April 1, 2002, Baltimore, MD
He stumbled, his heavy dragging foot snagging a raised edge on the sidewalk. Catching himself with his hands against the pavement, soiled water splashed on his shirt joining the stains of coughed up whiskey and vomit. Chris stood and continued to wander aimlessly down the crowded sidewalk. He’d tried to rest, but sleep wouldn’t come when called. All that responded to his beckon were the ghosts of gun fire and the faces, face after face of those who had died by his hand.
His caked and cracked mouth cried out for water as he looked through window after window of the bars line the street. Trendy ones like “My Blues Heaven”, where the patrons inebriate themselves while someone plays blues and jazz music in the background. Or “Tequilaville” (and obvious copy from Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville”) with piñatas in the shape of animals hang from the ceiling. A place that allows anyone to get a buzz with a Mexican flair. Or “Ben’s Sport’s Bar”, a spot where testosterone filled college students and middle age men that wish they were college students can suck down long necks while various sports programs play on ten flat screen high definition televisions that line the walls. Chris watched them through the darkened glass, seeing only the drinks in their hands, wishing it were in his.
Chris flinched as a crowd of co-eds emerged from the bar behind him, their laughter and clanging about transformed in his mind to more sinister sounds from the past. He turned abruptly into an alley to avoid the haunted noise. Since leaving Force RECON, had struggled to remain calm around throngs of people.
There was another group at the other end of the alley. Three laughed and shoved one another while a fourth relieved himself on the wall. Feeling trapped, Chris sat down in the empty space between the buildings, resting his back against a brick wall. He closed his eyes and wished they would all go away. He longed to be left alone. He thought about the bar again and the glass mugs full of escape.
The shadowy outline of four tall figures stood looking narrow lane, all looking at a homeless man. And then something went wrong.
A familiar voice carried down the alley. “Hey man,” was all Bobby said. Chris glanced at his friend, laying askew on the pavement. His eyes were blood shot and his thick grey bread was frazzled. His Yankees hat had found a new smug of black since Chris had last seen him. Chris hadn’t made many friends on the streets of Baltimore, but those he had, he cherished. He was happy to see Bobby still wearing the boots Chris had given him. A few months ago they had looked new. Chris remembered showing his friend how to lace up the nicely polished, military issue, shoes. He remembered Bobby’s giddy smile and the older man’s jog up and down the alley.
“It’s not a good idea,” Chris croaked to his friend. His throat burned. He tried to remember the last time he spoke.
Bobby didn’t hear. The old man was singular minded, in pursuit of cash to buy the one thing that might dull his thoughts. He stood and stumblingly approached the four men, his hand extend. “H-h-h-hey. Hey guys. E-exc-c-c-cuse me,” the old man muttered sheepishly. “H-h-hey, you got a few bucks. I just need a few b-bucks.”
Chris could feel in his gut the danger ahead. He pushed himself up, forcing his legs to support him. He squeezed his eyes tight, willing his mind to clear.
The fourth man turned and zipped up his jeans. They laughed and pointed at Bobby.
“P-p-p-please,” Bobby stuttered again, looking at the ground. “I. I. I just need a few bucks?”
“I. I. I j-j-just need a few bucks,” one of the men mocked.
“You smell like shit,” another said.
Chris moved closer.
“Listen,” Bobby said, stepping back. “I just need a few bucks.”
A jolt of hostility sparked in one of the young men. Shoving Bobby with one hand he yelled, “Why don’t you get a job you dumb piece of shit?” The rest of the pack laughed.
Chris stretched his neck to the left and then the right. The muscles ached and cracked as they loosened.
“You smell like shit you Old Fuck!” another said, escalating the situation by shoving Bobby with both hands. The drunken twenty-something resembled the caveman in evolution posters, striving to walk upright.
“Hey old man, got any extra change?” the shortest one with the build of a bulldog yelled with a drunken slur. He pressed Bobby against the wall. The other three moved in, surrounding the old man.
“I. I don’t want any trouble,” Bobby said, looking at his boots.
“What a waste of air!” came the third comment. This one was perfect. Perfect hair, perfect voice, perfect clothes. Chris thought that he probably was the star quarterback of some local college. After a second glance, Chris identified the short “bulldog” as a wrestler. Small and stocky but with no wasted muscle. Not many soft spots. The only one of the group that gave Chris pause was the quiet menace lurking in the back. He wore loose fitting sweats and a black Raven’s hoody. The dark figure’s stance was reserved. He was large and bulky, a head above the rest. Chris struggled to remember if this one had been with the others, or had he been in the alley already?
