Injuries of the Mind and Soul
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.
"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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
I glanced over at Dulce.
"Would you mind very much staying with me until I got home?" She totally ignored her father.
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.
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..."
Thomas nodded and turned away.
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.
I heard a pained groan and after several seconds realized it'd come from me. I was still trying to mull that over, when I felt the reason. Throbbing pain washed through me from all over focusing slowly on my lower back and kidney, and left shoulder. My stomach and forearms weren't much better either. Then I remembered why I would be feeling this way.
My face flushed as the shame of it hit not long after. They hadn't been serious, I'd been but a bit of entertainment, something with which to pass the time, but I hadn't been able to do a damn thing about it. A far cry from how things used to be not long before. Useless has been. Unfortunately I was pretty sure I'd live, no matter how much I might not want to.
The familiar, unexpected voice startled me into opening my eyes. Ken's strained face hung over me, worry written everywhere. All signs of his previous enmity were for the moment gone.
What was he doing here? How had he found me? Did he come after me after all? I tried to suppress the mixed waves of feelings at the thought and tried to sit up. More aches and pains declared their presence before my arms gave out and dumped me back. My jaw still hurt like hell.
"Take it easy, will you? They worked you over pretty good, in case you hadn't noticed."
I tried to get up again, but this time he pushed me back down.
Hell, since when was this any of his business? A spike of pain shot through my head, forcing me to rethink my position. Though it didn't mean I liked any of this any better. "What-are you doing-here?"
I saw him flinch at the question, as if I'd hurt him or caught him at something. Yet what had he expected? I get beat up so now everything is all right? Nothing would ever make that happen.
"Thomas came and got me." His eyes wouldn't meet mine. "He got worried about you when you didn't show up for dinner and went looking for you. Found you unconscious out in the yard. He assumed I was responsible." I saw a half smile flash momentarily across his face. "He crashed into my room, accusing me of it, ready to make me pay. Would have made your day."
He was right, I did kind of wish I'd seen it.
"Once I got him to understand I didn't know what he was talking about, we rushed over and I brought you inside. I told him I'd stay with you while he went to get a doctor."
"No!" I tried getting up again, but got no farther than before. Damn it, they hadn't beat me that bad! I'd pretty much stayed curled up on the ground, trying to protect what I could, once I got what few punches I could out on them.
"Who said you had a choice?" Ken's voice and face turned hard. "I would have figured after the last time you let things go, you would have at least learned something. Obviously I was giving you too much credit."
I knew what he was talking about though I didn't want to. When the headaches and dizziness had started close to the end, I'd kept it a secret from all of them. Even so, they'd slowly figured out something wasn't right, yet I still wouldn't tell them. I couldn't. My life, my every breath back then was to be on the team, to use my position to get my revenge and to keep them safe. If I'd even hinted at half of what was going on, Ken and Nambu would have pulled me out of the action faster than you could spit. But unfortunately, things eventually got bad enough where even I couldn't ignore them anymore. I still didn't go to Nambu then, instead choosing someone who wouldn't report whatever he found out. Except it turned out he worked for Galactor. The first link of the chain which brought me to what I am today.
What Ken didn't understand, what he might never understand, was my loathing of my weaknesses-how I despise having others see me as weak. How I hated being useless. And after being checked by the local doc, it might only be a matter of time before the whole town found out how truly bad off I was. Especially if Ken suddenly volunteered information, hoping it would help me.
They hadn't known me during my prime, but they would guess. The pitying looks would rise, the questions, all of it would multiply. It would be like it had been back in Utoland. I would probably have to leave again. I wasn't sure I could survive that again.
"It'd be better if you minded your own business and left me the hell alone." I turned my face from him, from what he and Thomas might be about to cost me.
I heard Ken get angrily to his feet and stomp toward the door. My eyes burned. In the end, I knew it would be better this way.
"No." I heard him laugh, pain echoing inside of it. "I know what you're trying to do and it's not going to work."
I could barely hear him. I wasn't entirely sure he was actually talking to me.
"No. Not yet. Not like this."
I heard him plop back onto the chair. I continued to ignore him. Still, I could feel his gaze boring into me from where he sat.
The silence was starting to get uncomfortable, when the door slammed open in the common room.
"I got the doctor!" Thomas rushed through the open door into the bedroom. That's when he noticed I was awake. "Mike!"
I schooled my annoyance at Ken and my current state off my face. I tried my best to give the kid a half-smile, but had no idea if I was successful. "Thomas."
Tears suddenly welled in the boy's eyes and he turned away to wipe them off with his arm.
The doctor came in. He was a thin almost sickly looking man, but quite spry. His hair was a startling white, yet he had one of those faces that made it hard to guess his age. We'd been introduced once and he'd seemed curious about my health, but after only getting cold stares from me, he'd left it alone. Like the priest, I'd made sure to avoid him ever since. If he got his way today though, the old man would get more than an eyeful.
"Doc Stone." My tone wasn't friendly. I wanted him to know exactly how I felt about this.
"Mr. Merino." The doc seemed not to notice it. "Thomas tells me you were in a bit of a scuffle." The doc grabbed the chair Ken vacated and brought it over next to the bed. "That he found you unconscious out there in the yard."
There wasn't much I could say to that, but I tried anyway. "I'm awake now. Sorry he dragged you all the way here for nothing."
I tried sitting up again, determined this time to be successful, only to have the doc put his hand on my chest to stop me.
"Now, since I'm the doctor here, why don't you let me be the judge of that."
"It's just a waste of time," I spat back.
"Ah," the doc said, "but it's my time to waste. So humor me." He propped his beat up medical bag on the side of the bed.
"Look, doc. I have a mild concussion and a bunch of bruises. Nothing is broken. Nothing needs fixing."
Stone gave me a humoring smile. "I'd heard you were a good mechanic, but no one mentioned you were a doctor as well. Just think of my examination as a second opinion."
Damn, quack! Couldn't he take the hint? "Doc Stone-"
Ken cut me off. "Joe, just shut up and let the man do his job." He turned to look at the doctor. "I'll hold him down if you want me to."
Sanctimonious son of a bitch! Who did he think he was? I was about to let both Ken and the doc have it, when I caught a glimpse of Thomas' worried face. So instead, I settled on death glares to show my displeasure, not that it made any difference. "Fine. But would a little privacy be too much to ask?" The kid didn't need to see my secrets. And without Ken there, there'd be no temptation to share any either.
"Come on, Thomas. Mr. Merino has never been fond of doctors." Ken put his hand on the young boy's shoulder, steering him toward the door. "It makes him even grouchier than normal."
I would have thrown something at him if there'd been anything within easy reach. As if he knew anything!
"I'll try to make this as quick as possible." Out came the unavoidable stethoscope.
I grabbed the doc's wrist. "This is to be entirely confidential, Stone. If I hear one rumor about this on the street, I'm coming after you." Though my body ached and this didn't help, I squeezed until I saw him flinch. I wanted to make sure he understood I was deadly serious.
"All right, Mr. Merino, I understand." He gave me a disapproving look. "These tactics are unnecessary. I know how to keep a patient's confidence." He pulled his arm out of my grasp.
"I've heard this before."
This got a raised brow. "I see."
Then, as if nothing untoward had happened, he pulled out a small flashlight from his bag, and pointed it at my right eye. Then he checked my left. His brow went up again, when he pulled up my shirt to listen to my chest, but he made no comment at the myriad scars he found there.
He checked me for broken bones as best he could without x-rays, but didn't find any. Time and again, his gaze slid back to my scars, until I finally pulled my shirt down to hide them from view. I could tell he knew enough to know them for what they were and to think I was quite lucky to be here.
When he finally finished, I was more than ready. The headache had backed off and I sat up as he put his things away.
"They're not much, but you should take these." He pulled a small bottle of aspirin from his pouch.
"I don't need them. I have my own." Nambu kept me well stocked in several types of pharmaceuticals.
"As you wish."
The doc got up and opened the door so that my impatient saviors could come back in.
"He's right about the mild concussion, as well as the bruises and lack of broken bones. Still, someone should keep an eye on him for the next twenty-four hours or so, just in case. Call me if he starts having any piercing pain, dizziness, headache, or anything unusual. To be on the safe side, I'd suggest he be taken to the city to a hospital for x-rays, but I believe we all know Mr. Merino's thoughts on that idea."
"You got that right."
Doc Stone said his goodbyes and left.
