A Call To Arms – Snippet 01
The buildings at the intersection of Fourteenth and Castillon were, in clockwise order, a cafÃ©, a small-appliance repair center, a breakfast/coffee shop, and a specialty food mart. All were still closed at seven in the morning, though the breakfast shop was getting ready to open. The lack of traffic was probably why Khetha’s people had chosen this particular place and time.
There were good reasons, as well as ominous ones, why the Supreme Chosen One might not want witnesses to the rendezvous. Fortunately, Llyn had reasons of his own for going along with that strategy.
He’d had a private bet with himself that, despite Pinstripe’s statement that he would be picked up, that he might instead be hustled into one of the buildings on or near the corner. Zinc-plate dictators like Khetha liked to think they were being clever.
But in this case, security concerns apparently outweighed the urge to impress the visitor with the Supreme Chosen One’s cunning. The ground car that pulled up to Llyn’s side as he reached the corner was large, heavy-looking, and had the traditional darkened windows of such errands. The door opened as it rolled to a halt, and a large figure in the shadows beckoned to him.
Llyn climbed in. The inviting hand changed position, turning palm-upwards in silent command. In equally silent compliance, Llyn handed over his uni-link, stood still for the quick weapons wanding, then reached behind him and pulled the door closed.
They were rolling again almost before door was completely shut. “Nice vehicle,” Llyn commented, peering across the darkened interior. Aside from the large man sitting beside him, there was only one other person in the rear part of the car, a thin man occupying a drop-down jump seat across from the two of them. An opaque barrier blocked the view of the driver and whoever else might be in the front. “I appreciate not having to go with the bag-over-the-head routine.”
One of Khetha’s mid-level associates would probably have made some polite but neutral comment. A higher-level associate might have tried a gentle probe, a casual question as to whether Llyn did this sort of thing often. Simple, low-level guards would say nothing.
Llyn’s companions said nothing.
Which was as Llyn had expected. A clever despot, as opposed to one who merely though himself clever, might have sent someone to sound out the mysterious visitor during the drive. That could have been inconvenient, on a number of different levels. Not only might a competent intermediary have smelled the proverbial rat before Llyn ever got to Khetha himself, but it might also have left a potentially embarrassing witness out of easy reach. But Llyn’s warning about Khetha letting only the most trusted people in on this had apparently trumped the dictator’s good sense. It appeared he had alerted only his most trusted henchmen to the meeting.
The probable bonus was that there was now a good chance he’d alerted all of his trusted subordinates. That would put them all in one handy spot when the time came. It was so convenient to deal with someone predictable.
Of course, if Khetha brought his closest cronies he would also have a of number of armed and dangerous men in attendance. But that, too, was perfectly fine with Llyn. He’d had a week to read everything the Cascan archives had on Canaanites in general and Khetha in particular, and he had a pretty fair feel for how this meeting would be staged and formatted.
The first tick on that mental checklist was Khetha’s eagerness overcoming caution and cleverness, embodied in the fact that the drive turned out to be short. Barely fifteen minutes after leaving the rendezvous the car pulled to a stop. The man across from Llyn opened the door and stepped out, glanced around, then motioned the passenger to join him. Surreptitiously crunching the outer coating on the pill he’d tucked into his cheek before leaving his hotel, Llyn did so.
He found himself in a tunnel running from the street to what was probably an underground parking garage. He was still looking around when the other man from the back seat exited and closed the door, and the car took a sharp left into a curved connecting tunnel, presumably heading back to the street.
The thin man got a grip on Llyn’s arm and headed down the tunnel, walking briskly toward an unmarked door halfway down to the left. Llyn followed in silence, the third man bringing up the rear. As they approached the door it opened, and Pinstripe and Blue Shirt, Llyn’s tails from the previous day, stepped out into the tunnel. Pinstripe gave the area a quick scan as the newcomers approached, then gestured them inside. Beyond the door was a short hallway leading to another door, this one clearly heavily armored.
The outer door behind Llyn closed with a solid-sounding click. Pinstripe brushed past them to the big door, with Blue Shirt now playing rearguard, and pulled it open.
Beyond the door was a small room, metal-walled and probably soundproof, with a long table in the center. At the far end of the table sat a man in a muted military tunic with rows of medals plastered across his chest: General Amador Khetha, the Supreme Chosen One himself. Just around the corner of the table to the general’s right was a second man, considerably more plump, dressed in casual civilian garb. Both were watching Llyn closely as he and his escort stepped into the room. Standing behind Khetha were a pair of large men, one on either side, their hands folded loosely in front of them in standard bodyguard stance. They were watching Llyn even more closely and suspiciously than the general. A third chair waited at the near end of the table, clearly intended for Llyn.
On the far left side of the room was a short table holding a steaming samovar and a row of mugs.
Llyn suppressed a smile. Tick number two on his list. The Canaanites had a whole spectrum of hospitality rituals, which varied according to the social and economic status of the two sides of a meeting. The samovar-and-tea setup was reserved for first meetings between strangers who might be expected to become associates in business or politics. The subtle nuances would be lost on someone who wasn’t intimately familiar with Canaanite etiquette, but all indications were that Khetha had clung to the customs of home with the deathgrip of an involuntary expatriate. Llyn had guessed that Khetha would follow that pattern, even though the dictator would have no way of knowing whether or not his guest understood all of the implications.
Or perhaps this was a test, something Khetha had deliberately set up to see just how thoroughly Llyn had researched his hoped-for associate and Canaanite culture.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. There were other approaches Khetha could have taken, and Llyn had plans to cover each of them. But the samovar gambit would certainly be the easiest to play off of.
It was always so gratifying when the fish baited his own hook.
Up to now, Khetha and his men had had most of the initiative. Time to even things up a bit. “Good morning, General Khetha,” Llyn said briskly as he stepped to the table and sat down. The pill had started to kick in, and he could feel his heart pounding almost painfully in his chest. “I appreciate you seeing me on such short notice.” He cocked his head. “I’m sorry. Should I be addressing you as ‘Your Worship’?”
The plump man bristled. But Khetha merely smiled. “‘General’ will do,” he said. There was movement to Llyn’s right and left as his two companions from the car took up guard positions to his sides. From behind him came more sound of movement, and reflected from the wall behind Khetha he caught a fuzzy glimpse of Pinstripe shoving the door closed, leaving him and Blue Shirt outside in the corridor. “Please don’t assume my presence here means I necessarily have any interest in doing business with you,” Khetha continued. “You’re here simply because you intrigue me.” A faint, unpleasant smile touched the corners of his lips. “You had best hope you continue to do so. Let’s start with your name.”
“I’m afraid that would mean nothing to you,” Llyn said. “More well-known, at least in the upper-level circles where the true decisions of the galaxy are made, is the name Pointer.”
The man at Khetha’s side snorted. “I believe that’s a breed of dog.”
“Correct,” Llyn said, inclining his head to the other. “And be assured that I’ll be as doggedly persistent in my service to you as my four-legged namesake.” He shifted his attention back to Khetha. “But first things first.” He reached into his jacket.
And froze, warned by the sudden movement at the corner of his eye. Carefully, leaving his hand where it was, he looked at the guard to his left.
The man had brushed back the right-hand flap of his jacket and was gripping the butt of a side-holstered pistol. A Paxlane 405 10mm caseless, Llyn’s brain automatically identified it.