Thud. Thud. Thud. He was following them.
I had first spied the man standing on the street corner, his nose buried in a newspaper as Katie and I had exited the cab. My arms were heavy with shopping bags - the result of giving her a shopping spree for her twenty-fifth birthday, so I had had quite a time trying to negotiate my wallet out of my back pocket and give the cab driver his fare. That, combined with the fiasco that had been getting through their apartment building's oddly narrow front door, had evicted the man on the corner from my mind.
However, as Katie and I had started up the first flight of stairs, her incessant chatter about her upcoming birthday dinner reverberating in his ears, I heard the front door open and close again. He had turned at the top of the flight and there he was, standing on the 'Welcome' mat, tucking the now-folded paper under his arm and purposefully avoiding my gaze.
I looked up to see Katie already heading for the bottom of the next flight; I followed her without delay, expecting and then hearing the steady 'thud, thud, thud' of the man from the corner as he started up the stairs after them.
I caught only the briefest glimpses of him during our ascent to the top of the fifteen-story apartment building: he was caucasian, with closely-cut blonde hair and dark, sunken-back eyes that seemed to roll independently of the head in which they sat. Dark-gray jeans and a black leather jacket completed the 'not-to-be-fucked-with' image, and the fact that he didn't enter a room or turn off down a hallway sent a nervous tremor through my body.
He followed them up, and up, and up, all the way to the fifteenth floor, where Katie and I made our humble abode in a penthouse suite.
"...I mean, their lobster IS incredible, but we just went there for your birthday, so I dunno if I want to eat there again so soon...Matt? Hey, Matthew?" Katie reached up and snapped her fingers in front of my face.
I gave a start and turned to look down at her. "Sorry, what?"
Katie frowned at me as we walked. "You haven't said a word since we got out of the cab. Are you okay? Is something bothering you?"
"Well..." I swivelled my head around just in time to see the man from the corner turn off down a side hallway. I breathed an internal sigh of relief; the hallway we were currently traversing ended in the door to our apartment, with nowhere else to go. With the door locked and only twenty feet or so between the two of them and their apparent pursuer, I had all but convinced myself that I would have to drop the bags I was carrying and engage the man.
This thought had led to other, less-pleasant ones that included hidden weapons and bleeding out just outside of his apartment, among other things.
But he wasn't following us anymore. So it was okay.
"I'm fine, Kate," I said dismissively. "Really."
She nodded slowly, but the concerned frown stayed etched into her face. "Okay..."
As we neared the end of the long hallway, my mind turned again to the planning of my wife's birthday dinner.
Okay. The earrings are in your other jacket pocket, so don't go fucking everything up by wearing this one out to eat tonight. Wear that one, Matt - THAT. ONE. Once you get inside and get all of Katie's stuff put away, you gotta call Aaron and Kirsty and tell them where she picked to go eat...wait, where'd she say she wanted to eat again?
I turned to look at her, already dreading what she would do upon discovering that ( hadn't been listening to her. "Uh, say, Kate, where did you..."
Then, all of a sudden, Katie came to a halt, gasped, and put a hand to her mouth.
I stopped alongside her. "Uh, Kate?"
She didn't turn to look at me, and instead pointed straight ahead. "Look..."
I looked, and I didn't like what I saw.
The door to their apartment hung slightly ajar, so slightly that it wasn't noticeable unless you got up close to it. The doorknob and deadbolt, along with most of the wood surrounding them both, had been torn clean away, as if a crowbar had been sloppily used. Through the hole that had been made there, I could see a small swatch of the carpet just inside the door; why that, of all things, was the first thing he noticed, he wasn't sure, but he later assumed that it was because the big picture was too much for his mind to wrap itself around right away.
Someone had broken in.
Someone had robbed us.
On my wife's birthday.
My hands opened and the shopping bags dropped to the carpet, falling over upon landing and spilling their contents out onto the scarlet carpet of the hallway. He took one long stride, easily closing the distance between himself and the door. He put his hand against it and gave a shove, sending it swinging inwards and banging against the wall. "Son of a…"
"…bitch." Were my reflexes any slower, I would have walked right into it.
One of the men, sat in the centre of the floor, watching in stunned silence as another two proceeded to ransack my home, no longer inhibited by the looming specter of the owners returning home.
As one of them walked past, he paused and squatted down in front of me, studying my face curiously. "Know what?" he asked his companions. "I‘ve seen this guy before."
The guy from the street corner laughed aloud from where he stood in the apartment's kitchenette. "Yeah?" he replied. "Where at? In a wet dream?"
"Shut up! I dunno where, I just recognize him, that’s all. Hey, buddy," he said, cracking an irritated smile at me. "You ever been on TV or something? 'Cause I watch a lot of TV, and I KNOW I seen you somewhere before." I said nothing and kept his face contorted into a hate-filled glare.
