The pickup truck lumbered into the gas station with a rusty wheeze and clattered to a stop. Dillon opened the passenger door and climbed out, offering his hand to Kris. The Pakistani driver of the truck said something in his own language that made Dillon roar with laughter. They exchanged a few more words in the driver’s native tongue before Dillon pressed money into the man’s hand. He slammed the door shut and the truck grumbled on its way down the road.
Kris looked in dismay at the gas station. Small enough to fit into a hip pocket, with two lone pumps, it looked as if it were being held together by the ancient dirt and grease that seemed to coat everything here. Kris looked down at herself. Two hundred dollar shoes, a five hundred dollar dress, a three hundred dollar hair job, and all absolutely ruined in just two days. She looked a total wreck and felt it. They had tramped through pitch black woods most of the night until at last coming to a road where Dillon flagged down a ride and then spent four uncomfortable hours riding in a rusty truck that smelled like a barnyard.
Kris fixed Dillon with a hot, hateful look. “I have had quite enough. I demand that we part company as soon as possible.”
Dillon yawned and stretched like a huge lynx. Joints and muscles popped and cracked, making him sound like a huge rice krispy. “Fine. There’s the road. Have a nice life.”
“I wish to be taken to a place of safety first!”
“You want this; you want that; what are you so twisted about?”
“You nearly got me killed last night!”
Dillon shrugged, reached around to scratch under his right armpit. “I admit; my plan didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.”
“Do any of your plans go the way you hope!? In the two days I’ve known you, nothing you’ve planned has gone right! It’s a total mystery to me how you’ve managed to gain the supposedly sterling reputation you enjoy!”
“I must be doing something right or we wouldn’t be standing here having this delightful conversation, now would we? And since you wanna play ‘point the finger’, if you hadn’t called Lady Thelma and told her where we were, that train wouldn’t have been attacked.” Dillon had dropped his bantering, joking tone and his voice was pure ice. “If anybody’s responsible for anything that happened back at that train, it’s you.”
Kris looked at Dillon silently for a minute, her large eyes guilty and nervous. “You know I called her. How could you know that?”
“Do I have imbecile written on my face, or what? Who do you think you’re dealing with? Trust me when I say I know everything you said to Lady Thelma. I was beginning to think you understood this situation we’re in and maybe you were starting to trust me a little. I’ll be sure to know better from here on out.”
Kris bit her lower lip, all the fight gone out of her. “I… I was confused and scared—”
“Save your sidewalk act for the innocents back at the train who were hurt and maybe even killed.”
“I said I was sorry! What else can I do?”
Dillon said nothing. He turned away and walked inside the gas station. A lean, mournful looking youth sat on the counter, reading a Michael Moorcock paperback. He barely gave Dillon a glance as he walked over.
“’Morning, young man. You got any local maps?”
The youth jerked his peach-fuzzed chin at a spinner rack near the pay phone. Dillon walked over and began looking for a local map of the area while taking out his cell phone. He dialed Lavimore Watson’s number. Kris had followed Dillon inside and she walked over to the large wall cooler, looking for something cold to drink. The youth’s eyes freely roved over her as she looked for an iced tea. Even looking like a wreck, Kris was a helluva sexy looking wreck.
On the seventh ring, Watson answered. “Hartin Restorations.”
“It’s me, Watson. What’s going on?”
“What in God’s name have you been doing?”
“Trying to stay alive, mostly. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Dillon, I can’t talk to you anymore after this. That train attack was all over the news. MI6 has put B.I.T.E. on your trail and they’ve been tearing up the town looking for you. I’ve just gotten home after a four-hour grilling. They know we’ve got history and they made it clear that they want you in the worst way.”
“This doesn’t sound good at all, bro.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea. I had to put as much distance between the bad guys and me as I could. I’m trying to figure out where I am right now, so I can get the hell outta this country before somebody puts a bullet in my ass.”
“The girl still with you?”
Dillon was watching Kris read the ingredients on two different brands of iced tea with the intensity of a bomb squad trainee attempting a first time disarming of a nuclear device. “Unfortunately, yes. Look, I need a pilot to fly me out of here and there’s no way I can go near my usual contacts. Do you know anybody?”
“I’ve got a guy I use for emergencies. He’s got to come from Austria so he’s going to charge plenty.”
