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Chapter Thirty

"Gurum, it's good to see you again," Mike said, looking around the gate area.

Las Vegas McCarran International Airport was, for most visitors, their first introduction to the state of Nevada. For good or ill, that first impression was of slot machines. Lots and lots of slot machines. They seemed to be stuck into every nook and cranny and most of them were in use by arriving, departing and even transferring passengers trying their luck.

Other than that, and the ads for casinos, it was much like any other airport and the Keldara had seen a few at this point. The group still gawked as they exited the walkway from the airplane.

"Vanner, sorry, you're going to have to forego the pleasures of Sin City," Mike said, shaking the sergeant's hand.

"I'll pass," Vanner said, smiling. "Been here, done that, lost my shirt."

"I'm not planning on gambling," Mike said, looking around. "I'm doing enough of that as it is. I'll be out to visit in a day or two."

"Got it," Vanner said, stepping back into the tubeway. "Good luck."

"Same," Mike said, turning back to the Keldara brewery manager. "What do you have laid on, Gurum?"

"There is a bus waiting, Kildar," Gurum said, leading the way into the airport. "I was not sure about luggage...."

"The Keldara have everything that we're bringing here," Mike said, gesturing to the Keldara troopers loaded down with black luggage.

"We have the rooms laid on and the booth is set up," Gurum burbled. "There was a pre-day but we were not prepared for that; I hope it doesn't hurt sales—"

"Couldn't be helped," Mike said, feeling the effects of both jet lag and culture shock. Not so many hours ago, he was running from an Albanian hit team.

"The convention begins tomorrow," Gurum continued. "It is only three o'clock, here. The Keldara could take the evening off and look around—"

"The Keldara are going to the hotel and going to bed," Mike said. "With pills, if necessary. It will help reset their body clock."

"Very well, Kildar," Gurum said, his brow furrowing. "But I need a few for set up. There is more work than I had expected. And ... I think I overestimated the trouble of setting up the booth I designed."

"How much trouble could it be?" Mike asked.

"Much," Gurum admitted. "I truly do need some Keldara, Kildar. Please."

"Okay, okay," Mike said, shaking his head. "We'll need four of them functional tomorrow, but you can have at least ten."

"Thank you, Kildar," Gurum said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Thank you. That way we should be able to get fully set up."

"I'm almost afraid to ask what you did to the booth design," Mike said, shaking his head.

"It is ... a very noticeable booth, Kildar," the brewery manager admitted.

"What's laid on for tomorrow?" Mike asked, trying to shake off fatigue. He needed to be sharp. As much as the current mission mattered to the world, getting a distributor for the Keldara would affect them for a long time. For good or ill. It was important and he had to simply compartmentalize the other mission. Among other things, they couldn't even talk about it, here.

"We will have the booth open all day," Gurum said. "Daria sent me a roster of the female Keldara to set up a schedule. But there is a problem."

"And that is?" Mike asked, yawning.

"There is a local law that anyone serving alcohol must be of eighteen years or older," Gurum pointed out.

Mike blinked for a moment and then frowned. The Keldara girls were professionals doing a tough job so it was hard for him to remember, most of the time, that they were teenagers. Most of them. Greznya was over eighteen and so were a couple of others. But most of them were sixteen or seventeen. Beyond that age, most of the Keldara women were mothers and they weren't attached to the operational teams. He had a sudden mental image of Anisa sliding down the fast rope into the office in Club Dracul and stripping out the computer in mere seconds. The girl had just turned seventeen a month ago.

"There are only five of the girls who are eighteen or over," Gurum pointed out. "That is enough for one or two to cover the booth all day but the convention runs for five days ..."

"This is what I get for putting their real ages on their passports," Mike said with a sigh. "And I'm not going to call DIA and ask them for a bunch of false IDs, just to sell beer. We'll put everyone that's of an age to work. We've got two more women that can fill in for that matter. If the guys have do some of the serving, fine. The rest can just be booth babes and charm the customers."

"Very well, Kildar," Gurum said, sighing. "I had hoped you would agree with that."

"I'm nothing if not reasonable." Mike smiled at the Keldara. "Now, where's the bus?"

* * *

Mike had forgotten how much he hated trade shows.

