"You keep looking at your knuckles," @blondie80 said.
"I got into a fight today," Eric told his therapist.
"Now, you know that violence never solves anything," Dr. Kepler chided, making notes on her pad.
"Oh, I disagree. Violence solves a whole lot of problems. Throw enough violence at a problem, and it'll probably go away. But I'm trying to be of the opinion that it's not the preferred problem-solving method."
"That's some progress, at least."
"To be honest, Doctor, I'm more than a little disappointed in myself. I knew I could have talked my way out of the fight, but I just wanted to hit someone."
"Would this person have hurt you?"
"People, yes. And it was pretty clear they wanted to kill me. That's not the point, though. There's something I'm trying to do here. . . to become something other than a petty thug, I guess."
"And that's the reason for the somewhat monastic lifestyle you seem to have adopted since entering the program? No alcohol, no cigarettes, no sexual relationships?"
"It sounds so clinical when you say it that way. But yes, that's part of the reason. I have a feeling that. . . have you ever read Hagakure?"
"I don't believe so, no."
"Um, OK. That analogy probably won't make much sense, then. How about this. . . do you think that, with enough discipline, someone can rise above their programming? That they can become something better? Something more than they are?"
"That's kind of the whole idea of therapy."
"Then that's what I'm trying to do," Eric nodded. "Agent Dean tells me that a lot of guys in the program don't take it seriously, don't work at it. A lot of them end up in jail or dead in a few years."
"And you don't want that to be you."
It wasn't a question Dr. Kepler asked -- more of a statement of fact -- so Eric didn't bother to answer it. Instead, he checked his watch.
"Looks like our time is about up," he mentioned.
"Looks that way. Next week?"
"Until they say I can stop showing up, yeah."
Eric turned and smiled at Dr. Kepler on his way out. In another life, he would have found the thin, blonde 30-year-old almost irresistible -- she was smart, funny, and didn't seem to judge him in any way (though she wasn't much of a therapist, really -- she mainly told him things he'd already figured out). Whenever he had those feelings now, though, he just shut them off as best he could and thought about something else. He picked up his appointment card from the temp at the front desk, walked out to his car, and started the long drive east towards his apartment. After the day he'd already had, he just wanted to get some sleep.
He clicked the in-dash MP3 player over to "Lexicon Devil" by the Germs as he merged the decade-and-a-half-old Thunderbird onto I-680. After the fight with the Russians in the bar, Eric had considered taking one of their guns rather than trying to buy one, but, for some reason, he'd left all of their hardware on the floor with them. He told himself it was because the program didn't allow him to have a gun, so he didn't want a gun, but Eric knew the real reason -- if Russel was alive and after him, he'd probably never have a chance to use the thing anyway.
So Eric decided to keep the emergency fund where it was for the time being. He knew how Russel operated -- he'd just have to keep his eyes open for any sign of the man and hope he would see him coming. Then, at least, he stood a microscopic chance.
* * *
Eric had been asleep on the couch for a couple of hours when a loud knock on the door woke him.
"Shit. . . someone knocks like the po-lice," Eric mumbled groggily, rolling off the couch and stretching out the knots in his lower back.
Another loud knock.
When Eric opened the door, he found that it was, in fact, the police on the other side. Specifically, Deputy Johnny Teal. Eric poked his head out the door and looked around.
"Boss isn't with me," Johnny told him.
"Oh. Uh, right, then. What brings you by, Deputy?"
"I think we can call each other by first names, Eric."
"Johnny. What's the reason for the visit?"
Johnny was in street clothes, Eric noticed -- the same type of khakis-and-polo combination from the night before, only in different colors. From behind his back, Johnny held up a six-pack of @Newcastle.
"I bring an olive branch," Johnny smiled. He had freakishly good teeth -- Eric guessed they were implants.
"I don't drink. But knock yourself out," Eric said, opening the door and beckoning Johnny inside.
