by Rusty Barnes
Kraj took a knee, and the aluminum baseball bat swooshed past his head and clanged loudly when it hit the steel street sign. The bat buzz pain took the swinger by surprise. He dropped the bat. Kraj took that opportunity to drill his right fist into the man’s particulars. Kraj imagined, like Bruce Lee had taught him in all those cheap movies, that his fist was going through the man’s balls and his innards and coming out his asshole. The Way of Hitting Hard, Kraj called it. It dropped the man cold in his shoes. He lay shivering in a fetal ball until Kraj applied the toes of his boot selectively to the man’s ribs, throat and chin.
“Don’t treat Rick like shit,” Kraj said, leaning down to wipe his knuckles off on the man’s tattered blue shirt. He also reached into the man’s pocket and took what he had there: an illegal pepper spray container, a set of keys, and his wallet, which contained five hundred dollars in slick twenties. “Also pay your debts on time and in full, loser.”
The man on the ground nodded, blood coming through his teeth. “I just don’t have it,” he said.
“I’ll stop by to see you next Monday. You must have the money then,” Kraj said. The man nodded.
“Where is your car?” Kraj said. The man indicated a direction, and Kraj began dragging him that way by one foot.
“Stop screaming,” Kraj said. “Or I will leave you right here for the cops to find you. Child raper, repeat thief, cheap loser. Your shitty life should be over.”
Kraj dropped his jaw into his balaclava. So cold. He wanted a woman, but instead he was dragging a bleeding man down an alley. This too shall pass, he thought.
When he got home, he found that Camilla had waited up for him. She wore a pink robe and his dinosaur slippers. He wished she would respect his things more readily.
“Can you order a pizza?” he said.
“At 11 o’clock?” Camilla said.
“I’m hungry,” he yelled out the bathroom door as he washed the man’s blood off his hands.
“Why don’t you keep a businessman’s schedule?” Camilla said. “If that’s what you are?”
“Don’t put pressure on me,” Kraj said.
“Legbreaker,” Camilla muttered and crossed one knee over her shapely calf.
“What?” Kraj yelled.
“Nothing,” Cami said, picking up the phone. “I’d like a large pie, pepperoni and extra cheese.”
Kraj’s knuckles had gotten busted up fairly badly. He’d thought his constant use and reuse of his fists would build up calluses or something to protect them, but no. They ripped open every time he hit someone.
“I know you’re not a businessman. I know what you do,” said Cami.
“Then why do you continuously pressure me?”
“I want to share things with you. I want to be intimate with you. Know everything.”
“I don’t want you to know those things,” Kraj said. “You are too pretty to know things that I know.”
“What the fuck does that mean? Too pretty?”
“I am afraid,” Kraj said, “that you will know things that could be used against me.”
“You have secrets from me? Jesus. I had no idea.”
Kraj stared at her.
“For Christ’s sake, Kraj, I’m kidding. I know you have secrets. How could you not? I just want you to share your thoughts with me.”
“OK.” He thought for a moment. “I am afraid I am going to have to eat this pizza and you will lecture me about my job again. I will get indigestion.”
Cami’s eyes snapped. “You don’t take anything seriously. You’re such a prick.”
Kraj spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I tried to share something.”
Just then someone knocked at the door. “I’m getting the pizza,” Kraj said. “Could you get me a beer to drink?” Cami flounced to the tiny refrigerator and took out two Genesee Cream Ales.
“This beer sucks, Kraj,” Cami said.
The man at the door took the money and stuffed it into his pocket. Kraj took the pizza with both hands and the delivery man hit him in the jaw.
“What is that, a pussy shot?” Kraj said. Cami screamed and Kraj grabbed the man by the throat with one hand and forced him up against the door jamb. Kraj dropped the pizza and kicked it backward into the room.
“What do you want, you little shit?”
“Some guys said they’d pay me fifty bucks.”
“To distract you,” the delivery man said.
“Kraj, they’re stealing your car!” Cami said.
