The trouble was, Karen wasn't with him tonight, as she had been two weeks ago. If she had, she would know that someone close to him was gone. And that someone was her.
About two hundred years past, his forefathers found a pre-industrial planet inhabited by human-like people, but they were to find out that these people were not Human at all. They called themselves Guardians and protectors of their planet, named long before, after the First Guardian of the planet: The Black Guard. And this Black Guard, they believed had bestowed powers upon them.
Although Trilcek had no proof that Karen was a decendant of the native Guardians, that part of her, the part that could read his thoughts, hadn't protected her from whatever it was that took her away. Trilcek missed that part the most, although he wouldn't admit it to her. When Karen was with him, she seemed to pry the skeletons out of his closet with unnerving accuracy. He now felt as empty as a mothballed starship.
As a Law Inquisitor, Trilcek had the skills to find her. He just hoped she wasn't lying in an alley somewhere, possibly dead. He shuddered at the thought. He hadn't known he loved her until she disappeared. Trilcek let out a deep breath and watched it disintegrate in the frosty air.
Karen had last been seen in Ludon. Trilcek searched the primitive island town , questioning most of its three-thousand residents. Now walking this street for the fourth time, he sniffed the oil-burning lamps that lined the cobblestone street and defied modern technology. He had grown up with the idea that everybody had electricity to power its necessities until this town. Why had Karen gone here of all places? She had been under quite a bit of stress when he last saw her so he deduced that she probably came here because of its primitive state. She hadn't even dropped him a word before she left but that she had done that before, several times, recalls Trilcek.
Turning a corner, Trilcek noticed an alley that hadn't been there before. He checked his palm-held map as he had countless times. The alley suddenly appeared on the screen. The map had no receiver and couldn't be reprogrammed without an update chip. The only people that could do that were manipulators. While all Guardians possesed some limited ability at using the powers that they innately had, a handful of Guardians mastered the energies around them and can do what was done to Trilcek's map. He had a listing of all manipulators in Ludon, and the one manipulator that did live in the town, was on the other side of the island.
A light came on in the alley. It didn't seem possible and yet it was there. Trilcek changed course, penetrating the once-hidden pathway. The light was a beacon in the night, forcing his eyes to adjust. He reached an illuminated doorway. Words lit up the otherwise plain wooden door: Tannin's Finest.
Feeling uneasy, he activated his pistol, keeping it in his holster. Checking the door, Trilcek went in, invited or not.
He counted half a dozen people sitting around small round, wooden tables. Torches illuminated the place that had seized his curiosity. Nobody paid attention as he walked in, welcoming the warmer, wine-rich air. It brought back Karen's twenty-first birthday party, which had served wine also, but was a happier time, a better time. Her dimples had shown when her cake's lit candles suddenly burst into multi-colored light to form the number twenty-one.
Trilcek, seeing the bar and tender, headed for a nearby stool, that looked as if it was going to collapse as he seated himself. This whole backward town should collapse, he thought. He missed Karen deeply.
"Excuse me?" Trilcek motioned to the tender, who was wiping the counters.
"Yes? Can I get you something?"
The tender's yellow eyes were cat-like, his receded hair was nearly white and matched his creased skin. The tender looked at Trilcek shrewedly and sympatheticaly while his apron reeked of alcohol. "Are you the owner?"
"Yes, I'm Tannin, and what importance is it to you, may I ask? Or can I interest you in a glass of red Bordeaux? You appear to need it," Tannin said sardonically. His wrinkles became more apparent as he smiled, like a friend.
"Trilcek Silver, Law Inquisitor, and no, I don't want anything to drink," as he rubbed his golden four-pronged circular eagle pin on his shirt collar. He was proud of receiving that pin and was the youngest human ever to receive it, despite what his fellow Guardians said.
Tannin's brows creased, his eyes bore into Trilcek for a second, then eased, "A German Tafelwein perhaps. Like you, it is of low-quality and ordinary."
The lighting dimmed as a few of the torches went out with a popping sound. Trilcek felt lost, and it finally dawned on him that he'd been insulted. Trilcek understood early in his life, that Humans were a minority and looked down upon in a subtle way. He didn't remember coming across on the wrong foot. Trilcek ignored the comment, wanting to find out who or what created this alley and bar. Questioning further, he grew tired with every word.
