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Injuries of the Mind and Soul by Maya Perez
Injuries of the Mind and Soul by Maya Perez
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Injuries of the Mind and Soul

 

By

Maya Perez

 

Edited by Wendy "more lemons for your lemonade" Dinsmore

 

 

I hobbled off to my corner table at the back of the inn, where it would be easiest to keep an eye on the other patrons and the door.  I'd been coming there for about a year now, and the locals were used to the fact of where I preferred to sit.  No one thought anything of it anymore.

            I sat down, trying to get comfortable in the unforgiving wooden seat, and then hung my battered ironwood cane on the edge of the table.  Smooth as glass when it was first given to me, the cane was now pitted and dented, a lot like myself.  My one true companion, I both depended on it and despised it.  It allowed me to walk freely, but was also a constant reminder of what I'd become. 

            Sitting was good, as it was hard to tell there was anything wrong with me when I was sitting.  No one would be able to tell I was a cripple.  Not that they all didn't know, but I enjoyed the illusion of it.  Sitting here, no one could tell I'd been the recipient of more than twelve time-consuming surgeries--my reward for the end of the war--gifts which had barely managed to keep me together and working.  If anyone ever saw me undress, they would see the scars left from surgeries and grafts and scars from other more violent activities.  But no one ever would.  It had nothing to do with why I was here.

            The inn was a two-story affair with a common eating area, large bar, and a kitchen downstairs and rooms for rent upstairs.  The eating area was made up of twelve small tables set in a double line toward the back.  The bar/sign-in area, a large fireplace, and stairs took up the rest of the room on the north side.  Roman arches covered the ceiling, about the only exceptional feature to the room.  The large door to the inn opened right into the common room by the tables, and a door on the right from there led to the kitchen. 

            I sent my glare across the room, feeling testy as my leg joints made their usual complaints after the walk here--a shattered hip and leg, and bullet chewed muscles hadn't left much with which to make repairs.  It was still early, and not many of the regulars had yet made their way in for breakfast.  Those already there paid me no attention after we'd traded the usual morning greetings on my way in.  I enjoy my privacy and they all know it.  I guess after a year, we'd all come to a certain understanding of how things should be.

            When I showed up here a year ago, I told those I spoke to virtually nothing about myself.  It still amazed me how from nothing, rumors about me still abounded through town.  The most popular by far was the one about how I'd sustained my injuries in a car wreck, and how I'd barely survived.  Though the first was total bullshit, the second was closer than they knew.  As if that weren't enough, the rumor went on to say I'd not been alone in the car, and my companion had been some rich industrialist's daughter.  Her death at my hands and her father's anger had gotten me ostracized from society and country, forcing me to flee to this forsaken place.  The few brave souls who'd actually dared to ask me if any of it was true didn't get their suspicions confirmed or denied.  Who was I to dissuade them of such romantic fantasies?  Besides, it definitely worked to my advantage.  So I let them think what they liked.

            Anyway, so far as the people here were concerned, only someone truly desperate would willingly come to Huntwall.  Marked after the war as a known Galactor sympathizer and ally, the country had been blackballed by the rest of world.  I suppose someone had to take the blame for Galactor, and Huntwall had been terribly convenient.  Cross Karakoram was just too desolate a place for the world's ire.

            Even now the UN's courts were clogged with cases against the country and some individuals.  All those pressing the cases wanted revenge, remuneration, or whatever they could get for what they'd gone through thanks to the evil organization.  They wanted to squeeze this place until the earth cracked and swallowed it whole. 

            Yet what most of the world didn't care to understand was that the wealth and power here had only been held by an elite few and what little had been gathered by the government had been spent long ago just trying to keep the place together.  Even the fact most of the people here, except those few elite, had had nothing to do with the choices their country was being blamed for was ignored.  Huntwall had become as despised a name as the Nazi party of WWII, and the Turin Jihad of WWIII.  And in their ignorance and anger, the world was pushing this place toward desperation as Germany had been pushed after the First World War.  Hitler and his ambitions had been a creation of horrid times, a light to those oppressed beyond endurance.  I suppose there are those who will never learn from others mistakes.

            "Good morning, Mike."  A skinny eight year old with a bright smile and bare feet sidled up to me, a filled tray in his hands.

            "Morning, Thomas."

             "I've brought your breakfast."

             "Thanks."  It was hard keeping the lack of excitement from my voice.  I stared unenthusiastically at the plain eggs and applesauce-the breakfast of cripples.  Having a reduced stomach and shortened intestinal tract had way too many drawbacks for my liking--and let's not even get started on my right lung.  The restrictions on the foods and spices I could eat was one the worst consequences of what had happened to me.   It wasn't that I really minded the plain eggs and applesauce, but I would give almost anything to sink my teeth into some spicy sausage or crisp bacon.  The few times I succumbed to the temptation though I'd regretted it for days.  My stomach twisted just thinking about it.  Time to distract myself.  "Anything new going on this morning?"

            Thomas and I, we'd made ourselves a little deal not long after I started coming to the inn for my meals.  He would keep me informed on what was going on in town, and I would show him a thing or two at the shop. 

             "Well-" Thomas glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the kitchen.  His mother didn't necessarily approve of his repeating the things he overheard from her customers.  "Last night, Pierre and Doogan went at each other again."  His grin was fierce as he recalled the scuffle.  "They got so bad Mama kicked them both out.  I couldn't tell if they were fighting over money or Dulce or both."  He leaned in a little closer.  "Mama said if they do it in here again, they might as well not come anymore.  I think that will make them behave for at least a week or two."

The two fools had been in over ten fights with each another and others in the last six months alone.  The fights weren't serious, mostly posturing with some punching and throwing for looks.  The town was of the opinion it was their young blood driving them to it.  I believe it stems from the fact they don't have any steady work, which around here was not unusual, and because of it, had absolutely nothing better to do. 

I saw something flash in Thomas' eyes as I absorbed all this, his voice dropping to a bare whisper.  "Way early this morning, before Mama made me get up, I got woken up by a loud pounding at the front door.  Mama went to answer it so I snuck over to the top of the stairs.  I couldn't see, but I could hear good.  It was a man and a woman, and they wanted directions to the villa."

This peaked my interest at once.  The Villa Reese was about the only thing in the area of any real worth.  It belonged to the Shanglestrands, a wealthy family sources said had once been connected to the black market and Galactor.  The family had disappeared after the fall of the organization and the villa had been dormant for at least a year before I ventured into town. 

"Thomas!"

The boy grimaced and quickly got to his feet.  "Gotta go.  I'll talk to you later."  Without waiting for a reply, Thomas picked up his empty tray and shot off toward the kitchen.  "Coming, Mama!"

I watched him go, eating my eggs without tasting them.  The villa was being used again.  It might prove an opportunity for the town to make some much needed cash, maybe get some semi steady work.  But would these visitors also be bringing anything else with them?  That's what I'd need to find out.

