Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Law of the Jungle

“So tell me,” Rafe said through slightly smushed lips as the two muscular goons pinned his skull down against the alcohol-stained wood of the bar. “How exactly did you lose those fingers?”

Leopold “Eight Fingers” Kruczyk finished lighting his cigarette with his silver Zippo and chuckled softly. The flickering flame of the lighter danced in twin reflections in his glasses, as square and opaque as television screens, and cast eerie shadows on the scarred-over nubs where his right ring and pinky fingers had once been.

“An Irishman,” he said in clouds of smoke, sounded out around the cigarette clenched wolfishly in his teeth. His consonants were heavy and curved, like frost-covered plowshares. “Shot them off back in ‘73 -- it is before your time, I understand. Now he is a very dead Irishman.”

The bar had been closed for hours, but upstairs, Rafe could still hear the lively noise and music of the little casino where he had, until recently, been playing a lovely game of Texas Hold ‘Em. His face had been pushed down facing away from the front windows, but from the light beginning to filter in, it must be close to dawn. Understandably, Rafe was in no position to check his watch at the moment.

One of the gorillas shifted his grip on the collar of Rafe’s black pinstripe sportcoat, and he felt thick, calloused knuckles scrape across the back of his linen shirt and the knots of his upper spine. His arms dangled over the end of the bar, and beneath it, out of his captors’ sight, his long, agile fingers probed for any advantage they could find.

Kruczyk plucked the cigarette from his lips and exhaled a long, luxuriant plume of smoke. He scarcely looked the part of a gangster; he wore a cheap polo shirt from some no-name department store and a rumpled gray windbreaker. Rafe had expected Armani, at the very least.

“I understand we have a problem,” Kruczyk said to Rafe. “You play poker upstairs, yes? With my boys. You lose a great deal of money. Now you say you cannot pay.”

“Will not,” Rafe clarified, smiling as best he could under the circumstances. “I can pay just fine. I said I will not.”

Kruczyk gave another one of his short, rattling chuckles, sounding like something loose in a running dishwasher. “I can tell by your accent you are not from here. Perhaps in England, they play poker different. Here in Chicago, I assure you, if you lose, you pay.”

“Had I lost,” Rafe replied, “I’d pay, and pay gladly. Unfortunately, I was cheated.” He grimaced as one of the goons -- he doubted he’d be able to tell them apart even if he could see them clearly; they were an indistinguishable two-man wall of bad suits and questionable choices in jewelry and facial hair -- dug a fat cigar-sized thumb under one of the bones in his shoulder. “By the -- hnnf -- gentleman now attempting to dislocate my shoulder, if I’m not mistaken,” Rafe added, helpfully.

“Forgive Zbigniew,” Kruczyk said. “He is a sensitive man. He takes these things personally.”

“Well, then he should learn to remove the ace from his left sleeve a little less obviously,” Rafe replied.

Kruczyk set down the lighter with a deliberate clunk on the wooden bar and took off his glasses. His eyes were bloodshot from too many late nights, saddled with purplish bags; they made a poor contrast with the frizzy wisps of silver hair still clinging to his scalp. He rubbed the calloused thumb and forefinger of his mutilated hand in slow intersecting lines across his eyelids to the bridge of his nose.

“OK,” he said at last. “I understand. You feel you were cheated. You don’t want to pay. Fair enough.” He rummaged around in a pocket of his jacket, as if for car keys or a stick of gum.

“That’s very reasonable of you,” Rafe said, noting that the pressure against his neck and shoulders hadn’t abated any. Under the bar, his fingers found what they were looking for, and closed fast.

Kruczyk removed something from his pocket, something vaguely oblong and pearlescent and gleaming. A handle. His wrist flicked, and a silver blade snicked out from it.

“We take your fingers instead,” Kruczyk sighed.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Rafe said, and brought his arms up, smashing the liquor bottles he’d grabbed beneath the bar directly into the faces of the two men holding him down.

Their grip loosened for only a second, as the shattered glass cut their skin and the alcohol stung their eyes and soaked their shirtfronts, but it was enough. Rafe snatched up Kruczyk’s lighter from the bartop and ducked out of the goons’ grasp, whirling to face the three men, his back now to the front door of the bar.

“I suppose now, you’re going to shoot me,” Rafe said calmly. Indeed, the two alcohol-sodden men brushing broken glass off their faces seemed to have just such an idea in mind.

“Many, many times,” Kruczyk nodded, and smiled unpleasantly with a mouth dotted in gold.

“I figured as much,” Rafe said, flicked the lighter, and tossed it at the nearest of the goons.

The alcohol caught fire immediately, and his shirt and jacket with it. The other one -- they really were a wall of dumb, weren’t they? -- flailed at the fire with his fat ham fists and only managed to ignite himself as well. Rafe turned and ran.

