The Sweet Smell of Success
"Another challenge for the Green Hornet, his aide Kato, and their rolling arsenal, the Black Beauty. On Police records a wanted criminal, Green Hornet is really Britt Reid, owner-publisher of the Daily Sentinel, his dual identity known only to his secretary and to the district attorney. And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides THE GREEN HORNET."
Brick Nash, wealthy real estate mogul, handsome, amiable and charming, had no idea as he entertained his guests at his lavish mansion that he was minutes away from death. As he mingled and tossed off glowing compliments to those he passed, flashing his toothy, white smile and laughing quite easily, loosened a bit by drink, he had no idea that everything he had worked for and accumulated, that everything his father and grandfather had built from scratch, would be for naught; that his wealth, his lineage, his business, would be the cause of his downfall.
Nash moved through the crowd of guests with ease, the guests moving out of his way with equally glowing compliments for him, congratulating him for such a fine party, and the wish to do it again some time. Nash, of course, was cordial, but he had his eyes on one guest in particular.
"Britt! Britt Reid!" he called out loudly to a tuxedoed man with his broad back and shoulders to him, and who also happened to be speaking to a very charming woman, in Nash's eyes. His hair was light brown and short, with enough product to keep the front spiked. As he turned around, the man's handsome face and light aqua blue eyes lit up when he saw Nash walking towards him. He switched his drink hand to shake Nash's.
"Brick Nash, the man of the hour. How you doing-you know, I've been here for two hours and I'm just seeing you now?" Britt Reid said, laughing. Nash grinned.
"I know…", he shot a look to Britt's female companion, his grin now devilish, "I've been preoccupied." Britt laughed and shook his head.
"But how about you, you scoundrel? I see you still like hogging all the ladies. May I ask who this very charming creature you have with you is?"
Britt grinned. "Please don't encourage her, Brick. She'll never stop blushing."
The girl admonished him playfully, but she was indeed blushing. Britt grinned back at her and turned to Nash. "Brick, this is my secretary, Ms. Lenore Case."
Nash took her hand. "Stepping out with the employees, are we, Britt? Well, well…if I had employees this beautiful…I'd never get any work done!"
His eyes twinkled as his lips brushed the back of her hand. "A pleasure, Ms. Case."
"Please, my friends call me Casey."
"Casey it is, then."
Nash winked and as his head came up, his eyes caught something or someone standing behind Reid. His face grew flushed, so much so that Britt noticed.
"Hey Brick, you alright? You look a little flushed."
"Um…yeah…yeah, I'm fine." Nash said absently, his eyes firmly on whatever they had just caught until they suddenly darted back to Britt's.
"Hey, uh, Britt, look, why don't we do something together some time, okay?"
"Yeah, of course…."
"Good, I'll call you. Excuse me…."
He barely nodded to Casey before he took off through the crowd, but not in the same, easy-going, solicitous nature as before, instead it was rushed and agitated. He was muttering "Excuse me", and "Pardon me", as he went. Britt watched him as he pushed out the other side to his grand stair case and jogged to the top, where his breath caught in his throat.
"Who is she?" Casey whispered. He didn't know, but even from afar, the woman Nash had just greeted and was talking very rapidly to, was gorgeous. She was dressed in a floor-length, very well-cut red dress. Britt tried not to stare.
"I don't know."
"But I bet you would."
Britt half-smiled and took one last look as Nash had the girl by the elbow and was taking her off to the right, disappearing very quickly. His brow briefly wrinkled but as he turned back to Casey, he hid his concern. The behavior he had just seen from Nash wasn't exactly the usual…
"Can I get you another drink, Ms. Case?"
He led her to the refreshments and doled out the punch between them.
"Mr. Nash seems quite the character." Casey mused, glancing back to the stairs. "And the charmer…he may even have you beat."
"Please…! I taught him everything he knows."
They shared a laugh and had just toasted each other when the party atmosphere was completely shattered by a bloodcurdling scream that cut deep and made the hair on the back of Britt's neck stand on end. He spun as Casey gasped and dropped her glass. It shattered as she grabbed hold of Britt's arm.
He pried her off and wrapped his hand around hers as he pulled her along through the crowd. The laughter and fun were replaced by a quiet murmuring as several guests mounted the stairs to investigate, Britt and Casey among them. He pulled to the front and let go of Casey's hand as he retraced Nash's steps to the right. He ducked into every room until he came to the last. The door was ajar, legs sprawled out on the floor were visible and a woman's heavy sobbing and breathing were audible.
His heart pounded as he stepped in, going to the woman first, saw she was beyond answering any questions and moved toward the legs. It dropped completely when he knelt besides Nash's body. A sweet aroma surrounded Nash…Britt ignored it as he did the customary checking of the pulse. It wasn't necessary though, he knew a dead body when he saw it.
The others came into the room, Casey was first. She went to the woman to comfort her, but her eyes were on Britt. They crowded around him and Britt fought down the want to yell at them to back off and give him-and Nash-some room, but what use would that be? He rolled back on his heels and looked up at the staring eyes, then to Casey, then back to Nash.
"Somebody call the police. He's dead."
Britt Reid was still in his tuxedo when he walked in to the Daily Sentinel the next morning. Unlike his usual, bubbly, outgoing self, he hardly managed to mumble a hello and good morning to his passing employees. Even as he passed Casey, he failed to recognize her completely. He yanked open his office door, then slammed it shut. She flinched and waited for her boss to sit down at his desk. He appeared to actually fall into his chair. Casey stood and smoothed her skirt.
She turned to see Mike Axford, the Sentinel's in-house old news hound and ace police reporter, standing with his hands uncustomary at his sides. Usually he talked with them quite effusively and paced heavily with overflowing energy. Not today.
"I saw him as he came in. I haven't seen him like this since his father, rest his soul, passed."
"I know. I was just about to go in. Do you want to go in, too?"
"No…not now. I'm thinking he needs the light touch of lady, not my heavy-handedness. He'll probably call me in sooner or later, anyway."
Axford waved and left, shoulders noticeably slumped. Casey sighed and went to the door to knock. There was no response but she went in anyway. His back was to her, the roller chair just barely moving side-to-side…a clinched fist appeared to rest on his chin.
She stayed by the door, hands clasped in front of her. "Britt?" she surprised herself at how quiet her voice was.
"Did you get home okay?" his voice was strangely calm.
"Good." The chair spun around and Britt faced her. His normally handsome face was tired, his eyes were red and his tie hanging undone around his neck with the top few buttons also undone. "It wouldn't have been right for the boss and his secretary to both show up late, would it?"
His attempt at humor fell to the way-side.
"You didn't go home at all, did you?"
"Of course not. That's why I sent you home when I did. Believe me", he rubbed his eyes, "you didn't want to be there. I was at police headquarters for a couple hours, answering questions, all these other things and…then…I just went for a drive because if I had stopped moving I think I would have lost it."
Casey's heart went out to him and she couldn't stop from going over to him and putting her hand on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze.
"I'm sorry, Britt. I never knew how close you were 'til last night…I never even knew you were friends. But I'm glad I met him, and I'm glad he had you for a friend."
He snorted. "Friend? Casey, I hadn't called him in months. I was, for all intents and purposes, out of his life. I was surprised he even invited me to the party."
"Britt…Britt, stop blaming yourself!"
"Well, what else can I do? He was like a little kid, he needed somebody to watch him and the crowd I know he hung out with couldn't and wouldn't."
She drew herself up, peering down at him with a fiery determination to end his growing self-pity.
"And you were suppose to be his keeper? His mother? Britt, you have your own life, your own business and Nash had his. I know you feel bad you lost contact, but you can't blame yourself. I don't want or like to see you so torn up, and neither does Mike or Scanlon or Kato or anybody here at the paper!"
Britt's face was an impasse until a crooked grin broke it. "What would I do without you, Casey?"
He stood up and stretched, trying to get the tired kinks out. Casey did not miss his gentle messaging of his left shoulder, where a scar from the notorious bullet wound he received while as the Green Hornet and took great lengths to get treated, still remained. His eyes went to the portrait of his father on the far wall and then he took a breath. "Alright, Ms. Case…"
She smiled. There he is…
"…call Kato, tell him to bring a new suit and my razor. Also I need Mike in here too. And coffee!"
"Right away, Mr. Reid."
His smile came easier and there was a new, energized glint in his eye, that Casey was happy to see.
Kato stood by him as he changed, taking each piece of the tuxedo and folding them neatly. He too, didn't miss the scar of the old wound. It was a bitter memory for the valet. His duty was to serve, aid and even protect his boss. The one time he failed to do those things…Britt had come running out of the burglarized jewelry shop just as the police were pulling up. One moment he was pulling open the door, the next he was half-falling in as he struggled to get away from the bullets, one already in him. Kato knew it was bad even as he asked so…he saw the pain that contorted his face and made it hard to speak. Then, when he needed medical attention immediately, he couldn't get it…because he was the Green Hornet, the most ruthless criminal in the city, and no treatment would be given, just arrest.