A prickling pain flooded his head as Tannin answered, "You play your part well, Mr. Silver! Blackguard is not the only planet in the universe, you know. The Germans are a people on Earth. Many of our descendants come from that watery world."
Earth! Enemies of Blackguard. Any goods from Earth would have to come from the Black Market. Trilcek knew Blackguard's soil couldn't support grapes, but Earth wasn't the only planet that made wine, though it was the most highly prized, even more so due to the wars between the two planets. Wars with his human heritage. His ancestors. It didn't seem possible his great great grandmother had come from Earth. They were war-mongers.
"Do you know a Karen Stewart?" Trilcek tried not to think about Tannin being a possible part of Karen's disappearance. And it was entirely possible, but not something he hoped, that Tannin was a mainpulator. He hadn't dealt with any criminal manipulators and was downright fearful of what they could do to him. Thankfully, though, most undergo intense disciplinary development that discourages unlawful behavior.
Tannin's eyes shifted left toward a back entrance behind the bar, enshrouded in shadows. "Many faces, many names. . . I can't recall." Trilcek didn't possess the abilities of a native Guardian, but his human mind could see a lie.
"Where is your loading zone and license for the wine? I don't recall Earth wine becoming legal on Blackguard. You may be on an island, but you can't ignore the laws."
Tannin ignored what was said and poured a glass of the German wine. The close scent of the grape beverage came to him from the past. From Karen's long auburn hair just after she shampooed it. Tannin was a part of this disappearance somehow, he thought. Pain started up again, clouding his capacity to think. "GO AWAY," called an echoing voice as the pain intensified.
"Are you all right, Mr. Silver? Perhaps you should lie down," Tannin suggested as a bed appeared where a table with patrons had been. Trilcek put his hand on his forehead, The manipulator's doing, he thought. The echoing voice's words remained in his mind like a song that wouldn't end, GO AWAY, GO AWAY, GO AWAY . . . .
"Have you seen this woman, Tannin?" Trilcek showed a pocket-sized photo of Karen. Her face was bright color, her eyes showed life. The photo pierced his heart, nearly driving him tears. He did so much with her: He attended college with her, which was where they met. He held her after her parents had been murdered while on a cruise liner by Earth ships claiming it had crossed into their territory. Karen was there at his academy graduation with her support. She had convinced him to stay in the police after he shot and killed a thief who attacked him. That incident brought his darkest days and Karen was right there with her continuing support like a crane holding up part of a damaged building so that the wounded could be rescued. He didn't take a single breath without thinking about her.
"Have I become a suspect, Mr. Silver? Your little gold pin and fine black clothing doesn't give you the right to start harassing me in my bar! You don't know what you're getting into," returned Tannin, angrily.
"I have more at stake than a search for a missing person. Karen is a close friend. I need information and cooperation, Mr. Tannin!" Most of the torches were out, as well as his emotions. Maybe Trilcek didn't know what he was getting into, but he wasn't going to give up on the account of an angry bartender.
"Come," Tannin motioned calmly, "if you want information."
Trilcek felt pulled to go. He stood up and followed Tannin through the back door and into a corridor. He reasoned Tannin might have an underground loading zone, to hide the shipments of wine. Darkness enveloped him.
"Tannin?" Trilcek called out, sensing that he was alone.
Trilcek's call echoed in the blackness, going unanswered. Dizziness struck him as he reached for his sidearm. He stumbled ahead and heard a door close behind him. He jerked his head up as his vision focused on rows and rows of bottled liquor. Tannin stood strides ahead of him.
Tannin walked between two rows, continuing unfazed. His black boots hit the stone floor without sound. He became tense from Tannin's trickery. Trilcek moved forward, endeavoring to keep pace. The labels on the bottles showed their alieness: Mendicino, Napa Valley, Bergerac, Long Island, Merlot, Rio Reserva, and something called Oregon. He watched as Tannin reached the end of one column and came to a large, battered stone wall. It had a sharply curved archway carved out of it. The echoing voice pierced Trilcek's ears once again, saying: "LEAVE NOW!"
Tannin kneeled and spoke in ancient Guardian tongue. Trilcek could only make out a few words of the rolling dialect.
He gripped his gun, aiming it at Tannin, "What's this about 'food' and 'lands,' Tannin?"
A booming rumble drowned Trilcek's words. He covered his ears and felt his stomach churn. Tannin grinned, but Trilcek held his weapon firm.
