arms, in front of everyone sounded to be a perfect revenge on both of them. Now everyone would see his cousin for what he was - an incompetent.

He had already given a bottle of the poison to Helen Rumford's niece to plant in her aunt's bedroom. After Kelly's death, the police would be sure to search the apartment where she had been staying. They would find the poison and arrest Helen for murder. Even the famous 'Equalizer' couldn't get her out of two murders that were so closely connected to her. Then her niece, as administrator of her aunt's estate, could get her hands on the old woman's cash.

Even though his original plan had been stalled by McCall, Carpenter felt sure that this next murder would tie this case up perfectly. Apart from being very well paid to get rid of Helen Rumford, this was personal. Carpenter would be able avenge all the slights inflicted on his branch of the family.

With one last check on his appearance, Carpenter left the hotel room locking the door behind him. If his other scheme worked as well, he could afford to retire. Carpenter hadn't been able to believe his luck when the microdot had fallen into his lap. He had wanted to kill Louie ever since that fiasco in the Far East and planting a very dead Louie into Helen's apartment had been a damned good idea. To be able to do that and get his hands on some very valuable information had been a bonus.

He just had to figure out how to extort as much money as possible from Control for the microdot he had taken from Louie. That fool Cantrell had been of more use to him in the past few days than he had been in the rest of their long association.

He remembered to walk bent over with age, leaning heavily on his cane making his disguise complete. In just a few hours, he would be toasting a perfect and successful night's work.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Robert walked across the dance floor. The auditorium was large and half of it was filled with opened folding chairs. People had been wandering in at a steady pace and the chairs were almost two-thirds filled.

Robert scanned the room, looking for Carpenter. He had memorized the computer generated, updated picture, using Kelly's description of him, but Robert really didn't think the picture would be of much use. Control had said that Carpenter was very deft at disguises. Robert had made a study of his features, those that might not change that much over time: the eye set, cheekbone structure and lip shape. Robert had an itching sense that Carpenter looked somewhat familiar.

Robert shook his head in frustration. The room was filling up faster with people of all ages and types. Carpenter might not even show tonight. Helen hadn't been attacked physically before this even though Carpenter had many opportunities. There was really no reason to expect his next move would occur tonight, other than Kelly's insistence that Carpenter was a ballroom dancing fanatic from way back. She swore that Carpenter would never miss a dance, especially when it was connected to a job.

Robert looked over the crowd. I must be losing my mind, he thought to himself. He wondered what he was doing here at all. Why ever did he permit Kelly to talk him into partnering her in the dance? Why ever did he agree to the hours spent practicing the tango, of all things? He had even let Kelly pick his costume for the night.

He was dressed in one of his more extravagant suits, a black silk, bought years ago at the urging of a female acquaintance of the time. Kelly had picked a black silk shirt to match, and had gifted him with a rather large silver belt buckle, to wear to complete the outfit.

I look like an Italian pimp, he shuddered. He squinted at a figure sitting a few rows back. Bloody hell, not him. Not here and not tonight when I'm dressed up like a peacock. He strode toward the now laughing man. "Control, damn it. What the hell are you doing here?"

Control stood up, his face all amused innocence. "When you told me about your theory of Carpenter's involvement in Cantrell's death and of his connection with your new client, how could I not come? If Carpenter shows, I'll be here to take him into custody. And, after all," Control tried to hold his smile back. "it's not everyday that I get to see you dance the tango."

Robert glared at him. "You had bloody well not use tonight in any of your stories, Control. I warn you, if any word of this gets out..."

Control put one large hand on Robert's silk clad shoulder, "But Robert, you look so lovely." He burst out laughing.

"Consider yourself warned," Robert growled.

"Dad! Dad!" Robert heard a familiar voice. He turned to see Scott and his latest girlfriend, Mindy.

"Wow! Dad, you look cool." Scott beamed.

"Yes, Mr. McCall," Mindy, the usually dour stockbroker sighed, "Do you ever look wonderful!" Her eyes seemed to devour him.

"Thank you... I suppose," Robert said. "What in the world are you two doing here?"

"Control called me. He told me all about tonight. And look, he gave me a camcorder, as a belated birthday gift!" Scott happily showed Robert the small video recorder.

Robert shot a look of pure malice toward Control, "Very nice of him, wasn't it?" he said through clenched teeth.

'Yeah, and now I get to see you in a dance contest! Wow Dad, You never fail to amaze me. I never would have guessed that you danced!! Boy, am I surprised." Scott laughed, delighted.

