The junkie shifted from foot to foot. He sniffed, swiped a grubby finger under his nose, and hitched his loose jeans to a more secure position on his thin hipbones. Eyes in constant motion, he glanced to the mouth of the alley where foot traffic passed by, reassuring himself that none of it was the law. Returning his nervous gaze up the shadowed passageway, he searched out the back door of the Thai restaurant, on the alert for any employee stepping out to have a smoke. He noticed, without actually registering, the dog that nosed through the spilled refuse next to the dumpster; then he felt his attention once again compulsively drawn back to his supplier's hands. Shuffling impatiently, he stared with ill-concealed hunger at the little plasticized bag of white powder and licked his lips.
The dealer noticed and gave him a smile of cool contempt. “A little anxious, big guy?”
The junkie ignored the jibe. It was his first contact with this particular supplier, but already he'd recognized that this was a vendor unlike any he'd ever dealt with before.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, this was also one of the ones who got their jollies out of making customers sweat. Disparaging eyes observed his every move and registered his physical distress, which took the form of trembling hands and facial tics; scornful lips curled slightly in derision. Narrow fingers first extended the bag of heroin to him and then twitched it out of his reach milliseconds before he could grasp it. “This what you want?” the voice taunted. “How bad ya want it, I wonder? Bad enough to bark like a dog?”
the junkie thought when the supplier finally tired of tormenting him and got down to business. But he didn't say anything.
He didn't dare. If the transaction was cut short before the scag was his, he was gonna die, pure and simple.
As it was, he was drenched in sweat and shaking badly by the time he got back to the room where he flopped nights. Collapsing on the thin, bare mattress that had been thrown without benefit of frame or box spring directly onto the floor, he fumbled for his cardboard cigar box. Out of it he pulled a used hypodermic, a small bent and blackened spoon, and a cheap disposable lighter. Working as slowly and carefully as his shaking hands would allow, he tapped the heroin out of the bag and into the spoon and heated it over the butane flame. Within moments, he was drawing the liquid up into the syringe. Picking up a length of surgical tubing, he tied it off just above his elbow.
However, no matter how hard he pumped his fist or slapped at the inner bend of his elbow, he couldn't raise a vein. Finally, with an impotent curse, he removed the tourniquet and toed off his right shoe. Yanking off his sock, he pulled the tubing tight around his ankle, tied it off, and inserted the hypodermic needle into the one good vein he found on his foot. He depressed the plunger.
A rush of heat suffused his veins and he smiled euphorically. It lasted perhaps twenty seconds. Then like a flash of summer lightning, a brilliant white light seemed to expand in his brain and he closed his eyes, slumping sideways.
He was dead before his head touched the floor.
The huge bus had already rumbled to life outside the hotel by the time Sasha Miller finished turning in her room key at the desk. She paused to pour herself a cup of coffee at the courtesy table and then, juggling it along with her purse, train case, and overnighter, went outside.
The baggage compartment gaped open, a black hole just below the silver logo,
JOLLIES ON ICE,
lettered in cursive on the side of the midnight-blue bus. Sasha set her overnighter down next to the driver. “Good morning, Jack.” Sipping her coffee, she watched him over the rim of the cardboard cup as he stowed and arranged luggage.
“Mornin', Sasha.” He looked up with a smile, but a small frown tugged his brows together as he ran a familiar eye over her baggage. “Where's your skate case?”
“It's okay, Jack,” she assured him. “After last night's show, I simply didn't feel like lugging it up to my room, knowing I'd only have to turn around and lug it back down again this morning. So, believe it or not, I actually left the darn thing in the compartment here.” She thumped the side of the bus and shrugged, giving the driver a self-deprecatory smile. “I know, I know, not exactly my standard operating procedure.”
“Well, variety is the spice of life they say.”
Sasha laughed. “You'd probably know a lot more about that than I would, Jack. Heard tell you had yourself a pretty hot date last night.”
He shook his head. “Good God,” he commented mildly. “Not much passes by unnoticed in this group, does it?”
“Not much,” she agreed. “And you know as well as I do that nothin' passes by unremarked. Follies is a lot like life in a small town that way.” Only a hell of a lot more tolerant then the one where she'd grown up. She and Lon . . .
She purposely shrugged that thought aside. She didn't want to think about Kells Crossing or Lonnie today. The sky was blue, the air was clean; why dwell on matters that would only make her downhearted? “So, tell me,” she demanded instead, “was it a fun date? Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah, it was all right,” he retorted. “She was a real nice woman.”
