AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story takes place during the events of "Eye of the Storm," after Luke, Fett, and Vader's crash-landing on Earth but before Leia and Han's arrival. After all, you don't think our intergalactic friends didn't get into ANY trouble while on Earth, do you?Chapter 1 – Summer Heat
Maybe it was a fluke of the weather. Maybe the drought that had gripped southern Idaho and Oregon for years had spread its tentacles down the country to embrace Colorado. Maybe the Stardestroyer that was orbiting Earth was somehow creating adverse effects on the atmosphere and meteorology of the unsuspecting planet.
Whatever the cause, everyone agreed that this had to be the hottest day Star City had ever seen. It was only ten A.M., and the mercury had already risen to almost a hundred degrees with no sign of stopping.
The natives were smart about the weather, at least. They kept indoors next to the A/C or swamp cooler, wore reasonable clothing for the temperature, and/or found ways to keep themselves damp – a dunk in the pool, a cold shower, or even resorting to giving the car or family dog a bath. Some retreated to White Deer Lake to escape; others opted to go farther and retreated to the mountains. And even the stingiest souls in town suddenly found themselves parting with their cash in exchange for a cold beverage, an ice cream cone, or spending a few hours in an air-conditioned theater or bowling alley.
It was the tourists that were suffering. On almost every street corner one could spot a costumed Stargeek clutching a sweating can of soda to his forehead or fanning himself with a comic book. Spots in the shade were suddenly prime real estate, and any storeowner whose storefront had an awning found himself periodically chasing away geeks who were congregating there and scaring away their customers. Star City natives had little sympathy for the fans – it was one thing to feel sorry for someone required to wear a heavy uniform in such weather, another to waste one's pity on someone who ought to know better than to wear woolen robes or plastic armor in 100+ degree heat.
Such sympathy would be better afforded to those that deserved it – namely homeowners and the cops. Geeks were suddenly turning up in people's yards, in sprinklers, swimming pools, stock tanks, and – in one bizarre case – a koi pond. The fountain in front of the convention center became a nightmare – no sooner would the police drag a gaggle of Jedi wannabes and stormtrooper look-alikes out of the fountain and read them their rights than half a dozen more costumed geeks would be found taking a dip. The police department was overwhelmed with complaints and demands to "get that kid in the stupid Kenobi costume out of my birdbath!"
And as if that wasn't bad enough, the cops had to send a boat out into White Deer Lake to fish out an idiot who'd jumped from the dock in full Jango Fett regalia.
"Almost became a Darwin Award nominee," Austin told Luke as he stuffed a spiral notebook into his briefcase. "He's lucky to be alive, if you ask me. That lake's claimed a lot of lives over the years."
"Where are you going, Dad?" asked Trapper, looking up from the couch where he and Luke were playing "Star Wars Demolition."
"To cover the accident at the lake for the Herald," Austin replied. "Interview the cops and park rangers, see if the hospital will talk about the guy's condition…"
"I thought you were just a columnist for the paper," Luke said, wincing as his character took a nasty blow.
"I'm a syndicated columnist," Austin replied. "But occasionally the paper asks me to cover a story that has a geek angle to it." He stuffed his wallet into the pocket of his slacks. "Not that I mind – any story that involves a guy in Mandalorian armor taking a plunge in the lake has to be interesting."
"Very interesting," Luke acknowledged.
"You two behave yourselves," Austin told them. "I left some cash on the table, you can use that to go to a movie and lunch, or whatever you want to do. I'll be back this afternoon sometime, not sure when."
"Oh, speaking of syndicates, they called this morning while you were in the shower," Trapper piped up. "Some paper in Indiana wants to pick up 'Life as a Geek,' I guess."
"That's wonderful!" Austin exclaimed. "Did they say anything else?"
"Yeah, that they want to meet with you at the Twilight Garden restaurant in Denver tonight to discuss some kind of book deal with a publisher."