The convention was in one of those massive, echoey convention centers that seemed to be designed as a stable for sperm whales. It was certainly big enough; just walking from one to the other was a workout. One that Mike, after the stresses of the last few days, wasn't going to bother with. He had no interest in picking up a bag full of pens, coasters and T-shirts from beers he was never going to drink.

The International Brewery Wholesaler's Convention had its good points, he had to admit. The Keldara "booth" was in the Beer Garden where over forty breweries, ranging from Anheuser-Busch to ... well, the Keldara with their patented "Mountain Tiger Brew," offered free samples. Mike had tried a couple of the other brews and then given up. There just wasn't anything on earth that compared to Keldara beer.

And others seemed to agree. Since a few hours after their opening, as the word got around, there had been a continuous line for the Keldara beer. And most of the drinkers had just sort of ... hung around. Part of that was the beer, but a big part of it was the Keldara girls.

The girls staffing the booth, both those serving and those just being friendly, were soaking up the attenion and flirting for all they were worth. They'd never been in a situation where men were vying for their attention and they were clearly enjoying themselves. And the distributor reps, almost entirely male, were enjoying themselves as well. The Keldara girls were spectacular and so ... naif that the distributors found them too charming to resist. He wondered what most of them would think if they knew what the girls had been doing for the last few weeks. Or that the "bar backs" hefting the barrels like they were made of air could probably kill everyone in the convention in less than thirty minutes.

Gurum had done a good job on the booth as well. And he was right, it was noticeable.

It turned out that after checking shipping costs, the amount of beer they were taking would cost far less as a container shipment than it did sending it by air. The problem being that even with that amount of beer, it would only take up part of the container. There was a way to do that, called Less Than Truckload, but the cost difference wasn't all that great.

So Gurum had looked at the problem and, with the usual Keldara ability to look outside the box, had decided to use most of the container for other "stuff."

What the rest of the container held was mostly stone. Specifically the granite the Keldara picked from the fields every spring and used for everything from fences to house walls. It was the same granite that the brewery was being constructed from.

With the help of the ten Keldara that Mike had loaned him, Gurum had built a miniature Keldara "brew house," complete with a display of original Keldara brewing methods, a small "fence" that channeled the convention goers into the area and a "bar" constructed of undressed granite with a wooden countertop. It was, by far and away, the most spectactular booth in the convention and Mike wondered whether others would try to top it the next year.

"Are you Mr. Jenkins?" a heavyset man asked, plopping down on the stone bench the Keldara had installed along the wall.

"Yes?" Mike said. "And you are?"

"Bob Thomas," the man said, holding up an electronic device that looked something like a PDA.

"I'm not sure what that is," Mike admitted. Gurum had handed him one early that morning, but Mike had parked it behind the booth.

"It's my card," the man said, smiling. "I guess you lost yours?"

"No, it's in the booth," Mike said. "So we trade cards with that thing?"

"That's how it's supposed to work, yeah," Thomas said, grinning and putting it away. "Your information is on your badge, too. But you're the brewery owner?"

"Co-owner, sort of," Mike said, shrugging. "I set it up as a way for the Keldara to build capital. I supplied the funds and the land, they're supplying the labor and knowledge. I think we're splitting the barley and hops. It's pretty complicated."

"How?" Thomas asked. "And why's an American backing a Georgian start-up brewery?"

"The Keldara are sort of my retainers," Mike said, frowning. "I know that's a weird way to put it, but it's the closest to reality that I can find. I own the land they live on, their homes and most of their tools. And I can't sell it back to them, either, legally. They also like it that way; it's custom for them. Anyway, I bought this farm and it came with ... retainers. So I built the brewery mostly to give the women some income. They don't have any the way that things are set up now."

"What about the men?" Thomas asked, frowning. "If you're talking about tenant farmers, the men aren't going to have much income either."

"Ah, well," Mike said, quirking up one cheek. "There's a brochure about the Mountain Tiger Militia in there, too."

"I read it," Thomas said, his brow furrowing. "I thought it was a joke, all that about defending the valley from Chechens and stuff."

"Not at all," Mike replied. "The men get paid as part of the militia. Some of the women, too. Actually, what you're looking at is mostly a militia team. The girls that are chatting up the customers are intelligence specialists. Most of them speak two to three languages and are experts in electronic intercept or intelligence analysis. The men are militia members, at least as well trained as American Rangers and all of them with combat experience. They lost a member just a few days ago."

