By Marko Kloos
For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. “Berlin is Never Berlin” by Marko Kloos draws upon the seedier side of the city, beyond the dance club lights and all-night parties, as one bodyguard with a certain feline distinction goes on the prowl….Khan only had one job: chauffeur and guard an American wealthy socialite and her friends. When his client Natalie Scuderi gets nabbed by the Georgian mafia, this joker-ace has no choice but to go underground and rescue her. “Losing the man’s daughter on the job would be a fatal black mark on his professional resume. Khan had never lost a client, and he wasn’t about to start a habit.”
The plane was only three hours into its flight when Khan was entertaining the thought of a massacre for the first time.
The surroundings were posh, and it was easily the most comfortable air travel he had ever enjoyed. Sal Scuderi’s private jet had the full executive luxury package, and the club seating in the Lear was so roomy that even Khan, all six foot three and three hundred pounds, could stretch his legs a little. There was a bar stocked with premium liquor, and he didn’t even have to pour his own drinks because they had a flight attendant on staff. The surroundings were more than fine. It was the company that triggered homicidal thoughts in Khan before they had even made it out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Natalie Scuderi, Sal’s daughter and Khan’s protectee for the week, traveled with an entourage. There were only four, but Khan suspected that she had picked her friends after a long and thorough vetting process to find the vapidest rich kids in the country. They had started with the champagne right before takeoff. Five minutes after wheels-up, they had commandeered the impressively loud luxury entertainment system in the cabin and started listening to Top 40 shit at high volume. It was a seven-hour flight to Iceland and then another three-hour hop to Berlin from there, and Natalie’s entourage seemed determined to party all the way through the trip.
A simple job, Khan thought as he watched the scene from the front of the plane, where he had a spot to himself next to the bar. Babysitting a bunch of spoiled kids. Easy money.
The center of the cabin had a four-seat club arrangement and a leather couch, and Natalie’s friends were all piled on the couch, glasses in their hands, talking loudly over the music and giving Khan a headache. Natalie herself was sitting in the back of the plane, in the single seat next to the bathroom. She was wearing headphones the size of canned hams on her head, and she was typing away on the computer she had propped on the little tray table in front of her.
Sal Scuderi was a high-risk insurance salesman and one of the main money-laundering outlets for the Chicago mob. His daughter dabbled in acting and singing, but as far as Khan could tell, she was mostly famous for being famous. They were on the way to Berlin, where Natalie was booked for introducing a new fashion line and opening a nightclub. Having a joker-ace as a bodyguard conveyed a certain image, and plenty of entertainment industry celebrities were willing to shell out money just to rent that image for a night or a long weekend out on the club circuit. Khan didn’t mind those jobs—they were easy money, just hanging out in clubs and looking mean for the cameras. But even milk run jobs had their hazards, and one of them was a migraine headache. He spent some time extending and retracting the claws of his tiger hand a few times while looking pointedly at the big-screen TV on the bulkhead above the couch, and someone turned down the volume a little. Just to make sure it stuck, he got out of his seat and walked to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. When he was between the couch and the giant TV, he took the remote and clicked the volume down a few more notches for good measure.
When he emerged from the bathroom, Natalie Scuderi had taken off her headphones and closed the lid on her laptop.
“How do you like the ride?”
Khan closed the door behind him and shrugged. “Beats the hell out of flying coach,” he replied.
“I’ve never flown coach.” The way she said it wasn’t boastful, just a statement of fact.
“Count yourself blessed.”
Khan noticed that Natalie’s gaze flicked from one side of his face to the other, and he knew that she was looking at the tiger half without being too obvious about it. Khan’s left body half was that of a Bengal tiger, and the demarcation line between man and cat went right down the centerline of his body. For a mob bodyguard, the tiger half paid many dividends. It gave him the strength, reflexes, senses, teeth, and claws of a tiger, and it made him look dangerous and imposing. Not even the roughest or most drunken blockheads wanted to test their mettle against a guy who was half apex predator. Claws and teeth had a way of triggering people’s primal fears.
Travis, Eli, and Melissa—Natalie’s friends—had been in such awe of Khan that none of them had even tried to make small talk with him. Now that he was standing next to Natalie and talking to her, someone had decided that he wasn’t going to tear off any heads on the spot. Melissa got up from the couch and sauntered over, champagne glass in hand.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Khan said.
