The final spotlight came on right in the middle of the stage, illuminating Sly Gantlet in radiant white light that glittered off the wide studded leather belt and large square pure silver belt buckle with the stylized, embossed “G”. With his motorcycle boots, leather pants and Gantlet Brothers tank top he looked more like a biker who had just spent a weekend in Tijuana than a world famous musician. But then again, with his extraordinary musculature, unruly mane of blond hair and beard stubble he also looked as if he could have been a Viking warrior or savage barbarian right out of Robert E. Howard dropped into the modern age. But when he started playing the first notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” there was no doubt that he knew his way around a guitar.
And for the next ninety minutes Sly Gantlet showed that he more than lived up to his reputation. Those other guitars weren’t on the stage just for show as he switched them up depending on what he was playing and on his mood. He only stopped occasionally between numbers to wipe the sweat from his face and take a swig of beer from a bottle on a stool. As soon as he finished one, a fresh frosty one took its place. Dillon reflected that Sly Gantlet must have had a bladder the size of a watermelon because not once did he take a break through what proved to be a really amazing set.
After “Start Me Up” he went right into a selection of songs from his solo album. “Woody & George” sounded to Dillon as if it got its inspiration from 1960’s hipster jazz while the song that followed it, “What It Do” was pure straight up and down James Brown funk mixed in with George Clinton. Sly switched up guitars and did a reflective and somber nine minute version of “Triangle” which sounded to Dillon as if it were heavily influenced by classical music.
Of course Sly couldn’t go without doing some of the more famous Gantlet Brothers hard rock/heavy metal songs that featured his guitar work and so he played “Adventure In Africa” “Don’t Behave Any Different Than You Did The Week Before” and “The Gun of The Duke.”
Despite himself, Dillon found himself enjoying the show. Sly Gantlet knew how to work a stage and how to play an audience as well as he played his guitars. He didn’t just walk back and forth across the stage. He strutted. He bopped. He glided. He moved and grooved. He made a connection between himself and his audience with his eyes and his killer smile and his music which got the entire audience up out of their seats to boogie.
Sly then went with a solo rendition of “Danny Boy.” Played with such depth of feeling Dillon would never have believed Sly Gantlet possessed The audience fell silent while Sly played, eyes half closed as his fingers moved with not only precision but genuine emotion as well. The concert band rejoined him for his final two numbers; “Bang A Gong” and Billy Ocean’s “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going” where he was joined by a surprise guest artist: Billy Ocean himself, still looking and sounding as great as when he had first recorded the song.
When it was over, the audience went nuts. There was no other way to describe it. They stood on their feet, cheering and clapping and stomping their feet while yelling for more. Sly Gantlet took off his soaking wet tank top and threw it into into crowd, standing there in the light with sweat glistening on his biceps, broad chest and abs that looked as if they were chiseled.
Dillon ground his teeth. He downed his twelfth Vesper of the night and plotted foul murder. Yes. Yes. Sweet sweet murder would be most satisfying right about now.
He watched as Sly Gantlet left the stage to the pandemonium of cheers and applause. Sathyra got up from her table and walked around the stage to a door that Dillon presumed led to the backstage. He followed, golden eyes burning with the madness of jealousy.
A bodyguard poorly disguised as an usher stood at the door. He allowed Sathyra and her escorts to go on in and closed it after them. He turned to give Dillon the once over with an expert eye and didn’t like what he saw. One hand went up to block Dillon’s advance while the other went to his hip and the walkie-talkie clipped there to call for backup. “Sorry, sir. Nobody allowed backstage-“ Dillon planted a solid right fist into the man’s stomach. The bodyguard doubled over, temporarily paralyzed by being hit in his solar plexus with exactly the right amount of force to disable him. In two or three minutes he’d be fine. Dillon helped him to sit in a chair. The bodyguard stayed where he was, arms wrapped around his abdomen, mouth working wildly as he struggled to draw in air.