Kraj let the man go and he ran for the weeds and the river, toward the correctional facility. By the time the delivery man had hit the riverbank, Kraj had inured himself to the loss of the car. He could get another Subaru. He thought that the thieves might have thought he’d leave valuables in the car. Instead, everything he had sat inside the lockbox with his guns, under the bed. Kraj sighed.
“What are you doing?” Cami said.
“I can’t go to the police,” Kraj said. “You know that now if you didn’t before. I’ll just keep looking for them among my contacts.
“So that’s it?”
“I hope the pizza is still hot,” Kraj said.
Kraj woke the next day with Cami curled up in the fetal position at the bottom of the bed. She shifted around so much in the night it was difficult for Kraj to sleep. Sometimes she would attach herself like a favorite shirt and other nights it seemed as if she was actively trying to get away from him.
He started the coffee pot and thumbed the remote to the TV. He supposed sometime he’d have to have more than a two room apartment. Everything that mattered except the water closet was in one room. He flipped to the local news. More gang business, which was good for him. These young kids in gangs were not responsible criminals. They fucked up too much, showed off their guns, and were in general dumb. This meant more business for his bosses Mikael and Tricky Ricky.
His cellphone rang, and Mikael, as was his habit, began talking as soon as Kraj answered.
“So you let some fucking kids steal your car you stupid Russian.”
“I am not Russian. I keep telling you this.”
“Well you fucking sound like one,” Mikael said. “Ricky wants them to have a lesson.” He paused for a breath.
“I am not killing some kids who only steal cars,” Kraj said. Cami began stirring on the bed, so Kraj went into the water closet and closed the door. “It makes no sense.”
“Those kids embarrassed you. They embarrassed Ricky, which is the main point.” Mikael coughed.”He can’t have an enforcer who gets jacked up by some kids. You know they came in here popping off at the mouth? I had to listen to that shit for two hours while they attracted all the pussy in the place. Find them and embarrass them back.” Kraj went back into the room. Cami no longer had covers on.
“Yes, Mikael.” Kraj stared at the juncture of Cami’s naked thighs.”Uhhuh. I will find them today or tonight.”
“Tonight might be good. They made a big deal out of saying they’d be back.”
“Perfect,” Kraj said. By this time Cami was wide awake with two fingers in her pussy, just staring at him the way she did. “I have to go,” Kraj said. “I’ll see you tonight.” He pressed the phone off.
“You are luscious,” Kraj said. Cami slid across the bed and grabbed his crotch. He sighed.
“You want to see business?” Kraj said. “I’ll show you business tonight.” Cami might have nodded. Or not. It was hard to tell because her mouth was full.
“So how do I look?”
Cami added green cat’s eye makeup to her already arresting eyes. She’d driven home while he was asleep and gotten some clothes together with her makeup kit. Kraj had picked up a pair of brass knuckles and dropped them into his jacket pocket. He also tucked the .357 into the rear of his jeans. Cami had put on a slinky silver dress with fishnet stockings and a retro set of green Doc Martens.
“You look hot,” Kraj said. “Can we go now?”
“Almost finished,” Cami said, fixing her black lipstick with a tissue.
“Here. This is for you.” He handed her a punch knife and sheath, the blade about a finger’s length and broad.
“If you get separated from me try to get to Mikael. If you can’t, punch somebody with that.”
Cami looked at it as if he’d handed her a turd. “You’re kidding.”
“You want to know about my business,” Kraj said. “This is my business. I hurt people. They try to hurt back.”
“All right,” Cami said. “I can handle this.”
“You knew all this already,” Kraj said. “You just get to see it tonight.”
“Do you. . . kill them?”
“Nope,” Kraj lied easily.
“I’m going to pretend that’s true,” Cami said.
“Good answer,” Kraj said. “You like to go now?” He offered her his arm.