Thomas moved meekly to stand by me, as if still not sure I was all right. "I'll ask Mama if I can stay. I'm sure she won't mind."
His young face crumpled into something between a frown and a cry. I felt a pang of guilt at the sight of it. "Look, I know you mean well, but your mother needs you more than I do. Things would be too hard on her to take care of without you. Besides, I'm fine. I can take care of myself." I couldn't tell him how his staying here would be noticed and only lead to questions I didn't want asked.
Thomas looked as if he would argue.
"I'll stay with him." Ken's tone was neutral.
I felt simultaneously annoyed and grateful.
"O-okay." I could see Thomas weighing what he'd seen of Ken and me before with what needed doing. "If it's all right with Mike."
I glanced at Ken and figured if I wanted the kid out of here I wouldn't have much choice. "It's all right."
Thomas stared from me to Ken and back again and finally nodded. "I guess I'll be going back then. Mama will be looking for me."
"Thank you, Thomas."
The kid nodded again, and with a final glance in Ken's direction, left the room. I waited until I heard the front door close before turning to face my other troubles. "His mother will have him pretty busy in the kitchen, so you should be able to sneak on up to your room without much trouble."
"I said I was staying."
Great, just great. "I'm a big boy, Ken. I know what to look for and what to do, so I don't need a babysitter. I'm a cripple, not an invalid."
Ken didn't move. That infuriating poker face was firmly in place.
"Look, if I recall, you have better things to do than stay here and look after me." I stared hard at him, daring him to contradict me.
"You're right, I do have better things to do. But unfortunately my contact hasn't deigned to take the time to brief me yet. And until that happens, I can't even attempt to figure out how to do what I came here for. Can I?"
I saw his eyes were dancing. He had me and he knew it and he was enjoying every minute of it. So my only choice at the moment was to brief him and hope he'd go away.
"How about I brief you now then?" I could have said it more kindly, but I just wasn't in the mood.
"That'd be just fine."
Giving him an annoyed smile, I slowly got myself up. Ken held out my cane and I snatched it from him, not wanting his help. Gingerly, I led him to the small table in the other room. As I sat down, I glanced toward where I kept my medicines, but decided against taking any yet. I wanted my wits about me.
I spent the next hour or so filling him in on what I knew. For a time I even forgot we weren't back in Utoland, that I was no longer part of the team. As I finished with the last of it, however, reality kicked in. My usefulness was done.
"That's all of it. Thanks for listening. Now get out."
Ken sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "Hm, I do believe a symptom of a concussion is irritability."
I gripped my cane so hard I thought my hand would break.
"Besides," Ken added reasonably, "it's too late in the day to go there now. Better if I go with the work crew in the morning."
I opened my mouth to tell him to get lost anyway, but he didn't let me.
"I told Thomas I would stay." His voice grew hard. "I'm not going to let you make a liar out of me."
Now what was that supposed to mean?
Ken got up and glanced over my rag tag collection of mechanic and fixit books on my shelf. "Thomas said you've become quite the handy man."
I shrugged. What was he up to? "I suppose. A guy has to make a living doing something. It's not like I can race anymore." I impressed myself with the lack of bitterness in my voice.
I saw Ken nod, but he still kept his back to me. "Aren't you going to ask me how the others are?"
I looked away, guiltily. A part of me did want to ask, did want to know how they were all doing. They had once been the world to me. But I couldn't do it, wouldn't do it. That part of my life was closed-I could never go there again. So what was the point? I would only torment myself by asking. Only recently had I finally stopped missing them. Why open up the past? What good would it do? Hell, as soon as this job was over, I'd try to forget I'd seen Ken again as forcefully as I could. "No." My throat barely let me get the word out.
Ken's shoulders tensed, then slowly relaxed again. "Jun doesn't blame herself as much about you leaving anymore. Or at least that's what she says, on the few occasions I happen to see her."
What? Jun blamed herself? What was this shit? And why dump this on me now?
"I still don't know what put the idea in her head, but it lodged there with a vengeance." Ken's voice grew soft and bland. "For months she was in a frenzy, trying everything she could think of to track you down. She sent Ryu and Jinpei all over the place, chasing every vague rumor she ran across. But you'd totally and completely disappeared.
"I tried telling her you'd gone off because you decided to do it. I did it till I was blue in the face. I told her it had nothing to do with anything she might have said or done. But she just wouldn't allow herself to see that. It was easier for her to believe we'd done something to drive you away than face the fact you'd abandoned your family for no reason."
No reason? I had to bite my tongue to keep from screaming at him. I had a hundred reasons for leaving! I could barely breathe my chest grew so tight. The war was over, and everyone had gone back to their regular lives, everyone but me! Mine was gone, destroyed. Yet there they'd been, the same as ever-except for the pitying eyes when they looked at me. And when I saw them, all I could see was everything I'd lost and would never have again. I had to go. I had no choice. Or else, the love I'd always felt for them would sooner or later have turned to hate.
"Oh, I'm sure you had reasons," Ken stated offhandedly. "I'm certain you planned the whole thing out to the last detail. And with Hakase helping you, how could you fail? It's no wonder Jun never found you."
I could hear a rolling anger at the last. Nambu would be in for a treat when Ken got back, I was sure. He'd obviously put two and two together. And Nambu had kept other secrets from Ken in the past-the biggest one having to do with his father. Surely Nambu understood Ken would figure all of this out. So why had he sent him here?
Ken's voice regained its previous blandness. I didn't like it. "Despite all that, we've tried to get on with our lives, I suppose. What was left of them anyway, after spending months looking for you." His voice dropped lower still. "We hardly see much of each other anymore. Something broke; fell apart after you left. Ryu's back home with his father and brother, making sure they won't ever leave him. The Snak J went out of business from neglect. Except for chasing down rumors about you, Jun no longer cares about anything. Jinpei moved out, hardly ever comes by. It's like he's afraid of any emotional attachments-cutting off his ties to others before they can blind side him and do it to him instead. Imagine that."
The blandness in his voice, the aloof manner, it was like a knife in my gut. It told me volumes about how he had changed since I left. "Why, why are you telling me all this?"
For the first time, Ken turned around to face me, his eyes cold. "I wanted you to know. I wanted you to understand the repercussions of what you did. To realize what you've destroyed-for your very private and secret reasons."
I couldn't take it anymore. "You think I wanted that?" Surely he didn't, couldn't. Why had they cared? What had been the point? The Condor was dead and Joe Asakura was but a pale shadow of what he'd been. What good would it have done them if I'd stayed? What good would it have done me?
Light flared in Ken's eyes then went out again. "Maybe not. But you sure as hell didn't care enough to try and work it out. Like a coward, you just ran away."
Anger flashed through me, mixed with guilt, because deep down, it had felt like I was running away. But Ken knew nothing, nothing about the pain, the loss, and worst of all the fear and feelings of weakness, of utter uselessness. How dare he try to psychoanalyze me?
My cane flew across the room, my need to hit something getting the better of me. The beat up wood bounced off the wall, landing close to Ken's feet. He never even blinked.
"Did I hit a nerve?"
He made it sound like we were just talking about the weather. I wanted to throttle him. I decided instead to curse him up one side and down the other, but before I could start, there was a loud knock at the front door.
Without saying anything, Ken moved to answer it. While he was at it, I hopped on over to my cane and carefully bent down to pick it up. Next thing I knew, Ken was gone and Thomas was standing there with a tray and a troubled look on his face.
"He asked me to tell you he would be keeping watch outside..." Thomas brought the tray over to the table.
"Fine." I had to fight not to grit my teeth. It wouldn't do anyone any good for me to take out my frustrations on the kid. I made myself sit down at the table.
Thomas kept me company as I forced down the bland fare. Though I didn't want to, I kept wondering what Ken was doing. Had he found Sophia yet? Did he know her for what she was or did he think her a piece of junk like so many others did? I reminded myself more than once that it didn't matter.
"Everything okay back at the inn?"
Thomas glanced up sharply, obviously absorbed by his own thoughts. "Yeah. No trouble. I told Mama I'd found out you were going to be working late and so couldn't come over for dinner. I told her you'd asked me if it'd be all right to bring your supper. Was that okay?"
"Yes, that was fine." I spooned another mouthful of rice.
"Mike...does he hate you?"
This brought me up short. Was that how the kid saw it? I hadn't thought Ken's feelings quite that strong, but then again, he wasn't exactly the same person I'd left behind anymore. My chest ached. "No, he's just mad at me. That's all."
