Episodes

Season Six Staff

Guestbook

Links

Home

PINE BRUSH VARIANT
A SMKVirtual6 Episode

ACT III
DAY 4
Todwell Estate

She looked like something out of a French farce. Tiny beribboned cap, frilly white apron, and a black dress whose skirt was shorter than the one she'd worn as a cheerleader. Amanda wrinkled her nose at her reflection in the marble bathroom's gilt-edged mirror.

Based on what Sylvia had said, Jeff Todwell was the one who picked out the skimpy maid's uniform. Not very practical, but she expected to search the house rather than clean it.

When she stepped into the hallway, Lee grabbed her arm. "Ooh, la la," he murmured, leisurely admiring her full length. "Think you can keep it?" Lee gave her a mischievous grin. "That's a good look on you."

Amanda swatted him with her feather duster. "Shh! What did Misty tell you to do?"

"I chauffeur her while she shops and goes to the spa. So I can't do anything here, but I'll keep her out of your way."

Amanda felt for the lock pick in the pocket of her apron and nodded. The sooner she got started, the better; she had a lot of ground to cover in this mansion.

Day 4
Outskirts of Washington, D.C.

"What do you think?" Misty tossed her long blond hair like she was auditioning for a shampoo commercial and sashayed across the boutique, swinging her hips.

Lee gave her a lopsided smile. "What do you care what the chauffeur thinks?"

"I need a man's opinion, and you're certainly all man." She minced up and squeezed his bicep. "So, which shall I get, the gold lame' or the one with red sequins?"

The dresses looked alike to him—skin-tight evening gowns with necklines that plunged to her naval. They each cost more than he earned in a month, and they made her look cheap. Maybe the cheapness came from the model. Amanda had looked classy as well as sexy in that little maid's outfit, and she'd probably look beautiful in those dresses. "Why not get them both?"

"I think I will!" Misty's smile turned to a pout. "Not that Jeff'll appreciate them. He only looks at me when he's ripped my clothes off. And it's not like there'll be anyone amusing at the party. Just his stupid business contacts."

Like maybe Kirinov? "Are you going to a party or giving it?"

"Giving it, on Saturday. We'll be serving drinks outside, so get the garden looking good. I hope that new maid can carry a tray without dropping it. And Andre' had better not pretend to have a migraine; I can't stand dealing with caterers." She sighed. "I hate entertaining, it's so much work for me."

"I can imagine." Must be exhausting, ordering other people to do the work.

"Darling, come into the dressing room to unzip me." Misty slid her fingers up his chest and toyed with the hair on his neck. She leaned closer, so that her gin-scented breath brushed his cheek and her cloyingly sweet perfume made him want to sneeze. "Maybe," she whispered, "we could have some fun in there. You unzip me, and I'll unzip you."

Too bad he hadn't sneaked Amanda and the video camera into the back seat, so they could wrap up this stupid case in the boutique. "Um, don't you want to get some shoes to go with the dress, first? I'll bet you have beautiful feet."

"Shoes!" Misty unloosed her octopus grip and began to prowl the store like a shark ravenous for more pricey items to swallow.

Lee glanced at his watch. Another hour before his "employer" was due at the spa. He could surely keep her buying junk until then.

Maybe by the time Misty had been massaged, manicured, pedicured, and mud-packed, Amanda would have uncovered some evidence at the Todwell mansion.

Day 4
Todwell Estate
Todwell's office

Darn it! Amanda froze as an alarm nearly as loud as an air raid siren sounded. She still wasn't very good at opening a safe by listening to the click of the tumblers. Obviously, the wall safe in Mr. Todwell's office was wired to an internal alarm that went off when anyone tried too many combinations.

Seconds later, footsteps pounded down the hall, and Roscoe, the Todwell's beefy "security expert" burst through the door, brandishing a .38. Mr. Todwell must have come home for lunch. Good thing she'd already searched his desk, though she hadn't found any evidence there.

"Oh my gosh, did I do that?" Amanda raised her hands over her head. "I was just dusting the safe," she nodded toward the feather duster at her feet, "and that awful noise started. I'm really sorry. I was trying to rub off a little spot of dirt and then—"

"It's okay." Roscoe reholstered his gun. "Mr. Todwell doesn't like anyone messing with that, though, so you better go clean someplace else. I'll turn off the alarm."

