I was carrying two million dollars in cash.
All that nice bread was snuggled alongside the Gold Cup Colt automatic in my Gucci bag that was clutched in my hot little paws as I sat more or less relaxed in the comfortable seat of the Boeing jetliner that was bringing me closer and closer to the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome.
My eyes scanned the scene through the window. I saw sunlight glisten off the smooth waters of the Tiber, watched as it was reflected from the dome of Saint Peter's. I stared down at the ruins o the Coliseum and the Forum, and the modern houses and office buildings that made up the Eternal City.
But only half my attention was on what I saw.
Behind me, a man who had kept his little pig eyes on my female shapeliness was still touching me from time to time with his stare. He was a big man, neatly dressed in a Bill Blass suit, with Hathaway tie. He seemed like an ordinary businessman without a care in the world, other than the business that was bringing him to Rome. Trouble was, I felt I was the business that was taking him here.
Two million iron men is enough business for anybody.
I got out my compact, scanned my features that were framed by red hair, and then moved the mirror slightly so I could see his face. It was dark and there was bluish beard at his jaws. There was a hard coldness to his black eyes that touched me, moved away, then came back to study me again.
He was Mafia, no doubt about it.
I hesitated. Maybe I was too uptight. Maybe he was just what he appeared to be, a guy who had no interest in me other than hoping I might let him into my bed when we taxied to a landing at the airport. In my line of work, I have developed instincts. A tiny voice in the corner of my head told me he was trouble. And not just because I might have to fight off a determined pass.
I folded the compact and slipped it back inside the Gucci. No need to do anything about him now, he wasn't going to attack me on the plane. He would wait until we were on the ground and I would be alone somewhere, without help. Then he would move in and make his play.
Well, this was fine by me.
So I allowed myself to lean closer to the window as if drawn by mere curiosity. I was still tense, however, waiting.
I work for the New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organization, more familiarly known as N.Y.M.P.H.O., and was aware that we have enemies all over the world. Mr. Curiosity behind me might or might not be an enemy. I just couldn't whirl around and accuse him. I was going to have to let him make the first play before I reacted.
I was going to be ready when he was.
The Captain came on the loudspeaker, advising us to put out our cigarettes and to buckle up. We were coming in for a landing. I did what the man asked, then leaned my head against the cushioned rest and closed my eyes.
The plane sank lower and lower, making its run for the landing strip. The motors drones, I felt the surge of our slowing in my middle. The ground came up to meet us, very swiftly.
The plane braked, I could feel its power all through my body. Then the wheels were touching, not even bumping, and we slid along for what seemed a long time before the big jetliner came to a halt. People let out breaths on all sides of me. My fingers went to the belt buckles, loosening it.
After this came voices, babbling, somebody laughing with a trace of hysteria in her voice, a may saying something I couldn't understand. I reached up for my coat, throwing it over an arm, and turned to give the swarthy man behind me a long, slow look.
If he smiled at me, or said something, I was ready to admit he might be about to make a play for me. As a female, that is, with an idea of a romp between the sheets at some local hotel. But he didn't even look at me, his eyes were fixed on something across the aisle, he seemed supremely ignorant of my existence.
It was a danger signal.
My eyes drifted away from him to scan the other passengers. No danger among them for me, that I could see. They all appeared to be tourists or business people, with a sprinkling of young mothers and babies.
No, no, Cherry my girl.
The danger, when it comes, will appear in Rome itself, not on this Al Italia jetliner. Still, I didn't abandon my caution. I held the Gucci bag close to my breasts as I made my way down the aisle, with the blue-jowled man right at my heels.
We went through Customs almost in the same manner, with him right behind me. We came out on the sidewalk and looked for a taxi together. I was luckier, I guess, I flagged one down before he did. But I noticed, out of the corners of my eyes, that he was making some sort of gesture even as I was stepping into my cab.
My eyes went up and down the street. Funny. There wasn't another cab in sight. To whom was he making that gesture, then?
I forgot about him in the cab, letting it take me to the Cavalieri Hilton. If I'd had my druthers, I might have chosen a smaller hostelry to get the more intimate flavor of the city, but my boss-man, Avery King, who heads up N.Y.M.P.H.O., had made all the arrangements. I didn't pay any attention to where we were going, other than noting it was starting to drizzle and the streets were getting wet, until traffic began building up.
I leaned forward to speak to the driver in Italian. Though I am known as Cherry Delight in the femmes fatales division of N.Y.M.P.H.O., I was born Cherise Delissio, and spoke Italian almost before I did English. As a result, I am quite fluent in the lingo.
"Can't you make better time than this?" I asked.
I got an expressive shrug of the shoulders for an answer, and a muttered explanation that traffic is like this in Rome, quite often.
We sat there for ten minutes. Fifteen. At the end of half an hour, we still hadn't moved. I was getting impatient.
I said, "Is it far to the hotel from here?"
