Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chapter Three

Tampa, Florida, 2001

Eric Austen hadn't had the best day -- or the best four months, really. That morning, just before his @Sprint service had been cut off for nonpayment, he'd called to check his bank balance. It was still positive, but only just. Earlier that year, he'd been pulling down just north of $65,000 a year -- now he was worth exactly $40.52.

The unemployment had run out four months back, but he'd managed to survive off the sale of his BMW 525 up until recently. The 1988 Toyota Tercel he'd been driving around burned as much gas as it did oil, but it got him to and from job interviews for the first two of those months. After that, though, it mostly got him to and from the bar.

He'd moved out of his nice Hyde Park apartment during the second month of unemployment benefits, right about the time he'd bottomed out his savings account. His new neighborhood, just off of Euclid Avenue and Dale Mabry Boulevard, wasn't nearly as swank, but it was conveniently close to the Last Chance Tap Room. Eric found the name kind of fitting now as he strolled through the doors at two p.m.

"Hey, Eric. A little late today, aren't we?" Teresa, the weekday bartender, greeted with a gap-toothed smile. She looked every day of 55 years old, but sadly, she was only 40.

"Business meetings. All very high-powered stuff. You know how it is," Eric shot back, taking his usual seat at the end of the bar.

"Vodka? Bottom shelf?"

"Unless you suddenly got something lower."

"By the glass or by the bottle?"

"Bottle, please."

"Aha. Rough day?"

"Aren't they all."

Teresa plunked the cheap glass bottle down in front of Eric, then pulled a cocktail glass that looked none too clean from under the bar. Eric uncapped the bottle and filled the glass to just under the rim. A mock-toast to Teresa, and the entire glass went down the hatch in one shot.

It only took Eric an hour to finish the first bottle, and he was well into a second before another customer came into the bar -- or, more accurately, two. Neither of them were regulars -- Eric had been into the bar every day for the past couple of months, and he'd never seen either of the two men. Teresa seemed to know them, though -- she immediately straightened up and went for the top-shelf gin.

"Hi, Boss," Teresa stammered, obviously struggling to remember how to make a martini.

"Teresa!" the smaller of the two men, slight and dressed in a white suit, beamed. "You're looking lovely, as ever, dear. And you're already making me a martini! How fabulous!"

The other man might as well have been a statue with moving legs for all the animation he showed. He was taller than the other man, and rail-thin. He was dressed in black cargo pants and a black T-shirt, and had long, dark hair that was tied into a tight ponytail at the base of his skull.

"Teresa, we're going to have some associates meeting us. Your finest table, please," the smaller man said, accepting his martini and taking an experimental sip.

Teresa scurried from behind the bar and hightailed it to the establishment's only real serviceable table, which was just behind Eric's left shoulder. She quickly wiped down the cigarette-scarred imitation wood as best she could, then brushed off each of the four ancient chairs around the table.

"Marvelous, Teresa dear. Now, when my associates come in, you just let them know I'm right back here, yes? That's a good girl. Off you go, then."

The two men sat down, the smaller one casual, leaned back in his chair. The tall, thin one resembled a statue now more than ever. He sat completely rigid in his chair, not even moving a facial muscle. Eric shrugged and went back to his more-rubbing-alcohol-than-vodka vodka. A few moments later, the double doors at the front of the bar flew open, flooding the place in unwelcome daylight.

"Julian! Khuyesos'!" a large man in a black silk shirt and light grey slacks screamed.

"Oh, over here, Vladimir darling!" the smaller man at the table waved jovially. "And language, please, darling. Language."

Vladimir stalked over to Julian's table, followed by two younger men in jeans and T-shirts. Out of the corner of his eye, Eric noticed that both of them had tattoos on their arms -- stylized crosses on the inside of their left forearms, to be exact. Vladimir took a seat, as did one of his pals; the other remained standing.

"Now, Vlad. What could possibly make you want to call me something so terrible?" Julian smiled, sipping from his martini.

"You know what the problem is. That last batch of merchandise you give us is shit."

"Oh, come now, Vlad. A young, entrepreneurial Russian gentleman like you should have had no problem unloading that."

"I don't want to unload. I want our money back, and I want it now," Vladimir spat.

"Do you have a receipt?" Julian grinned.

"What are you talking about, receipt? You have ten seconds to get our money, or my boys here," Vladimir opened his arms wide, and both of his companions drew handguns.

The tall, thin man who came in with Julian shifted in his chair.

"You keep that psycho in his seat, Julian, or you get shot in the face," Vladimir warned.

Eric could never figure out why he did what he did next. Perhaps it had been that the last several months of his life had been such shit that he'd wanted to explode for a while now. Perhaps it was because he didn't like this Russian guy coming in and ruining his quiet drink. Whatever the reason, Eric turned and pounced on the thug standing behind him, knocking the man to the floor. At the same instant, the tall, thin man moved like a shot, rising and driving his fist right into the other thug's nose, knocking him out in one punch.

Eric was struggling on the floor with the other thug, who was trying to get his gun up from the floor. Eric brought his elbow down hard into the thug's jaw several times. He only stopped when he realized the thug wasn't moving anymore.

