Dolly and the Starry Bird-Dorothy Dunnett-Johnson Johnson 05

BOOK: Dolly and the Starry Bird-Dorothy Dunnett-Johnson Johnson 05
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Dolly and the Starry Bird
US Title: Murder in Focus
reissue UK title: Roman Nights
Dorothy Dunnett
originally published under author’s maiden name:
Dorothy Halliday
Johnson Johnson 05

A 3S digital back-up edition 1.0
click for scan notes and proofing history

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“I’m a girl who doesn’t shock easily.

“Or so I thought until I first met Johnson Johnson, which was outside the Rome zoo in November.

“He was there because he was waiting for me, although I didn’t know it. I was there because I had a day’s leave from the Frazer Observatory. If I’d stayed on leave, none of it might have happened.”

Ruth Russell’s collision with Johnson occurs when she and Charles Digham are pursuing the man who stole Charles’s camera. The chase ends close to the vulture habitat with a loud explosion of freakish origin, a very dead thief, and their flight straight into Johnson’s knitted wool jersey.

From the moment of that meeting Johnson assumes control of the investigation into the curious goings-on at the observatory. While gently attentive to his Holiness the Pope, whose portrait he has been commissioned to execute, he devotes himself equally cheerfully to unraveling with Ruth the little matter of whose camera the thief was after, what happened to the film, who put the body in the Observatory deepfreeze, and what the plague of colored balloons had to do with the murders.

The search for the answers to these questions takes Ruth from Rome to Naples and, on Johnson’s yacht, the
Dolly
, to Capri, Ischia, and Sicily. The cruise does nothing for her health: she is pursued, assaulted, and involved in a knockdown, drag-out fight with Charles’s ex-fiancée before the final exasperated kidnaping at sea.

For the dénouement she and Johnson are carried back to Rome, where everything started. There, the portrait painter confronts the murderer and provides answers to all the questions in a climax as logical as it is unexpected.

Murder in Focus
is the fourth in Dorothy Dunnett’s series of suspense novels about Johnson Johnson, distinguished portrait painter and member of British Intelligence. It is as exciting and as witty as its predecessors and its snapshot of Rome and the international jet set provides an extra, dizzy dimension.

Like Johnson Johnson, DOROTHY DUNNETT is a successful portrait painter, though she has not yet been asked to paint the Pope. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and their two sons. Her books about Johnson Johnson are
The Photogenic Soprano, Murder
in
the Round, Match for a Murderer
, and
Murder in Focus
.

Books by Dorothy Dunnett

Game of Kings

Queens’ Play

Disorderly Knights

Pawn in Frankincense

Ringed Castle

 

The Photogenic Soprano

Murder in the Round

Match for a Murderer

Murder in Focus

FIRST PRINTING

Copyright © 1973 by Dorothy Dunnett

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

isbn
: 0-395-15594-0

library of congress catalog card number
: 72-9021

printed in the united states of america

Author’s Note

There are no observatories in the world like Maurice Frazer’s, although their functions and routine and equipment have been evolved from books and buildings and articles and information about astronomy drawn from every source I could find.

What I couldn’t find, because I cannot imagine that they exist, are astronomers who behave like the ones in this novel. To all my astronomer friends, who have permitted these preposterous characters, for the moment, to disport themselves in a devoted and scholarly profession, I should like to dedicate this adventure.

Murder in Focus
Chapter 1

I have nothing, even yet, against bifocal glasses. I know some very nice pouffs and a couple of stockbrokers and a man who keeps a horn mustache comb in his jumpsuit. I’m a girl who doesn’t shock easily.

Or so I thought until I first met Johnson Johnson, which was outside the Rome zoo in November.

He was there because he was waiting for me, although I didn’t know it. I was there on a day’s leave from the Frazer Observatory. If I’d stayed on leave, none of it might have happened.

You have heard, of course, of Maurice Frazer, the most famous actor-manager of his day, and also the prettiest. When Maurice retired to Italy and bought a villa in the Tibur Hills with two observatories in the garden, his chums put it down to senility.

