Friday, May 27, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 8


Chapter Eight

Kerry gazed up at the granite face of the young Wyoming state policeman. Despite his business-like expression, he looked like he was about seventeen and should be dancing in a nightclub rather than patrolling the interstate in the middle of the night.
A gust of Arctic air blasted into the Jeep, and she shivered. “Cold night, huh?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma'am. Driver's license, please.”
“Oh, I'm sorry. I should've had it out already.” Kerry dug into her purse for her wallet. “Was I speeding? I was just driving along, singing with the stereo, and I totally didn’t realize it if I was.”
“Eighty-five in a seventy-five mile zone,” he said, then cocked his head toward her. “Is that Incubus?”
She looked up and smiled. “Yeah! Aren't they great? This is their new CD, and it’s great, but my favorite song is still 'Drive’ from the ‘Make Yourself’ CD.” The track that had been playing, “Warning,” ended, and she used the break to her advantage. “Whatever tomorrow brings…,” she sang out, loud and deliberately off-key. Beside her, Mikhail made a sound that sounded like a cross between a snort and a cough before it became a snore. Ignoring him, she sang a few more bars of the song.
The cop grinned, looking even younger than he had before. “Yeah, they rock!”
Kerry smiled, suddenly feeling very good about the situation. They were home free as long as she could keep this cutie's mind on rock music. “Have you heard this CD yet?”
He shook his head. “Nah. But I have ‘Fungus Amongus.’ It totally rocks!”
Dear God! Didn't the poor boy know any other verbs? She’d pulled out her driver's license, ready to hand it over. “Oh, that one is good! But wait'll you hear this one. It’s smokin’!”
Still grinning, the cop glanced at her license. “From California, huh?”
“Uh huh.” She smiled brightly.
The patrolman glanced over at Mikhail who had his eyes closed, his mouth open in feigned sleep. “That your husband?”
“No!” Kerry said quickly. “I mean…yeah…” The cop was looking at her suspiciously. “Well, not my husband. My…you know…boyfriend.” His expression didn’t change, and Kerry lowered her voice, casting a furtive glance at Mikhail. “I’m working on the marriage thing.” Then she summoned her sweetest smile. “Can’t you give me a break, officer? I promise I’ll keep my speed down.” She didn’t actually bat her eyelashes at him, but gave him the most earnest look she could come up with. “Please?”
He stared at her a few seconds then gave a grudging nod. “Okay, I’ll let you off with a warning this time, but you might want to wake up your boyfriend and let him take over for a while. And by the way, you might think about setting your cruise control.” He began to scribble on his pad. “So, where you headed? Back to California?”
“Uh huh.” The wind moaned, and other frigid blast of snow-laden air hit her in the face. She pretended not to notice, that the cop was so interesting even bone-clenching cold couldn’t stop her from flirting. Her smile widened. “We just came from the Olympics.”
Damn, she thought. That wasn’t the brightest thing to say!
The cop frowned. “Then why are you in Wyoming? That’s an odd way of heading to California from Utah.”
Kerry felt her cheeks warm. Damn! She could practically feel the tension in Mikhail a few inches away. “Oh, we’re heading to Denver to meet his parents before we go back to California. That’s what I meant when I said I was working on marriage.”
Apparently satisfied with her answer, the young cop tore off the slip of yellow paper and handed it to her. “I just don’t get the Winter Olympics thing,” he said. “Now, the summer Olympics are cool. That’s where the real athletes are. Not those so-called winter sports. Like ice skating. What’s the sport in that? Nothing but a bunch of pretty girls in short skirts and guys in leotards prancing around the ice.”
Kerry somehow managed to keep a smile on her face, but she was pretty sure her eyes were shooting daggers. “Oh, yeah?”
He winked at her. “Yeah. You know why the male figure skaters are so light on their feet, don’t you?”
“No, why?” Kerry said, knowing what was coming.
“Because they're all fairies,” he said, and then guffawed.
Next to her, Kerry sensed the steam coming from Mikhail. They had to get out of here before he exploded. “Cute,” she said through clenched teeth. They were starting to chatter from the cold. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up! You're a cute little bigot, but I'm freezing.
