"Laura, are you alright?" Steele asked, reaching the top platform of the Mardi Gras float as it sped down the interstate away from downtown New Orleans.
"I'm fine. I'm fine." Laura adjusted the skirt of her evening gown and made room for him beside her on the small bench. "If it hadn't been for several cumbersome yards of satin, I could have jumped off this thing before it left the arena."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't," Steele replied. "I had visions of your lovely head smashing against the corridor wall mid-leap and I already had one injured patient on my hands."
"Cindy Bourque. Someone stuffed her in a locker in the steam room and wasn't planning on returning anytime soon."
"Did she see anything?"
Steele shrugged his head no. "I called Mildred over to help me with Cindy. That must be when our new chauffeur in the truck up front took the opportunity to make his entrance and spirit you away."
Steele scanned the horizon as the highway threaded its way through an industrial landscape of warehouses and auto repair shops. "Any idea where we're headed?"
"West," Laura said, pointing to a sign mounted above the interstate. "I saw a mile marker for the airport a little while ago. Beyond that, I don't know."
"West is good," Steele said dryly. "2000 miles or so. Texas. Arizona. If the driver doesn't stop much, we'll be home in a few days. Not my preferred mode of transportation, but beggars can't always be choosers, eh?"
"That's what I love about you, Mr. Steele," Laura teased. "Always looking for the silver lining."
Laura shifted gears, reaching for the envelope she had discovered moments before. "As much as I'd like to be on our way back to Los Angeles right now, we have more pressing concerns. Look at this."
"Our mysterious package?"
"A second set of billing records, with Bradford's initials." Laura reached inside Steele's jacket for the sheet of paper she had placed in his pocket earlier. "Together with this invoice from the false drawer in the apartment, we have evidence that Bradford's firm was bilking clients for tens of thousands of dollars."
"And Leslie, working at night, stumbled on to his scheme."
"A plausible motive for murder," Laura said.
"Then let's combine it with a motive for fraud," Steele replied. "The Duke made some headway too. Bradford invited me to join a high stakes venture with an initial ante of fifty thousand dollars."
"What kind of venture?"
"I have no idea. I had to pretend that I already knew in order to get him to issue the invitation at all."
Laura looked at him skeptically.
"You have your methods," he replied. "I have mine."
"Tell me you didn't promise the man fifty thousand dollars."
"Of course not," Steele replied. "I promised him a hundred thousand." He watched for Laura's reaction of dismay, then continued. "Had to make it look like I was serious. Bradford trundled off to get a contract…"
"Did you sign something?" Laura exclaimed.
"As who, exactly? William Frawley? You know me better than that, Miss Holt. No binding commitments were made."
"Touché," Laura replied, looking for his smile in response. Receiving it, she got up from the bench and began to walk carefully towards the front of the float.
"Whatever the scheme, Bradford can't be acting alone," Steele continued. "Bradford didn't go after Cindy this evening. She must have been trapped in that steam room cabinet for an hour or more, and he was with me. There wasn't time."
"There never is," Laura said, pointing to the truck. "The float is slowing down. We're leaving the highway."
"May I suggest the element of surprise," Steele said, opening the door to the interior of the float. Laura grabbed the broken bottle she had employed earlier and followed Steele down the stairs to the first level of the float. In the near total darkness, they made their way down the length of the float, past the empty beer cans, broken beads, and other debris, and took up positions on either side of the rear door.
Moments after the float came to full stop, the door flew open with a bang. Three men in dark suits with close-cropped hair pushed through the entrance in quick succession, each brandishing snub-nosed pistols.
As Steele prepared to blindside the man closest to him with two-by-four, the man wheeled around and pointed his gun at Steele's gut.
"Hand's up!" he shouted. "Drop your weapon. Now!"
Several hours later, Steele and Laura bided their time in a sparsely furnished conference room under harsh fluorescent lights. A young man with a familiar face entered the room with a clipboard and several folders and took a seat at the cold metal table that filled most of the room.
