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Part One

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night 



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Chapter 1

"I'm sorry about my parents, Mike." Tom gave the two people in question a look of resentment. "I'd hoped—" He broke off, sighing faintly. "I'm sorry, I really am. You spent a lot of money on all this."


Mike Stearns followed his gaze. Tom Simpson's mother and father were standing near the far wall of the cafeteria, some fifty feet away. Their postures were stiff; their faces, sour. Their very expensive clothing was worn like suits of armor. They were holding the cups of punch in their hands by thumb and forefinger, as if determined to make as little contact with the surrounding festivities as possible.


Mike repressed a smile. Ah, yes. The dignitaries from civilization, maintaining their savoir faire among the cannibals. They'll hold a cup of blood, but damned if they'll drink it.


"Don't worry about it, Tom," he said softly. Mike's eyes moved away from the haughty couple against the wall and surveyed the crowd. The gaze was filled with satisfaction.


The cafeteria was a very large room. The utilitarian gray and cream walls had been festooned with an abundance of decorations, which made up in cheerfulness and festive abandon whatever they lacked in subdued good taste. Many of the cafeteria's plastic chairs had been moved against the walls, providing a bright orange contrast—those few of them that were not holding someone. Long tables ranged near the kitchen were laden with food and drink.


There was no caviar, and no champagne. But the crowd which packed the room wouldn't have enjoyed the first—fish eggs, yuk!—and the second was prohibited by high-school regulations. Mike was not concerned. He knew his folk. They would enjoy the simple fare which was piled on the tables, thank you, even if it was beneath the contempt of wealthy urban sophisticates. That was true of the adults, even, much less the horde of children swarming all over the place.


Mike gave the younger man standing at his side a little pat on the shoulder. It was like patting a slab of beef. Tom was the first-string nose guard for West Virginia University's varsity squad, and looked the part. "My sister married you, not your parents."


Tom scowled. "Doesn't matter. They could at least— Why did they even bother to show up at my wedding, if they were going to act like this?"


Mike glanced at him. For all Tom's immense size, Mike didn't have to look up. Tom was barely over six feet tall, about Mike's own height, even if he outweighed him by a good hundred pounds.


Tom was back to glaring at his parents. His own face was as stiff as theirs. Unobserved, Mike studied his new brother-in-law.


Very new brother-in-law. The wedding had been held not two hours earlier, in a small church less than a mile away from the high school. Tom's parents had been just as haughtily rude at the church as they were being now at the reception. Their son should have been married in a properly discreet ceremony in a proper Episcopalian cathedral, not—not—


This yahoo preacher! In this yahoo—shack!


Mike and his sister had abandoned the stark faith of their ancestors in favor of quiet agnosticism. Years ago, in Mike's case. But neither of them had even once considered having Rita married anywhere else. The pastor was a friend of the family, as his father and grandfather had been before him. The Calvinist fundamentalism of the ceremony had bothered them not in the least. Mike choked down a laugh. If nothing else, it had been worth it just to see the way the pastor's fire and brimstone had caused obvious constipation in Tom's sophisticated parents.


His humor faded quickly. Mike could sense the pain lurking within Tom's eyes. An old pain, he thought. The dull, never-ending ache of a man whose father had disapproved of him since he was a small boy.


Tom had been born into one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh. His mother was old Eastern money. His father, John Chandler Simpson, was the chief executive officer of a large petrochemical corporation. John Simpson liked to brag about having worked his way up from the ranks. The boast was typical of the man. Yes, he had spent a total of six months on the shop floor, as a foreman, after he retired from the Navy's officer corps. The fact that his father owned the company, however, is what accounted for his later advancement. John Chandler Simpson had fully expected his own son to follow in those well-worn footsteps.


But Tom had never fit his family's mold and expectations. Not when he had been a boy, and not now when he was of age. Mike knew that John Chandler had been furious when his son chose WVU over Carnegie-Mellon—especially given the reason. Football? You're not even a quarterback! And both his parents had been well-nigh apoplectic at their son's choice for a wife.


Mike's eyes scanned the room, until they fell on a figure in a wedding dress, laughing at something being said by the young woman at her side. His sister, Rita, sharing quips with one of her bridesmaids.


The contrast between the two girls was striking. The bridesmaid, Sharon, was attractive in a slightly heavy and buxom sort of way. She was very dark complected, even for a black woman. Tom's sister was also pretty, but so slender that she bordered on being downright skinny. And her complexion—very pale skin, freckles, blue eyes, hair almost as black as her brother's—betrayed her own ethnic origins. Typical Appalachian mongrel. The daughter and sister of coal miners.


