Mariska Unmasked

After witnessing Falanga’s abduction, Branigan was uncertain about what to do next. It was possible that an additional squad of Civella’s wise guys had boarded the train in Kansas City. If not, it was likely they would in St. Louis. Staying on the train would be too risky, and it wasn’t hard for Branigan to convince Iacono that they should get off at the next stop.  

They had no luggage, just the clothes on their backs. It was lucky that Tony had left the money Adriano had sent him in the berth. There wasn’t much left after buying the tickets and Branigan and Iacono split the paltry sum fifty-fifty.  

The train’s first stop after it left Kansas City was on the outskirts of Lexington, a small town on the Missouri River. It was a cool November day, and most of the leaves had already fallen. The train station was in a rural area, surrounded by cornfields and hedgerows heavy with black walnut and hickory trees. An unpaved commuter parking lot was filled with a variety of vehicles. As they climbed down to the platform, a uniformed conductor warned them that it was only a brief stop, but they ignored him and kept walking.   

“What do we do now?” said Iacono as the train departed the station without them.  

“Steal a car.”  

“And drive it to Kokomo?”      

“You can go to Kokomo, Big Ears. I’m headed for Cleveland.”  

Iacono had the same expression of fear on his face that he’s had ever since Branigan told him he’d watched Falanga’s abduction. “Maybe I should go to Cleveland too.”     

“No way.” Branigan shook his head. “Nothing personal, but we need to split up. Staying together will make it easier for them to find us, and you better believe they’re out looking.”  

Partnering up with Falanga and Iacono was the biggest mistake he’d ever made, that’s what Joey the Bum was thinking now, and the truth was, he’d wanted to ditch both ever since the failed robbery. The money Adriano had wired was the only reason he hadn’t already, and with Tony gone now, all he needed was Iacono tagging along with him like a lost puppy. 

Iacono stood watch while Branigan jimmied his way into a DeSoto S-8 sedan. He pried the vent window open with his pocketknife and then reached inside to unlock it. He’d picked the specific model because he knew it was easy to hot wire—he disconnected the starter wire from the back of the ignition switch, and when he touched it to the hot lead from the battery, the engine started right up. Iacono climbed in the passenger side, and they took off. Halfway to Columbia, they caught up to the passenger train they’d been riding on before.  

They stopped in St. Louis for gas, and Branigan was quick to notice the service station attendant peering in at them with suspicion as he cleaned the windshield. He stared back at him with an expression of malice as he silently handed him exact change for the fill-up and made sure he’d looked away before reaching under the steering column to start the car with the dangling wire. 

There was a sub shop down the street. Branigan parked outside and they went inside and bought sandwiches to go. As they sat in the DeSoto eating, Iacono did his best to start a friendly conversation, but Branigan gave him the cold shoulder. He restarted the car before he’d finished his ham and cheese and juggled the sandwich from hand to hand as he switched gears. As he pulled back onto the highway, he let loose with a string of profanities when a big dollop of mustard squirted out of the sub and landed on his crotch.  

They drove through the night and Branigan avoided Iacono’s continued attempts to involve him in small talk. He found a news and talk station on the radio and turned the volume up instead. Iacono asked Branigan if he wanted him to drive for a while, but Joey said no, and before long, he was fast asleep on the passenger side.   

It was sixty miles to Kokomo from Indianapolis, and Branigan dropped Iacono off at the bus station as the sun was coming up. “Good luck, Big Ears,” he said before he drove off. 

 

***  

 

Iacono boarded a bus bound for his hometown. When he arrived, he wasn’t sure what to do next. He was down to the last of the money Adriano had sent, and he’d need somewhere to spend the night. Going to his parents’ house would be a last resort. Years before, his father had found out that he’d joined the mob and it had led to a heated confrontation. He’d hardly talked to him since.  

After Frankie Bianchi was released from prison, he’d gone back to work at the only real Italian pizzeria in town, Romeo’s Taste of Sicily. Beyond Tony Falanga, he was the best friend Iacono had, so he started walking towards the pizza joint.  

