By Kristian Williams
Kristian Williams has written on policing and human rights for Counterpunch, Clamor, and Social Anarchism. He is also the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Soft Skull Press, 2004).
This is his first published short story.
It's three in the morning and I'm tied to a chair. There's a body builder screaming at me, and pretty much the only thing going my way is he's pressing a .45 against my cheek.
I figure, if they wanted me dead, they'd have killed me already. No need to drag me all over town beforehand. So, realistically speaking, captain caveman here is just putting on a show. And he's taken this act about as far as he can. He's used up all his tricks and now he's got nowhere left to escalate to. I know they want me to talk, and I know that this isn't the fella that's gonna make it happen. Which means, for the time being, the worst is over and all I gotta do is wait it out.
I really shouldn't act so fucking superior. I mean, these guys are barely in the farm league and I just about handed them my ass on a silver plate. I forgot the most important rule: cocky motherfuckers die. Usually they die stupid, bloody, painful deaths. But if I get out of this cellar with both eyes and both balls, I swear I'll be more humble. Trade in my arrogance for a Saint Francis medallion and a free pass out of here.
How's that for a deal with God?
The assignment was simple. I had a photo, a name, and a flight number. I was told he'd be carrying a briefcase, and my job was to intercept it.
How hard could it be?
I stood just outside the checkpoint, studying the photo. A kid, probably his first job. Any number of reasons why: maybe he'd net a thousand bucks when it was over, maybe he owed money and his creditors offered a trade. Hell, maybe he was somebody's nephew or some god-damned true believer just hoping someone would hang him on a cross for his cause. I didn't know, and it didn't matter.
What mattered was the job, and the job looked easy. No frills, no fuss, no diplomatic shit to wade through. And the best part was, he'd be getting off a fucking airplane -- so no bracelet, no gun, and no plastique wired to the lock in case we tried to force it. Just me, and the courier, and a briefcase. Easy.
That was my thinking anyway. I almost wondered why they bothered putting Collections on the job. One uniform could meet this kid at the terminal and he'd probably cry and confess and carry the box to the car for you, if you just gave him a mean enough stare. I mean, this guy wasn't more than twenty, twenty-one tops, with a round face and a joe-college sweatshirt, and his hair parted on the side. He was fidgeting as he stepped through the gate. Nervous, but in a vacant, lost-tourist kind of way. And I thought: Jesus Christ, this kid looks like he's just waiting for someone to take that case away from him.
Didn't know how right I was.
The problem with airports is that there's not very much in the way of privacy. There's no room to maneuver. Even in the john, there's always a crowd. So all your cat-and-mouse games have to be right out in the open. I tailed the kid, and waited while he picked up his luggage. I figured the parking garage would give me my best opportunity, and I prayed he wasn't taking a cab. He grabbed a smallish valise off the conveyer belt, and beat a path toward the pedestrian bridge. I kept a respectful distance between us, until he reached the far end and stepped almost immediately into an elevator. Then I had to sprint ten yards and shout for him to hold the door. I was doing my very best harried-traveler impersonation, but I was still amazed when he actually stopped the doors and waited for me. It was like a deer waiting for the hunter to line up his shot. But when I got in the elevator, and the doors closed, I realized it's more like the wooden duck waiting for the mallard to sidle up and say hi.
Inside the elevator, next to this kid, were two tall, hard, smiling men. The doors closed behind me, and everything went blank.
When I wake up, I'm here, in this anonymous basement room with the meathead screaming at me and smacking me around. I've seen scenes like this before, of course -- usually from the other end. So it doesn't take me long to put two and two together. My would-be inquisitor is a big man in a tiny t-shirt. Its fabric stretches tight across his husky frame. He has dim eyes set wide against a flattened boxer's face. I mean, this guy is fucking ugly. No Einstein, either. I bet nothing much goes on between his crewcut and the thick stump of his neck. It's clear that he's the muscle, and the brains come in a separate package.
As he shouts, his voice sounds like somebody shaking a bucket with rocks in it. He quickly graduates from smacks to punches to threats. Ten minutes later he has a gun at my head, and he's still asking who I am and who I work for. He presses the gun to my cheek hard enough to bruise. But I have an advantage -- I know more about this game than he does. I know he can only threaten to kill me for about three minutes before he either does it or shuts the fuck up. I'm betting he'll give in, leave me to sweat for an hour or so, and then come back for round two. If they're smart, they'll use that time to find someone who knows what the fuck he's doing, and I think I'd rather be out of this chair before that happens.
Mr. Ugly takes the gun away, but keeps yelling. He puts his face next to mine, and screams some threats. His breath is warm and foul. Spit collects in a mist on my cheek. It's the same two questions, over and over. I've stopped listening. Instead I'm trying to gauge how large this room is, what these ropes are made of, whether asshole and I are alone -- these are the basic facts of life now, and I need to learn them fast.
Suddenly he stops shouting, and steps behind me, out of view. I turn my head instinctively, and he whacks me with the gun. Then I hear it cock, and sweat gathers on my brow. So much for my tough talk. There's an explosion by my ear, and the world up-ends. When I come to, I'm lying on my side, one arm painfully crushed beneath the chair. Mr. Ugly is standing where I can see him, a sick smirk on his face. He says something, but I can't hear it over the ringing in my ear. A warm trickle of blood creeps down my neck.
