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PostPosted: Thu Feb 21, '13, 7:53 pm
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Haaiku (who pops in these forums every now and then) asked me to write him a short story with "action and dialogue" so he could practice his illustrating skills. I decided to write something quick in the same universe as my latest books. Agent Palmer popped up a couple times in Disintegration, and has also appeared in the related RP that's going on at a different site. This story takes place not long after the set of prequels, but before the RP and the events of the novel.

It's also one of the very few times Dr. Zedek has ever been caught off-guard. :mrgreen:


***

The town of Kotali was located in southern Tektan, just far enough away from Coral City to not be considered a true suburb of the capital. Dr. Dane Zedek had crossed into Tektan from Palavia. As his destination was hundreds of miles south of the feuding countries’ upper border with the large nation of Charytar, he’d had no difficulty in finding an unsecured spot to slip into his former enemy’s territory.
He’d assumed Kotali would be just like the other border towns he’d seen – squat, dingy buildings lining dusty streets with a lack of friendly conversation and aesthetic appeal. So many of them had been little more than glorified outposts, barely worthy of being named on a map. His assumptions were incorrect. Kotali gave off an air of being both appealing to tourists and travelers, and a suitable home for those who wanted to move out of the city.

The accommodations he procured were among the most comfortable he’d experienced in his travels. From his temporary base at the well-kept motel, Zedek spent several days confirming the information that had lured him into Tektan. Satisfied his trip would not be a waste, his next step was to learn more about some of the town’s residents firsthand.

After eating a simple, yet tasty meal at the motel, he set out for the center of Kotali. Darkness encroached on the pink and purple remains of the sunset, and a light breeze ruffled his graying hair. A source had directed him to where he was likely to find the object of his interest. He traversed the flat sidewalks on foot.

Much like everything else about the town, the bar did not match his mental image of what he’d expected to find. Many of his contacts did business in grimy taverns overlooking dark alleys. The façade of the two-story building was constructed of polished stone, and light spilled out of its windows onto the street. Voices drifted through the open door, accompanied by strains of soft music. None of the ambient noise was overly loud, nor did any of the patrons appear to be unruly or belligerent.

Zedek strode inside. Several people glanced in his direction before turning their attention back to their food and drinks. Dressed in a pair of slacks and a tailored jacket over a dark shirt, he blended in with the majority of the clientele. He approached the bar and ordered a drink of his own. “Thank you,” he
said when the bartender brought him a full glass.

“Anything else?”

“Actually, yes. I’m looking for Audrey Palmer – I was asked to meet her here tonight.”

“I think I saw her go upstairs.”

The white lie hadn’t aroused any suspicion. Zedek paid the bartender in cash and located the staircase. As he ascended the spiraling steps, he reviewed what he knew so far. Audrey and Tobias Palmer were allegedly the leaders of a sizable smuggling ring, Kotali’s biggest poorly-kept secret. The brother-sister team primarily dealt in military rations and supplies, with just enough illegal substances to prove lucrative, yet keep them under the radar of law enforcement in the area. Sources had intimated that Tobias did much of the physical work, while Audrey took on a more administrative role. Dumb muscle was easy to come by. Zedek wanted to meet the brains of the operation.

He reached the second floor of the establishment. Provided with only a vague physical description, his gaze skimmed the room for the one he sought. In the back corner, a half dozen young women were seated at a round table. None of the other customers appeared to be of the right age and gender.

Drink in hand, he made his way towards the group. He offered them his most charismatic smile as he approached them. “Good evening, ladies,” he said. “I’m sorry to interrupt you.”

Six pairs of black-rimmed, long-lashed eyes turned towards him in unison. “We have enough drinks, thank you,” one woman across from him said.

He emitted what he hoped sounded like a jovial chuckle. “I’m sure you do. That’s not why I came over, though if you change your minds, I could certainly spring for another round.” He glanced over the group again. “I’m actually looking for Audrey Palmer; perhaps you could give me a nudge in the right direction?”

Aloof judgment dissolved into a chorus of giggles. “Ooh, Audrey, you always have the men chasing after you, don’t you? Even the older ones!”

“I knew this was going to happen,” said the woman closest to him. “I told Toby I needed a couple days off to relax for a little while. But does he ever listen?” She sighed, a petulant, childlike sound of exasperation, and turned towards him. Crystalline blue eyes sat above rounded cheeks. Her pink lips puffed into a pout effectively conveying her displeasure. Golden blonde hair swept back from her cherubic face into a high ponytail that tumbled down over one shoulder. The shiny locks ended at the strap of her fuchsia halter top, a tight-fitting garment that swept around her neck and showcased her ample chest in an alluring display. The petite woman with the high-pitched voice was not easy to reconcile with the mental image Zedek had previously conjured.

Her voice interrupted his curious musings. “I’m sorry, sir, but if this is about business, perhaps we can schedule a meeting for tomorrow?”

Zedek was unaccustomed to working on timetables other than his own. He kept his smile plastered across his face as he spoke. “I only have a few quick questions for you, Ms. Palmer. Your friends wouldn’t mind if I steal you away for just a moment.”

Her entourage resumed their snickering. “I’m sure my brother sent you to me with the best of intentions, but I’m really not in the mindset to discuss business tonight,” Audrey said. “You seem like a reasonable man. I’d be happy to meet you here at noon tomorrow.”

He made one last attempt. “I might be leaving town before then....”

She eyed him critically. “If it’s important, I’m sure you can make the time. Now, if you’ll excuse me....” She swiveled in her chair, the bare skin of her back making her decision clear.

Zedek slunk away from her table, avoiding eye contact with the other customers. He ordered a second drink and sat on the opposite side of the room. Every now and then, he snuck peeks at Audrey and her friends. They were engrossed in animated conversation, having forgotten all about their brief exchange with him.

