"You know Lisa, I was having a nice, relaxing day until you called."
"Cute. But this is important. We'll see you at two — don't be late."

*****

Jahn finished polishing the long bar and sighed as he observed the tavern. A year ago this place would have been filled with activity on a Friday evening, but things had been different for months now. Business was slow in Munich and showed no signs of picking up in the near future, especially for a tavern owned and operated by a Muslim. The bartender was a short and stocky white man, but made no secret of his religion and that kept many potential customers in this part of the city away. These days, at least.

The only two patrons in the tavern tonight were the young Hendrick, sitting in his customary booth at the far end of the room, and a traveling businessman seated at one of the small tables to the right of the entranceway. The visitor was nursing a tall lager but seemed to mostly be lost in his own thoughts, oblivious at intervals to both Jahn and his drink. Hendrick was tinkering with some new game of his, trying to fix some set of circuits or other between drinks, wiring the device to run faster, better, or without the restrictions intended by the manufacturer. Jahn didn't know the details except that Hendrick was always up to some project or other since the boy had dropped out of school.

The entrance to the tavern swung open and two brown-skinned men the size of oak trees entered along with a blast of the wintry air. Jahn smiled as he saw the large Islamic crescent necklaces that both wore, showing through their unbuttoned coats. He moved to greet his brothers, and suddenly both drew guns and Jahn froze, speechless. The closer one pointed his weapon at Jahn and spoke haltingly while the man behind looked towards Hendrick and aimed his semi-automatic.

"You are a foolish man," said the front man. "We are here for the boy and you will not interfere. If you do not cooperate, you and your family will suffer. Do not try–"

The man was interrupted by the report of a different pistol, this one fired twice by the stranger who had been seated behind them. Both of the huge men crumpled to the floor and the strange businessman moved quickly over them towards a cowering Hendrick. Jahn, still mostly in shock from the events of the past thirty seconds, could not hear his words over the ringing in his ears. The man he spoke quickly to Hendrick at the far end of the tavern. Hendrick stood up, grabbed his coat from the booth and quickly donned it as he followed the stranger back towards to the door to the tavern. Then the man spoke to Jahn.

"In just over five hours, you will awaken with a headache the likes of which you have never had. Take the pills you will find on this counter. Then report everything you saw here to the police. Leave nothing out of your report."

Then the man's hand snapped forward and grabbed Jahn's neck. Jahn felt a small prick and then saw the world swirl and dissolve before him as he fell towards the floor and blackness covered his vision.

*****

"Made the pickup early, Lisa. I hope you don't take your time. I hate this city already."
"If only you enjoyed fine beer, maybe the wait wouldn't be so bad. We're hurrying."

*****

Back in the light of his flat, Hendrick could see the strange man much more clearly. He called himself Adil, but the rest of his story had been so incredible that Hendrick didn't believe either the story or the name. He focused on committing the man's appearance to memory rather than try to make sense of what he had been told. The stranger was taller than average and as he watched, Hendrick could tell that he must be no more than thirty-five and in incredible physical shape. He moved around the flat with the coiled energy of a panther, ready to pounce should a target present itself. Long, almost glowing black hair was pulled into a ponytail and a small starburst tattoo adorned the spot just above his right cheekbone.

Adil — no, not Adil, the stranger — looked as if he had seen several more decades of worry and unhappiness than a normal man of his age. His features were lined and crooked and to Hendrick it seemed that he must have last relaxed sometime in a previous decade. The man threw him a glance accompanied by the barest smile — just a little thinner and the man could have passed for an avatar of Death with a rictus grin.

"Finished analyzing me yet?" The man spoke quietly to Hendrick. "I could just tell you what you want to know, but I have this strange feeling that you might not believe me." The man's smile broadened slightly after this remark and Hendrick could have sworn that he detected mirth behind the stranger's harrowed features.

"So let me get this straight. You — Adil or whatever — are here because my father, who I haven't seen in three years, once did business with your group or gang or whatever you call it. Whatever. And you're here to protect me from your rival gang who is trying to kill me to take some sort of revenge for whatever my father did? For one thing, you clearly didn't know my father to make up this sort of story, and for another thing I still don't understand why we are still sitting here if these guys are trying to kill me!"

The panther-man frowned at Hendrick's outburst and came to sit on the couch opposite him. Hendrick shrank away from him as he spoke.

"You are a very bright boy but it's clear that you aren't listening closely to what I have tried to tell you. The gang pursuing you is a local organized crime element. Their only connection to your father is that he owes money to one of their employers, a wealthy businesswoman in Stuttgart. Since they are thugs and your father is difficult to find, they decided that kidnapping you might be productive.

