An icy stare pierced the back of his head. He tensed, breath caught in his throat. Someone was watching him. His pulse quickened, racing with the pounding beat.
Drawing a deep breath, he quelled the urge to turn and scan the packed nightclub. Scores of people stood three and four deep at the bar. Crowded tables were crammed so closely together, servers could scarcely maneuver. The eager brunette at his elbow would have to wait.
“I’m so sorry. I wish I could get to know you better.” He smiled and shrugged. “A previous appointment.”
He caught the bartender’s eye and gave him a hundred dollar bill. “This ought to cover it, Nick. Oh, and this lovely lady’s drink too.” He nodded, smiling at the brunette, and wove his way through the crowd.
Outside, the air was crisp and cold. Stepping to the curb, he climbed into the waiting car.
The Mercedes S-Class Sedan sped north up Michigan Avenue, his driver weaving in and out of traffic that was sporadic at one o’clock in the morning. In the back seat, he pulled up the latest edition of the Chicago Tribune on his iPad, clicking on the Main News section.
Scanning the headlines, the byline beneath the first credited Dan Dreisen. The second read Sam Haskins. The third byline hit pay dirt: Bill Fisher. His eyes flew to the picture and locked on the credit. “Tribune photo by Lindsey Morrison.”
The formula was holding. It had to be a partnership.
He leaned back and smiled slowly. A woman. His smile broadened. Lindsey. Lindsey Morrison.
The odor surged out even before I slid inside the taxi. Pine. Chemical pine. Nauseating pine. All from three reeking cardboard pine trees swinging from the cabby’s rear view mirror. I rolled my eyes and got in anyway. This was miles away from being the biggest mistake I’d made today.
No, the biggest mistake I’d made today was turning down a cup of coffee with the man still standing on the curb in the falling snow.
With five-star effort, I refused to stare out the rear window. I would have kicked myself, but I knew it was futile. My frozen legs were numb. “The Tribune Tower,” I directed the driver through chattering teeth. Eying his turban, I hoped he spoke English. “On Michigan Avenue just north of the river,” I added.
“Yes, miss.” Twisting the wheel and slamming his foot to the floor, he drove us careening through the slushy streets of Chicago’s Chinatown that at eight-twenty in the evening were nearly empty. His radio jabbered an indecipherable language that might have been Farsi or even Pashtu for all I knew.
I pushed my camera and backpack across a seat held together with silver duct tape and leaned back trying to ignore the pine stench. All in all, it had been a truly rotten day. I was going to check in at the office, download the photos on my SD Card and go home. And once my legs thawed out, I was going to kick myself. Hard.
I couldn’t believe I’d turned him down. Okay, it wouldn’t have been a real date, but it would have been a move in the right direction. God knew I hadn’t had a real date in… No, I couldn’t remember that far back.
Not that I’m unattractive. Okay, I’m not drop dead gorgeous either, but I can hold my own if you go for pale blondes with dark brown eyes. Dressed up with a little eye shadow, mascara, lip gloss, the right clothes, the right shoes, I can turn a man’s head.
The problem is, stiletto heels can be a real pain in the ass when you’re halfway up a lamppost looking for the best angle.
See I’m a shooter, a photographer, for the Chicago Tribune. Which is fine for paying the rent; lousy for a social life. My looks aren’t the issue. A love life takes time. Lots of time.
I didn’t have any time.
By devoting every waking hour to the job, I’d managed to get promoted to the daily city desk in a little over four years. Close to a record at the Trib. All it took was a lot of pushing, a lot of shoving and a lot of tough high profile work that got noticed by all the right people.
I live for international news, my passion, but the system said I had to work through city and national first. Not easy for someone as impatient as I was. A shooter’s job consists mainly of waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
Take today. I’d spent all morning in a stuffy overheated room at City Hall waiting with forty other media people for the mayor to show up for yet another press conference on his still-in-limbo city budget. And the mayor was late. Very late. What’s worse, my editor had assigned Sam Haskins as the writer on the story.