After making sure his bill was paid and his server was tipped, he retreated downstairs and left the bar. An idea sprang to mind, and he chose not to return to the motel right away. The well-lit street offered little in the way of camouflage for lurking pedestrians, but he located a shadowy recess in which to wait.

Zedek’s notable patience brought the reward he desired. Within an hour, Audrey exited the building, accompanied by two of her friends. Still chatting amicably, they meandered down the road, their heels clicking on the sidewalk.

He trailed them at a safe distance, taking care not to make any noise or draw any attention to himself. The three women led him to a residential neighborhood; he briefly wondered if they were all returning to the same abode. His concerns were unfounded, as the friends said their farewells and split off in different directions at the next intersection.

Modest homes stood alongside the secluded street, shedding no illumination onto the darkened path. Audrey hurried along, oblivious to her pursuer. Zedek hastened his pace to keep up with her. Determined to test her capabilities and verify the rumors he’d heard, he silently sidled up behind her.

His efforts at stealth fell short. Before he could say a word, she whirled around and punched him in the face. There wasn’t enough momentum behind the blow to cause any significant damage, but the collision of her fist with his jaw caught him off guard. The combination of two drinks and his anger at being struck accelerated his recovery. Dodging to the side, he grabbed her, pinning her arms to her sides.

The sudden attack didn’t make Audrey scream. She wiggled around as if to test the strength of his grasp. When she couldn’t break free, she stomped on his instep. He loosened his grip and winced at the pain in his foot; it paled in comparison to the jolt he suffered as she elbowed him in the solar plexus. The air left his body, and he doubled over. Showing no mercy as he struggled, her leg swept out behind his knee and sent him sprawling on the pavement.

“Wait...wait a minute,” Zedek said, wheezing. “I only...I’m....”

A loud crack and a bright flash cut him off. His chest throbbed, and he grimaced at the impact. Looking up, he saw Audrey had produced a gun from some unknown place, likely a thigh holster underneath her miniskirt. While others had regarded him as paranoid in the past, he took comfort in his precautions and was eternally thankful for the vest he wore under his shirt.

“What the hell? You’re that guy from the bar!” she said. “And you’re wearing body armor!”

From his position on the ground, he saw her raise the gun and adjust her aim. There was no doubt in his mind that the next shot would strike him between the eyes. “Don’t! Don’t shoot!” he yelled, still gasping to fill his lungs. “I’m not a thief, or a rapist, or...just hear me out. Please, I’m not going to hurt you!”

Her arm didn’t move. “You’ve got a lot of * nerve,” she said. “Make it good, and make it fast. I’d hate to ruin this outfit by spraying your brains all over it, but the world will be a better place if there’s one less pervert attacking women on empty streets.”

“It was an awful idea. I’m sorry.” He studied the woman standing over him. Not one ounce of fear was revealed in all 5 feet 2 inches of her compact frame. He had no doubt she would end his life without hesitation if she heard anything short of the truth. “I did want to talk to you about business, but it’s not what you think. I’ve never even met your brother. I wanted to learn more about you.”

“Why me? What do you want?”

“I want to hire you. Not to smuggle goods, though.” The asphalt was rough and unyielding beneath his back. “Can I sit up? My intent was never to hurt you, and I swear I mean you no harm.”
Her lower lip twitched as she contemplated his question. “Slowly,” she finally answered. Her gun remained trained on his head.

Zedek dragged himself forward until he was upright. He knew without looking that bruises had started to form and he’d be covered in purplish splotches by morning. “My name is Dr. Zedek. I run an organization out of Palavia, though it is in no way affiliated with that country. From what I heard about you, you seemed like someone who would be a perfect fit to come work with me.” His lungs burned and pain stabbed through his core. “I wanted to see for myself. My assumption was correct.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Why me?”

“I’d heard you were smart and perceptive, though it was supposed to be your brother that doled out the physical punishments. You’ve made quite a name for yourself in this part of Tektan, and the whispers have trickled over the border.” A small smile twisted his lips. “There was something else, too.”

“Oh?” Despite her squeaky voice, Audrey could express skepticism and disdain in one syllable.

“I need people who feel no ties to their homes, who don’t support their countries’ policies, in combat and otherwise. You already steal from your government to make a profit, do you not?”

A slight nod of her head was all the confirmation he needed.

“I don’t think it would cause great inner turmoil for you to cut your ties with this place in search of bigger and better things.” His wry smile broadened. “And I will pay you handsomely, of course.”

She lowered the gun, but didn’t holster it. “Okay, Dr. Zedek,” she said. “I’ll hear more about what you’re offering me, but on two conditions.”

“Of course.”

“One: we meet tomorrow at noon, like I originally asked. I always did find lunch to be a nice time to hammer out details and settle on contracts.”

“Very well. What’s the second?”

Audrey closed the distance between them. For a fleeting moment, Zedek wondered if she was going to help him up. The pleasant thought was shattered when she delivered a swift kick between his legs. He yelped and curled into a ball around his latest injury. “Promise me you will never sneak up on an unsuspecting woman like that ever again,” she demanded. “I don’t care what your goals and motivations were. It was a terrible thing to do, and I won’t work with * who think that sort of thing is okay. Understand?”

He groaned. “Yes, yes, we have a deal.”

“Good. See you tomorrow!”

She walked away, gun still in hand, leaving him to writhe on the street. Zedek waited for the aching to subside before clambering to his feet. Kotali was not at all what he expected, and neither were its inhabitants. He watched Audrey saunter away, her bobbing blonde ponytail swaying in unison with the swell of her hips, and he shook his head. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t aligned with his preconceived notions. She would be a perfect addition to his team.
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