The Twist, Mikael’s club, stood on the highest hill in the city. Outside it looked like a dive, but Mikael maintained the inside immaculately, all black leather and silver poles, painted PVC pipe, and a long black bar wide enough for three bartenders and a barback. Penny, a former prison guard, worked the door tonight. Larger even than Kraj, Penny filled out every black suit he wore, the black and white setting off his shaved black enormous head. Kraj slipped him fifty bucks even though he didn’t need to, and Penny nodded them through the stanchions.
“My brother,” Penny said, and offered Kraj a hand. “Admire your lady.”
“Brother from another mother?” Kraj said.
“You got it,” Penny said. The club had been warmed up for a while. The first DJ had already finished his set and Mikael had the house system blasting from his office behind the bar all the way onto the dancefloor. There were a hundred people inside already and more clamoring to get through Penny. It wasn’t full of college students, just young locals who didn’t really have access to the culture of TV, which made them clamor for respect and honor that didn’t exist in Chemung County, or even a hundred miles around. except Ithaca, which didn’t even seem part of the same country everyone else was from.
Mikael came out from the back with two loaded gin and tonics. “Hi kids,” he said, proffering the drinks as if he was somebody important. Kraj felt impatient already. Not a good sign. “They haven’t showed up yet.”
Kraj leaned on the bar while Cami sat at the end on a leather stool. People gave Kraj a wide berth since he looked exactly like what he was. The house lights dimmed for a moment and the jukebox cutout.
“I’m DJ Free Yusef and I’ll be rocking you until the early morning,” the DJ said.
“Jesus Christ,” Cami said, leaning into Kraj. “I can’t take this all night.”
“What do you want to do all night?” Kraj said.
“What we did all day might be nice,” Cami said. “I have to say this music does not put me in the mood.” Kraj blocked her with his body and slid his hand between her thighs. “God. Stop that.”
“You seem in the mood to me,” Kraj said.
“You’re horrible,” Cami said. “Get me another drink.” Kraj raised two fingers, and the bartender nearest him leaned over.
“Gin and tonic for the lady, vodka gimlet for me.” The bar was set on a different level than the dancefloor, and Mikael had to hire tenders to keep on the stairs to help people down who were already drunk. Kraj thought it was stupid money, just being thrown away, but he’d never been able to convince Mikael of that. He handed Cami her drink.
“You really do look hot,” Kraj said. And she did. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know this. A lucky man, he was.
“Thank you, sweetie.” She took a sip and her entire body relaxed. “Do you mind if I dance?” she said.
“Go for it,” Kraj said. “I’ll be right here,” She gave him a long kiss with lots of tongue, then separated herself and went up the dance floor.
“I believe Cami is rocking it commando style,” Mikael said.
Kraj nodded. “It’s difficult to argue with her,” he said.
“Check the door,” Mikael said, pointing with his chin. “Those are the ones bragging it up last night.” Kraj followed them across the floor to the bar with his eyes. None of the three was particularly large, nor did any seem especially strong. The tallest had a black watch cap on and a swagger. Another about the same size had a heavy right hand jacket pocket. The third man was short but stocky.
“Try not to break anything,” Mikael said.
“You want me to take it outside?” Kraj said.
“No, the message needs to be from all of us.”
“Give me your keys,” Mikael said. “I’ll pull you over behind the club by the Dumpsters.”
“Cami has the keys,” Kraj said. He hadn’t anticipated this. “No problem. I’ll go get them. You do your thing in about ten minutes.”
Kraj walked toward the far end of the bar. His favorite drink maven, the blackhaired and tattooed Kathy, had waited on the men. They were now ensconced at one of the few tables near the bar, pointing in the direction of the dance floor.
“What are the frat boys having?” Kraj said. He got another drink, though he didn’t want it.
“Just beer. The short one had a shot of Maker’s, though,” Kathy said. “Am I going to be mopping up blood tonight?”
“I don’t make a mess,” Kraj said.