Of all the writers on the main news desk, Haskins was the scummiest. For a morning press conference, the city always put out bagels and coffee to feed the hungry lions. I could count on Haskins to make a beeline to the free food every time. “Hey, Morrison,” he’d yelled from clear across the room, “I’ll betcha the mayor’s more than forty-five minutes late. I win, we go to my place. You win, you get to tie me up.”
It turned out, the mayor was over two hours late because he was holed up in a private meeting with the FBI.
Then we heard from the mayor that undercover agents had tracked a shipment of three tiger skins, twelve leopard skins, 110 kilograms of tiger and leopard bone, 36 tiger claws, 181 leopard claws, two leopard teeth and one tiger penis to the Shu Wah Natural Health Center in Chicago’s Chinatown. And that was only part of the story: A live tiger had been found on the premises.
That was the makings of my afternoon. And evening. Sam exited early to go back to the office to crank out yet another city budget story only Norm, our editor, cared about. I spent the rest of the day at the Shu Wah Natural Health Center.
Around three in the afternoon Bill Fisher had joined me, his gaping overcoat pockets stuffed with a couple of still warm, squashed, corned beef sandwiches. Bill didn’t like to miss lunch, and he didn’t like his shooters to miss lunch either. Truth be told, Bill drank too much, smoked too much and seriously didn’t care about fat counts, cholesterol, lung cancer or calories, but Bill was a good friend and a great colleague.
Assigned to the Chinatown tiger story, Bill spent the rest of the afternoon and evening interviewing everybody and anybody he could get his notepad next to. And I waited.
About six o’clock it started to snow. The kind of snow you get at Chicago’s lakefront, the thick, dense, can’t-see-two-feet-in-front-of-your-face kind. Within half an hour there was an inch of feathery white on the ground, and it was still coming down.
Not two hours later, five inches were piled up, and it was coming down even harder. Bill and I were circling the outside of the Shu Wah Natural Health Center trying to keep our circulation going. I couldn’t have been any colder or wetter if you’d pushed me into Lake Michigan. Even my ponytail was an icicle.
I’d taken hundreds of pics, but I hadn’t gotten the shot I needed: The tiger. There’d been no go-ahead, no approval, no permissive nod. No one was even talking about photos of the tiger. I hadn’t even seen the tiger.
We were about the only media people left, and I figured Bill was only staying because he felt guilty about leaving me alone. It certainly wasn’t because he thought he was going to get some big scoop when and if Shu Wah ever appeared. Shu Wah was probably in Nicaragua by now, and if he wasn’t, he was a fool.
About eight o’clock I saw three men in overcoats coming out the front door. Bill was trying to remember a joke that didn’t sound very promising, and I interrupted. “Heads up.” I gave him a quick elbow jab. “Who’s that?”
Bill glanced up. “Feds.”
I brought the camera to my face, focusing quickly. As the three men strode toward us, Bill took a step forward. “Bill Fisher, Chicago Tribune. Can you comment on the condition of the tiger?”
Head down, the guy in the middle growled, “No.”
“Can we get photos of the tiger now?” I asked.
The man on the right looked up and motioned inside the store. “Ask the Director. Tall guy, black hair.”
Inside the tiny store was a shambles, elbow-to-elbow crowded. At least two dozen men wearing plastic gloves were taking what looked like every bottle, box and bag in the miniscule shop. Odd smells, musty and pungent, filled the stale air. Carts and baskets filled with confiscated goods lined the only two aisles.
A guy inside the front door extended an arm, stopping us. “Who are you?”
Bill showed him his press card. “Chicago Tribune.”
“Don’t touch anything,” the guy warned.
A group of men stood in the back of the store where another door was propped open. Snow was blowing in. Surreptitiously clicking shots, I could see one guy had a long white lab coat under his unbuttoned overcoat. Another grasped a brown leather bag, a stethoscope slung around his neck. A tall black-haired man was talking earnestly with them both, his breath an erratic cloud in the cold air.
“That the guy?” I asked Bill, nodding toward the back.
Bill’s eyes were focused on the group. “Yeah. You go around the side. I’ll get the permission.”
Moving quietly, I slipped through the crowd of people and peered out the open door, squinting against the huge snowflakes blowing in my face.