Thomas' brown eyes met mine for a moment then stared at the table. "Did you do something bad to him?" I could hear his feet swinging beneath his seat.
"No. I just didn't tell him where I was going when I left." Why was I telling the boy this?
Thomas frowned then looked over at the closed door leading outside. "Mama doesn't like it when I don't let her know where I'm going either. I guess I wouldn't like it if she did it to me and didn't come back for a long time."
Great, now I had the eight-year-old siding with Ken. Sheesh! "Thomas, it's not as easy as all that."
His eyes met mine. "Maybe you should say you're sorry. It works for me when I get in trouble." I looked away. "He was really worried when we found you. More than me, and I was scared."
I felt my shoulders tense. It didn't matter. I didn't want to make "nice". I wanted Ken to finish the mission and get the hell out. I was sorry about all that had happened back home, but there was nothing I could do about it. "I'll think about it, okay?"
Thomas' expression cleared. "Okay."
I finished off the food, feeling drained. "Do me a favor, will you?"
"Tell my friend I'm going to bed and that I'm fine. Tell him he should go back to the inn or people will start asking questions. Also tell him the workers will be leaving about eight."
"But the doctor said..."
"Do you trust me, Thomas?"
The boy hesitated then quickly nodded.
"Then trust me to know I'm okay. Now will you do this for me?"
Thomas picked up the tray. "I will."
I walked with him to the door and opened it to let him out. When I closed it, I made sure to lock and bar it. If Ken proved too stubborn to leave, well he'd just have to make do outside. I'd had more than enough of his lecturing for one day. All I wanted now was to get cleaned up, take some medicine, and go to sleep.
There was no maddened banging on the door, no rattling of the windows. As I lay down, I found a part of me once more disappointed. But why? This was what I wanted, wasn't it? I couldn't have it both ways. I knew that. I had known it when I first contemplated getting the hell out of Utoland.
I tossed and turned, annoying my poor abused muscles, unable to sleep.
I'd honestly expected them to feel sad when they figured out what I'd done, maybe even angry. Okay, definitely angry. But I had expected them to get over it, to move on. Yet Ken made it sound as if I'd purposely set out to ruin their lives. What bullshit! All I did was cut off the gangrened limb so they could live. And I know Nambu must have seen it the same way or he would never have offered to help me once I told him I was leaving. Of all of them, he'd been the only one I'd had to tell. It wouldn't have done me any good to go away if the others could convince him to use his influence with the ISO to track me down. That he proved receptive to my idea had surprised me, but I hadn't dared look a gift horse in the mouth. Without help, it would have proved incredibly difficult to leave without leaving a trail. It was hard to hide a cripple.
Still, Ken's words bothered me. I could only too easily imagine Jun's hurt expression. All I'd ever wanted for her and the others was for them to be happy. Ken should have used my absence as leverage and used it to console her, to spend time with her, to finally get together as they should have done long ago. The dumb fool. Now it sounded like there wouldn't be a chance in hell of it ever happening. And they all let themselves drift apart. Inconceivable. I couldn't have been the glue keeping us together. It was ridiculous! This wasn't my doing.
My body eventually gave up and dragged me into unconsciousness, leaving my troubles behind. But not for long. I woke up well before sunrise, my body aching in even more places than before I'd gone to bed. I made myself get up, knowing it would be useless to try to rest anymore. My joints popped and cracked, my muscles complaining. I got myself dressed after downing my plethora of pills. Half on impulse, I checked outside to see if I could find any indication Ken was around. Sneezing in the morning chill, I went so far as to check the carriage house. There was no sign of him.
Looked like he was going to go through with things without me. But what had I expected? Wasn't that what I'd told him to do?
It suddenly hit me we were both being incredibly stupid. Personal problems aside, there was a mission which needed doing. I was endangering it and him by leaving him on his own, and so was he for letting me. It could get one of us killed. Actually, I amended a moment later, it could get Ken killed.
Dragging my ass inside, I finished my morning routine. Though the pills helped take the edge off, all the movement wasn't doing much for my mood. Hurrying was no longer my forte, and today it was even worse than usual.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon as I dragged my worthless carcass back outside. A few birds called down to me a happy greeting from the roof of the carriage house and all I could think about was wanting to get my hands on a flamethrower. That would show them. There was nothing great about today.
By the time I made it into town, most of my aches had warmed up to dull throbs. Still, halfway here, I hadn't been too sure I would actually make it this time. I used to win the big battles. Little ones like this were as good as I could do anymore.
I hesitated at the inn's main door from more than just feeling winded and tired. I made myself reach for the latch, reminding myself this was purely business. All I had to do was remember that and everything would be fine. There was nothing else to read into this. If I had to, I'd make it perfectly clear to him too. I wasn't looking forward to it.
I shoved open the door and shuffled inside. It was early, so the inn was nearly empty, except for my table at the back. I felt surprise shoot through me as I saw who was there. I really shouldn't have been, but I was. There was Ken, in all his healthy glory, sitting at my table, taking up my chair.
At least he didn't look too excited about being up this early. His head was propped up against his hand, his eyes closed. I thumped my way over.
When I got close, his eyes blinked open, his sleepy face looking over at me. Suddenly he sat back, totally awake. "Joe."
"You're in my seat." My growl snapped him out of his surprise.
"Sorry." Ken quickly moved to one of the other chairs.
I eased myself down on the pre-warmed seat, grimacing all the way.
"You look like hell." Ken said once the silence became awkward.
"Good morning to you too." I yanked one of the other chairs over with my cane, and propped up my aching leg.
Ken ignored my sarcasm, shoving over a tepid cup of coffee. "Thomas told me you don't normally make it in until later."
I hung my buddy on the table. "I wanted to find you before the others got here." I took a deep breath and got on with it. "I'm going with you. If I say you're there to help me out, there'll be a lot less questions asked than if you try to do this on your own." I tried to keep my tone as business like as possible.
Ken nodded. "It will make things easier. With any luck we can get the info we need within a couple of days and hakase can take it from there."
I couldn't have agreed more.
The door to the kitchen opened and Thomas popped into view, a filled tray in his hands. As he spotted me, his eyes lit up. "Mike!"
"Are you doing better today?" he asked me.
"I'm glad." His whole face brightened. "Mama just finished Mr. Washio's breakfast. I'll let her know you're here so she'll make yours." Quickly setting out Ken's dishes, Thomas hurried back the way he'd come.
Despite my best intentions, my mouth watered at the punchy scent of the local spiced sausage on Ken's plate. Damn it, it was bad enough smelling it from the far tables, but to have it this close! I shifted in my chair, turning away from the sight of it.
"Are you all right?" came Ken's query.
Damn him! "Just eat your breakfast." Wisely he said nothing else.
Once Thomas brought mine, I ate it with more bitterness than usual. It didn't help at all that Ken was really enjoying his. Things needed to get back to normal-the sooner the better.
We'd pretty much finished eating by the time a number of the other regulars began dropping by. As they got settled, I left Ken to his own devices, and approached Gustav, who'd been giving rides to the villa to some of the others.
After several minutes of conversation, I was able to arrange passage for us as well.
"It's all set." I gratefully slipped back into my seat. "They should be leaving in about a half hour. Before that, I'll need for you to go back to my place, for my tools." Yes, I'd forgotten them. "They're in a backpack in the carriage house. On a hook by the side door."
Ken nodded and got up to go.
I didn't watch him leave. It would be the same once this mission was over. No regrets, no looking back, no anything. My past was dead. Nothing would bring it back.
I'd made my way outside by the time Ken made it back. I was eyeing the back of Gustav's truck, not looking forward to the bumpy ride. Me, Ken, and about ten to twelve of the locals crammed into the space, holding on to the loose frame on the sides. There was only room to stand.
As we set off, the dirt thrown up by the road seemed determined to fill our nostrils and try to choke us to death. My poor, shortened lungs could barely take the strain. I should have swallowed my pride earlier and asked for a ride in the cab. But even as my eyesight blurred due to lack of air, I knew I would never have-not with Ken here. Ken knew everything. Every operation I'd gone through, every piece of me which had been cut away and discarded. But the knowledge was in his head not his heart, and damn if I was going to look any weaker in front of him and make him realize the truth of it. I still had my pride, if nothing else.
So I held on to the slats, my back half turned to him, only my will keeping me from passing out. I would not have it.
