Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fate of Tamriel Prelude: Martine - The Family Business

(A prelude for our Elder Scrolls campaign, Fate of Tamriel, powered by Fate, and starring my Breton nightblade, Martine.)

Second Seed, 4E 164

He found her on the short run of steps leading down from the door of the alchemist’s shop, foiling her escape with the gentle insistence of a hand on the girl’s stomach. “Good day, Martine,” he said with mock friendliness. “Been awhile, hasn’t it? I do hope you’re well.”

“I am, Theo; thank you,” Martine replied. She hadn’t seen him since just before her thirteenth birthday, three months ago. Longer than I expected to avoid him, she thought, but still not long enough. She stopped herself from swatting his hand away. “Did you have business with Marie-Helene?” she asked, easing to the side and aiming a thumb at the alchemist’s door, though she already knew what he’d say.

Theo shook his head. “No. I was looking for you.”

“Well, here I am.” She managed some false friendliness of her own. “What can I do for you?”

“You can put my mind at ease,” Theo said. Barely three years older than Martine, Theo acted like he’d never been a child. She’d never found anything to like about him. “How are you getting by, without your father?”

“Well enough. Marie-Helene pays for exotic ingredients, and I bring her nirnroot from up the coast now and then. It’s not much, but it’s bread on the table.” Martine's father had taught her that a partial truth was easier to swallow than a whole lie…

“The coast? By yourself? Isn’t that dangerous?”

She shrugged, perhaps a bit too theatrically. “Mudcrabs don’t scare me. I’m learning swordplay. I’ve gotten pretty good, too.” She held up the slender longsword that hung from her belt. Please don’t ask who’s teaching me; I’d hate to drag Tralen into this.

Theo looked past her to the shop, before focusing his attention back on her. “You haven’t gone into the family business, then?”

“No.” She closed her eyes and turned away from him to sell the drama. “Father was one of the best, and all it got him was hanged. I – that isn’t the life for me.”

Theo’s fingers left Martine’s stomach, found her chin, turned her head back until her eyes found his. She fought down the urge to shudder. “We know he trained you, though. He told us you were very gifted. The Guild Master believes – and I agree – that it’s a waste of your talent to sneak roots out from under the noses of some bloody crabs.”

“Believe whatever helps you sleep.” Now she removed Theo’s hand from her person. “But I won’t steal for you. Good day, Theo.”

She managed three steps before he called after her, forcing her to stop again. “I only mention it because our friends in the Watch received a burglary complaint from Marcel du Foret. Three articles of jewelry were stolen, including a gold ring set with diamonds worth nearly a thousand septims. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the Guild didn’t authorize this heist. And we certainly didn’t receive a tribute.”

Martine put her bravest face on before turning back to face him. “I don’t know anything about that, Theo.”

“Are you certain?”

“I only know one fence, and he’s loyal to the Guild. What would I do, sell it to him?”

“You are just a child,” Theo said. “Perhaps you kept the shiny pretties for yourself.”

Or maybe I’m gonna give that ring to Tralen so he can see how I feel, and then sell the other two when we get to Skyrim. “Theo, I know how the Guild responds when they don’t get a cut.” I also know that the Guild Master could have pulled some strings and saved Father, and he didn’t. “I’d have to be stupid or crazy to fly in the face of that.” But that won’t stop me from hurting you every chance I get. “Do I strike you as stupid? Or crazy?”

Theo considered Martine, as if for the first time. “No,” he said. “No, you do not. I’ve been wasting your time. Forgive me.”

“Of course.”

“If you do hear anything about freelance thieves in Jehanna, you’ll let me know.” It was not a request.

“I will. Good day, Theo.”

He isn’t dumb enough to trust me, Martine thought as she headed for home… but he also knows that he can’t accuse me of anything without proof. He won’t rest until he gets that proof.

She could never work for the Guild, not after they let Father hang. She couldn’t ply her trade under their nose in Jehanna… indeed, to hear the Guild Master tell it, no settlement in High Rock escaped their shadow.

Then I have to leave High Rock, and sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Star Wars Silent Destiny: The Gift

(A flash-forward ficlet in honor of the birthday of Kaylani's creator.)

Zeva admired her handiwork until she sensed Kaylani just outside the crew quarters. This is it, she thought. Your moment’s finally here. I hope you're ready.