As Britt Reid, he would have gotten it, but all hospitals and doctors would be looking that kind of wound…the only way was to stage the shooting at the Sentinel in front of several employees. Kato remembered even now, as his boss was healed and relatively well, standing strong beside him, the moment he made himself the Green Hornet's man, there to avenge his boss against the booming editorial under Britt Reid's byline, that the Hornet was down and out. He played it just as Britt told him too, sneering and gesturing, making empty threats until his man appeared. They shared a look, near impossible for anybody else to discern that told him to do it, to get it over with because it hurt too much to stand it anymore. He fired, just catching his boss playing out his role perfectly as he ran.
The relief that his boss would get the attention he deserved was palatable for him, until Britt showed up at the house, wanting to rectify one last thing before he could truly let go. Kato knew what his boss was doing was dangerous…the wound was still fresh from surgery and no matter what, when the Green Hornet was involved, there would be a fight to end all fights, each and every time. Kato watched him still, as he finished dressing and began shaving, remembering the single moment where he saw his boss trying to carry on, to save an ungrateful and unknowing Mike Axford from a pair of cops that had been jumping the burglary calls, including the one he had been injured on, even as blood dripped from the torn wound and stained his suit. He hung by one arm to stop from falling off a scaffold far enough to hurt himself even more. Kato couldn't bare it. He had grabbed a rope from the pulley system that crisscrossed the warehouse they were in and moved it to the Hornet so he could slide down.
Kato had had to support him as they made a run for it, Axford firing shots after them from a commandeered police pistol. He remembered his boss's labored breathing, the large blood stain that continued to spread and the grimace that didn't leave his face until Kato had gotten the Hornet costume off and slipped him back into his hospital room where Britt handled the rest with some excuse or another on how he happened to tear the wound open completely.
Yes, Kato remembered that and a lot of other things. There was a lot of satisfaction in his job-serving a man he called a friend and aiding him in something that amounted to much more than just the two of them running around in costumes, driving a souped-up car and beating the living tar of the bad guys.
"…Kato. Kato. Hey, Kato!"
Kato snapped his head around. "Oh, sorry, boss."
"You weren't daydreaming, were you? That's not like you."
"No, I was…thinking about Mr. Nash."
Britt patted his face dry with a towel. "Oh…."
"Very sad…I remember him very well, always kind."
He went to his desk to grab the coffee Casey had brought him. Kato followed him over to bag the suit for the dry cleaners. "But, I was wondering…what do you intend to do about it?"
His boss looked up at him, an eyebrow arched. The question had been pointed, and he immediately got the meaning.
"The Green Hornet has no reason to get involved, not yet anyway. Until I'm told or shown otherwise…I have to believe his death was just very untimely and natural. You say you remember him, then you must remember those awful party stories he used to tell. That takes its toll, Kato."
The valet shrugged. "Well. It's a shame, that's all. I'll miss him."
Casey knocked and opened the door to poke her head in. "I got Mike for you, Mr. Reid."
"Thanks, Ms. Case. Send him in."
Kato gathered his things. "I'll get going, boss."
"Okay, Kato. Thanks…see you back at the house."
Kato left just as Mike Axford entered. Britt noticed right away, how subdued the Irishman was. Usually he was full of energy, pacing, talking and gesturing with his hands, working himself in to a frenzy over his favorite scapegoat and criminal, the Green Hornet. Just the mere mention of the name was enough to get him going…but today seem to be an off-day and Britt could guess the main reason why.
"Britt, Britt, I'm sorry. I know how you two were friends. Why, I remember when the both of ya were kids! It's a darn shame!"
"Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it."
"A terrible tragedy it is, indeed…."
"Which part of it, Mike?" Britt asked, smiling.
"Why, Brick Nash dying of course. Such a young man to go like that!"
"Or is it more of the fact that the Green Hornet isn't involved this time?"
Mike went to argue but when he saw Britt trying to keep a serious face even though the corners of his mouth were quivering, he stopped and conceded the point.
"Ha, okay Mike, I get it."
"Now, don't get me wrong, Britt, I am sad over Nash dying but by God, the Hornet has to be involved somehow! I just haven't figured out how…yet."
"But why does he have to be involved? Bad stuff happens in the city all the time and it's not the Hornet's doing. You just like blaming him everything."
Mike still looked depressed. "Ah well…if it wasn't his doing, then you can be sure he's scheming about something else!"
Britt clapped him good-naturally on the arm. "Alright, Mike. Anyway, I called you in to tell you that I want you to cover this story. I don't want to be a hypocrite and allow my feelings to get involved. Okay?"
"Okay, Britt. I'll do my best, you know I will."
The old reporter left just as depressed as he was when he came in. Casey came in just as Mike shut the outer door to the office harder than need be and she gave a hurried glance back. She looked paler than usual.
"What's up, Ms. Case?"
She handed him the piece of paper she had brought with a shaking hand. "This just came in. It's from the Medical Examiner's office and his office just called to make sure you had gotten it and said to call them back later."
He took it and sat on the edge of his desk, scanning it, until his gaze stopped and his jaw dropped. Suddenly, he felt as though his clinging belief that his friend had just died an untimely, albeit mysterious death, had come back to bite him. He was sorry he had tried to hope something that ultimately couldn't be true. Kato's words echoed in his ears.
What do you intend to do about it?
The proper books were pulled down for the fireplace to ascend. In its place, a lift cage descended and its stairs flipped down for its passenger, District Attorney Frank Scanlon, to step down. Kato pushed the books back and the stairs flipped back up and the lift disappeared behind the fireplace once again.
"When you called me, Britt, I didn't want to believe it. I know you probably didn't want to either."
"But I have to, Frank." Britt said as he leaned against his bookcase, Kato standing beside him. "I got the report and I even called and went over to the ME's for confirmation. It's official: Brick Nash didn't just die an untimely, natural death, but he was murdered, poisoned with arsenic."
To say that still made Reid sick and uneasy. Was it his own guilt about not wanting to believe what it had to be? Or was it because his friend had been finished off just a staircase away?
Scanlon shook his head in dismay. "It's inconceivable! Who would want to kill him, especially with such a horrible poison?"
"I don't know. I'm kicking myself over it, too. When I knelt down to check him, I smelled that sweet almond scent associated with arsenic and it didn't even register!"
"Don't, Britt. You were caught up…you can't blame yourself, you know that."
"I know. I'm beyond that, though. I'm angry, Frank, angry because this person might just get away with it. The police will investigate, of course…but with a case that involves poison, time is crucial. I need to know why, how and who, NOW. And… I think the Green Hornet wants the same thing."
Kato went first, the Green Hornet following. They went to the peg board next to the tool bench. Kato gave a hanging wrench a twist and the pegboard pulled back to reveal a control board with a series of buttons on it. The first button pushed plunged the room into a eerie green light. The second launched a clamping system that came up in front and behind the white convertible in the center of the garage and made the floor under it a slightly raised platform. The convertible was clamped down and the third button activated the system that slowly flipped the platforms to reveal a black Chrysler Imperial while the convertible hung in its place, under the floor. The fourth button disengaged the clamping system and popped the driver and passenger side back doors open.
The Green Hornet slipped into the back while Kato took his place as driver. He watched as his boss checked his gear. First came a green pistol.
"Hornet gun", he clicked a new gas clip in place, "check."
Next came a small, black, extendable rod with a domed, chrome top. "Hornet sting", he pulled the domed top back and a soft whirl emitted from it. He closed it quickly.
"Check." He looked up at his driver. "Let's roll, Kato."
Kato pulled up to the curb and put the Black Beauty in park. The towering brick expansion of a manor house rose up over the trees enough for the Green Hornet to see it was dark, no lights…he wondered if the girl was already asleep. He didn't want to wake her if she was …he might be a 'criminal' but he wasn't a peeping tom.
"It looks like she's either asleep or out."
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it? Let's try it, though. We'll go on foot."
Kato and the Green Hornet glanced around for any possible onlookers before exiting and going through the neighbor's trees to get into the yard. They stuck to the shadows, ducking tree branches and hedges. He held up a hand for Kato to stop and pointed hard at the group of shadows hanging around underneath the large balconied window that could only be their target's bedroom-and the light was on.
The shadows milled and talked quietly among themselves. Cigarette smoke hung over them and the outlines of rifles rested easily in their arms.
"Body guards." Kato whispered.
"Yeah. I don't blame her for being paranoid." the Hornet whispered back. He narrowed his eyes on the shadows…there were five, six of them. He figured he could gas at least three of them before they knew what hit them. The others, Kato would have no problem dispatching.
"Okay, I'll go first and you pick up the slack."
"Got it, boss."
He stuck his hand inside of his jacket and pulled the Hornet gun free. He crept low and silent…when he reached the end of the hedgerow, he darted to the side of the house to move directly under the balcony. They had their backs to him…he kept himself against the house while he braced himself for an attack. A small movement off to his right caught his eye-Kato was ready to spring.
