A girl named Charlie Brown

Saturday night, 23.00 hours, Northwest harbor district, Baltimore MD.

The club was jumping. From the top of the stairs the man had a panoramic view on the dancers on the floor below. They moved like the tide. The heat rising from them was almost palpable in the air. Lasers skimmed the crowd and touched the contours of the man. For a moment the large tattoos on his bare arms were clearly visible but then the light moved on; leaving him in a relative darkness. A small amount of blue light, coming from a bulb at the top of the stairs, only just revealed the content smile that crossed the man's face before he started his descend into the pool of bodies.

The new club was in a former industrial area; its previous life still recognizable by its height and from all the pipes that were cutting trough the room. From the gigantic speakers hoovering above those pipes pure and liquid dancemusic was oozing, soaking every body as it touched ears, skins, hands and the very souls of the dancing crowd. The laserlights flashed, drawing 3d figures above the sweating and swinging masses. They were clearly visible in the air since most of the other lights were burried in the floor: an illuminated, multi-coloured, flashing dance floor. The dancing crowd trew shadows and thus added an ever changing piece of light art to the patterns of the pipes. Blues, purples, pinks and greens all melted together on the ceiling. At the far end of the room in front of three huge loading bay doors there was a very long bar. It was made of glass and had neonlights along the whole length. Where as the floor gave you a seventies-feeling, the bar looked like a relic from the eighties, like something that could have been in the movie "Cocktail".

Moving with the crowd the man slid through the dancers like a shark through the waves. At the bar he ordered a beer from a blond girl. He turned with the bottle in his hand and hanging against the bar he started to slowly scan the crowd, treating the girl behind him with a full view of the three X's tatooed in his neck.

Xander Cage badly needed a place to unwind after a long, weary day at the offfice: debriefing never being his strongest side. A groan ecaped him: at his own debriefings, when it came to x-treme video's they just sat down, had a couple of beers, made an inventory of what went well and how to pull an even bigger and better stunt next time... That was simply a matter of checking if everyone was still alive, then if nobody got caught and if so how to bail them out. No, those debriefings never took more then two beers tops. Beers shared with good friends... However, not with Gibbons and Tannick at the helm! The debriefings of his direct boss and his boss' surperviser never ever included such enjoyable pleasures as beers. Maybe that was because at the rate they were going even a non-drinker would manage to get drunk; talking for hours and hours going over every little detail again and again. And tommorrow, oh yes, please don't bother whether it is a sunday; even more! He smiled sarcastic, shook his head, tilted it and poured the beer down his troat.

Next to him three giggling girls were ordering a drink. They were talking to one of the bargirls and naming all kind of cocktails and mixes. Everytime the bartender started to mix something, the girls decided they wanted something else. He glanced to his side, in front of the girls were already six glasses each holding only a small amount of liquer. This time the girl behind the bar just did not act when the girls requested an Southern Suicide. She just held up the Jack Daniel's. "You're not gonna make me my cocktail, are you?" one of the girls said after a short while. "Well, I always thought that getting dressed was difficult because of the choices, but I have to review that!" Although there was no trace of impatience in the voice of the girl tending them, the three were offended. X expected that they were just playing the bargirl. "If you don't get me what I ordered, I have to inform your boss," the talest one said arrogant. The bargirl's brown eyes grew just a bit wide and her darkbrown eyebrows raised: "Ooh, I'm so sorry... Now I understand, yes of course... I'm sorry, I know exactely what you want. It's been so obvious from the way you've been ordering, isn't it? This can only lead to one drink... of course, how stupid of me... it's just that I do not know any girls your age who drink it but... you really know your way around the bar don't you? Are you some kind of... professionals, I mean this kind of order normally only come from dancers or singers, I mean, it's really an incrowd-thing, isn't it?" Amused X looked at the girl, her eyes were wide and appeared completely innocent. She is just so totally playing them. Those innocent big eyes... this is NOT for real! A splitsecond she looked at him, their eyes locked, and the intensity of those sparkling darkbrown gems made him unconsciously hold his breath. "I'm just so sorry I did not catch up earlier," she continued to the three in a flattering voice. "Sorry. I've not worked here so long, were as you..." the silence could implicate anything but the girls were abashed and blandished. "I'll be just a moment," the girl at the bar took the glasses from the counter and turned around. She was screened from the view by the cash register and the next moment she turned back and presented three glasses that contained a fizzy brown drink. "Here you are, I'm just so sorry, but I did not expect you girls to have such an exquisite taste... that'll be 45 dollars," she added without even blinking. Smooth, X thought. Now they can't complain about the price or the taste without confessing they don't know hell what she's talking about. The three girls paid and took their drinks, but the bargirl called them back: "Now, now, let's not forget the straws, shall we?" waving three straws towards them bearing one of the sweetest and innocent smiles X had ever seen. The girls could not find any trace of insincerity as they carefully took the offered straws and wandered off. When the bargirl started to put away the bottles, X turned completely towards her and cleared his troat: "If I wanted one of those, what would I have to ask for?" he said against her back. Slowly she turned and looked at him. She took in the complete picture of this guy: bald head, brawny, tattoos, a glint of prank in his eyes. "You would have to ask for our famous 'Charlie Brown'..." she put the last bottle back above the bar, leanded over to him and continued in a soft voice, just audible above the noise of the music: "but believe me: you do NOT want one of those!" They stared each other down, brown eyes meeting brown eyes, a gaze like dark chocolate starting to melt, until she slowly said: "But hey, I could get you another beer to drink away the disappointment!"