"Mr. Steele, Miss Holt, I'm Spencer LaBue, special agent with the FBI."
"We're happy to cooperate in any way we can," Laura said in her most professional tone.
Steele extended his hand. "Good to see you again, Spencer. No hard feelings, I hope." Laura looked at him quizzically.
"None at all, Mr. Steele. We both had our roles to play this afternoon," Agent LaBue replied.
"And now." Steele replied.
"With the evidence you provided this evening – evidence we certainly would have found when we impounded the float – we can confirm Leslie Calhoun's allegation of billing irregularities at Castille, Bradford and Calhoun."
"That crime alone hardly seems to warrant the involvement of the FBI," Laura ventured.
"You're right, Miss Holt. We have bigger fish to fry."
"The murders," Steele stated.
"Not my jurisdiction," LaBue responded. "Although, with your help, we can bring Sonny Bradford and his co-conspirators to justice on host of charges, which should also help the state authorities convict them of the murders."
"What sort of help do you have in mind, Special Agent?" Laura asked.
LaBue bypassed Laura and addressed Steele directly. "I know you're Remington Steele, but Bradford doesn't. He's in hock to several organized crime figures, providing certain services to compensate for gambling losses."
"The billing irregularities are evidence of money laundering," Laura surmised.
LaBue continued to address Steele. "Did he invite you – invite the Duke of Bridgewater – to join the Monte Carlo partnership?"
"I can't say with any certainty what he invited me to join. We were interrupted."
"What is the Monte Carlo partnership?" Laura asked.
"We're hoping you can persuade Bradford to reveal that answer," LaBue responded, answering Laura's question but keeping his attention fixed on Steele.
"But if you don't know what it is, how do you know it involves a federal crime…." Laura's voice trailed off as she finished her thought. Decisively, Laura pushed her chair back from the table and stood, then placed both hands firmly on the table and leaned towards the special agent. "Would you excuse Mr. Steele and I for a moment, please."
"I'm in the middle of an investigation," LaBue responded curtly, conceding no ground.
"Are either one of us under arrest?"
"Then we'd like a moment in private."
LaBue glared at Laura but remained professional, gathering his folders and exiting the conference room without a word.
"Why are you picking a fight with the feds?" Steele asked after the door closed.
"The FBI is trying to put a racketeering case together," Laura replied.
"Fine. Why wouldn't we help them?"
"We will, but we need some guarantees before we offer you as the lure. Right now, they need us more than we need them."
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it for a minute. Why wouldn't a federal agent do the job LaBue is asking you to do?"
"Laura, I'm too tired for games."
"It's not a game. Why does he need you for the sting?"
"Because it's foolhardy and reckless to try to con a murderous mobster when you don't know what you're up against."
"Because they're worried about entrapment," Laura stated.
"I'm worried about entrapment."
"Legal entrapment," Laura replied. "If an agent doesn't solicit the offer from Bradford in a precisely prescribed manner, the convictions will be overturned in court. You're not an agent."
"And I'm not the Duke of Bridgewater," Steele said, finding himself in synch with Laura's train of thought.
"Precisely," Laura said with a gleam in her eye.
"I'll fetch Spencer and make the deal."
Late the next morning, Steele sat down for coffee on the back patio of a Garden District mansion near a bend in the Mississippi River.
"It was good to hear from you this morning, Duke," Sonny Bradford said as he filled Steele's cup.
"Dainty," Steele said, holding the tiny cup aloft.
"It's called demitasse," Sonny responded. "My wife picked this set up in Paris a few weeks ago, before we went to Monte Carlo. The French press makes our coffee so strong, we only need half a cup."
"I'm learning a great deal about your traditions."
"I'm heartened to learn that disappearing the way you did last night isn't one of your unique customs," Sonny said. "I thought we had an understanding."
"Indeed we do, Sonny," Steele replied. "Indeed we do."
At the same moment, Mildred and Laura peered through a hedge that separated the Bradford property from the adjacent mansion.
