Smoke Screen

Smoke Screen

by Kyle Mills

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451212788
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 4.32(w) x 6.72(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kyle Mills is the author of Sphere of Influence, Burn Factor, Free Fall, Storming Heaven, and Rising Phoenix.

Read an Excerpt

1

"So do you have to be naked to use the foosball table?"

At least that's what I think she said. The house's half-million-dollar sound system was being pushed to its limit by one of those repetitive, mechanical-sounding drones people slightly younger than me liked to listen to. I focused on her mouth as she spoke, trying to read her lips through the smoke and chaotic lighting, but found myself concentrating on their plump perfection instead.

I managed to turn slightly, bumping someone behind me and sending most of his beer down my back. It felt pretty good, so I shrugged off his apology and looked out across a dance floor so full that it made nonvertical motion completely impossible. On the downbeats, I could just make out some bare skin over the top of the pogoing crowd.

"I'm not really sure," I shouted loud enough for her to hear but not so loud as to shower her with spit. "I think it's more of a guideline."

She mulled that over for a moment. "Why?"

Now, that was a question that demanded an answer that was probably too long and complicated to get across in the current setting.

A hundred years ago, the house we were standing in had been the calculatedly imposing home of a wealthy plantation owner-a man who still sat, white suit and all, in an old daguerreotype above the toilet in one of the bathrooms. In its heyday, the house had been filled with European furniture, South American silver, and Chinese silk-all carefully maintained by a staff of ex-slaves who would have been well on their way to realizing that freedom was a more ethereal concept than they'd originally thought. Parties, frequent and lavish, would have been carefully planned to highlight the breeding and superiority of guests wandering stiffly through it and to nudge upward the social standing of the hosts.

All that was gone now, replaced by the previously mentioned sound system, an elaborate bar constructed out of an old VW microbus, no less than five big-screen TVs, concert lighting, and an undetermined number of sweating, occasionally naked, twenty-somethings. Outside, the once-stately gardens had been replaced with a twenty-person hot tub, a pool in the inexplicable shape of a star, and an inoperable crane that would soon be coaxing gravity-assisted projectile vomiting from aspiring bungee jumpers.

I shrugged as the girl and I sidestepped away from the expanding mass on the dance floor. I hadn't caught her name, or maybe I had and just couldn't remember. "I don't know. Tradition, I guess."

She tilted her head, causing her nose ring to flash hypnotically as she tried to decide if I was making fun of her.

I'd been trying to peg her age for the last fifteen minutes, but she was one of those people who seemed to gain and lose years with every change of expression. My current best guess was that she was a few years younger than me. Say, twenty-eight.

"You were telling me about your trip," I yelled, trying to divert the current flow of conversation, which would inevitably lead to questions about the infamous owner of the house-a subject to be avoided at all costs.

"After I left MIT, I did some traveling-you know, just put my bike on a plane went where it was cheap. I started in Europe...Have you ever been to Prague?"

I shook my head.

"Beautiful city-and you can hang out there for next to nothing. I rode across the Czech Republic-"

"By yourself?"

"Yeah. I was supposed to go with a bunch of friends, but they all got jobs right out of school and backed out on me. It was better, though, you know? I was kind of forced to dive into the local culture. The people were great-they took me in, let me stay at their houses...I even slept in barns sometimes with the cows."

I grinned, probably stupidly. "Really? Cows?"

"Hey, don't laugh. After a day of hammering your bike through the rain, you'd be psyched to curl up with a cow. They generate a lot of heat."

"Yeah, I guess I can see how they would..."

"So anyway, then I hopped a train and headed up to Scandinavia. Ever been to Copenhagen?"

A guy in a Superman costume climbed up on a pool table and dove into the crowd on the dance floor. I watched him surf along on a cushion of upturned hands and then get ejected onto the floor a few feet from us.

"Denmark? Huh uh."

"Nice place. Nice people. And everyone speaks English, which was a good change. But man, it's expensive. I only stayed a few days before I headed south again. I spent another month just cruising around and then shipped my bike back to my folks and headed for Asia. Ever been to Thailand?"

"Never."

"Really exotic. You should try to make a trip. Great food, super cheap."

"Yeah, one of these days. Hard to find the time, you know?"

"Yeah, they work you pretty hard here," she said, leaning in a little closer to my ear.

"I've only been at the company for six months. Kind of hard to make the adjustment from just screwing around all the time. What division do you work in? I haven't seen you around...Seems like I would have reme1mbered if I had."

I managed not to wince visibly when the cramped muscles at the base of my neck spasmed. Had that been an expression of interest?

The girl was beautiful, intelligent, looked good in a nose ring, told jokes about Tolstoy that were actually kind of funny, and was talking to me instead of one of the hundred other guys patrolling the area. I wasn't good under this kind of pressure.