Johnny noticed that the apartment appeared to have been refurnished recently -- there were still indentations in the floor from a much larger couch sticking out from under what looked to be a brand-new, red IKEA knockoff. The coffee table looked showroom-new, and the entire place was obsessively clean.
"I wish this was just me dropping by to hang out, Eric, but I need some help on something," Johnny started, taking a seat in a brand-new leather armchair.
"I've been a cop for a long time now -- six years in the Army as an MP, four in the Sheriff's department here -- and I've never had to deal with organized crime in any real fashion. Street gangs, sure. Organized retail theft once, which was pretty cool, actually. But the capital-M Mob? I'm in over my head."
"Yeah, it's not like it was in the old days, where you pretty much knew where the mob was and who ran it. Today's organized crime is all about making money and staying out of sight as much as possible."
"So how do we go about getting a handle on the Russian problem? More to the point, who's knocking them off? Can two factions really carry off a mob war this quietly?"
"I think I'm going to be able to help you out a lot, actually. I got into a fight with the Russians from the other night today. . . before you say anything, no, it wasn't on purpose. I was dumb and walked into their bar with a co-worker without realizing where I was going."
Johnny had been getting ready to open a beer, but as soon as he heard this, he stood quickly and set the beer back on the table.
"Shit. Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"
"Um, I'm telling you now."
"Think, Eric. You just poked the hive. Don't you think we should take a look and see what the bees do when they're threatened?"
Eric blinked twice. It was a shockingly competent piece of police thinking, which he hadn't expected from Johnny. From Nathaniel, maybe, but not Johnny.
"I'll get my keys."
* * *
Johnny parked his truck, an immaculate 1989 Dodge Power Ram, in a public lot across the street from the Russian's bar, which Eric now noticed was named Alexander's. He had a cup of @Starbucks on the dash in front of him.
"So, I never got to tell you how the fight panned out."
"You're still alive, so I assume you won," Johnny smirked.
"Well, yeah. But I got them to agree to have their boss meet me in a couple of nights."
"How'd you do that?"
"I posed as a freelancer. Discuss holes in their security, as someone does seem to be murdering an awful lot of their people."
"I'm not sure the boss is going to be down with this. Scratch that -- I'm sure the boss is going to think this is a terrible idea."
"I think that, if we can trust you, we might as well get someone they won't suspect inside to get some more information. I figure any way we can get the bodies to stop dropping, we have to try."
"So can we? Trust you, I mean?"
Eric let a breath out through his mouth, slowly.
"To not get you killed? Sure. To not flip and go back to my evil ways? I'd love to say yes, but the jury's still out on that one."
"I'm just going to pretend you said 'yes.' Lot less disturbing that way," Johnny shook his head. "Black Mercedes."
Eric followed Johnny's line of sight, and the same black car from the night before was just pulling out of the alley behind the bar.
"Can't be a re-up already. We follow them, they'll lead us somewhere new," Eric suggested.
"Agree," Johnny said, starting up the truck. He followed the Mercedes up Dodge Street, heading north, keeping a few cars back.
"So I ran the plates on that car," Johnny said, sipping from his coffee as he drove.
"Registered to a nice little old lady with dementia in a nursing home with a non-Russian last name," Eric guessed.
"How'd you know that? You haven't been hacking our databases, have you?"
"Nope. It's standard operating procedure if you want to stay ghosted. Nothing in your name, nothing to connect you to anyone or anything else. I drove a Land Rover for years that was registered to a 97-year-old schizophrenic in Temple Terrace."
Johnny nodded slowly.
"That makes sense, actually. Smart."
The Benz traveled up Dodge past 42nd Street, and traffic started to ramp up a bit. Johnny moved the truck closer, and the two of them could see that Nikolai was driving. Another man, one they hadn't seen yet, was in the passenger seat.
"Looks like you were right. They've passed where they were headed last night."
"My guess is they have business spread out all over this town. It's big enough that they can decentralize and communicate by cell and email, but small enough that they can get from anywhere to anywhere else in 20 minutes in a pinch."
