Half-halt

It’s what you do in English Saddle riding to collect your horse.  That is what the last few days for me have been.  In the last ten days we took more supplies to Daughter #1 at college followed by my DayJob becoming evening job for the last week.  That means I wrote nothing for ten days.  In that time my copyeditor informed me she will have the MS for “Worlds Without End” back into my possession by 31 August.  I used that to goad my cover designer to get a-move on and wrap things up.

I was off yesterday, Friday, as well as this weekend.  I made some minor changes to WWE and wrote the back-cover blurb as well.  The stemma I revised and enlarged.  Finally to DO SOMETHING I returned to the Arpad/Lily love story.  It’s coming in fits and starts.  Or complete stops.  That’s where this installment ends:  at the start of a fight.  I know I don’t write those well and will need all my wits about me to flesh it out tomorrow.

It has been a long while since I touched on this short story.  The thread of it is here (https://machciv.com/category/empires-agent/).  The next installment is below the fold.

 

Arpad awoke when he heard the compressor of Lily’s small fridge turn over.  A glance to his watch told him the time:  0455.  He’d have woken up in five minutes, anyway.  Shivering slightly from sleeping on the floor next to Lily in his rain-soaked clothes – taking them off would have sent the wrong message to both Lily and her chaperone – he eased himself up and looked left at the girl.

On her side, facing the wall away from him, she was still asleep and, even better, no longer softly snoring.  He stood and moved out of her room, closing the door so only open an inch.

“Karl!” he called softly, shaking the boy’s shoulder.  “Wake up; time to go!”

To the overweight boy’s credit his eyes opened and he sat up, awake.

“Mister Rigó?” he asked.  “Is Miss Barrett okay?”

He wakes up instantly and immediately asks about those on his team!  I’ve got to get this boy into the military!

“She’s fine, Karl,” he mouthed quietly.  It was better than whispering.  “Power’s back on so we’re finished here.”  For now.

“Yes.  Sir.” Arpad watched the boy slide his feet into his shoes and collect his pillow and blanket.  Arpad flipped the simple lock on her door and waited for Karl to follow.  He did and looked the older man a question.

“Her door is locked and you were the last one out,” Arpad explained.  “No scandal for Miss Barrett; understand?”

“Yes, sir,” now he finally yawned, following Arpad down the stairs.  They repeated the same with the door to the Office.  Just outside there was a hint of red in the eastern sky.

“I’m back to my hotel, soldier.  Thanks again for your help!” he said, slapping the boy’s left shoulder.  Arpad turned his attention to getting Lily’s bicycle out of the back of his car.  His necktie used to hold the trunk down was torn and stained with grease.  He tossed it aside and set her bike into the rack over by the dilapidated pickup truck.

A few minutes later had him parked before the Rogers Hotel.  Right before he opened the car door his mobile chimed.  Video from Ai, he read.  He thumbed accept.

“Good morning, Mister Rigó,” the silly CG image said politely.  “Sorry to bother but with power out we could not maintain contact with Lily.  Is she well?”

“Overall, she’s fine,” he didn’t want to go into too much detail of what almost happened between them.  “From being caught in the storm she might have a cold today, though.”

“Did you spend the night with her?” Ai asked.

“In her flat with one of her charges, Karl, as a chaperone.  Is that acceptable, Miss Ai?”

“Just Ai is fine; I think she would have been happier if it had just been you, alone, Mister Rigó,” she said with a silly smile but piercing eyes.

“Probably,” he conceded.  “But last night was not the time.”

“I am not old enough to say ‘I understand,’ so will instead ask that you please take good care of my dear friend,” she hesitated for only a moment, “Arpad.”

He recalled the part of the dossier where, when briefly kept from her friend, Ai threatened to turn off electric power to all of Texas.  I must be cautious.

“I… shall do my best.  Ai,” he replied.  “I’m sure we will talk more later.”

“Of course!  Good morning!”

His mobile returned to its homescreen.

I have got to get out of these wet clothes, he thought, flinging the car door open.

The older man who had checked him in was back behind the counter and looked at him over his copy of the city newspaper, The Daily Light, for just a moment.  They all have that app about keeping track of Lily, he thought.  Does that mean everyone thinks…?

That sort of counter-intel paranoia could drive anyone insane.  Arpad pushed the thought aside as he unlocked the door to his room.

No matter what Lily propositioned last night, I need a hot shower to warm up!

Twenty minutes later he sat naked on the couch with the outdated local map spread on the low table before him as he looked at local parks.  Are they wooded?  Open fields?  I know nothing about what an American – no – a Texan would consider a “park!”  Arpad put on his second-to-last suit and gathered his dirty clothes into a bag he found in the closet.  He brought that down to the front desk.

“Is there a place I can get these dry cleaned?” he asked.

“Are you kidding?” the manager asked.

Arpad’s shoulders slumped.

“What are we talking here?” the manager continued, seeing his guest’s reaction.  “Fine linens and silk robes?”

“Some of my suits are silk, yes,” Arpad replied more sharply than he should, mentally cursing Marek for this assignment.

“Oh,” the older man said, standing at last.  “Then there’s only one lady in town to send these too.  And the hotel will be paying a third what for me runnin’ my mouth just now.”

Arpad started to hand the bag over but paused halfway over the counter.

“You are confident in this lady, you say?” he asked.

“If you’s ain’t happy then we’ll bite the bullet and recompense you, Mister Rigó,” he replied with a dip of his head.

“Very good,” Arpad tried on a polite smile while handing the package over.  “I do have one more matter, as well.”

“And what might that be, Mister Rigó?”

Arpad saw the man’s smartphone lying on the credenza against the wall, behind the manager.  May as well go all in…  He opened the map he had onto the check-in counter and waved over it.

