The capital city of Khusra, North Africa
Dillon adjusted his backpack more comfortably on his shoulders as he walked along the busy, extra wide sidewalk. The location of the hotel he wanted was in what was popularly known as Downtown Center. Renowned for its many business and residential skyscrapers of innovative design and construction, its parks and its shopping malls, Downtown Center represented what the Khusra of the 21st Century was all about. A thriving, vibrant country, this Khusra. Full of tradition and power that made it one of the strongest and most prosperous of North African nations for thousands of years. While the backbone of the country’s economy was the export of oil and natural gas, Khusra was rapidly embracing technological research and development as well as reviving it’s once thriving tourism industry.
Khusra had once been a major tourist destination but that had been before Omoro had taken the throne. Omoro had severely limited tourism and made deals with several major terrorist organizations, turning Khusra from a country known and respected as an ally to its neighboring countries into an active threat. If Dillon had been wearing a hat when receiving the news Omoro was no longer in power in Khusra he’d have tossed it in the air with a whoop and a holler. The country would be far better off without him. Dillon liked Khusra. He liked the people, the energy, the food, the culture. He looked forward to spending a few days here and getting reacquainted with the country.
The Amber International derived its name from the unusual amber color of the building itself, a color enhanced at night by a special lighting system that intensified the color of the structure, causing the entire building to glow as if it were made of amber. Dillon entered the sparkling bright lobby which looked large enough to comfortably park airplanes in. He waved away the offer from a porter to help him with his backpack as he walked to the registration desk. The extraordinarily pretty young girl behind the counter smiled at him and said in a voice so bubbly and cheerful it was almost unnerving, “Good morning, sir!”
“Good morning to you as well,” Dillon replied, setting down his backpack and reaching for his wallet. “I’d like a suite, please.”
“I’ll be happy to accommodate you, sir. Right after your meeting.”
Dillon blinked. “Meeting? What meeting?”
As if by magic, men appeared on either side of him. Four big men. Four big unsmiling men in black suits. Blindingly white shirts with ties the color of carbon black. Sunglasses so dark it was hard to believe they could see out of them. The universal uniform of security men the world over. Dillon sighed. “Yes, I do believe I have a meeting with these gentlemen. Would you be good enough to look after my luggage?”
“But of course, sir! Happy to be of service!”
Dillon nodded at the four men. “Gentlemen, I am at your disposal.”
They escorted him efficiently and quietly to the security office. Dillon had a suspicion as to who wanted to see him. He wasn’t particularly worried. More curious than anything else, actually. If someone wanted him dead, they’d have tried to kill him as soon as he left the American Embassy. And these men hadn’t bothered to search him for weapons which if they knew him then they knew he was armed. No, this was someone who actually only wanted to talk.
A man waited for him inside the security office. Blocky, beefy, with an amiable, friendly face and even more friendly smile. He waved to a chair. “Please, sit down, sit down. Make yourself comfortable. I will not keep you long.” He now waved to the four men. “Wait outside.”
Once the four men had left, the smiling man leaned forward, rubbing his palms together. “Let us get down to business, shall we? I am Monde Meiceli, Director of Internal Security and Intelligence.”
“The Khusran secret police, you mean.” Dillon crossed his legs, interlaced his fingers behind his head to support it as he leaned back slightly.
Monde Meiceli blinked in honest surprise. “Not at all. Once my brother was removed from the throne, one of the first things we did was to dismantle his secret police and reorganize the legitimate police department and my office.”
“And who are we?”
“Ah, I should have made it plain. We are the Mwinyimkuu. My family is still in control of Khusra. It was the family who made the decision to rise up against Omoro. It was the second eldest brother Kunimu himself who delivered the death blow. A tragedy to be sure. But it was one that had to be done.”
“You don’t sound very regretful at having a hand in killing your own brother.”
“Between the two of us-“ and here Monde lowered his voice and leaned forward even more as if sharing a bawdy joke with Dillon. “-nobody in the family liked Omoro much anyway. Even as a child he was obnoxious and disagreeable. Papa said frequently that he believed one of the nannies must have dropped Omoro on his head twice or thrice. Mama said many times that yes, she loved Omoro as she did all of her children but she did not like him.” Monde shrugged. “He never should have been king.” Monde leaned back and again rubbed his palms together vigorously as if washing his hands of that subject. “But let’s get back to a more important subject. You.”