"Hey." the Hornet growled and the group suddenly wasn't so lazy and at ease as they spun, cigarettes falling from their mouths and guns fumbling into firing positions. The gas gun hissed its green cloud and just as he had hoped, three fell. The others were startled beyond recovery as Kato sprung with a sharp, short cry. In a flurry of Kung Fu moves, they were down and out.
"Remind me to tell her to spend more money on her hired help." he muttered to Kato. "Because that was too easy."
The Hornet gun went back to its place inside the jacket and its owner motioned to his partner to the sheet of ivy that crawled up the wall the just below the balcony. He went first, Kato following. Grabbing at the balcony railing, he hoisted himself up and over, diving to get against the wall. Kato, smaller and quicker, was crouching beside him just a minute later. The Hornet tried to door, it was unlocked. He peeked in to what was indeed a woman's boudoir. He saw the bed had been readied for sleep and a woman's sleepwear had been laid out on the end.
A small amount of light from what he guess was the bathroom came through into the room-the door must have been partially shut…and then it opened abruptly and yet again, the Hornet's breath caught in his throat. The woman appeared…up close he could see his judgment of gorgeous he had given her from afar at the party didn't do her justice, because she was, in fact, devastating. She had a dark, creamy complexion, he guessed Spanish, her eyes were brown almonds and her hair was thick and jet black. It cascaded over her shoulders and stood out against her pink satin bath robe.
He pulled his head back and looked to Kato-his eyebrows were raised in bemusement at his boss's expression even if they couldn't be seen from under his mask. The Hornet narrowed his eyes at him as if to say, "Oh, c'mon! Stop it.", and hazarded another look in. She was peering hard at her balcony doors, as her hand went to her throat and rubbed it anxiously.
She moved hesitantly around her bed and went to the doors. He moved sideways and pressed his shoulder into Kato to tell him to lean the other way as far as he could. She was mere inches from him…all she had to do was step out and look to her right and it would be over. But, their luck held and she moved away, still not reassured. He inched himself back to a position where he could see in…he saw she was still on the balcony side of her bed, leaning on her bedside stand and had a drawer open. He could guess what was inside.
One quick motion and both he and Kato had wrenched the door open and were standing in the room. She gasped and reached for the object in the drawer. Kato threw a Hornet dart straight and true-it hit the inside of the drawer and she pulled her hand away. Her eyes were wide and fearful but her voice did not show her fear. It was strong and unwavering-even angry.
"How dare you!" she spat out. He accent was exotic…as alluring as her beauty. The Green Hornet knew, for sure, most men would have been goners.
"My apologies, ma'am. I had no intention of scaring you…or hurting you. I just want to ask some questions."
Her nostrils flared and pink rose in her cheeks. "I demand you get out of my house, now! Guards, guards!"
He held up his hand. "Please, Ms. Cocó. Won't do any good. However, I suggest you, uh…spend some more money than you did on hired help. I think you'd sleep better at night."
Her fists were clenched and her eyes were bright. "You…you criminal! How do you know my name? I'm calling the police!"
She went for the phone but the Hornet intercepted her, his hand wrapped around her wrist. She fought back, trying to scratch his face and mask with her free hand. He grabbed the other and wrestled her to a sitting position on her bed. Kato hovered just in case he needed to help.
Her hair was wild and hung in her face…her breathing was fast and deep. She wrenched her hands free and fixed her hair and pulled her robe around her. She glared at him with an imperious air.
"You may know me, but I know you, Mr. Green Hornet. I know the police want your head…so you better ask what you want, fast. The police commissioner is a very good friend of mine."
"I'll bet. Can you answer my questions without flying off the handle?"
"Just ask me."
He took a breath and stepped back while Kato crossed his arms and stared hard at her.
"You asked me how I knew your name. Easy, Ms. Lana Cocó, you were the very last person to see Brick Nash alive. Naturally I would know you."
Her face hardened but her eyes did not burn as brightly. "Yes, I was. I saw him die, Mr. Hornet. But I see no reason why you should be interested. I know very well that Brick never associated with people such as you."
He couldn't help but smile. "No, that is correct. I never met him. But I have a passing acquaintance with a certain Britt Reid. I believe those two were friends. Mr. Reid is suspicious…he doesn't like not having all the answers-his friend suddenly dropping dead just a staircase away has…has left him with far too many questions. I guess I'm just as curious as he is."
"Mr. Reid is one of the most upstanding citizens of this city, just like Brick. Whatever acquaintance you say you have must be a lie! Now, well you please…!"
"Ms. Cocó, let me finish. This may even affect you. Now, I have received word through several channels, that Brick Nash did not die of natural causes, but was murdered, poisoned with arsenic."
He didn't like to be so blunt, but there was no other way. He saw the news be absorbed as pain, shock, and horror crossed her face and the color drained. Her hands flew to her throat and then to the cover her mouth.
"Murdered?" she choked.
The Green Hornet nodded solemnly. "Yes. I'm sorry to break it to you like that, but now you see why I've come to ask questions. If someone killed him, they could come for you. It's apparent you must already fear that if you've hired guards."
She stood and smoothed her robe, patted her hair, all nervous actions. "What…what do you want to know?"
"When did you first meet Brick Nash?"
"Um…a year and a half ago. We met at the theater. We talked over dinner afterward and then started seeing each other regularly. Very handsome, kind, charming…I couldn't help but fall for him. He seemed so at ease with himself, people around him. He made me feel at ease…something that hasn't come easily for me."
"I bet his fortune didn't hurt, either. Not that you needed it but…."
Her eyes flashed again. "That's very cruel, Mr. Hornet. Believe it or not, two people can love each other and have that be enough for them. Yes, we are both financially secure, so what? That in itself is a reassurance that what we shared wasn't at all shallow."
"Sorry, go on."
"We dated for a year, then this past New Years, he said he wanted things to be different…for me to stay with him. I said that was fine, but then he said that meant I had to give up my control of my business to my Board of Directors! I…couldn't do that, my father had built all this from nothing, he left it to me to care and nurture as he had. I would have been failing him if I let it go. He…grew angry, indignant, saying I didn't truly love him, that if I did, there would be no question. We argued over it for weeks, until this February, when we finally separated."
"Did you remain friendly?"
"No. I left for Mexico from March to June, to visit family and look over a transaction that would have set up Cocó's Chocolates and Company across the border…that's what my father wanted to do before he died. I promised I would see it through. I returned last month, in July, and Brick started calling me, apologizing, practically begging me to come back. He said he knew he had been nasty, and a fool for asking me to do such a thing."
"Did you believe him?"
"…Yes. I did, but not enough to get back with him. We just talked, ate lunch a few times…he did seem more solemn, serious, he even looked different. When he told me he was having a party for the sake of having a party, I figured the change had been short-lived because that was the old Brick talking again. I said I would try to make it. Honestly, I wasn't even going to go. I tried to busy myself at my office but…well, I decided to give a try."
She wiped the tears away. "I'm, um, glad I did. Ha, you know, I wanted to blow him away, all of them away? I put on my newest dress, piled my hair high and the makeup on."
Her smile was brittle and tears gathered again. "I'll never forget the look in his eyes when he saw me. I realized how much I'd missed him then. The way he ran to me…he was like a little boy."
Underneath the mask, she was tearing Britt apart. The memory of Nash so happy as he was those last few moments burned bright in his own mind. He forced the stony exterior of the Green Hornet to stay in place.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Cocó. I know you'd rather forget all this. One more question and we'll go. All the time you were with him, did Nash appear sick, like with headaches, nausea, even hair loss?"
She wiped her eyes again with a handkerchief and shook her head to clear it. "Sick with headaches, nausea, hair loss? No, I…I don't believe so. At least he never complained to me about feeling sick. Remember, I've been gone for several months…if he had been sick, I never would have known."
"Yes, well." he motioned to Kato who moved back to the balcony doors and opened them. "Thank you, Ms. Cocó. I'm sorry again for your loss and for disturbing you."
In a blink of an eye, her bedroom was hers again. She ran to the balcony to see two dark figures moving through her yard…and her supposed bodyguards groaning as they dragged themselves to their feet. From the street, a powerful engine droned and eerie green headlights illuminated the house fronts and street until the night was quiet again. She leaned heavily on the railing, a smug smile growing across her face.
She held her head high and stared defiantly into the night. She had fooled them all, even the great and powerful Green Hornet. Brick Nash was down…one little obstacle left and then the big prize: Britt Reid. After that, she might even find it in herself to retire back to Mexico-maybe. She sighed contently and went over to her bedside stand to get a cigarette. She grabbed one and a match and went back out to the balcony to light it. Below her, her guards were mumbling and complaining about being jumped. She simply took a nice, long drag and blew it out slowly at the moon. The smug, confident smile remained as she flicked her dead match at the stars.
To dear Mr. Britt Reid…if only you knew what was coming.
The next morning, the Sentinel blared the shattering headline: BRICK NASH MURDERED WITH ARSENIC. The shock waves it created were expected, but nevertheless, hard-hitting. The police vowed they would be on the case until it was solved, his friends promised to stick with it as well, and to keeping the memory of Nash and his life as bright and vibrant as he kept it and himself, while Britt Reid made sure it was well-known the Daily Sentinel would be the premiere newspaper on the case.