It was about two miles, at the north end of Washington Street. By the time he made it, his feet hurt from hiking on the pavement. He found a grimy gas station restroom across the street. The door was in an alley on the back of the painted cinder block building. Inside, he washed his face in the sink, and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked terrible from the lack of sleep and needed a shower badly. He put his pocket comb under the faucet, combed his hair back, and said, “What the fuck?” to his reflection in the filthy cracked glass. 

Iacono never made it to the pizzeria. When he walked out of the gas station men’s room, he was met by two overweight Sicilians with their pistols drawn. They’d been watching the pizzeria because Fat Chuck Rizzo knew the first person Iacono would go to for help was Frankie Bianchi. Rizzo was taking personal responsibility for the clip because he needed to make amends with Viscuso…The big payoff wouldn’t hurt his feelings either.  

“You fucked up good this time, Big Ears,” said Rizzo, cocking his .38 snub nose and holding it an inch from Iacono’s nose.  

“It was a mistake, Chuck,” he said as Pete Catalono slipped his hand inside Iacono’s jacket and relieved him of his pistol.  

“It was a mistake all right you stupid motherfucker.” Rizzo and Catalano walked him over to Ralph Blandisi’s black Lincoln-Zephyr at gunpoint.  

“It was Tony’s idea; I knew it was a bad move.” 

“Worst move of your short life you dumb guinea.” 

They stuffed Iacono in the trunk, and Rizzo slammed the lid shut. He started laughing when he heard Iacono’s muffled voice begging to be let out. The first time he’d laughed since he talked to Viscuso in the wake of the failed robbery. He had some face to save with the higher ups in the organization, and personally nailing the renegades was sure to do the trick. “Shut up in there!” said Rizzo, pounding on the trunk lid, “or I’ll cut your balls off and stuff ’em in your mouth!” Catalono was laughing now too.  

Blandisi was behind the wheel, and they traveled all the way to Toledo before they let Iacono out. It was a three-hour drive and Rizzo didn’t know if he’d make it or not. He thought he might breathe in enough engine exhaust to die on the way, but when they pulled into Blandisi’s auto shop, Iacono was still alive. 

“Okay, Big Ears,” said Rizzo after he opened the trunk. “What happened to Branigan?” 

“I don’t know, Chuck.” (Rizzo pulled the hammer back on his pistol and pointed it at Iacono’s forehead.) “Please don’t kill me!”  

“Tell me where Branigan is and I won’t kill you.” 

“He dropped me off at the bus station in Indianapolis.” Iacono was still in the trunk but sitting up now.  

“Dropped you off? What’s he driving?”  

“We got off the train in Missouri and stole a car.” 

“What kind of a car?” snarled Rizzo with impatience.  

“A DeSoto S-8.”  

“What color?” 

“Dark red.”  

“Like a burgundy?” 

“Yeah, it was like a burgundy color.”  

“DeSoto don’t make S-8s in burgundy,” said Blandisi. He’d pulled up one of the shop stools to sit on as he watched Rizzo interrogate Iacono. Catalono was standing nearby smoking a cigarette.  

“Ralph says DeSoto don’t make S-8s in burgundy.” Rizzo moved the barrel of his pistol closer to Iacono’s forehead. “You better quit lying before I drill you, Big Ears.”  

“Well then maybe it wasn’t burgundy,” said Iacono, his voice trembling. “Maybe it was more like a candy apple red.”  

“DeSoto makes S-8s in candy apple red, Ralph?” said Rizzo without taking his eyes off Iacono. 

“Yeah, it’s a special order and you gotta pay extra, but they make ’em all right.” 

“Okay, Big Ears…So where did Branigan go after he dropped you off at the bus station in Indianapolis?”  

“He said he was headed for Cleveland.”  

“Irishtown Bend?”  