“I suppose you want me out of Khusra before sundown?”
“On the contrary. You are welcome to stay in Khusra as long as you like. My sole purpose here is to inform you that as far as my brother King Kunimu is concerned the slate between you and Khusra is clean.”
Dillon raised one of his severe eyebrows in honest surprise. “Really? What about the whole thing with me stealing The Horns of Bren?”
“Did you not hear? Our sacred artifact was recovered by my youngest brother, Farega. Stole it right out of the Natural History Museum in London.” Monde chuckled. “It was quite the exploit. If you ever meet Farega you must get him to tell you all about it. He fancies himself quite the swashbuckling adventurer, in fact. He idolizes a grand uncle of ours who achieved some notoriety adventuring around the world back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.”
“What about your train station? I’m pretty sure you know I was involved in that.”
“I personally had a long and informative conversation with John Velvet who completely and comprehensively explained your part in that whole debacle and I am satisfied that you were not responsible.”
Dillon frowned slightly and sat forward. “So that’s it? All you wanted to do was to tell me that all has been forgotten? Just like that?”
“My brother Kunimu wishes to restore the reputation of Khusra as a fair and honest nation that seeks nothing more than to be once again respected and honored as it once was by the other nations of the world. The proud reputation of Khusra was severely tarnished by Omoro’s greed and paranoia. To this end, Kunimu has granted pardons to thousands of political prisoners and released them from our jails. He has also rescinded all bounties placed on the heads of imagined enemies of Khusra. He has either slain or extradited the terrorist elements infecting our country. Knowing that you were in the country, I took it upon myself to personally meet with you and assure you that you can enjoy your stay in Khusra with no worry or concern. As I said, you have the word of my brother that the slate is wiped clean. Our artifact is once more in our museum where it rightfully belongs and we do owe you a great debt of thanks for seeing that the Princess Salena arrived here safely.” Monde leaned forward, eyes and voice suddenly serious. “But let me make something clear. And this comes from me, not my brother. Whatever you choose to write on that slate from here on out is entirely up to you. You understand?”
Dillon nodded. “I want no trouble with you or King Kunimu, sir. And I intend to make none while I am here. I intend to rest and relax for a few days and enjoy myself in your beautiful country. That’s all.”
“Excellent. Then I shall let you complete your registration and leave you to your enjoyment. The staff at the hotel has been instructed to extend to you every courtesy as a guest of His Majesty. Your money is no good in the Amber International. And here is my card.” Monde stood up, removed a business card from his jacket pocket and gave it to Dillon. “If there is anything you require, please feel free to make use of that number. I can be reached there at any time of the day or night.”
Dillon stood up as well, accepted the card. “Thank you. I would assume you would appreciate me giving you a call when I leave Khusra?”
“That would be most satisfactory, sir.”
They shook hands and Dillon left the security office. Monde’s four men stood out in the hall but did not follow Dillon back to the registration desk. The same young was still there and a porter had Dillon’s backpack on his own back, waiting patiently with a smile.
“And how was your meeting, sir?” the young girl asked with that same near manic cheerfulness. Dillon looked at her name tag.
“It went very well, Adia. Very well, indeed. Thank you for asking. What rooms to you have available?”
“It’s all been arraigned, sir. Mr. Meiceli has instructed us to give you one of the Diplomatic Suites.”
“Oh, he did, did he?”
“You’ll find it supremely adequate for whatever your needs may be while you honor us with your presence. It features a pre-function lounge, three bedrooms, a private bar and a dining room that can accommodate eight.”
“That sounds lovely. I’m sure I will be quite comfortable there.” Dillon was sure that the room was bugged in every and any way conceivable but he didn’t mind. True to his word he wasn’t planning to do anything but relax and sightsee a bit. A week of just hanging out would be just the thing he needed to wind down after the week he’d just had.
“Can you send your tailor up to my suite? I’d like to purchase some suits and be fitted.”