"Goodness, you sure must know a lot, to be able to do that." She batted her eyelashes and tried to inject an admiring note into her voice as she yelled over the noise of the alarm. "Do you mind if I watch? Just so I know how to stop that awful noise, in case I ever set it off again."

"Don't touch it, and it won't go off." Roscoe planted himself in front of the wall safe, crossed his arms, and ducked his head toward the door. "Mrs. Todwell's awful fussy. Maybe you should do her room."

Amanda plodded toward Misty's pink boudoir. Maybe, just maybe, she'd find some blackmail materials—love letters or revealing photos or a diary—in that room that made her think she'd stepped inside a bottle of Pepto-Bismal. But the ways things were going, she wasn't optimistic.

Day 4
In the 'Vette
Near Arlington

"Can you believe that she actually went through the house with white gloves and gave me a lecture about how I had to 'make it sparkle' for the party on Saturday?" Amanda leaned back against the passenger seat and closed her eyes. "Could you turn on the air conditioning?"

"You think this heap has air conditioning? Hell, it's one step up from what the Flintstones drove," Lee said.

Lee's lousy mood was probably due to more than just the rusty Yugo he drove, as part of his gardener and handyman cover. "How did it go with Misty?"

He grimaced. "Oh, just terrific. I learned a lot about her struggle against split ends and how her husband doesn't appreciate her. You probably didn't find a diary or love letters because she can't write anything other than her name on a credit card slip."

She smoothed her skirt, relieved to be wearing something that reached her knees when she sat down. "I'm really sorry about messing up with the safe."

"Amanda, you don't have to keep apologizing for that." He sped up, and the Yugo's engine knocked and pinged. "Tomorrow I'll kill the electricity and crack the safe."

"Lee." She swallowed. "What happens if you don't find anything incriminating in the safe?"

He scowled at the car in front of them and pumped the horn, which gave an asthmatic toot half as loud as the bell on Jamie's bike. "Come on, come on, move it."

"I said, what happens if—"

"I heard you." He gave her a forced smile. "Don't worry about it. I'll find something. Todwell wouldn't make the security that tight if he didn't have something to hide."

Day 4
4247 Maplewood Drive

Why was Edna Gilstrap standing in their driveway, clutching her yappy Chihuahua in her plump arms? And why was the little beast wearing an orange bandage on its paw, in a shade that matched his owner's muumuu?

As soon as Lee climbed out of the car, Edna barreled toward him and thrust Buster into his face. "Just look at what those nasty cats did to my little boy! You have to do something about this!"

"What cats?" Had the Cleano people supplied them with killer cats, as well as the staff from hell?

"Those horrible bullies hanging out by the litter box in your yard." Edna pointed her pudgy finger. "Did you know that there's catnip planted right next to it? Some cat who's a mean drunk absolutely shredded Buster's leg!"

"Mrs. Gilstrap? Why don't we go over to your house, so we can talk about this in private?" To Lee's relief, Amanda whispered, "I'll handle this," took the lunatic neighbor's arm, and led her away.

Hoping for a few moments of peace and quiet, Lee tramped up the walk, opened the front door—and wished he were over at the Gilstraps or back at the Todwell estate.

"I cannot work in these conditions!" Henri the chef yelled. He ripped off his chef's hat, an action which reduced his resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy, and shook his ladle at the decorator. "She made my soufflé fall."

"Philistine fry cook!" Marta the decorator stamped her platform shoe and waved a glue-laden paintbrush so emphatically that sticky drops pelted Lee's jacket. "Oh, sorry. Well, Pamela said that suit has to go, anyway." She gripped Lee's arm and propelled him forward. "Dotty says you're a wine connoisseur. I know you're going to love what I've done to the kitchen."

Had Marta taken a vow to glue items to the walls of every room she decorated? Did she have a glue fetish? Had a decorating career sniffing glue fumes destroyed the few brain cells that she'd begun with?

The kitchen walls and cupboards were covered by black labels bearing the words "Smyth Wineries" in gold script, together with some sort of graphic design. Lee ducked to avoid the pots that hung from a wire rack suspended from the ceiling—apparently a new contribution from Bob the carpenter—and stopped in front of a cupboard.