"I'm a bit surprised myself," Robert answered.

"Robert! Robert!" A voice shouted. It was Kelly. "I've been searching all over for you!" she said as she took his arm.

The eyes of every man and quite a few women near them were fixed upon Kelly. She was wearing a deep midnight-blue, form fitting, long gown, cut very low in the back. There were black sequins stitched to the fabric that sparkled with her every movement.

Kelly had what could only be described as the perfect feminine form. She was softly flat where she should be flat, with luscious curves where there should be curves. And peeking out from the side of the skirt, through a slit that almost went to her waist, were the perfect dancer's legs, clad in four inch, stiletto spiked heels.

Robert swallowed, "Kelly" he breathed, "You look lovely."

"Why thank you kind sir," she made a little curtsey. Then she recognized Control standing at Robert's side.

"Control," she purred, "it's been so long." Control took her hand and lifted it to his lips.

"Too long." he said and then he kissed her hand while staring into her eyes.

Scott spoke up. "Hey!! Isn't anyone going to introduce me?"

"Yes," Robert said, Control was still looking into Kelly's eyes. Robert pushed Scott toward Kelly, "My son, Scott."

Kelly looked at Scott as Control gently freed her hand, "Oh Robert! Your son?" Kelly gushed, "He's so tall and handsome!" Scott smiled shyly as Kelly cupped his chin in her hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you." Scott said, as the three men stood grinning at Kelly. Meanwhile Mindy stood to the side, totally forgotten. Robert happened to glance her way and remembered that she was still there. Mindy had black thunder clouds in her eyes as she glared at Scott.

Robert finally remembered his manners, "Oh, may I present Miss Min...."

"Robert!" Kelly interrupted, once again taking Robert's arm, "We really need to get to our place backstage." Kelly suddenly looked confused and turned to glance over her shoulder. There was a very elderly man, in a very natty suit just passing behind her.

She grinned at Robert, "I think that old dear just pinched me!" she giggled.

Did he?" Robert said absentmindedly, "Back stage now? He asked unhappily.

"Yes, "Kelly said, "We go on right after the waltzing portion of the dance. Right after Helen," She turned to Scott and Control. "Helen's just wonderful at waltzing. She's number 8 in pink. You will applaud for her, won't you?" she asked them.

Control nodded and Scott moved close behind Kelly. "I'll be sure to applaud for you too," Scott whispered in her ear.

"Oh you dear!" Kelly bussed Scott's cheek and grabbed Robert's arm, "Let's get a move-on, doll. We don't want to be late!"

As Kelly pulled him away, Robert caught one last look at Control and Scott. Control was laughing again, and Scott seemed to have a very angry date to contend with.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Carpenter sat down in a chair near the rear of the auditorium. He was close enough to see the show, and far enough in the back, so that he would have no trouble escaping after the panic started when Kelly crumpled dead onto the floor during the dance.

He smiled to himself. Right in front of those two pompous fools. He had all of the makings of a master spy, Carpenter told himself. He stuck the poison into Kelly right in front of them and they never even guessed that it was him. Carpenter almost giggled with glee. Perfect, everything was perfect. He smiled at the two elderly women sitting in either side of him and made small talk until the dancing started.

Carpenter had a few moments of discomfort when he saw Helen Rumford, glide onto the dance floor. She didn't look anything like grandmother McCall any more. She looked years younger, and she was a good dancer too. In fact, she sort of reminded him of his mother. He chided himself, no she doesn't look at all familiar. It must be all this business about family that made him think of Mother. He watched Helen waltz. That pink is rather becoming on her, he thought. Well, let her have a fine time, it will be her last evening outside of an institution.

He applauded with the rest of the audience when the waltz finished. He found himself hoping that Helen would get a tremendous hand for her efforts. She did look just a smidgen like Mother, he decided.

He hurt his hands applauding for her.

He was so excited. He felt as though he would burst with happiness. Just before the tango started, he glanced over to the side of the room. There was Helen, watching the show. She looked so much like Mother. It was beginning to unnerve him.

The tango began. He tried not to watch his cousin dance after he saw that McCall knew what he was doing. Carpenter felt his blood boil. Damn, McCall danced well, but not as well as he himself would have danced if he ever had a partner as talented as Kelly.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Control had been concentrating all of his energy on looking at individual faces in the large room, he wanted to be the one to find Carpenter and pull him away from Robert. After all these years of keeping Robert in the dark about his familial ties to Carpenter, he would hate to have to explain it all to him now. Control had always known that Robert and Carpenter shared grandparents, but he knew his old friend too well. If Robert had known that he had a cousin in the Company, he would have thrown all of his energies into building some sort of connection with Carpenter. Control had needed McCall to be focused on the job, and not on peripheral emotional connections.