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know that much about Cleveland, but that’s where he said he was going. To Cleveland.”  

“How come you didn’t go with him?” 

“He said we needed to split up.”  

“Did it ever occur to you that we might be watching that dump where Frankie Bianchi works? I mean, wasn’t it kind of dumb for you to go to Kokomo in the first place?”  

“I didn’t know what else to do. I was running low on money.”  

“Okay, Big Ears, you can climb out of the trunk now.”  

Iacono climbed out of the trunk warily, stood up and began wiping the dust off his crumpled dress suit. He was face to face with Rizzo now. 

“You know how I said I wouldn’t kill you if you told me where Branigan was?”  

“Uh huh.” 

“Well, I lied.” Rizzo swiftly raised his .38, pulled the trigger, and shot him in the forehead. After instantly killing Iacono, the slug exited his skull, ricocheted off a steel column and whizzed by Catalono’s ear, narrowly missing him before hitting a far wall.  

“Jesus Christ, Chuck, that was close,” said a stunned Catalono.  

Blandisi started laughing. “You almost killed two men with one bullet.” 

“Well, help me prop up Big Ears and I’ll try it again.” Rizzo was laughing now too.  

“Fuck that. I better get a bucket and mop before the blood stains the floor.  

They made Iacono a pair of cement shoes, and the next day, after the sun went down, took his corpse out on Lake Erie in Catalono’s boat. It was the shallowest of the Great Lakes, only two hundred feet deep, so it wasn’t quite as dramatic as tossing Falanga into the Pacific Ocean, but with his brand-new cement shoes fastened securely to his feet, the disgraced mobster sank like a rock.  

When Rizzo called Viscuso to tell him about the successful clip, he gave Iacono a new nickname: “Little Angelo Fish Food—he’s playing with his pisello on the bottom of the lake now, Carmello.” Viscuso laughed and said he’d let Lou Civella know. 

 

*** 

 

The Cleveland Cosa Nostra and Irish mob were adversaries, so Branigan thought he could successfully hide out in the Irishtown Bend neighborhood where he grew up. The Big Italy and Little Italy neighborhoods were further from the lake, on the other side of downtown, and for the most part, the Italian mobsters stayed in their own section of the city. It was possible they might travel into Irishtown to look for Branigan, but they’d be easy to spot, and he was confident he could avoid the Sicilian button men if he stuck to the balkanized section around the mouth of the Cuyahoga.  

He was equally concerned with the possibility of getting clipped by an Irishman looking to cash in on the reward money. He’d need to remain cautious, but Branigan was accustomed to looking over his shoulder in Cleveland, mostly for cops.  

The first thing he did when he arrived was look for Dry Tom Sweeney. He found him at McLoone’s Pub, on the banks of the heavily polluted river. He bought a pair of whiskeys with the last of the money Adriano had sent and told the local mob boss he had some bad news to share.  

When he told him about the botched robbery, he did his best to make it sound like the shootout had been provoked by the Sicilians. “Roselli and the other dago went for their guns first, Tom. No words were exchanged.” 

“Oscar and the rest of them all bought it?”  

“Yeah, I hit both Sicilians with my tommy gun after they dropped Duffy and O’Leary, but they had a sniper on the roof. Downey died in the boat, and we had to put him in the lake, but we left Duffy, Campbell, and O’Leary on the dock.”  

“That means the local coroner has their bodies now. I’d better contact the families and see if they want to go out there and give ’em proper funerals.” 

Conor Duffy was Oscar’s older brother, and he came down to McLoone’s when Sweeney called him on the phone. An informal wake began, and before long, O’Leary’s father Ryan and his two brothers, Liam and Brian joined in on the heavy drinking. Mack and Grady Cambell, Jack’s brothers, stopped by later, after the afternoon shift at the steel mill had ended.  