"I hope your men have a better vantage point than we do," Laura said as Special Agent LaBue approached.
"All you need to worry about is making your entrance," he responded. He pointed to an agent in the second floor window above. "We'll give you your cue."
"Now that we've had a chance to visit," Sonny said, "I think it's time to get down to unfinished business. You've brought the hundred thousand."
"I've brought collateral," Steele replied. "It's difficult to get cash on short notice, but I think this item will satisfy your requirements and allow our deal to move forward." Steele opened a briefcase and placed a tiara between them on the patio table – the same costume tiara Laura had rejected the evening before.
"I'm not a jewelry expert," Sonny stated, lifting the tiara and holding it up to reflect the late morning sunlight.
"I wouldn't expect you be," Steele said quickly. "May I?" He retrieved the tiara and pointed to the glass jewels. "These four small diamonds are marquis cut, nearly flawless, half a carat each. These blue stones, here, between each diamond – they may look like sapphires to the naked eye, but are actually far more precious…"
"How's the chief doing?" Mildred asked. "Can you see anything?"
"They're examining the tiara," Laura replied. "I can't see Bradford's reaction."
"I spent nearly four bucks on it, Miss Holt," Mildred said, deadpan. "It should work."
"I can see that this item means a great deal to you, Duke," Sonny said. But I'm afraid my partners will require something more solid, shall we say, than your word."
"Of course," Steele replied. "I wouldn't expect your partners to accept me into the fold without proving my worth."
Steele opened the briefcase for a second time and produced a slightly yellowed piece of paper, embossed in the lower right corner with a raised seal. "A certificate of authenticity," he said, handing the document to Bradford. "You'll see that the detailed description matches the tiara you hold in your hand, and that a world-renowned gemologist, Benjamin Pearson, recently valued the prize at well over one hundred thousand dollars, U.S. I needed a proper appraisal before I could bring the item to the states."
"I see," Sonny replied, running his fingers over the seal. "This should do for now. I'll simply need your signature on this prospectus." Bradford placed a thick stack of documents on the table and offered Steele a fountain pen. "We call our venture the Monte Carlo partnership. Of course, we can make no warranty of future returns. You must be prepared to lose your entire stake. But you'll see here, on page five, that we have the assurances of some very powerful players."
"You won't mind if I take a few minutes to read this through," Steele replied.
"Take your time. More coffee?"
"Yes, thank you."
As Sonny retreated to the kitchen, Steele got up from the table and made a show of walking around the patio, waving the prospectus in the direction of the neighboring house.
"Go!" Agent LaBue directed.
Laura slipped through the hedge and onto the Bradford property. Circling the swimming pool, she wound her way through the landscaped yard and reached the patio just as Sonny returned with fresh coffee.
"Lady Bridgewater," Sonny exclaimed. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Darling," said Steele as Bridgewater. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't darling me, William," Laura said, adopting the role of outraged spouse. "What are you getting yourself into?"
"Nothing, Darling. Nothing at all." Steele waved the prospectus in the air with comic exaggeration and then hid it behind his back.
"Then why did you leave the hotel with my great-grandmother's heirloom tiara!" Laura shouted, moving in close to him.
"A little over the top Laura," Steele said, sotto voice. "Down a notch."
"It's an investment, Darling," he continued, full voice, resuming the charade with his most practiced charm. "Don't you trust me by now? Don't I always look out for our mutual well-being?"
Sonny Bradford stood riveted to his spot, greatly amused by the domestic drama.
"What are you hiding behind your back, William?" Laura continued as the angry victim. With a lunge, she reached behind his back for the prospectus, "Give me that!"
Laura made a great show of flipping through the pages in the prospectus as Steele moved a few steps closer to Bradford.
"Mother!" she bellowed.
Mildred emerged from behind a large magnolia tree and entered the patio.
"Take this paperwork to our lawyer, mother," Laura commanded. "Right away!"