An error. Having chosen, so to speak, his new theater, Maurice proceeded both to act and to manage it. The large observatory, which was made of seven kinds of marble and situated above the rose bower by the swimming pool, was cleaned, refitted, and the telescope checked. The smaller observatory, a pillared Folly hung with wisteria, was emptied of its inadequate resources and left, a shrine awaiting its Mufti. Then Maurice wrote straight off to the Zodiac Trust for astronomers.

He got two, and I had to be one of them. I acquired the observatory with the telescope, and shared digs with my running mate, a photographer called James K. Middleton. The Folly went to an American, Innes Wye, for an electronic experiment in which the Trust took a passionate interest.

We had a project as well, Jacko Middleton and I: to photograph a series of stars through a fifty-inch telescope and send the negatives back to the Zodiac. The Zodiac Trust is the Santa Claus of worldwide astronomy. A private foundation richly funded by fish paste, it makes grants to struggling centers. It also processes and disperses information, computerizes statistics, discovers sponsors for expensive projects, and even helps choose the staff to direct them.

I knew the Zodiac people. I trained with some of them. I was an orthodox astronomer for years, until the existence of Charles made it cleverer to move into the more free-wheeling fringes of the profession.

Jacko was a scientific photographer who could take pictures through an astronomical telescope. Charles Digham was a self-employed photographer who could and did take pictures of practically anything, provided it was visibly groovy. Outside that, he pursued a life of simple hedonism, composing and collecting doggerel obituary notices and working hard, he reported, on other guys’ test-beds. Charles and I, in spite of this, had what our friends call a stable relationship. That is, we had lived together for years, and it suited us.

I believe I wondered what my landlady would say when she heard my boy friend was coming to join me in Italy. In the event, I need hardly have worried. She opened another bottle of vino and pushed the spare bed from Jacko’s room back into mine, which fouled up Jacko’s personal relationships but pleased Charles immensely.

That was in October, when Maurice Frazer had had us for three of the four months we’d booked for. By then I knew that whatever Maurice might take exception to, it wasn’t an irregular life style. I was glad. I liked running the Frazer Observatory.

The Frazer was built like a wedding cake, and was referred to as the Dome, because of the cupola over the telescope. The ground floor had a lush rest room, a kitchen, and offices. The middle floor, reached by a white marble staircase, held the darkroom and workshops and storeroom. Between the middle floor and the telescope was a steep spiral staircase in iron.

Every observatory is round and has spiral staircases. That is why astronomers go everywhere in single file with their elbows tucked in, which is quite comfortable, except in bed sometimes.

Jacko and I took turn about with night duty, or sometimes split up the night work between us. Our digs were ten minutes away in Velterra, but you could bunk down in the rest room if you wanted. Singly. In the Dome, science was science.

You could say the same of our U.S. friend in the Folly. Innes Wye, from Wyoming and Wakefield, ran Mouse Hall, the smaller pillared frivolity housing the object we called Innes’s Incubator. No one knew what it was except Innes and the Zodiac Trust. Rumor had it that he was testing a new way of infusing tea by passing an infrared ray through a Chianti bottle, which was a sick joke (Jacko’s) because Innes didn’t drink and we couldn’t. Innes and Jacko didn’t like one another.

Usually I got along with them both, except when Jacko arrived at the Dome as he did this November morning, and strolled straight into the rest room where I was sleeping. I flung an ashtray at him, which made its usual nick in the door as he banged it shut, snickering. He called through it, “Had a thick evening then, angel?”

I’d had a long, boring night as he very well knew, up in the breezy dark of the Dome, with my eye on the telescope cross wires. When I trailed through to the kitchen ten minutes later he had the kettle on and the Instant on the table and was raking among the developing liquid in the fridge for last week’s Supermercato wrapped bacon. Innes, who doesn’t like Italian food, keeps the Dome kitchen stocked up with tinned corn and peanut butter and Sanka and eats there instead of at his digs, which are in a different part of Velterra from Jacko’s and mine.