I finished what passed for my breakfast and then grabbing my hated friend, I got up and made my usual slow way toward the door.  I nodded greetings to some of the more recent faces to enter the place, but gave no hint I was interested in conversation. 

Getting the people here to leave me alone had been one of the hardest things I had to do since I got here.  Starved for anything different and new, the arrival of a foreigner, and one who wanted to stay, had put them all into a near frenzy.  I was the most popular person in town for weeks, even after I did everything short of bodily hurling them across the room to discourage them from it.  At least my obvious handicap had been useful in one way.  It'd kept the older women in town from trying to thrust a match at me-at least so far.  My looks aren't bad, or so I've been told, and I am still young, though the gray streaks in my hair made me look older, but no one wants to saddle their child with a cripple.  And this suited me just fine, since being matched was definitely one headache I didn't need.

As I came close to the door, Thomas threw me a grin as he rushed past with more filled plates.  The fare didn't vary much from day to day, but Thomas' mother took pride in her work and made it the best it could be.   The heavyset woman followed not far behind her son, carrying a couple of pitchers of water. 

"Good morning, Mama Lucha."

If Thomas' mom had a first name, I'd yet to discover it.  Everyone called her Mama, even men twice her age.  She stopped near me long enough to give me a tired smile.  "Good morning, Mr. Merino.  I hope my Thomas hasn't been bothering you today."

"No, not at all."

I'd heard she'd become a widow during the war.  She ran the inn on her own except for her son and a couple of hired hands.  It was hard work, but earned them enough to survive.  I helped make it a little easier even as she helped me. 

Though she'd frowned and looked me up and down when I'd first made my special requests for bland foods and small portions, she'd not taken it upon herself to question my choices as others here would have done. 

So I paid her once a month for my meals from my stipend, and fixed things around the inn at no charge.  The economy being what it was, a lot of things around here depended on trade of goods or services.  Everything else was either made with what was available or you paid a small fortune for it on the black market.  Most around here tended to do without.

The door creaked as I opened it.  I made a mental note to bring back my oil can when I came back for lunch. 

The morning sun washed over the street, lighting what little there was there to see.  The inn sat almost in the center of town, marked by its cobbled street and large fountain in the middle.  For many, the fountain was a prime source of water, though most did have some amount of plumbing.  The fountain was twenty feet wide, with a triple cascade, and was fed from an underground spring through some ancient engineering.  It was about the only thing in town worth a look.

Across from the inn stood another two-story building used as the town hall, courtroom, and storm shelter.  Beside it sat a smaller building, housing the constable's office and the jail.  The current owner of said position preferred long naps to tracking criminals.  Luckily that wasn't much of a problem in these parts, at least at the moment.  If anything did go down, though, Bjork could definitely not be counted on as a source of help.

The town store was across the way and also served as the post office, plus it had one of the few phones in town.  The school was next, though it'd be another half hour before any kids would trickle over in that direction.  Thomas would more than likely be late.

The only other building of note was a ways up the north road-a small Catholic church.  A young priest had shown up only a few months before to fill up its emptiness, much to the pleasure of the townspeople.  I'd met the young priest twice-both when he'd requested some minor repairs.  I had no plans to get to know him better.  Made me think too much of someone else I knew once.  Besides, his open innocence and good humor rubbed me the wrong way.  And I had no intention of baring my soul to him as I knew he'd sooner or later get around to asking.  I haven't been a religious man in a long time, and what I did with my life was my own business.

The neglected roofs and discolored walls on most of the buildings spoke of the town's hardships.  Even the cobbled street only stretched about twenty meters in all four directions from the fountain, before turning into a packed dirt track.  Not that I minded; the dirt was easier to walk on.

Long ago, the town had been a stopover for fresh horses, fuel, food, and rest for merchants moving their wares to the border.  The advent of planes and trains had done away with most of it, reducing this and other once semi important places to nothing.

The morning was already warm, promising a long, hot, humid day.  By the time I made the eight of a mile south to my property, a thin sheen of sweat covered my face and back.  Fifteen minutes for what would take any other man three to accomplish.  And that was on a good day at that.

My home was a relic of earlier, more prosperous times.  Set in a sizable plot surrounded by a two-meter wall, it housed a set of stables and a carriage house.  A previous owner had taken part of the stables and converted them into an apartment of sorts.  Part of the carriage house had been set up as a mechanics shop.  It had all sat empty for at least a couple of years, the owner being one of the lucky few with enough resources to flee the country once things looked to be turning sour. 

But the plot suited me.  With its surrounding walls, I got a certain amount of privacy, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the living space was small enough I could manage to keep it clean on my own despite my limitations.  The mechanics bay and shop in the carriage house gave me the means to make a living.  Business for a mechanic was sparse, but that was okay with me since everything took me three or four times as long to do now.  I'd even diversified from cars and now could tinker with just about anything if I had a mind to.  While recuperating at the hospital, I'd had plenty of time on my hands.

Cars though would always be my specialty.  I couldn't really drive anymore, which was just as well since cars were rare in these parts-especially any cars worth driving.  I missed it though, sometimes painfully, almost like an addict in withdrawal.  Working on them, bringing them up to one hundred percent performance was about the only thing that came even close to easing it.  If it hadn't been for the surprise I found covered by an old tarp behind the carriage house, I'm not sure I'd been able to handle things for as long as I have.

My "friend" and me had been out making the rounds of the property as part of my daily constitutional when I came across her.  I'd lifted the tarp, expecting to find an old rusted tractor or horse rig, maybe even a broken down truck, and found her instead.

Even dirty, dented, and covered in cobwebs, I'd instantly recognized her for who she was-a 350 GT Lamborghini-one of only one hundred and twenty made from 1964 to 1967-the first cars, aside from the one GTV prototype, to come off the floor of the Lamborghini plant.

And somehow, miraculously, there she'd been, out in the middle of nowhere, looking as used and badly in need of repair as me-therapy for my soul in a framework of tubes and aluminum panels.

Almost before I did anything else, I got some of the men in town to move her into one of the bays.  Daily, I spent hours working on her, to restore her, to create the miracle for her that would never happen to me.

The Touring body had already taken me over nine months to mold back into shape.  Her backside had been smashed at some point and straightening out the support tubes without cracking them was a delicate, time-consuming process.  And I'd loved every minute of it.

Of the rest of her, none of the major components appeared damaged.  Already plans percolated in my head on how I might jury-rig some of the hoses, though I was still at a loss on what I would do about the tall oil filter.  The leather in the three seats had rotted through, but I'd find a way to replace them sooner or later.  I wasn't in a hurry.  I had plenty of time for everything in my life now.  No matter how much I might want it otherwise.

It was after she'd been brought in and I set about polishing the rare red Lamborghini badge, that her name came to me-something elegant and European, showing the proper lineage and respect-Sophia.