She set it on her bed and pulled the sheet up over it, sliding over to sit on her footlocker as the door opened. Kay’s half-smile came into its full radiance at the sight of Zeva. “Hey, pretty lady,” the pilot said. “Thought you might be sleeping.”

“No.” None of them had slept well since the horrors of Alemgotti. None of them would, for many nights to come. “No, I… I had work to do.”

That gave Kay a moment’s pause. “Really? Like what?” She walked into the crew quarters, glancing around as she moved toward her bunk. “This place has been spotless for weeks. It can’t be that hard to keep it up, even with the Captain and me to pick up after.”

“I’ve been making something. For you.”

“Oh, really?” Kay shrugged out of her flight jacket, laid it on her bed. “Making it in secret?”

Zeva nodded. “It has not been easy. But I’m finally finished. Would you like to see it?”

“Are you kidding? I can't imagine what you've been up to.” The mischief that Zeva had come to adore crept into Kay's grin. “It isn't Life Day, is it? Because I know it's not my birthday. At least, I don't think it is.” Her eyebrows knitted, but only for an instant.

“I've lost track of time, too.” This cabin had never seemed so cramped, the space between them so insignificant. “It hardly seems to matter, after everything we've been through. I just wanted to make something nice for you.” I guess I'm not ready to say why. Kay's smart, though - especially when it comes to people. Surely she knows why.

“Okay, I can't take it anymore. Show me.”

Without taking her eyes off Kay, Zeva reached under her bed sheet and drew out the slinky red dress.

Kay's eyes exploded like novas. “I don't... I don't believe it,” she breathed, reaching out to touch the sheer material. “You made this?”

“I did.”

“It looks just like the one we saw on Velcor Station.” She suddenly grew serious. “No. It looks better than the one on Velcor Station.”

“Thank you.” Zeva scarcely remembered Velcor Station – but she recalled the dress in the shop window with crystalline clarity, because of the way she felt when she imagined Kay wearing it. She understood the nature of that feeling, now, and had spent the days between that moment and this one coming to terms with it. Sewing this gift helped.

The dress lifted slightly in her hands; she returned to her senses, realizing that Kay wanted to take it. “May I?” the pilot asked.

Zeva relinquished the garment. Kay held it up, marveling at the way it shimmered under the light, then held it to her breast and turned to look in the mirror. “It’s so beautiful, Zeva. This can’t have been easy for you to make.”

“I had to guess at your measurements, but I’ve spent some time mending your other clothes, so it’s probably close.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said instead. Her voice softening, she asked: “Would you like to see me in it?”

More than anything. “Of course,” she said instead. Even now, when the time for truth had come, the Jedi feared to let it all out. This passion might frighten Kay as much as it frightened Zeva herself…

They looked at each other for a long moment. “Can I have the room for a bit?” Kay finally asked, glancing at the door.

The request surprised Zeva. I’ve seen you in your microgarments many times. Sometimes you’ve made it your business to be seen like that. After all this exhibitionism, why so modest now?

Because you’ve been keeping her at arm’s length ever since you had that dream, and now she knows you’re interested. Nobody spends that much time making a sexy dress for a casual acquaintance. Do they?

“Sure,” Zeva remembered to say, getting to her feet. “I ought to have a word with Captain Varn anyway.” She deserves to know that this is happening.

Kay nodded. “Thanks, Zeva. This…” Zeva couldn’t remember seeing the pilot at a loss for words before, though she clearly had a lot to say now. “It means a lot to me. Really, it does.”

“You’re welcome.” The door slid open for Zeva; she found herself smiling as it closed behind her.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

StarCraft Interlude: They Can't Take That Away from Me


She found her in the makeshift plasteel rondavel where the medics spent their rare hours of downtime. Moira lay on one of the room’s cots, still wearing the mismatched scrubs she’d borrowed from the medics, poring over something on her datapad. Turning to face the door, she broke into a grin when she saw Angel. “Oh, good!” she said, swinging her socked feet from the footlocker to the floor and setting her pad down. “My knight in darkling armor is still here.”

“Of course.” Angel walked in and closed what passed for the door behind her, noting that only cots and lockers suggested that anyone stayed here. One little electric lamp lit the whole space. “I wouldn’t leave without seeing you first.”

“Relax, Angel. I’m just teasing you.”

“Oh. Okay. Are the twins still working?”