"Not far, no. Maybe a mile. No more. You get out and walk. Very good. You get there ahead of me."
He seemed much too eager to lose his fare.
I scowled at the back of his head. This, together with that blue-jowled man who had been eyeing me all the way from Kennedy Airport, seemed to fit a sort of pattern. Was I being set up for a hit?
My lips quirked into a faint smile.
All I had with me was a little valise. I intended to do some shopping in Rome for a few Fabiani or Simonetta Visconti originals, I could always pick up extra valise in a store along the Via Condotti. I told myself somebody wanted me to climb out of the cab and walk.
A streak of stubbornness inside me told me to stay put and mentally thumb my nose at the blue-jowled man. On the other hand, it had been a long plane ride and I felt like some exercise.
I said on impulse, "I think I'll walk."
The cabdriver was delighted. I even gave him a tip when I paid him.
I started up the sidewalk.
Now I have been in Rome before, on a number of N.Y.M.P.H.O. assignments and I knew my way around. This was a rough neighborhood I was in, I knew that, but I am a girl well able to take care of herself.
To be quite frank about it, I was looking forward to a little action. I strode along, letting my eyes walk on ahead of me to scan the people around and the possible dangers they might offer. I saw no danger. At first, that is.
Then my eyes were attracted to a group of kids. They were small and they wore ragged pants and shirts. A couple of them had on floppy caps. These were scippi, I told myself.
These scippi are handbag snatchers, rather than muggers. They are a new breed of Roman, mainly young boys in their early or middle teens, fleet of foot and as daring as Evil Knievel himself.
They came at me from all directions. There were ten of them, all told. They didn't come in a rush, they sauntered toward me, staring at anything but me, but I was their target. Usually these scippi attack only elderly women—or so I have been told. But I was carrying two million bucks in good American money. I was fair game for anybody.
One thing troubled me. I couldn't make myself believe that the blue-jowled man was in cahoots with these ragamuffin kids. The taxi driver? Well, maybe. But I was almost positive that it was the stranger from the plane who had set this up.
Then I noticed something funny. One of the scippi had breasts. They shook and bobbled without a bra to hold them in. I stared at the other scippi and saw the same thing.
Jeez! These kids were all girls.
It didn't make sense.
I didn't have too much more time to do any thinking. These girls were around me now, smiling faintly, maliciously, at my seeming innocence and helplessness.
One of them—the one with the big boobs—came to a stop in front of me and put her hands on her hips. I noted vaguely that the street around me was empty except for the scippi and me. Apparently some underground method of communication was at work, here. Or maybe the good citizens of Rome had had experience with these scippi and discreetly stayed out of their way when they were zeroing in on a target.
"Carry your bags for you?" the girl asked.
I smiled sweetly at her. "No, thanks."
She made a gesture with a hand and a girl alongside me made a dive for the Gucci bag. There was no way she was going to get that away from me. I lashed up and sideways with my foot in a karate kick and landed right smack on her face. She went backwards, spitting blood and teeth.
Almost in the same movement, I swung the valise as a medieval knight might have swung a battleaxe. Its metal ribs drove her against the girl with the big tits. She went back on her heels, out on her bare feet.
I let go of the bag and whirled.
The others came at me with a stamp of naked feet. I let on get within reaching distance before I belted her alongside her cute little jaw with the edge of my hand. I have broken five planks with that hand. I think I broke her jaw. She fell as if poleaxed and lay there with her eyes staring up sightlessly at the Italian sky.
I kicked with a foot, feeling my heel sink into soft flesh. Then arms were grappling me, trying to swing me off my feet. Fingernails were aimed at my face.
I bent my head forward and used my skull to pound in a nose. One of my elbows rammed hard into a soft belly. I dug my fingers upward, shaped in a cone, right into the throat of a girl who had gotten a little too close for comfort. At the same time I kicked back into a shin.
The girls fell away.
I laughed at them and went on the offensive. I used the floating loin throw—the uki goshi—to send one dame flying heels over head against a building wall. I tried the major outer reaping against another. In between these moves I brought my booted feet into play, kicking outward or upward to where my feet would do the most damage.
There were sobs, snarls and wails sounding all around me. Girls with bloody faces, with ashen faces, with torn lips, went down, got up, and went down again as I struck one and the another with hands and feet lashing everywhere I saw an attack coming.
Still, nobody came out to watch what was going on. Oh, they watched, I bet, but they did their watching from behind windows or screens or maybe curtains. The street was very still, outside of the noise we were making.
Most of the scippi were on the sidewalk or the street, by this time, and had lost all interest in the proceedings. But three girls were left. They were bruised and looked ready to call it quits, but I was having none of that.
"You started this little fracas," I muttered. "You're going to get what the others got."
The edge of my hand cracked against a nose. The girl saw stars. Her nose must have been broken. She reeled aside and fell in a lump, completely unconscious. The two other girls I grabbed by their long hair and yanked their skulls together. Real hard.
They started to slip to the ground.