"Ah," was all Austin said.
"Book deal?" inquired Luke.
"They've been bugging me to put some of my columns into a published collection," Austin replied. "I was hoping to put off negotiating that until summer was over…" He gazed longingly at Trapper.
"Dad, I'll be fine," Trapper assured him. "I'll understand if you can't be with me every day this summer. Trust me."
Austin smiled wanly. "Sorry. Just that I don't get a lot of time with you, and I hate anything that cuts into our time."
"I hate it too. But hey, I have Luke Skywalker to keep me company."
Austin laughed. "See you boys sometime tonight, then. There's leftover lasagna in the fridge for dinner. Trapper, if I'm not home by nine, go to bed. Understand?"
"Yes sir!" Trapper barked, saluting.
"See you later, Austin," Luke bade as Austin shut the door behind him.
Trapper tossed the video game controller to the floor and bent forward to turn off the TV. "So whadda you wanna do?"
"I don't know. What do you want to do?"
"Nothing that involves running around," Trapper groaned. "Not in this heat."
"Funny, doesn't feel that hot to me."
"Yeah, but you grew up on Tatooine. That's like being raised in an oven."
Luke laughed. "Any suggestions?"
Trapper shrugged. "The Eagle Mountain Theater has a matinee of 'Spy Kids' at eleven, if you wanna see it."
"'Spy Kids.' Sounds interesting. All right, I'll bite. Let's go."
Trapper scooped the two twenties off the table. "It's only five blocks. We can walk."Break…
"It's too hot," moaned Patrick.
"Now I know how Vader felt when he got chucked into that volcano," groaned Jason.
"You two should talk," grumbled Fett. "You're not in full armor."
"Then take it off or shut your yap," advised Jason. Normally he would never have spoken so disrespectfully to the hunter, but the searing weather had also scorched his already short temper almost into nonexistence.
Fett might have retorted by cuffing him, but he was too wiped out to care.
The Osmond brothers and Boba Fett were sprawled on the couch in the brothers' spacious but cluttered house, panting with the heat. The air conditioner in the house had died clear back in May, and neither brother had arranged to have the machine fixed – each was probably waiting for the other to take responsibility. To beat the heat, Jason and Patrick had stripped down to their boxers and poured glasses of ice water over their heads. Fett flatly refused to remove his armor, and thus he had little control over his situation.
"Let's get up and do something," suggested Patrick.
"Like what?" asked Jason. "Jump a ride to Hoth?"
"I was being serious," Patrick replied.
"So was I. Now that we know Hoth exists… oh, I forget, Fett's ship doesn't work. Uh… we can go bowling down at the Star City Lanes…"
"You're on lifetime suspension, remember?" Patrick reminded him. "The coconut incident?"
"Is it my fault the manager has no sense of humor?" demanded Jason. "What about the lake? We can rent a few jet skis…"
"After you tried to jump a dock on a rental ski?" Patrick asked incredulously. "Talk about a lawsuit. The rental shack won't even return our calls anymore."
"Okay, why not call Cody and Brigham and see if they're up to a trip to the hills with us?" asked Jason. "You know, hang out with the wildlife in the mountains."
"Except you're practically on a first-name basis with every park ranger in the state," Patrick countered.
"All right, Einstein, YOU think of something for us to do!"
"Well, there would be something for us to do if it wasn't for you and your lust for causing trouble!" Patrick shot back. Normally easygoing, the heat seemed to be melting even his patience.
"Is it my fault that this town is half-dead nine months out of the year? A guy's got to have fun…"
"Well, have your fun, but don't drag me into it…"
The doorbell rang. Fett rose with a grunt and went to answer the door – hey, anything to get away from the Osmonds when they started another of their spats.