"Yeah, and they get so the local lawmen don't know their faces," Johnny said as they followed the Benz past 72nd Street. A dark blue Nissan Titan sped by the driver's side of Johnny's truck, cut in front of the Benz, and slammed on the brakes inches from the Merc's front fender. The Benz slammed hard into the bed of the truck, and both vehicles screeched to a dead stop.
"What the fuck!" Johnny yelled, slamming on his brakes.
The Titan's doors flew open, and two men in black cargo pants and T-shirts hopped out holding assault rifles. They fired into the Benz's windshield, quickly dumping forty or fifty rounds into the sedan's passenger cabin.
Johnny had his radio in his hand.
"Officer needs assistance! Shots fired, 81st and Dodge!"
The two men yanked open the Mercedes and dragged out the bodies, then threw them into the bed of the Titan as if they weighed nothing. Johnny grabbed his Glock from the holster on his belt and jumped out of the Ram. Eric, not knowing what else to do, hopped out as well.
"Sheriff's Department! Drop your weapons and get down on the ground, now!" Johnny yelled.
The two men just looked at him. One of them cocked his head to the side and muttered something. Then they both got back into the Titan and tore off.
"Fuck!" Johnny hopped back into his truck, and Eric followed.
"Officer in pursuit, dark blue 2007 Nissan Titan, license HJU --" Johnny never got a chance to finish yelling the plate into the radio. Another large pickup slammed into the passenger side of the Power Ram at better than 65 miles an hour, flipping the huge old truck on its side.
* * *
Consciousness flickered in and out like a cheap candle with a burned-over wick.
Eric was hanging upside-down, the powder-blue polyester of the truck's seat belt digging into his shoulder.
He blinked -- he was on the roof of the cabin, and he could see his shoe sitting right next to his head. Eric reached out for the shoe.
He blinked -- he was half-out of the smashed passenger window. His right hand held on tightly to the black Converse Chuck Taylor that had been sitting next to his head. Eric could hear sirens off in the distance. He was face-down, and could see glass splayed all over the pavement.
He blinked -- we was laying on his back, looking up at the night sky. He tried to lift his head, but he suddenly felt like he needed to vomit. He tried, instead, to roll his head to the side, so as not to choke himself.
He blinked -- someone was shining a light in his eyes. He could smell gasoline.
"Sir? Can you hear me?" someone asked.
"Yeah," Eric coughed.
Eric blinked again, but this time, the scene didn't change on him. The light clicked off, and he saw the face of a youngish black woman staring down at him. There were streetlights blazing above, and he could hear traffic going by slowly. The truck -- or what was left of it -- was about a hundred feet away from him, in the oncoming curbside lane, flipped on its roof, all of the glass busted out. Two cops stood guard over the motionless hulk, which was cordoned off with yellow tape and flares.
"You were in a car accident, sir," the young woman said. She was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and blue vinyl gloves. The wingless caduceus inside the asterisk on the left chest of her shirt identified her as a paramedic -- about a million and a half years ago, Eric Austen had owned a couple of shirts that looked exactly the same.
"You think?" Eric tried to smile. He tried to lift his head once more, and found it much easier this time.
"Don't try to move, sir. You could have some spinal damage."
"Sir. Do I really look that old?" Eric found that his shoe was still off, and he wiggled his toes. "Look. Toes are moving. Not paralyzed."
"Not yet," the paramedic muttered.
"Zing!" Eric smiled at her.
"Look, you have a concussion. At least. You mind not making my job any harder? Just lay there and stay awake so I can get you into the ambulance, OK?"
"Fine, fine. How's Johnny?"
"Better shape than you," Eric heard Johnny grumble. He was sitting on the curb, holding a bloodied ice pack against his forehead. Another paramedic, this one a young Asian guy, was bandaging a cut on the Deputy's forearm.
"Hey, Johnny," Eric smirked, trying not to giggle.
"You get the license number of that truck that hit us?" Eric smiled widely, now unable to hold in the laughter.