Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
guess that after such a terrific start it was appropriate that I wound up in Cleveland, the Mistake on the Lake, possibly the only city in the US where you can watch the fire department trying to put out the river. This may give you the impression that I’m not in love with the town. If it does, you’re correct. I’ve hated it since my playing days. It’s cold enough during the winter in Cleveland to begin with, but when the wind whips off that lake and through the stadium it can freeze the balls off a polar bear. Under those conditions, any kind of contact when you’re playing hurts. Icicles form in your moustache, sweat freezes instead of evaporating. If you’re standing on the sideline, there’s a distinct risk of freezing solid. If the city had been stocked with beautiful, available women, it could have compensated for the playing conditions, however, the good ones in that part of the country married early.
So, why did I come to a stop in Cleveland? Good question. I doubt I could have given a good reason at the time and, with all that has happened since, I certainly can’t now. Most likely, there was no good reason. Either I had driven far enough for one day or, maybe, I just had to piss and felt sort of drained afterwards. It’s amazing how events can turn on seemingly trivial decisions.
know that having decided to stop, my main objective became finding a bar. In Cleveland, this is not hard to do. Given the summertime choice between the Cleveland women, see above, and the Cleveland Indians, you might as well drink. The place I settled on was on Euclid Avenue, just east of the University area. Most of Cleveland looks like an unfortunate section of the Bronx, but this place didn’t seem too bad from the outside. The light must have been bad because, somehow, I failed to notice the rows of motorcycles in the lot. The inside was vintage sleaze, packed with noisy, smelly, milling men. I spotted Hells Angels colors in the crowd, and the few women I saw looked attached to the bikers. Neither observation made much impression. I had sworn off women and had no intention of bothering any Angels. The bar, when I finally reached it, was way past needing to be cleaned. An electric sander might have done it, but not the nearly black rag the barkeep wielded. When I leaned forward to shout my order, my sleeve stuck to the top of the bar, and the glass, when it arrived, was veiled with a whitish residue. I didn’t consider any of these to be major problems and, after a few beers, ceased to notice them at all. In fact, I was feeling quite mellow and content until my bladder began to stretch.
The john was in the rear of the establishment and, as with the bar, it required some effort to approach. I was just starting to reach for the handle when the door burst open, propelled by a body thrown against it from the other side. I had a quick glimpse of a tanned face, framed by a thin black beard and marked by a angry cut across the right cheek, before the body fell past me. Another man charged into the doorway and this one held a knife. I was squarely in his path.
My belly was going to be ripped open by the upward thrust of the man’s knife; he didn’t care who was in front of him, but the higher centers of my brain were partially anesthetized so I didn’t think about what was happening. Instead of thinking, and dying, my body reacted and it was driven by all those years of karate and Krav Maga, now with NFL strength training added. It was like a movie. I stepped back with my right foot and turned my body sideways to the attacker. That pulled my gut out of line with his blade, which cut nothing but air. As the knife came up, I chopped down with my left arm. Forearm met forearm with a loud crack. The alcohol was not insulation against the pain of that meeting; it felt like my arm had snapped. The pain, however, was mutual. His hand opened and the knife flew free. It was almost easy to bring my other hand up, break his wrist with a quick snap, and then put him away with a kick. Just like they taught it in class, thank God. As I straightened up, I became aware of a thudding noise behind me.
I had never noticed that a third man had been in the bathroom. Fortunately for me, the one who had been thrown out had come charging back to tackle the remaining opponent while my back was turned. He had pinned the guy against the wall and was homogenizing his face with a series of rapid, short hooks. Those were the sounds I had heard.
“All right. Enough,” I said. “He’s done.”
The punching stopped at that and the target slowly crumpled to the floor.
“Guess so,” muttered my impromptu ally. Then he turned to face me and stuck out his hand. The palm was calloused, the knuckles raw.
“Howdy. I’m Angel.”
I shook Angel’s hand; it seemed like a good idea. “Danny Troy,” I answered back.
“Well, Danny, I like the way you fight. I do indeed. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Well sure,” I said, “but what about those two and what about your face?” Remarkably, the only notice anyone in the bar had taken of the altercation was to clear the space in front of the john.