When the truck finally lurched to a stop, I almost lost it. As it was, I had to pry my hand from the wood, as it wouldn't let go on its own. My lungs felt as if I was breathing in sand paper.
I could feel Ken's presence looming behind me, but I ignored it. I would bumble through this if it were the last thing I did.
"You ready?" I didn't even look at him as I forced myself to move. Everyone else had already gotten off and was on their way to their respective assignments. Good. If I botched this, at least not everyone would see it.
Ken went past me and jumped off, then turned to me with drawn brows, offering me his arm. I ignored the offered help, tempted to whack him with my cane for doing it. I took my sweet time coming down, not entirely trusting I could do it.
Ken said nothing during all this, only watching me, which was just as well.
"What now?" Ken ran his hand through his hair, dislodging accumulated dust, even as his eyes scanned the villa's various buildings. My backpack was still strapped to his back and it looked like he had no intentions of handing it over. Fine.
I tried to answer Ken's question only to go into a coughing fit. More and more exasperated as I couldn't make it stop, I slammed the end of my cane into the ground until it finally let up. "Damn it all."
I wasn't sure as to whether I should be angry or glad as Ken pretended not to notice any of this. "There's a ladder in the storage building." I finally got out. "We'll go get it, then go around the place and you can check the roofs for broken tiles. I'll let you know which one will give you the view to the gazebo."
"All right. Lead the way."
I ambled off in my slow shuffling gait and he fell in beside me. My body protested as I tried to make it go a little faster, already having taken more than its share of abuse. I didn't care. I wouldn't be the one responsible for slowing the job down.
I was sweating freely by the time we made it to the small building, my breath coming in sharp rasps. Again I saw Ken's brows gather, again he said nothing.
"The - ladder's in there. Toward the back."
When he stepped inside, I leaned over against the wall. Closing my eyes, I put all my energy toward just gathering sufficient air. I was useless-worse than useless!
I felt a wave of depression and self-pity nipping at my heels. Fuck it! I'd left Utoland to get away from feeling like this. Those first few weeks in the hospital had almost destroyed me-it'd been so much worse than when Nambu had first rescued me from BC Island. It'd been as if somehow I'd come full circle, and in the end had nothing to show for it. Nothing had been accomplished-my revenge on Katse stolen by Sosai, the damn alien escaping forever from my reach, and what remained of my body a broken husk.
By the time Ken found the ladder and pulled it out, my breathing had eased somewhat. I pushed away from the wall before he saw me.
"I found some tiles in there too, if you want me to do any repairs." Ken hefted the ladder easily.
I hated myself for half hoping he'd trip. "Let's worry about that later. We can use it as an excuse if we need it."
As planned, we walked from building to building so Ken could clamber up the ladder and check the roofs. I left the one we really wanted for next to last.
"This is the one," I told him. "Once you're up there, it's the garden section with the gazebo on your left."
I held onto the ladder as Ken nimbly went up. I could hear him moving carefully over the ceramic tiles. I wasn't paying much attention to anything else.
"Well, well, well. I didn't expect to see you here today."
I glanced over my shoulder to find one of the idiots who'd paid me a visit the day before. Great. At least my buddy was within easy reach if I needed it.
"Still, you're not feeling too good today, are you?" The hefty man grinned at me.
It took pretty much all I had to keep my mouth shut and pay attention only to what I was doing.
I felt him come up behind me. Was he stupid enough to try to goad me into a fight here?
"I'll be keeping my eye on you." His hot breath was close to my ear. "I love to break trouble makers into pieces. Not that you're not already pretty much broken."
My grip on the ladder rungs turned white. My arms and body shook, but it was far from being due to fear. The moron didn't realize the difference. He might not live to regret it.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Guess we showed you your place all right."
All I wanted right then was to kill him. To wipe the smug smile I could hear in his voice off his face.
"Hey, Merino, you were right. There're a number of cracked tiles up here." Ken's shadow moved to cover both of us as he looked down from the roof.
The goon pulled back, his voice low. "We'll be talking again, you and I." He lightly punched me in the shoulder before lumbering off. If I ever caught the bastard alone, we would definitely talk all right. Just not quite in the way he'd be expecting.
Ken virtually zoomed down the ladder. "Are you all right?"
I growled at him. "Right as rain." Without looking at him, I picked up my cane and left him to get the ladder and catch up.
We finished the last building in silence.
"I think you're right," Ken said once we returned to the storage building. "There's definitely something up by the gazebo."
Despite myself, I found my interest bypassing my foul mood. "What did you see?"
"Two suited goons trying to prune the bushes and do other yard work rather than the locals. They stink at it too." He gave me a half grin. "We did better our first time."
I felt a twinge of bitter remembrance and amusement. For way too many hours in our youth, we'd all spent time tending Nambu's estate as one of his many inventive punishments. "Yeah."
"I figure I should try to make my way back here tonight and find out exactly what they're hiding." He didn't look at me as he said this.
"You're in for a long walk then."
This elicited a surprised look.
I explained. "They'll be able to hear you coming a mile off if you come on the cycle. There's nothing out here to muffle the sound of the engine."
I shrugged. Wasn't my problem. "Why, are you that out of shape?"
Ken shook his head. "No, I was just hoping you could come along and help me."
I was totally stunned. Me? Come along? "What the hell for?"
I got a confused look for my astonishment. "You might not be able to run any marathons, Joe, but your eyes and ears are still as sharp as ever, as well as your instincts. Who better to watch my back while I'm in there?"
I didn't know what to say. Sure, he was right, and I knew it. But I hadn't thought he knew...
Ken's face hardened. "The only one who ever thought you were out of the game was you." He brushed past me and went back outside.
By the time I got my wits back and went after him, Ken had already found himself something else to do. The large fountain before the main house was clogged and he and two others were taking the heavy thing apart to clear it.
Damn him, damn him, and damn him.
"Who's the new guy?"
I was so intent in glaring my discontent at Ken's back I didn't realize she was there until she spoke.
Lyra was wearing a sleeveless, cotton dress, which clung to her like poured water. Her hungry eyes roved over Ken's fit form as if dissecting him where he stood. I tried not to let it bother me.
"He's just someone I brought in to help me check the roofs."
"Really?" She was almost purring. "He looks quite handy and young, quite a bit like you."
I held my ground as she suddenly cuddled up close. "You look a little worse for wear though." She caressed one of the darkening bruises on my arm.
I didn't meet her eyes. "I had a little accident." It was hard keeping the sarcasm out of my voice. For some reason, I was sure she knew all about my little altercation the other night, and possibly about the rebuttal as well.
"You are so very mysterious, fixit man. I really like it." She nibbled at my ear.
I felt a lower part of me responding to this, even as a chill coursed through me. A number of the workers, including Ken, stopped what they were doing and openly stared. Wonderful, just wonderful.
"Lyra!" The call echoed out from the main building.
With a soft sigh, the woman released me. "Ah, the master posturer beckons and I must respond. There's nothing more boring than inept men trying to be what they're not." She caressed my lip seductively with her fingertips. "Until we meet again."
I tried not to watch as with swaying hips, she made her way back into the house.
"What the hell was that about?" Ken came up to me, his eyes locked on her departing frame.
"Trouble." And with any luck all of this would be long over before I found out how much.
Ken finished helping the others with the fountain and then it was thankfully time to go home. My pain pills had expired and all the walking around hadn't helped. One of the guys said I could ride in the cab. I threw Ken a look, sure he'd somehow had something to do with it, but was too tired to turn it down. As it was, I wasn't sure I would have survived the ride back otherwise. At least it got me away from Ken's scrutinizing gaze for a while. I was sure I'd not hidden from him as much as I might have wanted to.
On the way back, I thought again about him going off on the mission alone tonight-and about his actual expectation of having me tag along. It still surprised me. And suddenly, I realized I wanted to go, foolish as it might be. I wanted to be useful. I just had to figure out a way for me to do it.
By the time we got into town, I did.
He glanced over at me as he jumped off the back of the truck, patting his arms to get the dust he'd picked up on the way back. "Yeah?"
"I might have figured out a solution for you. Just bring your bike over after you get cleaned up."
"Why don't you let me give you a ride home first?"
"I can manage." I regretted the words as they left my mouth. My pride would be the death of me-and that might be now. The way I was feeling and the half hour trek I had yet to go might just do me in.
"Suit yourself." Ken's face had gone blank. "I'll see you after a bit."