Mike Axford's article was commended all around, nothing less had been expected but it made him proud to make his boss proud.
"Mike, that was a great piece of writing. I knew I could count on you!"
The older man practically blushed and he couldn't possibly have smiled any wider.
"Aw, Britt. It was nothing. You know me, I do what I got to do, especially if you're involved."
"You're getting sentimental in your old age, Mike. But I appreciate it."
Casey knocked and popped her head in.
"Mr. Reid, there's a Teddy Drake on the phone."
"Oh, yes. Thanks, Ms. Case."
She nodded and closed the door again. Britt gave Mike a look that told him he should be going.
"Okay, okay, I'm going."
He was gone, and Britt picked up the phone.
"Hey Teddy, thanks for calling. It's been awhile."
"Yeah…yeah, when I read the Daily Sentinel this morning, I knew I had to call you, set up a meeting. Can you come out to my place for lunch this afternoon?"
"Sure. Is…something wrong?"
"No. Actually, I don't know. It's about Brick, Britt. You'll come right?"
Britt's looked hard at his desk. "Of course I'll come."
Teddy Drake wasn't the usually rich kid type. He was smaller than most, with a perpetually guarded expression on his face and hooded, suspicious eyes. He carried a chip on his shoulder from when he was a kid. His father had been an up-and-coming businessman when Britt and the rest of their circle's fathers were already well-established. He endured some nasty teasing and berating because of it…but not from Britt Reid or Brick Nash. It was for that reason, that they were two people he trusted enough to call friends. He was now down to Britt and he was well aware of it.
The way he pumped Britt's hand when he met him at the end of his driveway was proof of it.
"Britt, my friend, I'm so glad you came. I've been going out of my head without anybody to talk to. The rest of his 'friends' haven't returned any of my calls, you're the first to even answer when I first rang. I should have expected that, but fool that I am…."
He took Britt into his house, not-so-modest home he had built himself. He led him through the house to the back patio and pool area. Lunch had been set up pool-side. Britt noticed three plates had been placed.
"Three plates? Is somebody else here?"
"Oh. That. Yeah, actually I misspoke. You're the second one to have answered my call."
"Teddy, dear! I'm ready, do you like it?"
They both turned, but it was Britt who immediately knew who it was even if he hadn't. The voice…that exotic, alluring voice. Lana Cocó stood tall, lean and tan on the deck. She had dressed herself in a form-fitting red bikini underneath a red, shimmering bathing wrap. Her long, elegant fingers were splayed on her hips as she struck quite the pose. Britt, at any other time, what have been completely taken, a total goner, but this time, there was something about her, her eyes, her face, how she zeroed in, not on him, but on Teddy, that reminded him of a cat hunting her prey.
Poor Teddy, he thought. The kid doesn't stand a chance against this 'grieving' girlfriend of his poor deceased buddy….
Teddy immediately went to her, practically taking the deck steps in a single bound.
"My dear, you are a goddess. Allow me to worship you!"
She tilted her head back and laughed, clear and bright. "Oh, Teddy. You're too much!" Her eyes found Britt and her expression changed-he realized he was the new target of the cat.
"Darling, you're so rude! Leaving poor Mr. Reid standing there…."
Teddy looked confused as she took his arm and led him down the steps.
"You know Britt, Lana?"
She kept her big brown eyes on Britt, he noticed how they glittered enticingly.
"Well, if you count that time we met back when we were kids…"
That caught Britt off guard. She smiled knowingly. "No, I didn't think you would remember-you see, you were a rather big boy of five and I was a rather little girl of three. You were too busy with your friends to notice me. But if you don't count that, then no, we haven't met…it's the Britt Reid reputation that precedes you. The fearless, young owner/publisher of the daring Daily Sentinel."
She smiled again and put out her hand for him to shake, which he did.
"I'm Lana Cocó."
Britt didn't need to feign surprise and some embarrassment as he shook her hand. "Oh, Ms. Cocó, I'm sorry for not having remembered you, but….you wouldn't happen to be related to the owner of Cocó Chocolates and Company, would you?"
"Related and current owner. And don't worry, it was a long time ago."
"Oh, well…you must know that my secretary and I share a deep love for you chocolates."
"I'll have to send some over then."
Britt dropped his voice to a softer tone. "You might not remember but, I was the first to find Brick. I'm very sorry for you loss. I saw him talking to you just before, on the staircase."
She dropped her eyes accordingly. "Why…yes. I remember that, as well. Thank you."
Teddy jumped in to the awkward silence. "Um, Lana, darling, didn't you want to go for a swim before lunch?"
"Yes. Excuse me."
Both men watched as she took off her wrap and draped on the back of a chair. She clipped her hair up expertly and slipped into the water. Teddy found it in himself to tear his eyes away and go back to Britt.
"Sit down, Britt." he said, motioning to the umbrelled table they were to eat lunch at. Teddy poured the champagne and leaned back in his seat, taking little sips.
Britt was conscious of the fact he didn't and probably wouldn't have his friend's full attention as long as he could see the pool. Britt moved his chair over to semi-block his view.
"Teddy, c'mon. You called me here to talk and all of a sudden it's all about her. What's going on?"
Teddy cleared his throat. "Um, sorry Britt. I mean I thought about calling you to let you know but then she said she'd like to meet you…apparently Brick spoke very highly of you. And she is such a nice girl and all alone! Nobody has even showed up or called to offer condolences! She needs someone like me, you know, that understands what's she's going through."
"Yeah, I bet, Teddy."
"No, Britt. I'm serious! I'm going to help her, maybe you can too, to get his funeral arraignments in order."
"The police investigation is on-going, they won't give the body up until it's solved. Besides, he has a sister, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, the one that turned circus performer? Ha! The lot of help she'll be. Brick didn't even know where she was and nor did he try to find out. She's pretty much out of the family."
Britt played with his champagne flute. "Okay. What did you want to talk to me about? Or can't you remember through the haze of Ms. Cocó?"
Teddy gave him a dirty look. "Look, Britt…."
"No. No, I get it. She's just a nice girl."
Teddy blew air out of his nose and drained his glass. "Okay, okay." he conceded. He peeked around Britt's shoulder one last time to see Lana doing laps like she was born to it. He settled back in his seat and poured more champagne. He saw that Britt hadn't touched his so he didn't offer him anymore.
"That article of yours said that Brick had been continuously poisoned with arsenic until he was given one final big dose that finally pushed him over the edge. But they can't quite pin down when it started…at least not yet. I…think I might know when it started. I think."
That made Britt sit up and take notice. "What? You can?"
Teddy nodded. "But remember the key words, though: I think. Now, this is going back a year, maybe a little more. Whenever he first met Lana, it was at the theater, I know that."
In his mind, Britt was going over the conversation he had had with Lana as the Green Hornet the night before. He wondered how much it would match; so far so good.
"He said he felt fine their first dinner, first couple of dates, until the fourth one. I remember it was the fourth because we were keeping a running tally as a joke, you know, how long can you string this one along and all that. He called me up really early that night, saying he felt like an ass because he had had to cut the date short-a killer headache, he said. Worse than a migraine.
"Lana had been worried so she said he had better go home and she'd call him the next morning. They went to doctor when it happened again, this time in the middle of the afternoon, a day or two later. The doctor prescribed pain medication and said that if it happened again, to come back and they'd do some tests."
"And did it?"
"He never complained about it afterward, at least not to me. But that was just a beginning. A month after that, he came down with a really horrible stomach bug-vomiting, nausea, chills, the whole bit. But he had something else that, now that this whole arsenic thing's come out, doesn't strike as normal stomach bug symptom-hair loss. Lana called me in a panic about four days into it. She said she didn't know what to do and Brick kept moaning about not wanting to go to the doctors.
"I told her she might just have to take him if he didn't get any better. I didn't hear from her for a while after that and the next time I saw the two of them, maybe three weeks later, Brick was back on his feet, thinner on top and in the middle but otherwise okay. He gained the weight and the hair back and never spoke of it again. Then, he and Lana split and…that was that. He called me a lot during that time…he said he didn't want to bother you with his tales of lovelife woes."
Britt dropped his gaze to the table, guilt stabbing at him again. So much he didn't know about a man he called friend. But something else bothered him on a level he hadn't wanted to feel. Lana's tale and Teddy's didn't jive, at all. In fact, they were polar opposites. So, who did he believe? And who did he want to believe? In the pit of his stomach, Britt felt the beginnings of betrayal-somebody was lying, someone was playing him, both as Britt Reid and as the Green Hornet. He would not stand for it.
Lana pulled herself from pool and sighed contentedly. She let her hair tumble over her shoulders as she grabbed a towel and dried her arms and legs. The towel was tossed off to the side and she shrugged her wrap on again before sitting in-between the two men. Teddy poured her a glass of champagne.
She raised her glass. "A toast-to our dear Brick. May he rest in peace, and may we gather strength through him and his life."