“Yeah, they’re monitoring Fenix and a few others.” Her smile grew a shade more wicked. “Mindy’s hot for him, you know.”

“For Fenix? Really?”

“That’s what she told me, yeah.” Moira blushed a little. “After they made me tell them about us.”

“You told the medics about us?” Angel felt something strangely alien; this relationship wasn’t really a secret, but sharing its existence still seemed premature to her. That’s not it, she thought. You just don’t want Revenant to know. But he did know, and he’d already made it clear that he didn’t approve of this ‘attachment.’

Moira nodded. “Well, yeah. What there is to tell so far, anyway. They can be pretty persuasive.” She stretched out her arms. “So what’s on your mind?”

“I brought you something.” She held out the pair of gray Velcro sneakers she’d found while patrolling the perimeter.

“Oh, thank God!” Moira stood up and whisked the shoes from Angel’s hands, then sat back down, holding one against the sole of her foot before sliding them under her cot. “Yes, these should do nicely. But where did you – wait, no. It’s better if I don’t know.”

“I think that would be best, yes.” Angel figured they’d keep finding bodies from the crash as long as they remained on this planet.

“I’m glad you’re here, actually. I finished my analysis of the infested colonists. I couldn’t determine how long it’s been since they were exposed, but you should definitely anticipate a zerg presence at the colony site.”

“We’ll be ready for them.” She had the utmost confidence in the skills and dedication of her fireteam.

“If they – if those shuttles are still there, do you think Silas can get them up and running?”

“I do, yes. If there’s anything there to save, Mr. Voss can save it.” And then it’ll all be over, Angel thought, and her head sagged.

“Angel? Angel, what’s wrong?”

“You know what happens if we escape, right? What happens to us, I mean? This colonization has been compromised, and we don’t have enough personnel or material to try it again.”

“I think I know where you’re going with this. Come on, sit down.” When Angel moved toward another bunk, Moira added, “Next to me, please.”

She didn’t think the cot would support them both, so she sat on the footlocker. “If we escape this planet, I’ll be reassigned, and I’ll have my memory wiped. And someday I’ll see you on GNN, accepting some science award, and the sight of your face won’t make me feel anything. Not like it does now.” She took a deep breath, feeling the start of a lump in her throat. “But it’ll be so much worse for you, living with the memory of what we could have had.”

“Hey, don’t say that.” Moira took Angel’s hands in hers. “I knew the risks, going into this. My father used to tell me that the hardest thing you can do is care about somebody else, because there’s a hundred different ways it can hurt you. But it’s also the most important thing you can do.”

Angel felt a tear roll down her face, saw Moira’s gaze follow it. “This is just like what happened to Rick, isn’t it? In the movie, I mean.”

“Pretty much. Some things are just more important than your own happiness.”

“I have to put you – and everybody else – on those shuttles, even if I… lose myself doing it.”

Moira reached up to caress Angel’s cheek. “We’ll always have Paris. Well, I’ll always have Paris. Thanks to you and your mission.”

“But it isn’t just my mission, Moira. I want to do it… even if I won’t remember.”

Moira’s smile carried traces of sadness. “There’s hope for you yet. You remind me of a song, Angel.”

“’As Time Goes By’?” The songs from that movie are the only ones I know... but she knows that.

“What? No! I mean, I love that song, of course, but ‘woman needs man’? Not very inclusive, were you, Hupfeld? No, this song. Gershwin.” She reached past Angel to tap her datapad; a woman’s voice sang out, about the end of a romance. “I always wondered who was taking her lover away; I guess now I know.”

“Her voice is beautiful.”

“That’s Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. You know, Hal Wallis considered her to play Sam in the movie? She’s always been my favorite.”

“I can see why.”

Moira hummed a few bars, sang a few, then got to her feet, walking to the middle of the rondavel. “Come here,” she said, crooking a finger in Angel’s direction.

“Why?”

“Because I want to dance with you.”

Angel froze. “I don’t know how, Moira.” Oh, come on, Agent. You’ve faced the zerg and you’re afraid of this?

“But it’s so easy. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Stifling a sigh, Angel stood and walked over to Moira. “Here,” the doctor said, pulling her close, “hold my hand up, like this. Now put your other hand here.” Angel found her hand on Moira’s back, not entirely sure how it got there. “And we just sway back and forth. See? Nice.”

