Friday, June 24, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 12

Chapter Twelve

Heart pounding a kettledrum beat in his chest, Mikhail raced back to the motel room. Somehow, O'Malley had tracked them down. How? How had he known? And how had his men found them so quickly? No time for that now. They had to get the hell out of here. Thank Christ he'd gone into the office when he did. The alternative made him weak in the knees. They would've been caught like reindeer in the headlights of a snowmobile.
He unlocked the door of the motel room and burst inside. “Kerry! We must go!”
The room was dark in the late afternoon gloom, but in the light of the TV, he saw a blur of movement, followed by what sounded like a whoosh of air and then a strangled squeak of pain, followed by a Russian profanity.
“Mikhail!” Kerry rushed toward him, her face pale-blue in the light of the TV. “We've got to get out of here!”
Mikhail moved across the room and looked down at the groaning man folded into a fetal position. He was clutching at his genitals, his face twisted in agony. A stranger. “No shit. And he is not alone. Get your stuff.”
It took them only a moment to grab everything they could carry, but after Kerry reached the Jeep, she tossed in her suitcase, and whirled around, still clutching her purse. “Wait!”
Already inside the Jeep, Mikhail watched in horror as she ran toward the office. “What are you doing?” he shouted. Had she lost her mind? He opened the door of the Jeep to run after her.
She was standing in front of a black Mercedes, fumbling around in her purse when he reached her side.
“Kerry! We must go!”
Ignoring him, she pulled out a lethal-looking nail file, and squatting by the front left tire, rammed it into the rubber. A soft hissing sound broke the silence. She grinned and hurried back to the left rear tire. Just as she was standing up, the office door opened and a man stepped out.
“Shit!” Mikhail muttered, grabbing her arm. “Come on!”
They ran. Mikhail heard a shout behind him. He risked a look backward as he jumped into the passenger side of the Jeep, and saw the man's feet slip on the ice. Kerry scrambled into the truck and inserted the key into the ignition.
“Fuck!” the man shouted, as he tried to stand, and fell again.
Kerry turned the key, but the engine only grumbled, refusing to turn over. “Damn,” she muttered as the engine protested. “I should've been coming out and starting her up.”
The man was on his feet again and running toward them. Kerry turned the key again, pressing on the accelerator. “Start, you bitch. Start!”
The man reached Mikhail's door, and began pounding on the glass. And at that moment, the engine turned over and began to run, albeit, raggedly. Mikhail stared into the man's weasel-like face. His dark hair was cropped short, his forehead low and broad. He grasped at the locked door, cursing, his mouth twisted in a snarl revealing a half-dozen rotted teeth.
Kerry thrust the gearshift into reverse. The Jeep bucked, and for an awful moment, the engine coughed and sputtered. Mikhail's stomach dipped. But as Kerry thrust into first, it recovered. She pulled out of the parking lot, tires skidding on the icy road.
“Do you think he'll come after us?” Kerry asked, glancing into the rear view mirror.
Mikhail looked over his shoulder at the road. No headlights yet. “Not in that car. Thanks to you. Besides, he’ll have to wait for his partner to recover from whatever you did to him.”
Kerry glanced over and gave him a wry grin. “Let's just say he'll be hitting some high notes for a while.”
“How did he get in?” Mikhail asked.
“I thought it was you. That you'd forgotten your key. When I opened the door, he pushed his way in and grabbed me. I was so startled, I froze. Then when I heard you at the door, my instincts kicked in and I did a little maneuver on him, something I learned in self-defense class.”
Mikhail looked at her. “You surprise me, Kerry Niles. Over and over. That was smart thinking. To ruin tires.” He shook his head. “But very risky.”
Kerry shrugged, her eyes fixed on the road. “We had to make sure they don't follow us. As for the other thing, I started taking self-defense classes a few years ago after a good friend of mine was raped. This is the first time I've ever had to put what I've learned to the test.”
Mikhail looked out his window into the darkness. “Because of me. I should never have brought you into this.”