Poor white trash. Yup. That's what we are, all right.


There was no anger in Mike's thought. Only contempt for Tom's parents, and pity for Tom himself. Mike's father had a high school education. Jack Stearns had worked in a coal mine since he was eighteen, and had never been able to afford more than a modest house. He had hoped to help his children through college. But the mine roof-fall which crippled him and eventually caused his death had put paid to those plans.


The quintessential nobody. On the day he finally died, Mike had been like a stunned ox. Years later, he could still feel the aching place in his heart where a giant had once lived.


"Let it go, Tom," he said softly. "Just let it go. If it's worth anything, your brother-in-law approves of you."


Tom puffed out his cheeks, and slowly blew out the breath. "It is. Quite a bit."


Abruptly, he shook his head, as if to clear his mind for other concerns. He turned to face Mike squarely.


"Give it to me straight, Mike. I'm graduating in a few months. I've got to make a decision. Do you think I'm good enough to make it in the pros?"


Mike's reply came instant and firm. "Nope." He shook his head ruefully. "Take it from me, buddy. You'll be right where I was—the worst possible place. Almost good enough. Good enough to keep hoping, but . . ."


Tom frowned, still hoping. "You made it. In a way. Hell, you retired undefeated."


Mike chuckled. "Sure did. After all of eight professional fights as a light heavy." He reached up and stroked the little scar on his left eyebrow. "My last fight I even made it to the second card at the Olympic Auditorium. Pretty big time."


The chuckle came again—more of an outright laugh. "Too big! I won—barely—on points. The kid demanded a rematch. And that's when I finally had enough sense to quit. A man's got to know his limitations."


Tom was still frowning. Still hoping. Mike placed a hand on his thick arm. "Tom, face it. You'll get no farther than I did. Realizing that you only beat the kid in front of you because you were a little more experienced, a little savvier, a little luckier." He winced, remembering a young Mexican boxer whose speed and power had been well-nigh terrifying. "But that kid'll learn, soon enough. And the fact is that he's a lot better than you'll ever be. So I quit, before my brains got scrambled. You should do the same, while you've still got healthy knees."


Again, Tom puffed out his cheeks and, again, blew out a slow breath. He seemed on the verge of saying something, but a motion caught his eye. His brand-new wife was approaching, with people in tow.


Tom was suddenly beaming like a child. Watching that glowing smile, Mike felt his own heart warming.


Hell of a sweet kid, to come from such cruddy parents.


Rita arrived with her usual thermonuclear energy. She started by embracing her new husband in a manner that was wildly inappropriate in a high-school cafeteria—springing onto him and wrapping both legs around his thighs. Wedding dress be damned. A fierce and decidedly unvirginal kiss accompanied the semi-lascivious embrace. Then, bouncing off, she gave Mike a hug which, though it lacked the sexual overtones, was almost as vigorous.


The preliminaries done, Rita spun around and waved forward the two people lagging behind her. Outside of the accompanying grin, the gesture resembled an empress summoning her lackeys.


Sharon was grinning herself. The man next to her wore a more subdued smile. He was a black man somewhere in his fifties, dressed in a very expensive looking suit. The conservative, hand-tailored clothing fit the man perfectly, but seemed at odds with the smile on his face. There was something a bit rakish about that smile, Mike thought. And he suspected, from the man's poised stance, that the body beneath the suit was far more athletic than its sober cut would suggest.


"Mike, this is Sharon's father. I want to introduce you." She reached back, more or less hauled the parent in question to the fore, and moved her hand back and forth vigorously. "My brother, Mike Stearns. Doctor James Nichols. Be very polite, brother of mine. He's a surgeon. Probably got four or five scalpels tucked away somewhere."


An instant later she was charging off, hauling Tom and Sharon toward a cluster of people chattering away in a corner of the cafeteria. Mike and Dr. Nichols were left alone.


Mike eyed the stranger, unsure of how to open a conversation. He opted for low humor. "My new brother-in-law's in for a long night," he said dryly. "If I know my sister."


The doctor's smile widened. The hint of rakishness deepened. "I would say so," he drawled. "Is she always this energetic?"


Mike shook his head fondly. "Since she was a toddler."


Having broken the ice, Mike took the time to examine the man next to him more carefully. Within a few seconds, he decided his initial impression was correct. Sharon's father was a study in contradictions. His skin was very dark, almost pure black. His hair was gray, kinky, cut very short. His features were blunt and rough-looking—the kind of face associated more with a longshoreman than a doctor. Yet he wore his fine clothing with ease, and the two rings on his fingers were simple in design and very tasteful. One was a plain wedding band, the other a subdued pinky ring. His diction was cultured, but the accent came from city streets. Then—


James Nichols was not a big man. No more than five feet, eight inches tall and not particularly stocky. Yet he seemed to exude a certain physical presence. A quick glance at the doctor's hands confirmed Mike's guess. The faint scars on those outsized hands had not come from working in the medical profession.