She gestured at the line that bisected his face, fur on one side and skin on the other. He had grown out a beard to match the fur fringe on the tiger half of his jaw, to keep his looks symmetrical.
“Does that go, like, all the way down your body? Right down the middle?”
She tried to make it sound light and casual, but he knew what she was trying to ask because he had gotten the same question hundreds of times. Under normal circumstances, he would have given her a clever or flirty reply, like You’ll have to buy me drinks first to find out. But she wasn’t a paying client, and her gaggle of friends had been annoying Khan too much for him to tolerate a personal question like that.
“That’s none of your business,” he said. “Buzz off.”
The girl beat a hasty retreat to the lounge area. Next to Khan, Natalie chuckled and opened her laptop again.
“Now she won’t talk to you again for the rest of the trip.”
“That is fine with me,” Khan replied. “She doesn’t have to talk to me. She just needs to listen when I tell her to do stuff.”
Back on the couch, Natalie’s chastened friend shot Khan a glare. Then she picked up the TV remote and turned the volume up again.
This is going to be a long fucking week, Khan thought.
There was always some security bullshit involved when a joker-ace like Khan traveled by air, but it was increased by a few orders of magnitude when international borders were involved. Scuderi’s private plane meant that Khan hadn’t had to suffer the enhanced screening before their departure in Chicago, but the Germans weren’t going to let him skip a damned thing. He’d had to file his plans in advance, and when the Lear stopped at the private terminal at Berlin’s shiny new Brandenburg Airport, there was a welcoming committee waiting for him at customs and immigration.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” the customs officer asked when he checked Khan’s passport.
“Business,” Khan said. “I’m a bodyguard. My client is going through your no-hassle line over there right now.”
“Are you bringing any weapons into the country at this time?”
“No weapons,” Khan replied. He knew they’d go through his luggage anyway and check thoroughly. He carried a gun back home when he was working—no point disadvantaging yourself in a fight—but when he traveled out of the country, he didn’t pack so much as a nail file. Foreign cops got twitchy enough when they saw the teeth and claws, and if they hadn’t been firmly attached to him, he was sure they’d have made him leave those at home as well.
“Very well,” the officer said. “In accordance with laws and regulations regarding the admission of foreign persons with enhanced abilities, I have to ask you to follow my colleague back to the room for your entry screening. You can choose to decline, but in that case you will be denied entry into the Federal Republic.”
“Lead the way,” Khan grumbled. The world had had seventy years to get used to jokers and aces, and they still got civil rights parceled out to them like the nats were giving them treats for good behavior. Khan wasn’t the type for political activism, but something in him bristled at having to ask permission to come and go from some pencil-necked bureaucrats when everyone in the room would already be cut into bloody ribbons if he had violence on his mind. The security kabuki existed to make the nats feel safer, and they knew that as well as he did.
The inspection was Teutonically thorough. They made him strip down to his underwear, snapped pictures of him with a sophisticated spatial camera array mounted on the wall of the screening room, and took prints and iris scans.
“You sure you don’t want to put a tracking bracelet on me?” he asked when they rolled his tiger hand over the electronic print scanner—once with claws retracted, once with them extended.
“We only use those for certain criminal offenders,” the police officer taking his print said, mild pique in his voice. “You are not an offender.”
Could have fooled me, Khan thought, but he decided to keep it to himself. Customs and border police everywhere had a low tolerance threshold for humor and sarcasm.
The circus started almost right after Natalie’s entourage left the private aviation terminal. They had transportation waiting outside, two big Mercedes limousines. There was a small crowd of fans and photographers by the exit, snapping pictures with cameras and phones and yelling Natalie’s artist name excitedly when they spotted her. Natalie went by the mononym “Rikki,” which sounded like the annoying call of an exotic bird when it was shouted by dozens of people at high volume.
Khan stepped ahead of Natalie and walked between her and the bulk of the crowd. When they all caught sight of him, there were some audible gasps. He put on his most humorless face and rasped a low growl when the front rank of excited fans came a little too close for comfort. None of them dared to come within an arm’s length, and he ushered Natalie to one of the waiting limousines. As she climbed into the backseat, he stood guard and looked around. The situation was innocuous enough, a bunch of teenage kids squealing and taking pictures, but something made the hairs on the back of Khan’s neck stand up a little.