And with Sophia's sixty degree V-12, two hundred and seventy horsepower, 65000 rpm engine by Giotto, her platinum tipped plugs, Bonami wire wheels, and German ZF transmission, she would be one of the most beautiful thing I'd ever have a chance to work on.  Sometimes it almost made it all worth it-sometimes...

 

 

 

 

"Hello? Is anyone around?"

I looked up, my hand falling protectively over Sophia's propped fender, which I'd been buffing by hand for the last couple of hours.  The query had come from somewhere in the yard from a voice I didn't recognize.  It also didn't have the twang of one of the locals.

"I'm in here!"  Grabbing my cane, I stood up to go meet whoever this might be.  I grimaced as I did it, my bottom numb, and my bad leg complaining.  My body was no longer as forgiving as it once was and I'd definitely been sitting still in one place for too long.

I'd almost hobbled to the carriage house's partially open door, when a silhouette filled the space.  With the early afternoon light pouring in from the outside, I couldn't get a good look at his face as he stood veiled in shadow.  Still, his stance, or something about him, made me stop where I stood.  "Can I help you?"

A red spot quickly followed by a puff of smoke suddenly rose in the air, enveloping his face.  A moment later, he flicked the end of his cigarette butt on the ground before him.

My eyes narrowed at the blatant rudeness, but said nothing.  It wasn't, however, something I was going to forget.

"Are you the mechanic?"  The stranger left the space by the door and stepped inside.  Now that his face was no longer in shadow, I could see his arrogant half smile.  The tan suit he had on looked expensive.

"I fix things on occasion." 

The stranger's eyes flicked toward Sophia and her half disassembled body.  His smile grew wider.  "Yes, I can see that."

It was becoming incredibly difficult to keep my tone halfway polite.  "What can I do for you?"

The stranger's dark eyes roamed about the inside of the carriage house with feigned interest.  "I'm currently staying at the Villa Reese and am expecting some friends to join me soon.  Unfortunately, it seems the place has fallen a little by the wayside, if you know what I mean."  The way he stared at the walls in disgust for a moment, made certain I knew he was sure I did.  "As this would not be a proper representation of my family, I find myself in need of someone to come out and take a look at a few things and get some odds and ends fixed."  He sent a haughty look in my direction.  "I was told you might be able to help me."

I tried not to bristle as his tone implied his doubt.  Either this buffoon was an idiot, or didn't really care if his villa got fixed.  If his request weren't providing me with such a great opportunity to get a close look at the place, I would have turned him down flat.  "I'll need to get my tools."

The man reached into his jacket for a gold carrying case and took out another cigarette.  "Please do.  I'll wait for you outside."

I watched him until he was out of sight, only then turning my back on him to retrieve my things. 

He was definitely a Shangelstrand.  I'd thought it was my imagination back when I'd looked at old pictures of the family, but it appeared my first impression had been right- the haughty expression was a family trademark.  The most recent report on them, which wasn't, said the family had taken everything they could get their hands on when the first details of Karakoram's collapse had been released and fled the country.  Up till now, no real trace of them had been found.  Now one of them was back.

I made cigarette boy to be about twenty-six, so if I had to guess, that would make him the middle of the three brothers-Darren, wasn't it?  I'd find out soon enough, I was sure.

I grabbed the small backpack on one of the tables I use to carry my tools when the work couldn't be brought here, and strapped it on.  Making my slow way outside, I covered my eyes as the sun shone into my face.  I hoped the idiot understood I wouldn't be walking to his place.  I shouldn't have worried.  I found the rich boy waiting for me, leaning back against a Mercedes Benz SL class Roadster-a convertible model, and the top was down.  That was hardship for you.  Obviously leaving the country and living underground hadn't hurt them much.  Heck, the car looked as if it'd barely left the showroom floor. 

"There you are."  Shanglestrand threw his cigarette on the floor and ground it out with an expensive loafer.  "I was starting to think you weren't coming." 

Again with that condescending attitude-I might just have to booby trap rather than fix that place of his.  "We take our time around here.  This isn't the big city you know."  Let's see what he made of that.

The man's eyes narrowed for a second.  "Country sayings-how quaint."  He pushed away from the car.  "Get in."  He went around it, leaving me to get in on my own.

The engine purred to life and I felt the old excitement kindle inside me.  With a screech, we took off, headed for town to take the west road to the villa.  It was a good thing the streets were empty at this time of day, because Darren gave little thought to pedestrians.

Once out of the town proper, he gave the car more gas and let it run.  I turned my face away from him as the wind whipped past me, not wanting him to see the idiotic grin on my face.  If he realized I was enjoying this, rather than being scared at our present speeds, I was sure he'd slow down to sour it for me-and I would be sorry for that.  The only thing that would have made this better was to have been the one behind the wheel.

Before long, we were passing grazing fields and the land started gently rising into hills.  Nestled at the foot of one of these, was a multi building estate.  There was a short wall before us, marking the beginning of the grounds.  Tall spruce trees lined the pebbled roadway winding on over to the main house.  A huge, five-tiered fountain split the road into a circular drive.  A long set of steps led into the interior of the main building.

The crop of pebbles had thinned on the road in places and weeds and tall grass could be seen everywhere.  From its nest atop the empty fountain, a mama bird twittered angrily at the car.

Still, some of the villa's majesty from its heyday showed through in its tiled archway and ivy covered columns.  It had definitely fared a lot better than any place in town. 

Showering rocks onto the steps as he brought the car to a sliding stop, Darren turned off the roadster and got out.  Acting as if I wasn't there, he rose up the stairs to the front door.  Not having any choice in the matter, I extricated myself at my own pace and followed him.

On the other side of the carved door, I was greeted by marble tiles and thin smooth columns.  The short entryway opened up into a wide reception area.  Paintings and portraits lined the left and right walls, but most were covered over by tarps or sheets.  A broad mural of a vineyard filled the back, rimmed by two joining staircases.  Reclining couches were set against the walls to either side, but they too were covered by sheets, except for one.  On it, a woman, probably close to Darren's age, stood up and presented her cheek to the rich boy for a kiss.

"I was starting to worry about you."  Her voice was husky in a seductive way, and she gave him a playful half pout.  With her short, curly red hair, full lips, and a rack a man could drown in, I could see how the haughty man might enjoy her company.

"Sorry, dove.  It took a little longer than I expected to find some help."  He gave her what I supposed he considered, a charming smile.  "The fixit man is here now though, and I've arranged for a number of the townspeople to come in an hour or so to start cleaning."

"A fixit man?"  For the first time, she glanced past her companion and spotted me by the entrance to the room.  Her eyes lit up as she caught sight of my face, then frowned as she also noticed my friend the cane.  A pensive expression soon overtook her face.  I had the strange feeling I didn't want to know what she was wondering about.  And they say men have a one-track mind.

Shanglestrand noticed her gaze.  "Yes, he's all they had.  So I guess he'll have to do for a while."