Angel looked down at the unconscious bodies as though he was seeing them for the first time. “Don’t worry about them, they’ll just toss ’em out back. We ought to go somewhere else for our drink, though. They might have friends coming.”
“No doubt.” The prospect of tackling a gang of bikers did not thrill me.
“Come on,” he urged me, “I know a better place up the hill.”
Independent thought was not my strong suit just them, so I walked out with Angel. In lieu of the bathroom, I stopped at the back of the building on the way to the parking lot. From the peeling paint, and the ground devoid of grass, I gathered that this was a habit shared by many of the patrons. Angel’s wheels turned out to be a four-wheel-drive Jeep, which shocked me. I was expecting a Harley. Anyway, my car wasn’t in the lot, and I couldn’t remember where I had parked it, so we both piled into the Jeep.
While Angel drove, I had a better opportunity to size him up than I had been given in the bar. His face was broad, with an olive complexion checkered by old acne scars. The nose had been broken at least once. He was lean and much shorter than me, but size would have been a poor way to measure this man. His tank top displayed formidable muscles along his arms and shoulders. From one car seat away, I could see that the facial slash was superficial; it had already clotted over. Angel paid no attention to it as he drove.
The second bar was much cleaner, booth seats covered with contact vinyl and glasses that looked washed, although not so upscale that Angel looked out of place. He ushered me into a booth and returned with two beers. We toasted our health and drained them. Angel took a moment to belch, then went for two more. This time we toasted our fighting prowess and, again, drained them. By the time Angel returned with the third set, I was beginning to float.
“Well, friend Danny,” Angel said as he lifted the beer, “what do you do?”
I had been dreading this inevitable question ever since I’d climbed into his Jeep. From the time I had left Nat’s office, I hadn’t discussed my life with anyone. I hadn’t even talked to myself. What was I going to tell him? I hid behind my beer initially, but that only lasted so long. When I put it down, the mug was empty and Angel was still looking at me.
“Bring another round,” I said, “and I’ll tell you.”
He took me up on my offer, with the result that we were again looking at each other through suds. Eventually, the rising concentration of alcohol in my blood diminished my inhibitions. Once I started talking, the whole story just poured out in a rush, the whole miserable sequence of events. Even as I was speaking, it occurred to me that almost any lie would have been better than telling him the truth. Angel, with his calloused hands, scarred knuckles and dirty jeans, didn’t look like the sort to bestow sympathy on a man who had just thrown away a career that made him a million dollars a year.
Somewhat to my surprise, Angel said nothing when I finished. Instead, he sat there with a curious look on his face. He sat like that for so long that I began to wonder if he was having trouble believing me, which would have been funny under other circumstances.
“So, you’re really Danny-boy Troy,” he said at last.
“My old man lives in Philadelphia. Used to watch you on the tube.”
Usually, I enjoyed meeting my fans. At the moment, however, I was not in the mood for signing autographs, if that was where this conversation was headed.
I said, “Really?”
“Yeah. Always said you couldn’t throw the bomb for shit.”
That hurt. Aside from my memories, I didn’t have a lot left.
“Now wait a minute,” I said defensively, “I could when I had to. I just believe in playing a more controlled game.”
“Hey,” Angel said with a smile, “argue with my old man, not me. I never listened to a damn thing he said, so why should you? Have another beer.”
I agreed to be mollified.
He came back with the beers and, again, that curious look. “It looks like you really blew it, didn’t you?”
“I’ve pretty much figured that out. I really don’t need my nose rubbed in it.”
“Hey, no offense meant. Easy come, easy go.” He held up his empty hands, palms out, then put them down again. “Tell me though, how does somebody like you learn to fight like that? I always figured you jocks were no good without your pads and helmets and shit.”
I was only too glad to talk about something I’d done right. I might have blown my career and screwed up my life, but I had saved Angel’s neck with a couple of good moves and I was eager to expand on it.
“I’ve studied it for years,” I told him, “ jujitsu, Krav Maga, karate, that kind of fighting. I started in junior high school and I’ve kept at it. That was the first time I’ve ever faced a guy with a real knife, though. It’s kind of nice to know I can do it for real.”