She smiled, displaying a set of teeth that were well worth whatever her parents had paid for them. "Yeah, I definitely would have remembered."

First impressions of me were as varied as the personalities that formed them. I'm just a bit over six foot four, with thick shoulders and a narrow, well-defined waist that hasn't yet succumbed to my more-or-less sedentary lifestyle. It was a physique that provoked lust, envy, and intimidation, among other things.

My light blond hair, sun-deprived skin, and teeth that were overly white despite my best efforts to yellow them invited comparisons to angels and Nazis in roughly equal proportions.

The bad habit I had of holding conversations and maintaining relationships while almost never making eye contact made a few people paint me as shy, but most complain about my arrogance.

"I, uh, don't work for the company. I'm just friends with the owner," I stammered and then immediately cursed myself for being so stupid.

"Darius? You mean you know Darius? You're friends with him? No way!"

"Uh yeah. I guess I know him okay," I said, trying to backpedal.

Actually, we'd been best friends since the fifth grade. In fact, we'd been inseparable enough that Darius had followed me to Chico State, despite having nearly every Ivy League dean in the country willing to prostitute himself in surprisingly degrading ways to lure him to one of America's more esteemed learning institutions.

Honestly, I'd taken his willingness to drive me to California as just another excuse for a multistate crime spree. When we arrived-literally just hours ahead of the authorities-he'd disappeared, leaving me to wrestle my stuff out of the car and up the stairs to my dorm room. When he'd finally reappeared, he'd lost his shirt and socks, but gained a blanket, an alarm clock, and a full academic scholarship.

Five years later, with a total of thirty credit hours and a D average, security had escorted him from school grounds for the last time. So what did he do then? What any self-respecting college dropout would do: Stumbled drunkenly to the bank, withdrew the money he'd earned by skipping class and doing cutting-edge programming jobs, and started a computer game company. Now when God needed a loan, He called Darius.

"Is he here?" The Girl said.

I shrugged, and surprisingly the conversation moved back in my direction.

"So if you don't work here, what do you do?"

"I'm a, uh, trustafarian."

She scrunched up her nose in away that was irresistibly cute. "A trustafarian? What's a trustafarian?"

I considered my answer, sipping what was left of my warm vodka tonic to cover up the fact that I was stalling. As with all things, the answer to her question was a matter of perspective...

Trustafarian 'trst—'far-¯e-an n. 1: A person who inherited his or her money in the form of a trust, which pays said funds out in installments. 2: One who lives off the hard work and resourcefulness of dead relatives who weren't smart enough to blow their money on women and booze. 3: A person who lives well but contributes nothing of value to society. 4: A lazy, good-for-nothing leech on society who will never get anywhere in life with that attitude...

"So you don't do anything? Nothing at all?" She waved her hand around. "You go to parties?"

I sighed inaudibly at her description of the European-Arab ideal. In those more civilized societies, having old money and never working a day in your life made everyone think you were better than they were. It was so much more complicated in America.

"I work in the family business," I said.

She nodded, actually looking interested as opposed to just trying to wrangle the conversation back around to Darius the Great. When she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket, that expression of interest faded into one of apology.

"Do you mind?" she said, patting her pockets for a lighter. I pulled mine out and lit the cigarette for her.

"You want one?" she asked.

They weren't my brand but I took one anyway, lighting it and taking a characteristically shallow drag.

"You were telling me about your family's business," she shouted.

"Was I?"

"Well, you were about to."

Oddly, I am not a liar by nature. But I do occasionally succumb, if the lies are white and ultimately temporary.

"We invented those little felt things that go on the bottoms of chairs to keep them from scratching your floor."

"Felt?"

"Not felt per se-just the application of felt to the legs of furniture."

In my experience, it is virtually impossible to talk about felt for more than three minutes. The current record was about two and a half.

"Who'd have thought there was a ton of money in that?"

"There's not," I said. "Honestly, it's not a very good trust. But every little bit-"

I fell silent when I saw the well-defined edge of the crowd on the dance floor turn liquid and a small wave form as people briefly retreated toward the middle and then moved back out to the edge. I couldn't be sure what was causing the strange disturbance, but I had a pretty good guess.

"Every little bit what?" I heard The Girl say. I moved closer to her and turned toward the wall, trying to hide and block her from view at the same time. It was too late, though. The volume of the music started to decline at an almost imperceptible rate and was soon down to a level that would allow communication at a slightly more dignified volume.

"Programmer. Tina. New, right?"

Darius tended to talk like that. Single. Words. Particular order? None. I stepped reluctantly aside and he moved in, casually smoothing the silky brown hair hanging loosely around his shoulders. For some reason-sheer willpower probably-the blue-tinted, rectangular glasses he loved so much hadn't been fogged by the wet heat surrounding us and he peered over them at the girl whose name I now knew.