Their glasses clanked and Britt finally took a drink, but he couldn't enjoy it.
Lunch was just as tasteless to Britt as the champagne had been. He tried to act as though he was enjoying himself but it was too tedious to keep up. When Lana finally got up and gave Teddy a peck on the cheek, saying she needed to get change to leave, it was obvious the party was breaking up and Britt was glad.
When she was gone, Teddy sighed and looked up at Britt through his eyelashes.
"What do you think?"
"About Lana or…?"
Britt stood up and tossed his napkin on his plate. "I don't know. But thanks for telling me. I appreciate it."
Teddy also stood and put his hand out. "Of course, Britt. If there's anything I can do, just call. You and Lana are all I got left, you know?"
Britt felt a pang a sympathy for the man as he shook his hand. He realized that, as long as he kept his Green Hornet secret from most, he was lucky to have the friends and support he did.
"Well, darling." Lana was back, dressed again quite fashionably in a tight black minidress and diamonds. Her high heeled, black shoes clicked on the deck as she went to kiss Teddy goodbye.
"A lovely lunch, Teddy. We'll have to do it again."
"Of course, dear. I would be honored."
She went to Britt and her eyes again glittered dangerously. He felt his hair raise on his neck as it was obvious she had chosen him over Teddy-a choice Britt didn't like. Being the canary to the cat wasn't very appealing.
"Mr. Reid…it was a pleasure meeting you, as it is meeting all of Brick's friends. I hope we get to talk more. In fact, I was wondering if…you could drive me to my office?"
Britt opened his mouth and looked between the two. "Um, yeah…yeah, sure. I'd be happy to."
"Great. Meet you at your car-it's the white convertible, correct?" She didn't wait for an answer as she waved and gave Teddy another peck on the cheek before leaving through the house.
"Well. Looks like's she's anointed you the new favorite." Teddy quipped dryly. Britt shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder as he went passed him.
"I'll try and steer her back your way. She's one thing I don't need right now. Thanks, Teddy. Talk to you later."
At the curb, Lana was already sitting comfortably in the front seat. She waved once when she saw Britt coming. Britt smiled wanly and got in, revving the engine once before taking off. With the top down and the wind blowing through her hair, Lana tilted her head back to enjoy it. He forced himself to keep his eyes on the road.
Lana noticed his inattentiveness, something she hadn't expected from him nor was she used to it. She reached out and put a hand on his arm. Her touch got his attention.
"What's the matter, Britt? There is a restlessness in you I don't understand. You are not as Brick described you."
"Oh? Just how did he describe me?"
"Not restless and unwilling to enjoy yourself."
"A very diplomatic answer."
She smiled. "Diplomacy goes a long way. I have learned that well."
Britt wasn't in the mood for the in-depth conversation he knew this train of thought was leading to and change the subject. "Which way to your office?"
She scoffed. "Ha! I have no meeting to make. I just wanted to get you to myself. Let's get a drink, shall we?"
To himself, Britt rolled his eyes and ground his teeth. "Of course."
She put her wineglass down and retrieved her compact from her face to fix her lipstick. Britt kept his eyes on the bar, occasionally, and as always really, letting them drift to the waitresses dressed in pony costumes that left little to the imagination.
"You're still very quiet, Britt."
"Am I? Sorry. I'm not being very solicitous."
"No…but I'll forgive you." She put her compact away and reached out to touch his hand.
"You know, Brick spoke very highly of you. He said that if there was anyone he could always count on, it was you. He said that you always stood for something, more than anyone else in that twisted rich ring."
The sudden bitterness in her voice brought his gaze up to hers. " I'm glad he did. Makes me feel better about myself, something I haven't been able to do these last few days. However, it sounds like…you and Brick's other friends didn't get along too well. Teddy told me he and I were the only ones to call."
"Yes, he's right and it sounds like we didn't get along because we didn't. A tight inner circle that I shouldn't have been able to penetrate…not only did I get in, but I got the inner track. It didn't matter to me until now. They are a rude and selfish bunch, dear Britt, and in a way I'm glad Brick isn't here to see his 'friends' true colors. I believe it would have really pained him."
Britt figured this was the moment he was supposed to say something consoling or in agreement but all he could do was nod his head and keep his eyes on his drink.
"But, I will tell you who else is interested in Brick's death."
"The Green Hornet."
Britt looked up, eyebrows raised, feigning surprise and confusion. "The Green Hornet? What? That's absurd. Why would he be interested?"
"I don't know. He showed up at my home last night, asked me questions about our relationship. He even knew that Brick has been poisoned with arsenic before it broke in your paper this morning."
"Hm. That's odd, isn't it?"
"Very. He and that man of his are very tricky, very quick. He even had the nerve to tell me to hire better guards, since the ones I had were obviously too easy for him. I would have called the police, I should have, but he stopped me. However…he was surprisingly kind in the way be broke the news to me. Very polite, too. I hadn't expected that."
"Maybe's he's not all bad, then. Maybe he just wants to help."
"All he said was that his passing acquaintance with you, and your curiosity in the case naturally made him curious. I found that to be a rather lame excuse."
Britt screwed up his face. "Passing acquaintance? If he calls making occasional trouble and bringing up good headlines for me a passing acquaintance, then yes, we have one. But other than that…."
"Well, that's what he said. I don't want him hanging around me but he makes it sounds like he could…solve the case before the police. I suppose that's something."
Lana shrugged and drained her glass and set it down sharply.
"Britt, darling, I just had a wild thought!"
"Take me to the Sentinel!"
Britt leaned back in his chair. "The Sentinel? Why?"
"For a tour, silly. I've always wanted to know how the dear people of the press work. I won't stay long, won't get in the way, I promise. Please, what do you say?"
She turned her big eyes on him, innocent and begging, underneath however, that dangerous glimmer of hers was present. Britt sighed. Well…why not. I need to get back anyway.
"If you insist. C'mon."
He knew his assumption that most men would have been total goners in her presence was made a sworn fact the moment they stepped into the Daily Sentinel. Every single male head turned to ogle while the female heads moved closer to each other to whisper and gossip. It got worse the closer he got to his office…and when they exited the elevator on his floor, it was as if time stopped completely. Everyone, man and woman alike, turned to look. He saw Mike's jaw drop as he passed by him, managing to give him a small wave. The worse however, was Casey. Ohhh, he should have figured.
The nails were out and the eyes were flashing.
"Britt, dear, who is this most charming creature?" Lana cooed after they had entered his office. Casey had stood when they entered, her hands pressed on her desk.
"This is my secretary, Ms. Case. Ms. Case, this is Ms. Lana Cocó."
They shook hands rather quickly, eyes still flashing at each other.
"Yes, Ms. Case, I remember now, from the party?"
"Yes, a pleasure and…my sincerest apologies."
Lana narrowed her gaze. "My, my, you are pretty. Of course, I'm sure that's just Britt exercising his boss's privilege." she said with a false smile and an equally false laugh.
Casey returned the same falseness. "M'yes, quite."
Lana turned to Britt and winked, making sure that Casey saw how close she was pressing on Britt, whom didn't look at all comfortable.
"Now, dear, my tour. I saw a darling little man out there-red hair, freckles, I think I'd like him to show me around."
"That's Mike Axford, Ms. Cocó. He wrote this morning's article concerning Mr. Nash. He's busy, however. Maybe I could find an intern…." Casey said.
"No, no…that makes it even better. I want to thank him myself!"
Casey looked to Britt and they shared an eye roll. "Very well, Ms. Cocó. I'll call him in." She grabbed her phone and called Mike's desk. He was standing besides Britt and trying very hard not to gawk just seconds later.
Lana moved to Mike and latched her arms around his. "Mr. Axford, they tell me you wrote that wonderful article on Brick Nash. I wanted to thank you myself, it was very touching."
Mike stammered to find the right words but Britt saved him.
"Mike, Ms. Cocó wants you to take her on a tour of the Sentinel."
His eyes nearly popped out of his head. "I-I-I would be honored to, Ms. Cocó."
"Good! Let's begin. We won't be long!"
Mike looked back at Britt, still awestruck, as Lana led him out and started pointing to desks and asking which person did what. They soon moved away and Britt stopped watching them from the window. Instead, he sank heavily on to Casey's desk.
"At last. I've had her all afternoon and I thought I'd never get rid of her."
"Why, is her bite as bad as her bark?" Casey asked dryly. Britt looked sideways at her, half-smiling, but a frown soon replaced it.
"Something's wrong, Ms. Case. Teddy Drake and I had a nice long talk today, and his story doesn't match hers from last night, at all. In fact, they're polar opposites."
"Someone's lying, then."
"But which one? She said Brick wasn't at all sick during her year with him and he said he was sick starting on his fourth date with her. Vomiting, chills, nausea, headaches, hair loss, the whole bit."
Casey looked thoughtful but a shadow soon crossed her face. "You don't think that she…?"
"I don't know, I really hope not, but I've gotten this feeling all afternoon that she isn't as she seems. She's dangerous, devilish, cunning. Like you said, her bite might just be as bad as her bark and if it is…."