“I don’t give a monkey’s maybe what he charges. You set it up. Here’s how we’ll do it. You get hold of him; tell him to fly to England. Be here as soon as he can. I’m going to call you back in four hours and you tell me where he wants me to meet him. I’ll make my way to wherever he wants but he’s got to fly me to Africa. I’ll pay for everything; he doesn’t have to worry about that.”
“He’ll fly you to friggin’ Oz if I say so, don’t worry about that. You just take care, man. B.I.T.E. is no joke. And ditch that damn girl! She’s nothing but a magnet for trouble. And make damn sure the next time you call me is the last time—”
Dillon cut off Watson and stowed the phone away in a jacket pocket. Considering that it was Watson who had gotten him into this mess, Dillon couldn’t understand what he was so upset about. Hell, it wasn’t as if he had hoards of bloodthirsty killers chasing him. He unfolded the map as he walked over to the where the youth sat.
“What’s the nearest town, young man?”
“Numby Dell. ‘Bout three, four mile walk up the road.”
Kris paid for her iced tea. “I don’t suppose you’d have a car we could hire?”
“Sorry, miss, me old man’s got the wheels t’day. Took th’ day off on a personal holiday, y’know?” The boy waved his paperback to take in the gas station’s dismal interior. “That’s why I’m stuck in here.”
“That’s okay, son,” Dillon said. “It’s a nice morning and we don’t mind the walk.”
As they left the gas station and began their hike, Kris handed Dillon a bottle of orange juice. “Here’s breakfast. Hope you appreciate it.”
“Why, thank you, Kris.” Dillon opened the bottle and drank half of it in one long gulp. “That’ll do until we reach Numby Dell. A nice three-mile hike in the morning is just the thing to work up an appetite. By the time we get there, we’ll be hungry as New York sewer rats.”
“I’m hungry now,” Kris complained. “Whom were you talking to on your phone?”
“A friend in London. I’ve got to make plans to get out of Europe altogether. I’ve got B.I.T.E. after me.”
Kris’s eyes opened wide. “Oh, dear… you do have a problem, don’t you? Is there anybody you don’t have chasing you?”
Dillon gave her an unpleasant look. “Thanks a lot. If it wasn’t for the fact that I feel some sort of obligation to keep you from getting your cute little ass shot to pieces, I’d probably be sitting on a beach in the Bahamas right now instead of running from British Intelligence’s best gunslingers.”
From the gas station, the boy watched them walk down the road. It was obvious from their gestures and body language that they were arguing, although the boy couldn’t imagine that he would have anything to argue about with a bird that looked that good. He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and tapped in a number. When it was answered, he spoke rapidly, giving an amazingly accurate description of both Dillon and Kris. He put the phone away and returned to sitting on the counter and reading his book.
Numby Dell was a town filled with quaint shops, small, cozy houses and many narrow, cobbled streets. Dillon expected Julie Andrews to come gaily tripping down the street singing loud enough to make his ears bleed. He noticed that most of the cars seemed to be of makes and models fourteen or fifteen years old. Not that there were all that many cars in the first place. Most everybody seemed to get around on foot or on bicycles. He even saw a couple of horse-drawn carts and carriages. The people seemed friendly enough, though. Women smiled and men tipped their hats in greetings.
“I feel like I’ve stumbled into a G-rated movie,” Kris said.
“I know just how you feel,” Dillon answered. “Doesn’t this burg have a Wendy’s or a Mickey D’s? They call this civilization?”
“Are you always hungry?”
“I’m still a growing boy. I need my nutrition.”
“It’s a wonder you’re not overweight.”
“You’d be surprised at the amount of exercise I get,” Dillon answered with a straight face.
They found an inn named The Broken Saber and entered the cool, dim interior. It was a comfortable, old-fashioned establishment that smelled of cigar smoke, whiskey and old wood. The conversation lulled as the strangers walked in. The regulars sitting at the bar, looking as if they had been sitting on those same stools since the day Jesus rolled back the rock, eyed the newcomers carefully as Dillon steered Kris to a booth in the back. He could watch pretty much the entire room from there, and it wasn’t far from the swinging doors that led to the kitchen and a rear entrance… just in case they needed to leave in a hurry.
The barflies turned back to their drinks and conversation.
“I don’t appreciate the way we’re being stared at,” Kris muttered.
Dillon’s copper eyes sparkled with amusement as he yanked off his gloves. “I wouldn’t take it personally. They probably don’t see many strangers, much less an interracial couple dropping in for lunch. Lighten up. They don’t mean any harm.”