It was, but Angel felt like a thousand butterflies were trying to flit their way out of her chest. “Moira, I – ”

“Shush. Just dance with me. Listen to the song. Be here, now.”

She did. She let herself go, let the butterflies go, and passed being part of the moment to become the moment. Time simply ceased to matter. She didn’t even notice when the song started over.

“You know,” Moira eventually said, her chin resting on Angel’s shoulder, “I was with Nikki for most of three years, and she never once watched Casablanca with me? But you did on the first date.”

“Was it a date?”

“Well, I intend to count it. I don’t know how you do it in the military.”

“Neither do I.”

“I suppose you’ll have to write your own field manual, then.” Moira chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. “I don’t know when you ship out, but the twins won’t be back here for another three hours.”

Angel gave this a moment’s thought. “Did you have another movie to show me?”

“What?” Moira pulled back into Angel’s field of vision. “Well, yes, but I thought we could do… you know… something else.” When Angel didn’t respond, she added: “Something more intimate?”

“Oh? Oh!” Ice and fire seeped into Angel’s blood, and she felt her limbs tense up.

Moira let go and took a step back. “Unless you don’t want to.”

“No, of course I want to.” Indeed, since movie night, Angel had struggled to think about anything else.

“Okay. But you still seem really hesitant. If you aren’t ready, we can just forget I said anything.”

“That’s my problem; I have no idea if I’m ready. How could I know if I can’t remember ever doing it before?”

“Fair enough. I know your hymen’s still intact, for what that’s worth.” She shook her head, laughing. “Clinical language is always a turn-on, isn’t it?” She looked a little disappointed when Angel didn’t laugh. “Sorry, I want to respect the importance of the moment, but I also want to keep it fun. I’m in uncharted waters here.”

“Have you never had sex either?”

“I…” Moira gave her a quizzical look. “Yes, I have. But I’ve never deflowered somebody before.”

“I see. Well, everything I know about the subject comes from what I’ve seen in people’s dreams and waking fantasies. Though it’s… interesting, I doubt it has any practical application.” Most of it seemed downright impossible, really.

“Doubtful, yeah.” The doctor puffed out a breath of air. “I feel like the moment’s slipping away, here. Let’s do an experiment. I’ll provide a stimulus and observe the response. Along the lines of the ‘symptoms’ we talked about on movie night.”

“Sexual arousal. Sure.” Anything would be better than all this anxiety. “What did you have in mind?”

Moira took Angel into her arms again. “This,” she whispered, closing her eyes and tilting her head just before kissing Angel’s lips.

Fireworks exploded in Angel’s brain as Moira held her close, the warm wet softness of the doctor’s mouth sliding against her lips, the natural scent inflaming her nostrils. Moira’s tongue stole into her mouth; when she met it with her own, the doctor gave a hot, deep groan and pulled Angel back toward the cot.

Moira broke the kiss at last, gazing at Angel with dark, half-lidded eyes. “I believe the experiment is a success,” she gasped as she sat on the bed. “How do you feel?”

Angel lowered her psychic defenses, feeding on Moira’s passion until her own rose up to match it. “Like you do.” She kneeled before Moira, the perfect height to start kissing her again.

“I wish we had more time,” Moira panted between kisses. “Your first time should be romantic, and special… we’ll have to do that some other time.” Bringing her mouth to Angel’s ear, she whispered: “Because, right now, I just want to fuck.”

Fumbling with the clasps on Angel’s chestplate for a few moments, Moira gave up and reached down to pull her own shirt up and over her head, allowing her bare breasts to drop into view. Discarding the shirt, she took hold of Angel’s gloved hands and placed one on her stomach, while she pulled the glove off the other.

Moira suddenly stopped and looked Angel right in the eye. “If I do anything for you, or to you, that you don’t like, just tell me, and I’ll stop.”

Angel nodded. As Moira’s breast filled her hand – smaller than her own, and a lighter shade of gold from the doctor’s lovely face – she thought, there’s nothing you could do right now that I wouldn’t like.

Then Angel’s communicator chirped. “Docs cleared me,” Fenix’s voice announced, “so we’re just waitin’ on you now.”

“Oh, damn it,” Moira moaned. “Why am I not surprised?”

“They can wait a few minutes.” Even as Angel said the words, she knew the moment had passed.

