The Hot Zone
Jason Morgan was back in town and it looked like he was here to stay.
That thought depressed Zander more than he would have thought possible. From the moment that Jason showed up at the Penthouse and Carly had thrown herself into his arms, Zander had known that it was over for him. His friendship with Carly and his place in Sonny's organization. Zander was just waiting for the call. The stupid thing was he was hanging around Kelly's while he waited, drinking coffee. He should have gone straight to Jake's and started lining up the shots of Jack.
Just then Zander's cell phone rang and he wasn't the least bit surprised to hear Sonny's voice, asking him to come by the Penthouse. "Be right there," Zander replied, then he hung up. No sense in putting off the inevitable. He slid off the stool and tossed a five dollar bill on the counter for Elizabeth, then Zander headed for the door.
* * * * *
Zander was a little surprised when Carly opened the door at the Penthouse. Then he remembered that she and Sonny were trying to work things out between them. No big surprise there. Carly had never stopped loving Sonny. Zander figured that he would get over Carly soon enough. He had loved her in a sense, but not in the way that he still loved Emily. "Hey, Carly," Zander said in greeting.
She smiled then hugged him. "Come on in, Zander." She drew him inside before closing the door. "Oh…before you talk to Sonny, I wanted to ask if you want to go to the movies tomorrow night. Remember that Thriller we talked about seeing?"
"I remember." Zander nodded.
"It starts tomorrow night. So...want to go?"
Zander was surprised. "You still want to hang out with me?"
Carly looked stunned. "Why would you even ask that, Zander? We're friends...we'll always be friends. Won't we?"
"Yeah...Yeah I guess we are." Zander wasn't sure what they were to each other anymore, but he figured he could deal with being friends. He knew they were good for each other that way.
"So...movie?" Carly prompted.
Zander smiled. "Sure. Sounds good."
Carly kissed his cheek. "Great. I'll talk to you later about what time and all." That said, Carly headed for the stairs to give Zander and Sonny privacy.
Sonny strode forward as Carly climbed the stairs. He smiled at Zander. "Good to see you, Zander. You kinda disappeared for the past two days."
"Yeah…sorry about that. I didn't figure you'd notice."
"Because of Jason being back?"
Sonny gestured for Zander to sit on the couch and he joined him. "Now that Jason is back, he will be taking up his old duties."
"I figured that," Zander interjected. "So...I take it this is my official pink slip?"
"Why would you think that?" Sonny countered, leaning back against the cushions and crossing his legs.
Zander shrugged. "Why would I think that? Jason is back. You don't need me anymore." *Not that you ever did*, Zander added, silently.
Sonny shook his head, an amused smile curving his lips. "Do you want to leave?" he asked.
"No." Zander couldn't see any reason not to be honest. "I like working for you. Um...maybe I could go back to my job in the warehouse?" For a moment he allowed himself to feel hopeful.
"I have something else in mind," Sonny countered. "Remember when I told you about my Strip Clubs?"
Zander nodded. "Yeah...I remember."
Sonny leaned forward. "I've opened a new place called *The Hot Zone*. It's a club for male and female clientele with male and female dancers. And it will be more...Exotic dancing...than stripping. More classy to cater to a more elite crowd."
"That's nice," Zander comment, uncertain as to why Sonny was telling him this.
"I want you to dance for me at the club," Sonny announced, as if reading Zander's mind.
Zander was stunned. "What? You're joking!"
Sonny's smile was slick. "Not at all. The pay is twice what you've been making, and that's not counting in the tips. I guarantee you'll make alot of those, Zander." Sonny let his eyes sweep over the younger man.
"Forget it!" Zander jumped to his feet and paced around the coffee table. "You're whacked!"
"It's a good offer, Zander."
Zander laughed. "Right. First of all, I can't dance!"
Sonny's eyes narrowed. "Liar. I saw you at the opening of Club 101, dancing with Kate. Watching you with her is what gave me the idea in the first place. You're a natural."
"No...I can't. I won't do it." Zander was adamant. He couldn't believe Sonny would even suggest such a thing. It was crazy. Zander stopped pacing and locked eyes with Sonny. "I'd rather work in the warehouse."
"I'm afraid that's not an option, Zander," Sonny drawled.
Zander had figured as much, but he tried not to let his disappointment show. "Fine. Then I guess I don't work for you anymore." He turned to leave.
Sonny cleared his throat and said," What about Alexis?"
"What about her?" Zander turned back and eyed Sonny with suspicion. Alexis was special to Zander. He would do anything for her.
"Would you dance at my club if it meant protecting her?"
Confusion washed over Zander. "What the hell are you talking about? Why does Alexis need protecting?"
Sonny stood up and moved to the side bar to pour himself some juice. "Remember when Roscoe tried to Extort Carly with her club?"
"Of course I remember." Zander remembered all to well the beating he had received at the hands of Roscoe's oversized goons. "What about it?"
"Well...After it happened, I sicced Alexis on Roscoe to mess him up financially with every legal trick she knew. She did her job well, as always and screwed Roscoe over big time. So he wants her eliminated. But I've been protecting her...and the baby...ever since."
