Dark Dragons

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Chapter 23 - Footprints

Restaurant Le Cap, Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat

Three Weeks Later

Darren sat by himself in the Restaurant Le Cap on its open air terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The setting sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, casting peach-colored bands with yellow streaks across the darkening sky. The twinkling lights of Nice lay just a few miles west of the Saint-Jean-Cape-Ferrat peninsula where the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat sat like a mighty castle on the southern point.

Darren wore a purple Ralph Lauren sport shirt, white Brunello Cucinelli cotton trousers, 10½” Gucci cream leather drivers and a $5,800 Rolex Explorer on his left wrist——about $6,900 worth of shameless overindulgence. The only items missing were a white scarf, Ray-Bans and a fashion runway lined with ogling photographers. His dandy appearance, however, did not mirror his melancholy mood.

He stared at the sailboats and yachts lingering by, wondering if those aboard were having a good time. Of course they were.

A group of Arab men in crisp white robes walked past, chattering in their native tongue, which Darren found fascinating. The restaurant’s patrons were the crèmé de la crèmé of the jet-set lifestyle: European aristocracy, movie stars, rock ’n’ roll gods, corporate CEO’s, and twentysomething heirs out spending their billionaire parents’ wealth in the flashy techno clubs and wine cafés along the French Riviera.

Darren watched an Australian actress——what’s her name again?——walking toward his table dressed in a beautiful light green evening dress. There was some kind of schmaltzy party going on in one of the hotel’s VIP lounges. She caught his roving eye and smiled as she strutted by. Darren felt a little better, but it didn’t last long.

He definitely looked out of place sitting alone surrounded by rich lovers staring into one another’s eyes. British rocker Ian Hawthorn and his current supermodel girlfriend sat at the next table eating pistachio ice cream from a single bowl. Even the two gay guys text messaging on their smart phones one table over were still mindful of the other’s presence with a game of footsie under their table

The waiter returned with a bottle of vintage Bordeaux. “Monsieur, plus de vin?”

“Oui,” Darren replied.

He filled his glass and moved on.

The PDA chirped in his pocket, and he fished it out, keeping it under the table. His Dragonstar parked on a forested mountaintop ten miles to the north just sent an intruder warning, but it turned out to be a harmless fox taking a piss on one of the landing skids. No need for retaliatory violence. Darren dialed down the anti-intruder defense for “two-legged” surveillance and put the device back in his pocket.

When he tipped his head back to finish his wine, he spotted another stunning woman in the Restaurant Le Cap, this one appearing from around a corner at the far end of the terrace. She wore a waist-high, pink cocktail dress with long fishnet sleeves, a pink and black wide-brim hat, and a matching set of black, high-heel pumps and shoulder bag. She stopped at the bar pavilion to buy a drink——a martini——before strutting across the terrace in his direction, turning heads both male and female as she approached. The skimpy dress accentuated her amazing curves, and the plunging neckline threatened to cause a ballooning wardrobe malfunction.

“Where have you been?” Darren asked with fake indignation in his voice, his dour disposition suddenly brightening.

Vanessa stuck her tongue out, imitating his faux anger. “The Gucci store in Monaco had a sale on jewelry. These were only $600.” She flicked one of her earrings. “I got a new stamp in my passport, too.” Vanessa sat down and let a sheepish grin cross her face. “I’m sorry I’m late. The cab driver didn’t speak English, and I don’t know French. We were halfway to Italy before I knew where he was going.”

“It’s all right,” Darren said truthfully. “I was kidding.” Her constant sunny disposition made it hard to stay mad at her for long, one of her many attributes he found rewarding.

Vanessa sipped her martini and glanced across the darkening Mediterranean. “I love a country where the drinking age limit is eighteen.”

“So. . . ?” He raised his eyebrows as high as he could. “Where’s my card?”

Vanessa gave him a confounded look. “Oh, that’s right!”

“Ohhhh, yeah!”