Still laughing at his crude joke, the cop handed back her license. “Here you go, Ma’am. Remember what I said. Watch your speed. Those Colorado troopers won’t be so forgiving.”
“You got it,” she said brightly. “Thank you, officer.”
She pressed a button and her window slid up. She started the engine, and the Jeep lurched forward. Kerry accelerated and merged onto the interstate. She glanced in her rearview mirror as the police car disappeared behind them. “Okay, Mikhail. You can wake up now.”
Mikhail lifted his head and ran his fingers through his flaxen hair, rumpling it.
Kerry's heart dipped. Oh, God, he was so fine! How was she going to get through the next few days with him without throwing herself at him like a sex-starved nymphomaniac? It had been four years since she'd had an orgasm that wasn't self-initiated. Stop it! She frowned. Think of something un-sexy. Think of…brussel sprouts.
“Did you hear what that American son-of- bitch said?” Mikhail said, eyes sparking blue fire. “He called me a fairy! I would like to show him what a six and a half stone ‘fairy’ looks like.”
Kerry gave him an amused look. “Remind me not to ever make you mad.”
He raked a hand through his hair again and peered at her, the outraged look disappearing from his face. “You are quite smooth operator, Kerry Niles. Cool as cucumber, yes?”
Okay, think of cucumbers. Her cheeks grew heated. No, not cucumbers, bananas, squash or any other phallic-shaped fruits or vegetables.
“Where did you pick up that Americanism?” she asked.
He shrugged, looking out the front window. “I like American TV.”
“Ah, so that explains it,” she laughed.
He nodded, staring at the road. “Yes, you are cool as cucumber. But one thing, Kerry…”
His amused eyes met hers. “Your singing…it sucks.”
Kerry's mouth dropped open. He watched her, suppressed laughter in his eyes as he gauged her reaction. She burst out laughing, and he grinned and joined her.
“You are good sport, Kerry Niles. I like you.”
Kerry smiled at him, even as her heart began to race. “You know what? I like you, too, Mikhail Kozlof. But I guess that's rather obvious, isn't it? A guy who talks me into dropping my entire life to help him defect…well, I guess he's got some major charisma going for him. Either that, or I need to have my head examined.” She thought about that a moment, then added, “But let's not go there.”
* * * * *
On the CD player, Stevie Nicks was singing about trouble in Shangri-La, and Kerry was happily accompanying her. It didn't bother her that Mikhail thought her singing sucked. She knew he was just kidding. After all, she knew she had a great voice. Hell, if she hadn't concentrated on a skating career for the last fourteen years, she could've given Stevie a run for her money. In fact, Stevie should be counting her lucky stars.
“’I hear there’s trouble in Shangri-La…’” she bellowed the chorus, ignoring Mikhail's stare.
“Uh…Kerry,” he cut in at the first break. “Have you, by chance, noticed it is snowing?”
Kerry glanced at the thick clumps of snow hitting the windshield. “Um…yeah. Since before we stopped at that gas station. What's your point?”
He looked at the speedometer. “And yet, you drive seventy kilometer per hour. Even though you cannot see very far in distance.”
Kerry's lips quirked. “It's miles per hour here, not kilometers. And what are you, anyway? A backseat driver?”
He looked confused. “Back seat? I am not in back seat. I do not understand.”
Kerry looked back at the road. “What I mean is…are you driving or am I?”
He had the grace to look embarrassed. “I am sorry. I did not mean to insult you. But when snow comes in Russia…and snow comes often there…I have found that decreasing speed is…what is word…prudent?”
Kerry shrugged and nodded. “Works for me.”
“Prudent thing to do.”
“Well, Mikhail, in ordinary circumstances I would agree with you. However, this particular snow isn't sticking to the pavement; therefore, there's no need to slow down. And like I said earlier, I like to keep up with the flow of traffic.”
Mikhail looked at the empty road. “Is no traffic. And you almost got ticket.”
“Almost is the key word.” She shot him an amused look. “Is my driving scaring you, Mikhail?”