Oh, lord. The wine label pictured a sneering, loincloth-clad satyr lounging on a Roman-style couch. His features bore an uncanny resemblance to Austin Smyth.

Lee's first urge was a childish desire to pencil in a cigarette over the bunch of grapes that the satyr held to his lips. His second urge was to put distance between himself and the hundreds of satyr-Smyths defacing their kitchen. He backed away and conked the back of his head against a hanging cast-iron skillet.

The pot-rack crashed to the floor, barely missing his foot.

Henri let out a shriek reminiscent of Misty Treadwell's scream. He darted to the oven and opened the door. "My second souffle—ruined! Now there's nothing but tripe fricassee for dinner!"

Dazed, head throbbing, Lee stumbled past him and escaped into the yard through the side door. A massive black Persian cat glared at him with malevolent yellow eyes, hissed, and pounced on his leg.

 

ACT IV
DAY 5
Todwell Estate

"Want some breakfast, buddy?" Away from the Todwells, Andre' Silvain—born Andy Silvers, according to the background check Lee had run—lapsed into his native Brooklyn accent.

"Just coffee, thanks." Lee reached around the breakfast tray that the chef was preparing for Misty and snagged a mug. Apparently the lady of the house breakfasted on a Bloody Mary and melba toast. It looked more appetizing than the scrambled eggs with brains that Henri had dished up that morning. Even Amanda's mother, the indefatigable champion of the most important meal of the day, had sent that back untouched.

"If you run into that little maid, tell her that I'll fix her anything she wants. She needs some meat on her bones." Andre winked at him. "'Course, what there is, sure is choice. She's got a great pair of stems."

Decking the cook would not be a good move. Lee slammed his just-filled cup on the counter and slopped hot coffee on his hand. "She's married."

"That's what she said to Jeff when he chased her around the table." Andre sniggered. "So, then he pretended to pick lint off her uniform—in all the right places. Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah," Lee gasped, when he stopped choking on a mouthful of coffee.

Decking the boss wasn't an option, either—especially with that ex-boxer bodyguard hovering by his side. But Treadwell's harassment of Amanda gave him another incentive to put the jerk behind bars. He'd better crack the safe while Todwell and Roscoe were at the office and before Misty came down to supervise his gardening.

Day 5
Todwell Estate
Outside Todwell's office

Amanda tossed the black magic marker back on Jeff Todwell's desk. Drawing Frito-Bandito-style mustaches on the Todwells' portraits wasn't something she'd really do—but the fantasy made her feel better. In her oil portrait, Misty smirked, as if she were savoring the secret of how she managed to hold up such a low-cut dress. In his, Jeff stared into space—probably thinking if all the housemaids in Washington were laid from end to end, he'd be a happy man.

She jumped when Lee put his hand on her shoulder. "I'm going to cut the electricity to turn off the alarm in the safe." He nodded toward the stairs. "I've got a few minutes before Misty comes down. Try to keep the cook busy. Tell him you want breakfast or something."

At the word "breakfast," her stomach rumbled. "Sure. I'll eat anything but scrambled brains. Good luck."

Day 5
Todwell Estate
Todwell's office

Aha! With a click, the tumblers fell into place, and the safe swung open. Lee unhooked the stethoscope from his ears and stuffed it into his pocket. He reached for the pile of papers and manila envelopes inside the metal wall safe . . . and swore when something needle-sharp jabbed his ankle.

Damn! So Misty's toy poodle, Hedvig, fancied himself a watchdog. Maybe he was compensating for his puffy haircut and sequin-spangled pink bow.

"Shoo!" Lee shook his leg.

Hedvig growled and maintained his hold.

Lee closed the safe but didn't spin the dial on the lock. Gritting his teeth, he bent down and pried open the dog's jaws, scooped up the yapping bundle of fur, and, holding Hedvig at arms' length, carried him to the kitchen.

Andre' looked up from scrambling eggs at the gas stove. "Is that drop kick dog giving you trouble, Stetsman?"

"You could say that. I think he's hungry." Lee turned his back to the cook and mouthed, "Keep the dog here," to Amanda.

An unmistakable scream sounded from upstairs, followed by a shouted, "My hairdryer doesn't work!"

Andre grimaced. "I think one of the fuses is blown. I was fixing myself a Poptart, and the toaster didn't work. Maybe you'd better check them."