Kerry didn't speak for a moment. Finally, she looked over at him. “Okay, I know you feel guilty, so let's get it out of your system. Because from here on in, I don't want to hear it. You told me from the beginning it could be dangerous. You said someone might come after you. I agreed to help you, even with that knowledge. So, let's just do the job and get you to Virginia, okay? So, who do you think it was?”
Mikhail ran a hand through his hair, not surprised to find it was trembling. “Sean O’Malley. Elena’s boyfriend. I just do not understand how his men knew where to find us so quickly.”
“Unless they've been tailing us from the very beginning,” Kerry said.
“But why? How could they know?”
She shook her head, but didn't answer.
He looked at her. “Were you not frightened?”
“Of course. I'd be an idiot not to be.”
“Let me see your hand.”
She glanced at him, her brow wrinkled. He held out his hand, fingers beckoning. Kerry took her right hand off the steering wheel and placed it in his.
At the touch of her warm skin, a memory of her bare breasts flashed through his mind. He remembered the sweet taste of her lips, the promise of her body pressing against his. And to think, if he'd had a condom, they'd probably be in the hands of the O’Malley right now. And maybe dead.
He dropped her hand as a chill went through him.
“So?” Kerry asked. “What was that all about?”
“You are not trembling. Your face still has color. And you say you were frightened?”
Kerry sighed. “Well, it's a funny thing about me and fear, Mikhail. I don't show it the same way most people do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, as long as the adrenalin has kicked in, I'm okay. It's only afterward that…oh, damn.” She took a hand off the wheel and clutched at her belly.
“What is wrong?”
Kerry slammed on the brakes. The Jeep shuddered as she pulled off the road, coming dangerously close to a mound of snow. She shoved the gearshift into park, and clutching a hand to her mouth, jumped out of the vehicle and slammed the door. She'd parked so close to the snowdrift that Mikhail couldn't open his door. He could only watch helplessly as Kerry slipped and slid her way to the front of the Jeep where she squatted, retching into the snow.
Mikhail opened the center console, and found a packet of travel tissues. He had a handful of them waiting for her when she slipped back into the driver's seat, her eyes tearing, her skin as white as the snow drifts outside.
She gave Mikhail a sheepish look. “That's what happens when I get scared. After it's all over. It's better than it used to be. When I was first competing, I'd have to make a beeline for the bathroom as soon as I left Kiss & Cry. We'd better get out of here.” She shifted into first and pulled out onto the empty road. “I think it would be a good idea to stick to the highway instead of the interstate, don't you? So…this Sean O’Malley. That’s not a Russian name. What’s the deal with him?”
Mikhail stared grimly ahead into the darkness. “He is ruthless man. Worse than KGB ever was. Rumor has it that his pub in Tallinn is front for racketeering and gun-running for IRA.”
She slanted him a glance. “How do you know all this?”
“Like I said, is rumor.”
Kerry's hands tightened on the steering wheel as the Jeep skidded on an icy patch. “I still don't see how they found us so quickly.”
Mikhail braced himself on the console, grimacing as Kerry easily handled the skid and kept going at a pace way too fast for the snow-packed road. Yet, he didn't tell her to slow down. With those goons after them, they needed to put as much distance between them as possible. He glanced at her profile. Her face was tense as she concentrated on the road, yet, not panicked, or even especially frightened. He admired her courage. But perhaps she just didn't realize how dangerous their situation had become.
“So, tell me, what is this little trick you used to overpower that Russian? He looked like big, muscular guy.”
She glanced at him and grinned. “It's called 'bite the shit out of his hand and then knee him as hard as you can in the balls.' I also like the 'ram your knuckles up his nose followed by a nut twist with the other hand' move, but it all depends on the position he's got you in.”
“Remind me never to piss you off,” Mikhail said wryly. Then he sighed. “This changes things, yes? I had hoped we'd be able to get closer to Virginia before they let the dogs go for us.”
He sounded so sad that Kerry decided not to joke about his screwed-up colloquialism. She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. Their eyes met, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was. That if Sean O'Malley's men hadn't arrived, they'd probably be making love right now.