He folded his arms across his chest in denial and stared straight ahead. “I am not scared.”
“Really? Come on, Mikhail. You can be honest with me. Do you think in addition to my singing, that my driving sucks, too?”
“I did not say that,” he huffed. “I think simply you drive very fast.”
“Yes, I do,” she agreed. “And I'll have you know I've never been in an accident.” She shrugged. “Just a few speeding tickets is all.”
He gave her a look of mock astonishment. “No shit?”
She burst out laughing. His oh, so American terminology cloaked in a Russian accent struck her funny bone. “Just a few tickets. Hey!” Still grinning, she peered at the clock. “It's almost five. Be light soon. You hungry?”
“Famished. I was too…what is word? Too much nerves…to eat before we left.” In fact, he hadn't been able to get more than a bite down at the sumptuous dinner hosted by Sergey Fadeyuska.
“Nervous,” Kerry said. “Yeah, I was, too. Want to stop and get something to eat? That sign we just passed said there's a diner up ahead.”
Mikhail's eyes lit up. “Diner! I know diners from American films. Yes, let us stop.”
Kerry pursed her lips as a thought occurred to her. “You know what, though? Maybe you'd better let me order. Your Russian accent is a dead giveaway, and just in case your evil friends come after you, we might as well not advertise you were here, you know?”
He nodded. “Good thinking. I will be silent. But I want American cheeseburger and French fries.”
Kerry gaped at him. “But it's breakfast. I don't know if they will…”
His jaw tightened. He folded his arms across his chest and gazed out at the snow pelting against the windshield. “American cheeseburger and French fries,” he said emphatically.
Kerry sighed. “Okay. I'll see what I can do.” She looked back at the road and rolled her eyes. High maintenance, she thought. The good-looking ones always were.
* * * * *
The diner, a throwback to the Fifties, appeared to be a renovated railroad car, barely wide enough for a counter and a row of booths lining the front windows. In all other ways, it was a typical roadside truck stop filled with hungry truck drivers and brisk waitresses with frizzy blond hair and slashes of red lipstick who called everyone “hon.” The mouth-watering aroma of sizzling bacon hung in the air as a grizzled woman who looked like she'd seen too many early mornings led Kerry and Mikhail to one of the red vinyl booths. On the PA system, Clint Black sang about a gambling venture gone bad.
Kerry waited until the hostess moved away then looked across the Formica table at Mikhail. “If it's Americana you want, Mikhail, you got it here.” She grinned. “I feel like we just stepped onto a 1950's movie set.”
He glanced around, eyes dancing. Like a schoolboy on his first field trip to a chocolate factory. A shiver of pleasure ran through her. She was so glad she'd decided to do this, she realized. It was an adventure, and she had three, maybe four days (if she stretched it out) to enjoy Mikhail's company before turning him over to Roger once they reached Occoquan.
A plump blond waitress with dark roots and a name tag that read 'Sue' poured coffee into their cups, her eyes, alight with curiosity, fixed upon Mikhail. He caught her stare and looked up to smile uncertainly at her. She batted her false eyelashes and gave him what Kerry thought sure she intended to be a coquettish smile. Too bad it was ruined by a missing cusped.
“Hi, there, hon,” she said in a thick Colorado drawl. “What can I getcha?”
Mikhail opened his mouth to speak, but then apparently remembered he was supposed to stay quiet. He peered at Kerry. The waitress kept her weary blue eyes on Mikhail.
Hello? Am I invisible? Kerry wanted to ask. She cleared her throat and waited. Finally, the waitress looked at her just as Martina McBride began belting out “Independence Day” on the PA.
Kerry gave her a sweet smile. “My friend has lost his voice. Um…would it be possible for him to get a hamburger and French fries?”
With a bat of her eyelashes and another syrupy smile at Mikhail, Sue the Waitress drawled, “No problem at all, darlin. Anything you want, Big Sue'll getcha.” With a flirtatious wink, she turned to leave.
“Uh…Big Sue?” Kerry called out. The waitress turned and looked at her, apparently startled that she was still sitting there. Kerry pasted on a smile. “I'd like French toast and bacon. Cooked crisp, please. Thank you.”