A broomstick thin waitress ambled over to the table to take their orders. Kris simply asked for salad and a broiled steak with French fries. Dillon’s order was a bit longer.
“Gimme a whole roast chicken, very greasy. Double order of mixed vegetables and melt some cheese over ‘em. Two grilled pork chops, make ‘em well done. Keep the beer and coffee coming every fifteen minutes until I say stop. And if you’ve got any honeydew melons you’re hiding in the back for yourself, cut one in half and bring that by as well.”
The waitress cocked an eye at Dillon in approval. “Be me pleasure. Be right back wit' th’ coffee and a pitcher of beer.”
Dillon cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers. “You may have to go to the authorities and tell them everything you know about Lady Thelma’s illegal activities. Have you thought about that at all?”
Kris sighed and sat back, pushing her disheveled hair out of her eyes. “You don’t understand at all, do you? Lady Thelma’s been good to me, despite what you may think you know.”
“How’d you get mixed up with her anyway?”
“Lady Thelma and my mother went to the same school in Switzerland. When my parents died in a plane crash, there wasn’t much of a reason for me to stay in Cristobal. My sister had gotten married and moved to New York and I really didn’t want to stay. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of my parents. Lady Thelma had come to the funeral and offered her help so I decided to take her up on her offer. She said I could come work for her and sent her private plane to fetch me. I’ve been with her ever since.”
Dillon frowned. “So when did she lose her mind?”
Kris thrust an angry finger at Dillon. “I’ve had just about enough of your—”
The door of the inn was thrown open with a Wham! and six men dressed in matching black uniforms with silver piping on the legs and arms marched inside. Muscular, hard-looking men with no nonsense looks on their pale, emotionless faces. They marched right up to the booth where Dillon and Kris sat and lined up in front of them, hands folded behind their backs, all of them looking directly at Dillon.
Their leader then strode in. Clad in a pearl-gray military style costume with a sparkling black sash across her chest and a great black cloak that billowed behind her like smoke. The cloak was fastened at her left shoulder with a solid gold clasp fashioned into a sunburst and a dazzling riot of medals and ribbons festooned her right breast. She wielded a swagger stick and looked no older than eighteen, an Asian girl playing grown-up, with a torrent of midnight black hair that cascaded around her thin shoulders. Large green eyes peered from under the stingy brim of her cap.
The girl swaggered up to the booth and stopped, smiling at Dillon and Kris, who could only look back at this apparition in amazement.
It was Dillon, of course, who found his tongue first. “I certainly hope somebody’s paying you to dress up like that, ‘cause I’d sure as hell hate to think you’re doing it ‘cause you like it.”
The Asian girl smiled and clicked her polished booted heels together smartly.
“Good afternoon to you, Mr. Dillon and Ms. Quinlan. On behalf of Dr. Aristotle Numby, I offer the hospitality of Numby Castle for dinner, conversation, and good company.”
“Who’s your tailor, little girl?” Dillon asked.
The Asian girl flushed bright red as the barflies burst out laughing. She whirled to eye them angrily and they all turned back to their drinks, falling silent.
“My name is Chew Mi. I am in charge of Dr. Numby’s security force.”
Dillon could barely contain his laughter. “You gotta be kidding me… Chew Mi? I’m going to take a wild guess here… your parents didn’t give you that name, did they?”
“In regards to Dr. Numby’s generous offer…?”
“Well, you just run along back to your doctor friend and tell him that on behalf of myself and my companion that we’re truly honored he would take the time to extend such gracious kindness to strangers visiting the area. However, we are pressed for time and must be moving on right after our meal.”
Chew Mi snapped red nailed fingers. One of her men stepped forward and lifted a hand. He stripped off the black glove to reveal a metal hand that glittered silver-gray in the light. The man flexed his metal fingers and they clicked like a locust in a box. The cyborg fixed his eyes on Dillon, closed the hand into a fist, and smiled.
Dillon quickly took the hint. “But on further reflection, we’re not in so much of a hurry that we can’t take a few minutes to pay our respects to Dr. Numby and maybe have a bite of lunch with him. How about it, Kris?”
Dillon was smiling pleasantly enough and Kris forced herself to smile back and nod. It was either that or start screaming and Kris had the definite feeling that if she started doing that, she wouldn’t be able to stop.