I wondered if he took lessons to be this rude.  "What is it that you want me to work on?  If you don't mind my asking."

Darren turned to face me.  "The house, of course."  He raised a brow as if I'd just proved his suspicions that I was an imbecile. 

Fuck it-I was a mechanic, not a mind reader!  I wasn't sure how much more of this I could take.  "Fine.  Where's your generator?"

I got a blank look.

Yeah, should have expected as much.  "Never mind.  I'll find it."  It was going to be a long evening.

The town's power came from a small hydro plant on the nearby river Schloss.  The water came from underground springs and an ancient aqueduct connected to the river.  The villa though, was a little too far to get either from there.  I was placing odds this place had its own generator as well as its own spring, both of which would tend to be housed out of the way, probably underground. 

From the reception area I went left, trying to find the kitchen.  The hallway led to two large carved doors, which creaked when I pushed them open.  Item one for the mental list.  To my surprise, the doors led outdoors to a pillared walkway covered overhead with ivy.  It appeared the villa was set up in the Roman style, with separate buildings for dining, bathing, and talking.  Regardless of the poor human beings they seemed to be, I had to admit that at least the Shanglestrand family possessed good taste in architecture.

Three buildings later and I finally found the kitchen.  Like all the other rooms I'd come across, it reeked of stale air and disuse.  Hobbling on to the back, I found a couple of doors which looked promising.  The first was a huge pantry arrangement.  The second was a set of stairs leading down.

Grabbing my flashlight from the loop on the backpack, I started making my slow way down.

The room was bigger than it appeared from the top of the stairs-actually it was massive.  And with one pass of my flashlight I understood why.  Yeah, the villa was equipped with a generator, just like I'd figured, but it wasn't just any generator, it was a damn skyscraper diesel generator unit.  This thing could power a thirty plus story building, including central heat and air, and who knew what else, all by its lonesome.  It was massive.  All this for just one villa?  My ass.  I was suddenly very sure Shanglestrand wasn't here on vacation.

Bumbling around I finally found the fuel gauge for the thing and it indicated it was almost full.  As I searched for the thing's controls, I found several large pipes coming up out of the floor and up to the generator.  They had underground diesel fuel storage.  This place was a whole heck of a lot more than it seemed.

The controls for the generator were easy enough, once I found them, so I turned the puppy on.  Machines of this size and caliber were made to run without much maintenance for long periods of time.  Seconds after I threw the switch, a low thrumming reverberated through the floor and up my legs, telling me the thing was working almost as forcefully as the bright bulbs now on overhead.

Luckily for me, the main well pump was also down here, so I wouldn't have to go looking for it too.  The partially rusted turning wheel gave me some trouble, but not after I beat on it with my buddy for a minute or two.

Now to survey for actual damage and anything else of interest.

I tested the light switches, the stove burners, and faucets of every room in the place.  The cutoffs for the water had to be turned on, fuse boxes needed to be checked.  Walking around to every one of them seemed to take forever, but most things were in great shape and I got a good look around too, so it all worked out. 

The locals arrived in a couple of old trucks and a tractor, hauling with them buckets, mops and brushes, from the look of them, newly purchased from the general store.  Like a stampede, they hit the villa and started cleaning.  From the glances some of them threw at each other, I got the feeling a spirit of competition had something to do with their highly motivated efforts.  It wasn't as if Shanglestrand was going to pay them well or had won over their loyalty with his sparkling personality-but a promise of a few jobs for the duration of his stay would be something else entirely.

Aside from a lot of rooms with expensive though neglected furnishings, I couldn't find anything out of the ordinary.  There were no secret doors, no hidden rooms-only what you'd expect, except for the way over the top generator.  That meant if there was something, it had to be underground and the entrance to it would be in the gardens or elsewhere.  At my current pace, there was no way I'd be able to find it on my own. 

I got a ride back to town, feeling tired and I guess a little frustrated.  I'd not said good-bye to my employer, too darn tired to put up with any of his crap.  If he needed me, he knew where to find me.

Aching, and still short of breath from all the walking today, I thankfully stepped into the inn for some supper and a chance to rest.

"Mike!"

I hadn't quite made it to the back when the kid spotted me.  He caught up to me by the time I made it to my table.  I dumped the backpack on the floor, before dumping myself into the chair.  His small, fair face was filled with concern as I grimaced into a sitting position.  I could have used a tub of Ben Gay about now.

"Are you okay, Mike?  You don't look too good."

I didn't answer as he hovered over me, having to work to get my bum leg up onto one of the other chairs.  "I'm fine.  Just overdid it today.  I've been up at the Villa Reese till just a few minutes ago."

"You were there?"  All signs of worry departed to be replaced by barely restrained eagerness.  "I heard a lot of people got to go.  Mama said that man from last night came back and hired everyone he could find.  He promised some would get jobs as long as he was here, if they worked hard.  He even said he might assign a family as caretakers when he leaves."

The promise of a caretaker job would mean food and income, prosperity.  But would the fool live up to his promises or just use them as long as they were convenient? 

"I would have gone!  Gotten the job as caretaker and everything for Mama and me, but I was stuck at school and didn't find out about it until too late."  He scuffed his foot on the ground.  Thomas knew too what it could mean to have such a job.

After a moment or two, he brightened.  "Was the place pretty?  Do they have lots of things?  I've never been up there."

I massaged my aching shoulder.  "It was nice, but too big.  Mama Lucha would have you cleaning night and day and it still wouldn't get done."

Thomas' look of utter distaste and horror almost made me laugh.

"I'll go get your dinner."

I watched Thomas go then closed my eyes trying to get my aching body to relax.  I must have done too good a job of it, because the next thing I knew, Thomas was back shaking me lightly. 

"I'm sorry, Mr. Merino, but it's going to get cold."  I could see a concerned look peering back out of his face again.

He was a good kid if a little overprotective.  Reminded me a lot of- I stopped the thought before it went any farther, it would be better not to go there.  "Guess I really did overdo it."  I must have been out more than just a few minutes too, because the place was almost full. 

I heard a high lilting laugh echo back from the front of the room.  Looked like the high and mighty had come to grace the townspeople with their presence. 

Almost as if reading my thoughts, Thomas bent down to whisper something to me.  "They're here again.  They came for lunch too.  The man doesn't look very happy about it though."

"Thomas!"  Mama Lucha's strong voice whipped to the back of the room. 

"Coming."  The boy game me an apologetic nod.  "I have to go."

"I'm okay now.  Don't worry about it."  I straightened up a little more in my seat, feeling my stiffening joints.  In no real hurry, I ate my baked chicken and yams. 

The lilting laugh drifted my way several times as I ate, but no unusual male laughter mirrored it.  I supposed the woman was making the best of things while Shanglestrand stewed about having to eat with the common people.  Served him right.