Vanessa reached into her tiny bag and gave Darren back his American Express Centurion card, its monthly balances and $2,500 annual fee integrated into the Department of Defense’s “black budget.” Darren, Tony, Nate and Jorge were awarded the exclusive, invitation-only cards ——made of anodized titanium!——in a secret ceremony held at Camp David two weeks ago. Of course the cards were just the APIS’s clever way of keeping track of their movements, but they didn’t care. Towsley was a good guy. Paranoid nonetheless.

Jorge received a little extra frosting on his cake from a nice lady from Homeland Security who granted him and his family immediate U.S. citizenship. For saving the world, it was the least Uncle Sugar could do.

The Medal of Freedom was nice, also, but it couldn’t buy a $2,300 bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild and a $200 jar of Russian Beluga caviar——which Darren and Vanessa wound up discretely spitting into their napkins the night before.

Darren stuffed the AMEX into his wallet. “I feel guilty spending the American taxpayers’ money . . . almost.” He had a fully restored 1970 Mustang Boss 429 waiting for him at a Ford dealership in Providence, Rhode Island, a sizable down payment sealing the deal.

“You’ve done generous things with your money, too,” she said. “You shouldn’t be feeling guilty for anything. Snap out of it.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Darren sent his mom and her two girlfriends to the Bahamas for a week and helped his Aunt Michelle, his dad’s sister and a single-mother, get back on her feet after some tough times. Jorge put a down payment on a beautiful home in Rancho Palos Verdes for his family. He also set up a monthly $2,000 auto-pay donation to a hunger/poverty-fighting organization called Heifer International that donated precious livestock to poor Third World families. Tony and Nate exercised their philanthropy by supporting the local economy in the tequila-soaked back alleys of Tijuana at the “donkey shows” and cockfights. They returned a week later with black-eyes, tattoos, pubic crabs and a blood-pact to return.

“All of this money is going to make me sick. Aren’t you getting sick of it yet?”

Vanessa tilted her head a little, giving him a playful look. “Hell no. I’m having fun with your military-issue credit card. I have the Vera Wang shoes to prove it.”

“Ha! Now I know why you really broke up with Todd. Just for a roll in the Benjamins, that’s all.”

“You got me. I’m only dating you for the money, honey.”

“Yeah, I know,” he shot back. “Live it up fast, though, Princess Grace, because the AMEX expires in five years and it doesn’t renew.”

Vanessa kicked him under the table with a look of choler. “I was kidding.”

“Honestly?” Darren asked.

Vanessa’s martini took a bigger pull this time and a slightly harder return to the table. Her eyes promised a nasty retort, but slowly they softened——just a little. “You know I came back to you days before you got rich. After I said goodbye to Todd . . . who frankly didn’t appear bothered. Yeah, the money’s a nice bonus . . . but the credit card didn’t rescue me from alien invaders or outsmart a whacked out guy from school . . . the card didn’t write that note I found in my locker either.”

The last question in his heart which had been whispering suspicions for the last three weeks had finally been answered. A slight pressure released inside him. “Je t’aime, trop,” he said.

Vanessa tilted her head again. “Translation, please.”

“I said ‘I love you, too.’”

“I love you,” she murmured. “I think the fact you can speak French is sexy. There’s another bonus.”

“Well, I am half-French. My great-grandpa fished for a living during the week and plugged Nazis for the Resistance on the weekends.”

After the waiter came and took their dinner order, Vanessa reached across the table and held his hand. She whispered, “Let’s go back to that secluded, little cove we found in Thailand,” her words laced with fond memories.

“We already spent a week there,” he replied. His mind floated back to that abandoned fisherman’s hut hidden among the coconut palms and tall limestone peaks. Eating, drinking, swimming, making love——eating, drinking, swimming, making love. “I thought we talked about Rio or Venice next? Or Goa?”

“Goa is hippy backpacker heaven. It would take us an hour to get into a club.”