She looked back at the road. “We'll trade in my Jeep for something more…discreet in the morning. And we'll keep to the back roads. It'll be okay, Mikhail.”
He was silent for a long time, and then he said, “I hope I will not be sorry I brought you into this.”
“I wanted to do it. I'm still glad I'm doing it.” She bit her bottom lip and then went on, “My father started working for Greenpeace after he won his Olympic gold. It used to upset me when he'd go away for long periods of time. I remember once he was going to miss my seventh birthday, and I was really ticked off at him. He was on his way to Newfoundland to save the baby seals instead of staying home and celebrating my birthday, and I just didn't get it. Why was that so important? What about me? Wasn't I important to him, too? You know what he said? ‘Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices to do what you know is right.’ That's what I'm doing, Mikhail. I don’t know why you feel you have to leave your country, but I do know, just for the short time I've known you, that you wouldn't do it for an insignificant reason. That's why I'm helping you, and I don't regret it. I won't regret it.”
“I hope that will be true.” He gazed into the darkness out the passenger window. “I would tell you if I could,” he added softly. “But I must not. It could put you in even greater danger.”
She nodded. “I understand that.” She glanced into the rear view mirror to see if they were being followed, and was relieved to see nothing but darkness behind them. “Why don't you get some sleep? I'll wake you in a couple hours and let you take over.”
He nodded, and adjusted his seat back. After a few moments of silence, Kerry reached for a CD. Maybe a Van Morrison would calm her nerves.
“Perhaps it is for best,” Mikhail said suddenly.
She glanced at him. “What?”
He didn't look at her. Just stared up at the ceiling of the Jeep. “You and me,” he said quietly. “What did not happen back in motel room.”
Kerry's heart thudded. She knew he was right. She agreed with him. Absolutely. But God, it hurt to hear him say it. She swallowed hard, and found her voice. “Yes, you're right. It is for the best.”
He didn't speak again as they drove on through the darkness toward the Kansas state line.
* * * * *
The road conditions improved the closer they got to Kansas, and by the time they crossed the state line, a weak sun was just beginning to rise.
Kerry yawned, and glanced over at Mikhail who was taking his turn at the wheel. “You okay?”
He nodded. “This Jeep Cherokee, I like. Handles very good.”
“Yeah, I like it, too.” She frowned. “Too bad…” Then she caught herself.
He looked over at her. In the early morning light, she could just make out the sober expression on his face. “Too bad you must sell?”
“It's okay,” she said. “I've been thinking about trading it in, anyway. Get something a little more…you know…feminine.”
That made him grin. “I think Jeep Cherokee is perfect for you.”
She slanted him a derisive look. “Are you saying I’m not feminine?”
Color flooded his face. “No! You misunderstand. You are…most feminine, but unlike any woman I have ever met.”
“Oh, I was just giving you a hard time. Look!” Her eyes fastened on a green sign along the roadway. “Norton is less than two hours away. We should get there about the time the used car lots open. Still no sign of our friends?”
Mikhail shook his head. “No. Very little traffic.”
“Good. Maybe they still think we took the interstate.”
Mikhail stifled a yawn, and then said, “Kerry, I'm famished. We never had dinner last night, remember?”
Oh, did she ever. His words immediately brought to mind those exquisite moments on the bed, the warmth of Mikhail's body, the touch of his hands and his mouth tenderly exploring hers. Heat shot through her, and biting her bottom lip, she reached out to turn the temperature control down a notch.
“I'm hungry, too,” she said. “Should we risk stopping for breakfast?”
Mikhail shrugged. “We have to eat.”
They found a truck stop, and pulled in, carefully glancing around to make sure no one was watching them before they got out of the Jeep.
Everything seemed normal inside, just the usual mix of truck drivers and families on the road. A waitress led them to a booth overlooking the parking lot, and they ordered eggs, bacon and coffee. As before, Mikhail remained silent, allowing Kerry to do the ordering. This time, though, the waitress barely acknowledged him. Kerry supposed they'd been successful in turning him into just another American guy, albeit, a really great-looking American guy.
