Tampa, Florida, 2008
"Usually I'd have Russel run this kind of errand, but, as you know, he's down helping Jian Wa with a few things in Miami," Julian said. Eric could hear music in the background -- no doubt his boss was "entertaining" some female acquantaince.
"You pay me, Julian. You don't have to ask me nicely to do my job," Eric said into the phone as he pulled his Land Rover into the parking lot of his apartment.
"Oh, but I do so enjoy being polite. After all, what else separates us from the jackals?"
"Point taken. So, what's the job?"
"Nothing major, my boy. You're to meet a few of my boys down at the docks -- Reggie and Edward, you know them -- and one of Jian Wa's people. There's a container coming off of a Chinese freighter tonight."
"What's in the container?"
"Whores, my boy. Jian Wa has graciously agreed to sell their contracts to me at a steal, and I'm opening a brothel up here. You're just management -- just make sure they all do their jobs, and then take the weekend off."
"Sure thing, boss," Eric said, unlocking the door to his apartment. "What time?"
"Oh, the witching hour, of course. Listen, darling, I have to go -- this silly woman has just spilled Pinot Nior all over my couch. Call me when you're done, yes?"
Eric hung up the phone and threw his keys on the dining room table. It was already getting on towards eight at night, and he'd need a shower and dinner before heading out. Before the shower, though, he went to the closet and picked out a pair of guns for the night -- two matched Glock .23s -- and tossed them on the bed.
* * *
Reggie was waiting at the gates to the Port of Tampa when Eric pulled up in the Land Rover. He liked Reggie -- though the kid wasn't even yet 21, he seemed pretty smart, and the kid could definitely make a joke. Reggie closed the gate behind the Land Rover, then got into the passenger seat.
"Hey, boss," Reggie smiled widely. "Glad it's you tonight and not that nutjob Russel."
"Ah, don't take it so hard on the guy."
"Yeah, but he never talks. Freaks a brother out, you know?"
"You never heard why he doesn't talk?" Eric asked, slowly heading for berth 36.
"No, man. Not like he'd tell me," Reggie grinned.
"He doesn't talk because he can't. His father was kind of a bastard. When young Russel wouldn't stop babbling one day, Daddy cut his tongue out with a straight razor."
"You're fucking with me."
"Nope. That's what Julian told me."
"Now I feel bad for calling him a nutjob," Reggie shook his head.
"Don't. I like Russel, and all, but there's definitely something wrong with the boy," Eric told him as he rolled to a stop near berth 36, where Edward and a young Chinese guy were waiting, smoking cigarettes. Eric killed the headlights, but not before he noticed the pair of brand-new cargo vans parked just behind Edward and his Chinese pal -- the transport for their cargo, he assumed.
Eric shut off the engine and got out of the car. Edward shot him a nod, which he returned. The Chinese guy next to Edward stuck out his hand.
"Billy Tan," he smiled widely.
"Eric Austen," Eric said, shaking the young man's hand.
"Heard a lot about you. Jian Wa thinks you're all right."
"Happy to hear it," Eric nodded to a long, red cargo container, "This our can?"
"All right, let's do this quick."
Edward and Billy went to the cargo vans -- each pulled an AK-47 from the front seat. From behind the container, another young Chinese appeared, shuffling through a set of keys.
"This's Harold," Billy nodded at the other Chinese.
"I thought there was only supposed to be you?"
"I get bored on the drive up from Miami."
Eric nodded. Harold finally found the right key and unlocked the container. The smell was what hit Eric first -- the people in the container obviously hadn't had access to shower or toilet facilities in quite some time. As the containers doors swung all the way open, Harold shined a Mag-Lite inside -- huddled together in the center were no fewer than twenty people, male and female. It took Eric a second to realize that not one of them was a day over twelve years old.
Edward and Billy gestured at the kids with their weapons, and Billy growled something in Chinese.
"Hold the fuck up. Julian said we were supposed to be bringing in prositutes," Eric yelled.
Billy looked at Eric and grinned. The lower half of his face was all teeth.
"Yep. That's them, right there."
Billy started giggling.
"Whore's a whore, man."
Billy's giggle turned into a full-blown laugh, and he gestured at the kids again with the barrel of his weapon.
Before he knew what he was doing, Eric had one of the Glocks from his behind-the-back- double holster in his hand, and he was squeezing the trigger. The first bullet augered into the side of Billy's head, sending a huge spray of blood and bone over the door of the container.
Eric whirled, drawing the other gun, and fired three shots as quickly as possible at Harold, who was just reaching for a weapon. Harold's head exploded into a wet red mist, and the man's body thumped to the dock.
Reggie was frozen in place next to Eric. Edward still had his gun pointed at the kids, and he slowly turned to stare at his boss.
"Eric. What the fuck, man! Don't you know what Julian's going to do to you?"
"Put it down, Edward. I don't want to shoot you."
"I can't put it down, Eric. This cargo doesn't get delivered, it's my ass and yours," Edward shook his head, slowly bringing his AK-47 to bear on Eric.
"Dammit," Eric muttered, squeezing the trigger on the Glock in his right hand. Edward dropped without firing a shot, blood from his head wound pooling on the concrete.
"Run, Reggie. Get the fuck out of here, now," Eric growled, not turning to look at the younger man. He heard Reggie sprint away towards the gate.
* * *
Eric had managed to get all of the children into one of the vans, which he had left parked in the handicapped space in front of the Tampa Police Department's Franklin Street station. He then walked a few blocks north and stole an Acura Integra, which took him less than a minute to hotwire.
He knew Julian would be looking for him, and his apartment would be the first place he'd check. Still, he had a rather large amount of cash stashed there, and he'd need it -- Eric planned to vanish off the face of the Earth. He figured he still had an hour, maybe two, before Julian figured out what had happened.
