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Cut And Run
By Carla Neggers
MiraCopyright © 2007 Carla Neggers
All right reserved.
Len Wetherall settled back against the delicate wrought-iron rail in front of the Club Aquarian, enjoying the sunny, cold mid-December afternoon. He was a people watcher, and there was no place better to watch people than New York. Here, for a change, he could do the watching; he wasn't always the one who was watched. He was three inches shy of seven feet tall, an ex-NBA superstar, black, rich, and a man of exquisite taste and enormous respon-sibilities. He knew he didn't blend in on the streets of SoHo any more than he did anywhere else. But here no one gave a damn.
People were moving fast, even for the city. Len watched a pink-haired woman in a raccoon coat swing around the corner, covering some ground. She had on red knit gloves and red vinyl boots, and her mouth was painted bright red. Her eyes--
Len straightened up, buttoning one button of his camel wool overcoat. Her eyes were the darkest emerald green, and he'd recognize them anywhere.
When she spotted him, she grinned, her teeth sparkling white against her bright lips. Even in the harsh afternoon light, her eyes were as mysteriously alluring as everything else about her. She came right up to him, stood on her tip-toes, and he bent down and planted a kiss on her overly madeup cheek. His wife, Merrie, couldn't understand why J.J. wanted to paint up her hair and face like that. "She must be a real light blond underneath that colored mousse she uses," Merrie hadsaid. "And I'll bet her skin's perfect. Why would she want to cover up all that?"
Why, indeed? But Len had learned not to ask J.J. Pep-per too many questions. She'd just give him one of her dazed looks, as if they weren't operating on the same plan-et, and avoid a straight answer. He'd asked her once how old she was, and she'd said, "Oh--around thirty." Like she was making herself up. The colored hair, the vintage clothes, the gaudy makeup, and the rhinestones were all a part of her look. They were what she wanted other people to see. Her package. During his fifteen years with the he should be packaged. He'd learned the hard way just to go on and be himself. J.J. would learn, too, sooner or later.
J.J. Pepper had first glided into the Club Aquarian that spring. The place had been open just one year, and already it was one of the hottest nightclubs in New York. Len had opened its doors shortly after his final season as a power forward with the Knicks. His original dream had been to start up his own down and dirty jazz joint, but if nothing else his years on the basketball court had taught him who he was and, maybe more important, who he wasn't. Down and dirty wasn't his style, and he wasn't a purist about jazz. He liked to mix in some popular, some soft rock, some easy classical, turn the musicians loose, and let them do their thing. He wanted his club to have a little polish, a certain cachet. Tall ceilings. He wanted it to be the kind of place where people could have a good time, wear their best clothes, be their best selves.
Looking at J.J. the first time, he didn't think she'd fit in. She'd had on one of her nutty outfits, a thirties dress and lots of rhinestones, and had plunked herself down at the baby grand, like, hell, baby, I belong here. Right then he'd known she had it, never mind the crazy lavender hair and the feeling she wasn't quite on the level with him.
She'd started to play, stopped after a few seconds, and turned to him. "Did you know this piano has a muddy bass?"
"That right," he said, noncommittal.
"I'll compensate today, but you should have it looked at."
"Sure, babe. I'll get right on it." Before he could pull her little butt off the bench, she'd started to play. Then he didn't want to stop her. He'd just stood there, listening. Her technique was awesome. He'd never heard such sounds come out of that piano, damned muddy bass or no damned muddy bass. But she didn't let go; she held on tight to all the notes she had memorized. He could feel something there inside her, waiting to get out.And when it did--man, he wanted to be there. The walls'd be shaking.
She played three tunes and stopped. She turned around on the bench and looked up at him with those pink and lav-ender streaked eyes for his verdict. She didn't seem winded or nervous. Len had the feeling that if he told her she wouldn't do, she'd just shrug her nice round shoulders and walk off, ego intact.
"Not bad, J.J." A fake name, he decided. Who the hell would call a kid with eyes like that J.J.? He didn't believe the Pepper, either.
"Thank you," she said, polite, but not what he'd have called relieved. She knew she was good.
"You need to let yourself go, put some heat into what you're doing."
She frowned, smacking her plum-colored lips together. "Improvise, you mean?"
"Yeah, improvise." He thought, bub, what're you get-ting yourself into? But then he heard himself say, "You can play the early crowds, some lunches if you want. I'm look-ested. We sometimes bring in a classical pianist. You know any Bach and Beethoven?"
"I'd prefer to stick to jazz and popular. When would you like me to start?"
"I can't start tomorrow night."
"I have a previous commitment."
"You playing another club?"
She wasn't going to explain. "What about Sunday?"
"You want to open me with a brunch?"
"Yeah. Earl Hines you're not, babe."
Those high, sweet white cheeks of hers got red.
She'd forgotten his damn name. "Wetherall," he sup-plied, deadpan. "Len Wetherall."
She'd never heard of him. Took her two weeks to figure out who he was. Told him she followed hockey, not basket-ball. He'd dropped the name Wayne Gretzky, but she'd just said, "Who?" It had been another one of those little inconsis-tencies. They all added up to a big fat lie, but Len had decided if J.J. Pepper ever wanted to level with him, then he'd listen.
Until then, he'd let her be whoever she wanted to be. "Hey, sweet cheeks," he drawled now, giving her a slow grin. Her eyes were done up in a glittery gold. "Good to see you. How was New Zealand?"