I cursed quietly over and over at my stupidity and started off on my way home.
The pain pills were definitely gone and I was in a horribly foul mood by the time I made it sweaty and breathless to my door. I'd just got the water running in the tub when I heard Ken's motorcycle coming from down the road. Great, just great.
I shuffled back to the main room, unlocked the door, and then went back to the bathroom. Ken would just have to wait.
I popped a couple of more pills then got into the water. It was glorious. I could feel my muscles melting in the hot water. The pills kicked in and took the edge of the rest of the aches. I started to relax...
"Are you alive in there?"
Ken's voice and the knock following snapped me awake. I jerked up, throwing water everywhere. "Shit!"
"Joe?" The bathroom's doorknob rattled.
"I'm fine, damn you! I'll be out in a minute!" I'd actually fallen asleep-of all the stupid, moronic things to do. I didn't have time for this.
The water had turned cold, making me shiver as I groped my way out. My hands and feet looked like giant prunes. How long had I been out? Chikusho! I was probably lucky Ken hadn't just barged in here, thinking me dead, and embarrassing me all to hell on top of everything.
I got dressed as fast as I could manage.
When I got out, I found Ken in the main room, a large basket sitting by him on the table. Glancing out the window, I saw it was almost dark. Crap.
"Thomas sent dinner with me since I told him you'd probably be busy working on the bike tonight."
I nodded, not looking him in the face, sure he knew what I'd been doing while he sat out here waiting. I guess for Ken, he'd actually been quite patient. I should feel flattered, but I wasn't. "Yeah, I came up with an idea that might work. Just move the bike to the carriage house."
"I'm way ahead of you," he said. "It's already there."
I couldn't help but roll my eyes at that. Smart ass. "Then let's see if this will work then."
We didn't speak again until we were safely in the carriage house.
"So what's your idea?" Ken closed the door and secured it.
I walked on over to his bike looking it over. "Most of the noise from this thing comes from the exhaust gasses as they hit the air. It occurred to me I could muffle them a bit by wrapping the ends of the pipes with layers of cloth to slow the gases down." I stiffly bent down to touch one of them. "It's got some drawbacks though."
"It will probably cause the engine to overheat, so you'd have to keep an eye on the gauge and turn the engine off every few miles."
Ken nodded. "Does this mean you're coming with me then?"
I didn't look at him. "If we can make this work." I felt my blood rise in excitement at the thought. I tried my best to pay no attention to it.
Using some old cloths and borrowed clamps from the general repair stock, I got to work. After a few tests and adjustments, we finally rigged up something I thought we could live with.
By then, my stomach was complaining rather loudly that I'd neglected it for way too long. For such a cut down version, it sure had a loud mouth.
"We still have a few hours before it gets late enough for us to go." Ken headed for the door. "Why don't we eat and then get a couple of hours of sleep while we're at it."
"Sure." I was too tired just from what little we'd done to argue about it.
Not talking much, we ate Mama Lucha's cold supper. Ken took my beat up old couch and I shuffled off to my bed. It felt like I'd barely closed my eyes, when he was beside me shaking me awake.
"Time to go."
Trying not to groan, I got myself up. Ken zipped open a hidden pocket in his jacket and pulled out a couple of thin headsets. "I brought these along, in case your idea worked. Should be useful." He slipped one on and handed me the other.
As I put mine on, I found myself asking him something which had been nagging at me since he first came to town. "Why are you here? I mean, why are you doing undercover work for the ISO? I thought you wanted to actually make something out of the airfield once the war was over. That you had plans." I'd even actually hoped he'd followed my advice and pursued Jun.
Apparently I asked just the wrong thing, because the life just seeped out of his face. "Just worked out this way. As I told you, Jun's obsession didn't leave much room for anything, let alone anyone. As for the rest of it, what was the point? So I convinced Hakase to let me do some fieldwork. Funny, don't you think, that I went the same way as you?"
I felt a gnawing at my stomach, realizing how much worse it must have been than I'd thought before. But it had nothing to do with me now, nothing at all.
"Anything else you want to know, or can we just get on with it?"
I motioned for him to go on, not trusting myself to say anything. I needed to learn how to keep my mouth shut.
Ken brought the bike outside and climbed on. I got on behind him, knowing I was insane to be doing it, only too aware of his tense backside. I propped the cane in through the back loop and hooked it on the side so it wouldn't be going anywhere. I'd barely taken hold of the loop to hold on when Ken kicked off.
Rather than follow the road back to town and then the villa, Ken headed out west across the uneven ground. My bones and teeth rattled as we bounced along, but the air whipping past my face felt wonderful.
The wide, glorious sky spread out overhead, the stars brighter than those living in the city would ever believe them to be. With no lights to blur the darkness, thousand of more points were visible in the night's sky, almost like a blanket. Only they, and a sliver of a moon, were witness to our reckless crossing.
We reached the vicinity of the villa without incident, only having to stop once on the way to let the engine cool down. Ken took the long way around to come in from the back of the estate, hoping the bushes and small hills would mask our approach even better. He brought us to a stop behind a large set of wild growing bushes, still a hundred yards or so from the estate's gardens.
It was several minutes before the thrumming from the ride left my joints. I was already exhausted and I'd yet to do anything. I would berate myself about it, but it required too much energy.
From his jacket, Ken pulled out a small, folded set of binoculars. "There's still some lights on at the main house and spaced lights on the walkways, but otherwise everything else looks quiet." He handed the binoculars over. I took a look.
Everything was as Ken had said, but what concerned me were the deeper shadows caused by the small pockets of garden lights-anyone could be hiding in them and we wouldn't know until it was too late. Still, they could be used to our advantage as well.
"The gazebo should be off to our left."
Ken scrunched down and left the shelter of the bushes. I followed him as well as I was able. I eventually caught up to him at the boundary hedge.
"How's this?" he asked.
I lay down on the ground and wiggled partway into the hedge. Using the binoculars, I checked out my field of vision. From here, I had a decent view of most of the gazebo and the gardens surrounding it. If anyone came, I would have a good shot at spotting them. I reached up and turned on the headset. The scent of freshly pruned greenery lay heavy in the air. "This'll do."
"See you in a bit then." With a soft rustle of leaves, Ken was gone.
I spotted him a few minutes later as he cautiously approached the gazebo. Nothing else out there was moving. The thrill of being out here, working, throbbed through me. Man, how I'd missed this. "G-1, the way's clear."
I didn't realize what I was calling him until I'd already done it. It was as if a part of me felt I'd never left.
"Acknowledged." Ken's soft response whispered in my ear.
I suddenly wondered how all this felt to him. And then whether he found it as weird, hard, and puzzling as I did.
Ken reached the gazebo then sneaked inside. I swept the area looking for any signs of movement, in case anyone had spotted him, but didn't see any. "Still clear."
About five minutes went by. I could feel my old impatience trying to get the best of me. "Find anything?"
"Hold your horses," came the quick reply. "I'm working on something here."
Suddenly the telltale sound of an airlock opening echoed softly through the garden, even as part of the gazebo's interior rose several feet off the ground.
"Jackpot." The excitement in Ken's voice was as high as my own. "I'm going in."
Ken's shadow disappeared and soon the gazebo returned to its usual state with a soft whoosh.
"Ken, can you hear me?" There was a strange buzzing coming through the earpiece.
"Yeah, I hear you. Have some static, but it's not bad." He hesitated a moment. "Still trying to get through the secondary entrance."
The minutes ticked by slowly.
"Finally!" The echo of moving gears whispered through the earpiece. "Holy shit!"
I tensed. "What is it? Trouble?" I got ready to pull myself out of my hiding place. I sure as hell had no idea what I could do, but I wasn't about to leave him down there.
"No. I'm all right. I - I just wasn't ready for this." Ken's surprise came across clearly. "This place is huge!"
"Is it empty?"
"No. There are crates everywhere. Though the dust on them says they've not been moved any time recently. I can't see any evidence any one has been here either." Ken went on. "It's like one of those Nazi weapon caches the rumors always talked about but no one ever found. I bet no one has been here since before the end of the war."
So the stuff had been down there untouched for two years. Two years and now it looked as if Galactor was coming back to reclaim it.
"I'm going to check out the contents of some of these just to make sure what's down here. Everything still clear up there?"
"Yeah." My eyes had never stopped scanning the area while we were talking. Nothing was moving in my line of sight.