“No, no.” Moira fell back onto the cot and out of Angel’s grasp. “For God’s sake, answer him.”

She paused before keying her com to say, “I’m on my way.” She looked into Moira’s eyes. “Moira, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I knew this was a possibility.” She laughed. “I should have kept going till I got to ‘inevitability,’ though.”

Angel collected her glove and stood up. “I’ll be back.”

“You damn well better.” Moira grinned at her, also getting to her feet. She threw her arms around the ghost, pressing her naked torso to Angel’s armor. “But you don’t get to leave until I get one last kiss.”

That reminded Angel of the movie. “Should I kiss you as if it were for the last time?”

“Yes,” Moira breathed, parting her lips for the slow, sweet pleasure of the kiss… which very nearly was their last.

*   *   *



Moira danced alone to the jazz until she heard the APC roll out of the camp. Stupid, she knew, to cling to the hope that Angel would come back for her so soon… but, if life at Winchester had taught her anything, it was that a girl could hope.

Angel’s lips still seemed to brush against hers; she still felt the gentle touch of her fingers, the heat of her embrace. She looked down at her bare breasts, her nipples still hard enough to cut glass. Angel had been this close to holding them, touching them, licking them, sucking them…

Moira reached into her panties. Even knowing what she'd find there, she was pleasantly surprised by the cotton fabric's wetness against the back of her hand. Holy shit, she thought, it's like I'm a teenager again. She cupped her pubic mound and gave it a gentle squeeze; the ripples of pleasure that swept through her turned to lightning strokes as she increased the pressure.

“Okay,” she sighed. “I'm gonna die if I don't rub one out right now.”

She switched the room's fan to its highest speed and pointed it straight up. That won't be loud enough to drown me out if I get carried away, but it's all I've got. She shed her scrub pants like a lizard's skin, leaving them pooled on the floor as she eased onto her cot.

As her hands worked light circles around her body, from breasts to waist and back, Moira closed her eyes and recalled the fantasy that had kept her from giving up hope on Winchester. Hua Mulan came to rescue her – disguised as a man, of course – on her way back to her homeland. In Chu Renho’s version of the story, once her femininity was revealed, Mulan committed suicide rather than become the khan’s concubine. But clever Moira, who knew how the story was “supposed” to end, convinced Mulan to marry her and run away first.

Even after the Confederacy rescued Moira, she never let go of the fantasy. Indeed, as she passed through puberty, she relished the thought of playing Mulan’s blushing bride, of feigning surprise on their wedding night, of giving herself to her new wife.

She slowed her breathing, her belly rising and falling beneath her fingers. As much as she’d relied on Mulan over the years, Moira had a new soldier, a real soldier in her life, with gorgeous hazel eyes and no baggage and a tight, sweet ass… Sure, she’s got no sense of humor, but she’ll learn.

Her hands formed a V that glided down over her body. As she touched herself through her underpants, she wondered what sort of lover Angel would be. Inexperienced, sure, but Moira could tell her, show her, how she wanted to be loved, how she needed to be fucked.

If Angel read her mind, she’d know exactly what Moira needed, even the things she feared to say aloud.

As she pictured the ghost coming back into the room, Moira’s breathing quickened, and the circles she ran around her clitoris grew faster and tighter. Her mind’s Angel, still fully clothed and armored, paused only to remove her gloves before taking a knee to gently kiss her. Moira’s hands became Angel’s, exploring her skin, lifting one breast up so Moira could (with some difficulty) lick her own taut nipple. Then she bit it, and not gently, making herself whimper.

One hand pulled her panties aside while the other rubbed the curly mound she’d groomed today in hopes her knight would see it. Slowly and gently at first, her hands gradually worked harder, faster, until she started moaning aloud. I can’t keep quiet; my pussy’s on fire! She was slippery enough to barely feel one finger as she slid it inside, so she sent a second in after it. Moira pushed them in and out, slowly, angling toward her G-spot while she stroked her clit with the other hand. But in her mind, Angel was the one fucking her with both hands – and now her mouth – with passion, with abandon.

Oh, Angel, you fuck me so good! Moira groaned as she came, riding the clench of pleasure for ten long seconds before Angel picked her up and turned her onto her stomach. “What are you doing?” she gasped, half into her pillow, as Angel lifted her pelvis off the cot to bury her face between Moira’s legs.