Branigan ended up relating the story multiple times as more family and friends showed up at the pub, and he made sure to tell them all how Falanga and Iacono had come close to leaving him and Downey when they were fleeing the sniper fire. Oscar Duffy was a well-known local character and as the story made the rounds, the Irish mobsters became the heroes of the tale and the Italians the villains. Before long, there was whiskey-fueled talk of revenge, and finishing the job that Duffy and his boys had started.  

“An underwater casino?” said Conor Duffy to Branigan. “What’s the story with that?”  

“Rich guy from L.A. built it before Hoover Dam was finished. Claude Javernick.”  

“Javernick don’t sound Sicilian.”  

“Nah, he’s not Cosa Nostra. Just hooked up with ’em in his business.”  

“Why was Roselli watching the front door then?”  

“Because Viscuso was visiting the place? Maybe having a sit-down with Lou Civella? I’m not sure, but I heard the Meatman always has a sniper on the roof when he’s at his restaurant in Manhattan Beach.”  

“Why didn’t you case it first?”  

“Fucking Falanga, that’s why Conor. Should have had a scout look it over before we went in, but we only had the one boat. Falanga was in too much of a hurry. Should have thought it out more before we broke out the tommy guns.” 

“If the Sicilians hadn’t been there, you think you could have pulled it off?”  

“Yeah, with seven guys it should have been a piece of cake.”  

“Gotta be some dough in a place like that. With the high rollers flying in on seaplanes.” 

“And it’s fifty miles from Vegas. The cops are over an hour away. That’s why Falanga thought it would be easy.”  

The next day, Ryan O’Leary called the coroner’s office in Las Vegas. The three Irishmen’s corpses had yet to be identified, they were classified as John Does up until the time of his telephone call. Without explaining how he’d come up with the information, O’Leary said he could identify all three of them, and he was Big Ted’s father. He went on to say the families wanted the men to have proper burials and they’d need to make arrangements to travel out there.  

The coroner thanked him for making the call and said they could store the corpses indefinitely. After ending his conversation with O’Leary, he called the FBI office in L.A. He told Curtis Dudley that the Irish mobsters had been positively identified, though the G-man had thought he’d recognized Oscar Duffy when he visited the morgue. 

Sweeney let Branigan stay in a rundown garage behind his house. It seemed like a secure place for him to hide out, and the mob boss said he could find him some good paying work, though armed robbery and contract killing were the only marketable skills he had.  

 

*** 

 

Pastor Mackenzie was doing his best to ruin her wedding, that’s what Kaylee thought when Bonnie told her the priest was telling all the townspeople to avoid the reception. He wasn’t saying anything about it in his sermons, but in private, he was bad mouthing Javernick and the casino.  

“Bonnie said he’s telling everyone that Claude is in league with Satan.” 

Kaylee and Melvin were back in the boat, drifting over Saint Thomas. They went out there to watch the sunset on a regular basis, and it was a good place to talk things over too.  

“Every man is entitled to his opinion,” said Melvin. “But bad-mouthing Claude Javernick is uncalled for.” 

“I agree. He has better manners than half the people in the valley.”  

“Gave a lot of people around here good paying jobs too.”  

“He’s calling the casino Satan’s Palace and telling everyone to stay away from the reception. Now my parents and a bunch of other people don’t want to go.” 

Melvin could see how upset she was, and he put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Well, there’s nothing saying we have to have it at the casino.”  

“No, we do need to have it at the casino. We already told Claude yes, and it would hurt his feelings if we backed out.” 

“He’d get over it.”  

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t get over it, Melvin. I don’t want to let that mean old man win.”  

“He isn’t the most agreeable sonofabitch, is he?” 

“Not at all, and he doesn’t like you very much either.”   

“Because I stopped going to church.” Melvin was raised as a church going Mormon, but by the time he’d reached his teens, he began to slack off. As an adult he’d stopped going completely. He was labeled a Jack Mormon by the devout, but he didn’t consider it an insult. Just the way things were.  

“Yeah, and because you work for Claude and make good money. He lives in that dump behind the church.” 

“Definitely needs some new paint.”  