“How about a safari villa in Kenya?”

Vanessa nodded. “Yeah, that would be cool. Or how about scuba diving in Belize?”

“I’ve always wanted to see Tokyo.”

They spent the next ten minutes exciting one another with possible destinations—— “Mongolia?”——two young adults with the world now readily open to them, when their food and wine arrived. They ate a candlelight dinner with a 2004 vintage Château d’Yquem. Darren had Duck Confit with foie gras and black truffles, Vanessa . . . roasted John Dory with sauteed purple artichokes and olives. It was late when they returned to their deluxe presidential suite with the gorgeous view of a moonlit Mediterranean and the yellow lights of yachts and sailboats out to sea.

As they lay in bed with their bodies intertwined, their skins caressed by a tropical breeze wafting in through the open terrace, Darren turned his head and whispered in her ear. “You know . . . there’s one place we haven’t considered visiting.”


“I change my mind,” Vanessa said. “I want to go back.”

“Oh come on, we’re already here,” Darren said.

“This is freaking me out.”

“How can you be freaking out from this? This is kiddie stuff.”

He heard her take in a deep breath over the comm. “You’re right . . . I can do this.”

“There you go. You won’t ever forget this. This is one of those life experiences people write books about. Like that guy who climbed Everest and those guys who dove to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. What we’re about to do is far less extreme than what they did——and far more historical.”

Darren had landed near the edge of the great Valles Marineris. Its incredible expanse and mysterious beauty was hard for them to comprehend. At the point where they sat, the opposite side of the canyon, nearly obscured by a pink haze of rusty dust, lay almost seventy miles away. He had been to the Grand Canyon before, but that tiny tear in the earth’s surface would be just a minor branch of the gargantuan rift stretching across the Martian surface in front of them. Twenty feet from the Dragonstar’s nose, the cliff dropped more than five miles to the valley floor.

Darren used his fighter’s ECM communication hack to access his MP3 player’s flash drive. They were listening to a mixed playlist of his favorite classic rock songs. The amazing view spread out before them took on more vibrancy and power to the tune of “Roll Me Away” by Bob Seger

“I never did ask . . . how’s Jorge’s suit working for you?” Darren asked.

“It’s a little tight in the chest,” Vanessa replied.

“Well, it was never designed for boobs.”

“No kidding. Do I really have to wear the armor suit? I’d rather just have the helmet and the sub-suit.”

“I wouldn’t risk it. All it would take is for a sharp rock or a sudden sandstorm to ruin your day. I’m talking exploding lungs and sucked out eyeballs kind of stuff.”

“Okay, I’ll keep the armor on.”

Darren did a quick environmental——just a balmy summer temp of -22̊ F, ninety-five percent carbon dioxide, and an atmo pressure of 7.6 millibars, less than one percent of Earth’s.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s see if this will work with you. See that tiny blue circle on the upper-left corner of the visor? That will pressurize the sub-suit and connect the oxygen tank to the helmet and seal off the breather mask. I want you to stare at that circle and think ‘activate.’ Concentrate really hard if you——”

He heard Jorge’s suit click inside and hiss.

“I did it!” Vanessa said. “Wow . . . thought power! That was cool. You sure I can’t fly your fighter?”

“I’m sure.” He activated his own zero-g function. “Okay . . . let’s do this.”

Darren sealed the personal effects compartment above the recliner, its usual contents of ammo clips, weapons and alien tools now an amalgamation of Neiman Marcus shopping bags, suntan lotion, $800 shoes, passports, and a multi-cultural detritus of a two-week, world vacation still in its infancy.

The cockpit hissed and the windshield slid back. Darren and Vanessa climbed out and stood on the fighter’s nose, hearts beating faster.

“Ready to make some footprints?” he asked.

Vanessa held up her cell phone to record the event. “For history.”

To the sound of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl,” Darren and Vanessa leapt hand-in-hand off the Dragonstar’s nose.

✧ THE END ✧

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