Over in the group of paparazzi standing twenty feet away, there were two guys who Khan thought didn’t quite act right. They weren’t shouting at him or Natalie’s entourage to pose for shots like the rest of them. They weren’t even particularly engaged in taking photos, and when they did, they seemed to focus on him rather than the celebrity he was guarding. When they noticed his attention, they shifted their lenses and snapped shots of Natalie through the car window like the rest of them. Khan tried to get their scents, but this place was full of new and unfamiliar smells, there were ten or fifteen people between him and the two not-quite-right photographers, and his group had almost finished entering the cars. Khan held out an arm to keep one of Natalie’s friends from getting into the front passenger seat.
“That’s my spot,” he told him. “You ride in the back or in the other car.”
The kid moved off to the second waiting car. Khan closed the rear passenger door and lowered himself into the front seat next to the driver. He made sure to keep eye contact with the two fishy photographers, just so they’d be aware they had been noticed.
I don’t know who you are, but I see you, he thought. As they rolled off past the squealing crowd of fans, one of the photographers lowered his camera, pointed a finger, and cocked his thumb like the hammer of a gun.
Khan’s tiger half didn’t sweat. This was something that he hadn’t known about canines and felines before his card had turned. Cats and dogs shed excess heat through panting, and through the pads on their paws. If he dressed to keep his tiger side cool, his human side was too cold, and if he dressed to keep his human half warm, his tiger half was too well insulated. Finding a happy medium was difficult even on temperate days. In the middle of a nightclub, the heat from hundreds of bodies contesting with the building’s inadequate air conditioning, it was downright impossible. Half an hour after the start of Natalie’s first engagement in Berlin, Khan’s button-down was soaked in sweat. He was standing close to his charge, shielding access to the booth where she was holding court with her entourage, while the crowd was mingling and hopping around on the floor to relentless Europop tunes.
The new nightclub was ostentatiously exclusive. All the patrons wore designer clothes and expensive watches, and Khan was sure that the cocaine being done in the bathrooms was high-grade stuff. He wasn’t much into pop culture these days, but even he recognized some of the celebrities lounging in the booths that surrounded the dance floor. One of the nearby booths held a group that was even more conspicuous than Natalie and her entourage. In the center of it was a playboy princeling from the one of the oil-rich Gulf states that had been swallowed up by the Caliphate, someone whose face was featured in the tabloids on a regular basis. He was tan and toned, with a thousand-dollar pair of sunglasses on his face and a Swiss watch on his wrist that was worth more than Khan’s car. Khan watched him trying to get Natalie’s attention for a little while. Finally, the princeling got out of his booth and walked over to Natalie’s corner, two bodyguards in dark suits immediately trailing three feet behind and on either side of him.
“Hold up there, sport,” Khan said and held out an arm to bar the way into the booth. The princeling looked at him with an irritated expression. He turned toward his bodyguards and said something that made them laugh, and Khan let out a slow breath and flexed his muscles to get ready for a tussle.
“It’s okay,” Natalie shouted from behind. “You can let him in. Only him, though.”
“You heard the lady,” Khan said to the princeling, who still regarded him like he was something rotting the dogs had dragged in. The princeling waved his hand curtly over his shoulder without turning around, and his bodyguards took a step back.
The princeling squeezed past Khan and sat down in the booth with Natalie’s group. For a while, they talked and drank together; Khan tried to ignore the insipid conversation while the princeling’s bodyguards tried to ignore him. Like their boss, they wore their sunglasses inside, which made them look like jackasses.
Khan smelled the trouble flaring up at the moment it started behind him, that unmistakable whiff of adrenaline and high emotions right before a fight breaks out. He started to turn around just as some liquid splashed the back of his neck and the tiger side of his face. One of the girls had voiced her anger at the princeling and emptied a drink in his direction, and some of the splash had hit Khan instead. From the way the prince’s hand recoiled from Natalie’s friend Melissa, Khan could guess the reason for the sharp and sudden outrage. And then, almost reflexively, the princeling slapped Melissa. The strike was hard enough to make her head rock back. Blood came gushing from her nose, and the metallic smell of it permeated the air.
Next to Khan, one of the princeling’s bodyguards caught on to the action and tried to wedge himself past Khan and between Melissa and the princeling. Khan yanked him by the collar of his suit and tossed him away from the booth and onto the dance floor, where he fell on his ass with a yelp and skidded backward a foot or two.
Behind Khan, the second bodyguard let out a curse in his own language and reached underneath his suit coat. Khan seized the hand holding the pistol with his tiger hand and wrapped his fingers firmly around the wrists of the other man. The second bodyguard dropped the gun with a strangled yelp. Khan caught it with his human hand before it could hit the floor.