“And the backyard’s all overgrown with weeds. I think he’s jealous of you, because of the new car and the boat. Bonnie says he has bad breath too.” 

Melvin talked about the situation with his parents the next day, and together they came up with a way to handle it. They would have two separate receptions—one at the casino, and one at the new house in Overton Bay. Melvin and Kaylee would spend some time with family and friends at the house, and then go on to the party at the casino with whoever wanted to accompany them.  

Javernick thought it was a fine idea. “Precisely why I made you general manager, Mel. Because of your commonsense problem-solving abilities.” And Kaylee said if Claude was amenable to the arrangement, it was okay with her too.  

In the days leading up to the wedding, Melvin joked with her about making Little Juanito his best man. Because it would really get Pastor Mackenzie’s goat, especially if he showed up wearing his navy-blue Speedos…But he was just kidding around, and he chose Gus Sherwood instead, a childhood friend and accomplished bull rider from his rodeo days. Like Melvin, Gus was a Jack Mormon, sure to irritate the narrow-minded priest. Kaylee chose Bonnie Knox and Melvin’s sister Charlene to be her bridesmaids.  

It was a sunny autumn day when the ceremony commenced. Melvin noticed that Mackenzie was avoiding making eye contact with him as they took their vows and exchanged rings. He’d bought Kaylee a dazzling three carat diamond that made the priest’s eyes bug out when he saw it. Once they were successfully hitched, they turned to leave, and as they were walking away, Melvin heard Mackenzie say, “May the Lord have mercy on his wicked soul.” It was barely audible, under his breath, but Kaylee heard it too. 

They spent a couple of hours at the house, visiting with everyone who’d shown up, then they took the boat out to the casino. Bonnie and Gus and a few others went along, but most passed on attending Javernick’s portion of the reception.  

Melvin thought it was uncanny how the priest could intimidate people so easily and he was reminded of why he’d given up on attending church services. His own interpretation of religion was less literal. He had nothing against the devout, but he thought people should take the scriptures with a grain of salt. Especially when it was forced on them by a small-minded old man who’d happened to become a member of the clergy.  

In Melvin’s view, Javernick was more righteous, because of his tolerance for people outside the norm and how he was always ready to help. If you were willing to work, it was likely Javernick had a job for you, and he prided himself on paying his employees well.  

The party on the promenade ended up being awfully small, but that was okay because the people who were most important to Melvin in his day-to-day life were all there. Javernick, Roland, Eunice and Rose, Maximino—he went back a long way with the original crew from Rioville. It was a relaxed get together with banter between the Hepcats and their diminutive audience.  

“So where are you two going on your honeymoon?” said Javernick. 

“I’m taking Kaylee out to California. She’s never seen the ocean.”  

“You’re going to drive out there?” 

“Yeah. We’re leaving in the morning.”  

“Why don’t you stay at the nut ranch? The guest house is vacant.”  

“Is it close to the beach?” said Kaylee.  

“A few miles away, but it’s a gorgeous drive through Decker Canyon.” 

“That sounds lovely. I can’t wait to see the ocean.”  

“You’re in for a treat, my dear, and you’ll have all the privacy in the world if you’d like to stay at the ranch.” 

They certainly couldn’t say no, and they drove out there the following day. Melvin had worked in California before the casino project had started, so he was familiar with L.A., but it was the first time for Kaylee. They settled in at the guest house, and the next morning, crossed the Santa Monica Mountains in Melvin’s Buick. 

Decker Road was lightly traveled, and they traversed numerous curves and switchbacks as they climbed through the chapparal covered hills to a high pass. Melvin pulled over at the top and parked in a roadside rest area. As they climbed out of the car, Kaylee was stunned by the view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. 

“It’s beautiful, Melvin,” shielding her eyes from the bright sun with her hand. “It goes on forever and ever.” 

“Clear to China. Seven thousand miles or so.”  

“And look at all the ships.” They could see lines of cargo ships sailing past the Channel Islands in the distance.  