An hour later, they were back on the two-lane highway heading for Norton. It was eight o'clock when they pulled into a used car lot just off the road. Kerry turned off the ignition, and looked at Mikhail. “You'd better let me handle this. Your accent would really make you hard to forget.”
The corner of his lip lifted in a wry smile. “No problem,” he said. “I play henpecked husband.”
The used car lot was quiet this early, and Kerry didn't see a salesman anywhere. Hands tucked deep in the pockets of her insulated parka, she picked her way through the brown slush, casting a critical eye over the variety of vehicles in the car lot. Mikhail followed behind her silently.
“So, we're going to stick to the northern route,” she muttered, thinking aloud. “Because they'll assume we're planning to stick to I-70…the sane route in the dead of winter. That means we need to find something that can handle the snow. But what? I have no idea how much they'll give me for the Jeep.”
Mikhail stopped behind her, eyeing a sleek black Camaro. Kerry noticed and gave a short laugh. “No way, Mikhail. Move on.”
“Ah, you're breaking his heart, Ma'am. Be a sport.”
Kerry whipped around to see a little man with twinkling blue eyes standing a few feet from them, his hands tucked into a black parka etched with Buddy’s Pre-Owned Autos. He grinned, and Kerry immediately felt a kinship with him. In some weird way, he reminded her of Grandpa Johan. Used car salesman, she reminded herself sternly as she automatically returned his smile. Not to be trusted.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning to you, folks. What can I do you for?”
Kerry took a deep breath. “Well, my…er…husband and I want to trade in our Jeep Cherokee for something more…oh, I don't know…practical?”
The salesman's eyes widened, but he recovered from his surprise quickly, thrusting out a gloved hand. “You can call me Buddy.” He shook Kerry's hand, and then Mikhail's who nodded and smiled, but didn't speak. “Okay, now…let's see…” The car salesman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Something more practical than a Jeep Cherokee. That's a tall order…uh…” He slanted a look over at Mikhail. “Something wrong with the Jeep?”
“Not at all,” Kerry said quickly. “It's just that…uh…” With a flash of inspiration, she patted her belly through the thickness of her parka. “We have a little one on the way, and we just want something…you know…sturdier. Safer. Something good in snow, but not too expensive. Something good for a long trip. But not too flashy. In fact, the more boring, the better. You got anything like that?”
Buddy's eyes burned with curiosity as he looked from Kerry to Mikhail. Mikhail grinned and nodded. “Um…well…I'll have to think on that,” Buddy said. “Tell you what let's do. Let me take a gander at that vehicle of yours, and then we'll know what ball park we're in. How's that sound?”
“Hunky dory,” Kerry said, starting to enjoy the game. “Come, Michael. Let's go show Buddy our car.”
A half hour later, they sat in Buddy's office signing the papers for the trade of the Jeep for a 1997 Volvo.
“She's really good in snow,” Buddy was saying as he put the paperwork together. “Yes, Ma'am, chocolate on a stick in snow. You're going to really enjoy her. I drove her over from KC during a sumbitch of a blizzard…excuse me, Ma’am…a couple months ago, and didn't have nary a problem with her. Too bad, though, we don't have something in a better color. That charcoal gray is a little drab, but hey, it'll get you where you want to go, and that's what counts, right?”
“I like the color,” said Kerry. “And so does Michael. Don't you, Michael? Don't you like the color?”
“Uh huh,” Mikhail said slowly, with a smile that looked about as genuine as Pamela Andersen’s breasts.
Buddy flashed him an appraising look. “You're the strong, silent type, aren't you, partner?”
Kerry laughed. “Oh, that's Michael, all right. Only speaks when he has something to say. And of course, it's hard to get a word in edgewise with me around.” She laughed heartily.
Buddy slid some papers over the desk toward them. “Okay, just need both of your John Hancocks right here, and you'll be on your way with your new car.”
“Oh, Michael doesn't have to sign,” Kerry said. “The Jeep is in my name, and I'm going to write you a check for the balance…although, I really think you should let that two thousand slide. Seems like a fair trade to me…but…oh, well…we've been through this, haven't we?” She reached for the pen.
