Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (4 page)

On this winter evening, over four decades later, Sarah backed to the edge of the bed, clutching the envelope, and sat down. She lifted the phone on the night table, and painfully worked the rotary dial.

The phone rang once.

Sarah heard a recorded voice say, “Hi, this is Melanie. I can’t come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number—”

Sarah sagged against the pillows as her daughter’s voice continued. A profound loneliness came over her. She pulled the quilt to her chin and waited for the beep.

Outside, the wind howled.

Sarah’s fingers tightened reflexively around the envelope, as if making certain it wouldn’t be blown away.

* * * * * *

The polar gusts had pushed south into New York City that night. Manhattan’s litter spiraled in the corridors of dark stone. In a top floor apartment on East Twenty-First Street, loose-fitting windows rattled against their frames.

The tiny ad in the
New York Times
had proclaimed:

GRAMERCY PARK—grt studio, plstr

mldngs, mble f’plce, circ stair to

blcny, skylts, view, prk key $1250

Within an hour of spotting it, Melanie Winslow had won a footrace to a taxi; survived the crosstown gridlock; climbed four flights to a decrepit, trash-filled studio apartment; and—without a moment’s hesitation—had written a check for $3750, the first and last month’s rent and one month’s security.

Despite it’s condition, the apartment was a real find. Gramercy Park, long one of Manhattan’s prime areas, was an urban oasis enclosed by a cast-iron fence whose gates were always locked. The circa 1870 buildings on its perimeter stood on a parcel of land controlled by a century-old trusteeship, and only their residents had keys to the well-maintained park.

Now, six months and countless gallons of paint later, Melanie was in
her bed on the balcony that was reached by the circular staircase when her telephone rang and the click of the answering machine cut it short. Her momentary reaction caused her muscles to tighten and rhythm to quicken, both to the liking of the young man beneath her, who let out a soft moan.

He caressed her thighs, moving his hands up toward her rolling hips, and pulled her down further onto him.

Melanie whimpered, and segued into a slow rocking motion. Familiar words began running through her mind.

Funny, she thought, how her mother’s favorite saying always came to her when she was with a lover. She’d never heard her use it in this context, of course, only in reference to chores or schoolwork—when Melanie had procrastinated and Sarah had caught her, and warned, “Either you’re on top of it, or it’s on top of you, kiddo.” It must have registered, Melanie figured. She liked being in control.

The young man lifted his blond curls from the pillow. His moist lips began delicately kissing the points of Melanie’s breasts that quivered in a taunting rhythm above him. He ran his tongue across them, across their smooth opalescence.

He did it repeatedly, slowly, unendingly.

Melanie began whimpering, “God, oh god, oh god,” then shifted to a patter of anxious squeaks.

Her movements quickened. Her head snapped from side to side, long brown hair whipping in constant motion. Her hands on his shoulders, pinning him beneath her, nails cat-scratching across his chest.

“Ohhhh, yessss,” she moaned, drawing the word out, then repeating it at closer intervals and with increasing volume, “Yessss, yesss, yess, yes, yes!” The last was an exuberant shriek that reverberated off the skylights and echoed through the cavernous space. Then a sudden rush radiated from her center across her trembling flesh, attending to every pore.

She tumbled onto the pillow satiated, and let out a lusty growl. “Tom, ohhhh, Tom,” she purred.

“Tim,” he corrected, a tremor in his voice.

Melanie looked at him out of the corner of her eye and grinned mischievously, like a child.

He raised a brow and grinned back.

They tangled their glistening bodies like knotted snakes and laughed out loud.

He first caught Melanie’s attention earlier that evening in the Hotel Dorset Bar, an elegant watering hole on West Fifty-Fourth Street, a
short walk from the City Center Theater where she worked as a modern dance choreographer. The Dorset catered to a professional clientele, and Melanie often went there on nights she needed to be with someone—preferably someone from out of town.

As it turned out, Tim-Tom was a local brat, and Melanie decided to wait until morning to tell him she wouldn’t be seeing him again, and why.

* * * * * *

Chapter Four

Ten hours had passed since Churcher’s call to the Soviet Embassy in Washington triggered the cable to Gorodin in Cuba. The exchange of coded communications between Havana and Moscow that had followed got the Houston business magnate the meeting he wanted.