“No guns,” he growled.
The pistol was one of the new lightweight European cop guns, with a frame made of reinforced polymer. He let go of the bodyguard’s wrist, transferred the gun to his tiger hand, and crushed it right in front of the man’s face. The frame buckled in his fist and then started spilling little metal tabs and springs from its insides. Khan hit the other man in the face with the barrel assembly. He shook the plastic bits of the frame to the floor and flung the broken gun parts aside as the second bodyguard dropped to the floor.
With Khan blocking the exit of the booth, the princeling scrambled over the back of the seating corner to get away. Khan took two long steps and hauled him up by the back of his shirt. The princeling yelped as Khan spun him around and tossed him onto the seat. Then he wrapped his tiger hand around the princeling’s neck and extended his claws just a little, enough to let the man know that hasty movements were now unwise. Khan smelled fear coming from him in big olfactory waves, and his heart was racing. It felt like holding a panicked rabbit by the ears. Next to them, Natalie’s entourage was in a headless, noisy panic, trying to stay out of Khan’s way and tend to Melissa at the same time.
“Touch them again, and I’ll rip your head off, you little chickenshit,” Khan said to the wild-eyed princeling. He finished the statement with a low, rasping growl and was rewarded with the smell of fresh piss wafting up from below the man’s waistline. Natalie’s friends were annoying as hell, but they were his charges, and men who hit women ranked lower on Khan’s vermin scale than plague-carrying sewer rats.
He lifted the princeling off his feet and threw him toward the first bodyguard, who was still sitting on the floor and dusting off his dignity. The two men collided hard and went down in a tangle of limbs.
Khan closed a hand around Natalie’s arm and pulled her to her feet.
“We have to go,” he said. “Right now.”
He was glad to see that Natalie seemed too shaken to argue, because he didn’t want to have to carry her out of the place like a sack of playground sand. Her retinue rushed to follow when they saw that Khan wasn’t stopping to wait, and they hurried across the dance floor toward the exit.
They were halfway across the floor when the doors of the nightclub opened and half a dozen angry-looking guys in suits pushed their way into the crowd. All of them were wearing ear pieces and grim expressions. The crowd around the periphery of the dance floor was densely packed, and the newcomers were pushing people aside with force as they came through. Khan turned and looked around for the fire exits. Things were about to get complicated, and Khan didn’t want to wait around to see whose side the cops would take.
There was a bouncer stationed at the fire exit. He stepped in front of Khan and his group as they approached the door and held up his hand in the universal “hold it” gesture. Khan wasted no time trying to figure out language commonalities. He grabbed the bouncer by the wrist of his outstretched hand and yanked him aside. The bouncer stumbled and went to one knee with an indignant yelp. Then he got back to his feet and lunged at Khan, who stopped him cold by raising his tiger hand and extending his claws in front of the man’s face.
“Don’t,” Khan snarled.
The bouncer blanched and backed off. Khan pushed the exit open, and the fire alarm started blaring instantly. The noise felt like a physical thing assaulting his ears despite the earbuds that kept the volume to tolerable levels for Khan, and once they were out in the cooler evening air of the street and the decibel level subsided a little, he almost sighed with relief. Behind them, the bouncer appeared in the door and yelled something in angry German, but made no move to follow them.
God, I fucking hate nightclubs, Khan thought.
Outside, Khan led the group away from the nightclub’s back entrance, which proved to be a more difficult task than putting the princeling’s bodyguards on their asses. Natalie was surprisingly helpful and collected. She was propping up Melissa and holding a wad of tissues underneath the other girl’s nose. Melissa and the two boys, however, acted like they had just survived a flaming plane crash. After the tenth high-pitched “Oh my God!” in fifty meters, Khan lost his patience.
“Would you shut up,” he told them. “She got slapped in the face, not shot in the head. Now move your asses before someone sends those cops after us.”
“He broke my fucking nose!” Melissa wailed, her exclamation only slightly muffled by the tissues Natalie was pressing against her face to catch the blood.
“We’ll have the front desk at the hotel call an ambulance,” Natalie offered. Melissa glared at Khan, but kept pace with the group.
Khan never used valet services. He had parked their rented luxury SUV in a garage half a block away from the nightclub. He rushed his charges to the garage as fast as he felt they could go without having to carry Melissa, who was still acting like someone had cut off half her face. The club was in a hip part of the city, and the sidewalks were still busy with foot traffic, but most people gave Khan and his group a wide berth.