“I’m taking Lily Barrett on a date tomorrow,” that will be all over this little village in an hour, “and was hoping to find a pleasant park for a picnic lunch, I think it’s called.  Do you have any suggestions?”

Given his background it was ease itself to watch the emotions flicker across the manager’s face.

“If you’s don’t mind me askin’ first,” he began.  “Are you a Christian?”

“I am Catholic; just like Miss Barrett.”

“I see.” Arpad watched him digest that before leaning to the map.  “Let’s take a look see, here…”

After mumbling to himself for about a minute, the manager raised his head with another question:  “walking or driving?”

“Any infantryman never turns down a ride,” Arpad said with another diplomatic smile.  “But I prefer to get to know a town on foot.  Walking, preferably.”

“True,” the older man agreed.  “We’uns have all seen you walking about… in that case just about a mile to the northwest is Getzendaner Park.  I’m sure you’uns can fine a table for lunch and take a nice walk in the woods, later.”

Arpad looked sharply at the man for that statement but realized the manager had no idea it was a euphemism for a failed commander to blow his brains out.

“Thank you,” Arpad said with a final glance at the map before folding it and tucking it into an inner jacket pocket.  “I’ll go take a look at it now.”

“Take College Street, right outside here, to the southwest to the closed coffee shop just across the tracks.  There’s a walking and bike path that will take you up to the park.”

“Thanks, again,” Arpad said on his way out, noting the manager reaching for his phone as he departed.

With the crossing of the storm front overnight it had gone from unusually warm to unusually cool.  A bit like the eastern Hungarian Great Plain in November, he thought, walking quickly to the south while constantly looking about him.  He passed the City Building on his left and a Farmer’s Market on his right before crossing the railroad tracks.  As promised a weatherbeaten sign proclaimed “Waxahachie Creek Hike & Bike Trail.”  He turned right and kept on.  Some minutes had him past a typical American baseball field then a cemetery before coming into the park proper.  He knew the old interstate highway was just to the west but heard very little traffic on it.

They have survived but are not yet flourishing, he thought.  From what he had read about Texas resources and what he had seen of the people in only a few days, he knew that will all quickly change.  A man could make a fortune here, he continued, and set himself up like a duke back home…  That little idea curled up in the back of his mind and waited.

Seeing the open areas, some play equipment and a few tables, he pushed a little further into the woods.  First on the trail then off it.  Finding a private clearing right next to the creek, Arpad nodded once to himself.  Using the map in his head from earlier walks he left the park headed due east, his destination in mind.

The bell over the door jingled as he pushed open the door into Mort’s Café.

“Afternoon, barely, Mister Rigó!” the proprietor said with a smile on his face and in his eyes.  “How can I feed you today?”

“Not so much today, Mister Friedenall,” Arpad countered, increasingly feeling like a fly in a very complicated web.  “I’d like to put in an order that I can pick up tomorrow, just a bit before noon.”

“More Rakott Krumpli?” Mort asked.

“Not at all – but that was very good, thank you! – no, this time I need something appropriate for a Texan picnic.” At that Arpad lifted his hands.  “Something, I confess, I know nothing about.  I suspect field rations would be very inappropriate!”

That got a laugh.

“Not at all, not at all!  I’m sure I can put something together… just for you?” Another smile from his eyes.

“No:  and here’s where I must rely upon your expertise:  something that Miss Barrett will enjoy.”

Mort nodded.  Arpad could tell he was not surprised.

“I’ll see what I can do.  Anything else?”

“Not at this time.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  The bell rang on his way out.  Just outside the door he paused to survey the blue sky.  “I just put in the same amount of work on a  rendezvous that I would have on a simple recon mission.  What’s wrong with me?”

He took a step but froze when his dress shoes crunched on a shale rock rather than worn asphalt.  Rocks, he saw, that were everywhere.  A quick look back up showed an odd bright yellow sky, not the brilliant blue of a second ago.

I ate or drank nothing in the café, so this is not poisoning.  I’ve been checked for PTSD twice and cleared each time… what is this place?

A rumble like the passing of a train in the St. Petersburg underground shook the earth under his feet.  Arpad steadied himself an looked about.  Just to his right was a line of grasses and bushes leading to trees.  Perhaps a wadi in the middle of this desert?  With no other cues to act upon, he set off in that direction, picking his steps over the rocks carefully.

Passing through some sawgrass and stepping carefully about some rosebushes to not snag his suit, Arpad found himself in a shaded grassy path.  To his left seemed just barely lower than his right – thus more likely to lead to water – so he turned that direction.

I’m not sure if this is just an hallucination or… he considered some of the more bizarre things he had read in the dossier about the machines and Lily Barrett:  something about an ‘artificial world’…  Well, at least there is nothing too weird –

He stopped suddenly.

In the path no more than four meters away was a tall medieval knight clad in black chainmail with a solid helmet over his face, a great shield on his left arm and a broadsword in his right.

It just got weird.

From the way his suit coat hung on his shoulders Arpad felt the Walther in his left coat pocket.  He was unsure about the 9mm penetration of chainmail, though.

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

“Hello!” he called, holding up his open right hand.  “I am Arpad Rigó.  I’ve just arrived here!  You are?”

For a moment the knight didn’t move.  He saw he slightly tilted his head left, as if listening.  The knight then brought his shield forward for a moment before flinging it off and left.  In that moment Arpad noted the two Greek letters embossed on the surface:  lambda and beta.  The knight’s sword sailed off into the bushes just before he crouched and ran at Arpad.

The age of chivalry was long over.  He drew his pistol and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Arpad dropped the pistol and turned just enough to not be bowled over by the knight’s charge.

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