More minutes dripped by. I could easily hear Ken's labored breathing as he pried open crates to check what was down there. I wanted to tell him to hurry things up a little, my bladder was starting to complain, but kept my mouth shut. The night air was also getting cooler. Dew would start condensing on everything soon. Besides, the sooner we got out of here, the sooner we could report all this and Ken could go home.
"Oh my, what have we here?"
I froze at the unexpected voice behind me.
"I'm armed, so don't try anything. Just come on out of there slowly."
Damn, I knew that voice. It was Lyra. How the hell had she found me out here?
"Come on, I haven't got all night." The end of a sharp heel poked me on the back of the leg.
Hoping she couldn't see me through the leaves, I brought the binoculars slowly down. Hooking my thumb through the headset as I did it, I took it off. If she didn't see it, she might decide to believe I was here alone.
I left the headset hidden in the bush as I uncomfortably wriggled back out of my hiding place. Very quietly, I heard her back up behind me, keeping herself well out of reach.
Taking a glimpse over my shoulder, I could barely make out her silhouette. She appeared to be wearing a dark, form fitting suit, and some kind of fancy goggles. I suspected they were either infrared or light intensifying. If the former, I would have stood out like a campfire.
"That's far enough. Now toss what's in your hand in front of you then lie flat, your arms and legs stretched out as far as they will go."
Damn, she wasn't taking any chances. When I was whole, I might have tried to lunge at her, but in my present condition I wouldn't stand a chance. Guess my feelings about her had been right. Load of good they were doing me now though. Shanglestrand was the window dressing of this operation, not the other way around. She was probably the leader, trying to make sure everything was set before her superiors showed up to inspect the goods.
I lay flat on the ground as I'd been told. I didn't hear her as she suddenly appeared on top of me, her knee, and all of her weight behind it, pressing against my back. I suddenly found it hard to breathe what was left of my lungs already working overtime. The barrel of her pistol caressed my cheek.
Her free hand roamed about my sides, making sure I had no hidden weapons. I tried to inch my arm over, hoping to get away with it while she was distracted. I jerked abruptly as pain shot through me as she pinched me hard on the side.
"I told you not to move. Now put it back."
I shifted my arm back to its previous position.
She then shocked me as I felt her hand playfully squeeze my ass. What the hell?
"Nice butt," she crooned. "I can't wait to see who it belongs to." Her hand sneaked in under my shirt and softly followed my back up to my shoulders. I could feel my skin breaking out in goose bumps. "Yes, can't wait."
She removed her hand and then I heard a metallic sound even as her weight slightly shifted above me. The muzzle of her gun never left the side of my face.
Something slipped around my right wrist and was pushed tight. She then took my arm and moved it toward her, pinning it between her bent leg and thigh. A moment later, she grabbed my other arm and brought it toward the first, cuffing it as well.
Her weight lessened as she extricated her leg from between my arms, then was back as she suddenly leaned forward and nipped my right ear.
I pulled my head away, my ear throbbing, even as another part of me followed suit as well.
"I think you and I will be having some fun later." Her weight eased slightly. "First though, we have to get you inside so I can have a look at you."
Her weight eased off further, but she grabbed my cuffed arm and pulled me half up to my knees. Now things would get awkward.
Lyra stepped back. "Stand up like a good boy now. We're going for a little walk."
I gritted my teeth, and forcing my bad leg to bear the weight, I got the other one up and pulled myself upright.
"Head toward the light."
I turned and started half skipping forward, keeping as much weight off my bum leg as I could manage. I made sure to skirt the outside of the gazebo's garden, trying to keep her as far away from Ken as I could without drawing attention to what I was doing.
Painful twinges shot up my leg, but I tried my best to ignore them. It took pretty much all I had to concentrate on walking, making sure the damn thing wouldn't suddenly crumple under me. It was one of the longest and hardest walks of my life.
By the time I reached one of the back doors of the main building, my knee had locked up and sweat was running down my face despite the cold air. If Lyra made anything out of my crawling pace, she didn't mention it.
"Stand there. By the wall."
Gratefully, I did as she told me and let the stone wall hold me up.
Lyra, her gun never deviating from my gut, deftly moved up her goggles from her eyes and opened the door. "Go on in. I want to get a look at you."
By now, Ken had hopefully figured out something had gone wrong and was getting the heck out of here. As far as Lyra was concerned, I hadn't seen anything, so it was possible I could get out of this with only another beating and a broken rib or two for good measure.
"Come on, get inside. We don't have all night."
I pushed away from the wall, asking my leg to hold out just a little bit longer. I made it through the doorway and that's when my luck ran out. Biting back a scream as a mother of a cramp shot up my right leg, it gave up and dumped me to the hard floor.
I lay there, my leg jerking with muscle spasms, my teeth gritted against the pain. I heard the door close behind me, but I was in no condition to pay Lyra any attention.
"Why, it's the Fixit man!" She didn't sound displeased. "I'd half expected that blue eyed cutie to come by, but I think I like this better."
I was trying hard to relax my leg, even as she stepped around me, going further up the hall.
"Kurt! Get over here." She kept the gun trained on my head as she waited, an anticipating smile on her face.
One of the burly men I'd seen before rushed up a few moments later. "Ma'am?" He was one of the ones who'd so thoughtfully paid me a visit the day before.
"Pick him up and bring him to the living room. Gently, if you please."
Raising a brow of surprise as he got a look at my face, Kurt said nothing but moved to do as he'd been told. He grunted a little under the strain as he picked me up then threw me over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. My leg spasmed again as he grabbed hold of it and it was all I could do not to scream.
"Put him on the couch."
My body bounced on the cushions as he dumped me there, my head rapping against the wall and making me see stars.
"Now my dear, mysterious Fixit Man, I think you and I are due a nice little chat."
With Kurt looming over me on the side, Lyra straddled me and sat down on my lap, her gun still very evident in her hand. Her eyes seemed to glitter, as despite the pain in my leg, certain parts of me reacted to her close feminine presence. Looked like my body planned to betray me in more than one way today.
"So, Mr. Fixit Man, care to explain what you were doing out peeping in my yard?" Lyra caressed my face with the barrel of her gun as she spoke then brought it slowly down the side of my neck.
"I-I wanted to find out if something I suspected was true."
"Were you?" She sounded intrigued. "What kinds of things?" The barrel slipped down to my chest and she drew rings with it on my shirt around my nipple. It was very distracting.
"I wanted to know whether or not the organization was gearing up again."
"Organization? What organization?" The gun barrel swayed to the other side of my chest to circle my nipple's mate.
It was getting harder by the second to catch my breath. "The only organization that matters, of course. Holy Galactor."
Her brow went up at that. "You've worked for them before?"
I noticed she wasn't admitting to anything. Slick. "Yeah. I was at Cross Karakoram when Katse blew it. It's where I got my little souvenirs." I didn't have to fake any of the bitterness.
Lyra leaned forward, pressing herself against me. "Shouldn't that be Katse-sama?" She ran her tongue over the edge of my ear. I could feel her breasts pressing against me.
"No. He lost my respect when he didn't destroy Gatchaman and left me a cripple for nothing."
Suddenly her hand slipped between us, pressing against my hardening manhood, making matters worse. I didn't look at her, though both of us were very aware of what was going on down there.
"You don't feel crippled to me." Her hardening nipples made themselves felt through her suit. This only made matters more difficult for me.
"So, what did you plan to do if you found out your suspicions were true and they were active again? Then what?" She whispered this in my ear, following it with a teasing lick.
Shit! She was making it hard to think.
"I-I was hoping to join up again, if they'd have me." I took a gulp of air. "Katse may have been a fuck up, but I believe in the organization and what it stood for. If it came back, I wanted in." I was amazed I could say all that with a straight face.
As if only interested in other things rather than her questions, Lyra ground her hips against mine, her mouth suddenly closing over mine, her tongue thrusting in deep. It'd been two years since I'd indulged in anything like this. It was totally intoxicating.
That's when she pounced.
"State your name, unit, rank, and code number." The order shot from her lips, brimming with command.
For half a second my mind went totally blank. Then the data Nambu had taken from one of the bodies at Cross Karakoram and made part of my cover, rose to the fore-ingrained into my brain before I ever left, in case I ever needed it. "Brian J Stephens, unit Q, second echelon leader, code epsilon thirty eight alpha forty seven."
The moment the words were out, she followed it with another passionate tongue thrust.