The stupid amateur mistake in a situation like this would be to try the door. It was always locked, always, and jiggling the latch like an idiot only gave the invariably angry people behind you a chance to sort themselves out, catch you up, and proceed with the previously planned vicious beating. Instead, Rafe leaped to a chair, up on a table, and curled himself into a tight ball as he flung himself at the front window.

There was a crash, and a sudden jarring thud rattling through all of Rafe’s bones, and then he was on the sidewalk on a chilly morning, dawn rising over the distant Chicago skyline, breath steaming in the air. In the split-second he had to spare, he took stock of himself. Watch? Yes. Wallet? Yes, with money in, even. Shoes? Yes. Overcoat. Still in the club upstairs, hate to lose it, but it’s not worth a couple of fingers.

Provided he wasn’t killed in the next few minutes, Rafe’s Illegal Gambling In Shady Dens of Iniquity adventure seemed to be shaping up as quite the success.

Rafe scrambled to his feet and ran, followed by the sound of Polish curses that sounded like a burlap sack full of engine parts and rotted cabbage being bashed against a concrete wall. Halfway down the block, he risked a look back. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as he’d decided he’d call them one day in his memoirs, were hauling themselves out through the broken window. Their faces were a lightly blistered red, and much of the fronts of them was still faintly smoking, including their eyebrows and the tips of their mustaches. And, he noticed, they had guns, with silencers on. That part was less than optimal.

Rafe took a quick cut right into an alley. Fire escapes. God bless the lovely Americans -- always plenty of fire escapes. One set on either side of the alley, spidering their way up the weathered brickwork. He scrambled up onto a dumpster, losing a shoe in the process, and leapt for the lowest of the metal platforms. He’d just gotten a foothold on it when there was a little little sound like a cartoon rabbit passing wind, and something incredibly fast whistled past his ear. It took him a second to remember that this was what being shot at sounded like, and indeed, there were the Tweedles, squeezed into the mouth of the alley, guns raised just like in the gangster movies.

Right. No time to go up just the one, so why not the both?

Rafe pushed off and leapt to the fire escape on the opposite side of the alley, then again, and again, bounding his way back and forth, higher and higher, toward the waiting rooftops. One last leap -- sparks bloomed on the metal railing near his hand, hot particles stinging and singing his skin, and a bullet puffed into the brickwork beside him -- and he was up on the roof, in a world of moisture-pluming chimneys and TV aerials and gravel.

He heard the groan of the fire escapes from the gap in the rooftops behind him. The Tweedles, it seemed, were giving chase. Fine, good, he needed the workout. It had been ages since he’d done this properly.

Rafe ran toward the multistory parking garage looming in the distance, vaulting from roof to roof. Running felt good. When he ran, he forgot all about his troubles. Not the two men at his heels bent on ventilating him, of course -- that was a touch too immediate. But the whole messy impending implosion of his trust fund, certainly. The fact that he was still, technically, until the expulsion was finalized, a university exchange student with a whole lot fo failing credits and two -- no, wait, three papers due on which he had not written, had never intended to write, and would indeed never write a word. The endless disappointment of his father and mother, expressed with steadily escalating vitriol in a series of emails, letters, and strident, quickly deleted voice mail messages. And, of course, the whole business about Julia never wanting to see him again, which was entirely understandable, but also the only one of his troubles that Rafe genuinely regretted.

He risked a look back, in mid-leap from a karate studio to an Indian restaurant, and saw the Tweedles still puffing along after him. Persistent fellows, certainly. The parking structure was just ahead, and -- oh, dear -- there was quite a bit more of a gap than he’d expected. He recalled the words of Marcelique, the Le Parkour instructor with whom he’d spent six months training in Paris when he was supposed to be, oh, taking all those far less interesting classes at the Sorbonne.

“When the gap is big,” Marcelique had said one chilly spring morning, gazing philosophically up the hill at the spires of Sacre Coeur, “you just jump a lot more emphatically.”

Not a lot of help, really, that Marcelique.

Rafe ran out of roof and jumped, very emphatically.

His legs squeezed up to his chest, and he threw up his hands, catching hold of the thick concrete partition and swinging himself through it. He ended up wedged painfully between two bloody great SUVs, and had to do a lot of undignified scrabbling to get his feet back on the ground, but hey, nothing broken. From the rooftop he’d just left, the Tweedle’s guns made their helium noises again, and the windshields of the SUVs starred and exploded. That meant it was time to keep running.

For a moment, Rafe thought he was home free. But sound carried well in the echoing concrete of the parking structure, and far below he distinctly hear the sound of a very powerful motor roaring into the garage, and the snap of a yellow caution arm being broken off its hinge by people very much in a hurry. Rafe leaned over the thick metal wire partitions strung between the levels of the garage, looking three levels down, to see a Chevrolet sedan barreling up the ramp. He caught a quick glimpse of a thick hand, missing two fingers, leaning out one open window.