The stone inside the arch changed to rows of vineyards. He wondered where Karen was. His thoughts had become scrambled since the echoing voice spoke. Focusing on Karen and his love for her was becoming difficult. He needed her support, now, more than ever. Trilcek needed her. Was she in there? Among the vineyards? "WHERE IS SHE?!!!"
Tannin broke his silence, "The finest grapes are grown here, Mr. Silver! As you know, Blackguard's soil can't support these delicious fruit. There's no known way to protect them, and since I demand the best, this is the only way to transport them for free, without illegal contracts from the scum that call themselves merchants. I invited you here to answer your many questions- Watch!"
Trilcek watched; The stone that had turned into grapevines, morphed again into an alien city. Overhead lamps dotted old, cracked roadways, used by centuries-old vehicles.
"Where's Karen? If you did something to her, so help me I'll pull this trigger and make you wish you told me where she was!!" Trilcek's haggard yell didn't change Tannin's confident expression. His head surged with pain.
"IT"S TOO LATE, INQUISITOR." said the echoing voice. Trilcek's head hurt so much that he almost let go of his gun. Ohhhhhhhh, please stop this.
"I would like to introduce to you a friend who has helped me live a long time, Mr. Silver. Please don't be your rude self. He is very sensitive. Trilcek Silver, this is Jorvoghjikian Fottenleyzon, better known as Jor the Unending," Eyes appeared in the archway, staring at Trilcek. There was no color to them, other than the background of the alien city.
"Jor needs sustenance, just like us. Karen was his last meal. Soon her lifeforce will dry up, and he will need another volunteer. What do you say, Mr. Silver?" Tannin's long arms were held in offering, an offering that was Karen's before him. Trilcek stepped back, unsure and tense.
Tannin's power seemed high, even by Manipulator standards. He had a flare for the 'well-placed' illusion and this arch must be his doing, Trilcek thought. There was no Jor. Or was there? The pain in his head and echoing voice, tellling him to leave. He didn't know. He wished he had backup and a pain-killer. Karen was around here, somewhere.
"Give it up, Tannin. It would be easier to take you in standing," Trilcek said, as sweat dripped.
"I can't allow my wine to fall into somebody else's hands. This has been my home for one-hundred fifty years and will continue to remain my home indefinately. Jor has given me a window to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, a quiet and profitable life on Blackguard, and more importantly: immortality. I can't exactly walk away from that, you know."
Trilcek wiped his forehead, "I won't leave here without Karen. Your magic has gone on long enough! You will tell me where she is or I will use this."
"I do apologize Mr. Silver. You apparently have misunderstood my intentions. I recommend you drop your harmful toy before you get hurt," Tannin said as he was telling a kid not to play with matches.
Trilcek saw Karen's smile play over him, a tear collected in his eye. He pulled the trigger.
Smoke emitted from the pistol as the frame melted, burning his hands. A scowling cry escaped. This time, Trilcek let go, the weapon splashed onto the ground, bubbling. Tannin was a true manipulator, Trilcek thought. He destroyed my weapon with a mere thought!
"Goodbye, Law Inquisitor. Jor's stomach growls with impatience. And I still need to fill my customer's wine orders. They're coming from all over the Galaxy."
Trilcek was pulled off his feet and toward the alien metropolis. It looked suddenly real and dark. Was Jor a being? Was it Jor pulling him in or Tannin? That, Trilcek didn't know.
The Inquisitor's seared palms grabbed for anything within reach. He grasped a shelf as the smell of wine creeped in . . . memories of Karen . . . her birthday party, the toasting chimes of congratulations. She had hugged and kissed Trilcek after the song. Her mouth had tasted of cake and wine. . . Nooo!!! Managing to pull himself to his feet he grabbed the nearest bottle and threw it at Tannin just before he hit the cold stone floor again. The Chardonnay flew end over end.
The drink crashed, showering the wall behind Tannin, who was forced to jump in front of the archway. Tannin was being pulled into the arch with Trilcek.
"Two can't enter at the same time. Jor! Release me! I demand you release me!!" Tannin's face had turned as desperate as a man who was betrayed by his best friend.
A reverberating voice stammered it's way into the wine cellar. Trilcek recognized it as the same tongue that had invaded his mind.
