Tampa, Florida, 2001
Eric picked himself up off the floor and wiped the blood from his mouth. He remembered a time when he was seven years old, when a baby tooth had fallen out while he was on his bike, and he'd ended up swallowing it as he went over a bump in the road. He expected that to be the last time he swallowed any of his own teeth, but he was wrong. He'd just felt the two molars on the left side of his mouth slide down his throat.
Russel was just standing on the other side of the room, looking for all the world as if he hadn't moved at all. In fact, the thin, ponytailed man looked positively bored. No one coming into the room at that moment would have guessed that Russel had just delivered a blinding-fast kick to Eric's jaw, knocking the larger man down and clear across the room.
When Julian had initially informed Eric that Russel would be training him, Eric had found it hard not to laugh. Sure, he'd seen Russel knock out the Russian in the bar a few weeks back, but that had been a sucker-punch. Eric hadn't been in many fights in his life, but he outweighed Russel by a good thirty pounds, and didn't think the thin man would give him much of a problem.
Eric wasn't laughing now -- he was doing his best not to vomit up the two teeth he'd just swallowed.
The problem wasn't with Eric -- in a heads-up fight with most guys his age, he'd do all right. Despite his recent alcoholism, Eric was young, fit, and relatively strong. Russel, though, was something else. First, he was fast -- impossibly fast. Eric couldn't even begin to see the hits coming before they'd already smacked him in the face.
Russel was also a lot stronger than he looked. His thin, tattooed arms barely looked like they could support the weight of his bony hands, but the thin man gave a whole new meaning to the term "wiry." Eric had managed to block a punch Russel threw at him earlier, and he felt like he'd been smacked in the arm with a piece of rebar anyway.
It also didn't help Eric much that Russel really seemed to know what he was doing in a fight -- he used kung fu, boxing, and straight-up brawling in a seamless, unpredictable medley that was almost like a complicated dance.
Eric shook his head violently in an attempt to clear the black spots floating in his vision. As the spots faded away slightly, he saw Russel wiggle one finger at him as if to say "Try again."
Doesn't matter how strong or how fast he is, Eric thought, there's one thing no dude expects you to do in a fight.
Eric came at Russel fast, firing his right fist at the thin man's head. Russel dodged easily, as Eric had expected -- the punch was only to draw attention away from the kick Eric was already throwing at Russel's groin. Instead of feeling his foot hit Russel in the most below-the-belt area possible in a fight, Eric instead felt a blinding pain in his leg accompanied by a snapping sound.
Russel had seen the kick coming and had kicked Eric hard in the ankle as his foot came up, crushing the joint in several places. Eric did his best not to scream in pain, but he let out a whimper despite his best efforts as he rolled around on the concrete floor.
"How's our new employee coming along, Russel?" Julian asked poking his head into the room.
Russel simply shrugged.
* * *
Miami, Florida, 2006
"Well, shit. This went pear-shaped in a hurry," Matt Yang shook his head.
"Someone's getting the shit kicked out of him for this intel," Eric sighed, putting his hands on his head as directed.
In front of Eric, Russel, and Matt were five Russians, all tattoos and muscle. Each of them had weapons trained on their quarry, who had broken into the weapons warehouse completely unaware.
"Zaknis!" one of the Russians spat.
"What'd he say?" Matt asked.
"He asked us very politely to stop talking."
"No. He was actually rather rude about it."
Matt, standing closest to Eric, put his hands on his head as well. Russel stood just in front of them, looking bored.
"Damn. I'm sorry about this, man. Jian Wa had reliable word that this place wasn't guarded too well," Matt whispered.
"Well, let's just hope we live to tell him he was wrong," Eric said back. The Russian who had yelled at him stalked towards him and hit him hard in the face.
"Zaknis!" he repeated.
Before Eric had even fully snapped his head back from the blow, Russel was on the move, a Hissatsu in each hand. He sliced easily through the throat of the Russian closest to him, and a quick throw lodged the other knife in another's eye. Whirling quickly, Russel spun the blood-spurting throat-cut Russian in front of him just as the other two Russians opened fire.
Eric tackled the Russian who had hit him, taking the man down hard. His gun flew out of his hand as he hit the ground, and Matt snatched it up quickly, firing and dropping another Russian.