Zander felt like he had just been walloped with a sledge hammer. "What...what baby?"
Sonny smiled. "Alexis is pregnant."
"I didn't know." Zander felt his knees buckle and he moved to sit down on the arm of a nearby chair.
"You want to keep her safe, don't you?"
Zander nodded. "Of course I do. But...how? You're the one with all the power and you said that you're already protecting her."
Sonny poured a second glass of juice and held it out to Zander. "You're right," he drawled. "I do have all the power."
"Yeah so..." Zander broke off, ignoring the juice, as the true meaning of Sonny's words hit him. Zander stood up and felt himself shaking. "Are you saying that if I don't dance for you...you'll withdraw your protection from Alexis?"
"I'm saying...it could happen."
Zander cursed. "You son of a bitch! Why would you do that?"
Sonny faced Zander calmly. He put down the glass of juice then folded his arms over his chest. "All you have to do, Zander...is dance for me."
"I don't know how to do this!" Zander heard the desperation in his voice. "I'm telling you, Sonny. I can't dance."
"Yes you can," Sonny countered. "Besides which, the club has a choreographer, he name is Lynn. She’ll teach you everything you need to know. Everything. And you can start tonight. Working with her on a routine and getting measured up for your costume."
Zander ran a hand through his hair. He couldn't believe this was happening. Then he frowned. "Costume?"
Sonny smiled and nodded. "Every dancer has their own...theme. I've already chosen yours. Gladiator. Primitive, strong and beautiful."
"I can't believe this," Zander muttered to himself, then he locked eyes with Sonny. If it meant saving Alexis, he would see it through. "I do this...and you promise me that Alexis will be safe?"
"You have my word."
Zander prayed that Sonny would keep it. "What time do you want me there? And...I'll need directions."
Sonny waved a hand at Zander. "Jason will drive you."
As if on cue the door opened and Jason entered. He had two duffel bags with him, which he dropped on the floor. Then he looked at Sonny and said, "That's everything."
"Good," Sonny replied.
"Hey...wait a minute!" Zander moved to the bags. He recognized them. "These are mine! What's going on?"
Sonny sat down and smiled at Zander. "I had Jason pack up your things."
Zander was more than a little confused. "Why?"
"Because you'll be living here from now on."
"Here?" Zander pointed to the floor. "As in...*Here*...in this penthouse?"
Sonny nodded. "That's right. You'll have your own room with a connecting bath. Bigger than Jake's. I'm sure you'll like it."
Zander shook his head. He couldn't believe what was happening. It was too much too fast and it made him feel dizzy. "I have a place! I'm not moving in here!" He was angry now and he clung to it with both hands.
"You'll do as I say!" Sonny snapped, his calm facade replaced by an icy tone and steel eyes. "Understand me?"
"Yeah...I understand." Zander knew exactly what Sonny meant. He would jump when Sonny told him to, or Alexis would pay the price.
Sonny's lips curved into a cold smile. "Good," he drawled. "Jason will show you to your room. I want you to take a nap. You're going to have a long night."
Zander didn't reply. He simply grabbed his things, thinking how pathetic it was that everything he owned fit into two, medium, duffel bags, then he followed Jason up the stairs.
* * * * *
A week passed and Zander spent most of his waking hours at The Hot Zone, learning how to dance. Or rather, learning how to *perform* as Lynn put it. She insisted that Zander already knew how to dance, he just needed to put it out there. To release his inhibitions and let his sensuality shine. Zander thought she was whacked, but kept that opinion to himself. He simply focused on doing what she asked, while hating every minute of it. He hated the costume even more. What there was of it.
Today was a bad day for Zander. It was Friday night and he was to debut at the club. Sonny was going to be there, Carly and Jason too. Zander was a wreck. All the more so every time Lynn reminded him that he would have to mingle with the customers and to let them touch him. That it was part of the performance. He felt sick inside. So he tried to ease his nerves with caffeine. He had been at Kelly's for twenty minutes and had already downed three cups. Penny was threatening to cut him off.
He jumped at the sound of Alexis' voice in his ear. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn't heard her come up to him. Zander took a deep breath to calm his nerves, then he turned on his stool and smile. "Hi," Zander said in greeting, rising to his feet.
Alexis smiled back. "Hi yourself. Sorry I startled you. You okay?" She studied him with a frown on her face. "You look a little pale."
"I'm fine...just a little tired." Zander ushered Alexis over to the nearest table and held a chair for her. He was hyper aware of the fact that she was pregnant now. And that her life, and the life of her unborn child, rested squarely on his shoulders. Zander was starting to feel queasy. "How have you been?" he asked, as he sat down across from her.
"I'm good. How are you doing?" Alexis leaned in and locked eyes with Zander. "Still working for Sonny, I take it. I noticed you moved in."
Zander wasn't surprised that she knew, even though he had been careful to avoid her at the elevators. He plastered a smile on his face and shrugged. "I'm doing great. I thought I'd be out of a job once Jason came back...but it's all good."
Alexis nodded. "Why did you move in?"