“But of course, sir. If you’ll just give me a minute to get someone to relieve me here, I’ll fetch him myself and we’ll both accompany you up to your suite.”
Dillon nodded and grinned. I think I’m gonna like it here
Dillon paused outside the main entrance of the hotel to light a Vegas Robaina cigar. He admired himself in the reflection of the glass doors as he did so. He had to give the hotel’s tailor credit. The Forrester tux fitted him as well as tuxedoes he’d owned for years. Considering the man had such a short amount of time to alter the tux, it was nothing short of amazing. Dillon took out his cellphone to make a note that he should buy a few more suits and have the tailor alter them before he left Khusra.
One of the porters walked up to him. “Everything okay, sir?”
“Yes, yes,” Dillon put away his phone and took the cigar out of his mouth. “Where’s a good place to go get a good dinner and a show?”
“We’ve got fine entertainment and restaurants right here in the Amber International, sir.”
“I’m sure you do and I intend to sample them as I’ll be here for a week at least. But for tonight I’d like to get out a bit.” Dillon passed over a folded bill. “Someplace that sings and swings, know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir…I do believe I do. Let me get you a cab and instruct him to take you on over to The Sandstone. I think it’ll be just what you’re looking for.” The porter whistled up a cab and soon Dillon was inside and the driver eased the vehicle into the moderately heavy traffic. Turned out that The Sandstone was only a ten minute drive away. Dillon would have actually preferred to walk if he had known where it was. But like most hotels, the porter and the taxi drivers had an agreement to work together so that everybody could make a little money. Dillon didn’t begrudge them. He paid the driver, gave him a reasonable tip and stood outside the nightclub/restaurant, smoking his cigar for a bit before he went on in.
A limosene pulled up to the curb and Dillon moved aside so he wouldn’t be in the way of the three obviously skittish bodyguards that emerged from the limo as if ready to battle to the death. Dillon had to grin a little. Young, eager. They needed a few more years of seasoning. They were drawing unnecessary attention to themselves with their exaggerated looking about and grimacing at pedestrians who gave them a “what the hell is wrong with you?” look back.
Apparently satisfied with the street, one of them opened the passenger door and helped out the woman he and his partners were escorting. Dillon got a good look at her. A very good look. And his eyes opened as wide as they possibly could. The cigar fell out of his mouth, landing on the pavement between his feet, sparks spraying. A couple of pedestrians actually chuckled at his expression and one could not be blamed for Dillon at that moment did indeed look quite comical.
But he felt anything but funny at that moment. There were so many emotions churning inside of him that he had to start doing deep breathing exercises to get his madly beating heart under control.
The woman walked into the nightclub with the poise and regal bearing of a queen. Her floor length, one-shoulder ebony evening dress glittered gloriously as if a million stars were caught inside of it. It had been five years since he’d seen her but to Dillon’s eyes she looked as exotic and as gorgeous as the last time he’d seen her.
She did not look to the right or the left and so did not see Dillon. She did not just walk. She strode as if the red carpet underneath her four inch Zanotti heels was woven from gold thread and not cloth.
Dillon continued to gawp in astonishment, trying to calm down his pounding heart. He couldn’t breathe. His vision dimmed. With a visible effort he got himself under control and went on inside the nightclub. He saw the woman with her three bodyguards walking rapidly through the well-lighted restaurant. Dillon corralled the maître d’ and pressed some bills in his hand. “Who’s that woman who just walked in?”
The maître d’ smiled knowingly and nodded his head in approval. “You have a good eye, sir. The lady is extraordinarily beautiful, is she not?”
“Who is she?”
“Miss Sathyra Folasade, sir.”
Dillon pressed more bills in his hand. “Is she from Tosegio?”
“I have no way of knowing the young lady’s country of origin, sir. Do you know her?”
“I don’t know,” Dillon said slowly. Folasade was a Tosegian name but it wasn’t this woman’s family name. Obviously she was traveling under an alias. But why? Dillon turned back to the smiling maître d’ “How is it that you know her name?”