She released me after several long moments, but before I could get my breath back, attacked with words again. "Why did you interfere with my men in town?"
Damn my libido, I needed to think straight! This woman knew exactly what she was doing. "I-I've had my eye on the mayor's daughter. Shoving your boys around and coming to the rescue would give me a chance to score some points. They looked easy."
Lyra laughed at the comment, though I could feel Kurt glaring at me from above.
"Well said." She ground her pelvis against me even harder and tweaked my nipple as a reward. I almost moaned aloud. I wasn't sure how much more of this I could take.
She immediately jumped off me.
"What's going on here?" Shanglestrand was at the top of the stairs, wearing silk pajamas and a robe.
"Darren, darling!" Offhandedly she threw her gun at Kurt and turned an adoring smile on for her suitor, appearing totally harmless.
As soon as Shanglestrand reached the floor, she rushed up to him and draped herself on his arm, despite the displeased scowl he was giving her. "Look what Kurt caught out in the garden."
Shanglestrand looked at me fully for the first time. "The fixit man?"
"He was nosing around. Kurt caught him for me so I could have a little fun teasing him a bit." She coiled a leg around him, nuzzling his neck, keeping him distracted so he wouldn't question any of this too closely. "Did it make you jealous to see me there?"
Color rose up his neck and to his cheeks. "Of a cripple? Don't be ridiculous!"
Lyra glanced in my direction and sent me a wink. "Oh, but you were, weren't you, dear? She slipped her hand through his robe down into his pajama bottoms. "How utterly sweet."
Shanglestrand's face flushed utter crimson. It was obvious he wasn't used to this type of display in public settings. I found myself feeling a little jealous.
"Ly-lyra-not here, dove. Please."
That her ministrations were having an effect was tremendously obvious.
"You don't think doing it in front of him would teach him his place?" She grinned from ear to ear, never slowing in her ministrations.
Shanglestrand almost caved in, but suddenly rallied to his resolve. "No-somewhere else or not at all. But now, now." He swept her off her feet almost bringing both of them to the ground. Shanglestrand headed for the nearest doorway.
"Kurt, be a dear and truss up our guest in the pantry, will you?" Lyra waved toward us as her lover quickly dragged her out of sight.
Throwing a disgruntled look in my direction, Kurt forced me to my feet by grabbing me by my shirt. He then grabbed my arm and dragged me off in the direction of the kitchen. With my hands cuffed, his steely grip on my arm, and a gun pointed at my gut, I didn't have much choice but to oblige him. Most of my concentration was taken up to not falling on the floor.
Things weren't looking too good for me at the moment, but neither did they look overtly bad. If they caught Ken, or took my place apart, then I would have something to worry about.
Once he dragged me to the kitchen, Kurt towed me along to the large walk-in pantry. From a kitchen drawer beside it, he took out a coil of rope. Looked like this had been preplanned as a holding pen if necessary. Lyra really was a sharp one.
Throwing me down hard on the cold floor, I'd barely finished bouncing before he was on top of me, tying my feet together.
"Take it easy!"
"Shut yer mouth." A beady-eyed glare strafed toward me. "The boss may like you, but I don't. I don't trust you either."
I tried hard not to grimace as he purposely pulled the rope too tight.
"Nighty night." Kurt got up and backed out, slamming the door closed. I heard something being shoved up against it.
So, my hunch had been right. Lyra was the brains and also Shanglestrand's handler. I didn't have much to be proud of though. More heavy weights would be coming here soon. And my story was flimsy enough Lyra might decide not to take any chances. It's not as if there was anyone alive to confirm who I was. It was one of the reasons Nambu had picked the identity in the first place.
Still, as long as Ken got out, I didn't really care. I'd done what I'd set out to do, even if it was merely a shadow of what I could have done once.
Lying in pitch darkness and the feeling quickly leaving my feet, it took me a couple of tries to get myself standing up again. There was no interior light switch and I hadn't gotten a good look around when he first threw me in.
My leg was behaving for the moment, though I was sure this wouldn't last long, so I scoured the shelves in the darkness as best I could, hoping to stumble over something which might help free my feet if not my hands. Aside from a lot of cans and bagged beans, I didn't find anything useful. I sat down on the floor before my leg could change its mind.
The floor was hard and cold, the darkness oppressive, but I had no doubt I would get out of this-one way or another. If I got the chance, I might even try to play Shanglestrand against Lyra-though it was a long shot. I doubted she would let it get far.
It was all up to Ken now. To contact Nambu, to make sure these bastards were stopped. I just wished I'd been able to do more, not just get caught. It amazed me, in a way-I didn't seem to be taking this as badly as I would have right after Karakoram. Dealing with helplessness had never been one of my strong suits. And I was sure I'd gotten worse, not that I had much choice in the matter. But I still had my last hurrah, for all the good it did. And I'd gotten to see Ken again.
Having nothing better to do, I let myself doze. Who knew what fun Lyra might decide to inflict on me in the morning.
I woke up disoriented as something hit the other side of the door, hard.
My whole body protested as I squirmed to get back on my feet, not sure what to expect.
Silence reigned from the other side for over a minute, then I heard someone moving something out of the way of the door. I tensed, having no idea what I could do trussed like a turkey, but I wasn't going down without a fight.
The door swung suddenly open and the light from the kitchen blinded me. How stupid could I be!
Before my vision could come back, I abruptly felt a hand on my arm. I tried to pull away, almost making myself fall in the process.
"Joe, it's me!"
Utter relief washed through me at the sound of his voice, a lot more than I would have ever expected. It didn't last long.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I blinked furiously, trying to get my eyes to cooperate. I heard something click, and then my feet were free. Ken was twisting me around to work on my cuffs, but I resisted. "You should be back at my place reporting to Nambu, not taking stupid risks!"
"And risk getting my ass chewed for leaving you here? That would have been truly stupid."
Limping out into the kitchen proper, I found Kurt crumpled on the floor, a nice sized bump on the side of his head. Couldn't have hoped for better.
"Okay, so you've gotten me out, and that's great and all, but now you have to book it out of here."
Ken turned to stare at me with a raised brow. "What are you talking about?"
I sighed heavily. "Look, I'll only slow you down and we don't have time for you to be waiting on me. I'll hide out in the thick bushes past the grounds and wait there. You've got to get back asap and tell Nambu what's going on."
Ken's gaze turned cool. "You've turned into quite the martyr haven't you? Guess it's easier than living."
What the hell?
"I'm not leaving you here and that's final." His hardened face dared me to contradict him. He had the kind of look which told me he'd carry me out of there if that's what it took. "So quit arguing and grab your stuff while I put this idiot away."
Ken grabbed Kurt and dragged him into the pantry. As for me, I turned to look where Ken pointed and found my cane sitting on top of the counter as well as my discarded headset, plus a gun. The relief at having my "buddy" back was bittersweet. At least I wouldn't slow him down as much as I would have without it.
With Kurt locked away, Ken took point, and I followed as fast as I could after him.
"Ken, Lyra was wearing infrared goggles. Some of the other guards might too." I wasn't sure if I was telling him this as a warning or an excuse for having gotten caught. Besides, there was no telling what other toys Lyra had at her disposal.
"The faster we get out of here then, the less chance they'll intercept us."
I didn't get to keep much breath for conversation after that.
By the time we finally made it to where we'd stashed the bike my lungs were wheezing and my leg was twitching again. Ken immediately moved to strip the makeshift mufflers off the exhaust pipes.
"Is that - wise?" God how I hated sounding so weak.
Ken never slowed. "Speed is what we need now, not stealth. There's no telling how soon they'll figure out you're gone."
"But they'll probably check on me after they hear the bike!"
"Can't be helped," he replied. "Now hop on."
Bossy as ever. Guess some things never changed.
Ken switched on the bike, gunning the gas, and we were off. The sky was starting to lighten in the horizon.
Ken drove full speed, like a bat out of hell, and despite the fact this was reckless, insane, and could more likely get us killed rather than saved, it was glorious.
Faster than I thought possible we skidded into my property. Ken dropped me off at the door.
"I'll stow the bike in the carriage house, you get the communications setup out," Ken said.
"Roger." I reached for the door, the vibrations from the frantic drive still resonating in my bones.
By the time Ken made it in, I had the gear out, ready for him. Ken's fingers flew over the keys. "Send it."
I hit the switch. I'd done it. I'd actually completed an entire mission in my sorry ass state.
"Come on, let's go." Ken stood up and headed for the door.