Dillon looked around to confirm that no one was paying attention. The audience was too involved in exiting the theater and their milling bodies obscured the sight of the waiters and waitresses cleaning up the tables and booths. Dillon judged he had a couple of minutes before the alarm was raised.
He went through the door, closed it. He gripped the knob and with a surge of strength, cleanly snapped off the knob. He turned back around to face the corridor, dropping the knob. As with most backstages after a show, it was loud and boisterous. Dillon eased his way through the men and women high-fiving, kissing each other and backslapping. He heard bottles of champagne being popped. And then, at the very far end of the corridor he saw Sathyra in a heated embrace with Sly Gantlet. And they were kissing as if this was the wedding night they’d been waiting a year to consummate.
For a few seconds Dillon thought his eyeballs were going to explode from the pressure he felt building up in his head. If he’d been asked what his name was at that moment he couldn’t have answered since his brain had gone totally into shutdown.
Thoughts of murder returned. But now these were thoughts of murdering them both. Yes. Yes. A deranged smile slowly spread across Dillon’s face as he continued to squeeze between bodies. Shoot them both in the head. No. No. That wouldn’t be satisfying enough. Strangle them both with his hands. Yeah, that was the ticket.
Sly Gantlet and Sathyra broke their kiss. He took a few seconds to slip into a fresh T-shirt and shrug into a leather vest. Then the two of them headed toward an exit. One of Sly’s huge arms went up to push the door open and they stepped outside. Dillon left off all pretense of trying to be cool and shoved aside the last few celebratory bodies standing in his way. He ran to the door, slammed into it with his shoulder. It flew open with a BOOM! as it hit the wall. “Gantlet!” Dillon yelled.
Sly turned around, his eyes honestly surprised. It took him about three seconds to recognize Dillon. “You!”
By now, Sathyra had also recognized Dillon and she likewise blurted out; “You!”
“Damn right it’s you! I mean me! ME!” Dillon pointed a shaking finger at Sly while his blazing eyes locked on Sathyra’s startled ones. “And you’re going to explain to me what you’re doing here with…with…with…HIM!”
Before anybody could explain anything, black clad forms emerged from the shadows and leaped down on them from the rooftops, cloaks flapping and billowing like ebony wings.
Sly shoved Sathyra toward a tour bus parked nearby with the doors open. “Get in the bus, baby!” He swung a fist and connected with one of the black clad attackers. That one flew backwards as if shot out of a cannon. Sly Gantlet had a lot of muscle to put behind a punch and when he did, the target of that punch knew he’d been hit.
“Don’t you ‘baby’ her!” Dillon’s long right leg went out in a side kick to take out another one of the attackers. From head to toe they were dressed in black and their masks had no eye or mouth holes. Their capes snaked out like whips to wrap around arms and legs, yanking Dillon and Sly off balance.
Sathyra’s bodyguards were no match for these lightning fast ebony imps and they went down in seconds. Two of the attackers scooped up Sathyra, one seizing her by the legs, the other by the shoulders. Holding her over their heads like a trophy they ran toward the street. The rest of their crew scuttled up the sides of the buildings to the rooftops as if they were huge spiders.
“Sathyra! I’m comin’, baby!” Sly scrambled to his feet and took off in pursuit.
“I told you to stop calling her ‘baby’!” Dillon howled as he too got to his feet and ran after Sly.
A man stepped into their view. A big man. With skin so black it actually was blue. A large gold hoop earring flashed in one ear and when he smiled Dillon and Sly could see his gold teeth twinkling. He hefted something on his shoulder that he pointed at them.
“Oh, shit! Look out!” Dillon yelled, pushing Sly to the left side even as he dived to the right.
Gold Teeth fired the Russian made RPG-22. The high explosive warhead whooshed between the two men to impact with the front of the tour bus. The ground shook as the bus went up in a gushing fireball of orange and red. Hot air washed over Dillon and Sly as they watched the bus crash over onto it’s right side, wreathed in flames.
The two of them got to their feet. It was too late. Gold Teeth was gone. The black clad attackers were gone. And Sathyra was gone.