My body complained profusely as I finally got up to go.  Getting my backpack and shuffling toward the door, I finally spotted the two newcomers.  As I'd figured, Shanglestrand was sitting with his back to as many people as possible, brooding.  I saw his mouth twist with distaste as he took a sip of the local wine.  Guess it didn't quite live up to his standards.  It would mean he was slated for a lot of disappointments around here then. 

His girlfriend, on the other hand, appeared to be flirting with about half the male population.  She'd changed into a bright red, revealing dress, and looked to be getting a thorough kick at seeing the effects her charms were having on everyone.   I spotted Mama Lucha by the kitchen door, frowning in their general direction.  I wondered if she too got a bad taste in her mouth from all of this.

Stepping outside, I left it all behind, the door snuffing the noise from within.  Shanglestrand's roadster was parked on the cobbled street as if he owned it.  The light from the windows sparkled off its pristine surface.  I caressed its side with my free hand as I walked past, remembering again this afternoon's ride.  It'd all been worth it, just for that.

"She's beautiful, isn't she?"

I glanced back over my shoulder, surprised at the voice, and even more so as I saw it was Shanglestrand's girl.  With a smile, she sauntered over toward me.  I stammered for something to say.  "She looks like she would handle well." 

The woman gave me a coy smile.  "She's not the only one."  She leaned invitingly against the side of the car.  "I've been hearing some things about you, Fixit Man."

"I doubt anyone really had much to tell."  What was she up to?

"That's just the thing, you see."  She half turned to give me a better view of her cleavage.  She was very well aware of what she had to offer.  "Other than whispers and rumors, no one really seems to know anything about you."  She leaned forward a little more.  "I think it's interesting."

I said nothing.

"They say you got hurt in a car accident, but I don't think that's true.  You got hurt during the war, didn't you?"

I felt myself frown.  "Does it matter?"  Though she appeared totally relaxed and the question sounded innocent and playful, something inside me was telling me there was more to it than I could see.

"One never knows what might be important.  Sometimes it's the little things."  Her eyes locked with mine.  There was feral cunning there.

"Yes, that might be so, but there are also things best left forgotten."  Let's see what she would make of that.

Whatever she might have said next I didn't get to find out.  Shanglestrand picked that moment to come out, looking for his playmate.  "Lyra, there you are.  I was wondering where you'd gone."  A half disgusted glare flashed in my direction as she straightened herself off the car.

"Just talking to the Fixit Man a minute, dear.  I was having problems with the plugs in the bathroom earlier."  She sauntered over to him and draped herself on his arm.  "Are you jealous?"

"Please."  Again with the glare.  Having insecurity issues, were we?

With her attention averted, I turned away to leave.  The sooner I got away from those two the better.  At least now I knew which of the two to watch out for.

The moon was rising red and full in the horizon and kept me company as I made my way home.  I glanced toward the carriage house as I came into the yard, tempted suddenly to catch up on the work I'd meant to accomplish for Sophia this afternoon.  With a pang of regret, I let the temptation go, knowing I was going to pay enough as it was for my exertions today.  Besides, there was still some other work I had to do tonight.

I turned on the light in the larger of the two rooms of the apartment then bolted the door.  The thick curtains over the window were still in place, so I left them alone.

I'd almost made it across to the bedroom when my right leg cramped.  I was moving my friend at the time, so without support, I crumpled to the carpet like a sack of potatoes.  Chikusho!  Now I would have bruises for my trouble too.  Damn this stupid leg, damn my stupid life! 

The cane took a beating, my frustrations getting the better of me for a minute.  My messed up leg didn't care about any of that though, and spasmed insistently until I finally gave up thrashing and massaged it down. 

Shit, those things hurt.  I hadn't liked them as a kid and I definitely didn't like them now.  At least I hadn't had one in a while.  Hell, the slew of horse pills the doctor kept sending and forcing me to take had to be good for something after all. 

When the leg finally quieted down, I used my uncomplaining friend to help me climb back up to my feet.  And just think, I could only expect for my body to get worse as I grew older.  Yippee.

Tired, definitely grumpy, and wanting a long soak and my bed, I went to the back of the bedroom instead.  Going slow, so as not to excite my leg again, I shuffled over to the large, wooden trunk there.  I opened it and took out all the blankets and clothes inside, and once it was empty, pressed the indentation in the rear, which would spring open the false bottom.  Nestled inside was a complex communications board. 

I pulled up the IR antenna, which would send whatever I typed to the boosting unit hooked to the bottom of the weathervane inside the flat attic.  The latter would act as a bigger antenna and send the short burst of information to one of several satellites keeping orbit around this part of the world.  Normally I would have just sent back a coded letter, but this warranted the quick way.  It would be the first time I used this equipment since I got here.  I'd never actually expected to ever need it at all.

So I typed away with the two finger method for a few minutes to catch the old man up on what was going on and then added a few of my suspicions and some suggestions.  The system crunched it all up, coded it, then sent a two second burst and then wham, it was out of here.  The short burst wouldn't last long enough for sensitive detection equipment to think it was anything more than a glitch. 

Now all I had to do was pack all this back up and then check for my answer in the morning.  So, having nothing else needing my attention, I rewarded my long day with a hot bath, then crashed into bed and passed out.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting out of bed the following morning was one of the toughest things I'd had to do in a long while.  I woke up stiff and sore. Hell, you'd think I'd never done any walking before the way my body was complaining.  It'd become such a piece of shit!  And despite my best efforts, there wasn't much I could do about it either.  Cursing loudly, I finally got myself moving around, which helped a little.  Whacking my buddy hard against the frame of the bed a few times didn't hurt either.  I don't think I'd honestly realized how bad off I was before.  It was disgusting.

Groaning, I got dressed, popped my pills, and then went to check for a return message.  As soon as I linked up, it came down.

 

- Received message.  Agree it bears further study.  Send if you find any more information.  Be careful -

 

As succinct and to the point as ever.  No, ‘how's it going?' no, ‘sorry your body is now such a piece of useless crap'.  Some things never changed.  I could live with that I guess, though I had a few things I wished hadn't.  If Galactor was on the rise again, this would be about as much as I'd get to do in the new battle-keep my eyes open and send love notes to the doc.  It left a vile taste in my mouth, yet it was still better than doing nothing at all.  Which would be where I'd be if the others had had their way.  They never did understand.  I doubted they ever could.  I'd never been meant to sit around and do nothing.

I made my slow way to town, still feeling moody, and found the inn busier than normal for this time of the morning.  Looked like all the workers were trying to get an early start to impress the potential boss.  I wished them luck.  I pretty much doubted anyone here could do anything much to impress him.  It went against his upbringing.

Thomas brought my breakfast over once he spotted me, but the bustling crowd and his mother kept him too busy to talk.

Once I was done, I dragged myself over to the general store and old man Kessler.  As I walked in, I noticed a number of items were missing from the shelves, especially the pricier ones-basically none of the local wares.  Kessler was busy dusting the shelves and looking happy.  "Morning, Mr. Merino!"

