Monday, November 17th, 2003. London
Gypsy's first thought was jetlag, the slight dizziness, feeling sick, and the heaviness all over. Now, as he moved out onto the ice to sing, he knew it to be something else. Sweet Jesus, hear my prayer! Not now! He was Gypsy Diaz, international star of stage, screen, TV and ice rink, world renowned supporter and benefactor of abused children, elevated by the pulsating music and giving his all to his fans. It was the drug he needed to blot out the encroaching problems of his life, if only for a few hours. The audience screamed their delight as he moved out towards the centre of the rink. He wanted to be one with them and the music, but tonight his body was giving him all the wrong signals.
Eight hours ago, he had stepped off the plane at Heathrow to spend a torturous day on workouts, physiotherapy, rehearsals, technical discussions, and hasty meals to stop the hypos. Now the show was almost over and he was ready to begin his last solo spot of the gig - the first on home territory for ten months; a 'Glad To Be Back' ice and stage spectacular to finish off his most successful world tour ever. Exhaustion and the increasing pain in his lower back could not dispel his satisfaction that the show had gone well, and he was determined to see it through. Come on you fool, he chided himself, you're twenty-four not ninety-four.
Framed in the spotlights, with his ice dancers fanning out behind him, he reached the centre of the rink and raised his radio mike. As he sang the first few lines of the song, cramping pain crept round his chest. Surprised at the new problem, he tried to ignore it, but it increased till the longer notes seemed hard to manage. Not now! Please God, not now!
He leaned onto his outer left blade and inner right to begin circling the rink. The pain in his chest grew till it felt like someone was squeezing him. Every sound began to echo, and the lights dimmed around him. The ice came up and hit him and he slid across it. He struggled to breathe, and as the lights faded completely, he thought how cold the ice was.
Sandy Roberts stepped into the foyer of the London Rosscroft Clinic and saw the elderly receptionist raise her head to watch him approach her desk. She didn't recognise him after five years, but he remembered her all right. She had the same grey hair drawn back in a severe bun, and spectacles perched on the end of her nose. Sister Agnes Wentworth, alias The Rosscroft Dragon, the self-appointed barrier to all intruders, Sandy recalled. No one got past her desk without her permission.
He towered over her desk and gave her his warmest smile, knowing he looked smart enough, even if his tailored denim jeans, cream summer jacket and black T-shirt were a little too lightweight for the British November weather. Along with his smile, he flashed his blue eyes at Sister Wentworth who looked him up and down, and said stiffly, "Can I help you?"
"Don't you remember me, Sister?" he replied. "I'm Sandy Roberts and I've come to see my mate, Gypsy Diaz, isn'it? I used to visit a lot when 'e was 'ere after the accident."
"Of course I remember you, Mr. Roberts." The dragon checked the information list on her computer, and clicked on a name. "I'm sorry, no visitors. I could tell his manager you called."
"Is that an order from the doctor, then?"
"Mr. Monclare left strict instructions. No visitors."
"Well, not to worry; 'is manager will see me, I'm sure. Is 'e 'ere?"
"Sorry. No. Can I take a message?"
"Sandy! I don't believe it!" A deep voice boomed down the corridor to the left of the desk. Descending on Sandy with a wide grin on his handsome, ebony face, Ed Thompson, Gypsy's physiotherapist and close friend, grabbed his hand and pumped it madly. "Man! You're the answer to a prayer and no mistake! I was at the window in Gypsy's lounge and saw you walking up from the car park." He acknowledged Sister Wentworth with a nod. "I thought I'd better come and save you from being thrown out on your ear."
The dragon cleared her throat impatiently. "I'm sorry, Mr. Thompson, my instructions are quite clear. No visitors."
"This is no visitor, ma'am," Ed replied with a chuckle, "this is part of the treatment." He clapped a large hand on Sandy's shoulder. "Come on, kid, let's go surprise him."
"Huh!" The young Welshman snorted. "The day anyone surprises that canny mind reader, I'll do a streak around Cardiff Arms Park!"
"I'll hold your clothes while you do." Ed retorted happily.
While the dragon spoke sharply on the phone to security, they moved off down the corridor and Ed's smile faded. "How did you hear about Gypsy?"
"I read it in the papers, man. So what's all this no visitors stuff, then?"
"The usual problem; too many pressmen and ghouls. Gypsy can't blow his nose these days without the public wanting to know about it."
"Yeah, I saw them at the gate when I drove in."
"That's nothing. You should see the crowds the police clear away several times a day. They have their job to do and the genuine fans get chased as well. They've been hanging around since we brought him in here."
"I thought you'd be used to all this fan worship by now," Sandy said with a chuckle.