"YOU DEMAND NOTHING TANNIN! YOU WERE GLISTENED WITH IMMORTALITY AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME? BY INVITING AN AGENT OF THE GOVERNMENT! OTHERS ARE SURE TO FOLLOW IN HIS PATH. MY EXISTENCE WILL BECOME KNOWN. I WARNED BOTH OF YOU. I WILL COMSUME YOU WITH ETERNAL ENJOYMENT."
Tannin let out a bellowing cry, "NOOOOO. . ."
Trilcek and Tannin scratched and clawed to no avail. Darkness enveloped them as they were both pulled into the alien city. Trilcek became unconscious.
Trilcek woke to the stench of garbage. He looked around wondering where he was and how long he'd been out. Large metal cans full of trash surrounded him, with many overturned. Rats dashed here and there. He was in the middle of an alleyway that gave him the impression that this city was chaotic, possibly run by crimelords.
Getting up, he found his head had stopped hurting and sighed in relief. Walking cautiously, he heard scuffling of shoes dipped in voices. He recognized the language as his own.
Advancing, he saw three figures. Two bulky men and one thin woman, her back against a brick wall. One of the men had his hands on her breast while laughing. There was something about the woman's tones and innocent demeanor. Karen! Nobody touches her like that!
Reaching for his weapon, Trilcek remembered he didn't have one anymore. Pain shot up through his scarred hands, doubly reminding him. Trilcek had always relied on his mind and gun. But he'd have to face them unarmed to get Karen back. Steadily moving, Trilcek heard a squeal and discovered he stepped on a rat. He cursed as the thugs directed their attention to him.
"Let her go."
Their faces were unshaven and dirty, clothes dull and torn. One man stepped closer, and looked at Trilcek up and down, fixating on Trilcek's collar. "Mind your own business, Nazi swine!"
Trilcek locked eyes with the thug in the wet night air.
"Did you hear me? She don't want you," the grimy man said. He pulled out a small knife and came even closer to Trilcek.
"Let the lady go and you won't get hurt," Trilcek warned as he readied himself for battle.
"Ain't gonna do it," his opponent retorted. He lunged for Trilcek.
The attacker missed, stumbled and steadied himself. The other thug held Karen and was continuing to fondle her. He seemed too strong for her.
Trilcek and the armed thug circled one another with Trilcek's opponent slashing and cutting the air, testing him. Trilcek braced himself as the thug advanced again.
Grabbing his arm, Trilcek wrenched the knife out of the thug's hand and onto the concrete. The antagonist smiled as he knocked Trilcek to the ground with a forearm to the chest. Trilcek kicked the knife out of the way, forcing the thug to fight without it. Trilcek rolled away as the thug jumped for him, and missed falling face first on the slimy concrete. Trilcek promptly wrapped his arms behind his back, using his binders to keep him there. He turned around thinking the other thug would jump him, but was horrified to find him ripping off Karen's clothes.
With as much force as he could muster, Trilcek rammed the rapist into the brick wall. Trilcek punched repeatedly on his face and kicking his groin in between punches. "Die you bastard, DIE!!!"
The thug screamed, but was silenced with a few more punches.
"Stop!! Stop!!" Karen shouted, crying.
Out of breath, he wrapped his arms around Karen. Her skin was cold and clammy to his touch. How long had she been out here under these conditions?
"I've been here for a week, Tril," she answered his thought. Her words were like coffee, smooth and satisfying. "It's gone. The illness is gone."
"You mean Jor?"
"Yes, what happened?"
"I think Tannin. . ."
"Replaced me? I think you're right, and yes, I am of Guardian descent. My Grandfather was a native Guardian."
She knew his thoughts and answered them. "I love you, Karen."
"I love you also, Tril. I always have."
They kissed, enjoying the moment.
Making their way out of the alleyway, a bright light caught Trilcek's attention. Alternate red and yellow colored light bars flashed. Large words were imprinted on the display: Now playing: The Grapes of Wrath.
"That's it!" Trilcek said excitedly, "All we have to do is find where Tannin is harvesting the wine and go back through to the present."
"We can't just walk up to him and ask to let us in because we're stuck in the past," Karen said, nearly shooting down his idea.
"No, I know. One of the labels on the wine stated it was from Oregon. I'm sure we can get a map and take some form of transportation to get there. I've defeated Tannin once and I certainly can do it again," Trilcek said confidently.
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