He led everyone up the staircase onto the rooftop parking deck and had them get into their SUV. When it was Melissa’s turn to board, he held her back and turned her to face him.
“Let me see that nose,” he said. She grimaced and lowered the tissue wad she had been pressing against her nose for the last five minutes. The tissue had some red splotches on it, but the trickle of blood coming from her nostrils had already stopped. Khan had seen a lot of busted noses over the years, and hers was as straight as it had been on the plane yesterday.
“That’s not broken,” he told her. “He just gave you a little nosebleed, that’s all. Now let’s get out of here.”
The parking garage had three levels, with a ramp setup that required Khan to make a full circumnavigation of every deck before descending to the one below it. It was all ninety-degree turns, and the traffic lanes were narrower than the ones in American parking garages, so Khan had to take extra care every time he took a turn with the big seven-seat SUV they had rented. Back home, the size of it would have been nothing out of the ordinary, but over here, it felt like he was driving a monster truck.
He was making yet another right-hand turn at the end of a downward ramp when he saw headlights coming at them from the right. The strike was perfectly timed. Even with his reflexes, he had no chance to react and get the SUV out of the way of the other car, which had been shielded from his view by the concrete wall to the right of the ramp. Before he could even yell a warning, the other car plowed into their SUV. It struck the front of the car and caved in the passenger door. Khan felt the SUV lurching to the left with the force of the impact. To their left, the wall of the garage’s lower level wasn’t far away, and the driver’s side of the SUV slammed into it with the dull crunch of metal on concrete. Behind Khan, Natalie and her entourage shrieked in unison.
The look of tense concentration on the face of the other driver told Khan that this was an ambush, not an accident. The SUV was pinned in a sideways vise between the wall and the front of the other car. To his left, the concrete wall kept Khan from opening his door, and to his right, the other car’s bumper had dented in the passenger-side door.
“Get down,” he shouted at Melissa and her crew. Then he made a fist with his tiger hand and punched out the spiderwebbed windshield of the SUV. Khan sliced his seatbelt in half with one claw and climbed out onto the hood.
A second car pulled up behind the one that had rammed them into the wall and came to a stop with squealing tires. All the doors seemed to open at once, and several people came rushing around the first car and toward the SUV. Khan leapt over the hood of the car that had rammed them and placed himself in front of the right rear passenger door of the SUV. Someone in the SUV tried to open the door from the inside, and he pushed it shut again.
“Stay there,” he shouted through the glass. “Call the cops. Number’s one-one-zero.”
He figured they’d send their biggest bruiser against him first, and the attackers did not disappoint. The guy who lunged at him was clearly a wild card. He was easily as tall as Khan and looked half again as heavy, with arms that were as wide around as Khan’s thighs. His face was dark gray, the skin ashen and rough like the bark on an ancient tree. Khan dodged a massive gnarled fist and raked his claws across the man’s side. It felt like taking a swipe at the trunk of a Pacific redwood. Then Tree Guy swung his arm around and caught Khan in a backhand that sent him flying over the hood of the attackers’ car. He tumbled across the dirty concrete of the garage deck and crashed into a parked car, taking out a taillight in the process. Khan scrambled back to his feet. His right arm felt like it had been smacked with a railroad tie.
In front of him, Tree Guy hooked one of his huge hands underneath the wheel well of the car Khan had sailed over. Then he lifted the car off its front wheels and pushed it out of his way in a motion that almost looked casual. His companions seemed content with letting Tree Guy do the heavy lifting of the fight. They were all over the rental car now. One of them yanked on the handle of the one door that was undamaged and reachable. When the door didn’t open, he flicked open a collapsible steel baton and swung it at the window, which cracked into a spiderweb on the first blow. Tree Guy wedged himself through the gap he had created between the cars and walked toward Khan with heavy, unhurried steps.
Khan extended his tiger arm to one side and let his claws pop out with a flick of his wrist. The flick wasn’t a necessity, but it always made him feel like he was getting ready for serious business, like pushing the button on a switchblade. Usually, even the big mob bruisers flinched at the sight of Khan’s curved three-inch claws, but Tree Guy’s expression didn’t change a bit. Khan bellowed a roar, and one of the nearby parked cars started bleating its alarm as if in fearful protest.
So you’re strong but slow, Khan thought. I can work around that.