"Sonny's idea. I guess so I'm available to be at his beck and call," Zander joked. He knew it fell flat by the look on Alexis' face. She wasn't buying his story.
"You don't have to work for Sonny, Zander."
Zander didn't want to hear this, very tired, argument. "You work for him. What's the difference?"
Alexis sighed. "Touché. I know better too."
"Yeah…um...I have to go," Zander looked at his watch. It wasn't even dinner time but he didn't want to stick around so Alexis could pry into his story. "See you later."
"Come over and visit me some time, Zander. Seeing as how I'm just a few doors down the hall," Alexis called after him.
Zander nodded. "Yeah...I'll do that," he replied. And they both knew he was lying. Zander shook off the guilt and almost bolted out the door. He didn't want to dance tonight, but seeing Alexis gave Zander the motivation he needed. He would make it through this particular brand of hell that Sonny had created for him. For Alexis's sake. For her Zander would walk through hellfire and back again. When he thought about it in context, exotic dancing might not be so bad.
Laughing at his own thoughts, Zander headed for the docks. The fresh air might clear his head and he was putting off going back to the penthouse. It felt like a luxurious prison. But even as Zander headed down the steps, he caught sight of a figure and froze. Roscoe.
Retreating into the shadows, Zander felt himself shaking with rage. He wished he had it in him to kill the man with his bare hands, then Alexis would be safe. Alexis and her baby. But Zander knew murder wasn't the answer. He only had one option. Dance for Sonny. Sighing, Zander headed for home. Like a puppet on a string. It was the story of Zander's life. Someone else was always in control, always pulling his strings and making him dance. Only this time he was dancing for real.
* * * * *
Zander shot up like he had been jolted with an electric shock. His heart thudded in his chest and his breathing was harsh in his ears. The image from his dream still danced in his head and Zander willed it away. But he could still see it clearly. A man slapping a woman so hard that she tumbled down the stairs to lie in a crumpled heap at the bottom. He hadn't had this particular dream in about three years.
"Zander...are you okay?"
He looked up to see Carly standing in the doorway, a tray of food in her hands. He forced a smile. "Yeah...I'm fine."
Carly looked relieved. "Can I come in?"
"Sure." Zander watched as she entered, kicking the door shut behind her. She came over to the bed and set the tray down on it. "What's this?"
"Dinner." Carly crawled onto the bed to sit next to Zander. "How was your nap?"
Zander sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. He had come back from the docks earlier to find Sonny waiting for him. He had been ordered to get some sleep so that he would be rested for tonight. Zander had argued that he wasn't tired and Sonny had made him take a pill. In the end Zander had welcomed the oblivion, until the dream. Zander realized Carly was waiting for an answer. "It was...a nap," he replied, then he studied the tray. "Looks like enough food for about six people."
Carly chuckled. "Well...you need to eat, but I thought I would join you. If you don't mind."
"I don't mind." Zander enjoyed Carly's company. Most of the time. It grated on him a bit when she would talk about his new gig. "I'm not really hungry though," Zander confessed.
"You haven't eaten much all week, Zander," Carly countered, reaching for a piece of cheese then holding it out to him. "You've lost some weight."
Zander shrugged. "No big deal."
Carly eyed him with concern. "You're nervous about tonight...aren't you?"
"I'm going to suck, Carly." Zander truly believed that and it terrified him. If he screwed up, Alexis would suffer for it.
"You're going to be amazing, Zander," Carly shot back. "Trust me on this one...okay? You're beautiful...you're sexy...you have an amazing body and you know how to shake your luscious bootay. It's all good."
Zander laughed in spite of his nerve. "You're a fruit cake...you know that, right?"
Carly wrinkled her nose at him. "But you love me anyway."
"Yeah...I do." Zander knew it was okay to admit it. They had become comfortable with each other again and Zander was glad. They had defined their relationship, both accepting it as a good and solid friendship, so they could both let the other stuff go. "What time is it?"
Zander sighed. "I should shower then head out."
Carly leaned in and kissed his cheek. "You should eat, then shower. Jason will drive you so don't worry about it."
"I can't help it."
"Try." Carly fed Zander a piece of cheese. "Just live in the moment, Zander. It's what we're both good at doing."
Zander waved off more cheese. His stomach was already twisted into knots. "Fucking up is what I'm good at doing, Carly. Only I can't afford to do that this time."
Carly put down the cheese and hugged Zander. "You're gonna be great," she whispered in his ear.
"If you say so," Zander replied. He didn't believe it, but he hugged Carly back, needing the comfort she offered, even as a part of him prayed that she was right.
* * * * *
Zander stood backstage. It was time. He was dressed in his costume. Short, leather pleated skirt, that was tear away. Underneath he wore a G-string, which basically meant that he was naked. For a top he wore a harness like scrap of leather. His footwear consisted of sandals with leather shin guards. Everything would pull off easily. Too easily. As it was he already felt naked.
Then he heard it. His music. Lynn was beside him.
"Zander...you're on," she said, cueing him.
"Right." He took a deep breath, released it slowly, waited for the right beat, then he walked out onto the stage.
© Shelly 2004