Sue nodded, scribbled something on her pad and waddled off. Kerry shook her head and looked back at Mikhail who was watching her with an amused grin.
“I'm not sure I'm going to like hanging out with you,” she said. “I have a feeling I'd better get used to being the Invisible Woman.” She glanced around the crowded diner. “Would you look at this? Everyone is staring at you. That's not exactly what we need.” Her eyes flicked over him, and she shook her head. “You know what it is? You're dressed like a European. That black sweater and tweedy coat. You stand out like a sore thumb.”
Mikhail's brow wrinkled. “Sore thumb? How does one get sore thumb?”
Kerry grinned, stirring cream into her coffee. “Never mind. You know what we need to do before we get a room for the day? Or maybe later, after we get a few hours sleep.”
Kerry took a sip of her hot fragrant coffee and smiled. Mmmm…wonderful. Then she met Mikhail's questioning gaze. “We seriously need to go shopping.”
* * * * *
Elena glanced at her wristwatch, a frown marring her lovely face. “It's almost four-thirty. Why haven't we heard from Mikhail?”
Sean sat at the desk in the living room of their suite, his fingers tapping a dance on the polished cherry wood. He'd been watching Elena pace up and down the room for the past half-hour. She was dressed in her warm-up clothes―red nylons pants and its matching zip-up jacket. Her skating costume for the evening's free dance competition was encased in plastic and draped across the back of a wingback chair. The bag containing her skates rested at the foot of the chair, ready to go. But with each passing minute, Elena was growing more anxious because no one had heard from Mikhail, and the car that was to take them to the arena was due to leave in fifteen minutes.
She whirled around, blue eyes frantic. “I'm going to try his room again. He must be there by now.”
Sean grabbed the phone before she could. “I'll try.” He dialed the hotel operator and gave her Mikhail's room number. The phone was picked up on the first ring, and Sean heard Fagan's voice. He kept his face blank, his eyes on Elena who was watching him with a hopeful expression.
“Boss, is that you?” Fagan inquired.
“Still no answer,” Sean said to Elena.
“No luck, Boss,” Fagan said. “Kozlof still hasn't shown up. What should I do?”
Sean kept his eyes on Elena. “I'll go down to the front desk and have them unlock his door. I hate to say this, love, but perhaps he's still sleeping off a hangover.” He placed the phone in its cradle and stood.
Elena's brows lowered in fury. Her hands tightened into fists. “I'll kill him if that's true.” She whirled away and began to stomp around the room. “How could he do this to me? He knew better than to get drunk last night.”
“Everyone was drunk last night, Elena. Don't think I didn't hear about the two drinks you had. Despite doctor's orders.” Sean hadn't been invited to the dinner party, but he'd spent the evening close by in the hotel bar.
Elena's face whitened. “Who told you that? Who is spying for you, Sean O'Malley? I won't have it, you hear me? I'm not your possession, and I won't have you running my life!”
“Things have a way of getting back to me, love. I am paid to watch over you, you know. And I've made it my business to make sure everyone knows you shouldn't be drinking.”
“Well, screw you!” Elena snarled. “I won't be treated like a child!”
Sean stared at her stonily. “If you persist in acting like a child, you'll be treated like one. Excuse me.” He opened the door of the suite and stepped out into the richly carpeted corridor.
As the elevator ascended to the eighth floor, he gazed thoughtfully at the numbers flashing on the panel above the doors. Where the fuck was Kozlof? Could Fagan possibly be right? Had some unfortunate accident happened to him after he'd left the hotel last night? For a moment, his mind entertained the image of Kozlof’s robbed and bloodied body floating facedown in the Green River. But somehow, that just seemed too good to be true. Life never worked out like that. There was always some pissing complication that you were never quite prepared for.
He stopped in front of Room 818, glanced up and down the empty hall, and then tapped. The door opened immediately, and Fagan's rabbit-like face peered out at him. With a brusque nod, Sean slipped into the room and closed the door behind him.
