Friday, June 3, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

“So! This is Wal-Mart.” Mikhail grinned as they walked through the automatic doors of the discount store. “When I was in Colorado Springs, I saw TV advertisements for Wal-Mart. So many things for sale.”
Kerry nodded and brushed the snow off her parka. “Oh, yeah. You name it, they got it.”
It had been snowing fiercely when they awoke a couple of hours ago. After breakfast in the diner, they'd driven for another two hours until full light, and then booked a room with two double beds in a Motel 6 outside a small town in northern Colorado. At that time, it had been snowing lightly, but in the seven hours they'd slept, more than six inches had fallen, and it was still coming down. They'd been in luck, though, because there had been a Wal-Mart just across the highway from the motel. After showering, they'd trudged over to outfit Mikhail in American clothes.
“This way, Mikhail.” Kerry unerringly made her way to the men's department. One thing about Wal-Mart; if you can find your way around one of them, you can find your way around all of them.
Kerry looked through racks of clothing while Mikhail stood by, silently watching. “Try this.” She handed him a couple of T-shirts and a sweatshirt. “What size jeans do you wear?”
He shrugged. “I do not know American sizes.”
“Hmmm.” Kerry looked him up and down, and for the first time since she'd met him, she had the perfect excuse to look her fill. So why not enjoy it? Even so, she felt her cheeks grow warm. Maybe it had something to do with that devilish glint in his eyes. Like he knew what she was thinking.
“Why don't we try a couple of different sizes? Here, take these.” She placed a pile of jeans in his arms. “What else? You'll need a parka. Your coat screams out Moscow. Why don't you go try those on and I'll see what else I can find.”
“Uh…Kerry?” Mikhail stood stiffly, his arms full of clothes. “Remember, I told you I have only rubles. How do we pay?”
“We'll work it out later,” Kerry said, trolling through the racks for more possibilities. “But you're right. We need to find a bank so we can exchange your money. Now, go try on that stuff.”
Mikhail headed toward the dressing room, but paused at a rack of NFL sweatshirts. “Ah, Denver Broncos!” A delighted grin spread across his face. “I watch Denver Broncos play on TV in Colorado. John Elway, yes? He looks like big Viking. You think this sweatshirt is good?” He held out the orange Denver Bronco sweatshirt, his face hopeful like a little boy's on Christmas morning.
Kerry smiled. “Yes, Mikhail. That sweatshirt would be perfect for you. But I think John has long retired. “
Grinning, Mikhail grabbed the sweatshirt and headed toward the dressing room. While he changed, Kerry looked through the coats. A few minutes later, she heard a throat clearing behind her. “Kerry, how do I look?”
She turned, and her eyes widened. “Wow! Mikhail! You look so…American!”
And he did. He was dressed in snug jeans and the Denver Bronco sweatshirt. His own hiking boots worked perfectly with the outfit.
Her eyes narrowed. “There's just one thing missing.” Her gaze swept the men's department and stopped on a rack of baseball caps. Grinning, she strode over to it. “I don't see any Bronco caps, but what about this one?” She grabbed a cap emblazoned with the “Survivor” motif, and settled it on Mikhail's blond head, turning the bill backward the way the kids wore it. “There. Now, you really look like an American.”
“Let me see.” Mikhail took off the cap and peered at it. He frowned. “I do not like this ‘Survivor.’ Players are vicious bastards.” He looked over the rows of caps, and then grinned. “This one.” He handed Kerry the ‘Survivor’ cap and grabbed another one. “Yes. I like this one.”
Kerry looked at it and burst out laughing. “Homer Simpson? How old are you? Nine?”
“I will be thirty this August.” Unconcerned by her ridicule, Mikhail placed the cap on his head. “And I like Simpsons. Where is mirror?”
Still laughing, Kerry led him to a mirror. He adjusted the cap on his head and grinned. “Yes, this is good. Now I look like American.”
“Okay, you win. Why don't you go change back into your clothes while I get a cart for this stuff? Then we'll find you a parka. Oh, and some sweatpants. You can't look like an American without lots of sweatpants.”
