12

Hutch was the first one to stand up and extend a hand as he wanted to properly pretend to pay his respects to the newcomer. Starsky hesitated for a couple of seconds, then stood up too. The big man extended a hand and gave a strong handshake to each one. He then addressed his visitors a brief but courteous smile.

"Good evening, gentlemen. I'm told that you have been sent by mutual friends. I'm glad to welcome you here. Rico had informed me that you may have a business proposal to offer."

He sat down and the detectives noticed that Sebastian was getting closer to his boss, his hands behind his back, which gave him an even more imposing look. He was wearing an ample vest and, from where he was standing, Hutch could see the bulge made by the holster and the gun he was wearing. Yet he immediately turned his full attention to Fuentes again.

"Mr Fuentes," the blond started in a subdued tone, "first of all, I'd like to thank you for seeing us here and now. Let me introduce myself, my name is Bob Collins and this is my partner, Mike Burnett. We have recently moved into the area and we've been told that you are... well you may provide us with a certain... item, for which we are ready to compensate in the most... interesting way."

Fuentes frowned and tried to scan the blond man sitting in front of him. He usually was good at this kind of silent manoeuver, and very often succeeded in guessing a possible treachery. This time, he just felt the man who had just spoken was believable. He turned his attention to the brunet at the other side of the table and tried to find some reason why he should not believe this one either. Starsky frowned too and could not help but stare back at Fuentes with his impenetrable indigo eyes, as if he were playing the same game. After at least ten seconds, both men granted each other a hint of a smile.

In his heart of hearts, Starsky felt that they were in business. Fuentes had bought it! For whatever reason. He had first felt their pretend scenario was not as good as it should have been, especially after Rico had tried to barricade the access to his uncle.

"All right." Fuentes said. "Let's see what you have to offer, and I will tell you if I'm interested in your... business proposal."

Starsky gave a quick glance at his partner.

"With your permission, I'd like to cut to the chase and get to the point. We need to find a regular source that could provide to us every month," the brunet started to explain. His voice was very calm, somewhat winning. "We'd like to begin with, let's say, 3 to 5 kilos, as a start."

Fuentes slightly raised his chin, which gave him the superior attitude of someone about to hammer a verdict in court.

"And how much... compensation do you carry?" he asked.

"We usually don't carry any... compensation before we have agreed on the deal. Let's say we could offer you about 9 Grand, if it's pure enough, in compensation for your... diligent kindness." Hutch replied, looking at his partner and exchanging a silent yet obvious little smile which was meant for their host and which meant We are working together and what one of us thinks or says, the other one concurs.

Fuentes sighed, closed his eyes for a fraction of a second, then opened them again and looked at the empty stage behind Hutch. It seemed there was so much going on in his head and the detectives could feel that the big man in front of them was about to refuse the proposal.

Fuentes waved at the waitress and ordered another bottle of wine. When she moved away to fetch the order, Fuentes turned his attention back again to Hutch, then to Starsky.

"Mr Collins... Mr Burnett... I'd be glad to do some business with you... for now..."

"For now?" Hutch replied.

"Who knows what the future holds for us... let's take the present for what it is... and right now, I'd like you to remain silent and turn around. I think you will enjoy what's next."

Hutch twisted his body on his chair to face the stage; Starsky was already facing it and both detectives waited a short instant, until all lights went off and the first notes of a blues melody started to emerge from the piano. From where they were sitting, they could only guess the black man sitting behind the grand piano.

A quick glance at Fuentes' face confirmed to Starsky, slightly behind him, now facing the stage, that something special was about to happen.

And it did happen. After a few notes, a deep and enchanting female voice captured everyone's attention in the room.

Starsky opened his mouth in delight while Hutch frowned, remembering other times when he had felt a similar thrill while listening to a special woman singing on stage. He remembered himself writing on a napkin... getting deep into what turned into drama and could have killed him... 1927 Kansas City... Yeah, in another lifetime...

As the song gained in power and captured the audience, Starsky started to discern the shape of a woman standing next to the grand piano. Still discreetly keeping an eye around their table, he seemed to be captured by the figure that offered a true moment of magic to the public. Hutch was sitting in his line of sight and he saw that his partner was equally seduced by the performance. In fact, all eyes were turned to the stage.

After the first song, there was an enthusiastic burst of applause and the light went off again around the piano. But as he now got used to the half-light, Starsky noticed that the woman turned her back to the public. From where he was sitting, he could guess her taking a glass from the piano top and, before she drank, her hand quickly raising to her mouth. She drank from the glass and in strict secrecy seemed to swallow something else than just water.

He took his own glass, and as Fuentes was staring at him, he felt he really had to distract the man from his recent scrutiny.

"She is absolutely breathtaking!" he said. "Where did you find this pearl?"

"Tessa is indeed the pearl in the Rose, if I may say so." Fuentes replied, meanwhile he turned his eyes back to the stage and a content smile slipped out of his lips.

"Tessa? Nice name... Nice voice. More than nice." The brunet whispered for himself.

Fuentes did not reply. He was waiting for the next song to begin. He seemed lost in contemplation, in thoughts that nothing would wake him from.

Hutch turned to grant his partner a smile of appreciation on the performance they had just witnessed.

The three men around the table silenced again when the pianist touched the keys and started to play the first notes of the next song, a more recent melody of which Bernie had slightly adapted to key so it would be more comfortable for Tessa to sing.

Some say love it is a river...

Starsky could not get his eyes off her while the words seemed to cut through her flesh, yet no blood was to be seen anywhere on her rigid body standing next to the piano.

That drowns the tender reed...

He was holding his glass mid-way to his lips but did not drink.

Some say love it is a razor...

Hutch turned a moment to grab his own glass and gave his partner an imperceptible sign to warn him about his present reaction.

That leaves your soul to bleed.

Fuentes did not notice the captivation of the brunet, yet Rico was not missing any of it. He stood there, his look wandering from that Burnett guy to Tessa and back again. He clenched his fists, his eyes turned cold and his breathing slightly accelerated.

At the end of the performance, Fuentes politely made his visitors understand the meeting was over for now. He rescheduled another rendez-vous, in two days. Burnett and Collins stood up. Tessa had gone backstage so Starsky could not see her anymore. He followed his blond partner and left The Rose.

S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~

Fuentes found Tessa in his private office. She seemed again more nervous than usual. But he decided not to ask her any more questions for tonight.

Sebastian joined them and asked whether he should heat the engine.

"In a moment, Sebastian. I'd like to make a phone call to check on these Burnett and Collins first. They seem okay but I'd like to check about their credentials. Have you heard about them before, Seb?"

"No Sir. But they seem all right."

"Yes..." Fuentes answered, absent-minded. "Huh, Seb, I think we will leave The Rose shortly after I've made my phone call. Tell Rico to get ready and then you can wait for us in the car."

"Yes, Mr Fuentes."

Sebastian made a discreet exit and silently closed the door.

S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~

Soon after Fuentes had headed for his office and the two new guys had left the nightclub, Matt walked to Rico, standing close to the "private" door and whispered something in his ear.

Rico frowned and quickly turned his head to face Matt to get a confirmation of what he just heard.

"Are you sure?"

"No quite yet. But I'll find out."

"If you're right, this means the deal they agreed on will be the only one they'll ever make."

Saying so, he smiled for himself. Destiny may have brought him the opportunity he needed sooner than anticipated, after all.

S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~ S*H ~