"Fortunately for you, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. My organization is neither criminal nor local, but your father did in fact work for us at one time and since then we have watched you grow into adulthood with great interest. You are much more talented than your father in many ways, and when we discovered that your life was in jeopardy we decided to protect you. I saved your life at that dive bar and before coming there I jury-rigged the listening devices in your apartment to return only silence — as far as these thugs know, no one is here and the device attached to your car shows up as being 200 clicks out of the city by now. This is as safe as you're going to be — especially with me here.

"Unfortunately for you, our pickup is going to be here in 20 minutes and so we have to leave the relative safety of this place. Let's get moving. And please don't argue. Someday you'll look back on tonight and laugh."

*****

"You know I missed you Lisa honey. Looking forward to seeing you soon."
"Can it. You always romance me at the worst times. Just focus on being careful, hm?"

*****

Adil hurried the boy out of the car and into the back entrance of the skyscraper in downtown Munich. The place was deserted at 1:45 in the morning, but nevertheless he didn't want any random observers to see something out of the ordinary. His card admitted them entry through the outer security and into the interior of the building, where Adil quickly located a service lift. Hendrick, clearly distraught but nevertheless compliant, followed along without making a sound. Once inside the life, Adil swiped his card, punched in a series of codes, and rigged the machine to take them to the building's rooftop at maximum speed. Shortly they had reached the top of the 118-story building. Climbing a single flight of stairs, Adil and Hendrick emerged onto the still, freezing air.

That was when everything went haywire.

They were surrounded by over twenty men, all of varying sizes and skin tones but none of them small and none of them white. Each wore a large silver crescent necklace that glinted with the city lights surrounding them. All appeared to be armed. One of them spoke in perfect Turkish, a language so old and dead that Adil had been sure that he was one of the few who still knew it.

"The boy is ours. You, shadow man, will not leave with your life."

It was time for action. Adil focused and the locks in his mind that held his pent-up training slid away. Swiftly, faster than any of the men surrounding them could react, the panther inside Adil emerged.

"On the ground," he yelled to Hendrick as he planted one foot on the doorjamb behind them and drew pistols from both sides of his coat. As he leapt forward, shots rang out from his weapons, felling six of the assailants as he flew through the air towards the opposite side of the roof, firing bullets faster than any normal pistol could discharge. He rolled to a stop and flipped around in under a second, sweeping a wide arc of fire through the closest men, who had started to react to his flight and turn towards him. Five more men dropped under the hail of bullets from his weapons. Somewhere in his hyper-drive mind, Adil grinned. Then he saw the three men who had been behind the stairwell exit start to move towards Hendrick as two more men, huge like the ones from the tavern, moved to block Adil's return path. And he could tell that they wore the bulk of body armor and would not be felled by bullets.

He fired a final salvo and the remaining nearby men fell, just as a deafening roar broke over the rooftop and the distant men moving towards the prone Hendrick stumbled. The two huge men remained and had drawn large automatic shotguns, training them on Adil. The cold air churned and Adil looked up towards the rapidly descending silhouette of the hybrid gunboat hovering towards them. The screams of the craft's machinery made it difficult for even Adil to think, as gyrostabilizers spun overtime and heating failsafes on the underside of the boat rebelled against the atmospheric flight for which she had never been intended. Adil saw the shakiness of the descent and realized that this would be closer than he had planned.

Then the boat's side slid open and Adil saw a black shape and a smaller white shape fall from the craft's bay door. Crouching, Adil *leapt*.

Forty feet airborne he caught the two shapes and, with the precision of the man who has performed an exercise a thousand times, flipped open the hatches on the black shape and inserted one of his pistols along with the white cartridge. Pulling a final lever into place, the shell of the casing fell away. It had always struck him as a little too nifty to go from a somatic pistol to a personal mass rifle in three seconds flat. Looking down as he reached the top of his jump's arc, he aimed and fired. By the time he landed, the final five assailants had been reduced to stains on the newly dented rooftop, Hendrick unharmed.

Adil slid out the pale green pinprick from his sleeve and gently cupped Hendrick's neck as he reached to help him up. Instantly the boy was on his feet and then clutching Adil in terror. Adil released the lever on his rifle and removed the white cartride, gripping it tightly and uttering a single word:

"Up."

They met the gunboat halfway, and then were gone. Within minutes they had reached orbit, docked, and left the fifth moon of RCYF-II, sometimes called New Bavaria, behind forever.