I nodded to him.  "Morning."

"What can I do for you today?"

I pulled out the list I'd slowly compiled yesterday from my pocket.  "Here's a list of items needed over at the villa."

Kessler's eyes lit up like spotlights.  "Great!  Is it a lot?"

Out of the whole town, he was probably the one who would come out the most ahead.  "Just some light bulbs, fuses, an oil can, and another thing or two."  As I stood there I realized I'd totally forgotten about inspecting the roofs.  How I'd get myself up there would be a test, but it was an excuse to go back-though not today.

I took my leave of Kessler and crawled on back home.  Though in no way feeling like doing anything today, I was seriously considering asking the others to give me a lift tomorrow so I could take another look around.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to try to get a view of the place from up high.

Sophia and I picked up where we'd left off until lunchtime.  After dragging myself to the inn and back, I took a short nap and then spent more time with Sophia until supper. 

As I came up to the inn, I spotted a dark car parked across the way in front of the constable's office.  It definitely didn't look local.  Could these be some of Shanglestrand's guests?  I didn't figure the house was yet ready for visitors.  Whatever the reason, I quickly memorized the license plate for my love note tonight and went on into the inn.

The work group from the villa was back and were much more subdued than the day before.  I wondered what was up, but as I walked past, none of them were talking.  I'd not been at my table long before Thomas came on over.

"Evening, Mike."

"Evening, Thomas."  I was still staring past him, studying the faces around me and finding that some looked outright glum.  "Did something happen today?"

Thomas turned his back toward the others.  "I heard more strangers came today to the villa-foreigners, and not friendly ones.  They got some of the Atille's in trouble for no reason."

That was curious.  "What were they doing?"

Thomas frowned.  "I think someone said they'd been working in one of the gardens in the back.  When the new men saw them there, they got real mad.  Nobody seems to know why and the men weren't saying."

"I see."  This might have just narrowed things down for me a lot.  "How many new people are there?  Did anyone say?"

Thomas nodded eagerly.  "Six.  All big men.  Like soldiers or something."

That could make things more difficult.  I'd have to see how things played out.

The sun was close to disappearing on the horizon, casting long shadows across the street, when I made my way outside after dinner.  I glanced toward the sheriff's office to see if the dark car was still parked there, and not only did I spot it, but its owners as well. 

Like soldiers or something was right.  The two here were large, burly men, dressed in ill-fitting suits and dark glasses-everything about them screamed trouble.  I would have gone on my way and avoided them, except they weren't alone.

By the town's central fountain, the two men were having a one sided conversation with the mayor and his seventeen year old daughter, Dulce.  They must have caught the two on their way home.  The mayor usually spent a few hours every day at the town hall and his daughter was always there to assist.  That was mostly so he could keep an eye on her.  Between her looks and less than respectable trail of admirers, the mayor had his hands full.

The rough laughter from the two men and the scared look on Dulce's face was all I needed to get me moving.  I limped over as fast as I was able, trying to keep as much on their blind side as possible, even as I seethed inside, remembering a time when I could have been beside them in two heartbeats.

"You cannot do this-please."  The mayor tried getting his portly body between the two men and his daughter, only to get brusquely pushed back. 

"Don't worry, old man," said the older of the two newcomers.  "We only want to spend a little time with her.  No big deal."

The other grabbed hold of Dulce's arm, and wasn't gentle about it either.

"Papa!"  Dulce tried to pull away, but the man was too strong.  "I don't want to."

"Please, sirs, you heard her."  The mayor's eyes were round with fear.  Perspiration etched his brow though the day was already cooling.  "We don't want any trouble.  Just let us go in peace."

"You don't know the meaning of trouble."  The one holding Dulce shoved the mayor hard as he came near in a vain attempt to free his daughter.  The other stuck his foot out behind him, tripping the mayor, who landed with an embarrassed splash in the fountain.

"Come on, girl."  Laughing, the two men turned with her in tow.

Dulce yanked against their hold, kicking her captor to little avail.

I was finally close enough.  I hefted up my friend and brought him down hard on the captor's wrist.

"Ow!"

Even as he let go of the girl, I followed my first blow with another to the side of his face.  He'd just started turning toward me when I caught him on the temple.  He dropped like a wet rag.

My leg might not be worth much anymore, but there was very little wrong with my arms.  "Get behind me." 

I didn't wait to see if Dulce would do as I said, instead turning my attention to the fallen man's startled partner.  "I would suggest you pick up your buddy and get out of here.  As the mayor told you, we don't want any trouble here."

The large man stepped forward, cracking his knuckles.  "It's too late for that, cripple."

"I had a feeling you were going to see things that way."  Disadvantaged as I was, a bit of the old thrill still thrummed through my veins.  There was no way I was going to make this easy for him.

The brute rushed at me, so I threw my cane at his feet.  Unable to stop his momentum, he tripped, falling forward, a shocked look on his face.  As he fell past, I snapped a well-placed chop to the back of his neck.  He smacked into the cobbled road and didn't move again. 

That was good too, because my hand was throbbing and I already felt short of breath.

"Miss, would you mind getting my cane for me?"  If I tried taking a step without it my traitorous leg was liable to drop me flat on my face, and I'd gone through way too much trouble for that.

Dulce rushed to do as I asked, her eyes wide with admiration.

"By the lord above, what have you done?"  Dripping wet, the mayor stared aghast at the two fallen men. 

"What needed to be done."  I had a sudden flare of annoyance as the man looked at me as if I were insane.  "Or would you rather I let them go ahead and molest your daughter, or worse?"

The mayor blanched, suddenly unable to look at me or his daughter in the eye.  "This just creates problems for the town."

Dulce handed me my cane, a disbelieving, half horrified look on her face.  "Papa, I can't believe you're saying this."

The mayor shrunk in on himself.  "You don't understand, angel.  If these men are what they seem, they will now do a lot worse to everyone."  Tears rose and flowed down his face, bringing Dulce to a stop as it appeared she would retort.  "It has happened before."

I felt the old anger trying to well up inside me.  "Well it won't happen this time.  If the sheriff takes the two of them back to the villa before they revive, and explains to them what happened, these men will be the ones in trouble."  I was sure bringing unwanted attention to them would be the last thing Shanglestrand and his woman wanted.  "Have him blame all this squarely on me if you want, though their egos might prove more forgiving if you just tell them it was a drunken brawl at the inn."

I could see the mayor desperately trying to convince himself I was right, but was having a hard time of it.

"Miss, would you go get the sheriff, please?"

Dulce threw a look at her father, then bracing her shoulders, nodded and ran across the way to the sheriff's office.

Ignoring the still stupefied mayor, I carefully knelt down and checked the pockets of the closest unconscious goon, keeping my back between the mayor and my hands.

"What are you doing?"  The mayor's voice rose several octaves.  "Are you mad?  You can't steal from these men!"

