Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Two

The meet with Russel was back on for midnight, which gave Eric a couple of hours to see if he could hack the stolen laptop. It had been a while since he had tried to illegally gain access to anyone's files -- it was one of the few crimes he rarely committed while he was in Julian's employ. In fact, Eric couldn't remember a time since college that he'd maliciously hacked a machine.

He found, though, that it wasn't a skill that necessarily dulled over time. Eric had kept up with the various OS improvements since college, and still read enough hacker literature and visited enough dodgy Web sites to know where he could find weak points to exploit.

Whoever had coded the laptop was good, but they were only Army-good. Eric was "I-get-paid-for-this-shit" good, so he was into the base level of the OS in less than an hour. Thirty minutes after that, he had some very useful information. He knew exactly what they were up against.

The team was called Special Unit Omega, and each of its six members were active-duty military or government employees. They all drew paychecks from a dummy account that Eric eventually traced back to the Department of Homeland Security.

Eric managed to pull up bios on each of the six men -- there was Captain Henry Graham, of course, who Eric and Yang Shao had duct-taped to a chair. The man in charge was named Major Frank Ericsson -- he was the one who had duct-taped Eric to a chair.

Eric put together a quick metafile with all of the information he'd found, then zipped it up and emailed it to Nathaniel, Johnny, and Valder. He looked at the clock on his wall as the last email went through -- it was 11:15. Time to get moving.

Eric had one Raven left, which he strapped to his lower leg under the black cargo pants he was wearing. He switched out his long-sleeved T-shirt for a gray wifebeater -- it was hot out, and the last thing Eric needed was to overheat while he and Russel were beating the crap out of each other. He grabbed his cell phone, wallet, keys, and iPod and headed for the door.

"You look like you're headed out for a fight. Weren't planning to tell me about it?" Yang Shao asked, appearing behind Eric at the front door.

"Figured you'd follow me anyway."

"OK. So what's our plan?"


"Yeah. You're setting Russel up, right? You distract him, I shoot him in that freaky head of his?"

Eric shook his head. He really wasn't going to tell Yang Shao about the meeting with Russel, but he supposed there was no way to avoid it now. The best he could hope for was to keep the thin Chinese out of his way.

"Nope. My plan's a lot simpler. Russel and I fight. I kill him, or he kills me. Then you can kill whoever's left."

"Well, at least maybe you'll soften him up a bit," Yang Shao shrugged, following Eric out the door.

Eric made it to the car, but he hadn't driven more than a block and a half before he saw flashing red and blue lights in his rearview mirror. He pulled the Thunderbird off to the side of the road and killed the engine -- no sense in letting it idle and heat up. A few seconds later, Johnny walked up to the driver's side door.

"Hey, bud," Johnny grinned.

"You could have just called, you know."

"I was actually about to pop by when I saw you on the move. Where you off to so late?"

"Um. . . nowhere special. Off to grab some coffee and breakfast."

"Cool. I'll join you."

As Johnny walked around to the passenger side of the Thunderbird, Eric quickly texted Yang Shao: Keep the cop busy for a few minutes.

Johnny opened the passenger door and started to get in when Yang Shao appeared out of seeming thin air and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Hey, cop. Looking for me?" Yang Shao smiled at Johnny.

"Fuck!" Johnny yelled, taking off after Yang Shao, who was running like a mad fury down the street. As the two of them vanished around a corner, Eric reached over and closed the passenger door. He had an appointment to keep, and he didn't intend to miss it this time.

The drive to the Stockyards didn't take long -- about fifteen minutes with the minimal traffic on the side roads. Eric tried as best he could to empty his mind on the drive, to think of absolutely nothing. This was a lot harder than it seemed even under the best of circumstances, as it was almost impossible to think of nothing -- Eric usually ended up thinking about the color black, which wasn't nothing, but it was close enough.

Now, though, he couldn't stop his brain from running through the extreme foolishness of what he was about to do. In all of the times he and Russel had trained together, Eric had never been able to beat the thin man. In fact, he'd rarely even been able to hit him, and when he had the retaliatory strikes by Russel had hurt enough to make him wish he'd missed.

Eric had spent the time since his departure from Julian's organization working out, training. He knew that the day would probably come when he'd have to answer for what he'd done to Julian, and he'd wanted to be ready. He'd studied various forms of combat -- boxing, Krav Maga, RAF knife-fighting -- but he had no illusions that he was going to win this fight against Russel.

He was heading off to die, and he knew it. The thought of dying, though -- of no longer existing on the mortal plane -- wasn't what bothered him. The thought that no one would really miss him, or really even know that he'd been alive at all -- that was what depressed Eric as he pulled his car into the long-empty parking lot of the Omaha Stock Exchange.

Eric didn't see another car at the Stockyards, and realized just then that he had never actually seen Russel drive a vehicle. He didn't even know if the guy could drive. He thought it was strange that he'd worked side-by-side with Russel for just north of eight years and had never noticed such a simple fact.

Russel was there, of course, dressed in his usual khakis, desert combat boots, and sleeveless black athletic shirt. He was sitting crosslegged on the remains of one of the cattle chutes, flipping one of his trademark Hissatsus between his fingers.

