I’m in a state of not knowing what to do in the political world. I don’t know how to make a difference. Donald Trump and the Republican party have brought so many lies into the equation and I don’t know how we pull this country out of a morass where lies go unchallenged and facts and science are no longer a certainty in the equation. I worked for a program that provides education and training in the geosciences with a real foundation in meteorology. I understand the science of climate change and the implications of the denial of that science. That seems to be one of the places where lies, facts, science and politics merged into a very unhealthy whole.
So being frustrated there I decided to do something different and fall back to my other passion, science fiction and fantasy.
This is the first chapter of the next series I’ve been working on (Star’s End being the first). This series is called Night’s Angel and it’s been in a state of about 90% completion for more years than I care to count. Work got in the way of completion and I wasn’t sure, I’m still not sure, if the story is complete. The other delay was mum. In some ways this is what I consider a tough story. It went many places I wasn’t expecting and I wasn’t sure about her reading it. When she got sick I should have put it in her hands and I didn’t. I’ll regret that for the rest of my life. I haven’t touched it since she passed. My niece has inspired me to pick it up again and now I’m putting it out there in a way that is terrifying to me. So here it is
After ten, the coffee shop came alive. With finals in full swing students poured in, in search of caffeine and company. In the center of the room tables had been pulled together haphazardly. A young man sat just to the side of the center table, listening as two girls babbled excitedly at him. He made an occasional comment drawing in others around the table. Only someone watching closely would see that his eyes were constantly moving, evaluating everyone and everything around him. His attention was caught when the door opened to a lone man, older than most of those already in the cafe.
He was dressed entirely in black, though that was true of most of the young people as well. The long leather coat was of a cut and quality that marked him as unusual even in this café. Dark glasses hid the stranger’s eyes but did nothing to hide an air about him that felt even older than he looked. Jason watched with interest as the man hesitated on the threshold, he could feel the man’s eyes moving behind the dark glasses evaluating the room. They settled on the youngster who turned casually and gave the young woman to his right his full attention. Even so, he tracked the other as he moved to a vacant table at the back of the café. It was in shadows yet should not have been unoccupied in the press of bodies where every chair and more was in use.
His careful survey of the room was more obvious than Jason’s had been and it too went unnoticed. His attention focused on the table at the center and Jason was forced to engage fully in the chattering study going on around him. He continued to survey the room with more caution.
It was some time later when Jason’s eyes sought that dark corner table and saw that only the untouched cup of coffee remained. He had not seen the stranger leave and he should have. Resisting the urge to sigh he pushed to his feet. The coffee shop had emptied as those with early exams had sought their beds or a quieter place for study. The young woman beside him caught his hand.
“Are you leaving?” Her low voice and warm sultry eyes would have made most men’s hearts skip a beat and think of a reason to stay or to draw the girl home with them. The hint of a smile crossed his lips.
“I have an early morning. I’ll see you at the inquisition.” His words were light and her sparkling laughter answered him. She would not notice that he did no more than reply with that slight smile and a hand brushing her shoulder as he gently removed himself from their group. A few steps later, another man serious and concerned had taken his place. He did not turn back to see the girl pull out her cell phone and speak quickly into it.
Jason evaluated the street and the few people still out. He realized he was looking for the other, surprised that he didn’t find him. Unconsciously he shrugged turning toward home. He hadn’t lied when he told Livvie that he had an early morning. It had been a long day, in a series of long days.
He flashed back to the woman who had appeared at his door some days ago. She had been middle aged, well dressed, but with no makeup. She couldn’t hide her desperation, or her unease as she hesitated just outside his office. She was clearly hesitant. Her desperation tempered by eyes that told her he was younger than she had expected.
He waited patiently for her to decide to trust him. She wouldn’t be here if she had other choices. “My daughter”
The slight sound broke into his memory. Tired as he was he was aware enough to notice that something wasn’t as it should be. The rustling did not have the feel of rats. He turned into the alley, not really expecting to find anything. As he slipped into the alley, his brain caught up with him. It was dark, yes, but it was darker than it should have been.