Moving close to Mildred to hand over the records, she asked in low tone, "Is Bradford buying it?" Mildred nodded and took the prospectus, leaving the patio and slipping back through the hedge.
"I'm terribly sorry for this display, Sonny," Steele said, taking another cup of coffee and assuming the role of detached observer of the Lady Bridgewater's theatrics. "You hold on to the tiara for now. I'm certain we can clear this all up in the next few days."
"William," Laura beckoned from the edge of the patio.
"Coming, Darling," Steele answered.
"Well that was certainly invigorating," Steele said in his normal voice, taking Laura's arm as they skirted the edge of the Bradford property and headed towards the street.
"I haven't had that much fun playing the spurned wife since the Marcall case," Laura replied.
"And we seem to have emerged no worse for wear," Steele responded with a small laugh. "How do you suppose we escaped the notice of Sonny's compatriots?"
"Not so fast, Steele," a man called out from the front porch of Bradford's house, pulling back the hammer on a Magnum revolver.
"Laura, look out," Steele called, tackling the man below the knees and sending him flailing off the side of the porch.
Laura grabbed the gun as it hit the ground, training it on the man as Steele scanned the surroundings for other threats. In an instant, Agent LaBue and several of his men moved in from the adjacent property, carrying high powered rifles as they entered the Bradford property to search for other gunmen.
Laura surrendered the revolver to the closest agent. Looking at Steele she said, "Now we need them more than they need us."
Several days later, Remington Steele stood behind his desk on the eleventh floor of the Century Plaza Towers in Los Angeles, removing the contents from a small cardboard box that had arrived in the mail moments earlier.
Laura entered from the adjoining office. "A present?" she asked.
"A Mardi Gras present, from Cindy Bourque," Steele replied. "She was sorry we had to cut our trip short and head back to Los Angeles before the end of the carnival season."
"We only missed the final day," Laura said, approaching the desk as Steele removed several handfuls of colorful plastic beads.
"Apparently, it's the most momentous," Steele said, placing a strand of red beads over Laura's head.
"I find that hard to believe," Laura replied, rummaging through the box. "But it is sweet of her to think of us."
"Catch," Steele called out, tossing a strand of gold beads in the air as Mildred Krebs entered his office from the reception area. Mildred made an awkward grab for the trinket while balancing a folder in her left hand.
"Thanks, Mildred," Laura said, accepting the folder.
"More beads, Mildred?" Steele asked.
"I think I've lost the carnival spirit, boss," Mildred replied, heading back to her desk. "Maybe next year." Mildred closed the door behind her.
"What's that?" Steele asked, gesturing to the folder.
"A final report on the case," Laura said, joining him behind the desk. "A federal grand jury returned a quick indictment of multiple counts of racketeering for a ring of New Orleans mobsters."
"And Sonny Bradford?"
"Cooperating with the authorities to explain the whole scheme. It seems the Monte Carlo partnership was a group of wealthy investors, organized crime figures and state officials conspiring to bring casino gambling to New Orleans. The 'investments' were intended to grease the wheels of the state lawmaking process."
"Bribes," Steele said.
"Martin and Leslie were heroes. They exposed the whole rotten enterprise."
"I imagine the FBI will provide Sonny Bradford with a brand new identity in exchange for his troubles," Steele said.
"I suspect so," Laura replied.
Steele reached the bottom of the box Mardi Gras trinkets and removed two sequined masks, one black, one white. He handed them to Laura with a smile.
"And you, Mr. Steele," Laura said, running a hand over his tie. "Are you crestfallen to bid adieu to William Frawley, the 18th Duke of Bridgewater? He never did get to be king."
Steele wrapped his arms around Laura and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. "The Duke's opted for a quieter life now. With the carnival intrigue behind him, he's got more time to concentrate on the things that are truly important."
"And what would that be?" Laura asked, placing her hands around the back of his neck and drawing him close for soft kiss.
"That's easy," Steele said, returning the kiss and breaking into a mischievous smile. "The Duke needs a new helicopter for his private island."
END ACT FOUR