X released his breath but before he could answer a bottle of beer was placed between them with a sharp knock. "I'm perfectly able to get my customers a beer, thank you Charlie!" the hand holding the bottle belonged to the blond girl, who casted a furious look at 'Charlie' and then smiled sweetly at X whilst opening his bottle. "You just had to ask sweetie!" she said to him. But X was looking at her co-worker. "Charlie?" he said as if contemplating, "...as in your 'famous 'Charlie Brown''?" Slowly a grin spread on her face, a grin that caused Xander's pulse rate to soar. "Can I get you anything else sweetie?" the voice of the blond cut through the moment like a chainsaw trying to get hold on an iron girder. She pushed Charlie aside. "Yeah, yeah, I got the message Erica!" With a gesture Charlie pushed a curl of reddish-brown hair behind her ear, which just popped back instantly. "You know, he may want an 'Erica Brown' later!" she told Erica as she passed her on her way to the other end of the bar where several customers were shouting their orders. Erica looked confused for a moment but then she shrugged her shoulders and turned to X again, saying: "Don't mind her sweetie, it's Erica Green, but she always had a weird sense of humor." X nodded and turned towards the crowd again, but just so far that he could see the other end of the bar from the corner of his eye: I would prefer a 'Charlie Brown' to an 'Erica Green' anyday, he thought: if only to honor Charles M. Schultz!

Where he had come in with the idea of dancing until he dropped, he found himself listening to the girl named Charlie. Being a Saturday, it was the busiest night of the week and the girls behind the bar did not get any moment to rest. Charlie's chats with customers and her colleagues were humorous and X found himself smiling and sometimes bursting out in laughs during the next half hour. He found her remarks entertaining and the sound of her voice relaxing. The only thing that annoyed him was Erica. Where as Charlie was busy all the time, Erica seemed to have a lotof spare-time : and she used all of it to talk to X. She soon found out he was into extreme sports and just 'loved' it; she went on and on about it. On the other hand, talking to Erica also got X some information: that all the girls behind the bar were foreign, that they were all in the US to study, that the owner of the bar was a person named Sadie who would not let her girls talk too much unless they were really special like, what do you know, Erica! She also told him that the club had only opened its doors for about two months, which explained why X had not heard of it before: he had been on an undercover-job for the NSA in Estonia. No, he mentally corrected himself, that was not entirely true, he had been on a trip to the most awsome waves in the world off the coast of Chili, when Gibbons snatched him away from the ride of his live. He sighed in frustration just by thinking about it again. "What now 'Mister X-treme'? You did not try an 'Erica Brown', now did you?" He looked up to find Charlie standing in front of him reaching up to grab a bottle from one of the cabinets above the bar while making a 'tsk-tsk' sound. Somehow she had overheard his conversation with Erica or had the blond 'drill' told her? They did not seem to get along that well together, but anyway... she had found it interesting enough to remember! "Well, I don't suppose you know a way to save me from one, do you?" he asked. She looked into his eyes again before answering. This guy really had smouldering eyes, she could understand Erica's interest in him. Surprisingly his comments were more humorous and intelligent then she would've expected from the look of his arms. "When you look in the mirror, Mister X-treme, do you really think: hey, here's a guy that needs salvation?" While he laughed she got back to her customer and the next moment Erica was back, being a bit too friendly and trying to find out what Charlie had said to him.