Other parts of the city could easily have whole streets with only one streetlight, or even none, but here, near the university, the streets were well lit and a strong police presence ensured that criminals did not prey here often. Looking back, he realized that two, no three, of the lights near this alley were out leaving it dark and him more vulnerable. The lights would not have been out for long. Wealthy parents did not like any sense that their children were vulnerable and the city was quick to reassure their money.
He had a bare moment to realize that he was in trouble. The knife that would have killed him instead buried itself in his shoulder. Experience made him twist away, driving the knife deeper, while it tore free from his assailant’s hands. Not even considering fighting he was turning to run when a fist just missed his face. It came from a different direction. He was facing more than one attacker. Shadows blocked his escape. He was surrounded and that meant he was in serious trouble. His body had switched from flight to fight before his mind finished the calculation. His left hand tried to flex and clench and would not move. His stance shifted, adjusting.
His attackers were experienced, seeing him wounded most would attack together allowing him the possibility of escape. These assailants kept his escape blocked even as he turned away one blow and then another. Some got through, dimly he felt aching erupt against his ribs, his back. He was lightning, moving everywhere. Even with his injuries, he should have escaped. Ordinary street toughs were no competition. His training had seen to that. Here he was barely holding his own and then he wasn’t.
Two blows hit him at the same time. One slammed him in the shoulder. The searing pain was not enough to bring him down. At the same time, another blow got through his defenses hitting his knee at just the right point and he crumpled. He tried to come back to his feet, but they were ready. Kicks came from all sides. Even now, he was aware as the guards finally left their place by the entrance. While his body closed in a futile attempt to protect itself his hand was reaching toward the route of escape. He had been tricked and beaten but he had not been defeated. He would not give up.
He was only barely aware when his attackers were pulled from him. They were quickly disposed of and his bleeding, battered body was picked up carefully.
He woke suddenly, moving before memory caught up with him. His body reminded him and he could not suppress the groan. As that memory told him that he should not have survived he forced his eyes open. It took him to long to recognize that he was not alone. The stranger from the coffee shop was leaning against the far wall of his sparse apartment.
“That was monumentally stupid.” The man said into the silence.
This time need gave Jason the momentum to come to his feet. He staggered though as pain caught up with him.
“Who?” The word came out more as a gasp than the demand it was intended to be. On the way to his feet, he had reached automatically for the weapon he kept beside his bed. His hand came up empty. The stranger tapped the knife with one hand. It was on the sill to the dirty window that was the only light in the bedroom.
“You should really sit down. You’ll start the shoulder bleeding again. It was hard enough to stop it the first time and I’m pretty sure you don’t want me to take you to the hospital.”
He waited while Jason considered his options. Halfway across the room and swaying the young man let himself collapse slowly back to sit on the edge of the bed.
“That’s better. You’re good, better than I expected actually.” The man crossed his hands casually, leaving the weapon lying where it was, confident that the young man would not try for it.
“You set me up?” Jason wasn’t surprised at that, but he was surprised that he was still alive.
“Actually, no, I was watching you tonight and followed you, but I didn’t have anything to do with the attack. I was too far away to get to you before they did the damage.”
“Then I’ll ask you again, who are you and why are you following me?” Jason felt himself sway as the world grayed out around him. The other was at his side, helping him to lie down before he saw him move.
“Ramius. We will talk more after you rest.”
Jason intended to argue, but the world continued to darken and he was gone.
When he woke the second time, the texture of his apartment felt different and he knew that he was alone. Movement still woke pain, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Rolling to his feet, he scanned the room reaching out with his senses to the rest of the small apartment. There was no sign of the man, Ramius; his foggy memory came up with the name. The only indication that he had been there was the knife that lay on the windowsill. Limping gingerly, he collected the knife. Feeling immediately better, he did a more thorough examination. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been here.