"Um, yeah, right...," Tina said, compulsively twisting her hair around her index finger. "How did you know?"

Darius put his hands out in front of him and wiggled his fingers like a proud magician. The music faded another subtle notch. "I own the company. I know all. I've never seen you here. Is this your first party?"

She nodded.

These little get-togethers were invitation-only, and the guest list was one of the few things Darius didn't delegate these days. He knew damn well that this was her first time here and had undoubtedly not invited her until now because he was backlogged with all the other beautiful young employees his personnel department had amassed.

"Are you having a good time?"

"Really good!" she said-not quite gauging the new sonic environment correctly. The answer, or more precisely, the overly loud and nervous delivery of it, seemed to please Darius.

"I was...I was just talking to your friend," Tina said. "He was telling me about his job." She turned to me, a little wider-eyed than she'd been earlier, willing me to speak and make sure she didn't make a fool of herself in front of DariSoft's President, CEO, and Svengali.

Darius's head swiveled in my direction, but his body remained squared to Tina's. It was hard for me to see him the way Tina did. I'd become accustomed to how hot he burned, but I'd experienced his initial effect on people enough times to understand a little of what she was feeling. I pretended to be jostled by the throng behind me and stepped into Tina again, shoving Darius aside.

"Man, it's crazy in here," I said. "Why don't we catch up with you outside, Darius. I know how much you hate crowds."

He looked at me the way my father used to when I back-talked him. "You trying to get rid of me, Trevor?" We locked eyes for a moment, and I backed up a step.

"So he was telling you about his job, huh...," Darius said to Tina, glancing over at me as he spoke. Thoughts of twisting his head off like a bottle cap flew across my mind, but instead I just stood there.

"Let me guess. Porta Potties?"

I stared down at my beer-soaked feet, but I could feel Tina's eyes on me. I wasn't sure whether that was out of growing suspicion or the fact that gazing upon Darius with the naked eye was difficult for some people. I took another shallow drag on the cigarette she'd given me.

"No?" I heard Darius say. "Hmm. Electric nose hair clippers?"

No audible response from Tina, but I guessed that she was shaking her head.

"We're not back to those little felt things you put on chairs, are we?"

Still nothing from Tina. Nodding, I suppose.

Darius slung an arm around my stooped shoulders and laughed, then took a dramatic pull from the bottle of Jack Daniel's that he was rarely without at these parties.

"So your family didn't invent those felt things?" I heard Tina say.

You'd think I'd have devised a clever way out of these types of situations, but for some reason I never had.

"Are you kidding?" Darius said, giving me a friendly squeeze. "Trevor's family practically invented the tobacco industry in this country."

And there it was.

I dared a quick peek and, as expected, she was looking down at the cigarette in her hand.

The next few seconds would be critical. In my experience, nine out of ten young, healthy smokers halfheartedly supported the industry that provided them with such a pleasurable, relaxing, weight-controlling, image-enhancing product. The other one acted as though they'd met their future murderer.

"Another liar from the tobacco industry," Tina said, dropping her cigarette into what was left of my drink. Darius and I watched her push her way through the crowd and finally disappear through the doors that led to the pool.

"Bitch doesn't have much of a sense of humor, does she?" He had an expression of what could only be described as anesthetized pain on his face. I frowned.

"What's that look for?" he said, putting his bottle to my cup and filling it, despite the fact that it still contained Tina's cigarette. I kept my disapproving glare aimed an him, and he glared back.

"Oh, quit pouting, Trevor. You're acting like a big baby. She was going to find out anyway."

He'd never looked away first in all the years I'd known him. I finally turned slightly and pretended to scan the crowd.

"Why don't you just come to work for me, Trev? Chicks dig computer programmers." He took another belt from his bottle and his arm across my shoulders became less an act of friendship than a means to stay upright.

"No they don't."

"Better than tobacco industry bigwigs."

"I don't know anything about computers."

"You could bring us coffee."

He laughed until he doubled over and started coughing. Being the helpful soul I am, I slapped him on the back hard enough to almost cause his knees to buckle beneath him. He wisely moved to a safer distance, smoothed his hair one last time, and then sped off after Tina.

—from Smoke Screen by Kyle Mills, Copyright © 2003 Kyle Mills, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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Smoke Screen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book veers away from the traditional thriller formula in a refreshing way. If you are looking for a book that takes on a social issue, while poking fun at the individuals who are involved with the issue, then this is the book for you. I recommend this book along with all of Kyle Mills novels.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i've read his other novels,so i was very excited about this book. it was verrrrrrrrrry disappointing. if you must --borrow it from the library!