He let his voice trail off, his brow wrinkled. "Ms. Case," he said thoughtfully, "I want you to dig up everything you can on her."
"Of course. But…what are you going to do?" she asked quietly, looking out the window to the press room again.
"You mean what is the Green Hornet going to do? I'll tell you-he's going back to the scene of the crime."
That night, the streets were again illuminated by the distinct headlights of the Black Beauty, her engine rumbling like thunder. Kato, as per usual, drove, although his eyes went to the rear view mirror more than normal. Britt finally noticed, his eyes meeting his valet's.
"No, what is it?"
Kato looked back again.
"You do realize the police will be watching Nash's house."
"Of course. That hasn't stopped us before."
"Well…I'm just worried that perhaps, because Mr. Nash was your friend and now his girlfriend, whom you think is involved, has set her sights on you that you'll…."
"…Let my emotions get in the way?"
"Yes." Kato responded reluctantly.
Britt's made a half-hearted attempted at an amused smile. "Kato, I want this solved, you want this solved, everybody wants it solved. I let myself get sucked in and that's one last angle of the case that won't be looked at and one last person who can't further the case to its resolution. Besides, I don't won't to get myself killed and I'm sure you don't either, so…."
Kato was reassured. "Just worrying, boss. You know I trust you."
A block away from Nash's estate, Kato pulled over and killed the engine. From the back seat, Britt gathered the Hornet gun and Sting and put them in their proper places. Again, they dove to the shadows and cut through side and back yards until they were in Nash's, very aware of the two police cruisers parked at the curb.
"Two cars equals four officers. That's pretty even." Britt observed. Kato crept ahead of him to get a better look at the front of the house. He motioned for Britt to come over.
"Two are stationed at the front, the other two must be around back."
"Okay-you take front, I'll take back?"
Britt motioned him off while he crouch-ran against the tree line to the back. He stopped when his approach activated the motion-sensor lights surrounding the back patio and pool area. He stepped back into the darkness as the two officers were startled by the lights and muttered to each other. They drew their weapons and began their search, cautious and on the alert. Britt pulled the Hornet gun and held it close, waiting as one of the officers approached his position. He wondered as he aimed if Kato had gotten his two, he hadn't heard one of his cries or any noise from the front of the house for that matter.
The officer was on him even though he didn't know it. From the darkness, a green noxious cloud erupted and overcame the man. He grabbed at his throat, coughing and gagging. Slowly, he sagged to the ground, but not without his partner breaking from his search to run over. He fired a single shot into the darkness as he knelt next to him.
Britt gritted his teeth as he dropped low to avoid the shot. He had been shot once and he was keen not to do any bit of it over again. Before the cop could fire again, Britt lashed out, hitting him in the back of the neck with a well-placed hand chop. Kato hadn't completely left him out of the martial arts loop….
Just then, Kato trotted up behind him and looked down at the unconscious bodies, then looked up at Britt.
"What kept you?" Britt asked as he put the gun back inside his coat.
Kato shrugged. "My two wanted to fight back. Looks like you got the better end of the deal."
Britt grinned and moved to the back patio French doors and tried them. Locked, of course.
"Watch out." he said to Kato as he himself moved back and produced the Hornet Sting. With a flick of his wrist, the Sting extended to its full length and a handle unfolded, like that of a gun. He aimed the Sting at the door handle and activated it. A soft whirl that grew only slightly was emitted before the lock burst amid smoke and sparks. Britt pushed the Sting back its normal size and used his foot to open the broken door.
"Get the lights, Kato."
When he found them, the room was illuminated. They were in the Billiards Room of the house. Spacious with plenty of wood, mostly mahogany. The bar was well-stocked as always and there were plenty of sports and hunting magazines scattered about. All four walls were adorned with carefully hung stuffed animals head, trophies from Nash's past hunts. The pool table was bare, the balls and triangle stashed away while the cues were lined perfectly in their holder.
There had been no life, no people, in the house for days and for a house used to raucous, near constant inhabitance, that was especially sad. Britt moved from the room quickly-he felt that what he had come for wouldn't be there…but somewhere more private, like his bedroom or study.
Kato had wandered into the main hall, the same place where the fateful party had congregated, but Britt motioned to the stairs and they went together.
"What are we looking for?" Kato asked.
"Yes, a Cocó Chocolates and Company candy box."
Kato stopped suddenly while Britt kept going. "I thought that was just a theory? Are you that positive?"
His boss stopped at the top and looked back, eyes bright behind his mask. "Theories usually become accepted fact, Kato. This one has to if any justice is to be served for Brick."
He nodded, reaffirmed in his opinion that the whole thing was a constantly evolving tragedy for everyone involved. He joined Britt at the top if the stairs, where the man pointed a gloved finger off to the left.
"His bedroom is down there, second last door. Go over every inch, Kato. If you've got to break something open, do it. If you find it, come and get me and we'll get out of here."
"Okay, boss." Kato said and preceded toward the bedroom. Britt turned to the left, again retracing Nash's steps to his office. In his mind's eye, he again saw Nash sprawled out on the floor. He heard Lana Cocó's screams until he closed the door behind him and turned the light on and both sight and sound vanished. He stood against the closed door for a moment, looking around. The police had already been over the room but he wondered how carefully. They hadn't been looking for anything that would have led to arsenic at the time because it hadn't come out yet. He was surprised but pleased they hadn't come back now that that certain fact had come out.
The first place he went was the desk. He tried the drawers; each opened easily but contained no boxes. The final, and the largest drawer, however, was locked. If he used the Hornet Sting, it would no doubt blow the entire drawer wide open, but he had no other choice. Careful to activate it and keep it on the lowest power saved the drawer but blew the lock. He cleared the smoke and slowly pulled the drawer open. Britt's hand fell away weakly and his throat grew dry. In the center of the deep drawer and shimmering in the room's light was a Variety Box of Cocó Chocolates. Britt drew the box out and held it in his hands. He closed the drawer and stood, and walking over to the light switch, he turned them off and left the room.
He went down the hall to Nash's bedroom and pushed the door opened to see Kato doing a very thorough job of searching the room.
The valet stopped rummaging and looked up. He straightened immediately when he saw the box in Britt's hand.
"You found it."
"…I'm sorry, boss."
"It still has to be tested." Britt had to hold on to that for the time being. Perhaps it was a wild theory of his, created to give him some peace of mind that he could solve it.
He turned from Kato. "Let's get out of here."
Early the next morning, before Britt was even ready to leave for the office and was still eating breakfast, the phone rang and Kato answered.
"Britt Reid residence. Doctor Kelly, hello. Yes…oh. Oh. Yes, I'll…let him know. Yes. Goodbye." Kato hung up and looked to his boss. How he hated to tell him this….
Britt looked up as Kato came back. "What's up, Kato? Who called?"
Kato folded his hands in front of him. "That was Doctor Kelly, from Metropolitan Hospital. Teddy Drake is in intensive care, in a coma. He was found last night, poisoned with arsenic."
Britt's face went white and his fork slipped from his hand. He stood so quickly his chair tipped backwards. He was shrugging on his suit coat and out the door seconds later. His white convertible roared out of the garage.
Kato phoned the Sentinel to tell them Britt would be late, that he would be at the hospital. They didn't need any other information than that as every newspaper in town burned up their front pages with the news that another of the town's upstanding citizens, and a friend of the last victim no less, had been poisoned with arsenic. They all wondered who would be next.
Britt stayed at the hospital for several hours, trying to get in to see Drake, but he hadn't been able. It was nearly three in the afternoon when he did arrive at the Sentinel. His employees bowed their heads as he passed, muttering their apologies at Drake's misfortune. He accepted them with a tight-lipped nod. He strode into his office and went to Casey's desk, and leaned forward heavily, staring Casey straight in the eye.
"Tell me you got something on her."
Casey swallowed and reached for a pile of folders she had accumulated during her research on Lana Cocó.
"Everything I could find, Mr. Reid."
Britt grabbed the pile and put it under his arm. He turned toward his office door.
"Oh, there was a call for you: Scanlon, about that box you took last night."
Britt nodded and went in. He sat behind his desk and dumped the folders on it before reaching for his private line to Scanlon. He answered quickly.
"Can you talk?" Britt asked.
"What are the results?"
There was a pause. Britt had no patience for this. "Just tell me, Frank. I can already guess so there's no use trying to sugarcoat it for me."
"The box tested positive for arsenic, Britt. Your hunch was right, although I wish it wasn't."
"I don't. Justice served, Frank."
"Now what exactly does that mean? What are you going to do?"
Britt was going to answer when the door opened enough for Casey to stick her head in. She gave him a small, attention-getting wave and pointed emphatically out his office window to the news room.
He cupped his hand over the receiver. "What?"
Britt stood to look and sure enough, Lana Cocó was in the newsroom, hanging on Mike Axford's arm, and dressed appropriately in black as she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Britt gritted his teeth and took his hand off the receiver.