Relaxing only slightly, he limped to his small bathroom, looking longingly at the tub. His aching body wanted the relief the heat would bring. He knew he couldn’t afford it, not until the mystery of Ramius was solved. The mirror told him that his face was a mottled pattern of bruises. His shoulder had been carefully bandaged and his ribs were expertly taped. Even through the wrapping the swelling in his knee was obvious.
The thick rich smell of fresh brewed coffee drifted in to him. His hand tightened on the knife and he cursed himself for letting his concentration drift. His body would not let him whirl and burst back into the other room. Instead he was forced to limp, knife held grimly in one hand. There was no one there. A large coffee was sitting innocently on the small folding table that served as his dining room. Beside it was a paper bag, with a pastry sitting on it that he knew would still be warm.
“What the?” He muttered under his breath. How had Ramius gotten into his apartment so easily without him hearing anything? He was not given a chance to ponder the question. A loud knocking made him jump. It held a familiar insistence. Reluctant to turn his back on the room’s one small window, he limped carefully to the door.
“Jase, where have you been?” The gray haired man burst through the door as soon as it opened. He was three steps into the room before he caught himself, turning he looked the young man up and down. “What happened to you this time?” His tone was still rough, but his voice was gentle.
“I’m not entirely sure, Sam.” He turned back toward the coffee, not wanting to answer the questions in Sam’s eyes. “What time is it?” He almost asked what day.
“Past ten, boyo, you have less than an hour before your first final.” Sam gave him all of the information he was looking for, still not asking the questions. “When I didn’t see you this morning I knew something was up.” His eyes traveled to the large cup on the table. It was a luxury that Jason could rarely afford.
“Damn, if I miss this test, my scholarship is toast. Doc Landers won’t take any excuses.” That was almost true. The university would force him to accept a medical excuse, but Jason had no intention of seeing a doctor.
“You don’t look in any shape to go anywhere but back to bed, if you don’t mind my saying so.” Sam’s eyes were carefully neutral. “But if you’re insisting on going to your exam. I will be driving you there myself.”
The young man nodded, limping heavily to the battered wardrobe that held his clothing. He chose one of his few long-sleeved, button down shirts; even so he stifled a groan as he tried to force his arm to move.
“I think you be needin’ my help.” Sam’s thick Irish accent grew and faded at his will. Now he let it grow thick. He took the black shirt and folded it carefully around Jason. “You be managin’ your pants by yourself?” His eyes sparkled at the other’s expression.
“I can manage.” Jason said carefully. Nothing would let him ask for help though that simple task was more difficult than he had imagined.
“Jason, are you sure that you want to do this?” Sam asked carefully. “I could take you to the hospital that would be reason enough to get a delay.” He fell silent as Jason turned, eyes blazing. Sam held up his hands as if to fend off an attack.
“Let’s go.” Jason’s first angry step almost drove him down.
“Not without this.” Sam dug around in the wardrobe coming up eventually with a cane that had been tossed inside long ago. “You need your crutches but with that arm those won’t work. You’ll be using this or we won’t be going anywhere.”
Jason’s eyes flared but he took the cane, after a couple of steps he actually began to let it carry some of his weight.
Jason swore as he tried to hurry up the stairs. Sam had broken no few traffic laws to get him here. It had helped but his yellow cab could only get so close. The campus covered several square blocks and allowed no vehicles within its pristine grounds. The building where his exam was being held was in the middle of the square. If he could have run he might have been in time, even a fast walk would have gotten him there within the mandatory five minute grace period. Other instructors might allow students to enter an exam or lecture late, but Professor Robert E. Landers put a great value on his time, and took tardiness for any reason as a personal affront.
