01 June, 2007

The Bus Station

I have no idea where this one is going. It's most likely the first chapter of a moderately long novel, and maybe even a serial adventure. I don't see it becoming an epic. I am curious to see how it evolves, especially how it will fit into our modern world. As far as this first chapter is concerned, does it read well? What are your impressions of the three characters introduced here? What are your initial speculations concerning the backgrounds of each of these characters? Do you want to see where the story leads?

No matter how hard I try to avoid it, trouble always seems to find me. Usually, it’s a woman. Usually, it’s a woman who has gotten herself into trouble. Usually it’s a woman who has gotten herself into trouble and who expects me, an innocent bystander and total stranger, to get her out of it. How they find me, I don’t know. I don’t stand out in a crowd; in fact, I can honestly say that I’m pretty invisible in a crowd, one of those people that just blend in so well that you can never remember seeing me. But the damsels in distress always seem to find me. This last one I saw coming from a mile away, like a deer can see the headlights coming.

I was sitting on a bench in a bus station watching the diverse crowd waiting for their rides. I like watching people, especially crowds of people. Sociology is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I find crowd dynamics very fascinating. At this particular time, I was enjoying watching the reactions of a very eclectic mix of people who were within hearing range of woman who was complaining very loudly about her legal troubles. Those closest to her were exhibiting some very blatant body language that she was not picking up on, and it was causing no small amusement on my part. I was on the verge of forgetting myself so far as to allow a grin to form, when my attention was diverted by a young girl who had suddenly chosen to sit next to me on the bench. Very closely next to me. This was odd for a couple of reasons. One, I was a stranger and two, the rest of the bench was quite empty. She was dressed unremarkably in jeans and a fleece sweater, her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a very pretty face. She was probably about fourteen or fifteen years old and would grow up to be a very lovely woman, if I am any judge of such things. She was craning her neck to scan the crowd off to our left with a nervous expression. It was pretty hard to miss the signs. A damsel in distress. And I was having such a nice day. I sighed. Might as well get it over with.

“Hello,” I said, to get the ball rolling.

“Hi,” she said, without looking at me.

A moment passed, and she continued to stare avidly off to the left. “Looking for someone?” was my next attempt. She turned and peered up at me. Here it comes. Her expression was artfully crafted to convey fearful innocence. They learn young.

“Well,” she began, letting her voice quiver just a little too much. She is young, after all. “Actually I’m looking for this guy.” Here it comes. “He’s been following me, and I don’t know who he is.”

Yep. A damsel in distress. Time for the first test. I made a concerned noise and frowned. “That sounds serious. Do you want me to call the police?” I pulled out my cell phone.

“What?” she said, genuinely startled. It seemed the idea hadn’t even crossed her mind as a viable solution. Not a good sign. She recovered quickly, but seemed a little warier with me. “No, no, that’s alright. I mean, I can’t really be sure he’s following me, and it’s not like he’s really done anything yet.” She was flushing a bright shade of pink as she rushed to dissuade me from calling the police. “Actually, I was thinking maybe I could just sit here, with you, and maybe he’ll think we’re together and go away.” Then she started on the pleading puppy look. She even touched my arm in a delicate and vulnerable manner. That’s the problem teenagers have. Caught between child and adult, they’re never sure which part to play, and always seem to get it wrong. There I was, clearly old enough to be her father, and she was trying to win me over like a woman when she should have tried being more of a frightened child. Ah well, c’est la vie. So far, all she had asked for was already happening, so I played along.

“Well, that sounds like a plan, if you’re sure you don’t want to call the police yet?” She shook her head, so I put away my phone. “So, tell me. Why do you think this guy is following you?” That was her cue to pile it on. She described a rather scary looking fellow whom she noticed as she was waiting to cross an intersection. He never got too close, but he had followed as she took a few twists and turns. I had to admit, she was pretty good, for a teenager. Her rhythm was a little off, and she fluctuated emotional levels a little wrong, but over all it was a compelling tale. She was well schooled and would one day be a formidable woman. I listened with the appropriate attentiveness, and made the appropriate noises throughout, and when she was done, I properly agreed that maybe we should wait to call the police. I even threw in that “we” to show that her storytelling had the desired effect.

The telling hadn’t taken very long, and the man had not yet shown up. At least, not to her eyes. I had marked him out of the crowd about halfway through her story. He was watching us very carefully, sizing up the situation, without ever really looking at us. To an untrained eye, he was as invisible in the crowd as I usually am, as forgettable as everyone else. But to a trained eye, such as my own, he stood with the powerful grace of a mountain lion on the hunt, or a falcon riding the wind and marking its prey. When he moved, that power and grace became breathtaking, and not a little frightening. Every move he made was perfectly balanced and fluid enough that he could strike with lightning speed, even from midstep. He carried no visible weapons, but whether he had any or not, it wouldn’t matter; he was a weapon.