“What you want me to,” Angel whispered, holding a hand up to Moira’s face. “Get them good and wet.” Three fingers of her other hand were already buried in the heat of her cleft.

As she licked her own (Angel's) fingers, Moira's heart froze. What if one of the twins catches me? The risk of getting caught always lent a secret thrill to masturbation... but, if Lindy was the one to catch her, the medic might join in.

The twins always sounded flirty, no matter whom they spoke to, but the way Lindy reacted to the news of Moira's involvement with Angel said that the medic was at least bisexual. Moira had nearly asked Lindy to put her money where her mouth was before the crash... before Angel had taken over her dreams.

You have your knight in darkling armor now, she thought. Let Lindy join in with Fenix and her sister... Her free hand now slick with spit, she reached back and slid her middle finger up her ass. “Oh, Angel,” she sighed as her muscles adjusted.

“Am I hurting you?” asked the ghost.

“No. I just – I don’t usually do this.” Nikki had never done this to her, in fantasy or reality. “But it feels good.”

“You want me to keep going.”

“Yes, Angel; I want you to fuck my ass. My pussy and my ass.” She felt dirty, even filthy, saying it, but she’d never felt so sexy in all her life.

Angel resumed thrusting; she licked at Moira’s clit, hot breath against her lover’s flesh. “Are you going to come for me, Moira?”

“Yes. Yes. Jesus Chr – “ The hand that worked her sex stopped long enough to spank her ass like a cracking whip, making Moira cry out before it returned to fucking her. “Oh, God DAMN it!” she cried as another climax took over her body, dribbling her juices down on her phantom lover’s face. Angel wrapped her lips around Moira’s clit and sucked hard, causing her to come with so much force that her socked toes curled.

She tried to get her mind’s Angel to peel off her socks and suck her toes next, but it only reminded her of her would-be lover’s absence, which proved to be the beginning of the fantasy’s end. She teased out two final orgasms, neither as powerful as the third, before she ran out of steam and fell onto her bed, panting, sweaty, and exhausted, sure she could still feel Angel’s fingers stroking her back. “Never knew,” she moaned, “could be like this. Never like this before.”

“Shush. You need to sleep, Moira. If you can’t now, there’s nothing more I can do for you.”

“But you never took your clothes off.” She slurred her words. She had seconds of consciousness left, at best.

“Next time,” Angel said. “Sleep. You’re going to need it.”

Angel was right.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vote for Me! Or for My NPCs, Really!

http://www.tabletopadventures.com/Shards_and_Bits/Warlock_s_Journal_Contest/body_warlock_s_journal_contest.html

I submitted three NPCs to a contest! Please take a minute to visit the above link and vote for Zariel, Kenrick, or Shalenna.

Thanks for your support!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jack Fite and the Golden Panda, Chapter 10

(I tied for second place in a contest for this piece. Both the first place winner and the fellow I tied for second are published big-deal game designers, which makes me feel pretty good about my writing. And no, there aren't any other chapters; that's part of the joke. ;) I blame "Confusing Sequel to a Story You Haven't Read," from Dragon #156 - an April issue, of course.)



JACK FITE AND THE GOLDEN PANDA
Chapter 10: Teahouse of the August Murder!

by Dudley Manlove

Shanghai, 1935

“Guten tag, Herr Fite!” Hauptmann Schurke crowed from somewhere upstairs. “Ping, take his pistol unt let him in.”

Jack Fite scowled as his Colt cleared its under-shoulder holster. Ping pinched the automatic between his fingers, at arm’s length, as if it might go off. He patted Jack down – polite, but very thorough – and waved him past the coat check. Jack set his jaw, tipped his fedora to Ping, and sauntered into the teahouse.

It was a nice place – spacious and charming, even in the dim light and summer warmth. Little wooden stools sat atop the tables, the mosaic floor diligently swept after closing. Jack noted at least three trigger men – probably with MP40s – lurking in the shadows around him. Sure to be more upstairs with the boss.

A short flight of wooden steps led up to a second floor, where Hauptmann Schurke leaned against the rail, his broad smile made all the more unsettling by the patch over his left eye. He held a Luger pistol in one hand.

“Evenin’, Fritz,” Jack drawled, wondering if any other mechanics from Cleveland were off on globetrotting adventures like this right now.