He glanced back at me, a frown on his face. "We've got to get out of here before they come looking for you-for us. It's not safe here anymore."
It was alike a bucket of cold water. I should have known this, heck, should have anticipated this hours ago. But I hadn't, didn't, couldn't. This was my new life. It wasn't supposed to go like this. After all I'd been through, I couldn't just give it up, could I? "No. I'm staying."
Ken stared at me as if I'd gone insane, then anger lit up his eyes. "Did you rattle something loose in your head on the way back? You can't stay here. Your cover's blown."
I shook my head though I knew he was right. But dammit, if I left here, if I went with him, I'd have to start all over. The looks, the questions, the pity-I didn't want to go through all that again-didn't know if I could. It scared me more than anything had in my entire life. And there was more to it than just the fear too. There was my work on Sophia. Helping Thomas and his mother. They kept me feeling useful, kept me sane. "I-I can talk my way out of it. I'll say you took me, hoping I'd been locked away because I had information on you or might have something worthwhile. When you found out I didn't, you left me here to take the heat."
"They'll never fall for that! They can't afford to. They'll kill you just to be on the safe side. Shit, you know that!" He stared at me as if he didn't know me.
"So I'm stupid. I'm still not going." I turned slightly, to give myself more of an advantage if he decided to rush me.
"What the hell's the matter with you? Are you doing this because of me?" Confusion marred his face.
"No. I belong here. That's all. There's nothing for me anywhere else. Can't you understand that?"
I saw this only made him angrier. "Is that so? Why should it matter? You've belonged elsewhere before and it never stopped you from leaving."
Bastard. This wasn't the same. "So you would have preferred it if I'd just stayed the good little, useless cripple? Watch each of you slowly leave my life because I was cramping your style, because I had nothing to add to the cause, and have me hate you for the rest of my life because of it? Is that what you wanted me to do?"
Ken blew. "Hate us? Hate us? What the hell for? For being your friends, your family? For loving you? That's our crime? That's why you left?"
"You don't understand anything. You never have! The problem is me, not you, me." I'd said it; I'd finally said it. And it was like a pit opening up beneath me, but I couldn't stop. "I hate what I've become, loathe it. I couldn't deal with it. Not when every time I saw you everything I lost was dangled before my face. I was jealous! Bitter. And I couldn't do anything to stop it. So I left. I had to leave, or sooner or later I would despise everything I'd ever loved."
There, I'd said all of it. I felt exhausted, spent. Now he knew how truly low I had come. I'd never been meant to depend on others, not for anything. I feared helplessness and dependency more than I feared death. And to be useless on top of it all... I looked away, my hands shaking. These were things I'd never meant for him to know.
"You should have said something." Ken's voice was soft, and horribly neutral.
"Said what? That I was feeling sorry for myself and couldn't handle the consequences of my actions?" My mouth tasted of bile. "That I'd come to the point where I almost wished it'd been one of you instead of me?
"How would it have made anything better?"
"We would have at least tried. But you never even gave us a chance."
I hung my head. I'd visualized the scenarios a hundred different ways, a thousand, and the end was always the same. I was stupid enough to think they were strong enough to deal with it, and in that lay my only regret. I could have left a letter, something to soften the blow, but I'd been blind to everything but myself. "You'd better go. I'm sure you're right and they'll be here soon."
I didn't look up, not wanting to see him go.
"You're coming with me."
I glanced up, knowing that stubborn tone only too well.
"You can be suicidal on your own time, but not on my watch. The ISO doesn't leave its agents behind." His eyes turned hard. "I'll knock you out and tie you to the bike if I have to. What the fuck you do once you're safe will be up to you."
Hadn't he heard a damn thing I said? Didn't it make a difference to him?
Like butting rams, we both tensed waiting to see who would make the first move. That's when we heard it. Some kind of jet like motor coming from the direction of the villa, and it was close.
We stared at each other, knowing exactly what it meant. We were out of time.
"Ken, hit me then get the hell out of here! Hurry!"
The tension poured suddenly away from him, a strange smile momentarily flashing on his face. "Don't think so. If you're staying here to die, I'm staying with you."
Now who was crazy? "They'll kill you for sure, you idiot! I at least have a chance-if you go."
He shrugged. "Sorry. Like I said, if you stay, I stay. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it."
We didn't have time for this! Did he really want to die? He was healthy, dammit, whole! Why throw it away? Not for a useless has been. It was wrong. And though I knew I was doing exactly what he wanted, I swallowed my fear and did it. I wasn't worth his life. "Fine. Have it your way," I growled. I never said I would be gracious about it. "Let's go. But expect to pay for it."
Ken rushed to the door. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Bastard. I was half tempted to trip him, but there were other more important things for us to worry about. But I wouldn't be forgetting this bit of blackmail-no sir, not anytime soon.
The strange jet sound cut off as we stepped outside. Instead it was replaced by the squealing of tires from the direction of town.
Ken dashed out across the yard toward the carriage house to get the bike. The sounds of an approaching car were growing louder by the moment. Still no hint as to what the other sounds were about.
I pushed hard after him, not all that sure we could get on the bike and out of here in time. We might have to fight our way out. If only he'd just left me here! Putting Ken in harm's way had never been my intention. Yet here I'd gone and done it anyway. Chagrined, I tried pushing myself a little harder.
When I stumbled into the carriage house, I slowed down already gasping for breath. Ken stood by the bike, but was staring toward a dark corner. Slowly his hands went up.
It was only then I spotted her, Lyra, standing in the corner, a gun aimed straight at Ken.
"Fixit Man, it's good to see you again." She stepped forward, into the light, flashing me a grin without ever taking her eyes off Ken. "The two of you have been quite naughty. But that's over now." A strange contraption was strapped to her back. It looked like something out of a Flash Gordon movie. I figured it must be where the strange jet sounds had come from. She got here a lot faster than I would have ever given her credit for. Guess I should have known better.
She shrugged one arm out of the heavy looking pack, then switched gun hands to take it off the other side. She set it down, and it made a hard thunk on the floor.
"I think there's been a misunderstanding," Ken said amiably.
I stared hard between them, stepping forward as I frantically tried to gauge our options. The sounds of the approaching car suddenly stopped.
"Oh, I doubt that," she said casually, her aim never wavering. "But don't worry. I'll find out all there is to know as soon as my men get in here." She gave him a cold smile. "Unfortunately for you, I only need one of you to find out what I want."
Without thinking, I threw my cane at her with all my might. Lyra dodged it before it could hit her, but it bought Ken a number of precious seconds. With lightning speed, I saw him reach down into a pocket of his jacket and then fling something in her direction.
Recognizing the feather dart for what it was, I also realized his aim was too low. It might still kill her, but not fast enough.
The shot rang out even as I threw myself forward, my leg screaming.
Something hot and sudden hit me in the back. Pain flared like a blanket thrown over me. I barely felt it as I hit the floor, something warm oozing out beneath me. The feeling of déjà vu was incredibly strong.
I tried to move, but it was as if my whole body had turned to jelly. My gaze wobbled and undulated, even as more shots rang out, multiple footsteps ringing out around me. Blurred shapes crossed my path, but I couldn't focus enough to make out anything about them.
My lungs ached and my breathing grew difficult as I kept my ears primed for signs of Ken.
I knew what was happening. I'd been here before. Maybe this time I'd get it right. But, I couldn't go quite yet. I had to make sure this time it was worth it, that Ken had made it. It would make everything all right if I could have done this one last thing--if I could prove I was still of use.
A dark form scrunched over me and for a second my eyes focused enough to let me know it was him. I tried to say his name, to let him know I knew he was there, but only incoherent gurgling escaped my lips. I was pretty sure now my lungs were filling with blood.
"Don't try to talk." There was a raw edge of panic to his voice. "Save your energy. Just hang on."
Ken put his hands beneath me and when he tried to move me it was as if a hot poker had been shoved up my spine. My whole body reacted.
"Damn, damn, damn."
Something warm splashed on my face.
Though I knew how this would end, I had at least still been able to do something, to prove I was of worth after all. It meant everything to me. But Ken's grief, his grief reminded me of the pain I'd inadvertently caused the others, of the wounds I'd caused them despite my original intentions. Wounds that I suddenly realized I still had the power to try to heal. I couldn't go yet. I wasn't finished...
"Joe don't you do this! Don't you dare!"
Even as I fought to stay conscious, everything suddenly went black.