There was another loud bang off to his left, and for a moment, he thought it was more shooting. But not, it was just two men, two very large, very armed, very Polish men, bursting from the door to the garage’s stairwell like frustrated linebackers, and hurtling in Rafe’s direction.

Lacking better options, Rafe squeezed himself into the gap between the levels, wedging his feet, knees, and elbows against the opposite slanting levels of concrete, and climbed for his life. The wires twanged and hummed as he used them to pull himself up, leaping for the next level as he reached the top of each. Concrete dust fell in his eyes, powdering the sleeves of his sportcoat, and his arms burned from the exertion.

He heard a distant, faint sound over the shouts below him and the steadily rising roar of the approaching motor. A rocking, soothing clacking sound. Oh, he couldn’t be that lucky.

Yes. There were El tracks on the far side of the garage, just outside the walls. Two more levels and he might -- might -- be high enough to make it. The train’s horn sounded, getting closer. Rafe climbed.

He squeezed himself out of the gap between levels, two floors higher, as the Chevrolet sedan roared around the turn at the far end of the garage. It showed no signs of slowing down; if anything, the driver had been told to accelerate. Outside, the ratcheting of train wheels grew louder, nearly deafening. Rafe sprinted out from one pair of parked cars, across the empty aisle -- the Chevrolet passed so close, he could feel it fluttered the hem of his jacket -- squeezed between a Camry and an Accord, leapt up in a crouch to pause for a moment on the ledge--

He jumped, arms and legs flailing long-jumper style, and smacked painfully down on the roof of a passing Brown Line train. He slid -- ouch ouch ouch -- across the bumpy, corrugated top of the train, limbs waving wildly for purchase, and managed to stop himself just before the point at which he would have fallen off the other side to his death below. Good place to stop, really.

Exhausted, lungs burning, chest heaving, he raised himself up on adrenalin-shaking arms and saw tiny, angry Polish men shouting inaudible, angry Polish things from the rapidly receding parking garage. He rolled over at his back, grinning at the pinkish-blue dawning sky. It felt damned good to be alive.

Reginald “Rafe” Windham greeted the day with an impromptu yawp of primal triumph. Law of the jungle, and all that.

One very well-timed descent from the train roof, a few dirty looks from transit police and bleary-eyed commuters, and a station change at Belmont later, Rafe was dragging himself up the steps to the condo he’d rented in Wrigleyville. Well, rented insofar as the landlord expected rent to be paid, and boy, wouldn’t he be surprised this month. Long after Rafe was back in England, thank goodness, being yelled at, for a change, in proper English accents by people mostly related to him.

He was tired. Everything hurt, and his earlier euphoria was giving way, as it always did, to the reminder that he hadn’t slept for a good twenty-four hours now, and he’d probably pulled at least half the muscles in his body, and his legs were reaching the point where they were just going to stop working until they got some rest. He took a few tries getting the key into the lock, but at last, the door opened, and he stumbled into the foyer of the condo, stripping off his coat. He looked at himself in the mirror; tousled dark hair, stubbly chin, dark circles developing under his eyes. Still, all in all, a handsome devil, if he did say so himself.

“Oh, good,” said a voice from the living room, where the windows opened up onto a terrace overlooking Wrigley Field. “You’re back.” It was a crisp voice, a very English voice, and Rafe felt instinctively nervous. And then he actually saw the speaker.

He was brown as mahogany, his eyes very white, wearing a leather loincloth and bindings around his wrists and ankles. A necklace made of animal bones dangled and jangled around his neck, and lines of bright, chalky-looking dried paint crisscrossed his chest. His head had been completely shaved, the scalp as deep brown as the rest of him, and he had the muscles of a well-trained athlete. He was sitting on Rafe’s good white leather sofa, reading a copy of The Economist, with a large, unfamiliar. wooden box on the glass coffee table in front of him.

“I hope you don’t mind,” the visitor said, holding up the magazine. “Haven’t had a chance to catch up with this one, and there’s a smashing op-ed piece on Anglo-Sino relations. Really cracking stuff.”

“Not to be rude,” Rafe said -- he was too tired for anything but courtesy -- “but what the devil are you doing in my house?”

“Ah,” the painted warrior noted, animal bones rattling as he nodded slightly. “You know, I wasn’t sure I had the address right, in which case, apologies are due. You’re Reginald Windham, alias Rafe, correct?”

“Correct,” Rafe said slowly, wondering where the men with television cameras were.

“Son of Harrison Simon Windham, grandson of Harker Windham, of Windham Hall, Devonshire?” Rafe nodded, wary. He very much wanted to sit down.

The painted warrior smiled neatly, cheerily, and began to briskly open the box before him. “Well, that seems entirely in order, so I suppose we can begin,” he said. He withdrew two immense, gleaming black stone blades, stood up from the couch, and dropped into a fighting crouch.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he told Rafe. “To the death.”

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