Nichols was returning Mike's examination with one of his own. There seemed to be a little twinkle in his eyes. Mike guessed that he would like the man, and decided to probe the possibility.


"So, Doc. Did the judge give you a choice? Between the Army and the Marines, I mean."


Nichols snorted. There was a twinkle in his eyes. "Not hardly! 'Marines for you, Nichols.' "


Mike shook his head. "You poor bastard. He let me pick. Since I wasn't crazy, I took the Army. I wanted no part of Parris Island."


Nichols grinned. "Well . . . You were probably just up for assault and battery, I imagine. One brawl too many." He took Mike's smile for an answer. His own headshake was rueful. "They couldn't prove it, since I fumbled the thing like a Laurel and Hardy routine, but the authorities had their dark suspicions. So the judge was hard as stone. 'Marines, Nichols. I'm sick and tired o' you. Either that or six years downstate.' "


The doctor shrugged. "I admit, that judge probably saved my life." His expression became filled with mock outrage. The accent thickened. "But I still say it ain't armed robbery when the dumb kid drops the gun on the way into the liquor store and gets caught running five blocks away. Hell, who knows? Maybe he was just looking for its rightful owner. Not realizing, the poor cherub, that it was a stolen piece."


Mike burst into laughter. When his eyes met those of Nichols again, the silent exchange between them was warm and approving. The way two men, meeting for the first time, occasionally take an instant liking to each other.


Mike glanced toward his new in-laws. He was not surprised to see that his riotous gaiety had drawn their disapproving eyes. He met their stern frowns with a smile whose politeness barely covered the underlying mockery.


Yeah, that's right, you rich farts. Two scapegraces, right before your eyes. As close to outright ex-cons as you can get. Heavens!


Nichols' voice broke into Mike's silent test of wills with the Simpsons.


"So you're the famous brother," the doctor murmured.


Startled, Mike's eyes left the Simpsons. "I wasn't aware that I was famous," he protested.


Nichols shrugged, smiling. "Depends on the circle, I imagine. From what I can tell, listening to them gabble over the last couple of days, every one of your sister's college friends has a crush on you. You're quite a romantic figure, you know."


Again, Mike was startled. And, again, it must have showed on his face.


"Oh, come on, Mike!" snorted Nichols. "You're still in your mid-thirties, and look younger than that. Tall, handsome—well, handsome enough. But, most of all, you've got that glamorous history."


"Glamorous?" choked Mike. "Are you nuts?"


Nichols was grinning, now. "Give me a break. You can't fool me." He made a little sweeping gesture with his hands, indicating himself. "What do you see here? A very prosperous-looking black man in his mid-fifties, right?" His dark eyes glinted with humor and knowledge. "And what else?"


Mike eyed him. "A—let's call it a history. You weren't always a proper doctor."


"Certainly wasn't! And don't think, when I was your age, that I didn't take full advantage of it." Nichols' wide grin changed to a gentle smile. "You're a classic, Mike. It's that old tale which always tugs at sentiment. The reckless and dashing black sheep of the family, leaving town before the law could nail him. An adventurous lad. Soldier, longshoreman, truck driver, professional boxer. Disreputable roustabout, even if he did manage to tuck away three years in college. Then—"


The smile faded away completely. "And then, when your father was crippled, you came back to take care of your family. And did as good a job of that as you'd done scaring them to death earlier. Quite respectable, now. Even managed to get yourself elected president of your local miners' union a couple of years back."


Mike snorted. "I can see Rita's been telling tales." He started looking for his sister, ready to glare at her, when his eyes fell on the Simpsons. They were still frowning at him, so he bestowed the glare on them.


"See?" he demanded. "My new in-laws don't seem to feel any 'romantic attraction.' Me—respectable? Ha!"


Nichols' own gaze followed Mike's. "Well . . . 'Respectable' in an Appalachian sort of way. Don't think Mr. Blueblood over there is mollified that his new daughter-in-law's brother is a stone-hard union man as well as a damned hillbilly. Not hardly."


The Simpsons were still maintaining the stare. Mike was matching it, and adding a grin to the bargain. The grin was purely feral. A sheer, brazen, unyielding challenge.


 


Nichols would remember that savage grin, in the years to come. Remember it, and be thankful.


The Ring of Fire came, and they entered a new and very savage world.


 


 


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