“I remember,” Kathy said. “They make the mess when they bleed.” She grinned at him, showing off her pierced lip. Under other circumstances, Kraj thought, she might be a handful in bed. The good kind. Kraj watched the three men drink three beers each in quick succession. The short one seemed to have a fairly good looking woman convinced he had something to offer. Kraj decided to hit the restroom before he started in on them. As he went, he saw Mikael winding his way through the dance floor toward Cami. Almost time, Kraj thought.
The men moved to a position near the front door nearer the bouncer, Penny. Good, Kraj thought. More people to see the asskicking. He took the brass knuckles from his pocket and slipped them around his fingers. He caught Penny’s eye and held up three fingers at eye level. Penny nodded and shooed the crowd backward beyond the normal lanes of travel.
“Boys,” Kraj said, advancing to within arm’s length of the men, “your night is over.”
“Who the fuck are you?” The shorter one challenged him.
“I’m the asshole whose car you stole last night,” Kraj said.
“I never stole no fucking car,” Shorty said. The other two put their bottles down.
“You stole my Subaru,” Kraj said.
“Who the fuck are you, cuz? Sure as shit you ain’t from here. You a Polack?” Watch Cap said.
No one ever gets it right, Kraj thought, then he threw an overhand right landing flush on Shorty’s eye. He bucked backwards as if he’d been shot. Kraj took a bottle to the side of the head from Watch Cap then punched him in the throat with his off hand. Third Man had already gone for the gun in his pocket when a woman screamed. Kraj jerked his head involuntarily. It sounded like Cami, but in the instant he looked away he’d gotten a 9MM in the face from Third Man.
“Fucking asshole,” Shorty said, pushing Kraj in the face.
“You going to shoot?” Kraj said. “Shoot me, motherfucker.” These young ones had no idea what it was like to fight for honor or religion. For life. They knew how to fight for women and money, nothing larger. Backwards cowpoke Americans. Third Man’s gun trembled in his hand, but he managed to pull the trigger anyway. Kraj felt a chunk of his left shoulder go as the shot boomed out and Shorty’s eyes grew wide.
“Holy fuck,” Third Man said. “I shot him.” Watch Cap and Shorty hit the emergency exit, triggering the alarm. Kraj’s left shoulder and entire arm had gone numb. He grabbed at the .357 and shot Third Man in the stomach.
“Die slowly, asshole,” he said. Then Kraj ran out the door. He met Mikael outside.
“Those guys are going to be a mile away by the time the cops get here. You better be, too.” Mikael ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Get the fuck out. I’ll take Cami home.”
Kraj went through the milling crowd and out the service door at the back where Mikael had parked Cami’s shitbox of a car. Only way out is to drive, Kraj thought. He steered the car out of the parking lot at 30 miles per with one hand. He could feel the blood running into the cuff of his jacket and jacked Cami’s car to sixty, as fast as he dared to go. He’d head into Pennsylvania and look for a hospital, and hope the scanners wouldn’t pick up on Cami’s car.
He zipped up the Clemens Center Parkway. He knew of an RN, Judy Guild, in Wellsboro who would treat him for nothing if he brought some crank for her long shifts at Soldier and Sailors Hospital.
It was a gamble, but he had to take it. Everything went black.
Kraj woke up with Cami’s car in a ditch somewhere outside Job’s Corners PA. It was 4:30 AM and the moon was so white it scared him. His hand went to his shoulder, dressed and throbbing. He felt in his pants for the .357. His wallet was empty. He barely remembered Judy touching. He just remembered driving. And driving. And puking. His phone buzzed, and he took it out of his pocket with some difficulty. It was Mikael. It was nearly the beginning of a new day. He pressed the phone off and closed his eyes, his hand on the .357, and his mind nowhere at all he could recognize.
Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and nonfiction have appeared in over two hundred journals and anthologies. His next scheduled book, a crime novel titled Ridgerunner, will be published in May 2016 by 280 Steps. A followup, The Last Danger, will be published in Winter 2017. Stories appear or are forthcoming in Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and Sleipnir, among others.