While Xander was occupied parrying Erica a guy came up to the bar. "Hey Charlie, what does a guy have to do to get a 'French Kiss' from you?" he said in a thick, boozy voice. The explicit sexual undercurrent of the question got the attention of not only X and Erica. Charlie crossed her arms and looked at the guy: "Well now, that's an easy one Russ: you just pay me 7 dollars and 45 cents!" Some people at the bar started to laugh. Russ also showed a somewhat forced smile. He started again: "And what about a 'Kiss in the dark', that's a good offer for a girl like you: powerfull and all..." Another round of laughs, but X observed that although there was a smile on Charlie's face, it did not quite reach her eyes. Feeling confident again Russ continued leaning on the bar towards Charlie: "Or are you more the type for a 'Whipster'? Ouch, baby, I could really have a good time with you or... yeah, I know, babe, you can get me a Blow J..." before he could complete his sentence Charlie suddenly moved and brought her face levelled with his. " Well I do know a nice 'Snake Bite', Russ, and I have a 'Bad habit' for a 'TKO', although I don't think you could afford that one... docter's fees do soar to record heights these days, don't they!" As the bystanders started laughing again Charlie walked away and a black haired woman came over to Russ. "Hey Russel! You better chill now, before she starts cooling you down with the water dispenser... and Erica...," she turned to the blond girl, "I don't mind if you go snowboarding, skating, parachute jumping or whatever 'muscles' here wants to do with you, but do it in your own time ok?" She turned to Xander: "She get's off at half past midnight 'muscles' !"

"Xander." said Xander looking at her, and when the woman shot him a confused look he repeated a little more clearly: "Xander: 'She gets off at half past midnight, - Xander - '" Charlie turned at once, looked him in the eyes and said: "Xander? ...as in the famous 'Welcome-to-the-Xander-zone-Xander Cage'?" Before he could confirm, the black-haired woman said in a astonished voice: "Xander CAGE? THE Xander Cage?" she was bluntly staring at him now. Xander nodded slightly making a confirmative grunt. "Well Xander Cage," Charlie said motioning towards the woman: "meet Saddie Fister, married to Lee Fister, nice guy with just a minor defect: he knows your whole collection of extreme video's by heart." Xander extended his hand but the woman introduced to him as Saddie Fister was still staring at him mumbling: "Xander Cage, Xander Cage, Lee's going to go through the ceiling when I tell him this!" She suddenly grabed his offered hand. "Nice to meet you. Sorry to be staring, but when Lee hears this..." There was a sound of shattering glass from the other end of the bar. Saddie looked at it and said: "Sorry, I have to... Alice!" and off she went towards another bargirl who just missed a bottle while flipping it.

The moment Saddie was out of sight Erica came back. "I have to be quick, Sadie is in a foul mood tonight: we always go to a place called 'The New Haven Lounge' when we get off. You know that? Its on Havenwood road. It plays mostly blues and jazz, but its open until at least 2 am!" "You all go there?" X asked. "Well, not Sadie of course! Please tell me you're coming?" At a warning "Erica!" from Sadie she gave him another beer and another "please?", X gave in, he didn't have anything else to do until tomorrow 9 pm when he was supposed to be back in Gibbon's office again and the continued debriefing looked like the perfect place to catch up on some sleep.

Sunday morning; 00.40 hours; Xander's GTO; Northwest harbor district; Baltimore MD.

Xander sat waiting for the girls to come out of the club. He wanted to know if they all would go to 'The New Haven Lounge'. Well, actually; he smiled to himself; he just wanted to know whether Charlie was gonna go or not. The last customers had come out about a quarter past twelve and just now the door opened to let the employees out. In the light from the sign above the door he could see that both Charlie and Erica were part of the group. They left together and X was about to start his car when Charlie suddenly stopped. "...forgot my..." Xander could make out. The rest of the group stopped, but Charlie gestured them to go on. She returned to the club and went in again. The group slowly walked on. Only a moment later Charlie emerged and started at a quick pace to catch up again. X was once again about to turn the key when he saw a person coming up behind her. What the... he thought as the man grabed Charlie by her shoulder. She turned around and reading her body-language X could make out that she was not pleasantly surprised. "...let go!" she screamed and in a moment X was out of the car. "Hey!" he called out, recognizing the guy as Russel from the bar. Instead of backing up Russel tried to grab hold of Charlie, but she had ducked and created a distance between them. When Russ started to cross it she shouted: "I'm warning you Russ, that TKO was not a joke!" Xander started to run towards them when Russel made another attempt. With precise body control she turned, brought her leg up and delivered a forceful kick to his chest, bringing him down. A moment X slowed down in astonishment, he just had seen a perfectly executed roundhouse kick! He picked up his pace again and when he reached them, Russ was down on the ground, grasping at his chest. Charlie stood some eight feet away from him. "You bitch! You broke my ribs!" Russ was yelling.