"Yeah, I'll take care of it." Damn, he'd better hurry.

Amanda stood up from the kitchen table. "I'll go see if Mrs. Todwell needs some help."

Day 5
Todwell Estate
Todwell's office

Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Lee had found a plastic bag of cocaine, bundles of money, a diamond necklace and diamond earrings, and some legal papers and blueprints in the safe.

But nothing proving that Todwell was peddling classified defense components or plans to the Russians. No bank books for hidden accounts, no international shipping orders, no incriminating letters.

Hell. He stuffed the contents back into the safe, closed the door, and spun the dial. Was he going to have to seduce the all too willing Misty Todwell?

"Psst," Amanda hissed from the doorway. "Did you find anything?"

"Nothing we can use to pull in Kirinov."

She looked grim. "I'm not surprised. I asked Mrs. Todwell whether I could do anything to help her get ready for the party tomorrow. She said that she took the jewelry she's going to wear out of the safety deposit box a couple of days ago. Apparently they keep most of their valuables at the bank."

"Yeah, and Justice isn't going to hand over a court order for that, just because their maid said she recognized some guy from a photograph." He brushed his hand through his hair.

"Maybe . . ." Amanda took a few hesitant steps forward, twisted her intertwined fingers, and stared at the floor. "Maybe you have to dance with her."

"Hey." He put his arms around her and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I'll try to get her to admit to an old affair while I'm wearing the wire. That would be enough. I promise that it won't go very far. And you know that I don't want to do this."

"I know." She sighed. "I'm pretty sure that she's interested in you."

Had Misty said anything about inviting him into the dressing room at the boutique? Should he have told Amanda about it? He cleared his throat. "What makes you say that?"

"She asked if you'd said anything about having a girlfriend." Amanda bit her lip. "And I had to tell her that my husband was completely available."

Day 5
Todwell Estate
Inside & outside

Maybe Lee should have asked Bob the carpenter for some lessons in home repairs. Based on what Amanda could see from the Todwells' living room, Lee's skills were modeled on those of Stan Laurel. He seemed to be dropping more nails than he was pounding into the cedar fence that surrounded the Todwells' swimming pool and patio. She winced as he stuck his thumb into his mouth and glared at the hammer.

"Switch to gardening," she muttered. Fortunately, he seemed to have the same thought. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand and scanned the surrounding flowerbeds, then picked up a pair of clippers and headed to a bed of rosebushes. Haphazardly, he began to lop off branches—doing what presumably was meant to pass for pruning. After handling a thorny stem, he dropped the pruning shears, examined his thumb, and stuck it back into his mouth.

Amanda gasped when he hacked the buds from the offending "Peace" rosebush. Who did he think he was, Morticia Addams?

Misty Todwell, who lay on a lounge chair beside the pool, didn't seem bothered by the massacre of her rosebushes. She was clearly more interested in the gardener than the garden. The woman couldn’t stop staring at the long legs and firm derriere showcased by Lee’s close-fitting cut-off jeans, and the play of his muscles under his sweat-soaked, tight white T-shirt.

With a sigh, Amanda returned her attention to "playing house." She snatched up the bottle of window cleaner and spritzed the pane of the sliding glass door, then scrubbed with her towel.

The busty barracuda in the skimpy little bikini kept ogling Lee, and the knot of jealously in the pit of Amanda's stomach kept growing. Of course, Lee was just doing his job. But how could she maintain professional detachment when his job entailed seducing another woman?

When she moved on to a nearby window, Misty was still lounging by the pool, but Lee was no longer in sight. A moment later, he stepped into the room through the sliding doors.

"What are you doing?" Amanda whispered.

"Relax, I’ve got orders from the 'lady' of the house." He ducked his head, indicating that they should move away from the window, and edged out of Misty's line of sight. "I'm supposed to get her suntan lotion. She wants you to bring her a pitcher of Perrier with fresh lime and crushed ice." He lowered his voice. "Do you have the video camera ready? I'm going to turn on the mike and make a move while she thinks you're not watching."

"Yes, I have the video camera ready."

He sighed. "I don’t think Misty's going to go for it if she thinks there's a witness. When you take out her Perrier, tell her that you have some errands to run, and then sneak back here and grab the camera." Grimly, he examined his injured thumb.