An old woman in a sky-blue cardigan and matching skirt stood on the other side of the door, looking up at the hunter with wide, sad hazel eyes that looked larger than normal behind her wire-rimmed glasses. She clutched a small purse before her like a shield, and her silver-white hair fluffed out around her head in a snowy halo. The sight of Fett didn't startle her – but then, living in this town, she must be used to things like this.
"What is it?" Fett rasped.
"Jason?" she asked.
"He's… indisposed at the moment. I'll relay a message…"
"Oh. Well, I thought you were him in costume… is Patrick there?"
"He's also occupied. I'm a friend from out of town, Robert Francis."
"Hello, Robert." She leaned to the side in an effort to peer into the house. "I'm the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Albany. I was just stopping by to see if any of you have seen my Vincent."
"Vincent?" Jason and Patrick hadn't mentioned a next-door neighbor or a Vincent. "Ma'am, I haven't seen your husband…"
"Oh no, my husband's name is Jerry, and he's been dead for years." She reached into her purse and drew out a flat image. "This is my sweet little Vincent – but he's registered as Vincent Van Gough, a purebred Siamese."
/I should have guessed/ thought Fett, studying the picture. It depicted a large, svelte, ivory-and-brown cat with slightly crooked green eyes and a rather irritated expression – not surprising since the picture showed him being hugged awkwardly by a grinning, drooling child he assumed was Mrs. Albany's grandson.
"Ma'am, I haven't seen your cat."
Tears filled her eyes. "I live alone, sir. My children all live out of state. I only see my grandchildren at Thanksgiving and at the family reunion in August. Vincent's all I have to keep me company, and he's been missing for three days now. He's never been gone this long, and I'd hate to think he's been… please, young man, will you help me find him?"
Fett sighed. "I'd help you, Mrs. Albany, but I have no idea where to start looking for a cat…"
"I'd be willing to offer a reward," she said quietly. "I don't have much – I live on a fixed income…"
Fett closed his eyes and thought a minute. It's a diversion, he told himself. With a reward tacked onto it, he could think of it as another hunt, another job. Besides, how hard could it be to find a mangy cat in this town?
"Twenty says it's a deal," he told her, pocketing the picture. "I'll find your cat, Mrs. Albany."
She burst into tears. "Oh, thank you, young man! You're an angel!"
"Just a simple man trying to make my way in the world," he assured her gruffly, shutting the door.
The brothers were still arguing when he entered the living room, pondering. Where to find someone's pet… He knew that in most civilized areas of the galaxy, lost pets went by the unglamorous title of "target practice." Some of the more conservative cities that could afford it, however, set themselves to humanely trapping strays and containing them in shelters for their owners to retrieve or for other citizens to adopt. If someone had happened upon Vincent before him, they might have taken him to just such a shelter.
"Patrick, where do you two keep the telephone directory?" he asked.
"In the cupboard over the microwave, next to the Hamburger Helper," Patrick interrupted his harangue to answer.
Fett located the book, flipped it open, and skimmed the Government Resources pages. The Star City Humane Society wasn't that far, he discovered. If luck was on his side, his mission could be completed in the time it took to walk there. Then again, hunts were rarely this simple.
Diana took one last cautionary look into the living room to ensure Rachel would be all right while she stepped into the shower. Some might call her actions overprotective or even paranoid, but she wasn't going to risk her daughter's safety just so she could cool off. She needn't have worried, though – Rachel was alternately occupied by the television (playing a "Monster's Inc." DVD) and her toys. Right now she was pushing a pink Barbie Corvette across the carpet and toward the Dreamhouse in one corner, though rather than the typical Barbie-Ken duo, the vehicle housed Barbie and a Qui-gon Jinn figure.
"Now into the house with you," Rachel told the two figures as she stopped the car and pulled the Qui-gon figure out, setting him in the living room of the dollhouse. "And wash your hands before you eat, because you've been touching yukky stuff on the battlefield, mister!"