"After four years? No chance." They stopped outside one of the many doors that lined the long corridor. "He's in here, in his old suite."
Sandy step into a familiar turquoise and cream lounge filled to overflowing with flowers in vases, pots and some still in their wrappers on every available table and chair. A male nurse paused in his struggle to cope with the maze of colour and turned his harassed gaze towards them, his eyes blinking rapidly behind rimless glasses. He opened his mouth to speak to Ed, but the man smiled at him. "It's okay, Sean. He's one of the family, almost. You remember Sandy Roberts don't you?"
"Oh, yeah, of course, sir, but Mr. Monclare said -."
"Don't worry about Monclare, leave him to me. You remember Sean don't you? Gypsy couldn't be in safer hands."
"Hi, Sandy. Nice to see you again."
Sensing Sandy and Ed wanted to talk privately. Sean picked up the newly filled vase and carried it into the adjoining bedroom, closing the door behind him. Sandy lifted a bouquet off an easy chair and sat down, placing the flowers on the floor. Ed moved to stand by the window and gazed out at the lovingly tended gardens.
"Trouble, is it?" Sandy asked.
The large African American nodded. "Pain is something he's gotten used to since the accident, but Gypsy says this is something he never had before."
"In his spine, at the sight of the old injury."
"So, 'e didn't collapse at all, then?"
"Oh, yes, he collapsed all right. Twenty-four countries in ten months is a crazy schedule for the fittest of performers. He's exhausted and needs peace and quiet. His manager and I tried to weed out the less important stuff towards the end of the tour but you know what he's like, his own slave driver. He certainly didn't like being told to stop skating."
"I'll bet 'e didn't.'Ow did you manage that without being chewed to bits?"
"We gave him an ultimatum and got Monclare to back us up, let his lead skater do all the grafting and just use the ice as an extension to the stage, or cut the tour short. He chose the former option of course."
"That doesn't surprise me," Sandy gave a knowing smile. "So what's the reason for 'is breakdown?" Ed frowned and shifted uncomfortably, but Sandy was determined. "Come on, Ed, you're 'is physio and general slave, right?" Ed shook his head and Sandy felt like hitting the man. "Ed, you've diagnosed things before."
Ed stared fixedly out of the window. "Sorry, Sandy, I'm not at liberty to say. If he wants to talk about his personal problems, that's up to him; just don't push him too hard. He's got a pile of tests to go through today and we want him nice and calm, okay?"
"Okay." Sandy stood up. "No offence intended, like, but if the nose bag won't talk, I'll just 'ave to ask the 'orse what's wrong, won't I?" He walked towards the bedroom door and took hold of the handle, but hesitated before turning it. Their parting, not long after the accident, had been far from friendly and Sandy had his doubts about the reception he would get. He had followed Gypsy's hectic life as a star, watching every TV performance, seeing every film he'd made, and read every news item he could get his hands on. The accident almost killed him, but Gypsy was a tougher cookie than his slight stature belied, and had never been afraid of packing twenty-five ultra-productive hours into a twenty-four hour day, so it wasn't the heavy schedule that had put paid to him. He'd run himself into the ground a few times but had bounced back soon enough. It had to be something more serious than exhaustion and some new pain.
Something had tipped him into deep water and he would crawl around on the bottom till someone dragged him up to the surface. Sandy was prepared to undertake that job, but would Gypsy want to be caught?
There were things Sandy knew that the public were blind to or quickly forgot, like the scars hidden under carefully designed stage clothes and make up, the drugs Gypsy reluctantly took to blot out the bouts of pain. Few people knew about the rigid daily routine Ed supervised to keep him out of a wheelchair; they only saw one of the greatest entertainers of their time, back where he was before disaster struck him down. Likewise, only a handful of close friends knew how much grief he still had in his heart, and Sandy was one of those privileged few. "'Ow's 'is faith these days?" he asked Ed.
"Shaky." Ed replied, still staring out of the window.
Sandy took a deep breath, opened the door and slipped quietly into the bedroom. The room, still tastefully decorated and furnished, as it was when he was last here, in cream and gold, faded from his vision as he focused his attention on the custom built recliner by the window and the aroma of fresh coffee. Gypsy lay back against the cushions, wrapped in a snow-white bath robe. His mane of black hair lay damp and untidy around his head and neck. His eyes were closed but they blinked open at the sound of the door clicking shut. A frown pinched his face, making the thin, facial scars all the more visible. "What took you so long?"
"And 'ello to you too!" Sandy retorted. Opening the door he marched back into the lounge and pointed a finger at Ed Thompson. "Eat your words, big man. I won." Ed's deep chuckle followed him back into the bedroom. Shutting the door, he walked across the room and stood in front of the chair, hands on hips. "Hikin' in Spain, I was; miles away from anywhere, and you 'ave to go and take that dive with 'alf the world watchin', and me nowhere near a tele."