"I'm only checking them for weapons.  If they don't have them, they won't be tempted to use them if they happen to wake up before you get them home."  I placed a set of brass knuckles on the street.  The scent of polish rose from them to tickle my nose.  A desert eagle followed not much later.  Yet these were incidentals.  While I meant what I told the mayor, there was another reason I was searching these men-I wanted a look at their identities or anything else they might have on them identifying who they worked for.

The wallet of the first told me his name was Ralph Simmer, but aside from his foreign driver's license, he had no other ID. 

The second man had two guns as well as a short stun rod in his possession.  As I slipped the second gun from its holster I finally spotted what I was looking for.  Though I'd definitely expected it, it was still a shock to see it.  It was the red demon face which had given the world nightmares for years-the mark of Galactor.

I leaned heavily on my cane, straightening back up to my feet, as I heard running footsteps echo off the cobbles in our direction.

"Mayor, Dulce just told me there'd been a fight.  Are you-" The sheriff came to an abrupt stop, his face rapidly draining of color as he spotted the two unconscious men on the ground.  I could almost smell the fear coming off him.

It was hard to tell in the quickly deepening darkness, but I could swear I saw his eyes try to roll to the back of his head.  That's when I noticed the darkening bruise on the side of his face. 

"Bjork!  We've no time for this!"  The mayor made a grab for the smaller man as he dangerously swayed on his feet.

"You-you don't understand."  His lips shook.  "They came to see me earlier.  And they, and they-"

"Threatened that if you or anyone gave them or any of theirs any trouble the whole town would pay?"  My disgust for this spineless wimp went up a notch. 

Bjork nodded rapidly.

"Mr., Mr. Merino has an idea on how we can partially gloss this over."  The mayor still wouldn't meet my eyes.  His daughter was standing by me rather than him.  "The deed is already done, so we have no choice.  P-pile these men in their car and drive them out to the villa."  He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before blurting out the rest.  "I'll follow in your truck with their weapons.  We'll hand them over to Shanglestrand and explain there was an unfortunate drunken brawl at the inn."

The sheriff nodded slowly, taking all this in, the color dribbling back into his face.  "That might do it.  But, what really happened though?"

Dulce opened her mouth to tell him, but her father quickly cut her off.  "It doesn't matter!  Let's get them home before they wake up."

Though I didn't approve of his reasons for not telling, I said nothing, figuring in this instance it was better that way. 

"Mr. Merino."

I glanced over at Dulce.

"Would you mind very much staying with me until I got home?"  She totally ignored her father.

"Sure." 

She walked silently beside me, even as her hurt father and the sheriff moved to lift the first of the heavy men.

Luckily, her home wasn't far.  The adrenaline from the fight was starting to ebb and my aches were coming back.  I walked with Dulce as far as her door.

"Thank you for everything, Mr. Merino."  Her large eyes took me in as she turned on the light to the porch, almost as if she'd not noticed me before.

"I was happy to have been able to help."

"Me too."  Before I could stop her, she leaned close and kissed me.

One blink later and the door was closing behind her.

Guess I hadn't lost the old touch entirely after all.

With a grin I kept trying to ignore on my face, I hobbled my way home.

My report to HQ that night was definitely longer than the day's before.  With Galactor's presence verified and my mobility so heavily limited, someone else would be needed to handle the footwork-if they could find someone with previous experience and background on Huntwall, so much the better.

Not sure whether I should expect trouble from my encounter in town, I made sure to lock everything tight before turning in for the night.

 

 

 

 

A message was waiting for me when I got up in the morning.  They'd found someone for me.  He should be arriving in town around noon.  Damn, looked like I still had some clout back at HQ.  Felt nice to know.  And since they were obliging me by sending in a good pair of legs, I figured I'd wait before going back to the villa and let him do the climbing.

I went in to town for my "breakfast" and was pleased to find no rumors about last night's altercation making the rounds.  I half toyed with the idea of tracking the sheriff or the mayor down and finding out how things went last night, but figured they'd find my interest too far out of character and probably would attract attention.  The more oblivious the townspeople stayed, the less likelihood of them getting in trouble.

As I made my way back to the carriage house and Sophia, I found I didn't feel as relieved by the fact I was getting some help as I should have.  The message hadn't mentioned whom he was sending, only that whoever he was met the criteria, hell he didn't even say if it was a he.  Yeah, the doc would want to keep the message short, but not even a name?  There had to be something wrong with whoever it was.  Maybe he didn't work well with cripples.

The more I thought about it the more I didn't like it.  And the more I figured whoever this was would shut me out.  I couldn't do this on my own, sure, but I hadn't called for help for him to take over.  Yeah, I'd had little choice in the last two years but to take help from a lot of people, but I was still far from incapable.  He'd get a big surprise if he came in here thinking otherwise.

As the morning wore on, I found myself feeling nervous.  Me, of all people!  I've never had anything to prove to anyone and didn't give a shit what anyone made of me.  But look at me!  You'd think I was a young, inexperienced kid going on a blind date.  I didn't need this.   But I couldn't make it stop.

I sat around in the garage like a condemned man waiting for the final call to the gallows.  I hadn't been this out of sorts since...  Better not go there.  The past was the past and that's where it needed to stay.

At half to noon, I got moving toward town for the rendezvous.  As I made my slow way toward the inn, I spotted a bedraggled motorcycle parked by the front door.  Looked like he might have already beaten me here.  I could feel the tension increasing about my shoulders.  Guess it was time to meet my date.

I was still a couple of buildings from the inn when I spotted the door to the general store open across the square. 

A man about my age came out, wearing a jacket, which looked to have seen a lot of travel.  I froze though when he stepped out from beneath the store's faded awning and I made out his face.

Holy shit!  My knees tried to lock as I shoved myself hard into the narrow space between the buildings.  Oh please tell me he didn't see me.  Shit, shit, shit-Nambu you fucking bastard!  Even though it'd been a year, there was no way I'd ever mistake that profile.

But why?  Why had Nambu sent him of all people!  What was he up to?  You twice damned bastard!  I knew I'd made it perfectly clear he was never to tell any of them where I'd gone.  Bloody damnation!  The bastard probably hadn't.  And it hadn't occurred to me to make it part of the deal for him never to send any of them here.  Why would he do this to me?  Why now?  Damn that secretive bastard to hell

Now what was I going to do?

I didn't dare glance out into the street for fear he'd spot me.  But I needed to figure out a way to stall.  I needed time.  Yet if he didn't hear from Merino, he would go looking for him, assuming something had gone wrong.  Shit.

My heart thumped in my chest as I came to the only conclusion left open to me.  Having little choice, I followed the narrow space out to the back of the buildings.  The inn had a back door into the kitchen.  Now if only I could get a hold of Thomas and get him to help me.

Hurrying as best I could to the door, I pulled it open a crack.  Through the dim light, compared to the outside, I spotted the boy.  I'd gotten lucky.  "Thomas."