His right arm was out of commission, but his legs still worked fine. Khan tensed his muscles and leapt sideways just as Tree Guy was about to reach him. He landed on the hood of the wailing car fifteen feet away, then pushed himself off for another leap toward the rental. The unknown goons had succeeded in smashing the rear passenger door’s window. Khan landed on three of his four extremities right behind the two men who were now fumbling to get the door open. He grabbed one of them by the collar of his shirt and yanked him away from the car as hard as he could. The man flew backward with a yelp, arms flailing.
The other man was still holding the baton he had used to smash the window. He barked an obvious obscenity in some Slavic language—Russian, or maybe Ukrainian—and lashed out with the baton. Khan had expected a swing, and the straight jab aimed at his chest took him by surprise. Even with his reflexes, he barely managed to deflect the jab, his claws clicking against the hard steel of the baton. The other man didn’t drop the weapon. Instead, he pulled it back and brought it down on Khan’s hand. The pain shot all the way from his hand up to his elbow, and Khan roared again. He made a fist and drove it into the other man’s face as hard as he could. Baton Guy’s head rocked back and smacked into the door frame of the rental car, and he went down hard and dropped to the ground with a muffled thudding sound. His baton dropped from his hand and clattered away on the concrete.
Khan sensed the blow aimed at him from behind and ducked out of the way just in time. Tree Guy’s arm barely missed the top of his head, whistling by so close that it ruffled his hair. Then the swing landed against the upper frame of the car door and crunched into it hard enough to rock the vehicle on its suspension and dent the roof in by half a foot.
Tackling Tree Guy was only marginally less futile than swiping at him. Khan went low and put all his bodyweight into the move, three hundred pounds of enhanced feline strength, but he only managed to rock him back on his heels. Tree Guy’s right arm came down, and Khan aborted his tackling attempt and rolled out of the way to avoid getting his spine pulverized. The last goon still standing decided to join the fray. He came around the back of the attackers’ car and closed in on Khan.
“He is stronger than you. You will not beat him,” the goon said in heavily accented English. Khan saw that he was holding a knife.
“Don’t have to beat him,” Khan snarled. “Just you.”
Tree Guy was almost upon him again, so Khan advanced against the last goon, who widened his stance a little and planted his feet. The utter lack of fear or concern from these men was a little unnerving. At home, nine out of ten bush league crooks would turn tail and run at the sight of his claws and teeth, and these guys stood their ground against him in a hand-to-hand melee, armed with nothing but blades and impact weapons so far. They had to be supremely stupid or very sure of themselves.
With the blade in the game, Khan felt free to bring his own cutlery into play. The goon feigned a jab with his left, and Khan obliged the ruse by raising his tiger arm to protect his face. When the man’s other hand flashed forward to plant the blade between his ribs, Khan brought his arm back down in a short and swift arc that was perfectly timed. The knife bounced to the ground, along with two or three of the goon’s fingers, and the blow forced him to one knee.
Nearby, the sound of distant police sirens reached Khan’s ears. He allowed himself a small grin. Another minute, and the German cops would be all over this parking garage.
Two rock-hard, unyielding hands grabbed him by the fabric of his jacket collar and the waistband of his slacks. He flung the elbow of his good arm backward in an arc and smashed it into Tree Guy’s head, but to no effect. His feet left the ground as Tree Guy lifted him up. Khan felt like a kitten someone was shaking by the scruff. Tree Guy lifted him over his head seemingly without effort. Then Khan was airborne. He tumbled in midair, trying to roll around to land on his feet, but the boost he had just gotten was so violently forceful and sudden that even his cat reflexes failed him this time. He sailed over a long row of cars and smashed into the side of a minivan, and the impact knocked all the breath out of him.
When he came to a rest on the glass-strewn garage deck, all his body’s warning lights seemed to be going off in his brain at once. He rasped a cough and tasted blood. The car alarms and the police sirens were still blaring, but everything sounded distant now, weak and faded, as if he had stuffed his ears with cotton balls. He tried to draw in a deep breath and muster the will to get up again, but the excruciating pain shooting through his chest made him abandon that impulse. People were shouting somewhere nearby, but he couldn’t make out the words. Somewhere in the noise, Khan thought he heard Natalie’s voice. Then there was the sound of slamming car doors and squealing tires. He tried to will himself to get to his feet, but his body refused to obey. When darkness finally washed over his consciousness, it felt almost comforting.