Dillon turned back around to look at the blazing tour bus. “Sure hope you got insurance,” he said, brushing dirt from the sleeves and pant legs of his tux.
“Ah, I rented it while I was here. I’m just glad nobody was inside when…HEY!” Sly grabbed Dillon by the arm and yanked him around so that they were face to face. “What the hell are you doing here in Khusra?”
Dillon showed him a grin that was more of a snarl, really. “Don’t you know I’m one of your groupies? I follow you around, going to all your shows, hoping against hope that one night you’ll notice me enough to invite me backstage.”
Sly walloped Dillon with a right cross. “Man, I ain’t in the mood for your smartass mouth! What kind of crazy you done brought with you? Who were those guys? Why are they after you? Why did they take my woman?”
Dillon felt gingerly of his jaw before answering. Good thing Sly had pulled his punch or he might not have a jaw to feel. “First of all, what do you mean, your woman? And those guys had to be after you, not me!” Hearing police sirens, Dillon gestured toward the street. “Cops coming. Let’s get over to my hotel room and swap stories there. Unless you want to hang around and explain that.” He jerked his head at the burning bus.
Sly shook his head in a negative. “Let’s go. And man, you better have one hell of a good story to explain all this or I’m gonna open up a Costco size can of whoop ass on you.”
Sly Gantlet looked around the suite and nodded in approval. “Not bad. I’ve been in better but I suppose this is all you could afford.”
“Well, I don’t make a million bucks a night jumping around on a stage like a frog on a hot skillet like some people I could name. What’s your poison?” Dillon walked over and behind the bar, pulled out a couple of glasses.
“Make mine Wild Turkey.” Sly said, taking off his vest and throwing it onto the bar. Dillon dug into a sterling silver Willoughby ice bucket, dropped a couple of ice spheres into each glass. He poured a splash of Wild Turkey Rare Breed into one, shoved it toward Sly.
Sly looked at it as if were a dead rat. He pointed at the glass. “What the hell is this?” he demanded.
Dillon frowned. “It’s a drink. It’s what you asked for.”
Sly snorted. He reached over, took the bottle from Dillon and poured the entire contents into the ice bucket. He gave the bottle back to Dillon. Sly picked up the ice bucket, lifted it to his lips and didn’t put it back down on the bar until a full forty-five seconds had passed. He grinned at Dillon, wiped his lips dry and said with tremendous satisfaction, “Now that’s a drink.” He sat down on a bar stool watching in smug amusement while Dillon poured himself a shot of Demerara rum in his glass.
“I suppose offering you a chaser would be a waste of time,” Dillon mumbled, sipping his own drink. “So we might as well get down to business.”
“You are absolutely the last human being I expected to run into here in Khusra,” Sly said. “ Gotta admit that after that night at La Esca I did some homework on you. You got a mad reputation, homes.”
“And speaking of that night you still owe me a hundred G’s. Now you give. What the hell are you doing in Khusra, Gantlet? And with Princess Sathyra?”
“Waitamminit…you mean she really is a princess? I though Velvet was just having a good one at my expense.”
“Velvet? John Velvet? You’ve seen him?”
Sly nodded. “He gave me my visa to work here in Khusra himself. He acted like he recognized Sathyra’s name and asked her was she the princess of Tosegio. Guess he wasn’t just yanking my chain after all. How do you know her?”
“I met her during a job on Tosegio. Awesome Times and I were hired by the Japanese Secret Service to steal some gehooka from this really hardcore nutcase named Baron Potzdorf. You heard of Awesome Times?”
“Timothy Times, yeah, I know him by rep. Go on.”
“Long story short, the job went bad-“
“Bad enough that Awesome flew away with the gehooka and Sathyra and left me to fend for myself with Sathyra’s bodyguards hunting me down. I just barely got away.”
“Ouch.” Sly took another swig from the ice bucket. “From the way you talk about her it occurs to me that you and Sathyra got close during this job.”
“I was going to ask her to marry me, you blockhead.”
“Oh. So what was the deal with Times all about?”