The boy jumped, rattling several pots and pans he'd been about to set in the sink.  Spotting me, he threw a glance over his shoulder and rushed over.

"Mike?"

I beckoned for him to come on out.  Thomas did so, keeping the door slightly ajar in case his mother called for him.

"I need for you to do me a favor, an important favor."  Though I doubted anyone could have heard me inside, I still found myself keeping my voice low.  "There's a new guy in town, one about my age.  Have you seen him?"

Thomas nodded rapidly.  "Yes.  He's rented a room.  He came in on a motorcycle." 

"Yeah, that's the one."  Come on, hurry up and get this over with.  I felt a drop of sweat makes it way down my back.  "I need you to give him a message for me.  Tell him I wasn't feeling well and couldn't meet him.  Tell him you'll be seeing me later and I'll be sending back a note."  Crap, that sounded so lame!  "Can you do that for me?"

The kid looked confused.  "Sure I can, Mike, but-"

"There you are."

I felt myself turn to stone.

"Mr. Merino, I presume?"

Damn, he must have seen me after all.  But I wasn't ready for this, nowhere damn near ready.  Fatalistically, I found myself turning around where he could see me and I him.

He looked well.  His skin had a nice tan, almost as if he'd been spending a lot of time outdoors.  As handsome as ever, he seemed thinner, more rough around the edges.  His eyes were still the same blue I remembered and the smile as welcoming as ever, that is until he realized who he was talking to.

It was as if someone threw a switch.  One moment he was there, looking young and smiling, the next it was covered in shock.  He took an involuntary step backward.  "J-Joe?"

Nambu definitely hadn't told him whom he was coming to see.  Hell.  "Been a long time-Ken."

I saw the shock drain from him, his face aging years and becoming as blank as a mask.  Only his eyes retained any life to them-and they were angrier than I'd ever seen them.  "You jerk."

I saw the punch coming, but no longer had the ability to get out of the way before it connected.  In a way, I suppose I had it coming-it wasn't as if I'd taken the time to say good-bye before I left.

Pain flared in my jaw as the punch threw me back against the wall of the inn and I almost fell.  Shit, that hurt!  Yet I also knew he could hit harder.  Guess I should feel grateful, but I didn't.

Ken took a half step toward me, though whether to help me or hit me again, I didn't get a chance to find out.

"Leave him alone!"  Thomas jumped out in front of me, blocking Ken's access.  I swear Thomas looked of a mind to try taking Ken on for me.  Did no one think I could take care of myself?

Ken quickly backed off, his expression mixed.

"Thomas, it's okay.  I know him."  The kid glanced back at me, his face unsure.  "He's my friend."

"Like hell I am."

I pushed myself away from the wall, ignoring the comment.  "Go back inside.  Your mom's probably looking for you." 

"But, Mike-" He shot Ken a mistrustful glare.

"It's all right."  I tried to put as much conviction into the one word as I could. 

"I won't hit him again," Ken supplied helpfully, "no matter how much he might deserve it."

Thomas still didn't look totally convinced, but slowly made his way back to the door.  "If you're sure..."

"I am."

Thomas nodded and turned away.

"And thanks."

The kid gave me a quick grin, then slipped back inside.  Now we were alone.

I stood my ground, but didn't look directly at Ken.  Ken stared past me, his fists bunched at his sides.

"What now?" he asked me.

I shrugged.  "I brief you.  You do the job.  We report in.  You go home."

"Is that it?"  The anger was back full force.  "Is that all?"

What on Earth was he expecting?  I had left, and I'd done it for a reason.  I wasn't going back, and I wasn't about to apologize for leaving.  Still, angry at me or not, it was good to see him.  Though it wouldn't stay that way for long.  "Yeah, that's all."

"You bastard!"  Ken shot forward as if to hit me again, but then brought himself up short.  "After all we'd been through, after all we'd done, and this is all you have to say to me?  You ran away!  You left us behind as if we'd never meant anything to you, for this?"  His arms flung wide, taking in the dilapidated state of everything around me.  What he didn't understand was that I was the same as this town.

"We deserved better, Joe.  A lot better than what you gave us.  Do you have any idea what you put us through?  Hell, do you even care?"

I didn't look at him, knowing he was right, yet also knowing I could have done nothing else.  If they'd even suspected what I'd planned, they would have never let me leave-the team's pet cripple.

Quietly, angrily, Ken said, "It would have been easier for all of us if you'd just died."

My fury shot up out of nowhere, his words a trigger I hadn't expected.  "That's right."  My whole body shook with my explosion of emotion.  "It would have definitely been better if I'd been allowed to die."

Ken's anger snuffed out like a candle beneath my torrent, but now it was too late.  I couldn't stop.

"Look at me, look at me! I am a cripple."  The word was like a mouthful of brine.  I held on to my cane so hard, my whole hand turned white.  "Did you actually think I wanted to live this way?"

Ken took a step back but this only goaded me on.

"Yeah, I helped save the world, so what?  What am I good for now?  What did it get me?  Katse killed himself.  Sosai got away.  It wouldn't be so hard to take if I'd actually accomplished anything, but as history well shows-I sacrificed everything just for a delaying tactic, and that might be giving my actions too much credit.

"You should have let me die.  I was meant to die.  But no, you wouldn't let me-you, Nambu, and the others."  Two years worth of frustrations were trying to pour out of me at once.  "I'm fucking useless, but you wanted me to stick around and be grateful.  Grateful, even as every step, every breath, reminded me of everything I had lost." 

I turned around and left.  There was more I could say, more I refused to share, but if I stayed I would do it, I would say it and every reason why I left how I did would be void, yet another useless thing in my life.

Ken could have easily caught up to me and stopped me, but he didn't.  A part of me raged about my not meaning enough for him to do it, while another was only too glad.  Part of the truth was now out.  Hopefully, it would stifle any wishful thinking on his part, that way we could do this and he would get the fuck out when it was over.

My jaw throbbed all the way home.  I'd missed lunch, I felt tenser than hell, and I wanted nothing more than to hit something.  I felt like I was going to explode any second.  If I ever saw Nambu again, I would make the son of a bitch pay.  I didn't need this shit!

I pushed open the gate and was halfway to the carriage house before I realized I had company.  The idea flared for a moment that Ken had gone the back way and beat me here, but my first look at those behind me squashed it flat.

I'd missed them as they stood behind the retaining wall, waiting for me.  Had they walked all the way here from the villa or stashed the car in town, then hoofed it over?  I felt flattered for all the trouble.  So they thought it would take four of them, did they?  Two of the goons I recognized from the night before.  Guessed they and their friends had come all this way for a little payback. 

With all the excitement this morning, I'd forgotten all about them.  My mistake. 

This time it would just be me and my "buddy", not even surprise on my side.  And here I'd thought the day couldn't get much worse.  Wrong again.
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