Lunch Business
David van Domelen

[editor's note: since thoughts will be common enough that 'he thought' would get annoying this issue, the notation <> will be used to surround thoughts, much like a thought bubble.]

   "Um, party of two, Lyons and Dreiser? I called in the reservation yesterday...." A young man stood uncomfortably at the entrance to one of Denver's better restaurants. At his side was a fairly attractive young woman, obviously his companion for lunch. Even a second's glance at the two makes it obvious that she is not pleased with him for something, and that this dinner is part one in what will no doubt be a lengthy apology.
   The Maitre D' smiled that professional smile that was supposed to put the customer at ease, yet somehow never did. "Indeed, sir. Please follow me...."

   In a Jack in the Box perhaps five blocks from that restaurant, another dinner date of sorts was taking place. Those were five fairly important blocks, however, because they spelled the difference between the gentrified 'safe' part of town and the part of town the so-called gentry would have nothing to do with. Three young men sat at a booth, waiting for someone. Young they were in body, but definitely not in spirit...the youngest of them had already gotten himself a fairly long rap sheet, and at least one of them had killed before.
   A man dressed like he was in the wrong part of town walked in. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit, carried a briefcase, wore a silk tie...everything about him screamed 'victim' except for one thing. His face and hands were utterly black. Not black African, not even black like a moonless night. Black like the hearts of those he was to meet. So black that it made people uncomfortable to look at him, so they didn't. No witnesses in a crowded room, the best place for a meeting.
   He slid into the booth with an air of familiarity and briefly studied the faces of the youths. Two of them bore fairly fresh injuries, burns and breaks. The other had a ragged scar on his neck, but it was old. He smiled, but it didn't change his features...even his teeth were ebon.
   "I understand you want to get revenge on a certain super-powered individual...?" he began.

   Brian Janssen sat glumly in his hotel room in Moscow. Looking down at the half-eaten sandwich in his hand, he chuckled involuntarily. To himself, he said "Nothing is better than true love, and a ham sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore a ham sandwich is better than true love."
   I feel like that's the kind of logic the world is working on right now. The rights of one man to due process are held higher than the cries of millions of wrongly killed people. The Patrol is supposed to be the ultimate Civilizing agent, yet one man can find a way to utterly thwart it. And for some reason my Recharger won't tell me why Wier is allowed to act unimpeded! First I'm told he's a danger to the Patrol, but then I'm hamstrung by the Patrol's own rules in getting him. And I know that Wier is guilty of something from the War...he wouldn't try to hard to run if he was innocent. But if I'd hauled him out at gunpoint he'd have gone free without even a trial.
   Janssen looked down at the sandwich. "Maybe life is a ham sandwich. Not kosher, but the only thing to do is bite down and chew, or starve."
   Finishing off the tuna salad sandwich, he picked up the phone and for the twentieth time that day called the former KGB headquarters to see if his papers had cleared....

   "Look, Jenny, I'm sorry I didn't call or anything, but..."
   "But nothing! You disappear without a trace, then a few days later I get this note from an anonymous sender saying that you're okay but can't be reached! Could you have at least sent the note yourself? For all I knew you'd been killed and this was part of a plot hide that."
   Simon, if this cover story doesn't work, I'm gonna beat your head in. "Well, y'see...apparently I have this crazy rich uncle up in Montana..."
   "Uncle? Sam, your father was an only child."
   "Well, okay, he's the illegitimate son of my paternal grandfather if you wanna get technical. 'Uncle' is easier. Anyway, he's a bastard in more ways than one. You know those guys flying around with gauntlets?"
   Jenny nodded.
   "Well, my uncle is convinced they're agents of an alien race committed to taking over Earth—" Not too far from the truth, anyway. "—For the last few months he's been building a secret base up in Montana...well, modifying one. It used to be his bolthole in case of nuclear war, now he's changing it over to meet the 'alien threat'."
   "What does this have to do with you disappearing?" asked Jenny between bites of the appetizer.
   "Well, he decided this was a much more immediate threat than nuclear war ever got to be, so he wanted to round up his relations to defend them. Since I didn't even know he existed before a few months back, he decided it'd be easier to just have some guys grab me and take me to Montana. That way I'd have to listen to his crackpot ideas. Unfortunately, just as I was being nabbed, Dan came over to ask if I wanted to go shoot some pool, and they grabbed him too. Easier to bribe him later than try to explain it then and there."
   Jenny gulped down her last mouthful and said "Ah, I wondered where you got the money to take me here. So, the crazy uncle paid you off to join his little survivalist camp?"
   "Well, kinda. I'm in his will, and one of the conditions of inheriting is to play along with his little 'National Guard' thing. I have to spend time up at the place in Montana every so often training, plus he tends to send me on mysterious errands at all hours. In return he pays me a fairly hefty amount of cash"&emdash;six figures plus insurance...Simon ain't no skinflint&emdash;"and when he kicks the bucket I stand to join the Forbes 500 or whatever. Seems he's a silent partner in Karlmax, that conglomerate with the office over there." He pointed vaguely in the direction of the office building that held Karlson's office. "He's been in on that group for a long time"—Heh. Founded it —"and made alot of money off it. I figure, hey, I'll play toy soldier for that kind of cash."
   "What about Dan?"
   "He joined too. He's not in on the inheritance bit, but he was bored with the job at the accounting firm anyway, and this pays pretty good day to day as I said. If Uncle Max ever gets tired of this particular delusion and fires us all, Dan can get another job I suppose. At least he's doing some networking over at Karlmax...he should be able to slide into a job there later." Karlson promised us jobs for life if we ever get injured too badly to fight in the Machine...or if he ever decides the Machine isn't needed anymore. Damn nice of him...considering the odds of us surviving that long aren't too great.
   "Exactly how much does this 'job' earn, anyway?"
   "Um, I think there's some kind of tax dodge involved. We're not supposed to tell how much we make. More than I used to, anyway. And lots of perks, even if ya have to put up with Max in Montana to enjoy most of them. And before you ask, no, Max doesn't like guests. Besides, I really wouldn't want to subject you to his setup...kinda unpleasant. Let's just say that only a large cash flow keeps some of his 'troops' from going to the cops or the press. Maybe later, if I can mellow him a bit."
   Jenny didn't say anything. That could be bad. Or it could be good. She was more inscrutible than most women Sam had known, and that was saying something. Then the entree arrived.