“Nice? Oh, Jack, my condolences. I'm real sorry to hear that.”
“Get outta here, Miller.” He took a mock swipe at her and obviously had to bite back a smile when she grinned at him with cocky delight as she hopped nimbly out of reach. “Damn fresh kids these days,” he grumbled. “Got no respect.”
“Hey, maybe you'll get luckier one of these days,” she called to him as she boarded the bus.
Sasha exchanged greetings with other performers as she made her way down the narrow aisle; she bandied insults with the wardrobe woman and a couple of her favorite techies, who as usual were congregated in the back of the bus. But she joined none of them. Instead she took a seat by herself in the middle.
Connie would undoubtedly make her usual last-second appearance and she'd expect Sasha, as always, to have saved her a place. Sitting down next to the window, she stowed her purse under the seat, set the train case in the seat next to hers, and, opening it, began to apply makeup with a light hand.
She was cleansing her fingers with a premoistened baby wipe several minutes later when the bus door closed with a pneumatic whoosh. Head snapping up in alarm, she turned automatically to look toward the hotel entrance. Even as she watched, the portal was flung open and Connie Nakamura came flying through, bags banging awkwardly against her legs. The door of the bus wheezed open again when she reached the curb.
“I've got a schedule to keep, Nakamura,” Jack informed the petite Japanese woman. “I'm not reopening the baggage compartment.”
She climbed breathlessly aboard. “Wouldn't dream of asking, Jack.”
With a disgruntled expression, he closed the door behind her and put the bus in gear, pulling out of the valet drive before she reached her seat. Staggering slightly with the movement, Connie regained her balance and continued down the aisle. She stowed the largest of her bags in the overhead compartment and then grinned down at Sasha.
“That was the closest call yet,” Sasha commented, picking her train case off Connie's seat and setting it on the floor. “One of these days Jack's going to leave you behind.”
“Nah,” her friend disagreed. “Never happen. Then he wouldn't have anyone to play the game with, and where's the challenge in that?” A corner of her mouth quirked up sardonically. “Man, can't you just picture it: everyone on time and ready to go, day after day? Jack'd be bored silly in a week. I keep him young. Well, me and the occasional widow he takes out to dinner.” Connie sat herself down, drew her right heel up on the seat, and finished tying the shoelace she hadn't had time to tie earlier. Turning her head she asked, “So where the hell did you disappear to yesterday afternoon?”
Sasha thought fast. “I, um, went out to the arena.”
Connie gave her a doubtful look. “Yeah, right,” she said skeptically. Then looking her straight in the eye she added softly, “I was out there, Saush, looking for you.”
Tension stiffened Sasha's neck. “Were you? What time?”
“Well, there you go. I finished checking out the ice about three-forty-five. We probably passed each other in transit.”
Connie regarded her friend closely. “I don't know what the hell's going on in your life right now,” she said quietly. “But I sure wish you could trust me enough to share it with me.”
Sasha wished the same thing even as she was making conciliatory noises and changing the subject. More than anything else in the world she wished she could do that, for it would be wonderful to unload her burden onto someone else's shoulders.
But, oh, God, I can't,
she acknowledged to herself.
I love Connie, and I do trust her But she didn't grow up the way Lon and I did so she couldn't possibly understand.
And she would never, not in a million years, ever approve,
Sasha tacked on in silent admission.
That's a fact.
Lon Morrison lay on his bunk trying to tune out sounds that were prevalent day and night in the confined area that defined his cell block. He daydreamed of skating. It was a surefire way to pass time, one he'd utilized almost daily for the several years he'd been incarcerated.
He thought of soaring across the ice with Sasha, of the lifts and the jumps. They'd always had a near telepathy when it came to skating together, it was an inexplicable phenomenon that contributed to making them the hottest up-and-comers the figure skating pairs circuit had seen in years. That, and the consistent use of sex and rock and roll in a world that, at the time, had still been chastely waltzing across the ice two-by-two to the well-mannered strains of Strauss.
They'd had one foot on the fast track, he and Saush, but then he'd gone and screwed it up royally. He'd been hungry after a lifetime of living on the wrong side of the tracks. He'd wanted more; he'd wanted it now; and for his trouble what he'd gotten in the end was . . . nothing. No money, no fame . . . just jail time. Not exactly the way he'd planned it.
Sasha had gone on to skate on the ladies' singles circuit. She hadn't exactly had a lot of optionsâthe scandal of his arrest had rocked the ice-skating world and for a while she'd been tarred with the same brush of his reputation. It had made her a less than ideal candidate for prospective new partners. If she wanted to remain a skater, she had to go back to skating the way they all started out . . . solo.
But, hell, when it came down to it she'd done all right for herself; he hadn't destroyed her career along with his own. She'd made it to the Olympics, for Christ's sake, where she'd won the silver.
To hear her tell it, though, aside from the day when they'd indicted him, you'd think it was the most tragic time of her life. And granted, to miss out on Olympic Gold by two lousy tenths of a point was a bummer. But look at the job offers that had come her way since the Olympics. Nobody gave a rat's ass that she hadn't brought home the gold. She'd had more offers than she'd known what to do with and for an Olympic contender, professional skating really paid.
It was sure as hell a long ways from Kells Crossing.
Saush sent him
magazine so he could keep up with the industry news. There'd been a lot of changes in skating since he'd been away from it. Jesus, some Canadian guy was doing a quadruple toe loop. A
How he kept from breaking his frigging ankle on the landing was beyond Lon, but talk about an opportunity to haul in the big bucks. That achievement alone had garnered the guy a shot at the really big hittersâthe power endorsements.
Well, big stinkin' deal. Lon wasn't bustin' his chops with envy. He was due to be released soon; then he, too, was climbing on the gravy train. It was all out there, just waiting for him.
All he needed was a little inside help. And for that he had Sasha.
Weary beyond belief, Mick Vinicor looked at the activity going on all around him. And felt ambivalent as hell. The good news was, it had been a successful knock-off. This raid, the tail end of which was currently being cleaned up, was the payoff for several weeks of deep cover and it was a beaut, resulting in the arrests of several high-ranking suppliers and dealers and one top drug czar.
The bad news was, he was surrounded by suits. And like most field agents, he despised suits.
He couldn't sit around on his butt and sulk about it forever, however, while other people did his work for him. Mick shot the cuffs of his silk shirt, dusted imaginary lint from the two-thousand-dollar jacket he wore, consulted his outrageously pricy Rolex, and climbed to his feet.
He was immediately shoved back onto the couch cushions and not with a gentle hand, either. “Stay put, asshole,” the suit growled down at him. “I'll tell you when it's time to move.”
The lines between the good guys and the bad guys had been growing increasingly blurred in Mick's mind lately and he didn't stop to think; he simply reacted. Before the suit knew what had hit him, the man he'd obviously taken for one of the big-money drug dealers was on his feet again. The agent's head was hauled back in a rough fist and he felt the cool press of blued steel against the carotid artery beneath his jaw. The pistol's barrel constricted his breathing as he involuntarily swallowed.
Asshole to you, cocksucker,” Mick informed him, dangling his DEA shield in front of the bureaucrat's eyes. He turned him loose. “Jesus,” he complained to the field agent over in the corner, who was trying his damnedest to restrain a smile, “where do they
these guys, anyway, Epcot Center?” Small wonder the field men joked the agency's initials stood for “Don't Expect Anything.”
He heard about his actions when he came into headquarters the next morning, of course. Now there was a big surprise.
“You don't pull your gun on a fellow agent,” ranted the head suit at the conclusion of his tirade, pacing back and forth in front of Special Agent Vinicor, who leaned his jean-clad hip against a battered wooden desk and, with arms crossed over his sweatshirt-covered chest, watched his superior add some additional wear and tear to the already played-out carpet.
Mick had been following the diatribe with a certain amount of cynical amusement, but that particular emotion disappeared quickly when he heard the phrase that triggered his own temper. “Fellow agent?” he snarled, pushing himself upright. “No pencil-pushing bureaucrat is my
fellow ag . . .”
He ground to a halt, forcing down the rest of the condemnation like a bitter tonic. It left an acrid taste that was hard to swallow, but he wasn't entirely suicidal when it came to his career. A harangue against pencil-pushing suits to McMahon, who was the biggest pencil pusher of them all, probably wasn't the wisest course of action he could take.
Swallowing his pride with great difficulty, he mumbled, “My apologies.” God, that hurt. But he had no desire to end up humping a desk in Waaskooskie Peoria. He gave it a little more thought and then limped out a grudgingly tacked-on, “Sir.”