The road dead-ended at the coastal highway. They came upon the public beach that Javernick had recommended, and Melvin found a place to park. It was the middle of the week and there weren’t many people on the beach beyond a couple of surfcasters.  

The water was too cool for swimming, but Kaylee waded in up to her knees and then hurried out of the water laughing when a big wave came in. It was a warm enough day to walk along the edge of the water barefoot, and they found a colony of sea lions frolicking around a rocky point. Kaylee was thoroughly impressed. The seaside environment was entirely different than the landlocked Moapa Valley, and she picked up a few colorful seashells as they walked back to the car.  

Mariska was an impeccable housekeeper and she’d left the guest house spotless when she left. The beds were made, and the kitchen fully furnished. The pantry was stocked with dry goods, and Javernick had told them to help themselves. Kaylee was looking through the shelves, finding unusual items when she came upon a slim leather satchel hidden behind the canned food on the top shelf. When she zipped it open, she found small metal film containers, and inside them, rolls of developed film. At first, she didn’t say anything to Melvin about what she’d found.  

Javernick had given them the key to the main house, and after eating dinner, they walked up the drive and went inside. It was a large Spanish style hacienda with a low-pitched roof and an open-air courtyard within. Javernick had invited them to use the entertainment wing. It had a small theater with a projector and a library of 35mm movies. There was also a music room with a piano, guitars, and a few brass instruments. 

Melvin knew how to play some guitar, but he was out of practice. He told Kaylee to give him a few minutes to remember the chords and he’d sing a Woody Guthrie song for her. While he was busy fiddling around with the guitar, Kaylee went back to the guest house and grabbed the leather satchel she’d found hidden in the pantry earlier.  

Kaylee was inquisitive by nature. Not quite nosy, but a curious woman, and she was keen to discover what was on the microfilm she’d found. She took the satchel into Javernick’s home theater and came up with a way to slide the developed film through the projector so she could see what was on it. She was startled to find pages of mathematical formulas with complicated diagrams and at the top of each one, a stamp that said, Top Secret. 

She went back over to the music room. “Melvin, I found something I want you to look at.”  

When they reached the theater, she showed him how she could slide the film through the projector’s gate and display the images on the movie screen in the darkened room. “I took algebra two in high school, and I couldn’t begin to figure out what any of it means.” 

“Me neither,” said Melvin. “It looks like some kind of advanced physics.” 

“And look at these diagrams.” She manually advanced the film through the projector’s gate.  

“Damn, Kaylee. Looks like rockets.”  

“Yup, and every page is stamped top secret.” 

“Mariska was the last person to use the guest house.”  

“She’s the one with the foreign accent?”  

“Yeah, she’s Hungarian.”  

“You think we should show it to Claude?”  

Melvin gazed at the screen silently. Then he looked towards Kaylee. “Let’s put it back where you found it for now and think on it.”  

“But do you think Mariska might be some kind of spy or something, Melvin? Hungary is allied with the Nazis in the war.” 

“Yeah, I know it…But I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything that serious without knowing for sure. We really don’t know what it is we’re looking at, and there might be a logical explanation of some sort.” 

“Showing it to Claude wouldn’t be accusing her of anything. Just letting him know what we found.”  

“Yeah, but I’m thinking we shouldn’t move it, because whoever owns it might come looking for it and like I said, we don’t really know what it is, and whoever owns it might get mad if they came looking for it and it ain’t here.” 

“That’s a good point, Melvin. But I still think we better let Claude know.” 

“Let’s put it back in the pantry, just how you found it, and when we get back home, I’ll find a good time to mention it to Claude.” 

“I’ll put it back right now.” She carefully rolled the film up and slipped it inside the metal cannister. “Did you remember the song?” 

“Yeah. When you get back, I’ll play it for you.”  