"And they're selling beer?" Thomas asked, tilting his head to the side.

"And they're selling beer," Mike agreed. "So that they can get some income into the valley that's not dependent upon the Kildar. That being me."

"And if they get so successful they're independent of the Kildar?" Thomas asked.

"Then I'll still have a very nice house in a very nice valley," Mike said, grinning. "And part ownership in a very nice brewery."

"So what do you do, Mr. Jenkins?" Thomas asked. "Where'd your money come from? And how'd you end up in Georgia?"

"Well, if I told you that I'd have to kill you," Mike said, then laughed. "Seriously, I was a SEAL, then I started a company that made classified communications widgets. That was before 9/11 and I made money but not world class. Then, after 9/11, the widgets got very important and I got bought out by a major defense contractor. After that I didn't have much to do. I didn't want to start another company so I travelled. While I was travelling I literally got lost and ended up in Brigadoon, so to speak. And here we are."

"Starting up a brewery isn't cheap," Thomas said. "You made that much money selling to the defense contractor?"

"Close enough," Mike said, shrugging. "Most of the stuff I've done, including the widgets, has been classified. I was sort of serious that I couldn't explain where all the money came from. But the brewery had some help from the IMF as a matching grant. And the barley is, more or less, free. Ditto the hops and the other ingredients. We'll have to buy some extra stuff but not much. And the labor is cheap to set up. If we can get a fair price for the beer, we'll make money. The Keldara will make money. It will take me a while to recoup my investment, maybe more time than a lot of investors would like. But I'm in it for the long haul and it's mostly for the Keldara."

"You like them," Thomas said, gesturing with his chin at one of the girls who was chatting with two guys, both of whom had the expression of pole-axed oxen.

"They're damned good people," Mike said, thoughtfully. "Damned good."

"And the girls are pretty, too," Thomas said, grinning. "Where'd you get the model on the poster?" he asked, gesturing into the brewery. In pride of place over the bar was a poster-sized pic of Katrina. She had a bottle of beer that was foaming over and her lips were pursed to sip off the excess. The caption was "Are You Tiger Enough?" Mike was pretty sure that when that got back to the elders, and got explained to a few of them, he was in for a very tough conversation.

"Katrina Makanee," Mike said, grinning. "She's Vanda's ... cousin or something. I took the picture."

"You're kidding," Thomas said, his eyes wide. "I figured you had it shopped out."

"Nope," Mike said, still smiling. "I took all the pics in the brochures and the posters." The pic of the girls lined up with their bottles had been made into a banner that fronted the entire display.

"You're a man of many talents, Mr. Jenkins," Thomas said. "My partners and I would like to meet with you and your manager this evening."

"Up to Gurum," Mike said, wondering what was happening out at Nellis and when he'd be called out there. "He'll set up the schedule. I may not be available; I have some other business going on here in town."

"Well, I hope we're able to meet," Thomas said, heaving himself to his feet. "It was a pleasure to meet you." Thomas paused and looked at the booth, shaking his head. "They really have to fight terrorists?"

"We had an attack by a short battalion, about two hundred, a month ago," Mike said, gesturing with his chin. "The guy heaving a barrel was one of the snipers. The girl chatting with that guy in the blue shirt was on a mortar. The redhead serving beer was handling the communications. So ... yes."

"I hope you don't mind if I say we can use that," Thomas said, thoughtfully. "Beer drinkers tend to be patriotic. 'Buy Keldara beer and you're helping kill terrorists.' "

"And various other bastards," Mike said, thinking of the most recent mission.

"Kildar," Daria said, walking over. "There is a call from the suite. You have a call there."

Which was where the secure phone had been installed. Game time.

"You'll have to excuse me," Mike said, nodding at Thomas. "I hope to meet you later."

"Good luck in your other business," Thomas said, nodding in farewell then turning to Daria with a smile.

* * *

"Jenkins," Mike said, leaning back in the seat.

"Mike, there's a jet waiting for you at the airport," Pierson said. "We need you out there by three."

"Can do," Mike said, sighing. "Why three?"

"You'll see," Pierson said, cutting the connection.

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