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Play To Kill

P.J. Tracy

Prologue

    From top to bottom and everywhere in between, Minnesota was a bleak and frigid place in January, whether you were shivering on a blizzard-swept western prairie or paralyzed under a foot of snow smack in the middle of Minneapolis. But there was no greater sense of winter desolation than on the north shore of Lake Superior, where the big water that looked like an ocean was forever pushing enormous blocks of sharded ice against one shore or another.

    The past two weeks had been particularly cruel to the lake. A parade of low-pressure systems had stalled, battling each other for command of the winds, freezing the great body of water almost to the horizon line. It was profoundly disturbing to see something so powerful completely subdued, like King Kong in chains on a Broadway stage.

    Randy Coulter had a lot of empathy for the lake, because he knew what it felt like to be the helpless victim of a greater force, trapped by circumstances he was powerless to change. But that was the old Randy - the new, improved Randy finally had the power to make things happen. And if he could muster the guts, he'd make something happen today.

    The trail on the edge of the cliff provided spectacular winterscape views for the snowshoers and cross- country skiers who frequented the winter resorts along the shore,

    and their numbers were legion in the week between Christmas and New Year's. City dwellers accustomed to the protective environment of crosswalks and guardrails flocked to the north in a foolish fit of adventure, where you actually had to rely on your own good sense instead of the nanny state to keep you safe.

    Randy slipped out of his snowshoes and off the groomed trail, testing each step toward the edge of the cliff with a pole to make sure there was frozen earth beneath the windswept snow. The closer he got to the lip of eternity, the colder the wind that blew on his face. He began to despair, thinking that no would-be athlete would venture out on such a day, when the barometer rose and the temperatures plummeted. They were all inside their cozy cabins and resort rooms, frolicking in hot tubs or drinking in front of a fire, and Randy would be the only soul to see this cliff today.

    He had to drop to the snow on his stomach to safely examine the magnificent sight over fifty feet below him. The shoreline bristled with stalagmites of frozen water that vaulted upward from the shore like monstrous icy teeth, just waiting for something substantial to gnaw on. 'Beautiful,' he whispered.

    'Hey. You okay?'

    Randy nearly tumbled over the edge at the sound of a male voice behind him, and then looked over his shoulder and saw everything he would never be. From the logo on the Gore-Tex suit he knew immediately that the man drove a foreign sports car and had left a probably augmented blonde woman back in his cabin, and for a moment he felt himself shrink away, curl inside himself, until he remembered the power. 'Thank God,' he said, and the man's waxed brows moved into a frown.

    'Are you hurt, buddy? How can I help?'

    Randy closed his eyes. 'I think there's a body down there,' he whispered, rising to his feet. 'I didn't know what to do…'

    'You're kidding'

    'No, really.'

    'Jesus Christ.'

    'Do you have a cell phone?'

    'Sure. Let me get a look first.'

    'Okay, but be careful. It's a little slick out here near the edge.'

    The man removed his snowshoes, moved cautiously toward the edge and peered over. 'I don't see anything.'

    'You have to come further this way. Those ice spikes block the view… oh, man, this is horrible, I've never seen anything like this…' Randy felt the man's hand come down firmly on his shoulder. Oddly, he found the touch comforting.

    'Take it easy, buddy. Just relax, take a breath. It's down there?'

    Randy didn't have to fake the tears. They came on their own, and he couldn't imagine why. 'Right… down… there…' he pointed, and when the man leaned forward to follow his finger, Randy locked his knees and braced his legs and pushed against the man's back with all the strength he had.

    The wind carried away the prolonged scream as Randy just stood there, looking out toward the horizon, his face expressionless. It might have been seconds or hours when he finally fell to his stomach again and peered over the edge.

    It looked like Mr. Gore-Tex was humping one of the ice stalagmites, and Randy thought that was pretty funny.

    'I told you there was a body down there,' he whispered, then pulled a tiny video camera out of his parka pocket and hit the zoom button.

Chapter One

    Alan squinted hard at his three faces in the Tiara's bathroom mirror, trying without any real success to bring a single reflection into focus. But even with his vision swimming and pixilated by vodka, he could see enough to know he looked like a Picasso portrait of Liza Minnelli. His false eyelashes were drooping like tired spiders, spinning crazy webs of mascara down his cheeks, and his smeared lips looked slightly askew, a scarlet counterbalance for his cockeyed wig that was tipping to the opposite side.

    His billowy white dress had also suffered the indignity of his twelve-hour party day, and it was shedding pearls like a vomiting oyster.

    He cringed as he tried to tease out snippets of the evening from his memory, but there were a lot of black spots in the matrix. Sweet Jesus Lord Almighty, he was drunk. How many martinis had he had? Two at home, another four or five at Camilla's place for sure, and then there had been an unrelenting succession of those disgusting, tragically pink cocktails here at the club, pushed on him by the new Dominican bartender who'd been so guileless in sharing the various intimate locations of his body piercings.

    The thought of needles being poked into certain sensitive areas of a male's anatomy sent his stomach into turmoil, and he leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on his face until the nausea subsided.

    When he finally felt sturdy enough, he pushed himself into an upright position and aimed his compass for the nearest exit. The night was young, there were still some A-list parties he was planning to attend, and he needed to sober up before he did, especially if he was going to perform. Fortunately, Camilla had given him the key to her condo, which was just a few blocks away if he went as the crow flies and took the riverside walking path. He'd take a shower, drink some juice, and he'd be up and running again just in time for the drag show.

    It was never easy negotiating the path along the Mississippi in four-inch stilettos, even with your sense of equilibrium intact; and it was harder still when you were wearing a fabulous pair of Dolce & Gabbanas you just had to have because they were fifty percent off at Neiman's, even though they were a size too big. He'd stuffed the toes with cotton balls and had doubled up some duct tape and put it in the heels, because dancing to 'It's Raining Men' wasn't exactly a minuet, and he needed the extra security. But he was still slipping in and out of them as he half-careened, half- bulldozed down the path, and at one point he stumbled, fell, and came to lying in a nest of damp, putrid-smelling weeds so close to the river, he could hear the hiss of water in

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