I apologize if my description sounds a little prosaic, but it is truly inspiring to see a master engaged in his craft.

A few moments after she had finished, the girl spotted her pursuer. She clutched my arm and hissed, “There he is!” Pretending I had not yet spotted him, I hissed back, “Where?” A few seconds passed as she pointed him out to me and I played at looking for him, then she said, “I’m scared.” I looked at her. This time, there was no artifice in her voice, only raw emotion. It wasn’t strong, but it was truth. She knew the man meant her ill. That changed the game a little, made it a little more serious. “It doesn’t look like he’s spotted us yet,” I said in a comforting voice, “and it doesn’t look like he’s looking for anything. Maybe he wasn’t following you after all.” I put a little cheer into my voice.

“Maybe,” she said, without conviction. She took her eyes off him long enough to look at me with a very serious expression on her face. “Would you ride the bus with me? Just until I know he’s not following me. I’ll pay for your trouble.” It came out in a bit of a rush, and the end was little pleading. She had definitely lost her composure. By rights, she should have built up to it a little more, but she was starting to panic. She was young, she would learn.

I was saved from answering by the man approaching us. Approaching me actually; he never looked at the girl. He walked right up to the bench and loomed over me. He smiled and said, very politely, “Excuse me sir, I hate to interrupt, but I believe you have something of mine.” I’ve always loved how dangerous men can use friendly courtesy as a threat. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and it’s really quite fun.

The girl had her head down and sat very rigidly. I had the distinct impression that she was ready to bolt.

“Oh?” I said, just as politely, “and what would that be?”

“The girl, of course.”

“Of course.” A moment’s pause as we smiled politely at each other, showing our teeth. I broke eye contact first, to glance at the girl, then looked back at the man.

“Well, it would appear that she is somewhat reticent to join your company.” I said it with sarcastic incredulity. I love using that tone of voice. It rarely fails to put people’s teeth on edge.

“I’m afraid I must insist.” A little clichéd, and he made it worse by raising his hand to reveal a small pistol. It was very small, easily concealed in his hand, but just as deadly as a big pistol. The pistol, however held little interest for me. Instead, I studied the tattoo on the back of his hand. It only confirmed what I had already suspected, but definitely changed the game. Any other little tests I might use suddenly became moot. I was still going to play it out though. I deserve a little fun every now and then.

“My goodness, is that a gun?” I said just a little too loudly, and perhaps a little too histrionically. People nearby looked over at us, some curiously, others with mild alarm.

He laughed heartily, as if I had made a joke. Spreading his suddenly empty hands in the air he said, for the benefit of the crowd, “Whatever, man.” He was very good. I didn’t even see the move that hid the gun, and I was watching for it. Much more quietly, and still chuckling, he added, “Keep your voice down or you’re both dead.” It definitely chills the blood to hear a death threat delivered by a chuckling man, even if it was another cliché. It is understandable, though, his use of so many clichés. A man in his line of work doesn’t need to be very creative in his choice of words, just so long as the point gets across.

He went back to the polite smile. “Now, sir,” he began again, “Why don’t we both be reasonable about this. I’m sure neither of us wants any trouble, and this doesn’t really concern you at all does it?”

We looked at each other for a moment while he waited for my response. The time of decision had come. I had forestalled the choice about as long I comfortably could, so I made it. Instead of answering the menacing stranger, I turned to the girl and asked, “What bus were you planning on taking?” She was not expecting the question and she stammered a little as her brain shifted gears before answering, “I, uh, bus 29.”

“Really?” I said with false amazement, “What a coincidence! I’m taking bus 29, too! I’ll be happy to ride with you to your stop.” I turned back to the man looming over me. “Well, it looks like it does concern me, since the young lady has just hired me as her bodyguard, and unless you’re planning on taking bus 29, too, then it looks like the girl is traveling with me, and not you.”

There it was: a direct challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown, right into the face of one of the more dangerous men I had ever met. I had dropped the polite smile, and so had he. We now both wore the faces of two men trying to prove who had the most testosterone, but hadn’t quite gotten to anger. That would come soon enough.

“Sir,” he said, still polite, but more menacing, “if you insist on this course of action, then I will be forced to deal with you very roughly.”

“What, here? In broad daylight? With all these witnesses around?” I scoffed.

“Yes.” He brandished the pistol again. That brought me up short. I knew what this man was capable of, and I knew he could very possibly get away with what he intended, but I also knew that it was a situation his kind strenuously tried to avoid. The risks and variables involved made it a rather difficult accomplishment, and there were always repercussions, no matter how clean the getaway. He definitely was not bluffing, so his simple statement underscored just how important his assignment was. Time to go into endgame.