He nodded and headed back to the dressing room. Still grinning, Kerry strode toward the front of the store to grab a cart. But when she returned to the men's department, Mikhail was nowhere in sight. She waited for a few minutes outside the dressing room, and finally stuck her head in.
“Mikhail? You still in there?”
No answer. Hmmm. Where has he gone? Kerry pushed the empty cart through the store, her eyes sweeping the aisles for the missing Russian. Humming along with Avril Lavigne playing on the PA, Kerry passed the cosmetics aisle, and caught a glimpse of a big blond guy. She stopped and backed up. When she realized what Mikhail was doing, she wondered why it had taken her so long to find him. The smell alone should've led her right to his side. He saw her and smiled, his eyes lighting up. “Kerry! Come. You tell me if you like this scent?”
Kerry rolled her eyes. “I don't need to come closer to smell it. What have you done? Taken a bath in it?”
He moved to her. “So many different scents. You decide which I buy.” He bent down, exposing his neck to her. “This one?”
Kerry caught her breath. She didn't know if the dizziness she felt was because of his closeness or the overwhelming stench of half dozen different colognes. He turned his head and invited her to sniff at the right side. “Or this one.”
She flinched away from him. “Ugh! That one reeks. Get the first one. Definitely. But it sure smells like you've got more than two on.”
He grinned and held out an exposed forearm. “This…I think is Hugo, and this…” He thrust his other forearm under her nose. “…is Old Spice.”
Her heart spasmed as her father's familiar scent washed over her, bringing back happy memories from her childhood. He’d been wearing Old Spice on that last sunny morning at the lodge just before he'd taken the lift up to ski the backcountry and couloirs of Whistler Mountain. Kerry had planned to go with him, but her changing body had foiled that plan, and ended up saving her life. Earlier that morning she'd awakened on bloody sheets, her stomach cramping worse than on that one unfortunate Christmas Eve when she'd eaten a dozen of Grandma Vive's Finnish butter cookies, and ended up sick through Christmas.
She’d never seen her father alive again. Later that day, he’d died in an avalanche, and Kerry was catapulted into adulthood in more ways than one. A month later, she was living with a stranger in San Diego, torn from her paternal grandparents as cleanly as a surgeon removed a diseased organ from a patient.
“So…?” Mikhail said, interrupting her dark thoughts. “This one, you say?”
Kerry focused on him, and brushed her fingers over the left side of his neck, trying to ignore the tingle she felt at the contact. “I like this one the best.”
“Cool Water,” Mikhail said, nodding with satisfaction. “Yes, I like this best, as well.” He reached for an unopened package, and then gave her a questioning look. “Is okay?”
Kerry smiled. “Sure. I'm keeping a tab for you. Now, what did you do with the clothes you tried on?”
“Here.” He turned to a shelf behind them and gathered up the clothing, dumping the whole lot into the cart. “Now what?”
“Your parka. Let's go see what they have.”
He nodded, but as they headed back in the direction of the men's department, Mikhail stopped dead in his tracks when he spied the toy section. “Kerry, look! Toys.” Like an excited schoolboy, he headed down one of the aisles. Kerry shook her head, grinning. Maybe he was nine. She turned the cart and followed him.
He stood at a shelf, staring intently at a bright pink plastic pony with a long mane of silky hair and silver sparkles on its rump. Kerry's smile widened. “Don't tell me? In addition to The Simpson’s, you also have a thing for My Little Ponies?”
He glanced at her, one eyebrow raised. “Your little ponies?”
“No, silly! That's what they're called. I didn’t even know they still made them. They were really popular when I used to baby-sit for our neighbor’s little girl. She must’ve had a dozen of them.” She shook her head. “I just didn’t get it. When I was a kid, I preferred playing with guns and toy soldiers.”
“Ah. Tommy boy, no?” he asked with a big smile.
“Tomboy, you mean.” She gave a slight shrug. “I suppose so. My father was a real outdoorsman, and my being a girl didn't stop him from including me in the things he enjoyed.”
Mikhail brought the My Little Pony to his nose and sniffed. His brow wrinkled in surprise. “Is perfumed?”