The door to the classroom was tightly shut. The TA stationed outside to guard against interruptions looked up as Jason cleared the top of the stairs and limped down the hallway. His dark brown eyes narrowed beneath the perfect hair. The crisp white shirt, freshly ironed for the day did nothing to disguise the muscles. Like the professor he TA’d for he showed little patience. Without the money to back up his intelligence Jason was an interloper to be looked down upon, tested, and expunged if he did not meet every exacting criteria.
“Mr. McClane. You’re late.” The white sling that Sam had insisted on stood out in sharp contrast aginst the black shirt, as the bruises did against his face. “Bar room brawl?” He asked the question with less arrogance than usual, still Jason had to bite back the response he longed to make and answered in a soft voice that served well to conceal his annoyance.
“Mugging, on the way home from a study session at Pandoras.” He hated explaining himself but he needed the TA’s good will to have even a chance of getting into the exam room. “I spent the night in emergency. They told me to go home to bed, but I know how Dr. Landers feels about make up exams so I came here instead. Cab dropped me off fifteen minutes ago, but it took longer to get here than I expected, especially the stairs.” No few students complained about the stairs. The sole elevator was in the back of the building and protected by keyed entry.
“Give me a minute.” The TA stood rustling in his pocket for the keys. Jason shifted unable to hide the pain as his weight came down on his knee. “Use my chair.” The TA was unbending swiftly now. Opening the door he went in quietly flashing Jason a thumbs up. He was back in just a couple of minutes, a step behind Dr. Landers.
“Mr. McClane” the middle-aged professor was sweating heavily despite the cool building. With a movement that was predictable after a semester of fast hard lectures he reached into his pocket for the damp handkerchief he used to wipe his balding head. “I see you do have a good excuse, you may enter.”
Every head turned as they came back into the room. A second of questioning murmurs faded with one glare from Dr. Landers. The room was full, the only empty seat on the top row of the cavernous theater style lecture hall.
“Mr. Mulray.” A young man, black leather, tattoos and associated piercings glared up at them. He was one of the reasons Jason had chosen this class. “Would you be so kind as to relocate to the vacant seat? Mr. McClane does not appear up to the climb.” It also effectively separated him from the young woman he had likely been cheating off of.
One of them gave Jason a sympathetic smile as he handed him the thick packet of questions. Under the combined stare of the room he fumbled his pen out, realizing only then that his hand ached as badly as the rest of his body. Looking down he saw the black and blue swelling and faintly the visible mark of a boot. Gritting his teeth he began to write. This was one of the few places that he could focus his concentration entirely on his task and he did, looking up only when a shadow fell over his desk.
“How are you coming, Mr. McClane?” There was a different sound in Dr. Landers’ voice. It took Jason a long moment to recognize it as compassion.
“I” The pen trembled in his hand as he realized he was less than halfway through the exam.
“There’s another group coming into the room. Why don’t you come up to my office and we’ll figure out what to do.” The man gently took the pen and the exam from Jason, handing them to one of the TAs.
Not knowing what to say Jason nodded mutely and struggled to his feet. His swollen hand fumbled the cane so it clattered, dropping to the floor and rolling a few feet away. The TA who had let him into the room picked it up with a look at Dr. Landers that said I told you so.
“Why don’t you lean on me?” His strong arms were gentle as he supported Jason. If he noted that Jason resisted the contact he did not show it. The other TA pulled Jason’s backpack onto his shoulder. Still unsure what to say or do Jason allowed himself to be guided down the hallway. The elevator stood open and waiting. Jason heard himself sigh, relieved that he would not have to face the stairs.
Dr. Landers himself opened the door to his office and only when Jason was seated did he run a hand over his gleaming head. “You lied to me about one thing.”
Jason shook his head uncertain. “Sir?” The work he did, running a small detective agency that specialized in finding missing kids, had drawn him to the university a thirst for learning he did not know he had made him try for the scholarship and try for a degree.
“Easy son.” Dr. Landers held up a hand. “You didn’t go anywhere near an emergency room. If you had you would still be there.”