“Hmm.” Angel looked thoughtful. “Danny, let me tell you something. Right now, you don’t look so good and you don’t sound like you’re doing so good either.”
“Tell me something new, Angel.”
“I was coming to that,” he said. “Would you be interested in a job?”
This time, it was my turn to look thoughtful. Angel didn’t look to be someone who had ever held a job, much less someone to be offering one.
“Is this a job with you, or with some friends of yours?” Coming from Angel, this wasn’t going to be an offer to do a thirty second spot plugging motor oil. I wanted desperately to ask if this “job” was legal because I certainly needed one. Angel’s interest in my fighting ability didn’t seem to be a good omen.
“The answer to your question is both,” he said.
No more information was offered, so I had to ask, “What’s the job?”
“Space pirate,” Angel said with a perfectly straight face.
My mouth must have dropped open. I know nothing came out of it for some time. Angel just sat there watching me, as though he was a campus recruiter offering some kid an entry-level job in insurance. Eventually, I managed to put together a response.
“Angel, my new friend, you’ve had too much to drink.”
“Why do you say that, Danny?”
“Oh, for Chrissake!” I spluttered. “You just offered me a job as a space pirate. Do you expect me to take that seriously?”
“I am not drunk, and the offer’s on the level, man. I owe you for back in the bar and you’re good in a fight. What’ve you got that’s worth sticking around for?” If Angel was not drunk, and I was probably drunker than he was, then he had to be crazy, but either way he sounded completely sincere.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got five hundred dollars that says I’m telling the truth.” He pulled the bills out of his pocket and tossed them onto the table. “You take ’em and let me drive you out there. If there’s nothing there, you keep the five hundred.”
“Sure,” I said. “And then you drive me out somewhere and it’s bye-bye Danny.”
“What for?” he snapped back. “It’s my five hundred in the first place and you don’t look like you’ve got anything worth rolling you for.”
That was true. Damn! An offer like that had to be bogus, it just had to be. However, I was starting to run short of cash and those bills on the table were very inviting. I accepted his offer by scooping them up, proof that even if Angel had not had too much to drink, I had.
We went back to Angel’s Jeep and drove off. Not too long after that, I fell asleep in the seat. I awoke to bright sunlight and a headache. My mouth felt like it usually did after a late-night party; there seemed to be a layer of slime over my teeth and a piece of carpet over my tongue. Angel was still piloting us down the highway.
“What time is it?” I asked with a groan.
“A little after noon.”
I had been out cold for eleven hours. “You’ve been driving the whole time?” Angel nodded. “Christ, where are we going?”
“What’s in South Dakota?”
“I told you,” he said with a trace of irritation. “You think they’re going to put a spaceship in downtown Chicago?”
“I suppose not.” Neither of us spoke for an hour or so after that. Tough guy or not, Angel had to be tired and he totally ignored me and stared ahead at the road. That suited me fine. From my perspective, the situation didn’t look promising. I was stuck in a Jeep, going seventy-five miles an hour, with a crazed biker who thought he was taking me to a spaceship somewhere in South Dakota. The prudent thing to have done would have been to give him back the five hundred dollars and beg him to let me out. What stopped me? Not the five hundred dollars, I hadn’t been broke long enough to be that mercenary. Probably playing along in someone else’s acid dream seemed to be a better bargain than going back to deal with my own reality.
Eventually, I decided, in the sunlight and sober, that I was going along for the ride. I tried to coax Angel to tell me more about himself and his imaginary pirate friends. Angel didn’t claim to be any kind of extraterrestrial himself. On the contrary, he said he was a native-born American biker. He didn’t say how he became involved with these “pirates” or, in fact, anything about them.
He did tell me that he’d left the ship’s base after convincing his officers that he knew several men who would be good recruits, although he had actually planned to desert. He was not clear about why he changed his mind; maybe the brawl at the first bar had something to do with it. Regardless, he had decided to go back, and he figured he’d better have at least one recruit to show for his time. He was also in a big hurry because he didn’t remember precisely when the ship was supposed to leave.