Eric grabbed the gun, a big monster of a hand cannon, and jumped up from the floor, slamming the barrel into the back of Vladimir's skull.

"Oh, wow," Julian chuckled, "The drunk at the bar got the drop on you, Vlad. You really need to run your boys through some drills or something."

"This man works for you?" Vladimir growled through gritted teeth.

"He does now," Julian shrugged. "Now, Vlad. Here's what you're going to do. You're going to drag those two failures out of here, and you're going to unload the merchandise I gave you. You're going to be happy about it, and you're not going to show your face in this town again. Yes?"

Vladimir started to rise from his chair. Eric smacked him on the back of the head with the barrel of the gun.

"Answer the man," Eric said, trying to keep his voice steady and his words relatively unslurred.

"Yes. You will regret this, Julian."

"Not as much as I'd regret wearing that shirt, darling."

Muttering in what Eric assumed was Russian, Vladimir grabbed the thug Eric had knocked out by the leg. The other was just regaining his wits, and followed Vlad out of the bar.

"Well, then. First thing, we're going to have to buy you a drink, aren't we?" Julian smiled at Eric. "Teresa, what is the gentleman drinking?"

"Well vodka," Teresa replied.

"Not anymore. Now he's drinking @Smirnoff_EXP. So, I'm Julian, and this is my associate, Russel," Julian nodded at the thin man. "Tell us all about yourself."

* * *

Tampa, Florida, 2004

"See, but that's the problem with reality TV. Since it's so cheap to make, they're just going to keep putting that crap out there as long as they can get away with it," Eric complained, piloting the BMW X5 through the downtown Tampa streets. It had just finished raining, but the heat and humidity hadn't broken much -- he had his window down and the stereo was playing "Chemical Warfare" by the Dead Kennedys.

Russel shrugged in the seat next to him.

"You're a real conversationalist, you know that, Russ?"

Russel didn't bother to shrug this time. The BMW pulled up behind a large, industrial warehouse just off of Highway 60, and both Russel and Eric got out. Russel banged on the metal door at the back of the warehouse, and it opened a crack. In a flash, Russel's right combat boot shot out, knocking the door wide open. Eric drew the Glock .30 from inside his short-sleeved cabana shirt and followed Russel inside.

There were three men inside the warehouse, but by the time Eric's eyes adjusted to the bright light inside, Russel had already knocked one out and had another in a choke hold. Eric leveled his gun at the third.

"You're late on a payment, Andy," Eric chided the only man still standing.

"I have it! Right here!" Andy held a duffel bag high over his head, and Russel, having now choked out the second man, snatched it from him. He looked inside the bag and nodded to Eric.

"OK, Andy. You get a pass, for now. Don't make us come get it next time, yeah? I had shit to do tonight," Eric winked.

Andy just nodded slowly. He kept his hands out at his sides, trying to appear as nonthreatening as possible, as Russel and Eric walked back out the same way they had come in. Russel was just closing the X5's tailgate after placing the duffel bag inside when Eric's phone rang.

"Hey, Julian," Eric greeted.

"Eric, my boy. Did Andy part with my weekly tithe?"

"Eventually, yeah."

"I do hope you didn't have to hurt him too severely."

"Not as such, no."

"Well, listen, my boy, here's the problem. Even though I told him not to, Andy's been dealing with the Russians behind my back. You remember how I asked him not to do that?"

"Of course."

"Well, we can't just let that go, now can we? Otherwise, other folks in this town will just think they can do whatever they please regarding certain types of business, and then where will we be?"

Eric didn't answer. He felt acid starting to simmer in the pit of his stomach. He knew what Julian was going to ask next, and he wasn't happy about it.

"So, I'm going to have to ask you and Russel to remind him. You know, about the Russians and all," Julian yawned on the other end of the line.

"Consider it done, boss."

"That's a good chap. See you at the @Lightning game later tonight?"


Eric hung up the phone, then turned to Russel.

"Andy's been working with the Russians."

Russel just nodded and held out his right hand. Eric handed him the Glock .30, and Russel headed back towards the warehouse.

Eric got back into the X5 and turned up the stereo, hoping to drown out the sounds of gunfire. The in-dash MP3 player was set on shuffle, and had just started playing @DavidBowie's "Sons of The Silent Age" as Russel kicked the door to the warehouse back in. The song wasn't even half-over when he came out, a thin spatter of blood across his white forehead. He was grinning, which Eric had seen a few times before but still found disturbing.

Russel handed the Glock back to Eric. The gun wasn't even warm, and Eric popped the clip out -- still full. Russel hadn't fired a shot. Wiping his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket, Russel sat back in his chair and waited for Eric to start driving.

The next day, Eric was just coming back to his Epicurian Bayshore Boulevard apartment from a particularly punishing workout when he caught the midday news. The anchor was launching into a story about three horribly mutilated corpses that Tampa Police had found inside of a warehouse just off of Highway 60 late the night before. According to the police, all three men had been brutally butchered with a long, thin knife. Currently, the police had no leads as to who might have killed them, but of course Eric knew. He was just glad he didn't have to watch it happen -- he'd seen that show before, and it still gave him trouble sleeping from time to time.

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