*****

"I hope you know how gorgeous you are. Atmospheric flight always brings out your wild side."
"And you are always handsome after exercising. Those lines in your face won't come back for months."
"Half of that is an affectation anyway. I never look that way when we're alone!"
"I know. But you're still prettier after 30 seconds of combat than months of tedium."
"No arguments there. Maybe I should ask for better assignments."
"I'll see what I can do. Now, kiss me. Until I can no longer think."

*****

Captain Lisa Şerefli watched the readouts of the ship's helm displays absently as she listened to the voice on the other end of the ansible connection.

"Make the rest of your scheduled stops so that nothing appears out of the ordinary. We've confirmed the nature of the resistance you and Agent Şerefli encountered and it is most definitely local, extraordinary intelligence on their part notwithstanding. We're handling it on our end. How is your pickup?"

"Despite what we have told him, he's very resistant to accepting the facts. Adjutant, I'm not sure what he really thinks or how he reconciles his experiences with those beliefs, but trusting and teachable he is most certainly not."

"Well Captain," the voice replied, "then you'll just have to be patient until you arrive. And really now. At their first meeting with us, who in four million years has believed?"

*****

To be continued...


Steve was not what you'd call handsome. He had acne scars from his teen years that were not going away any time in this life. We always assumed those scars had a strong influence on everything he did. He took to challenges like a beaver takes to a tree; completely and methodically and often without a real good reason.

His dad had been a test pilot in the Right Stuff era, and he was a middle child in a large family. He had also turned into the black sheep of that large family. He was holding bitterness like a teacup at an uncomfortable garden party. It never really overflowed onto the lawn, but it was always right there in front of you being balanced precariously with just a couple of fingers.

I met him through a Sicilian guitar player ex-Marine who married a stunning brunette that they'd both swapped around a few times before some Magic 8-Ball of Love told them that it was Nick who would get that one and Steve would have to wait.

We were at a bar in Atlanta. We'd driven there to see Little Feat just before Lowell George would keel over and die in a hotel room in June of '79 in Arlington, Virginia. Oddly enough, the same Arlington, Virginia, where Nick and Steve both went to high school and where they first met. The three of us had worn out at least two copies of Sailin' Shoes and we all had a sort of calling to see that band play live. Nick couldn't make it, due to his brunette harpy of a wife telling him so, so Steve and I drove all day to Atlanta. We got there at least a couple of hours before the band was even scheduled to start, and they were known to never have started on time.

Steve prided himself on being able to say just the right thing to pick up just the right girl at just the right time. He often said that "pickup lines" were so clichéd and overused that any intelligent human could improvise and come up with better material. He considered himself some sort of Zen master at picking up girls. And, from past history, I had to say that I was often amazed at how he was able to go home with girls I would have considered out of his league. I was also amazed that Nick's wife was still fucking him on the side with everyone in the universe except Nick realizing that this was going on.

I'd seen Steve do things like go up to a really good-looking girl at a bar and just reach down and put his hand on her crotch and walk out with her less than five minutes later. He was brazen, and not very polite.

This day in Atlanta, there was a stunning blond at the bar. She was fending off suitors right and left. Steve turned to me and said, "I will have that girl." He said it like he was a Roman God issuing an edict. I just shrugged and said, "I wouldn't be surprised."

The rest of this story is what he told me when he returned from his failed conquest. I did not hear the conversation so I cannot attest to its validity. I did, however, see the transaction and the dialogue he related did seem to match what I saw.

According to Steve, his general strategy was this: The girl was so beautiful and there had been so may petitioners hitting on her with no result, he thought the best approach was to bring her down to earth. He wanted something that could put them on equal footing. So this was his opening gambit:

He walked right up to her and put his beer down on the bar assertively and looked her right in the eye and said, "You know what? I bet you and I are a lot alike. I bet you quit wiping your ass when the paper isn't brown any more, just like I do."

Without missing a beat, she said, "I'm blind. I have no idea when the paper isn't brown any longer." And she sort of looked over his head and reached out her hand just a bit, like the blind will do.

Steve came back to table where I was sitting and the band actually started early for a change. They began with their song Trouble, and I thought I'd never seen him so despondent as when Lowell George sang,

"Well, I'll write a letter and I'll send it away
And put all the trouble in it that you had today."

I did, however, see him a bit more dispirited when she walked by our table on her way out the front door with a fellow even less attractive than him. She turned around and looked right at him and winked.

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