In preparation, Churcher had spent most of the night scrutinizing paintings in his underground museum. He moved from Renaissance Masters to Dutch Realists, to French Impressionists, to canvases that spanned the history of great art. He skipped right past some, and went directly to others, knowing which, if any, might bear the same stigma as the Van Gogh. Though not an expert, once alerted, he had enough knowledge to make cogent evaluations. To his anger and disappointment, his efforts confirmed his suspicions rather than eliminating them, as he had hoped.

He left the museum well before the beep of the Rolex. The elevator door hadn’t finished opening before he was out of it, and dashing through the kiosk toward a limousine.

A uniformed chauffeur opened the rear door with an economy of movement, and nodded.

“Stand on it, son,” Churcher barked.

Without breaking stride, he jackknifed at the waist, and propelled his taut six-foot-three frame into the big car. His attire blended with the
gray velvet interior, where tinted glass concealed the face but not the identity of its well-known passenger.

Many of Churcher’s wealthy friends and associates had long ceased using personalized license plates for security reasons. His still read CHURCHCO. It was, he proudly boasted, a conscious measure of his arrogance.

The antenna-studded limousine rocketed down the drive and through the electrically operated gates. The wrought iron tour de force had once greeted the major film stars of the thirties and forties at the studio now owned by Churchco Communications.

The stretched Lincoln accelerated east onto the 290 Freeway, and in less than thirty minutes was hard into the curving interchange where Texas 610—the heavily trafficked ribbon that rings the Houston suburbs—meets the Katy Freeway to downtown.

Characteristically, Churcher was evaluating the problem at hand and the men with whom he would soon meet: Gorodin, a pleasant, accommodating fellow, but cunning; Beyalev, cold, ambitious, and inexperienced, therefore dangerous and not to be trusted; Deschin, an old friend who had the power to make things right—if he wanted to. Churcher hadn’t seen Deschin in almost six years. Not since the last problem with their arrangement. Not since the Nugent report.

He slouched in the backseat of the limousine, and shuddered at the memory.
Overdone, heavy-handed,
he thought. Typically Russian. He felt sickened whenever that rainy night in Deschin’s Moscow apartment came to mind, sickened by the fear and confusion that he imagined on Dick Nugent’s face the night of his death.

The limousine was on the Katy Freeway where it swings across Texas 45, and fast approaching the North Main off-ramp, the major street-level artery that cuts through the heart of downtown.

The Rolex started chirping and brought Churcher back. The repetitious beeping reminded him, over and over again, how he’d been manipulated and used. He let it continue a long time before he clicked it off.

* * * * * *

Andrew Churcher flipped a stirrup over the saddle horn and reached beneath the horse’s heaving belly. He pulled hard on the cinch loosening it, and slid the hand-tooled saddle from the white Arabian’s back. The momentum carried the saddle in a wide arc onto the rail of a weathered fence. A whistle sent the animal romping off into the pasture.

His father’s horse had been watered, saddled, and ready to go at 7:15
A.M.
sharp, as always. A half hour later when Churcher still hadn’t shown up at the stables, Andrew took the Arabian for a run himself.

He was squaring the saddle on the fence when he spotted a rooster tail kicking into the air behind a car in the distance. Andrew ducked between the whitewashed rails and ambled through the mesquite to the road that split thousands of acres of fenced pasture.

Ed McKendrick’s car approached at high speed, and nosed to a stop in a dust cloud.

“Good news, Drew!” he boomed, unfolding from behind the wheel of the red Corvette. “Contracts for European distribution just came through.”

Andrew jammed his gloves in the back pocket of his jeans, and latched onto the hand McKendrick offered. “That’s great,” he replied.

“Sure is, kid,” McKendrick rumbled. “The old man did a hell of a job convincing the commies that he could sell their Arabians to Wops, Squareheads, and Micks, not to mention the Limeys and Frogs. Didn’t leave anybody out, did I?”

McKendrick was Churchco’s ramrod. A good-looking iron pumper, and all-American linebacker with a PhD in economics from Notre Dame. Five years ago, Churcher pirated him from the Rand Corporation, the Los Angeles based think tank, as a replacement for Dick Nugent.