“I. I. I’ll just go,” Bobby said, easing forward. “I. I’ll j-just go.”
Chris and the big one exchanged glares. The hood nodded, acknowledging Chris’ presence. Chris thought that he saw a sadistic grin cross his face.
The bull dog moved into Bobby’s face. Looking up at the old man he barked, “Someone needs to teach you some manners you old piece of shit.” The others laughed. The bulldog gave Bobby a sharp jab to the ribs. The old man doubled over. The others laughed. The bulldog shoved Bobby to the ground and held his fists high in victory. The others laughed.
Chris appeared between the pack and his friend. His vision narrowed a bit as he welcomed the rage that flooded his system.
“Move out of the way!” said Neanderthal. Thick, dark messy hair, sloping forehead, no visible neck. His head was set on top of wide shoulders with dark hair down the neck.
Chris took a deep breath. The familiar chant stilled his mind, “I am focused. My balance is perfect.” Time slowed to a crawl.
In a low monotone growl, Chris responded, “You should move on.”
“This doesn’t concern you, asshole,” added the shorter one.
“You should leave,” Chris muttered through gritted teeth.
The large one in the back remained still. He radiated a cold hate. No emotion was visible beneath the hood.
There was a pause as the oppressors didn’t seem to know what to do next.
The break in the action just fueled Chris’ anger. He realized that no matter what happened next, they would not walk away untouched. He took another deep breath, an attempt to control the outcome to something that he wouldn’t regret afterwards. He stood with feet spread evenly and gained a balance from which to act.
For the briefest of moments, Chris felt remorse. His military career had ended because of situations like this. Situations where Chris was the only one between the oppressor and the innocent victim.
“Listen, skinny”, the caveman says, “this isn’t about you, so move along and don’t look back. Just get the fuck out of here.”
They didn’t know. They had no clue how this would end, but Chris knew. Chris had it all worked out. Every step. Every thrust. Every move. It was all over in his mind. Everything decided, except for the giant in the back. Chris mourned their pride. He mourned the pride that caused those in wrong to push bad situations further.
Every one of his senses tingled in anticipation. The sound of their increasing heart rates and shallow breathing, panting like dogs waiting for a treat. Chris was aware of the car that passed by on the street. He knew that there was not enough air in the tires by the sound of the rubber hitting the pavement. He was completely aware of the gentle breeze that brushed across the back of his neck, carrying the stench of dumpsters and rotten beer down the alley. Through it, he could still smell the stench of body odor emitting from the wrestler.
His senses told him one piece of critical information. The only victim that is remotely aware of the danger he was in is the silent guy that now stands behind his left shoulder. He wasn’t breathing at all.
Chris focused his eyes straight ahead, peripheral vision aware of the most minor micro expressions on the faces of his assailants.
In a voice no more than a whisper he urged them one more time, “Back down.” Not a request, not a plea, but a command.
They didn’t budge. Waiting for the reaction seemed like an eternity. Then he felt it. The hint of movement from directly in front of him. The motion started with the jock, who probably didn’t realize that he had moved while contemplating his first swing.
The chain reaction began.
Chris’ feet were steady and balanced. Hands loose at his side, arms slightly bent, legs straight but knees not locked. His breath slowly left his lungs. His pent up anger and energy over the past few months had been conserved, waiting for discharge. His fingers and toes tingled with anticipation.
The jock stepped forward and planted his right foot while his right fist came rushing forward.
“Nice stance,” Chris thought to himself, “This guy has done this before.”
Nostrils flaring. Friends grinning. They knew it would come to this. Something in them had wanted this all night.
Chris processed the movements that began in unison. The wrestler circling behind to the left, presumably to catch him after Jock hit him. The caveman hadn’t budged. The quiet watcher remained still tensed for action. All of this information was taken in and comprehend in less time than it took the swinging fist to move six inches.
