On Thin Ice
Sasha Miller thought she’d put the past behind her, but she can’t escape the loneliness of her life or the scandal generated by her former skating partner. Then she meets Mick Vinicor. Radiating raw power and magnetism, he isn’t shy about letting Sasha know what he wants from her.
She wants to trust Mick in a way she’s never trusted a man before. But while she’s passionately drawn to him, she can’t guess at the high-stakes game he’s playing. Because Mick isn’t who he seems. And soon Sasha will find herself tied to a string of mysterious deaths– and about to become the next victim.
Between the Covers
- The idea for ON THIN ICE began scratching for attention at the back of my mind one long ago evening as I watched an ice-skating competition on television. Entire plots do not roll like movies in this kid’s head, but I could actually see bits and pieces of how this story might ultimately fit together. Trouble was, what the heck do I know about professional ice-skating? Sure, I’d been watching the sport for years, yet aside from the fact that it’s graceful, pretty, and I like it, what I actually know about it would fit on the head of a pin with room left over for a hoe down. But in that Six-Degrees-of-Separation thing, my friend Marilyn Hansen, who used to live next door to my mother, just happened to have a lifelong friend who’d skated professionally with the now defunct Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies. Her name was Alda Hewes, she lived across the state from me, and when Marilyn called her, she agreed to an interview.
I am long, long overdue paying my debt of gratitude to her. Any flavor of authenticity that ON THIN ICE may have, I owe to Alda. I should have thanked her in the first edition of the book itself, but there was a great deal of lag time between the interview and publication, and to my shame it slipped by me. I would like to thank her now. Alda Hewes, you are a gracious and generous woman, and I appreciate the information and color commentary you provided on the world of competitive and professional ice-skating. You brought it to life for me, and I can only hope I did half as well for those who read this book.
Awards + Kudos
- 12-10-02 : ON THIN ICE debuts at #9 on the Waldenbook Top Ten for week ending November 30th and moves up to #7 for week ending December 7th. Have you read it yet?
Read an Excerpt
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 the backdoor of the Thai restaurant, on the alert for any employee stepping out to have a smoke. He noticed, without actually registering, the dog who nosed through the spilled refuse next to the dumpster; then felt his attention once again compulsively drawn back to his supplier’s hands. Snuffling impatiently, he stared with ill-conceived 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 making people 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?”
Asshole,” the junkie thought when the supplier finally tired of taunting him and got down to business. But he didn’t say anything.
He didn’t dare. If the transaction was cut short before the skag 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 directly on 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 into the spoon and heated it over the butane flame. Within moments, he was drawing the liquid up into the syringe. He picked up a length of surgical tubing and tied it off just above his elbow.
But no matter how much 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 shoes. After yanking off his sock, he tied the tubing 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 infused 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, toiletry bag, and overnighter, went outside.
The baggage compartment gaped open, a black hole just below the silver logo, FOLLIES ON ICE, on the side of the midnight blue vehicle. 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 sheepish 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 nothing 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 blue? “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 bit 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 toiletry bag in the seat next to hers, and opening it, began to apply makeup with a light hand.
She was cleansing her fingers with a pre-moistened 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 re-opening the baggage compartment.”
She climbed breathlessly aboard. “Wouldn’t dream of asking, Jack.”
With a disgruntled grunt, 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 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 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 3:45. We probably passed each other in transit.”
Connie regarded her friend closely. “I don’t know what the hell is 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 made conciliatory noises and changed 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. 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. That was 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 sure-fire way to pass time, and 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 options– the scandal of his arrest had rocked the ice dancing 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. In order to remain a skater, she’d 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 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 Skate 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 quadruple. 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 hitters– the power endorsements.
Well, big stinkin’ deal. Lon wasn’t busting 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.
“That’s Special Agent 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 get 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 phase 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.”
“You called him a cocksucker, Vinicor!”
“Yeah, well, sorry about that, too. But in my own defense, sir, he called me an asshole. Now you know as well as I do that assholes are anyone who’s not DEA, sir– and especially not a DEA street hump.” Vinicor grinned crookedly. “Lets me out.”
“Oh, what the hell,” McMahon suddenly capitulated. “He was only FBI anyhow.”
Mick swallowed a laugh. His butt was saved only because he’d had the good fortune to threaten an FBI agent instead of one of the DEA’s own. You had to love it.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigations had a standing rivalry. A 1982 Attorney General’s order directing a coordinated effort between the two agencies had set the tone when it required the DEA administrator to report to the AG through the Director of the FBI.
It was an order that had never once been followed and one the Attorney General was wisely considering rescinding. He much preferred that both agency heads continued to report directly to him anyway, having learned the hard way that day to day informal coordination worked much more successfully than any attempts at a formal arrangement. Even then it required the Deputy Attorney General to oversee operational matters and resolve disputes between the two agencies.
Mick’s supervisor had been shuffling through some papers on his desk. Finding what he wanted, he looked up at him. “So. You ready for a new assignment?”
Mick hesitated. The truth was he knew he was in serious danger of burning out. Deep cover required an agent to sleep, breathe, and eat his role twenty-four hours a day, for however many days were necessary to see an assignment through to its completion. A field agent, or hump as they were known in the lexicon, was out there all on his own with no one to back him up and armed, more often than not, with nothing more substantial than a bullshit story and his acting ability.
That part Mick could live with. Hell, his own mother had once said he was such a good liar that he was bound to end up either a con artist or a politician… and of the two, she had added, she sort of hoped he’d opt for con artist. No, the part that affected his general attitude these days was that even when he did make a righteous bust, it seemed the suits and the politicians were invariably standing in line just waiting for an opportunity to undo all his hard work. Mick’s belief in actually making any kind of difference in the war on drugs had been wearing increasingly thin.