“So,” I drawled very casually, “just out of curiosity, where are the other points of the Star?” I had already picked them out as soon as I had seen the tattoo, four other men who moved just like this one did nonchalantly scattered in the crowd; I merely asked the question for effect. He blinked. She stiffened next to me, though whether from surprise at my knowledge or that there was more than one following her, I did not know. Probably both.

The point before me had showed no other reaction, and his finger remained steady on the trigger, but I had made him rethink the entire situation. I had suddenly become a much bigger unknown than before. “I see that you have some passing familiarity with us,” he said, making the end just a little bit of a question, inviting elaboration. I didn’t give any. “Some,” I agreed. I couldn’t help it; I smirked.

“Then you understand what we are capable of.” Again, that half question. I was having fun.

“Oh, yes.” The girl was staring at me, her mouth half open. I like catching people by surprise, even when it’s easy.

“Then you will yield the girl to me.” He didn’t sound completely confident in that statement. He knew his skills, but he didn’t know mine. I didn’t look like I had any, but you didn’t get to be part of a star by underestimating your opponents. Those who did usually died long before making it into such an elite group.

“Well now, what kind of bodyguard would I be if I did that?”

He struggled to control himself. It was almost imperceptible, but I had definitely kicked the hornet’s nest. “Sir,” he said through clenched teeth, “I don’t believe you quite understand the situation…”

I cut him off. I had dragged out the charade long enough and it was time for everyone to drop our facades. Besides, the next wave of buses was about to arrive. “No, I think you don’t quite understand.” I looked him full in the face with a stern expression and allowed the rune etched in my forehead to glow faintly and briefly, just enough so that he could not mistake it for what it was. The gun disappeared again, even faster this time if it were possible. Sweat popped out on his brow and I detected a small tremor in his hands. It takes a lot to shake a starpoint, but I had succeeded. The other four points had suddenly tensed up, as they sensed a dangerous shift in the situation.

“Forgive me Great One,” he stammered, “I did not recognize…I mean, I did not mean to…I,” he swallowed, and tried again, “I am sorry, Great One.” He bowed his head and clasped his hands in the familiar sign of deference.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, very magnanimously, “I didn’t want you to know who I was, so there was no way you could. But now that you do, I suggest you report back to your employer at once, to tell him about the new situation.” I turned to the girl, who was staring at me and trying to decide how to feel about this turn of events, already dismissing the dangerous man from my thoughts and determined to hear the girl’s story. I was very curious as to who would send a star out after an obviously defenseless girl. The only thing I could think of was that she was not nearly as defenseless as she looked. That theory did not quite fit with the way she acted, though, so I was expecting a very interesting story indeed.

Before I could start talking to her, something very odd occurred to me. I turned back to the man and found him still standing there. I was, needless to say, rather flummoxed by this behavior. I stared at him for a long moment trying to decipher his intent. He was sweating now quite profusely and his hands had picked up their trembling. His eyes darted about, trying to look at anything except me.

“Did you misunderstand me?” I asked. I am nothing if not merciful. He knew and I knew that he had not, but by asking the question I was giving him a second chance to leave with his life. A lot of colleagues would already be teaching him a lesson in etiquette, but I always like to make sure they really need it first.

“Yes, your Greatness, I did.” With his own words he condemned himself. I was simply amazed. I have seen a lot of bizarre and crazy things in my life, and I thought I had lost the ability to be amazed or shocked, but this was like a dog having kittens. I wasn’t sure which ones exactly, but there were definitely some inviolable natural laws being violated right now.

Bus 29 pulled up, along with a lot of noise and very smelly smoke. I think it was due for retirement. I couldn’t focus on the situation, so I stalled. “What’s your name?” I asked the man.

“First Point Frank Jameson, sir.” He almost stiffened to a salute. He knew his life was forfeit at my leisure, so he was very eager to please me. I only asked his name, but he gave his rank as well. He also wanted to give me his regiment and post, but did not dare cross that fine line of talking out of turn with a Great One.

“Well, First Point Frank Jameson, why don’t we continue this conversation on the bus?” I stood up and offered my arm to the young girl who had drawn me into a so far very surprising adventure, and said, “Shall we?” I was now expecting a very interesting tale from both of them, the kind I hadn’t heard in ages, and I admit, I was kind of looking forward to hearing them. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid I can be sometimes.


Anonymous said...

OK, you got me.. I was actually really interested until the end, and want more! Wasn't too sure about the forehead glowing part, but you know me..hehe... more chapters please!


Heffalump said...

I had almost given up on finding another post on this blog! I am intrigued by the new story. I would also like more of Michael and Vuldi's story...