Amanda took his thumb into her hand and flexed it. "Oh, does the big, strong handyman have a boo-boo? Do you want me to kiss it and make it better?"

"That's not all I'd like you to kiss," Lee whispered. "Unfortunately, 'Madame' is waiting. Remember, this was Dr. Smyth's idea, not mine."

Day 5
Todwell Estate
By the pool

"Darling, could you rub lotion on my back? I just can’t seem to reach." Misty shifted her position to pose in what she probably thought was a seductive manner across the lounge chair.

"Of course, Mrs. Todwell." Lee forced himself to flash both dimples and unscrewed the cap from the bottle.

"I told you to call me Misty. Mrs. Todwell sounds like I’m a hundred years old. My husband may be, but I'm certainly not." She winked at him.

Amanda stepped through the sliding door and set a tray containing a glass and a pitcher of mineral water and crushed ice on the poolside metal table. "Mrs. Todwell, I’m sorry, but we don’t have any fresh limes. I’ll have to go to the market to pick some up."

"Mrs. Kane, I specifically told you to buy fresh limes! And I told you to call me 'Madame'!" Misty stopped batting her eyebrows at him and pouted.

"I'm sorry, Madame," Amanda murmured. "I’ll go to the market immediately, Madame." She bobbed her head, reminding Lee of a silent screen actress trying to convey servility.

"Go to that gourmet supermarket in Georgetown. They have the only edible produce around here. And take your time." Misty leered at Lee before turning her attention back to Amanda. "In fact, why don’t you take a few hours off and come back around four? I'll even pay you for the whole day. And when you get back, don’t bother us, I mean me. Just finish dusting and vacuuming the living room and dining room and scrub the toilets. Before you leave, tell Andre not to bother me until dinner is ready."

Not waiting until Amanda was out of earshot, Misty continued, "You just can’t get good help anymore . . . Well, present company excluded, of course. I've got to replace her. I’m sure an *older* woman would have more experience and give better service." She beckoned to him with the crook of her finger. "Well, come on, darling. With my fair complexion, I burn so easily. I need you to put that lotion on my back right now, before I fry to a crisp." Taking a sip of her drink, she whined, "Perrier without lime is just undrinkable. Can you mix a decent martini?"

Amanda, video camera in hand, was crouched behind the barely open gate of the cedar fence. Show time, Stetson.

He began to rub lotion on Misty's back. "Actually, it's one of my many talents," he said in a throaty whisper. "Along with my magic fingers."

"Mmm, I'm looking forward to learning all your talents." Misty ran her tongue across her lips.

Pretend she's Amanda, he coached himself. "You know, you're getting a tan line on your very beautiful back. Wouldn't you be more comfortable without that bikini top? It's not like anyone but I can see you."

Misty turned her head and batted her eyelashes. "You're right; it's much better to sunbathe topless." Obligingly removing her bikini top, she added, "Why don’t you take your shirt off too? You must be dying, it's so hot."

"Mmm . . . I’m very, very hot." He moved within her line of vision and stripped off his T-shirt. "But I’m not nearly as hot as you." Did he really once say inane things like this? Moving back, he brushed aside Misty’s long blond hair, worked more lotion into her bare shoulders, and planted a line of kisses along her neck.

"Darling, have you ever thought of modeling? Or acting? You’re much too good-looking to be working as a simple gardener. Some people are just born to serve, like that Mrs. Kane person, but you were meant for better things. And I'd like to get to know you really well."

Twisting around so that she was lying on her back, Misty reached up and pulled Lee down for a long kiss. After releasing her hold, she looked into his eyes and pouted. "Speaking of talents, I think you need to work on your kissing. Just relax and let go, and then really put yourself into it."

Taking a deep breath, he plastered on a smile. "You know, I think I just need a lot more practice—with you. That, and a good martini. Why don't I go and mix us a couple right now?" Ignoring Misty's squeaking protest, he sauntered toward the house and through the sliding doors. Once away from the windows, he pulled the small microphone from the pocket of his jeans and spoke into it. "Amanda, did you get all that? Was the sound coming through all right?"

"What a drag," Amanda's voice said. "Yeah, I got it all. I could hear every cheesy word. I can’t believe you used to pick up girls with lines like that."

"Neither can I. I'm sorry. Just stay with it a little longer. I'll wrap this up as soon as I can." He mixed two martinis at the bar and carried them back to the pool.