Then McMahon said persuasively, “This is undercover, Vinicor, not deep cover. Hell, it’d be like a day at the beach for you.” He tossed a file on the desk.
Mick resisted the temptation to see what it contained for about forty five seconds before he broke down and scooped it up. A loose snapshot slid from the folder and he plucked it off the desktop.
“Ice skaters?” Mick looked incredulously from the picture to his supervisor. “You want me to bust a coupla kid ice skaters?” Looking back down, he ran the side of his thumb over the woman in the picture. A definite looker– too bad she was a baby.
“They’re Miller and Morrison,” McMahon said, coming around the desk to stand next to Mick. He looked down at the snapshot. “Sasha Miller and Lon Morrison. And they ain’t kids no more; this was taken quite a while ago.”
“So what’s the history?”
“Several years back they were some big deal, hot-shot sensation on the amateur figure skating circuit. Won top prizes in about every competition goin’, I guess. Can’t remember the exact dates, but if you need ’em they’re in here.” He thumped his forefinger against the folder Mick still held.
Mick tore his eyes away from the woman’s face in the photograph and looked up at McMahon. “What’s any of this got to do with me?”
“Well, a funny thing begin to happen around the ole ice rink, Mick. Everywhere Miller and Morrison competed, high grade heroin began showin’ up on the streets. Skag so pure it had junkies dropping like flies.” McMahon rubbed his palm over his balding scalp and frowned. “We got Morrison in a sting, nailed him dead to rights for distributing. I’m pretty damn sure he was recruited by Quintero but we couldn’t get the kid to flip, not even when faced with murder two. Actually, because he didn’t show up in NADDIS — hell, didn’t have any priors at all– in the end he got off fairly lightly: seven-to-ten in minimum security. The girl was never implicated and went her merry way without him. She’s still skating. She won the silver at the Winter Olympics, then went professional. That shoulda been the end of the story.”
“But there were kilos of heroin never accounted for, Vinicor, and now the shit’s turning up again. Gotta be the same stuff– it’s knockin’ off junkies like ducks in a shooting gallery. We’ve had reports from San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Fresno. You name it; if it’s a city of any size in California, we’ve heard from them.”
“So you want me to investigate Morrison.”
“Nah, Morrison’s due to be sprung soon, but at the moment he’s still in lockup.” McMahon thumped his finger against the woman in the snapshot. “I want you to nail Miller.”
Mick felt a tiny pulse of excitement but sternly suppressed it. “If she checked out clean the first time around,” he said, deliberately playing devil’s advocate, “what makes you think she’s got anything to do with it now?”
McMahon passed him a full page advertisement from Variety for an upcoming engagement for Follies on Ice. He pointed out Sasha Miller’s photograph. Leaning closer, Mick looked it over, studying it carefully. He read her name in bold print beneath the full body shot and beneath that, in finer print, U.S. champion and Olympic silver medalist.
“Now look at the itinerary,” McMahon said.
Mick flipped to the next page and scanned the contents. “San Diego, LA, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Jose, San Francisco,” he murmured. He looked up at his supervisor. “We’ve got a trail of dead junkies matching the dates the ice show appeared in these cities, I take it.”
McMahon pointed a finger at him and cocked his thumb. He pulled the trigger. “Got it in one.”
“How many kilos involved?” Mick inquired.
For the first time McMahon looked uncomfortable. “Uh… seventeen.”
“Oh for…” Mick tossed the folder aside in disgust, watching as the advertisement floated to the desk in its wake. “Call the local Narcs,” he advised flatly. The DEA dealt in cases where seizure of heroin and cocaine was counted in tonnage. It didn’t say much for the American way of life that they’d come such a long way since the seventy kilos seized in the French Connection just thirty years ago.
McMahon shook his head. “Can’t do that. The show stays in one town maybe three-four days before it moves on to the next one. In the bigger cities like LA and Frisco it maybe stays a week. It’s due into Sacramento tomorrow and when it leaves there it crosses state line into Oregon.”
“Let the FBI have them then.”
McMahon just looked at him and Mick rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. The FBI always attempted to dismantle an entire drug trafficking organization in a single law enforcement operation. When they’d identified principal members and gathered sufficient evidence to prosecute, they tried to arrest all the leaders and key members at one time. One little independent skater wasn’t going to grab their attention, even if her product was killing off junkies faster than you could say habeas corpus. “Shit,” Mick muttered in disgust.
McMahon was looking down at the picture of Sasha Miller on the desk. “Man, she had me fooled,” he admitted. “Pure as the driven snow, I woulda said.” He frowned and scratched at his scalp. “Well, no, that’s not exactly right. You should see this girl skate, Vinicor. Babe’s so hot I’m surprised the ice don’t melt– hell, I didn’t know they could get away with that kind of sexy stuff in a family ice show.”
Shaking off the memory, he met his agent’s gaze. “But I tell ya honestly, when it came to the scam I coulda sworn she was being straight about not knowing what her partner was up to. His arrest sure as hell seemed to knock her on her pretty little butt.” He swore softly and shook his head again. “Just goes to show you, I guess. There’s no fool like an old fool.”
“Well, don’t let it get you down,” Mick advised, for once feeling a trace of empathy for a suit. “We all get conned one time or another and a pretty little honey with big baby blues and a patter that makes her appear vulnerable is a better reason than most of the excuses I’ve heard for an agent getting rooked.”
He rubbed his thumb back and forth over Sasha Miller’s picture in the Variety advertisement on the desk, tracing the pretty curl of her lips with the edge of his nail. Then his eyes snapped up and met his supervisor’s dead on. “I’ll promise you something, though,” he flatly vowed. “If this is the woman responsible for distributing the tainted skag up and down the West Coast, I’ll personally bring you her head. Hand delivered on a platter.”