Buddy sighed. “This is the very best I can do, Mrs. Niles. You got my word on that. Okay, now, we're all set,” he said as Kerry signed the papers. He stood and gave her the keys, then stretched out a hand. “She's all yours. Good luck to you.” He turned to Mikhail, hand outstretched. “And you, sir. Come on back when the Missus gives you permission to buy that black Camaro out front.” His eyes twinkled with humor, and Kerry could practically read his mind.
You'll get that Camaro, friend, on the day Hell freezes over.
“Okay, then…” Kerry jangled the keys. “You ready to hit the road, Michael? It's a long way to California.”
“Uh huh,” Mikhail said.
A few minutes later, they slid into their newly acquired Volvo, Kerry, of course, at the wheel. She waved warmly at Buddy as they pulled onto the street.
“No point in shattering Buddy's illusions,” she said with a grin, “about who’s wearing the pants in this marriage.”
Mikhail eyed her. “You enjoyed that, did you not?”
Kerry laughed, and a tingle of pleasure raced through him at the joyous sound of it. He was glad she could still laugh after their close call last night.
“Mikhail, you've got me all wrong! Do I look like the type who would enjoy hen-pecking a husband?”
He examined her thoughtfully. “Not hen-peck,” he said finally. “But I think you are woman who enjoys having her way. Being in control.”
Kerry turned this over in her mind, and then gave a grudging nod. “I suppose that's true. When you've been on your own…figuratively speaking…as many years as I have, I suppose it's hard to give up control.” She glanced at him. “Do you find that unattractive in a woman?”
A slow flush crept over his face, and he avoided her eyes, looking out the window at the town of Norton. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible, but she heard it all the same.
“I find nothing unattractive about you, Kerry Niles. And that scares hell out of me.”
* * * * *
The day passed quickly as they sped toward Missouri, taking turns driving, and stopping only for gas and a quick lunch in St. Joseph. They hoped to make St. Louis by nightfall, but it didn't look good. Darkness came early in the plains in February, and the pregnant gray ceiling of clouds hinted of more snow, and perhaps lots of it. Despite Buddy's promise that the Volvo was “chocolate on a stick” in the snow, Kerry wasn't looking forward to trying it out in a blizzard. Or was she kidding herself? Was she just making excuses to prolong her time with Mikhail? She'd never been nervous about driving in snow before. What was different about now?
There was no doubt in her mind, though, about their fatigue. They'd been driving now for over sixteen hours, with only three breaks. Despite taking turns at the wheel every two hours, they both were exhausted. There'd been no sign of their pursuers, and finally, at four o'clock in the afternoon, Kerry said what Mikhail had been thinking.
“Let's pack it in for the night.”
As they approached the small town of Mexico, Kerry saw a quaint L-shaped motel, a throwback to the Sixties, with rooms that opened up directly to the parking lot. Not exactly the safest place to stay, but Kerry knew if they continued on, they would be in more danger from a car accident than being caught by O'Malley's thugs.
She pulled up under the portico of the office where a big neon sign flashed, “Office. Vacancy.”
“We might as well keep playing the hen-pecked husband and overbearing wife,” she said, opening the driver's side door. “I'll check us in.”
There were only a couple of other cars in the parking lot, she noticed. One with Minnesota tags, the other with Nebraska. A white dog sniffed around a garbage can at the side of the office building, looking up at her approach, and giving a half-hearted wag of his tail.
“Hey, Pooch,” she greeted him. “What are you doing out here in the cold?”
A stray snowflake drifted down from the dark sky. Her heart lifted. Snow, she pleaded to the heavens. Snow all night, all day tomorrow, for a month. The more the better. Snow is my new best friend.
Five minutes later, she stepped out of the office with a key. Mikhail was reclining in his seat, eyes closed in slumber. Kerry regarded him tenderly for a moment. Poor baby. You didn't know what you were getting yourself into, did you? I guess I didn't either.