“She claimed she fell in love with him.”
“With Awesome Times? She left you for him? Now that really hurts. Bad enough I got your sloppy seconds but Timothy Times as well?” Sly shook his head.
“Your turn. How’d you meet her?”
Sly shrugged, took another swallow from the bucket before talking. “Met her while my brothers and I were doing a show in London. She was at a party. We met. We hit it off and one thing led to another. That was about six months ago. She never told me she was a princess. Said she was from Tosegio, alright. But told me her family name was Folasade and her folks had made their money from video game designing.”
“But you still haven’t said how the two of you would up here in Khusra.”
Sly shrugged. “I had some time off. I was spending it writing songs for my second solo album, talking to some people I wanted to work with me on. All of a sudden, Sathyra had it in her head she wanted to visit Khusra. Said she’d never been here before and heard that it was the new place to see and be seen since the revolution. So I said, sure, why not? I asked our group’s manager to find me a gig here. Figured that if I was going to come here, why not make it a working vacation?”
“And it didn’t seem funny to you that Sathyra would all of a sudden just get it into her head to come over to Khusra? A country that seems to have caught the same overthrow fever the rest of this region has?”
“It does now. But I talked to a few people I trust, including John Velvet and they said Khusra was okay. I figured that Velvet okayed me to come over here because if anything went down, he’d tap me for the wetwork.”
Dillon fixed himself another drink. “What would you say if I told you that I tried to find Sathyra once I got some free time and found out she’s been crisscrossing the world, jumping from one sugar daddy to another? She’s left at least a dozen men pining away for her. Not to mention leaving their wallets considerably leaner for having known her. Awesome told me that a few months after they hooked up she left him for some diplomat.”
Sly shrugged. “Hey, things happen, man. Sometimes women don’t love you as much as you love them. You deal with it. Move on.” Sly took another gulp from the bucket before continuing. “Sounds to me as if what’s really eating at your ego is that she was more interested in getting off of Tosegio to have a life of her own rather than spending the rest of her life being Mrs. Ain’t I Just The Hottest Thing On Two Legs.”
“Oh, so you’re some kind of amateur psychologist now?”
“Just callin’ ‘em as I see ‘em, man.” Hearing the unlocking of the suite’s door, Sly whirled around with a tigerish speed. “You got guns?”
“I do but we won’t need them. Relax and have another swallow.”
The door opened and Monde Meiceli stepped inside, accompanied by his four bodyguards. Monde smiled as if he were attending a cocktail party, hands folded neatly, his steps short and precise.
“And who the hell is this?” Sly said.
“Sly Gantlet, allow me to introduce Mr. Monde Meiceli, Director of Internal Security and Intelligence in Khusra.” Dillon swirled his ice spheres in his glass as he continued. “Y’know, you really should look into getting a cool acronym like U.N.C.L.E. or A.C.E.S. or F.L.A.G.”
“I have a team working on it. So many of the really good ones have already been taken. It is much more difficult than you would think.”
“You heard our conversation?”
Monde nodded. “Every word. And may I say that while I am distressed I am also in awe. I would say that both you and Mr. Gantlet have today set some sort of personal best record. In my country not even forty-eight hours and already the both of you stand in the center of chaos and mayhem.”
Sly caught on. “The suite is bugged?”
Dillon nodded, gestured with his glass as Monde. “Mr. Meiceli here was good enough to give me the use of this suite on behalf of His Majesty. Thought that it would save us all a lot of time all way round if you and I just exchanged notes here.”
“And give your friend here a chance to eavesdrop and get brought up to speed.” Sly nodded in grudging agreement. “But how’d you know to come right back here, Meiceli?”
“Surely you jest. Your tour bus being blown up. Reports that there was a fight. An employee of The Sandstone reported being assaulted by a man fitting Dillon’s description. It was not difficult to figure out, I assure you.”
“How much did you hear?” Sly wanted to know.