Control felt confident that everything would turn out well. He already had possession of the microdot. Once Robert had filled in some of the blanks about it's whereabouts, it had been a simple matter of finding Carpenter's second-in-command at his 'business' and explaining how handing over the Company's microdot would benefit him.

The music of the tango started and the lights went dark. He looked toward the stage. Watching the two figures dance, a look of unabashed pleasure spread over his face. The spotlight was trained permanently onto the best dancers to have graced the YMCA's dance-floor in a long while.

Robert McCall was the most formal and ramrod straight figure there, his naturally aloof and proud bearing suited the tango perfectly. Kelly was as strongly feminine as Robert was the epitome of male intensity. Control glanced over at Scott. The young man seemed to have no problem pointing the video camera in the right direction, but his date seemed to be in some kind of distress. Her eyes were glued to the dancers while she was panting and squirming in her seat. Control chuckled.

He definitely wanted a few copies of this Ball Room Exhibition made. Robert was really doing himself proud. His eyes were drawn back to the dance. The room was almost hushed, and except for a sporadic wheeze and cough from the audience, nothing was heard or seen except the beauty and sensuousness of the tango's music and dancers.

Kelly was lost in a blur of sparkles as her dress moved with her through the complicated footsteps of the dance. Her legs moved sensuously to entwine and then release Robert's silk trouser clad legs. Robert never let his eyes wonder from Kelly's gaze, the haughty set to his chin and the fire in his eyes were making a few ladies around Control sigh involuntarily.

Control was having a ball. Wait until he told Robert about his roomful of conquests. This story would embarrass his old friend way into the next millennium.

A woman behind Control murmured deeply "My God, what a man," as Robert sharply snapped Kelly into his arms and passionately crushed her to his chest. When Robert dipped Kelly so low that her head skimmed the floor, a gasp of desire issued from every feminine bosom in the room.

As Control drank in the sight of Kelly, one long shapely leg encircling Robert's hip, her white cleavage glowing in the bright stage lights, Control couldn't help but remember a younger Kelly, and those long sultry summer nights in Cuba so many years ago. Why had they parted again? For the life of him he couldn't remember. He was reminded just how pleased he had been in those days. Kelly was a talented teacher and Control had been, in his pre-Control days, an apt and grateful pupil.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Carpenter felt a momentary sadness that Kelly was already as good as dead. The women in the audience surrounding Carpenter, started to murmur different admiring phrases about McCall. He couldn't help but hear the women's comments. Why was everyone so damned fond of Robert McCall?

He peered closely at Kelly on the dance floor. She should be feeling the poison now. He watched, getting ready to see her collapse. He waited. The music was hypnotic and the dancing was weaving a spell. She should have dropped by now. Why wasn't she dead? He waited a few more moments. Then he started to mumble softly. "Drop. Die. What is wrong?"

He stood up and moved to the aisle. His eyes were glued to McCall and Kelly. He stared, hatred burning in his heart. The poison didn't work! Robert McCall has won again, he glanced to the side, and Mother knows it. Mother was smiling, her hands clasped with happiness in front of her. How did he fail again? And Mother over there watching, happily smiling ... for Robert. Always for Robert. By now he was mumbling louder, spittle shooting from his mouth.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Out of a corner of his eye Control caught an expression of pure hatred on the face of an elderly man near the back. The man was standing and muttering to himself. Control supposed the dance brought out all sorts of memories in people. He guessed that the man might also be a victim to one of the ills that older people were heir to. As he turned away to once again view the tango, something about the man's features, briefly illuminated by the moving spotlight on stage, seemed familiar to Control.

Then it came to him. Carpenter! Control ducked into a shadow.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Carpenter saw Control darting in and out of shadows, moving toward him. Damn! He had to go. Now!

He held the cane in front of him as a weapon. He would get out of here and forget about McCall. He still had the microdot locked in the safe at his office and if he handled everything just right, he would force the Company to cough up a goodly ransom for it. He could also make Control give him a free pass on any other charges that might be brought against him.

But first, he had to escape Control. Never negotiate from a position of weakness, he knew that. He needed to be free to have the upper hand in the bargaining process. He was almost at the exit. Then Control appeared in front of it, barring his way. Damnation! He veered around. Control would want to keep his capture low key. He relied on Control's hatred of public attention.