Diana chuckled at the tone of stern authority Rachel could muster when she tried, and she shut the bathroom door. Conrad frequently indulged their daughter's Star Wars fascination by giving her action figures – either his old figures or buying new ones – while Diana tried to encourage her to play with toys girls her age would normally play with. Their efforts created an unusual blend of imagination in their daughter, and it was common to see her arranging Star Wars figures in humorously domestic scenes.
She sighed as she undressed and turned on the shower. It was too bad that Rachel had so few friends. Her imagination was wonderfully vivid, but even that couldn't replace the opportunities close friends could provide. And seeing as she had no siblings – she wouldn't let her thoughts travel too far down that road – she was often starved for the company of other children. There was Trapper, but he was four years older and wasn't in town that often. Hopefully things would change when their daughter entered kindergarten that fall…
The bathroom door opened.
She expected to see Rachel at the door, and turned to chide her daughter for walking in without knocking… only to find herself face to face with Darth Vader.
"My apologies…" Vader began, only for his sentence to be cut off as the shampoo bottle smashed into his mask. The door slammed, leaving Diana alone in the bathroom.
She sat down on the edge of the bathtub a moment, trying to settle her breathing. Vader so rarely made his presence known that sometimes they completely forgot he was their houseguest. Most days they only saw him at meals… or the occasional unexpected run-in, such as this one.
There was a timid knock at the door.
"Who's there?" she asked nervously.
"You okay, Mommy?" came Rachel's anxious voice from the other side of the door. "Why are you screaming?"
"I'm okay, sweetie," she replied. "I'll be out in a few minutes."
"Okay. What's for lunch?"
She chuckled. "You think about what you'd like, okay?"
"Okay." A pause. "Darth Vader's in the kitchen washing his face."
"Just leave him alone for awhile, Rachel."
Diana finished her shower as quickly as possible, then dressed and wrapped a towel around her hair before leaving the bathroom. Rachel was sitting at the dining room table, walking two stormtrooper figures across the surface and chattering softly to herself. Vader was at the kitchen sink, wiping the last of the shampoo from his mask and helmet.
"Lord Vader?" Diana said tentatively.
"Vader," he replied, turning to the laundry chute and tossing the dishcloth down it. "It is no longer necessary to refer to me as 'Lord.'"
"Vader… I'm sorry about the little… incident…"
He waved her apology away. "The fault is mine. You reacted as any woman in your situation would have."
Diana blushed. "I'll be sure to lock the door next time."
"That would be appreciated." He entered the bathroom and shut the door.
Diana didn't comment. Vader did go into the bathroom on occasion, but she never listened too closely to what went on in there. Maybe some of the others might be curious about how Vader took care of his "business," but she preferred the don't-ask-don't-tell approach.
The phone rang, and she lifted the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hi, Mrs. Church," came Emily's voice. "How's life?"
"It's… interesting," she replied.
"You called me this morning? Sorry I missed it, I was online."
"Yes, can we still count on you to babysit for us tonight?"
"Babysit Rachel or babysit Darth Vader?"
She laughed. "Vader'll most likely keep out of sight. Thanks again for doing this for us."
"No problem, have fun at your dinner tonight. See you at six."
She hung up. Conrad's construction company had just finished putting an Outback Steakhouse on Star City's main street, and the restaurant was honoring the company by inviting the employees and their spouses to a free dinner tonight. Despite being a small town, Star City attracted a lot of large chain businesses, mostly due to the double conventions every year and the tourists they drew. Of course, once summer was over and the tourists went home, business dried up and many of the stores that had just opened their doors that summer closed down. Come the next summer, the empty buildings would be renovated or razed, to be replaced by more franchises whose corporations still hadn't learned their lessons the first time around.
Oh well. At least the quirks of the local economy ensured that her husband had a steady job. And if a large company chose to waste its money by building here, that was their problem.
"How 'bout mac 'n' cheese and hot dogs for lunch?" asked Rachel. "That's my favorite."
"Okay, we can do that." Diana went to the stove.