Chris’ left hand began with an upward counter clockwise arc. His right hand dropped to his waist in a clockwise downward arc. As the left reached the top of its swing and moved out and away, the right hand swept up to intersect the punch that was now is about eight inches from his face. His palm turned outward to catch the back of the Jock’s wrist. His right hand locked onto Jock’s wrist, and continued the forward momentum pulling him across in front of Chris. The look of shock on the Jock’s face made Chris laugh. His left hand completed the circuit and landed on Jock’s back to push forward and sent him floating over Bobby’s still body to flop face down on the sidewalk between Wrestler’s feet.
Before the first victim had landed, Chris’ right foot shifted backward to absorb the motion. He kept the momentum moving along in the clockwise direction. His right hand swung in a level arc, his left arm continued its counter clockwise circle. His head swiveled to bring Caveman into view. Snapping his right hand out, Chris slammed a closed fist squarely into Caveman’s throat.
Chris processed the actions. His opponent may have seen it coming, but the young man’s wind pipe collapsed. He would be concentrating too much on breathing to cause any more trouble. Chris realized he needed to be careful, or these men would die tonight.
The watcher crouched back, preparing to pounce. The giant extended an arm straight down, the movements combined were faster than Chris had seen anyone move before. Still deep in focus, Chris sensed the shift in air, the gentle rustle of clothing, the energy expended. He could see something in the watcher’s hand. A knife? A gun?
“He will aim for under my ribs,” Chris told himself. All of this ran through his mind in less time than it took for Watcher to change the direction of his hand to swipe.
Chris dropped down, bending at the knees, and reversed direction to spin back to the left, placing Watcher directly in front of him. Then used the recoil motion to send his left hand swinging itself through an arc aimed for Watchers right hand at waist level.
But there wasn’t a hand. There were four extended claws, sweeping toward him. There was no way that an adjustment could be made to the current motion. The surprise sent Chris’ mind reeling, “What the hell is going on?!”
He knew that Watcher had registered the movement and realized that it had extended himself beyond what he can recover to defend.
The back of Chris’ left hand struck with enough force to knock the wrist sideways. There was a sickening ‘CRAK’ as the wrist and arm loosened from the breaking bones.
Chris continued and pushed up with his legs, building strength for his right hand as it streaked toward Watchers head.
At this speed and force –
A closed fist would shatter his jaw, knock out several teeth and leave him in the hospital from a concussion.
An open palm strike to his face would break his nose and leave him with permanent eye damage.
The added speed of an elbow across the face would break every bone on the left side of his face and cause possible hearing loss in his left ear.
By the way he is gritting his pointy teeth, whatever this thing is, he knows all of this. And realizes that there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.
Chris scanned the face of his victim, searching any sign of remorse. It wasn’t there. All he could see was a hope of survival, a possible chance for revenge, and dark eyes with no pupils.
With rage and satisfaction, Chris finished the movement, choosing the elbow to strike the victim.
Upon contact, he felt bones crumble and watched as life left the swirling eyes of the watcher.
The body dropped limp to the ground.
Shock settled in. Energy dissipated. With no new movement from attackers, the encounter had finished as quickly as it had started. Chris looked to Bobby to check his condition. He seemed fine. No pain that was out of the normal. Chris looked to the Jock, who was just turning to look at Chris from his prone position between the wrestler’s feet. With a quick nod, Chris indicated that they should collect themselves and continue the way they had been going before the violence.
Without a word, Jock stood, and with the wrestler, collected the wheezing caveman and walked back into the street. They didn’t look back.
Bobby looked up at Chris. “Hey Blur, got any spare change on ya?”
Chris helped the old man to his feet and said, “What did you just call me?” Quickly realizing that the question would never be answered by drunk Bobby, he quickly continued, “You need to be more careful.”
Chris let out a long sigh. The dryness of his mouth and soreness of his throat crept back. He forced a smile and stumbled away, his feet returning to their heavy, drag.
“Oh, Shit,” mumbled the raspy voice as he watched Chris walk away. “Oh, shit,” the same voice mumbled as sirens echoed through the street. The grey haired man hurried into the alley, and tossed Bobby a ten dollar bill. “Keep quiet, say nothing about any of this.”
“Whatever you say Carl,” Bobby slurred.
With ease, Carl lifted the body of the hooded stranger, threw the dead thing over his back, and walked back down the alley, away from the police car that had just entered from the other end.
Several blocks away, Carl popped open the cramped trunk of his old Honda Accord and grumbled, “Man do I miss the Ninety-Eight,” as he dropped the body in and slammed it shut.