"Frank, I'll call you back." He didn't wait to hear out Frank's protests to hang up. He followed Casey out of his office to meet her. The moment she saw him, she broke from Axford and ran to him, hugging him tightly. He was caught off guard and didn't immediately return the hug. All eyes were uncomfortably on him and Lana, so he led her back to the office. Normally, Casey would have left Britt alone in that kind of situation, but this time she stayed by his side.
He sat her on his desk chair and stood back next to Casey. Lana sniffed and shook her head.
"Oh, Britt! It's just horrible! First Brick, now Teddy. I don't understand it! Who? Who would do this?"
She held her hanky to her eyes to catch the tears, miraculously not making her makeup run. She gripped his hand. "I fear for you, Britt. I fear you'll be next!"
Casey caught Britt's eye and narrowed hers. Lana was the consummate actress, that was for sure. And a dangerous, dangerous player. His narrowed gaze agreed with hers-Casey might not have liked to see Britt being toyed with so cruelly, but Britt hated being played and lied to, both as himself and as the Green Hornet. More so when he was the latter.
Britt returned the hand squeeze and crouched down in front of her to get on eye level.
"Lana, the police are doing everything to get these solved. I've been to the hospital and, despite being in a coma, the doctors said Teddy's stable. Now, I don't want you to worry about me, or Teddy or Brick or anything. I just want you to go home and rest."
Lana wiped tears away yet again and sighed deeply. "Y-yes. O-okay. I will do that, but Britt, I'm frightened!"
An actress for the ages. Just give her the Oscar now and get it over with….
Britt helped her to her feet and hugged her to him. "Don't be. Just go home and rest."
She sniffed and snuffled while smiling ruefully. "You're a darling, Britt. I'll do that. But, before I go, I have something for you…and Ms. Case."
Both their eyebrows went up.
"I remembered what you said about you and her sharing a love for my chocolates. And…with things as they are, I figured you could use some. They say chocolate is good for the soul."
She reached in her bag and produced two small boxes of Supreme Dark Cocó Chocolates. She handed one to both of them. The offer was taken hesitantly, hidden looks of disbelief passing between Britt and his secretary. Lana smiled again and kissed Britt on his cheek while ignoring Casey before she finally left, turning around only once to tell Britt to come by later for dinner. That, of course, caused another look of disbelief to cross between them.
When she was gone, Casey put the box down as if the poison oozed from the box itself and wiped her hand on her skirt. She stared hard out into the newsroom, to the elevators where the woman had just left in.
"I can't believe it or her." she whispered harshly.
Britt stared at his before tossing the box on top of Casey's.
He picked up the phone and dialed Scanlon's number, fingers drumming hard on his desk.
"Hi, Frank? Yeah, to continue our conversation…."
She blew the cigarette smoke lazily into the night, smirking at her own sense of victory as she left the balcony and closed the doors behind her. She went over to her full-length mirror to fix her hair and straighten her dress. It was the blue version of the dress she had worn to Brick Nash's party only a few days before. Her hair was swept up in an elaborate bun and her neck was adorned with a lavish diamond necklace her father had given her for her Quinceañera with its matching earrings hanging delicately from her ears. She ran a nail around her lips to get rid of the excess lipstick and rubbed away a smudge of mascara from her eyelids. Satisfied, she slipped her feet into her black high-heels and ran her hands down her sides to get the dress to hang correctly.
An ironic thought crossed her mind as she admired the final result: I may even kill him before the arsenic takes effect….
She swung her boudoir doors open and strode down the hallway to the main staircase, taking the steps like a queen entering her throne room in front of her loyal subjects; except those 'loyal' subjects happened to be the several new and definitely improved bodyguards she had hired after her first and apparently last Green Hornet meeting, begrudgingly taking the advice he had so flippantly offered.
She ignored their hungry looks as she stepped off the final stair and looked them over with a critical eye.
"This is a very special night for me-I DON'T want any disturbances. If you see anything out of the ordinary, you investigate and get rid of it. I don't care how, just do it. I'm paying you good money for this, please show me it's not a waste. Am I clear?"
A unison call of "Yes, ma'am." was the response and she nodded. "Off to your stations. My guest will be arriving any moment now."
Lana Cocó was expecting Britt Reid for dinner at 8 pm. She was probably waiting for him already, dressed to kill no doubt. It was only fitting for a murderess to look the part.
But, oh, what a surprise she was going to get!
The Black Beauty rumbled to a stop under the cover of darkness-no street lights, no car headlights, no late-night walkers. Silent and dark. The polarized green headlights died away and the engine was shut off, its driver getting out and taking a cautionary look around as the passenger also disembarked. They took off together, retracing the steps they had already taken a few nights before. Through the trees and hedge line, into the long, foliage-filled backyard and their target house. Yet again, they stopped to survey their surroundings and yet again, they saw the outlines of four figures standing under the balcony they had used before to gain entry.
"You think she followed my advice?"
"I would hope not."
"Then she probably did."
Both nodded grimly and instead of the Green Hornet breaking off to attack first, he and Kato went together. Britt stayed to the right, purposely creating a leafy racket for Kato to use as distraction to get across the yard. The guards alerted on Britt and immediately moved toward him, calling out warnings for him to stop and show himself or they would open fire. Clouds parted in front of the moon and its light fell across the yard, illuminating all of them. The initial shock from the guards that it was the Green Hornet was very short-lived as they attacked, Britt firing his gas gun to catch as many as he could and bringing them down while Kato jumped in from behind, short sharp cries piercing the night.
The two stood back to admire their work until Britt pointed to the balcony.
Britt went first with Kato at the rear.
"You know," the valet muttered, "climbing around woman's balconies and boudoirs better not become a habit."
Britt grinned as he grabbed the railing to pull himself up. They situated themselves as before against the wall and Britt leaned forward to try the door. Unlocked yet again. What use was it to hire better guards if a door was left unlocked? The boudoir, however, was empty and there were no signs of readying for bed. Britt stood and open the door. Kato squeezed passed him to check the room out, just to make sure there weren't any unwanted surprises waiting. He nodded the all-clear. Britt moved to the door and opened it carefully. He stuck his head out just enough to see the darken hallway was clear both ways.
Normally, he would have found such a clear path an unusual but otherwise appreciated change of pace. But this time, it only sharpened his senses and made his hair remain standing on end; the adrenaline was beginning to pump through his veins like fire shooting through tunnels, trapped, ready to burn whatever in its way once it found the other end.
Kato stopped when they reached the opening of the hall and the first step of the grand mahogany and red velvet carpeted staircase. He doubled back to Britt and whispered,
"Still clear. I don't like it."
"You too? Yes, it is odd. Slow and silent, Kato."
Britt stayed to the left of the staircase and Kato to the right, eyes now accustomed to the dimness of the house. They stopped when they saw the faint glow of candlelight in the room to the right of Britt. They exchanged glances before padding softly towards the light. They stopped outside the room and each of them pressed against their respective door frames to look in.
An elegant dining room, gold and red velvet abound. The chandelier's golden hangings glinted in the candlelight, while the long dining table had only two chairs placed across from each other in the middle of the table and each were set with fancy chinaware and champagne glasses. The napkins were folded artfully on the plates and the silverware in proper order on either side. It seems the Green Hornet would be crashing a fancy dinner, indeed.
Just then, the female counterpart of the dinner appeared, dressed in a devastating blue dress, adorned in diamonds and carrying champagne in a chiller. She set it down at the table setting closest to her and stood back to admire her table set. Britt's eyes narrowed on her and he moved to the doorway, a menacing figure in the dark. Kato stayed where he was, watching the Hornet's back.
The woman looked up and her smiled disappeared with a gasp and a hand flew to cover her mouth.
"Hello again, Ms. Cocó. I see you followed my advice: those guards were a bit more enthusiastic. You left your balcony door unlocked again, I'm afraid."
Lana brought her hand away from her mouth and clenched it in a fist at her side. She blinked and swallowed, attempting to regain composure.
"What…what do you want, Mr. Hornet? I am expected company at any moment."
Britt walked toward her, fixing his gloves casually as he went.
"I can see that. Quite the setup. I'm impressed."
"As if someone like you could appreciate it." she spat. The Green Hornet grinned but kept moving, even though Lana held her ground.
"Oh, I appreciate many things, even if they aren't the finer things, Ms. Cocó. But what I don't appreciate…is being played and lied to!"
His voice went hard and cold, which wasn't a stretch for him at the moment. Not by a long shot. Her face grew pinched and her fists shook, nails digging in to her palm. She didn't try act confused or deny his claims. She just shouted at the top of her voice: "Guards! Guards! It's the Green Hornet!"
She took the opportunity given as Britt spun at the sound of the front door crashing open and heavy shoes pounding up behind him, to rush back through the door she had just come out of.
Kato intercepted the men before they could reach Britt and sent two of the sprawling to the ground at once.
"Go!" Kato shouted at him as he spun himself through a crushing sidekick. Britt took off after her, wrenching the door of her escape open to find himself in a large, well-stocked, yet empty kitchen. It appeared she had made her dear Britt Reid a home-cooked meal. His stomach churned at the thought.