Carpenter no longer even tried to keep in the character of an old man. He sprinted to a side fire exit. Control in front of him again! Carpenter spun around. He had to get out. He didn't want to be captured, not in front of McCall. Never, Carpenter vowed. He knew his cousin would gloat to see him brought low.

He felt ill. Dizzy. Disoriented. He was desperately searching around for another way out when he saw her again. Mother. Mother was here too, cheering for McCall. Then he saw Control walking toward him. Control with his power, Control with his attachment to McCall. His heart was pounding, he was sweating through his beautiful suit. Why did he always turn out to be second rate? No matter how hard he tried, he was never good enough.

He dashed in a different direction, running blindly, searching to get freed of the room, of Control and of his thoughts. In front of him! Mother. He would explain to her and, make her understand. It wasn't his fault. It was because of Robert McCall and his hatred and jealousy of the acknowledged branch of the family that nothing worked out for him.

He ran to Helen and embraced her.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Helen had been standing at the side of the auditorium. She couldn't remember a more lovely night. People had been so nice to her and she was very happy. She clapped her hands as Kelly and Robert did another special tango step.

All of a sudden a panting, red-faced, bearded man ran from the darkness of the auditorium and embraced her gently, nuzzling his face to her shoulder. Helen was confused. Did she know this man? She knew that she forgot so much sometimes. Maybe he was congratulating her on her waltzing? That must be it! He must be someone she knew. She hugged the man back and patted his shoulder. "Isn't that nice of you," she said. "Why thank you. It's so nice to see you."

The man looked at her in amazement. "You're happy to see me?" He asked incredulously.

"Why yes dear. Of course I am."

A tall man had appeared and grabbed the first man securely by the arms. "You are happy to see me?" the man with the beard asked again, tears streaming from his eyes as he was being dragged away.

Helen looked at him, "Yes," she smiled warmly and waved good-bye. "I wonder who that man was?" she thought.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"The end of a pleasant and successful evening." Robert said to himself as he sipped his brandy. Control sat to his right on his couch, also sipping the good Napoleon. Scott and Mindy sat opposite them in separate chairs, drinking coffee. Mindy was, yet again smiling in his direction. Robert smiled back, uncomfortably.

"So, Helen is safe now?" Mindy asked Robert. She leaned forward, intent on his answer.

"Oh, yes." Robert said, "Her niece is already under arrest for conspiracy to fraud and murder. There might be other charges pending also, Lieutenant Smalls assures me."

"Oh, Mr. McCall, " Mindy looked down, and smiled. "Robert," She looked up at him through her lashes, "explain to me again, what happened tonight?" She sighed and shrugged coquettishly, " I simple can't understand all of these intricate goings on."

"Simple enough," Scott said irritated, " Carpenter was going to kill Kelly and pin it on Helen so Helen's niece could get control of her money." Scott looked confused himself then, "But it didn't happen. What do you think went wrong?"

Control smiled behind his hand, as he looked off into space. "The stick pin filled with the poison didn't work, I suppose." Control stretched his legs out. "Carpenter wasn't great at his job, but he was an agent for years. No one can survive as long as he did without a certain degree of proficiency. He did get to use the pin on Kelly.

Robert grimaced, "He scratched her with it just before our tango started. He wanted her to collapse while I was dancing with her. A very public death." He shrugged. "I remember when he passed by now," Robert said, his brow furrowed in thought. "I didn't have a clue that the very old gentleman brushing by Kelly was Carpenter." He shook his head, "Right in front of me too, by God. And since Kelly was staying with Helen, a woman just questioned for another murder..." Robert took another sip, "the authorities would have looked to her first."

"And her niece had put a bottle of the same poison in Helen's room," Scott added.

"The police would have done an autopsy and found the poison. Helen would have been arrested and put away, either in prison or because of her mental history, into a facility. Her niece would have been in charge of Helen's money, a considerable fortune as it turns out."

"Well, I'd be annoyed too if a wealthy relative of mine willed a fortune to the cat hospital." Scott smirked.

"Humane Society, Scott." Robert corrected.

"Same thing," Scott looked at Mindy, who was still gazing at Robert. Scott looked annoyed.

Control put his drink down, "I still can't see Carpenter making that much of a mistake. There isn't much to working a poisoned stick pin. No moving part to fail. No, I can't guess why his plan didn't work."