Russel pushed his human shield hard, sending it into the last standing Russian's arms. Before the last Russian could push his dead buddy off of him, Russel had his Hissatsu lodged in the joint between the man's neck and shoulder.
Eric finished off his opponent with two quick, brutal punches to the jaw. He stood up and shook out his aching right hand, then turned to check his pals. Matt still had his gun up and ready, though there was no need for it now. Russel, grinning creepily, gave Eric a cheesy thumbs-up.
"Fuck! That was some straight-up Michael Meyers shit!" Matt blurted.
Eric laughed, but inside, he was more than a little disturbed at what he had just seen Russel do -- though he'd seen it plenty of times over the last few years, it was still plenty unnerving to watch.
"Come on. Let's grab the guns and get the fuck out of here before more guards we didn't expect pop up," Eric said.
Matt nodded and began loading up a nearby dolly with crates of Kalashnikovs. Eric helped him load them into the van -- but he couldn't help but notice when Russel stayed back to stab the Russian that Eric had knocked out several times in the heart. There was no need -- the man clearly wasn't getting up anytime soon -- but that didn't seem to matter to Russel.
Eric reminded himself, as he seemed to a lot these days, never to get on Russel's bad side.
* * *
Tampa, Florida, 2007
Eric found that there was very little a good, stiff drink couldn't make better. Though he'd been training with Russel for six years, he'd just gotten another sound beating from the thin freak -- he'd decided to knock off early and meet Alexy for lunch at an outdoor cafe in Ybor City, a lunch which turned out to be more liquid than food.
"Let me ask you something, Alexy," Eric said, taking a long drink from his gin and tonic. "When Julian brought you into the fold, did he make you train with Russel?"
"A bit. I'm not as. . . customer-facing as you are, but yes. I have fought with Russel before."
"Ever beat him?"
"Not in hand-to-hand combat. He's very good. But in a knife fight, I taught him a thing or two."
Eric shook his head. It was almost unbelievable -- he'd seen Russel use that knife to kill several well-armed opponents. He was pretty sure the psycho slept with his blade. There was no way an older, slightly pudgy Russian who was in the organization mainly for his knowledge of the competition could beat a guy like that.
"Don't be so quick to judge, my friend. The Russians are the best knife fighters in the world."
"I thought the Apache were the best knife fighters in the world," Eric grinned.
"I don't know them. Are they gang from up North?"
Eric, however, did remember reading something once on the Internet about Russian knife fighting -- how it had developed in military prisons, and how most Russian criminals knew not only how to use the edge, but the flat of the blade and even the knife's handle to get a kill.
"I don't know, man. Russel's pretty damned good with that knife," Eric said, flagging the waitress down and ordering another gin and tonic and a crab salad sandwich. Alexy ordered a steak.
"I didn't think you were a huge fan of steak. You say restaurants always overcook it," Eric pointed out.
"Once in a while, I want steak. But this is not the main reason I order it."
Eric and Alexy made small talk for a little while, debating the previous night's @TBLightning game -- against all reason, logic, and mathematics, Alexy was a fan of the Atlanta @ThrashersNHL, so the two always had something to argue about. Before the hockey conversation could come to blows, the waitress appeared with Eric's sandwich and Alexy's steak.
"Now. Watch," Alexy said, sliding the steak knife off his plate with his right hand. He placed his left hand on the table, fingers spread, and began stabbing the knife at the spaces between the fingers.
Eric wasn't impressed at first, but when the knife started moving so quickly he couldn't actually see it anymore, he was floored. Alexy held up his left hand -- there wasn't a scratch on it.
But the Russian wasn't done yet. He picked up the steak from his plate, tossed it in the air, and slashed it clean in half before Eric even saw him swing for it. The two pieces of meat dropped back onto the plate, and Alexy flicked his wrist. The steak knife embedded itself in the chair next to Eric, puncturing the wood on the back of the chair and popping out the other side.
"Holy shit," Eric breathed.
"I could have done better with a good knife. That one is crap," Alexy said, standing and pulling the knife from the chair.
"Dude. . . you need to show me everything you know. Everything."