Walking down the drive towards the guest house, Kaylee felt anxious and alarmed. Not quite scared, but cautiously aware of her surroundings. After returning the satchel to its hiding place, she was glad to get back to the music room and Melvin’s loving demeanor.  

He was strumming the chords to “This Land Is Your Land.” She rested her hand on his shoulder as he began singing and though she did her best to sing along, she didn’t know the words that well at all.  

 

*** 

 

One little slipup, that’s all it takes, is what Mariska was thinking as she paced the floor in the penthouse guest suite. When Javernick told her that Melvin and Kaylee were headed for the nut ranch, she thought about what she’d left behind. She knew there was clothing and a few personal items that she was planning on picking up later. It was more than she could fit in her luggage, and she wanted the move to go smoothly, so she’d decided to leave a few things.  

But not the leather satchel with the microfilm. She was sure she’d put it in one of her suitcases, but when she went to look for it, she realized she hadn’t. It was still in the pantry cabinet. She should have destroyed it, that’s what she was thinking now, because she’d already conveyed copies of the information to Von Ingersleben so there wasn’t a reason to retain the originals.  

Javernick was preparing to depart on an overnight trip to Phoenix. He was flying with Eunice to shop for furnishings and artwork. Standing at the window in her suite, she watched the pair walk out on the docks and then board Javernick’s plane. As they gained altitude over the lake, Mariska packed a few personal items in a knapsack that was small enough to fit in her motorcycle’s saddlebag.  

She stopped at the fueling station to talk to Dobos on her way to the shuttle boat. “I need to make a quick roundtrip to L.A.”  

“How long will you be gone?”  

“I’m not sure, but if Javernick returns before me, don’t tell him where I went.”  

“What should I say?”  

“Don’t say anything, keep your mouth shut.” 

Mariska made it across the desert in record time, turning motorists’ heads as she opened the throttle and passed them on her fast Indian. It was late afternoon when she reached the divide between Thousand Oaks and the nut ranch. She coasted the bike into the bushes to conceal it and hiked out to a place where she could see the guest house.  

Melvin’s Buick was parked outside. She still had her key; it would be easy enough to slip into the house and grab the satchel, but she’d need to wait. She thought about sneaking in late at night, but it would be difficult to explain her presence if she was caught. It was likely they’d be leaving the place on day trips to see the sights, so she decided to come back in the morning instead. 

Mariska rode her motorcycle into Thousand Oaks. She found a hotel and rented a room. It was a bit cheesy considering the cost, but it was the least of her worries. Destroying the microfilm was her chief concern. If it ended up in the hands of the authorities it would be a catastrophic problem that could result in her and Dobos being arrested and imprisoned as spies—even executed.  

The next morning, she rode back out to the divide above the ranch and hid her motorcycle in the bushes. She walked out to the observation point and took a seat on a granite boulder speckled with lichens. She sat there chain-smoking cigarettes, hoping Melvin and Kaylee were planning a day trip and would be leaving soon.  

Mariska was lighting her third cigarette when Melvin and Kaylee appeared. Melvin put the ice chest he was carrying in the backseat of his car and Kaylee set a pair of neatly folded blankets down next to it. Wunderbar, they were headed back to the beach and would likely be gone until evening.  

Once Melvin’s Buick had cleared the divide, Mariska kickstarted her Indian and rode it down to the ranch. She’d retained a key, so it was easy for her to slip inside the guest house. She heaved a sigh of relief when she found the satchel precisely where she’d left it, on the top shelf of the pantry. She could relax now, on the ride back across the desert.  

On her way down the long driveway that led to the road, she saw Dale Preston, the caretaker. He was standing on a step ladder, pruning an almond tree. Preston recognized her and waved as she rode by. Mariska returned his greeting without slowing down as she raced by him.  

She was hoping to get in and out without being seen by anyone, but she’d recovered the satchel, so it didn’t matter that Preston had seen her. If there was any question from Javernick, she could tell him she’d gone back to pick up personal property, and he’d never asked her to return the key.  

To be continued…

 

 

 

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