“She came in with the gentleman who is our headline performer in our Starpool Theater.” The maître d’ turned away to indicate a holographic display window showing the headline performer. The maître d’ turned back around to face Dillon and took a step back away from him in sudden surprise. And with good reason. Dillon’s eyes were no longer their usual copper color, sparkling like freshly minted American pennies. They had darkened into a moody, molten gold that radiated pure rage. Dillon pointed a shaking finger at the image. “Him. You mean to say that…that…that…HE is your headline performer?”
“Yes, sir.” The maître d’s voice came out in a squeak.
“And she’s with HIM?” Dillon’s voice held nothing but implied murder.
“Of course I’m not one to gossip, sir…but to my eye they seem most enamored of each other.”
“We’ll see about that. Is he playing here now?”
“His first show of the evening is about to start, sir.”
Dillon stalked away. Took five steps. Stopped. He turned his head, fixing his hot molten eyes on the maître d’. “You’re going to get the notion that you should call Miss Folasade and tell her there’s a man here looking for her. My strong advice is that you don’t.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Dillon again turned away and made his way through the restaurant and down a long hallway to a lounge area. From there, one doorway led to the dance floor where a DJ spun the latest electronic dance music. The other door led to The Starpool Theater. Dillon went on in. He was surprised at how large the theater was. Easily able to accommodate a thousand patrons, it boasted vaulted ceilings and plush red leather booths. An usher attempted to lead Dillon to a table near the stage but Dillon spied Sathyra sitting right up front. He wanted to remain unseen and so with the casual tip pressed into the usher’s hand, Dillon obtained a seat in the back.
“What would you like to drink, sir?”
“Bring me a Vesper. And make it a double. And bring me one every fifteen minutes.” Dillon passed over another bill.
The usher’s smile increased as he examined the bill’s denomination. “Very good, sir.”
The stage’s velvet curtains were completely closed but the concert band were already on stage as they could clearly be heard tuning up their instruments. A miniskirted hostess brought Dillon’s drink. He downed it in one gulp and handed it back to the girl. “Another.” His eyes never left Sathyra.
Ever since she had flown away with Timothy “Awesome” Times, leaving Dillon on the island of Tosegio to be chased by her bodyguards, Dillon had made an effort from time to time to find her. But Sathyra proved to be highly elusive. He’d get a report of her being in Singapore or Sydney or wherever but by the time he got there, she was gone. And usually there was a rich man left behind both broken hearted and considerably less richer. Sathyra was obviously enjoying being out in the world and not the pampered princess she had been. On Tosegio, Sathyra had virtually been a prisoner, unable to even take a walk in the palace gardens without an extensive entourage.
Dillon had wanted to take her away from all that and he had been thisclose to proposing marriage to Sathyra. But then everything had sort of went to hell and ended up with her flying away with Awesome Times while Dillon spent the rest of the afternoon trying his best not to get killed.
The lights dimmed and applause rippled around the theater. The curtain opened. The stage was absolutely black. A commanding male voice emanated from the speakers: “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us tonight here at the world famous Starpool Theater here in The Sandstone, the premier club for entertainment, dining and dancing in Mahaiso. For your safety we ask you to please take note of the clearly marked exits at the front and at the rear of the theater. If there is an emergency, please follow the directions of our staff. They have been trained to know exactly what to do in multiple emergency situations and your safety will be their primary concern. At this time we also ask that you silence your cell phones. We also would like to remind you that audio and visual recording of this performance is prohibited by law. Thank you for your kind co-operation.”
The unseen announcer paused for a few heartbeats. And then;
“And now, The Starpool Theater is proud to present our feature performer.”
And here a spotlight came on to illuminate a Music Man StingRay bass guitar on a stand over on the left side of the stage.
“With his brothers he has become renowned as one of the world’s premier rock guitarists.”
Another spotlight came on to illuminate another bass guitar. This one a Fender Precision Bass likewise on a stand on the right side of the stage.
“Nominated for multiple Grammy, Billboard and American Music awards for his first solo album, ‘The True Blue Chariot’…ladies and gentlemen it is our honor to introduce to you, the one…the only…the spectacular lead guitarist of one of the music industry’s truly great rock band legends, The Gantlet Brothers…ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and make some noise for SLY GANTLET!”