In response, Monde withdrew a mobile headset from his ear. “Enough to know that we have a potential diplomatic incident on our hands. If Princess Sathyra is injured or even killed on Khusran soil-“
“If they wanted her dead, they wouldn’t have bothered taking her,” Sly said firmly.
Dillon nodded in agreement. “Whoever they were, they were definitely after her, not me and not Gantlet. Soon as they had their hands on her they split. They could just have easily slit her throat right then and there or a sniper could have put a bullet in her brain from a block away. And they knew she was with Gantlet. That’s why they brought a whole lot of guys. Whatever the reason they want her for, they need her alive. At least for a while.”
“Could it have been her own people? Maybe they were sent by her father to bring her back home to Tosegio?” Monde asked.
“Nah,” Dillon shook his head in a negative. “That big guy with the RPG…he most definitely wasn’t a Tosegian. Maybe you can get a line on him? Huge guy. Gold earring, gold teeth. Extremely dark skin. So dark it’s almost blue.”
One of the bodyguards bent down to whisper in Monde’s ear. Monde nodded and looked at Dillon. “Andoheb Bey. A mercenary who primarily works in North Africa. But no one except his mother calls him by his birth name. He’s known by the nom de guerre of ‘Bomaye’”
Dillon looked at Sly. “It’s a word from a Bantu language. It means-“
“Kill him. I know, I know. I’ve been doing this for a while, y’know? I’ve picked up a few things here and there. Where can we find this Bomaye?”
“What are you intentions when you find him, Mr. Gantlet?”
“I dunno. Thought maybe I’d start with an good old fashioned ass kickin’ then see where we go from there.”
Monde looked at Dillon. “This still could be very bad. If anything happens to the princess, my country and my king would be held responsible.”
“Look, outside of the guys who snatched her and the seven of us in this room, who else knows that Princess Sathyra is even in Khusra? Nobody, right? So we keep it that way. How much do you trust these men?”
“With my life. They are all my first cousins.”
“Okay. So nobody else has to know. Gantlet and I can find her. All you need is to point us in the right direction and we’ll take it from there. If it turns out that we screw it up, you’ve got plausible deniability. You’ve got proof she came into your country with Gantlet under an assumed name so how were you supposed to know she was the princess of Tosegio? Worse comes to worst you can stick the blame on him.”
“Hey!” Sly yelled.
“But it’s not going to come to that, now is it?” Dillon said, turning an upraised eyebrow on Sly. “We’re going to get her back alive and in one piece and everybody’s going to be cool, right?”
Sly nodded. “Right.”
Monde sighed. “What I should do is put the two of you under arrest and send my own men out to recover the princess. But I wager that the two of you would not allow yourselves to be arrested, would you?”
“You’re a okay guy, Monde. I like to think we’re on the way to being friends. Let’s both not do anything to spoil that, okay?” Dillon said.
“C’mon, man…if you’re any good at your job and I think you are then you know what Dillon and I are all about. Just step back and give us the road. We’ll get it done.” Sly stepped forward and placed a hand on Monde’s shoulder. “Promise.”
Monde sighed again. “Very well. At least try to keep the property damage to a minimum. What do you need?”
“My weapons are in my hotel room. Can you send one of your guys to go get it for me?” Sly asked.
Monde nodded. “What else?”
“A plane,” Sly continued. “A fast plane, fully fueled and standing by to take off as soon as we say. I got a feeling that when Dillon and I find Sathyra we’re gonna have to get out of Khusra quick fast and in a hurry. Once I get my weapons and a change of clothes you can put my stuff and Dillon’s as well on that plane. Savvy?”
“Savvy. It will be ready and waiting at a private airfield. I will give you the location.” Monde turned to his men. “You go to the hotel and get Mr. Gantlet’s luggage. Bring it here.” He pointed at the man next to him. “You go to the Allen airfield and get a plane ready. Make all the necessary clearances.” Monde turned back to Dillon and Sly. “Anything else?”
“Just one more thing,” Dillon rubbed his hands together. “Call down to the kitchen and send us up dinner. Sly and I better eat. I got me a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”