From behind the counter, Lana sprang, her high-heels clicking furiously on the floor, as she raised a deadly butcher's knife over her head. Britt backpedaled as she advanced. Her first plunge missed completely as he moved right, her second plunge would have connected if he hadn't sidestepped to the left. He made ready for her third plunge and as the knife flashed downward, he moved again, grabbing her wrist roughly as he went. He twisted her arm in the wrong direction, Lana screeching in pain, until the knife clattered to the ground.
Even disarmed, she fought like the cornered, but de-clawed cat that she was, struggling against his grip, as she attempted to stomp on his feet with the heel of her shoe. Britt pulled both her arms behind her and dragged her out of the kitchen, ignoring her curses and screams, even though most of them were in Spanish. Kato met him at the door, clearly having dispatched the guards quite easily.
"Here, hold her, will you?" Britt said brusquely as he shoved her into him. Kato gathered her in the same way Britt had held her and made sure she couldn't go anywhere.
"You…you beasts! You animals! Unhand me now, I demand it!"
Britt stood back and fixed his hat and pressed down on his mask to make sure it was still secured. "It takes one to know one, Ms. Cocó." he said coldly.
She pulled harder at Kato's hold but he jerked her back and wrenched her arm back and up. Her face screwed up in pain but she stopped struggling.
"I have to admit, you played me pretty well, I'm not usually so gullible. I was impressed. I hate being made a fool of and I hate being lied to. You're pretty good at that, too. But that's not your best quality, oh no. No, your best qualities are your coolness, your two-facedness, your detachment with the rest of the world and the people in it. I just don't understand it. Why? Why did you poison Brick Nash, Teddy Drake, and then attempt to do it to Britt Reid?"
Her face paled to a lighter shade of bronze and she swallowed heavily.
"I…don't know what you're talking about. Let me go, please!"
"Stop lying!" Britt lashed out, causing her to flinch and Kato to tighten his grip again. "Britt Reid may just be getting suspicious and the police not far behind but I've known since I went back Nash's house and found his empty box of YOUR chocolates. I tested it and it practically oozed arsenic. Then there was Teddy Drake, another one of Nash's close friends. I went to his house and again, an empty box of your chocolates."
In reality, Britt had gone back to Drake's house as himself, to get a few things for the sick man and, just to confirm, once again, his worst fears that it was Lana Cocó.
"Then, just this morning, you brought Reid and his secretary chocolate. He was suspicious, uneasy. He didn't eat it and neither did his secretary. It's only a matter of time before Reid and the police catch up to where I am. In fact, I plan on bringing them up to speed tonight."
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed, a hint of panic in her voice.
He held up a finger. "One anonymous phone call, telling the police that you poisoned those two men, killing one and hospitalizing the other before trying it on another and they'd come around to investigate."
"You wouldn't." she said defiantly.
"Wouldn't I? I don't like competition, especially when it starts encroaching. The guys you've been bumping off are my meal ticket when times are lean. Sometimes I play them for as much as I can get-but I need them alive to do that!"
He advanced on her, and when she tried to back away, Kato stood firm behind her, not letting her budge an inch.
"All I want to know is why. I'm not going to ask again."
Lana Cocó kept her eyes on the Hornet's, daring to stare him down until her shoulders sagged under an invisible weight. She dropped her chin to her chest and tears welled, but not for those dead or deathly ill because of her, but for herself. When her shoulders squared and her head rose again, there was defiance, yet acceptance in her face.
"Okay." she said finally and Kato could feel the tension in her arms and shoulders melt away. "I will tell you. It's actually very simple. My father came to this country a poor vagrant. He worked in migrant farms, doing whatever work he was given, never once complaining, hating, or hazarding a thought of giving up. He had a dream and he was going to achieve it , even if he had to break his back and tear his body apart to do it. He saved enough money to bring my mother over and she took jobs washing other people's clothes, and cleaning other, richer people's homes, cooking other people's meals…my mother and father worked. From the bottom and not very far up, but they made something out of nothing.
"So when my father dared to break that glass ceiling and attempted to become a legitimate businessman, those who never had to work, who'd had everything handed to them one way or another, laughed at him behind his back, called him the Candy Man, and had great jokes on his behalf. Yet he took it in stride, he'd been doing that since he arrived here, turning the other cheek to the cruelties and hatred speared at him by those who saw themselves as somehow better then he!"
The fire in her voice lashed Britt and for a faltering second he felt badly for her and her family. He even felt shame because he had been in that circle that jeered at those 'below' them. He may not have partaken in it, but he hadn't said anything publicly either. But it was just for a second that he felt that. Just a fleeting second.
"Only my father had the last laugh! Cocó's Chocolates and Company flourished from a small corner store to the premiere chocolates and candies chain in the city. He made them eat their words but he never gloated or boasted, he just went on to make his company the best it could be and better still. They may have stopped openly criticizing him, but among themselves he was still just a little old Candy Man from Mexico, who couldn't possible have anything but dumb luck. When they couldn't hurt him, they turned to me. My Quinceañera, one of the days of my life I should be able to remember fondly and happily…was ruined-crashed by a bunch of the sons of the men who saw my father as a lesser man and my mother and I same. They laughed at me, jeered at me, threw cake at my guest, ripped my dress…!"
Tears ran down her face but she kept going. "I wanted to die after that. But my father reminded me of all the times he had been thrown down in the mud and kicked in the teeth-and he never once quit, he never let them see him bleed. I couldn't either, and I wouldn't. When those same boys, now young men, came around again to call, I realized that I could use what I had been given, my beauty, my body, my wealth and power to get back at them for all the pain and suffering they and their fathers had inflicted on my family.
"That coolness and detachment and that two-facedness you so admire, Hornet, was born out of that. Brick Nash and Teddy Drake weren't the first, I'd taken the time to perfect my methods, and if hadn't been for you…and Mr. Britt Reid, young, daring owner-publisher of the stalwart Daily Sentinel…", her tone had turn mocking and Britt's own anger flared up. He clenched his jaw and remained silent.
"… suddenly getting smart…I'd continued until every last important family had been touched by my own brand of pain and suffering-sweet and deadly."
Lana let the tears fall as she yet again dared to stare the Hornet right in the eye.
"Well. There you have it."
Britt took a breath and let it out slow and even. "Yeah. I got it. Revenge. That's all it ever was. Revenge."
He ground his teeth and let his gaze fall on Kato-the valet saw the pain from the knowledge that his friend had been killed for the mere antics of boyhood, and for who his father had been. Yes, it was quite simple indeed.
From his pocket, Britt withdrew the arsenic-laden box he'd taken from Nash's home, and gotten back from Scanlon and a Hornet seal. He stuck it on the box and threw it at her feet. She looked from him to the box and back-and straight at the business end of the Hornet Gun. Kato held her at arms length when he saw the gun come out.
"What?…what?…Hornet! No! Don't shoot! Please!"
"Brick Nash and Teddy Drake didn't get a second chance-why should you?"
Her screams turned into coughs and gasps for air as he pulled the trigger and a cloud of green, noxious gas formed around her. Kato turned his face away and held his breath as he lowered her limp body to the carpet.
Britt still had the gun aimed and his arm extended to fire when Kato looked up at him. "She's completely out. We need to go."
The arm lowered and the gun went back to its pocket. "Yeah."
Kato straightened and waited for Britt to walk around Lana Cocó's body, and her deadly box of chocolates sealed by the Hornet. Outside, Britt stopped to look back.
"How does a person get so twisted by hate and anger, Kato? How does a person let themselves get that way?"
His partner shrugged. "They never had anyone they could talk to-they never had any place to go to get away."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess so." He reached into an inside pocket and took out his pocket watch. Pressing a button on its gold body, an antenna appeared and a silent tone was emitted. Two blocks over, DA Frank Scanlon nonchalantly touched the right temple-piece of his glasses, where a small receiver had picked up the Green Hornet's call-signal. He looked over to the officer driving the police car he sat in and nodded. Lights and sirens blazed as the cruiser and the two others parked behind it took off.
The Black Beauty's powerful engine roared just as the sirens could be heard in the distance. By the time the police pulled up to Lana Cocó's curb, the Green Hornet, his partner and their special car were long gone, its green headlights cutting the night on its way home.
The Daily Sentinel headline screamed the shocking news: CHOCOLATE HEIRESS ARRESTED IN POISONINGS! Under that, the usual was printed in far smaller font: Green Hornet Implicated. Britt Reid came in at his usual, if not late, time of noon, looking as if he hadn't slept in ages. Casey nodded in sympathy as he passed to his office door, while Mike Axford came pounding in behind him to thunderously congratulate him on an editorial well done. But his boss ignored him, shutting the door to his office almost in the man's face. Axford blinked and spun on Casey.
"What's wrong with him?"
Casey stood and walked over to him, putting a hand on his arm. "Just give him some time, Mike. Sometimes the…sweet smell of success can be a bit overwhelming."