"Not so fast," I snarled.
I lifted them up and banged their heads together once more. The eyes of one of the girls rolled up in her head. She fell and lay outstretched, arms flung wide.
The one girl who was left stared at me with awe.
"Who are you?" she breathed.
"Just an American tourist, honey. Now you tell me—who are you?"
She whimpered, "I work for the Godmother. She won't like this."
"I'm not so gung ho about it myself," I chirped. "Though I must say it's made me feel real good. I needed the exercise, you see."
She stared at me as though I'd turned green. "You didn't hear what I said. The Godmother will really come after you, now."
"Who's the Godmother?"
She rolled her eyes to Heaven as if asking forgiveness for my ignorance. She muttered, "You'll hear from her. Don't worry."
I gave her a push. "Pick up my valise. Carry it."
All this time, even during the hottest part of the fighting, I hadn't let go of my Gucci bag. It held the two million bucks, not to mention my Colt. It was a part of me and I was not about to do without it.
The girl lifted my bag and carried it to the next main drag. She was battered and bruised. The clothes were all but torn off her, but nobody looked our way except for one horrified glance. Then the looker turned away and became interested in something else. Even in Rome the bystanders didn't like to get involved. It was like a triumphal procession, at least on my part. I felt a little like a Roman general who had just returned from a victorious campaign.
A niggling little thought was in the back of my mind, however. Something told me my campaign was just beginning. But that was ridiculous. I was over here in Rome to deliver two million bucks for the N.Y.M.P.H.O. organization. When I'd done that, my job was finished.
Right? Wrong. But I didn't know it then.
We came to a main thoroughfare and I flagged down a taxi, pushing the girl into it. She gave me a savage look, but she obeyed. I told the driver to take me to the N.Y.M.P.H.O. headquarters, and watched the girl out of the corners of my eyes as I did so. She didn't seem surprised, and so I knew damn well she knew who I was and what I was carrying.
When we got to the building on the Via Nazionale, I paid the driver, then pushed the girl ahead of me into the modernistic building that housed our offices. I guess we both looked a little bedraggled, because we caught horrified stares. A number of men rushed up to us, spouting Italian as though it were going out of style.
I explained what had happened.
When I lifted the Gucci bag and told them I had two million American dollars inside it, they almost collapsed.
Nothing would do but that we be taken immediately to see the boss-man in Rome, and a cortege of burly men surrounded us, a couple with their hands on their guns in shoulder holsters. I thought they were a bit too late—I could have used them a half hour ago—but I kept my mouth shut.
The boss-man was a tall, lean Milanese, clad in a gray suit that seemed so new it appeared to have just been taken out of the box. He was a handsome brute, with curling black hair and a hefty mustache He got a little pale at sight of me surrounded by all those bodyguards, and sprang to meet me.
"We did not expect you until tomorrow," he exclaimed. "I would have had a guard at the airport to meet you if I had known."
I plunked the Gucci bag on the desk, reached into it and drew out packets of brand new greenbacks. His eyes bulged at the sight of all that money so carelessly carried. The eyes of everyone else bulged, too.
"There it is," I smiled. "I've done my job. You can take it to the bank and have it exchanged into lire, or whatever it is you want to do with it."
My hand gestured at the girl who was standing beside me, her clothes all but torn from her ripe body. I saw a heavy breast, pale and full, hanging out of a torn part of her blouse. Her nipple was large and pulpy. She was showing a lot of shapely leg, too, and part of her pantied behind. The men around us were letting their eyes roam from her to the money and back to her again. I guess I didn't blame them.
The boss-man extended his hand. "I am Giuseppe Aldoverdo," he smiled. "I am so grateful for what you have done. But you should have telephoned. I would have sent men to meet you."
"I got the money here, didn't I?"
"Yes, yes, of course. But something might have happened."
"Something almost did," mutter the girl.
Aldoverdo looked at her intently. "And who are you?"
"She's one of the Godmother's chicks," I replied. "Ten of them jumped me after I'd left my taxi to walk here, having been caught in a taxi jam."
The man paled visibly. "Ten of the Godmother's girls jumped you? And you got the money away from them?"
"She can fight," said the girl.
"Ten girls—and you all by yourself. I cannot believe it!"
"Oh, it's true enough. I left the other nine girls on the sidewalk, knocked out. She was the only one who could walk under her own power, so I brought her along to carry my valise."
Aldoverdo muttered curses in Italian. He was quite impressed, apparently. He went on staring at me until I grew uncomfortable. The men around us also stared at me.
"It is impossible," the boss-man said finally. "I cannot believe one girl fought off ten of the Godmother's girls."
"You'd better believe it," I grinned. "Why do you think Avery King chose me to bring the money? He knows what I can do in a pinch."
The boss-man waved a hand, motioning for me to take a seat. He waved his hand in a different way, and his men went out, taking the girl with them.
He looked at me, then.
I got butterflies in my stomach.