Fuck. Maybe he does know what he's doing.
When he's done gloating, he turns off the light and leaves. As he does, I see part of a cavernous room beyond the door. A gymnasium maybe, or a warehouse. It's hard to tell by the ceiling, which is really all I can see from boot level. Could be an airplane hanger. That'd make sense, that I'm still at the airport. If you jump a guy in an elevator, you probably don't want to carry him very far if you don't have to.
With the door closed and the light off, the room is dark -- but not totally dark. There may be a window, covered up or boarded over. Since Mr. Ugly turned off the light, I'm guessing I'm alone. A camera as company, perhaps, but no living, breathing person. I suppose I'll find out soon enough.
Still lying on my side, I wrap my hands around the frame of the chair. The rope bites into my wrists as I grip it. Somewhat miraculously, my legs aren't tied down, so I pull my knees to my chest and push against the seat. The rope tears into my flesh and my arms strain at the shoulders -- but I feel the seat give, just a little. I relax, then push again, harder. The seat moves a little more. Relax, and push. Relax, and push. Like havin' a baby. After a dozen tries my legs cramp and my back aches, but I can hear the wood cracking. Five minutes later, and I'm holding the back of the chair in front of me, working at a blood-soaked knot with my teeth.
Free of the ropes, I try to assess my situation. I start by approaching the small square of dim light, high on the wall. An old army blanket's tacked up there, and I pull it down. Behind that, there's a barred window, weeds just outside. Fluorescent light filters through, and the bars cast eerie striped shadows against the floor. I don't waste time with fantasies about bending the bars, or unscrewing them, or any of that happy Houdini bullshit. I look at the rest of the room instead.
Four walls, all cinderblock; the ceiling and floor, smooth unpainted concrete. Cracked, but solid. A drain in the floor, the size of a soda can. I see my blood smeared darkly nearby, not enough to stream toward the drain. Not yet, anyway.
I look to the door. Flimsy, with thin wood and a hollow core. Even if it had a solid lock, which I doubt, I could break it in half and not even bruise my fucking knuckles. Trouble is, I don't know what's on the other side.
So my options are to risk the door, or to wait for Mr. Ugly to come back -- perhaps with a friend, and maybe a blowtorch -- or I pray for a rescue that I know isn't coming. I pick up a leg of the dismembered chair. I take a couple practice swings, and weigh the odds: I have a goddamn chair leg, they have a gun. Not in my favor.
But your best bet is your best bet, even when your best bet is shit. I steady myself. When that door comes down, I'm committed. I got to be ready to kick, and fight, and run -- and very likely die before I even get out of this shithole. I can't afford to half-ass this. There won't be any second chances.
I step back and stare at the door like it's a big fucking bull's eye. Then a funny thing occurs to me: I'm still alive. I still have a chance. What a bunch of fuckin' amateurs. They set me up and got the jump on me, but they left me unguarded and tied with fucking twine to a glued-together wooden chair. Maybe they left the door open, too. Maybe they'll even call me a cab. I reach for the knob, and when my hand touches it I suddenly realize that it's already started turning.
I raise the chair leg like I'm waiting for a fast ball. Old Ugly opens the door a trifle slowly, and I'm afraid he'll stop when he sees the light, or the remains of the chair. Instead, he mutters, "What the fuck?" and lets go of the handle. The door drifts the rest of the way open and for half a second he and I stare at each other, fifty inches apart. He's reaching into his jacket but his eyes are wide and when they reach mine, he freezes. It's not a long break, but it's enough.
The chair leg hits the side of his face with a heavy sound, and he falls. I hit him again, at the back of the head, where the skull meets the spine -- just to be sure. And then a third time out of simple spite.I roll him over, and his head lulls like it's about to come off. Blood stretches away from him like a shadow. I find his wallet and stuff it in my pocket. Car keys, too. I find the gun, cock it and smile.
Not that I think I'll need it. When Mr. Ugly saw that something was screwy here in my cozy little cell, he didn't call for help or even back away -- he just mumbled to himself and walked right on in. And even without an alarm, that clubbing I just handed him surely made a racket. His friends had either split, or they hate him enough to let him die -- or else they were never there to begin with.
I play it safe. A little humility never hurt.
I steal quick glances around the corner, lead with the gun. The place is empty. Outside my cell, there's a large room, like an oversized garage. Three yellow and black trucks are parked there, with room for a couple more. There's an office area at one end, with a desk and a calendar and a safety-first poster hanging on the wall. I notice there's no chair, and I have to wonder if I just killed the boss with his own god-damned throne. Just past the desk, I see the door and I realize as the adrenaline drains out of me that the room is tilting hard every time I take a step.
I'm afraid I'll pass out, but then I realize it's just my fucking ear messing up my balance. I press on it with the heel of my hand and stagger toward the door. The room rocks back and forth. I lean against the wall, then a truck, a stack of boxes, and finally the desk in the office. At the desk I stop to rest a minute, each hand on its surface. I close my eyes, steady my breathing, and try to block out the constant scream that's echoing deep in my ear. When I open my eyes, I see the one thing I'm supposed to care about more than getting out alive. Right by the desk, out in the open, unguarded, unlocked -- the fucking briefcase.
I drag it behind me as I stumble to the door.
I'm sure there's nothing in it. Probably there never was.
Kristian Williams ©2004
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