Kerry laughed. “You probably smell yourself. But yeah, I think it is. Wouldn't surprise me.” She was having a blast watching him. He really was like a young boy on Christmas morning. How different he seemed now than the way he had that first time she'd watched him warming up before hitting the ice. He'd been so serious, so aloof. Now, he was anything but. Was she getting a glimpse of the real Mikhail Kozlof? If so, she couldn't wait to learn more.
Mikhail put down the pony and turned to the other side of the aisle. He picked up a globe similar to the one he’d bought Adam. “This might pass time for car trip,” he said, and then looked up at her, an amused light in his eyes. “You think Adam likes his?”
Kerry nodded. “He'd probably never admit it, but I'm sure he does. Adam is…complex.”
He watched her, tossing the cube back and forth in his hands. “He is in love with you, I think.”
Startled, Kerry's eyes met his. “How did you know that?”
He shrugged, but didn't answer.
“Well, he was in love with me, but I think he's getting over it. I hope he is.”
“And you are not in love with him?”
Her cheeks grew hot. “I'm not in love with anybody. Haven't been for a long time. So, you want to go look at those coats now?” When she saw the reluctance on his face, she added, “Go and ahead and buy it. Like you said, it'll help pass the time during the drive.”
He flashed a delighted grin. “Yes! Good idea.” He tossed the globe into the cart on top of the clothes.
After deciding on a parka and a few pairs of sweatpants, they found the snack aisle and Kerry began selecting munchies for the trip. “I've been craving chocolate lately. You like Ding Dongs, Mikhail?”
He gazed curiously at the box she held out for his inspection. “I do not know. What is this Ding Dongs?”
“Chocolate cakes with cream filling. Yummy!” She dropped the box into the cart and reached for a can of peanuts. “Okay, that should do it. Oh, let's get some sodas, and maybe we should pick up a little cooler so we can keep them cold for the trip.”
Fifteen minutes later, bags in hand, they stepped out of the Wal-Mart into the swirling snow. Kerry looked up at the quarter-sized flakes falling around them and took in a deep breath of the cleansing Colorado air.
“Whoa!” She grinned at Mikhail. “It's really coming down.”
Mikhail nodded, smiling. “Looks like Russia.”
“Yeah, I'll bet.” Kerry glanced over at him. “You know what, Mikhail?”
Swinging her bag from her fingers, she hopped across an icy spot on the pavement, and her grin widened. “I think we might have to spend the night right here in our little Motel 6.”
* * * * *
Elena practically attacked Sean when he walked into their room. “Well, is he there? What did you find out?”
Sean stared at her, wondering how to break the news. He knew he was experiencing the last moment of relative peace that he would have for God knows how long because the shit was just about ready to hit the bloody fan.
Earlier, he'd been imagining how he'd break the news about Kozlof's unfortunate murder at the hands of a burglar he'd surprised ransacking his room. That, he'd been savoring, imagining how he'd hold a hysterical Elena in his arms, kissing her moist forehead, stroking the golden strands of her hair. Of course, he didn't kid himself that her grief would be at Kozlof's death, but more importantly, at the death of her dream of Olympic gold. Oh, sure, on some level, she'd be sorry he was dead, but Elena was a selfish woman. Sean wasn't blind to that, despite his love for her. Elena's first concern was herself, and always would be.
Looking at her now, at her wide blue eyes and the hopeful expression on her cover-model face, Sean was experiencing the moment right before the tornado touched down―that eerie, electrically charged moment of stillness just before all hell broke loose.
He sighed. Might as well get it over with. He just hoped he'd survive the coming storm. “Kozlof is gone,” he said quietly. Her eyes gazed back at him without comprehension. It was as if he’d spoken in an alien language.
“His personal items are missing,” he went on when she didn't respond. “His toiletries, sweaters, underwear. They're not in his room.”
He watched her face as the message sank in. Her eyes darkened with horror, and a muscle flexed in her jaw. The color ebbed from her face, leaving it a pale porcelain hue. Her hands tightened into fists at her side. And still, she didn't speak.
Sean held her gaze, and said evenly, “My guess is…he has defected.”
Elena’s face twisted into a grimace of rage as she sunk to her knees on the carpet. Her mouth opened, and a blood-curdling shriek erupted from her lungs. Sean just stood rigid, knowing there was nothing to do but let her scream.

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