“Still no word from him?” he asked, knowing as he spoke what a preposterous question it was.
“Not a flippin' peep.” Fagan rubbed his eyes wearily. “And I've just about had it, Boss. Can't keep me bleedin' eyes open.”
Sean ignored his whining, his eyes sweeping the immaculate room. “Christ! Where the hell is he?”
The king-sized bed was neatly made, the dresser spotless, the ice bucket and glasses untouched. “Has the maid been in today?”
Fagan slumped into a chair by the window, rubbing his forehead. “She stopped by this morning, and I told her to go away. I thought about putting the 'do not disturb' sign out, but figured Kozlof might think it a wee bit odd if he came back and saw it.”
Sean shook his head in amazement. “You figured that out all by yourself, genius?” He strode over to the bathroom and peered in. The counter was clean except for the complimentary shampoos, lotions and soaps displayed in a small wicker basket. Odd. No personal toiletries anywhere. No shaving stuff, no deodorant, not so much as a toothbrush in sight.
His stomach started to churn. This hotel room had been Kozlof's home for the past three weeks, and would be so for another two. Where were all his personal items?
Sean whirled around and strode back into the bedroom suite, his jaw set. Fagan was still sitting as he was before, his hand cradling his forehead, eyes drooped in exhaustion. Sean flung open the closet door, his gaze raking the contents.
Kozlof's skating costumes hung on the rack, covered in plastic. A couple of canvas bags, presumably containing his skates, were on the floor next to a pair of Reebok sneakers and some dress loafers. There were also a couple of pairs of dress slacks and shirts hanging next to the costumes.
“Fuck,” Sean muttered.
He moved to the dresser, aware that Fagan had looked up at his profanity, and was now watching him with a mild curiosity. Sean flung open the drawers and saw…nothing. No underwear, no sweaters…nothing but a Bible and a Yellow Pages phone book.
His teeth clenched. “Son of a fucking bitch!” He whipped around, skewering a suddenly white-faced Fagan with his gaze. “You…goddamned…moron! Didn't it occur to you to check the closets and bathrooms to see if his things were still here? The fucker is gone!”
Fagan seemed to shrink in his chair. “Well, how was I supposed to know that, Boss?” he whined. “I did what you told me! What…what…more could I do?”
“Shut the fuck up!” Sean snarled. “And just get out of here. If I have to look at your ugly mug another second, I swear to God above, I'm going to rip it off and stuff it up your knucklehead ass.”
Fagan scrambled up from the chair and made a beeline for the door, still mumbling apologies. After it slammed behind him, Sean took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.
What was done was done. He didn't know what the hell Kozlof was up to, but he had a very bad feeling he wasn't going to like it. For the first time, he seriously considered the possibility that Kozlof knew something about TNG, and the dirty little secret of Kalevalo. If so, what did he intend to do with the information?
Jesus, he should've followed his instincts and had the man killed before they'd ever left Russia. But no, he'd allowed Elena, and her fanatic desire for a gold medal to influence him. He wouldn't make that mistake again. Once he found Mikhail Kozlof, he was as good as dead.
Sean moved back to the closet, his gaze sweeping the interior again to see if there was something he'd missed. He slipped his hands inside the pockets of the two pairs of slacks and found nothing. He squatted in front of the shoes, picked them up and glanced under them. Just as he was about to get up, he saw it. A small rectangular card on the carpet at the back of the closet. He picked it up and turned it over. A name and phone number was printed on it. His heart thumped as he recognized the Tallinn exchange. The name was one he wasn't familiar with. Vassily Immaakin, Solicitor. Why, he wondered, would Mikhail Kozlof, whose life was pretty much run by the skating federation, have need of an attorney in Tallinn?
He stood and tucked the card into the pocket of his slacks. Well, that was something he'd just have to find out. And he knew someone in Tallinn, a very dedicated individual with a talent for collecting all kinds of information, who would be happy to help him out for the right amount.
With a grim smile, Sean went to the desk, picked up the phone and dialed the international operator. “I want to make a call to Tallinn, Estonia, please. Thank you. I'll wait.”


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