Schurke’s smile flickered. “Ah, yes. American insolence and bravado in the face of danger. Sticks unt stones, Herr Fite. Mein name is Fritz.”

“Huh.” Jack planted his fists on his hips. “Evenin’, Jerry. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

That killed the smile. Furst’s hand went to his eyepatch – a souvenir of their last encounter. “Mein doctor says that mein eyesight vill return… in time. Still, you should know better by now than to risk mein wrath, Herr Fite. Surely you remember vat happened to Professor Engfors.”

Not an easy thing to forget. Though he’d spent the Great War over Europe in a Sopwith Camel, he’d seen his share of horrors… but those had been nothing compared to the Swedish archaeologist’s fate. He tried not to shudder, firing back, “I’m gonna guess that your Scottish relic hunter found my little present, then. Otherwise I’d be just as dead now.”

There was that damned smile again. “Ja, she did. You are most resourceful, to outmaneuver her, and steal a priceless artifact from a haunted Shaolin monastery.”

“Ghosts shouldn’t know kung fu.” Jack had the bruises to prove it. He’d also bedded the Scot before hitting the monastery, but decided to leave that out. If Schurke knew that Rhona’d been sleeping with the enemy, she might end up like the Professor…

”You have it, then.” The Hauptmann’s eye gleamed.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Fritzy. Show me the girl.”

Schurke beckoned, and one of his soldiers strong-armed Polly into view. The little brunette was bound at the wrists and ankles, and spitting mad. Still, she looked like a million bucks in that shiny red Chinese dress… “You all right, darlin’?” Jack asked. “They hurt you?”

“Don’t be silly,” she snarled. “Nazi hospitality’s everything you’ve heard.” Her veddy British accent blunted the sarcasm, but only a bit.

“Hang tight, darlin’. I’ll have us out of here in a jiff.”

“Satisfied?” asked the Hauptmann.

Jack shrugged. “Guess I have to be.”

“Good. Now. I hope, for your sake, that you’ve brought it mit you.” When Jack nodded, Schurke pointed his Luger at Polly and growled: “Show me ze Golden Panda.”

Jack thrust his hand into the satchel that hung from his shoulder, hauling out a shining, spherical gold statuette in the image of a panda, with eyes of purest jade. It caught every light in the place, almost seeming to glow from within.

“Set it on ze table,” Schurke ordered, indicating one with his gun.

“Let her go first. This is between you and me, Fritz.” Actually, there were other interested parties, but this negotiation, at least, was between them.

Schurke tilted his head to one side before nodding. Polly’s handler slit her bonds, and she clambered down the stairs into Jack’s arms. Her breath felt hot on his neck, and she smelled like jasmine… and fear. “Sorry, darlin’,” he told her, his voice low. “I never meant for you to get mixed up in this.” Plucky girl reporters always got mixed up in capers like this, but Jack still meant it.

“Get me out of this,” Polly whispered, “and we’ll call it even.”

Jack heard two of the trigger men moving behind them to block the exit. No surprises there… “I’ll see what I can do,” he said with a swallow. He stepped forward and set the Golden Panda on a table, so Schurke could see it.

The Nazi laughed, a hollow, deadly sound. “Herr Fite,” Schurke said, “your stupidity surprises even me. Do you have no plan for escape? Now I haff vhat I vant, and you vill die here, alone and unmissed. How does zat make you feel?”

Jack Fite pushed his neck from one side to the other to crack it, and nudged Polly until she wasn’t standing between Schurke and himself. “I feel glad that I didn’t come here alone,” Jack said with a grin, just before all the lights went out.

“Herr Schurke,” came a sepulchral voice. “The Winding Shroud has come for your soul.”

This was Jack’s only play to get out with the Panda and the girl in one piece – to team up with the supernatural avenger who’d been stalking Schurke since Warsaw. The Shroud was a full-on mystery man who’d almost killed Jack on an airship over Paris, but both men were running out of time…

“Gott in Himmel!” Schurke shrieked. “Kill zem all!”

Jack pushed Polly to the deck and dove for the table to get the Panda, but he misjudged the distance, crashing into the table and sending the priceless artifact flying as the trigger men’s machine guns barked to life…

To Be Continued Next Week… in
JACK FITE AND THE GOLDEN PANDA
Chapter 11: Death Stalks the Catacombs!