This is all right, but leads to a certain amount of friction when improvident people like Jacko and Charles and myself become peckish on duty at nighttime, or can’t be bothered going back to our digs for breakfast. Or have two breakfasts, like Jacko. He said, still raking, “Hell of a bright was your beloved, at breakfast. He’s got a new obituary notice for you.”

I said, “I hear Innes coming. What breakfast?”

“My first one,” said Jacko. “This is my second one. I’d have a third one if that American bastard would eat like a Christian. Why let Charles lay you, and not your old physicist buddies?”

“Because he writes good obituary notices,” I said. I was meeting Charles at three on the steps of the Villa Borghese, where he had a photo assignment with four models and half the Italian fashion collection. Jacko was on duty tonight. I poured out the coffees and found the olive oil for Jacko’s bacon, and sat down again with an apple and the
Messaggero
open at all the film advertisements, while Jacko stood with his frying pan over my shoulder reading aloud all the entries on the opposite page under MASSAGES ESTHETICS.

They ranged from
AAAA Very young attractive masseuse, independent house, every afternoon
, to
AAAAAA Ambiente elegants, brave brave manicure
and explain why Rome’s principal newspaper is nicknamed
Il Massaggero
and never gets into the red. We were just working out the price of forty-two capital A’s at L. 210 a word when Innes’s voice said, “That’s my bloody bacon!”

Innes Wye is a very clever man, but he is small, and his voice is rather high, and he is apt to talk about the role of soft galactic x rays in the alignment of dust, for example, in the coffee break. “And I’ll tell you something else!” said Innes to Jacko. “You’ve got your bloody playmates all over my darkroom again!”

He had, too. The developing tanks were all full of busts and bottoms and blowups of Jacko’s latest models. What was more, Jacko knew that Innes would see the pictures and Jacko knew that Innes would be offended, so I said, “Yes, I was going to say to you, Jacko, I want to do my plates before lunch.”

“I’ll get them out,” said Jacko casually. “Bacon, Innes? Shirred Eggs with Thick-Cut Salami and Straw Taters? Old Plantation Blueberry Pancake with Wild Berry Syrup? Spaghetti?”

“Shut up,” I said. I fished in my basket and tossed out yesterday’s shopping: some eggs, a tin of caffe solubile and two gold packets of salami, L. 250. “I don’t see why Innes should feed us. Shove it in the fridge somewhere.”

“He has enough to do, feeding Poppy,” said Jacko. “How’s Poppy, Innes?” And as Innes still stood there, glaring at him, Jacko added in exasperation, “Give us a break, mate. We’re all big, grown-up scientists and we can drink and smoke and go to X films and everything. My God, I wonder you don’t put a G-string on Poppy.”

Poppy (or Poppaea, according to Innes) is a white mouse who lives in Mouse Hall by the Incubator. She is trained and looked after by Innes, who feeds her sunflower seeds and cleans out her cage on a Saturday.

Innes said, “It is nothing to any of us, I imagine, how you spend your spare time. But you have heard Ruth say she wishes to develop her night’s work. I imagine she hardly wishes to do it in the ambience of a low-grade Soho nightclub.” And bending, he brought out two chaste eggs and cracked them.

I finished my coffee and got the hell out of it. I had my log to write up and my lists to tick off and my plates to develop, once I had stacked Jacko’s porn where it would attract less attention. I had time to be pleased that Jacko was on duty that night. Two more weeks and we should all have left Italy and scattered for Christmas. Winter skies are no good for photography and electric storms interfere with the power lines, so that I was reduced sometimes already to opening the cupola of the Dome with my muscles, not to mention manhandling the whole bloody weight of the 50-Inch. When Charles dropped in, he was able to help me.

We shared my digs, as I have said, because I was tied to Velterra. The rest of the time he spent in Rome, in a rather lush flat with a bar fitted into a sedan chair. I shall never, I suppose, get to the end of all Charles’s friends but I knew Sassy Packer, the idiot he was sharing it with, and most of the set who wandered in and out half the day and all, but all, of the night. I never did discover whose flat it was in the first place.