"What did you want me to do, freeze on the ice till you found one?"
A light blinked on as Sandy realised Gypsy was baiting him just like he did at school, "Aw, you!"
Gypsy's face softened into a crooked smile, and the pain left his eyes. "You know, you make an excellent window blind. Pull up a chair and make the room a bit lighter."
Once Sandy was seated, Gypsy held out his right hand. "Nice to see you back."
Sandy grabbed Gypsy's hand in both of his, giving it an affectionate squeeze. Relieved he wasn't about to be thrown out, he said, "I met an English couple who loaned me a two day old paper. All over the front page, you were. Read the papers lately, 'ave you? They're 'avin' a right field day out there. One paper's sayin' it's a publicity stunt, and another's sayin' you're havin' your left leg off at last, and I don't know what else. Anyway, this couple gave me a lift to Madrid and I caught the first available flight 'ome." He felt Gypsy's hand squeeze his and a lump grew in his throat. "Yeah, I know, I'm rabbitin' again, aren't I?" He sighed and pressed his lips into a thin line. "Trish and me should never 'ave left you in the first place."
"Don't talk wet." Gypsy withdrew his hand from Sandy's. "You wouldn't have gone under your own steam."
"Yes, I would."
"Oh yeah? Talk about a limpet!"
"You needed me."
"Like I needed a crab biting my toe. Trish needed you more. You just couldn't see that so I had to open your eyes."
"And look at the trouble it caused you."
"Ha! Only just."
Sandy's marriage to Trish Beresford had taken a wrong turn, and Gypsy, acting like a crazy but well meaning Cupid, had tried to help by causing a row and forcing Sandy to decide to leave. "What's this about a new pain, then?"
"Don't change the subject. It did you good, getting away from here."
"Well, yeah, I suppose so." Sandy grinned ruefully. "I'll admit I never would 'ave thought of going to Paris to study. It's just that, well, you were so underhand the way you organised things. I'll pay you back one day, just you wait."
"Pay me back!" Gypsy protested, his silky voice rising a shade and reminding Sandy of the strong alto tones that had won and captivated so many adoring fans. "You were always the one organising me. You were a real bully."
Sandy grinned. "Okay, perhaps I was, but not behind your back, isn'it."
"Was too." Gypsy manoeuvred the recliner to a more upright position, winced a couple of times, and pointed to a side table holding the remains of a breakfast, a steaming coffee percolator and several china coffee mugs. "If you've come back to get under my feet, you can make yourself useful and pour some coffee. Make mine a weak one. M' lord Thompson's orders."
"'E's the best and you know it," Sandy reminded him. "If it weren't for 'im you'd still be in a wheelchair." After pouring the coffee, he placed Gypsy's mug on the edge of the table where he could reach it without stretching then sat down again, resting his elbows on his knees and nursing his own mug in both hands. "Are you going to tell me, then?"
Gypsy took a sip of his coffee then sat holding the mug in his lap while he stared into it. "Okay, I have a pain."
"You know as much as me."
"Tell that to the miners, boyo. I wasn't born yesterday, and I'm not leavin' 'ere till you tell me what's wrong. So?"
Gypsy eyed him warily. "Can you stay?"
"I've got a few things to see to back 'ome. It shouldn't take more than a day. I can go tonight and be back tomorrow afternoon. And this time it'll take a fifty megaton bomb to shift me."
Gypsy raised an eyebrow at him and took a sip of coffee, then smiled softly. He looked as young as when Sandy first set eyes on him, except that now his mouth pulled to the left. Then the smile died and the troubled expression returned, hardening his features.
For seven chaotic years, the world had watched in amazement as Gypsy stirred up a whirlwind in his determination to become a famous entertainer, despite a major brush with the law. He had survived disasters and ridden that whirlwind again and again with renewed energy. Now that whirlwind had collapsed and slammed him back to earth again. Gypsy looked more tired than Sandy had ever seen him and he wondered if his mate could survive this new threat, whatever it was.
"Did you come here to visit or study your coffee till it's cold?" Gypsy's voice broke into Sandy's thoughts.
"Sorry, mate, I was miles away. Thinkin' back, you know? 'Ow are you feelin' anyway?"
"Rough," Gypsy admitted. "I suppose Ed's told you."
"No, so why don't you stop playin' for time and tell me?" He gave Gypsy a challenging stare and his friend was the first to look away, a sure sign something was wrong. His mate rarely lost an eye to eye, unless he was really cornered.
Gypsy placed his mug on the table and, stared out of the window for a moment, then he said quietly, "I'm being blackmailed."
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