Taking a fortifying gulp from his drink, he handed the other glass to Misty. "So, just what do you mean, get to know each other really well?"

"Intimately, darling. Very, very intimately." Misty smirked. "I mean, you don't have to bare your soul to me, just your body. I really like what I see, and want to see everything."

"How does your husband feel about that?" Lee plastered on a lascivious expression.

Misty laughed and gulped down half her martini. "Well, our relationship will be our little secret. What Jeff doesn't know won't hurt him, right? I have needs that he just doesn't satisfy. I'm sure you could satisfy me in bed, Lee."

He winked at her. "Oh, I aim to please. Have you ever had any 'little secrets' like this before?"

"Oh, darling, you don't expect me to kiss and tell, do you?" Misty raised her plucked and penciled eyebrows. "I have to be very discreet, and so do you. Jeff is insanely jealous." She took another sip from her drink.

Damn! While Misty's blatant propositioning of him could certainly create marital problems for her, it wasn't enough to violate her prenuptial agreement and provide the blackmail material that Smyth demanded. The last thing in the world that he wanted to do was to make an X-rated film with this starlet, with Amanda serving as the camera operator. Maybe, if he kept pushing, he could get her to admit to a past affair.

He moved closer and murmured, "You seem a little tense, and I can hardly keep my hands off you. Why don't we start with a massage, hmm?"

"Sounds wonderful." Misty set her martini glass on the ground and moved onto her stomach.

After brushing away her long bleached hair, he began to massage her shoulders. "You're so beautiful that I'd love to get to know you too," he murmured. "But how about your husband? How do I know you won't feel guilty and tell him about us? Or that you'll really make it worth my while? I don't want to end up with nothing but broken kneecaps. If I knew you'd done this sort of thing before . . . " He nuzzled the nape of her neck.

"Mmm, that feels marvelous," Misty purred. "Well, okay. Our last gardener, Raoul, was almost as attractive as you. He was very good to me, and I was very good to him." She looked over her shoulder at Lee and licked her lips. "I was awfully sorry to let him go, but Jeff was getting suspicious."

She picked the olive out of her drink and popped it into her mouth. "I never told Jeff that I slept with Raoul. I put Raoul in touch with my agent, and he's been in several X-rated films. He got a lot of practice for his work on screen right here by the pool." Misty looked over her shoulder again and smiled seductively. "After my massage, why don't we act out one of those scenes? I want to see if you have star potential, too."

Lee coughed and continued to massage her shoulders. Adopting a tone of studied casualness, he asked, "Do you really think I could be an actor?"

"Oh, darling, the camera would love you. I should know; it loves me. Haven't you seen any of my work?"

"I'm looking forward to seeing your new film. In fact, the camera's loving you right now. I'm sure your husband would love to see it too."

"What?" Misty's blue eyes widened.

Amanda strolled through the gate, holding the video camera in front of her. "Surprise, Madame, you’re on candid camera!"

Misty shrieked. Judging from the volume, they'd had to turn the sound down when filming the slasher scenes in her horror movies. She grabbed her bikini top and slipped it on. "Did Jeff put you up to this?"

"No, the government did." Lee folded his arms across his chest. "Now, Mrs. Todwell, maybe we can strike up a bargain. We need some information about your husband’s business dealings. If you cooperate and give us access to his bank books and the papers in his safety deposit boxes, this tape will be destroyed. If you don't, your husband will get a private viewing of your latest work."

Misty glared at them. "You don't leave me much choice."

"Good." He grinned at Amanda. "I think you got a perfect take."

 

TAG
Day 5
The Agency

Lee guided Amanda away from the interrogation room where Pfaff was completing Jeff Todwell's lie detector test. "Since we'll be tied up with collaring the Raven at the Todwells' party tomorrow night, I think we should take tonight off." After a week like this one, he couldn't wait to have time alone with her.

"We'd better stop by a Marvelous Marvin's on the way home," Amanda said. "I'm sure the boys didn't eat whatever Henri cooked."

"I, uh, wasn't thinking about going home." He leaned closer and whispered, "You, me, and the new couch in the Q-Bureau. What do you think?"

Her eyes widened. "Just the two of us? No surprises from the Queen for a Week crew? No redecorating horrors to deal with?"