But oddly enough, she didn't regret anything. Despite the danger, the fatigue, the uncertainty of what the next day would bring, she couldn't regret being here with him. For the first time since her father died, she felt fully and joyously alive, and even with the fear of bad people chasing them, she wanted to hold onto this time, this adventure. Hold onto every precious moment with Mikhail.
Oh, God. What is happening to me? She hadn't felt like this since those early days with Josh. When she'd felt like she was walking on air, and every tissue, every blood vessel inside her felt electric and wild and heady with newfound love. But look what that had got her. A broken heart, a police record and a stern dressing down from the USFSA.
She gazed at Mikhail's sleeping face, and despite the warning bells tolling inside her head, she wanted to reach out and touch him. Brush her fingers down his bristled jaw, trace the outline of his full, perfectly molded lips. It took everything she had to turn away from him and start the engine. He awoke, his senses at full alert.
“I've got us a room, Mikhail,” she said, her voice husky. “In a minute, we'll be able to crawl into a nice warm bed and sleep. Doesn't that sound wonderful?”
He gave her a warm smile, and its power was such that she felt shattered, as if her defenses were crumbling into a thousand tiny pieces.
* * * * *
They slept in separate double beds through the night, so exhausted that neither of them moved even when the winds whipped up to a howling frenzy, and the snow, mixing with sleet, beat against the small window overlooking the parking lot.
When Kerry finally opened her eyes and stretched out her legs with a long, satisfied groan, she thought it was still the middle of the night. It was unbearably hot in the room and so dark she could barely make out the large bump on the other bed hunched under a blanket and a purple paisley bedspread. Her skin was slick with sweat, her hair damp. She threw off the bed covers, and felt immediate relief. The drawstring pajamas and skimpy camisole top she wore was soggy with perspiration.
She'd turned up the thermostat upon entering, and hadn't bothered to turn it down before crawling thankfully into her bed. She supposed she should get up and turn it down now, but she couldn't seem to make herself move.
Turning on her side, she looked at the alarm clock on the bedside table and saw that the illuminated hands indicated it was six o'clock. Impossible, she thought. She'd had to have slept more than two hours. Gingerly, she swung her legs over the bed, and stood, glancing again at Mikhail's slumbering form.
God, wasn't he steaming under all those covers? She crept across the dark room to the thermostat and turned it down to sixty-five. There, that should cool it off in here. Then she moved to the window to peer out and make sure everything looked as it should. She caught her breath.
A glaze of ice covered the window so thickly it was like looking through a frosted shower door. That's when she noticed the wind. She must've been hearing it all the time, but she'd just assumed it was the furnace. But no, it sounded more like the howl of a lonely wolf as it whistled through the eaves and hammered against the fragile walls of the old-fashioned motel.
Kerry tiptoed to the door, and turned the double latch, then cautiously, opened it a crack. The wind whistled in, bringing with it a torrent of whirling snow. A pale, ghostly light told her she'd been wrong. It was six in the morning, not night, but it was definitely not the kind of morning for travel. A drift had piled up knee-high on the threshold, and from the look of things, the snow wouldn't be stopping any time soon. Kerry slammed the door and locked it, her heart pounding.
Oh, thank you, God. Yes, this is exactly what I prayed for.
She turned back to her bed, a pleased smile on her lips. Might as well crawl back under the covers and get some more sleep. They weren't going anywhere today.
Just as she reached her bed and sat down on it, Mikhail moaned and threw off his covers. Kerry's heart jolted at the sight of his bare chest and his long, lean haunches as he stretched out on his back, clad only in a pair of red boxer shorts. A slow-moving tide of heat crept through her, and it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. Oh, how she wanted to follow her instincts and cross that small space separating his bed from hers, crawl up next to him, and fit her body against the pulsating heat of his.
He was totally vulnerable to her now, still lost in whatever dreams that were playing across his brain. If she wanted to, if she had the nerve, she could slide her hands over the light carpet of hair on his chest, travel up his strong, corded neck, and capture his mouth with hers. He would make slow, sensuous love to her, and not even be fully aware he was doing it. She knew she could make it happen.
If she had the nerve…

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