"Russel," Eric nodded.

Russel nodded back.

"Here's what I'm thinking. Knives, one each. Other than that, rules are for the weak."

Russel nodded again, stabbing his Hissatsu into the wood next to him. He produced five more knives from his pockets -- Corsicans, a switchblade, a recon tanto -- and stabbed them all into the wood next to the Hissatsu. The thin man hopped down from his perch and swept his arm expansively over the cutlery stuck in the wood.

"Brought my own. Thanks, though."

Russel shrugged and plucked his Hissatsu from the wood. He used the point of the blade to gesture to a large, open area -- Eric guessed it had been a place for the cattle to roam around prior to their slaughter. It was fitting, he supposed -- since he was pretty sure he was just going to work up a sweat before he bled to death.

Eric followed Russel into the circular dirt patch, which he guessed had a radius of roughly fifty feet. Plenty of room to move, and nothing to hide behind. As the two of them walked to the center of the circle, Eric slipped his iPod's earbuds into his ear canals and clicked the play button. The songs were set to shuffle, but Eric couldn't have picked a better one if he'd thought about it.

As Russel turned to face him, the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams" started up. Eric counted beats with the song as Russel flipped his knife around backwards.

Right now, it's time to. . .

Russel charged at him, swinging his blade backhanded in a wide, sweeping arc. Eric had expected the creepy grin to make an appearance sooner rather than later, but strangely, Russel's face was completely blank -- as if some other tattooed thin man was simply wearing a Russel-themed mask.

Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!

As Dennis Thompson's insane drumming started to pound through his head, ratcheting up the adrenaline centers of his brain and kicking his muscles into critical overdrive, Eric ducked low under the speeding blade. He quickly spun his Raven upwards, aiming for Russel's ribcage. The thin man floated back at the last second, and the Raven slashed harmlessly through the air.

The battle was on now, Eric realized, with no chance of stopping until one of them was simply another blood-drained corpse taking up space in the Midwestern version of a real city. These were pretty sure to be the last moments of his life. Still, though, at least he had good music playing him on to Hell.

Eric hadn't yet brought his blade down from the failed strike when he felt the Hissatsu rake along his left arm, slashing diagonally across the top of his wrist halfway to his elbow. It wasn't a terribly deep cut, but it certainly bled impressively -- his blood mixed with the dirt under his boot as he stepped in, stabbing quickly at Russel's gut.

Russel slapped the flat of Eric's blade with his palm, screwing up the course of the knife just enough to miss his midsection. He frowned and shook his head at Eric -- before Eric even saw Russel's hand move, he felt his right cheek open up and start dribbling blood down his neck. Again, the cut wasn't deep enough to do a whole lot of damage, but the amount of warm, thick blood running down Eric's neck and chest certainly worried him.

Eric backed off a bit, spinning his knife around to a backhanded position. Russel didn't move at all, and started tossing his knife back and forth between his left and right hands. The creepy grin still hadn't made its appearance -- in fact, Russel was still frowning at him. Eric guessed he was giving Russel even less of a challenge than the thin man had expected.

Well, let's just see what we can do about that, Eric thought, swinging the Raven backhanded in an almost exact imitation of Russel's opening attack. Russel leaned back and watched the blade sail by his face, missing by inches -- but he didn't expect Eric's real attack. Eric let his body turn with the blade, which normally would have been a very bad idea in a knife fight as it would expose his side and back to his opponent, but he used the momentum from the spin to drive his right shin into the hollow behind Russel's left knee. Russel started to fall backwards, but he caught himself on his left hand and turned his stumble into a one-handed back handspring. He flipped through the air and landed on his feet, Hissatsu ready in his right hand.

As Eric spun the rest of the way through the low kick, he felt steel bite deep into his right shoulder. This cut was significantly deeper than the first two Russel had given him, and Eric immediately felt his right arm slacken. He managed to hold onto his Raven, though, and bring it up in a defensive position for Russel's next strike, which was a quick slash at the left side of his face.

Eric stepped into the slash, knocking Russel's blade aside with his own, quickly flipping the Raven around in his fingers and driving the butt of the knife's hilt into the hollow just below Russel's left eye. Russel froze for just a moment as pain exploded through his entire nervous system, but that moment was all Eric needed. He quickly brought the Raven back around the way it had come, slashing the blade across Russel's throat.

Russel regained control of his hands just in time to put his left hand to his profusely bleeding throat as he dropped to the ground.

And now the creepy grin finally made its appearance as Russel tried in vain to hold his sliced throat together and coughed up a thick mouthful of blood. The thin man started convulsing on the ground, which Eric had expected, but it seemed to happen awfully quick.

Eric then realized that Russel wasn't convulsing at all -- he was laughing.

Russel stabbed his Hissatsu into the ground next to him, then reached into his right cargo pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he flicked at Eric's feet. Then, still laughing, Russel removed his left hand from his throat and quickly bled out on the dry dirt of the Omaha Stock Exchange, laughing soundlessly until he stopped moving completely.

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