He was wrong. When he opened the door to his apartment, he saw Russel's disturbing grin. Then he saw Russel's right fist, and then he saw black.
* * *
Eric awoke to room-temperature liquid splashing in his face. From the way it burned his nose and eyes, he assumed it was gasoline -- burning, then. Julian was going to torch him alive.
A few drops of the liquid trickled past his lips, and Eric found that it wasn't gasoline -- it was Southern Comfort. Probably not burning. . . the SoCo was just meant to wake him up. It had worked.
Eric blinked the remaining Southern Comfort out of his eyes, and found as they refocused that he was in Julian's kitchen, whic was a bad sign. His arms were lashed, underside-up, to the same oak chair he'd seen Jason butchered in.
Great. Bleeding to death. Not the way I wanted to go.
"Oh, look, Russel. Eric's back. How's your breathing, my boy?"
Eric hadn't realized it, but he was having a problem drawing in air through his nose. Russel must have broken it, which is why the Southern Comfort stung so much.
"It's been better," Eric coughed. There was dried blood in the back of his throat. Definitely a broken nose, then, and a pretty bad one at that -- most likely, he guessed, both eyes were black by now. He must have been out for more than an hour for the blood to have dried.
"I guess. Looks like you hit him pretty hard, there, Russel. Not that I mind so much," Julian grinned, lighting a cigarette.
"Look, Julian. We both know where this is going. What say that, for once, you skip the speechifying and just have the freak cut me up?" Eric sighed.
"Ooh. Look at you, big guy. I remember when I met you, you were just a sad little drunk who couldn't have weighed more than 110. Now you're firing orders around the place --"
"So no skipping the speeches, then. I get it."
"You have to let me at least have that, Eric. You did cost me more than $10 million tonight," Julian shrugged.
"Yeah. From peddling children into the sex trade. I feel real bad about that, Julian. I really do."
"Sarcasm. Nice. Haven't you learned anything working for me, Eric?" Julian asked, nodding to Russel. Russel pulled his Hissatsu from behind his back and ran it quickly across Eric's chest. Eric gasped as blood started to flow freely down the front of his shirt.
"Morality. It's an obsolete concept anymore, Eric. When this world finally falls apart, I'll hold the head of the last moral man in one hand, and the head of the last brave man in the other," Julian said. He took a long drag from the cigarette and nodded to Russel again. The knife flashed out once more, slicing across the cut he'd already made. More blood poured down, splashing onto the kitchen floor.
"Morality gets in our way, Eric. For example, if I was a moral man, I would have had a problem putting cameras up in your house. I wouldn't have known about the girlfriend you never mentioned, the one you thought I didn't know about. Don't worry about her, my boy. Russel already paid her a visit."
Eric bucked in the chair, pulling against the arms with all his strength. He felt the wood start to crack, and he began to rise onto his feet, still strapped to the chair. Russel stabbed the Hissatsu down into Eric's right thigh, and the chair fell down to the floor. He quickly pulled the knife out of Eric's leg and slammed it into his left shoulder, pinning it to the back of the chair.
"Why, thank you, Russel. My, Eric. You have gotten strong in the last couple of years. I do believe you could break out of that chair in time. Weaken up those guns a bit, would you, Russel?"
Russel picked up a scalpel from the kitchen counter. Eric was still struggling in the chair as Russel brought the blade close to his left arm.
"Now, don't fidget, my boy, or Russel here might accidentally nick an artery," Julian laughed, snuffing out his cigarette.
The point of the scalpel touched lightly to Eric's wrist.
"Mind the tattoos, Russel. It's beautiful work, isn't it? Hate to spoil them."
Russel nodded, then plunged the scalpel deep into Eric's wrist. There was blood, certainly, but not as much as Eric was expecting. He saw the flesh of his arm split apart like an overcooked sausage casing as Russel ran the blade all the way up to his elbow.
"See, if the Chinese had caught you first, they would have done this 'death of 100 cuts' thing. None of the cuts would be fatal, but you'd bleed to death anyway. I kind of like that, but I don't have the patience," Julian explained, pouring a glass of Southern Comfort. "Drink?"
Eric was too busy trying not to scream to form any sort of answer. Julian shrugged and poured the entire glass of liquor on Eric's arm.
Eric screamed then, and didn't stop until he'd passed out.
* * *
Eric couldn't see anything. Couldn't feel anything. But he could hear Julian cackling.
My, that's a lot of blood. He's got to be gone by now, no, Russel?
A long pause.
Ah. No matter. He will be soon enough. Sun will be up in an hour. Let the pelicans feed on what's left.
A very long silence. Suddenly, the pain hit him with a huge, violent, full-body fist. Eric forced his eyes open -- they stung, and he realized he couldn't breathe. He was underwater. Salt water -- the bay. His shirt, still tucked into his pants, hung in tatters around him. Eric ripped off the two largest pieces and tied them around his forearms as best he could, then started kicking upwards.
His legs were barely moving. He couldn't see light, wasn't even sure he was headed up. He kicked for as long as his legs would let him, but his head didn't break the surface. He didn't have anything left.
Then, he was facedown in the sand. It took all of his effort to lift his head, but he managed to do it. It was dark, but he could tell he'd washed up on a beach. A public beach, with a public phone fifty feet away. He tried to claw his way there, but his hands didn't want to work.
Eric managed to belly-crawl across the sand. It took everything he had to reach up and grab the phone. He was pretty sure he pushed in the digits 9-1-1, but there was no sound from the earpiece for a long time. Finally, just before his eyes slid shut, he heard in a far-off voice, "911, what is the nature of your emergency?"
Eric could only force out one word before he collapsed, leaving the phone hanging just above the sand.
"Murder," he choked. His forehead hit the sand, and the pain went away.