"No inedible meals, no make-overs, no carpentry collapses. And it's late enough that we'll have privacy."

She grinned. "Sounds like a plan. I'll call Mother and say we'll be working all night."

They took the elevator, climbed the steps up the Q-Bureau two at a time, and raced down the hall. Lee unlocked the door and flung it open.

"Oh, man, you spoiled the surprise." Ragmop peered down at them from a ladder and waved his arm at the drop clothes that covered the floor and the furniture. "We were supposed to do this tonight. Orders from the man upstairs."

"Orders?" Lee asked.

"Yeah." Ragmop brandished a paint roller. "A quick redecorating job. Guess Smythy decided to give you a little reward."

Lee turned to Amanda. "Hotel?"

She shook her head. "With our luck, it would catch fire or have a bomb scare."

"Yeah." He sighed. "Just don't glue anything weird to the walls, okay, Ragmop?"

Ragmop stared at him. "Who'd be crazy enough to do that?" He switched on the boom box perched on the top rung of the ladder, and the sound of Mick Jagger belting out "I can't get no satisfaction" trailed them down the hall.

Day 5
4247 Maplewood Drive
Lee & Amanda's bedroom


When Amanda opened the front door of the house, Mother hobbled toward them on crutches. "Good news," she said. "I fired the whole Queen for a Week staff, except for Sylvia."

"Mother, how did you get hurt?" Could Marta have moved that ottoman back into the doorway again?

"I'm afraid I'm not young enough to follow Hans' exercise routine. It's just a sprained ankle." Mother sank into a chair. "That's nothing compared to what the rest of the crew did."

Lee cleared his throat. "I hate to ask, but what did they do?"

"Well," Mother began ticking items off on her fingers. "Pamela took me to a salon for a makeover." She pulled off her headscarf, revealing fire-engine red hair. "I hope that Mr. Emilio can fix this. Bob put up shelves that fell down and broke a lot of your grandmother's best china. Lyle dug up the back yard to put in a lily pond and hit a water main. Henri fixed some sort of Japanese fish for dinner. Fortunately, before any of us took a bite, he said that he *thought* he got out all the poison. I told Marta to change your bedroom back to the way it was, because you didn't like the new look. She had Sylvia remove the feathers—thank goodness Marta used water soluble glue after that hay fiasco—but she tried something else new, instead. You'll have to see what you think of it. At least her awful self-portrait is covered up."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I hate to look," Amanda whispered in his ear.

What could he say? How bad can it be? Judging from Marta's other efforts, very bad indeed. Maybe Pamela had shown Marta the handcuffs she'd discovered in his closet, and the decorator had transformed their bedroom into some sort of S and M den, with black leather on the walls, a bed of nails, and mirrors on the ceiling. Maybe . . .

Not knowing was worse than knowing. Lee opened the door to their bedroom and flipped on the light.

He'd been right about the mirrors on the ceiling. But as for the rest of it . . .

This time, nothing covered the walls but paint. Crimson paint. Crimson velvet draped the windows and spread over the round bed. On the bed tables, brass cupids hefted candelabras. A crimson velvet love swing replaced the armchair by the desk. Paintings of nudes, in heavy gilded frames, decked the walls.

It was hideous . . . and, yet, strangely intriguing.

Lee whistled. "This reminds me of a bordello in Marseilles, where I busted a gun runner."

Amanda plopped down on the bed. "I guess this means I lose the bet."

"Well . . ." He lay down beside her and took her in his arms. "It might be interesting to keep it for a couple of days."

"Oh, yeah?" With one finger, she traced a line from his collar to his belt. "I took the French maid outfit home with me. Maybe we could keep that for a couple of days too."

"Then you definitely win the bet. That's two good things coming out of Queen for a Week." He kissed the tip of her nose. "What do you want for your reward?"

"How about acting out a love scene with me?" She unfastened his tie and began to unbutton his shirt. "To make up for the one you did with Misty."

Lee groaned. "That thing with Misty was about as far removed from a love scene as you can get. Okay, I'll play the male lead, because, as Misty said, the camera loves me. You can play the female lead, because I love you."

"I love you too. It'll be my pleasure."

"I certainly hope so," Lee whispered, leaning over to capture her lips with his. "You know, I think I'll try method acting. I'll really be putting myself into it this time."