A heavy metal cage, not large, maybe fourteen feet by eighteen nearly filled the entire outside enclosure. A tiger lay on his side in the cage, motionless. I wasn’t sure the tiger was alive until I saw the thin puff of white as he exhaled.
The big cat was emaciated, bones visible even under the snow. His eyes were closed, all four paws bloody and misshapen. Big patches of fur were missing. He looked ragged, skeletal. Near death.
I raised the camera to my face and shot a dozen or so pics. Cautiously I stepped out the door and down two steps.
“What the hell are you doing?” a deep authoritative voice thundered.
I looked to the top of the steps. Fierce black eyes glared at me. Startled, it took a moment for me to realize he was the FBI director, his mouth compressed into a hostile scowl. “Taking a few photos. Lindsey Morrison, Chicago Tribune.” I smiled my most winning smile.
“Give me that camera,” he demanded, thrusting out his hand. “No pictures of the tiger.”
“I put everything on an SD Card,” I said quickly.
“Then give me the damn SD Card!” he ordered.
I hurriedly scanned the crowd for Bill and found him moving toward the door. He was shaking his head. “Sorry, Lindsey.” Disappointment etched his face.
Turning to the director, I gave it another try. “This is a significant story. This could be Page One.”
The black eyes narrowed. “I said, ‘No pictures.’ That poor bastard has suffered enough. He’s not going to spend his last few minutes posing for pathetic pictures to sell your damn newspaper. Get out of here.”
Frozen, fumbling a little, I pulled the SD Card from the camera and dropped it into his hand.
Turning for one last look at the tiger, I could see he hadn’t moved. I could barely see the puffs of breath. The heavy snow had buried the tiger’s coat, hiding the orange and black stripes in a blanket of white.
“Can’t you at least move him somewhere warmer?” I asked. I took a deep breath and bit my lip. “Or drape something over the cage?” That was better.
“We are doing everything possible for the welfare of the cat which includes not using him as a promotional item for the Chicago Tribune.” Still scowling, the FBI director took my arm, yanking me up the short flight of steps.
His hand gripping my elbow, I felt my head swirling in the pull of that furious black gaze.
“Sir,” Bill started, “if I could just get a brief comment on…”
The Director shifted his eyes to Bill. “Go,” he said, his voice low. “No photos and no interviews. You’re finished here.”
* * *
Back on the street, Bill heaved a big sigh and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Well, that’s it. Somewhere in this town there’s a double Jack Daniels calling my name. Wanna join me?”
I frowned. “What about the tiger? What are they going to do with him?”
Bill shrugged. “Don’t know. The guy with the lab coat, you saw him?”
I nodded in a sudden flurry of snow, struggling to see through the white flakes clinging to my eyelashes.
“He’s the big cat vet from Brookfield Zoo, and the other guy, he’s from Lincoln Park Zoo. They’ll figure out what to do.”
“He didn’t look very good to me,” I said.
Bill shrugged again. “He’s not good. One of the vets told me his blood count’s so low, it’s practically off the scale.”
I could feel my eyes narrow. “Why?”
“Tiger blood is a primary ingredient in some of the ‘natural health’ medicines Shu Wah was selling. People come from all over the country to get it. All over the world. Shu Wah figured if he could keep the tiger alive, he’d have an endless supply.”
“Of tiger blood?” I was aghast.
“And fur and claws, bones and organs. It’s a lucrative business. Very lucrative. The body parts of one tiger alone are worth over a hundred thousand bucks on the black market.”
Snow was cold on top of my head, but I didn’t care anymore. “So they were selling off bits and pieces of this live tiger? For how long?”
“That’s what I’m gonna find out, but not here, not now. These folks are done talking.” Bill raked a bare hand over his head, sweeping off a layer of snow. “Hey, that Jack Daniels is still yellin’ my name. You joining me or not?”
“I’m going home to a hot bath.”
“How about I join you?” Bill wriggled his bushy ice-coated eyebrows up and down.
I brushed the melting snow off my face and tried to smile. “Thanks, but no.”
Bill gave up good-naturedly. “Okay, kiddo. See you in the morning.”