Jason sat there, surprised and then nodded, wishing he could smile. “You’re right, sir, and I am sorry. I don’t have any insurance and honestly, sir, I can barely make ends meet as it is. I can’t afford a hospital bill.” He hoped he was reading the situation right. It was a reason, but not the only one.
“That’s what I thought and with your scholarship riding on your grades you had no choice to show up barely able to walk much less write. We are tough, but not heartless. You’re smart enough and tough enough that I have never cut you any slack. It wouldn’t have helped your situation. Here, though I can help. It will still be hard, but I think you can get through it just fine. Now, if you will, tell me why the Soviet Socialist Republic was inherently unstable.”
Still unsure and totally bemused Jason answered the question and the ones that followed. Dr. Landers smiled and sat back as a knock followed Jason’s last answer. His TA opened the door to another one of Jason’s teachers. Dr. Landers yielded his position and the questioning began again.
The TA put a glass of water by Jason’s hand. He had time to nod a grateful thanks before he was fully engrossed. By the time the third professor was done with him he was shaking and having trouble forming coherent sentences. Dr. Landers had disappeared some time before. Dr. Shaw smiled at him before darting out the door, leaving Jason alone with Simon, the tall blond TA.
“You did well. I don’t think I could have survived questioning like that on a good day. You are now officially finished with finals and if I’m any judge you passed with your usual efficiency.
Jason’s mind was still trying to understand. His last final was Friday and that was the comprehensive for his class in Tae Kwon Do, something he knew couldn’t manage.
Simon must have read his confusion. “Dr. Landers explained the situation to Master Zao. He told us to tell you that, mugging notwithstanding, you are exceptionally competent. He also said that you could teach the class so he has no hesitation in passing you. Now, I think it is time to get you home.” Simon was walking toward the door as he said the last, just before opening it he turned. “Do you have someone to help you out till you’re healed up?”
“I’ll manage.” Jason said, knowing he sounded curt and hoping that Simon would understand and leave it. Simon smiled slightly, an enigmatic look in his eyes, one that Jason did not notice.
“I’m sure that you will.” He was about to say something more when the door opened and Ray, the other TA, came in, pushing a wheelchair. Jason’s self-control wasn’t enough to keep the snarl from his face, though he managed to pull it back fairly quickly. He’d seen his share of wheelchairs and part of him knew that he would rather crawl then use this one.
“Look man” Ray drawled in his surfer voice, “I know this sucks, but you can’t see yourself.”
The tall blond shook back his long hair. “And man, it’s this or a ride in an ambulance. The prof told us flat out that if you try to walk out of his office he’s calling one.”
Jason didn’t know why they were doing any of this for him, but his throbbing leg told him he had little choice but to accept the offered help. “Thanks.” He managed the one word with as much grace as possible. Trying to move he found his body had frozen on him. The two TAs exchanged looks and lifted him, gently and efficiently transferring him to the wheelchair.
Jason was startled; the campus was almost deserted, long shadows hanging from the buildings. He had no idea it was so late. The few people they passed barely gave them a second look, hurrying by with backpacks slung over one shoulder, heads bent against the chilling wind that had sprung up.
“Jase.” The name took a moment to register. Then he recognized the voice as the stocky, white haired man hurried up to them. He stopped short of them eyeing the TAs warily. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” The questions he didn’t ask rode the air.
“Sir.” Simon stepped forward, holding out a hand. “I’m Simon, teaching assistant for Dr. Landers. We were just taking Jason home. If you are a friend of his…” He trailed off uncertainly.
“I came to get him.” Sam said, letting the Irish drawl deepen. “My cab is just over this way.”
Simon waited until he saw Jason’s nod of agreement before following the cabby. His gray hair stood out among the few youngsters that hurried past him.
“Take care” Simon said to Jason as he slammed the door shut. Jason could manage nothing more than nod his thanks. He let his head fall back onto the patched leather seat, eyes closing against his will.