"You just shut up, before I break something else!" Xander hollered at him. "Are you okay?" he stepped closer to Charlie, who stepped back but then recognized him. She nodded, and seemed to relax. "In contradiction to him," she pointed to Russ, "although I did not kick him full force and I did not aim for his head". Russel was starting to get up again, when X forcefully gave him a hand. "Well, Russel, what about it?" he snapped at the other male. "Are you going to leave or what?" When Russel nodded, X pushed him on his way and turned to Charlie again. The moment he faced her he read off her expression that something was amiss behind him. X turned in a second, Charlie's "Look out!" was already aimed at his back. Xander faced Russel who leveled a Webly .455 revolver at him. Acting on instant, without thinking, Xander whipped his 44 Magnum from its holster. "Okay Russ, now let's not get into this," X slowly said. "You had a bit too much to drink," he continued when he saw Russel did not move, "and you just want to get home and sleep off the hangover pal." "Are you a cop?" Russel whispered. "I try my best to avoid any contact with them." X answered. Their was a short silence before X started to talk again. "Russel? This is how we can solve this: you gently lower your gun and I'll lower mine." It looked like Russel was considering. "You can do it," X went on: "look I'm lowering mine already." Russel started to lower his. But suddenly he said: "And you leave with her?" Bringing his gun up again, his volume increased as he continued: "Is that it hot-shot, you leave with the girl? I don't think so!" He grabed hold of his gun with new strength when X simply said: "Yeah, whatever!" and pulled the trigger. Russ's eyes glazed over before he dropped to the ground and in the same moment X heard a alarming cry behind him.

Charlie screamed and X turned towards her just in time to elude a flying kick. "Hey! Hey!" he shouted, trying to get through to her while blocking another strike. "Hey listen! He's not dead! He's just unconcious!" He collapsed on his knees when she kicked the side of his left knee hard. The swing of her outstreched hand stopped just inches from his throat. The expression in her eyes changed and X continued: "Yes! He is not dead, I just stunned him!"; finally he was getting through to her: "He will be allright," he said, still on his knees, "he'll have a bit of a headache, but hey, he already has a hangover, he won't know the difference." Slowly she let go of him and got up. "I'm... I'm sorry, I thought you..." she started. "Yeah, it's okay. I know what it looks like." Xander got up too, wiped his trousers and walked over to Russel to retrieve the little green dart from his chest. He felt the man's ribs. "He neither has any broken ribs, so he's not likely gonna sue you."

He looked at her, she probably wanted to go to the police. And when they did an investigation that would eventually lead them to the NSA... 'I hate cops!' he thought. "So, you wanna sue him?" he asked her. "No, no, if he's going to be alright... we could just let him be right?" "Sure..." he stretched the word; this was strange. She continued hurriedly: "I mean, there is no reason to call the cops now is there?" - a beat - "I'm not hurt, he's not hurt too much and you're not hurt, are you?" X shook his head. "...and you say he's going to live, so..."

Something was wrong in this picture. A girl who is harrassed by a guy who even drawed a gun... X could imagine a less forgiving attitude. "You do not want to go to the police, do you?" she asked him. "No, not particularry interested. They do have a tendency of not enjoying my stunts as much as your boss's husband." She smiled. "Okay then. I have to thank you mister Cage." "Please, it's Xander, and friends just say X!" he said. "Well, thank you... X... I'm..." she looked at the slumped form of Russel's body and then at X again: "I'm just gonna get home now." She turned and started to walk away when he called out: "Just one thing..." She turned back. "What's in a 'Charlie Brown'?" She started laughing and just before she turned again she said: "The content of all those glasses and a lot of cola!". She then continued walking; leaving X just standing on the sidewalk, thinking why the sight of this girl laughing, illuminated by a streetlight was so absolutely mesmerizing.