I watched him shuffle down the sidewalk, kicking through the mounds of snow. By the time Bill got to the corner, I couldn’t see him through the snow anymore. I could hear him though, whistling a barely recognizable rendition of “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” More upset about the tiger than I wanted to admit, I waited until I couldn’t hear him anymore either, and then I started looking for a cab.
Of course, you can’t get a cab in Chicago if the weather is crappy. You can only get a cab if it’s seventy-five degrees, sunny, with a light breeze and you’d really rather be walking. Then you can get dozens of cabs.
This was about as far from sunny and seventy-five degrees as you could get so it didn’t surprise me there weren’t any cabs.
Scanning the nearly empty street, less than a dozen cars on the road and even fewer people on the sidewalk, I stood for a minute in the snow, thinking about the two blocks of ice encasing my feet. My beat-up gym shoes were soaked and standing there in the slush, they weren’t getting any drier. A big drop of water ran down my forehead and rolled off my nose, melted snow from the top of my head. Jeez, it was cold. Where were all the damn cabs?
I swung around sharply, already stepping out, thinking I’d head over to Wentworth Avenue and walked right into the most incredible man I’d ever seen. Tall, broad-shouldered, impeccably dressed. Knocked off balance, he grabbed me, and I grabbed him, and we were face-to-face, and he was smiling this great big gorgeous smile. Then I realized my mouth was open. And I was gaping at him. So I closed it. With a snap. And his smile widened into a grin.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I mumbled out of a mouth that wasn’t quite working.
“My fault,” he offered smoothly, although clearly it hadn’t been. I let go and started to pull away, but he was holding onto my arms, and he didn’t let go. “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked. What a voice. Low, but not too deep. Sexy. And wonderful diction. He pronounced it “shore” instead of the Midwestern “sher.” Unfortunately I was “shore.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
He let go, but stood there eying me up and down. I flushed, the heat rising from my throat flooding all the way to the tip of my dripping ponytail as I thought about my bedraggled appearance. Shifting nervously from one foot to the other, my dirt gray jogging shoes squished noisily, and my face grew hotter.
“You look frozen,” he finally said.
“I am, a bit,” I admitted, conscious of more melted snow running down my nose. “I was looking for a cab.”
“That’s not going to be easy tonight,” he said.
It was difficult to tell in the streetlights and snow, but it appeared he had heart-stopping dark blue eyes and dark blonde hair, streaked, that was supposed to be brushed to one side, but kind of swept over his forehead. And a faint suntan that looked real.
He was dressed in a beautifully tailored black leather jacket with a black and gray plaid scarf draped around his neck, what looked like six hundred dollar jeans, and what had to be Tom Ford boots. A memorable spicy masculine scent hung in the air between us. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” he said. “I’ll call you a cab and in the meantime, you can warm up. It’s the least I can do after practically knocking you down.”
“But you didn’t…”
“Nonsense.” He took my arm, soggy jacket and all. “I insist.”
I don’t know why I hesitated.
But I did. And in that moment of indecision, I heard the horn blaring and tearing my eyes away, I saw the Checker cab barreling down the street. Years of reflex action threw my arm up. The driver slid over in a high fan spray of frozen brown slush.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I really have to get back to my office.”
His eyebrows rose. “Office?”
Obviously I didn’t look the office type. “Chicago Tribune. I’m a shooter, ah, photographer,” I said, holding up my camera. Sloshing through the mound of snow at the curb, I pulled open the taxi’s creaking door. “Thanks for the offer anyway,” I added, looking back at him, feeling awkward.
He was smiling again, amused, as his eyes shifted to my feet. “Are you going to tell me your name or do I wait for you to drop a wet sneaker?”
Cinderella on her worst day had never looked as bad as I knew I did. “Lindsey,” I blurted. “Lindsey Morrison.”
He held out a hand. “Michael Albright, and I sincerely hope we run into one another again.”
I tentatively placed my icy hand in his, expecting a handshake. Instead he smiled and gazed into my eyes, closing both of his hands around my cold hand, smiling and holding my hand in his warm clasp for…forever it seemed.
Okay, I was charmed. Who wouldn’t be? But after twenty-nine years, I was also a realist. This was not some small town where a chance encounter could turn into a predestined romance. With 2.7 million people, Chicago is classified a BIG city. I knew I’d never see him again.