   A few blocks away, a small group left the Jack in the Box and got into an old Chevy with really big speakers. After a short drive, they got out in front of one of the few structures still standing in the area...the Machine had broken up a number of crack houses the week before, but the dealers just moved in on the houses of the innocents, whose homes had been left untouched by the 'superheroes'. The oldest of the three gang members went to the door and rapped on it three times, in short, staccato taps. It opened and they all went in.
   Inside were a few dozen people in the hallway or leaning out of doorways. Most of them had been at the Big Trap and gotten out of jail on bail. Some were still bandaged from the incident. All looked generally hacked off at the cards life had been dealing them since the Machine came to town.
   The man in the suit took in this sight, then said calmly, "I have here in this briefcase a method by which the Patrollers won't be able to touch you. And I'm going to give it to you for free."
   One in the back laughed, "First one for free, second on me?"
   "Not at all. I represent certain...powers...who don't like these flashy 'superheroes' running around and disrupting business. We get far more out of this deal than you do, I assure you. You see, the people with the Gauntlets have certain weaknesses which my people have learned to exploit. In this case are devices which, when worn by you, will prevent Patrollers from touching you with their force fields—" Because the slightest touch of a field will cause you excruciating pain...they'll have to desist or lose their power. "—in fact, it can cause them to lose their power totally."
   Another one, this one covered with bandages against the burns he had suffered, asked "What if they ain't got no gon'let?"
   The man in the suit turned to the one who had led him to the house. "What is he talking about?"
   "Oh, dinnyou know? The f***wads that did us only had one of y'Patrollers with'em. The otha guy had gadgets and junk. And then there's this guy with a shield who mus' think he's Captain f***ing America. And the hardbody lady."
   But this planet has no technology capable of doing this! "Ah, it must be subterfuge...they all have to be Patrollers. Trust me. Now, here's the devices...."

   Karlson walked into the recently repaired lab of Dr. Wier as the scientist was taking a lunch break.
   "Wier, I'd like to ask you to stop directly experimenting with Lyons' Recharger."
   Wier looked a bit surprised and almost choked on his lasagna. "But >kaff< why? There's still so much to learn!"
   Karlson sat down. "I've finished checking my contacts, and I've determined that there's only one way Janssen could have found out where you were. His Recharger must have told him. I think this is a hint that we've gone about as far as we're going to be allowed. I don't want every other Patroller on the planet finding reasons to come barging in here, so I'm afraid that I have to stop direct examination of the Recharger."
   Wier sighed. "I suspected as much. Ah, well, I still have a few years worth of leads to follow from what I know already. Still, I had hoped to crack the secrets of the mental link...nothing to do about it though. I agree, the Patrol is jealous of its secrets, and if we find too many we may find ourselves targets for the entire organization." With that, he turned back to his lunch and Simon left the room.

   Jenny hadn't said much through the entree. Sam knew she was mulling over the points of his story, looking for some kind of hole. She wasn't a jealous type, but she disliked being lied to.
   "So, how old is your 'uncle' Matt?" she finally asked.
   "Unca Max looks like he's about sixty or so. He might be older, he works out alot." A-ha, slipped past that trap!
   Jenny cocked her head to one side and sipped her wine. Putting the glass back down, she said, "Okay, I'll buy this for now. It seems improbable, but not totally. I'd like to think our relationship means enough to you that you wouldn't lie to me without a really good if this is a cover story for something else, I'll trust that the real story is something I'm really not supposed to hear. Yet. But until I see this crazy uncle and his ranch, don't think this is over." Then she smiled and patted his hand. "I don't go to work until six...wanna catch up on the last few months?"

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen