Fortunately, we have many informants. It was not difficult to find a man of your-'

He hesitated, embarrassed. I rushed to fill in the silence. 'What about the girl that was with him?'

'Venice has many alleys, signor.'

Little tumblers were clicking in my brain, tapping out a combination that spelled a prison cell. Or death. I was glad I hadn't eaten. As it was, I was fighting off a bad case of the dry heaves. I was sure that whoever was framing me wouldn't stop here, and I wasn't anxious to wait around to see what other surprises were in store for me.

'Signor, you are under arrest for possession of heroin and for the murder of Thomas Barrett.'

Costello came for me and I reacted instinctively, trying to imagine myself back in the center ring, where the punishment for bad timing might be a broken bone or the mocking laughter of the crowd, but never a bullet in the brain.

I drove the point of my shoe into Costello's shin, then leapt forward, tucking myself into a ball, rolling, then exploding into the side of Abbott's knees. Abbott crumpled over me, shielding me for a moment with his body from the death in his partner's hand.

I didn't stop. I used the momentum from my first rush to carry me over into another roll, then planted my feet under me and leaped head first for the window, closing my eyes and balling my fists to minimize any injuries from the flying glass. I opened my eyes just in time, reaching out and grabbing the edge of the steel railing on the fire escape outside the window. That saved me from a five-story fall.

I broke my reverse swing by shortening the extension of my arms and using my right hip to absorb the shock of my body falling back against the railing. Glass was showering all around and I could smell the odor of my own blood.

There was the ugly sound of a gunshot, then the whine of steel striking steel. It was still Circus all the way. There was no time to climb down, so I dropped; story by story, breaking my fall at each level by grabbing at the railings.

My left shoulder went on the last level, yanked out of its socket. I hit the sidewalk in free fall, immediately flexing my knees and rolling. After what seemed an hour or two of rolling around like a marble I came to a stop in an upright position against a garbage can that must have been filled with concrete.

Abbott was leaning out the window of my room, peering down into the darkness. My left arm with its dislocated shoulder was useless, and my legs hurt like hell, but I could tell they weren't broken. I allowed myself a small smile of satisfaction.

I wasn't dead, which meant I must have made it. I got up, ducked into an alley, somehow managed to climb a fence and kept going, keeping to the alleys.

A half mile away I sat down to rest and think.

Mongo the Magnificent? Mongo the Village Idiot. I'd been had. And now I was a fugitive. I tried to rationalize why I had run, reminding myself that my frame was being nailed together by a master. That was true enough, but the real reason was pride.

Pride? A foolish thing, perhaps, to risk one's life for. Still, for me, pride was my life-or the only thing that made life worth living. Pride was the stuff oiling the gears that kept me going in a giants' world.

Pride made me care. The matter might have been cleared up while I was in custody, but it would have been done by somebody else. I would leave my prison cell a miserable, stupid dwarf who had been used as a pawn, a little man who had been made a messenger of death. I wanted to know who had involved me in Tommy Barrett's death. And why. I wanted to find out for myself.

The fact that I had run would be taken as conclusive evidence of guilt, and I could probably expect to be shot the next time around. Given my rather quaint physical characteristics, I figured I didn't have too many hours of freedom left.

I needed a phone. I knew where there was an American Express office open twenty-four hours a day and I hurried there. I knew it was risky to put myself inside four walls, but I couldn't see where I had any choice, not if I wanted to do something with the time I had.

I tried not to think of the surrounding glass or the fact that the office only seemed to have one door as I entered and walked up to the clerk on duty.

I gave him the number I wanted to call. The lines were free and it rook him only a few moments to make the connection with New York. He motioned me to one of the booths lining the opposite wall. I went into the booth, closed the door, and squatted down on the floor, bracing my back against the wall.


'Mongo! What the hell are you doing waking me up in the middle of the night?! And what's the matter with your voice?'

'Listen, big man, you're lucky I can talk at all,' I said. I tried to sound nasty so we could continue playing our family game, but I couldn't. His voice sounded too good. 'Garth, I'm in trouble. I need your help.'

'Go ahead,' Garth said. I could tell he was wide awake now. His voice was deadly serious.

'I need information on a man who may or may not be named James Barrett. It's probably an alias, but I want you to check it out for me anyway. Find out if there is a James Barrett with a record, and get back to me as soon as you can. I'll give you a number where-'

'I just left one James Barrett about four hours ago,' Garth said. He sounded puzzled. 'Jimmy Barrett is my partner.'

'Describe him.'

'About five foot eight, eyes: blue. Hair: none. He's pushing retirement. Part of his left ear lobe is missing-'

I suddenly felt very sick and my arm was beginning to throb.

'And he has a son,' I finished. My voice was barely a whisper.

'Yeah,' Garth said. 'Tommy. Nice boy. Barrett says the kid's an artist, apparently pretty good. The last I heard he was spending the summer in Italy. What does that have to do with you?'

'He's dead,' I said too loudly. 'What it has to do with me is that I helped kill him.'

There was complete silence on the other end of the line. Slowly, my voice stretched thin by pain and fatigue, I filled Garth in on where I was and what had happened. My own words seemed alien to me, a shrieking whine emanating from some broken tape recorder inside my soul. The words hurt, and I used that pain to lash myself for my own gullibility and incompetence, for not smelling the set-up earlier and maybe preventing the death-or deaths- that had occurred. Finally it was over and Garth's voice came at me, soft but laced with rage, punctuated with heavy breathing.

'All right, Mongo, I know who the man is from your description. His name is Pernod, Vincent Pernod, and he's one of the biggest drug men around, a contractor for the Mafia. You've just had a taste of Pernod's sense of humor and style of revenge.'

'Why Barrett, and why me? And what's the connection with the girl?'

'Jimmy and I have spent the last eighteen months trying to run Pernod down, which means building a case. The pressure was building on him to the point where New York, his most lucrative market, was being taken away, and it was only a matter of time before we nailed him.

'Pernod doesn't take kindly to that kind of treatment and obviously he decided to do something about it. Killing Tommy Barrett was his way of getting at my partner; destroying you in the process was his way of getting at me. Add to that the fact that Elizabeth Hotaling is, or was, Pernod's ex-mistress and you begin to get a picture of how dirty the water is that you've been swimming in.'

My knuckles were white where I had gripped the receiver. Pernod had had me pegged perfectly. He'd been sure I wouldn't contact Garth until it was too late, and he'd been right.

'Tommy met the girl down at the precinct station. He'd come to see his father about something and Elizabeth Hotaling was waiting while we grilled her boyfriend. You saw the results.'

My brain was beginning to play tricks on me. I was having acid-flashes of memory; Pernod in my office, the man and woman in the pallazza, the sapper bouncing off' my skull. My rage was growing, exploding hot splinters of hatred.

'He has Italian help,' I said, thinking of the two men I'd run into.

'Sure. He has a farm outside Rome, somewhere near Cinecitta,' Garth said absently. 'There's a small airstrip

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