We gave a party or two there, but it was easier to live near the observatory. Gradually, Charles’s gear landed up in my wardrobe and he only went to the flat when he was working. Today he was working, and the car had broken down anyway, so I changed, and repainted, and yelled “See you at the party” to Innes, and then caught the Rome train at Parassio. I wonder — I often wonder — if the car hadn’t been out of use, what would have happened.

Rome in November isn’t beloved of tourists. The visitors are mostly businessmen, doing the rounds with their secretaries. The pavement pavilions in the Via Veneto were steamed up with the resident foreign element having a quick hamburger and cappuccino, but your Roman proper had gone off to lunch. I climbed up the street, feeling underprivileged, to the Aurelian Wall at the top, walked through the crumbling arches and over the park to the villa.

The Villa Borghese (17th C, the property of the City of Rome) shuts at two, and the run-out of picture fakers and art students and culture vultures usually starts before that: the attendants want to get at their gnocchi. From the uproar floating down from the vestibule, I gathered that Charles and the four leggy ladies were still doing their stuff around the Titians. The closed-circuit TV in the entrance hall showed six empty rooms and then Charles’s back, very kinky in jodhpurs. He was talking to an Afro-wigged model in a transparent two-piece sexytunica who, I saw to my sorrow, was Diana. I walked forward into the sculpture hall saying “Help for the photographer,” and two men with collars and ties on followed me in without buying a ticket.

Before we got to Room I, one of them drew alongside and opened a smiling conversation. By Room VII he wanted to know where I was going to lunch. Charles was in Room VIII, and when we greeted one another, my opportunists politely retreated. Italian manhood does a lot for one’s ego, especially when confronted with three scowling Art Deco chicks and Diana Minicucci, whose mother was Bernadette Mayflower of Hollywood, and whose father is Prince Minicucci, the industrialist. I stood with Charles’s hand in mine and said, “Hul-
lo
Diana. We’ve seen you already this morning. You’re absolutely all over poor Jacko’s developing tanks.”

She groaned in a desultory way, above almost as many unclothed molecules as had been on view in the darkroom. “He has the
coldest
hands,” she said. “I do blame your telescope. Or is it his circulation?”

“It doesn’t make me cold,” I suggested.

The six pairs of eyelashes considered me. “Ruth sweetie, you haven’t a chilly pore in you. And if you did, dammit, you’ve got your own heating system.” She glared at Charles, who blew a solid raspberry at her. The terrible thing about Di Minicucci is that she is rich and pretty and fearfully likable.

“Wait,” said Charles gravely, “for the seasonal lull. That’s it, girls. I’ll be five minutes, darling.”

This to me. I looked around at the lighting man and the dressers and the hairdressers and the couturiers’ men, and the gaggle of attendants and illegal gaggle of onlookers and finally, at the TV screen out on the landing, which showed two men in collars and ties, standing somewhere surveying a Rubens. “Where for lunch?” I said to Charles hopefully. It was a long, long time since my apple.

Di had pulled off her wig and, bare to the waist, was preparing to let drop the rest of her dress. With a hiss of offended propriety, the group at the door drew closer and then was shepherded reluctantly away. “I thought,” shouted Charles, over a ripple of pink female fleshpots, “of the Rome Zoological Gardens.”

The zoo it was. A sample of Charles being whimsical. A sample too of his childlike conviction that wherever he chooses to take himself, something astounding is bound to turn up.

In this he was perfectly justified.

We said goodbye to everyone and left our gear, all but his house-trained Zeiss Icarex and my basket, with the lighting man and set off to walk through the park, which was leafy and mostly deserted. The sun shone and the wind blew through my hair and Charles’s as he swung along with his hand on my elbow, murmuring confidingly exactly as follows:

BOOK: Dolly and the Starry Bird-Dorothy Dunnett-Johnson Johnson 05
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