Scott reddened and smiled sheepishly, "I think I know why Kelly survived."

They all looked at Scott. Robert raised his brows in pleasure... and surprise. "Really Scott? Do tell us your theory."

Scott grinned, "Well, she was stuck right?"

"Yes," Robert agreed, "it looked to be a full stick at the time. Kelly did say she thought she had been pinched."

"Right," Scott paced back and forth, "elementary ladies and gentleman. She was stuck but it didn't stick her."

"Sco - ott!" Mindy said making two syllables out of his name. "Stop this dramatic nonsense and tell us your theory." She looked at him, her temper short.

Scott turned his back to her and said, "Ipso facto. The poison didn't effect Kelly because Carpenter didn't break the skin to get the poison into her system!" He saw that they were still looking at him confused. "He stuck her but it wasn't Kelly he stuck." Scott put his hands into his pockets. "He stuck the poison into Kelly's padding, the padding on her butt. 'Best Butt Briefs', I think is the brand name.

Control started to guffaw.

"What?" Robert asked confused.

Mindy glared at Scott, then turned to Robert and said sweetly. "It's a product for people who want a more rounded, higher, uplifted derriere," she said.

"Phony padding to make you look like you 'got back'." Scott grinned in victory.

"I thought she looked a little too 'robust' for a woman of her advanced age. So! Some of Kelly's curves come off at night." Mindy said with a smug smile on her face.

"Wasn't always that way," Control murmured as he picked up the snifter and raised it to his lips. He sighed deeply. "No, it wasn't always that way," he drank.

Robert stared wide eyed in amazement at Control. "What?"

Scott still had a happy smile on his face when Mindy turned and asked, "How do you know she had a padded undergarment on Scott? She looked fine to me, and to every man in that auditorium," she added sarcastically.

"Oh... I could tell," Scott stammered.

"I couldn't," Robert leaned back on the couch.

"Well, it was just that..." Scott shrugged, "She didn't have any reaction when I pinched her."

"What!" Mindy screeched, "You pinched her?"

"Well, yeah," Scott replied, "It just seemed the thing to do. It was right there." He mimed a curvy shape," So round, so firm, so fully packed..."

Mindy jumped up. "You pinched the butt of an old lady?" Mindy put her hands on her hips, "Well, I never! That's disgusting," she stamped her foot and glared at him, her lips twisted into a repulsed sneer.

"I'm disgusting?" Scott retorted, " You're the one who - all night - kept moaning," Here he pitched his voice high and flitted his hands around in a good Mindy imitation, "Oooo, Scott, your father looks so handsome. Oooo Scott, your father dances so well, Ooo Scott, your father is sooo sexxxxy!" Scott grimaced and said in his own voice, "Now that's disgusting!"

Mindy blushed bright red. She clamped her lips into a tight line, and turned toward the door, "Goodnight." She said, "I'm leaving now." She whipped her coat off the chair and barreled over to the door, pulled it open and flew out.

"What the...?" Open mouthed in confusion, Scott looked at his father and Control. They stared back at him. "I guess I'd better... Oh, g'night." He ran out the door calling, "Mindy! Mindy, wait!"

"Humm," Control said, looking in the direction of the video camera still sitting on the mantelpiece. Scott had left without it. "I suppose I should get going." He got up and walked over to his coat and shrugged it on. "Interesting evening," he said over his shoulder to Robert. He stood facing the mantle piece. With an almost undetectable motion he slipped the camera into his inside pocket.

He turned toward the door. He stopped, his shoulders slumped and he sighed. "The tape's not in the recorder, is it?"

"No," Robert smiled smugly. "I purloined it a while ago," He reached for the humidor sitting on the coffee table.

Control stepped back into the room. Still wearing his coat he flopped down onto the couch. "I've been meaning to tell you something for a long time."

Robert lit his cigar, and exhaled a large satisfied puff of smoke. "Yes?"

"You're no fun, no fun at all old son," he looked over. "Hand me over one of those stogies." He said disgruntled.

"Stogies? "Robert glared, "I'll have you know, these beauties are the finest Havana's. A gift from an old friend." Robert picked out another cigar. He passed it under his nose, sniffing the aroma of fine tobacco.

"Yeah, yeah, I remember, Christmas of last year" Control grabbed the cigar and picked up the lighter lying on the table. He put the flame up high and nearly singed his eyebrows as he lit the cigar evenly.

Robert patted the video tape hidden behind the cushion at his arm. "The end of a very pleasant and successful evening."

 

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