Tommy Barrett, from what I could tell by simply looking at him, wasn't in the same league. Not as far as experience was concerned. They contrasted, yet somehow they matched perfectly. I guessed they were happy together.

Of one thing I was certain: Neither one of them used drugs, at least not on a regular basis, and even then not the hard stuff. I can spot most serious heads a block away, if not by needle tracks then by the pupils of the eyes, the pallor of the skin, nervous mannerisms, or any one of a hundred other traits that are apparent to the trained observer.

Whatever the couple's problems, drugs wasn't one of them. And, if Tommy Barrett was a notorious pusher, what was he doing in the middle of St. Mark's Square peddling charcoal sketches to tourists?

And what was I doing in Italy?

There was no doubt but that the elder Barrett had lied. But why? It seemed I had inherited a puzzle along with my retainer, and the shape of that puzzle was constantly changing. I decided to try some new pieces.

I stepped forward and touched Elizabeth Hotaling gently on the arm, then leaned toward Tommy Barrett.

'Excuse me,' I said quietly. 'I'm Robert Frederickson. I wonder if I could talk to you privately? I won't take much of your time.'

'I don't bargain on the price of the sketches, mister,' Barrett said without looking up. His tone was not hostile, simply businesslike.

'The sketches are two dollars apiece, Mr. Frederickson,' the girl said. 'That really isn't very much, and it's the best work you'll find around here. If you're interested in oils, we'd love to have you visit our apartment. I make excellent cappuccino.'

'I'm sure you do, Miss Hotaling, and I'd like to see Mr. Barrett's work, but first I'd like to talk to you.'

I waited for the reaction that came; the man and woman exchanged quick glances. I followed up my lead. 'You're Elizabeth Hotaling and you're Tommy Barrett,' I said, indicating the two of them. 'I'm here to deliver a message from Tommy's brother.'

Barrett suddenly paused in the middle of a stroke, then carefully placed the piece of charcoal he'd been working with into the chalk tray of his easel. He slowly turned on his stool, away from the crowd. I walked around to the front of him, the girl trailing a few steps behind.

'Who are you?' Barrett said softly, his eyes searching my face.

'I gave you my name. I'm a private detective from New York. As I said, your brother sent me here to deliver a message.'

'Mister, I don't have a brother.'

I can't say I was surprised. That was the way the case had been going. Now the trick was to discover who the man in my office had been, and what game he was playing. I decided to go slow with Barrett and the girl; reactions were proving more reliable than words.

'I'm sure you must know this man,' I said carefully, watching Barrett. 'He's big, over six feet. Snappy dresser. He talks good, but you can tell-'

The description was meager but it had an immediate effect on the young painter and his girl friend. Elizabeth Hotaling let out a strangled sob and struck at my back with her fists. The blows didn't hurt but they did distract me long enough to enable Tommy Barrett to bounce one of his wooden easel frames off the side of my head, knocking me to my knees. Barrett grabbed the girl's hand, dragging her after him into the crowd.

The blow had dazed me. Still, I would have been up and after them if it had not been for the man kneeling over me, his knee digging into the muscles of my arm.

Even in this rather untenable situation, pain shrieking through every nerve end in my body, I couldn't help but admire his technique; it was beautiful. To the crowd it must have seemed as though he was trying to help me; only I could see the ugly black sapper he pulled from beneath his sport coat, or the short, hard stroke that slammed into the base of my skull.

The smell of rotting fish finally woke me up. I was dangling over the edge of a walkway between two buildings, my face about four inches above the surface of a particularly foul-smelling, stagnant stretch of backwater from one of the canals.

I had no idea how the man had gotten me here. Probably, he'd simply picked me up and carried me off. After all, in this day and age, who asks questions just because you're carrying around a dwarf?

One thing was certain: The man knew his trade, and if he'd wanted me dead I'd be at the bottom of the canal instead of just smelling it.

There had been no need to find Tommy Barrett because Tommy Barrett hadn't been hiding. Anyone could have done what I had done so far, but I had been chosen to do it, which meant that I was, if not the star of the opera, at least first tenor. Why?

I was sure I'd never seen the man in my office in my life and I hadn't been busy enough to make that kind of enemy. I tried to make some connection with my work at the university but couldn't. I doubted any parent would go to these lengths because I'd failed a student.

I was hurting. I managed to drag myself out through the labyrinth of alleys to the main square, then got on a water bus. It was late. There wasn't a cab in sight back at the main terminal, and the buses had stopped running. Despite my disheveled appearance, I managed to hitch a ride back to Mestra.

It was time to call Garth. As much as I hated to admit it, Big Brother's help was needed. Actually, what I needed was information, and that information, if it existed, would most likely be found on a police blotter. But it could wait. Figuring the time differential, Garth would be just getting out of bed, and there wasn't much he could do for me there. Besides, I needed sleep myself if I hoped to make any sense over the phone.

I stumbled into my room and immediately knew something was wrong; the empty space on the night stand where I had placed the notebook caught and held my attention like a gun bore aimed at my belly.

Grimacing against the pain in my head, I made a quick check of the room. It didn't take me long to discover that the lock on my suitcase had been sprung. Nothing was missing. My clothes were a bit rumpled, but it almost seemed as if the searcher had made a conscious effort to leave everything as he had found it, despite the fact that I would certainly know he had been there because of the missing notebook. That produced a discordant note inside my head, but things up there were already so out of tune that I didn't give it much thought; I hurt too much.

I went into the bathroom and filled the sink with cold water, then plunged my head in and gingerly scrubbed at the caked blood where the blackjack had bounced off. I blew bubbles beneath the water to take my mind off the pain. I owed somebody, I thought; I certainly did owe somebody.

The two policemen were waiting for me when I came out.

They looked like Abbott and Costello. Both men had their guns drawn and pointed at me. Costello was down on one knee, his arm extended straight out in front of him as though he was preparing to defend against the Charge of the Light Brigade. I almost laughed; instead, I muttered a long string of carefully selected obscenities.

Neither man said anything. Abbott jiggled his gun and Costello rose and went to my suitcase. The fat man groped around inside the lining for a few moments, then smiled. Mad genius that I am, it suddenly occurred to me whoever had taken the notebook wasn't entirely dishonest.

Like a pack rat, the man had felt compelled to leave something behind to soothe my ruffled feelings. Like the plastic bag filled with heroin that Costello was now holding in his hand.

'You're making a mistake,' I said. The words blurred on my tongue. 'Do you think I'd be stupid enough to leave a bag of heroin laying around in an empty suitcase? Look at the lock; it's been jimmied.'

'The condition of your luggage is no concern of ours, signor,' Abbott said evenly. His tone belied his comical appearance. He was a serious man, and he hated me. It was obvious that somewhere along the line he'd picked up more than a passing interest in people he suspected of pushing drugs.

'My name is Frederickson; Dr. Robert Frederickson. I'm a private detective. I didn't put those drugs there. I've never seen that plastic bag before in my life.'

'We'll have plenty of time to work these details out, signor. In the meantime, you should know that the boy you sold drugs to this afternoon is dead.'

'What boy?' I whispered.

'The artist. We found his body in an alley. He had died from an overdose of the heroin you sold him.

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