For a second she looked as if she didn't know what he was talking about, as if she'd forgotten she'd walked out on him four months ago to go mountain climbing in New Zealand. Then everything clicked and she laughed. "New Zealand was terrific."
He'd have believed she'd been to Yakutsk just as well. "Bring me back a sheep?"
Where'd she pick up postcards? Not in New Zealand, for damn sure. "You ready to play?"
She gave him a wide smile, and this time there was re-lief in it. "Sure."
"Then get in there. Later you can tell me about New Zealand."
"Be glad to."
The glint in her eyes told him she was having a grand time lying to him. But inside, the late afternoon crowd and the baby grand piano were waiting, and she seemed glad to see them both.
The Dutchman smoked a cigar as he stood alone on the park side of Central Park West at Eighty-first Street. Across from him on one corner was the sprawling Museum of Natural History, on the other, the prestigious Beresford. From his vantage point, he could review the two entrances to the Beresford on Eighty-first Street as well as the one on Central Park West. Doormen in green uniforms with gold braid were posted at each entrance. They didn't worry Hendrik de Geer, if he needed to, he could get past them. For now, he was only observing.
He saw the woman in the raccoon coat step out of a yel-low cab on Eighty-first, a wide, busy street that cut through the park. She said something to one of the doormen and was permitted to go inside. Her hair was pinkish blond. At first Hendrik had assumed it was a trick of the sunlight, but he soon realized he was mistaken and that, indeed, her hair was pink. She had left the Beresford a few hours ear-lier. He'd waited for her, smoking in the cold. He had to see her once more, to be sure.
He was sure now. She was Juliana Fall. He had seen her smile and her eyes. She could be no one else.
All at once the cigar tasted bitter. It was a Havana, his only extravagance. Johannes Peperkamp had given Hen-drik his first cigar when he was still just a boy, and he'd choked on the smoke and vomited, embarrassing himself in front of the older friend he'd so badly wanted to impress. Hendrik had long since stopped worrying about trying to impress anyone. All that interested him was survival. His judgment of character and his ability to size up a situation were quick and accurate, and over the years those abilities had helped him stay alive. As he grew older, he found him-self becoming increasingly dependent on his instincts. He could rely no longer upon the physical strength or the quickness of youth--or with his whitening blond hair and age-toughened, wrinkling skin, on its appearance. What he had was experience. Instincts.
His instincts now were telling him to run. He would need only to disappear, as he had many times in the past. It was a particular skill of his. He could do it.
He threw down the cigar and stamped it out with the heel of his boot. Then he turned around and walked through the stone gate into the park. My instincts, he thought, be damned.
Juliana Fall, aka J.J. Pepper, let the hot water of the shower rinse the last remnants of the pink mousse from her hair, and it felt as if a part of herself were being sucked down the drain. You're not J.J.! Yes, but wasn't J.J. real? Hadn't Len kissed J.J. on the cheek and hadn't the crowd at the Club Aquarian applauded J.J.?
J.J. existed. She was an aberration, perhaps, but she did exist. She had even taken over an entire bedroom in Juliana's sprawling, elegant apartment. It was decorated twenties-style, and the closet and drawers brimmed with vintage clothes and jewelry from between the two World Wars. J.J. fare. Juliana seldom was seen in anything but the latest designs from the collections of top designers.
Stepping out of the shower, Juliana wrapped herself in a giant soft white bathsheet and towel-dried her hair. In the mirror, she looked like herself again--blond-haired, pale-skinned, every bit the world-famous concert pianist. But her mind hummed with the chords of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Eubie Blake. Her autumn European tour--she hadn't stepped foot in New Zealand--was to have driven J.J. Pepper from her system, exorcised her, because J.J. was not a part of her but something that had possessed her.
At least that was what she'd told herself. But twenty-four hours back from Paris and still suffering jet lag, she was dressed in a thirties green satin dress and off to the Aquarian. She'd expected, hoped, dreaded Len would tell her to get lost. He hadn't. He'd told her to play. And, by God, had she!
She'd had a good time.
A hell of a good time.
J.J. Pepper was back, and Juliana Fall didn't know what to do about her. Tell Len the truth? Tell herself the truth? That she, Juliana Fall, was the pink-haired, free-spirited, jazz-playing J.J. Pepper?
She went into her own bedroom and put on a simple white Calvin Klein shirt, a straight black wool skirt, and a raspberry wool jacket. J.J.'s raspberry boots would have matched the outfit, but she chose instead her black Italian boots and passed over the raccoon coat for her black cash-mere. She was having dinner tonight with Shuji, and if there was one thing Eric Shuji Shizumi would never under-stand, it was J.J. Pepper. Shuji was a phenomenal pianist, a wild, intense, impatient genius who exhausted audiences with his thrilling performances. He was forty-eight, and in his long career, he'd taken on only one student: Juliana Fall. "And if he finds out about J.J.," she said aloud as she waited for the elevator, "he'll lop off your head with one of his authentic Japanese short swords."
He'd threatened to do the same for transgressions far less serious than playing jazz incognito in a SoHo nightclub.
Halfway to the lobby, she remembered she was still wearing J.J.'s gaudy rhinestone ring, which she snatched off, dropped into her handbag, and tried to forget.
Excerpted from Cut And Run by Carla Neggers Copyright © 2007 by Carla Neggers. Excerpted by permission.
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