Andrew disliked McKendrick’s style but knew that beneath the locker-room bluster hummed the most disciplined mind he’d ever encountered next to his father’s.

“Geezus, Ed, you’re the worst,” he said in response to McKendrick’s ethnic shorthand.

“Shit,” snorted McKendrick, gesturing to the expanse of uninhabited land. “Who the hell’s going to hear me out here? Besides, I love ’em all. You know that. Got some great numbers for you, too.”

“Numbers?” queried Andrew.

“Yeah. Before you go to Russia, you’re going to have to swing through Rome,” McKendrick explained. “And yours truly can recommend some flesh-crazed madonnas you can slip right into.”

Andrew shook his head from side to side in mock despair.

“When you’re not screwing your brains out, you can sell Arabians,” McKendrick went on. “There’ll be buyers up the ying-yang at the International Horse Show. And we have a direct line to the guy who organizes it every year. His name’s Borsa, Giancarlo Borsa. He’s a government honcho, runs the Defense Ministry when he isn’t breeding
Arabians. He’ll be expecting your call. He and your old man go way back.”

“I know. Dad introduced me when we were there last year,” Andrew replied. “I’ll look him up as soon as I get in.”

McKendrick pulled a bulging file folder from the Corvette and dropped it on the hood with a thud. “Everything you need’s in there,” he said.

Andrew hefted the file as though he were weighing it. “That’s a lot of numbers,” he shot back, teasing.

“Bet your ass,” McKendrick said deadly earnest. “Get familiar with ’em.” He had completely missed the entendre. His computerlike mind had reset, and he was all business. “This is your shot, kid. Don’t blow it.”

Andrew felt frivolous in the face of serious matters.
I’ll get it one of these days,
he thought. He had made similar efforts of camaraderie with McKendrick in the past, but the timing was never right.

“You’re leaving in two weeks,” McKendrick went on. “Use the time to bone up on each account. Know the individuals you’ll be dealing with. Memorize their backgrounds, business interests, the profile of their breeding stock. What they have. What they need. Am I coming through?”

Andrew nodded earnestly. “Does Dad know?”

“No. I haven’t been able to reach him yet today.”

“Me neither,” Andrew said curiously. “He didn’t ride this morning. Didn’t call to let me know he wasn’t, either. Not like him. Something’s going on, Ed. I thought, maybe, these contracts were it.”

McKendrick shrugged, then his mind reset again. “Probably did too much galloping on some little filly last night and took the morning off!” he cackled.

He turned from Andrew, crossed to the Corvette, and slid his large body behind the wheel.

“Remind me to give you those numbers!” he shouted as he slammed the car in gear. Then he popped the clutch, kicking up a shower of dirt and gravel, and roared off down the dry road.

Andrew tucked the thick file under his arm.

Twice he had flown with his father to Moscow, and then on to Tersk in the foothills of the northern Caucasus, where some of the finest Arabian horses in the world are raised. Both times Churcher had slipped away to “meetings” and had returned ebullient and satisfied, the way he always did after closing one of his deals.

That his father had gone to see a woman didn’t occur to Andrew at the time. But, now, he recalled that day at the breeding farm in Tersk—the rapid guttural sound of the Russian auctioneers exhorting the bidding higher and higher; the babble of interpreters keeping clients in the competition for sales that averaged over $150,000; the barrel-chested horses prancing obediently to clipped Russian commands; the stink of hay and animal waste filling his head; the evaporating ammonia, so powerful it burned his eyes, making them water; then, the delicate aroma of perfume cutting through the stench like the scent of Texas lavender that blew through his rooms above the stables when the wind shifted direction—and the woman, willowy, white-skinned, jet black hair, red lips, soulful eyes, and the look—the fleeting current that passed between her and his father when she nodded to the auctioneer and outbid Theodor Churcher for an animal he wanted badly.

That his father had allowed it should have been proof enough, Andrew thought, but the sexually charged glance left no doubt. It had the hallmarks of smoldering intimacy, of nights spent passionately.

Andrew swept his eyes across the pastures that rolled to every horizon, trying to recall her face; but he couldn’t.

* * * * * *

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