Untie me, you fat bastard, and I'll be the LAST thing you see.
"Man," the fat man said. "This is really gonna bug me. I SWEAR I seen this guy before. Maybe if I knew his name or something..."
"His name's MC Steel."
All eyes turned towards the gunman as he came out from my bedroom. I was convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this guy was Billy - he talked the same, he had tribal tattoos all over his arms, and his knowledge of my ring name conveyed an obvious disparity in intelligence between him and his companions.
The fat, greasy slob rose back to his feet and stared at the gunman curiously. "How’d you know that, huh, Willliam?" he asked.
"First of all, Tom, my name is Billy. B-I-L-L-Y, you understand me? I've told you a million times not to call me 'William', and if I hear you call me by that name again, I'm gonna blow what little gray matter you have out the back of your skull, you hear me?"
As the newly-christened Tom nodded quickly and stiffly, I smiled in spite of myself. I wasn't the only one who found the fat tub of lard annoying, then; perhaps, under different circumstances, I and Billy could've been friends. Except for the fact he robbed me.
"Secondly," Billy the Ringleader-slash-Gunman-slash-Kindred Spirit continued, "how in the HELL do you not recognize this guy? You've been watching him on Insanity since November, have you not?"
Tom stiffened suddenly, and he turned back to me with something like wonder in his eyes. "H-holy shit," he stuttered. "I know you! You're MC Steel, the wrestler! Holy SHIT!"
The guy from the street corner, whose I still didn't recognise, laughed aloud; Billy only shook his head in bemused amazement, leaning on the edge of the dinner table as his presumably dimmest henchman fawned over the LPW Wrestler they had hostage. I glanced sideways and caught my wife's stare, which up until now had been directed at the floor. Not really knowing what else to do, I offered her a small smile that said “don't worry, everything will be okay”. She seemed to accept it and smiled back, which made me feel a little bit better about the situation.
"--I mean, you kicked Kafu's ass, and you would’ve beaten 3WM if it wasn’t for Monroe, and you were the last person eliminated in that 8-Man tag, but you’re a Prison Yard Brawl should be a no-brainer for you, right? You are a hardcore wrestler. Hey, Will...Billy," Tom corrected himself, "maybe we should let him go, huh? After all, they ain't gonna make it if we got them both tied up here."
Billy pushed off from the dinner table and came waltzing over. His overcoat shifted slightly as he walked, and I caught a foreboding glance of his .45, tucked away safely-yet-conveniently in a hip holster. "You make a good point, Tom," he said casually, not looking at the fat man but instead sizing me up. "But don't worry - they'll both make it in time, so long as they cooperate."
I couldn’t take the chance. I struggled out of chair. Something that wasn't a fist hit me in the back of the head, and everything went black.
"...so you hit him in the back of the head with a baseball bat? Are you fucking crazy?"
"Relax; I didn't hit him THAT hard. You think he'd still be alive if I did?"
"Heh, I guess that answers my question."
I awoke to find myself slumped forward slightly and still tied to a chair. Pain assaulted my skull from all sides, courtesy of the oddly body part-specific beatdown that Billy and whichever one of his cronies had put on me.
"Okay, so what's he thinking? Why'd he go ahead and cart them both all the way out here?
Billy walked over to his bag and pulled out a laptop and placed it on my lap. “So Matthew, are you going to cooperate?”
"Cooperate?" I asked, speaking for the first time since being bound. "What's there to cooperate with? You break in, do a bit of ransacking, tie us up at gunpoint when we get home, do a little more ransacking, clean us out, leave us with a death threat, and be on your merry way."
Laughter bubbled up from within Billy's diaphragm, and I didn't much care for the sinister undertone that it carried. "Were it that simple, then you'd be right," he said, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye. "However, unfortunately for the two of you, it's not that simple. See, folks," he said, squatting down in front of me, "we're not here for your money, and we're not here for your valuables, although you appear to have an abundance of both. Hell, all this...collateral damage--" He gestured around us at the trashed apartment. "--is just my way of rewarding my boys for a job well done. No, all we're here for is information - nothing more, nothing less."
My brow furrowed, and he stared cautiously into Billy's eyes. "Information about what?"
Billy smiled then; it was a sick, predatory smile, the kind that a lion would crack upon finding a wildebeast with its leg broken. "Hey, Josh!" he called out, turning his head towards the slightly-ajar bedroom door. "You find it yet?!"
As if on cue, the door banged open. Billy's third flunkie, a well-built guy who struck me as the most savage and dangerous out of the four of them, probably because he was my bodyguard, sauntered out, carrying nothing but a small, rectangular piece of paper in his left thumb and forefinger. Billy got to his feet and met him halfway across the living room; as Josh handed over the small piece of paper, I saw that it was actually a photograph.
"Took me a while," Josh said casually as Billy examined the photo. "Found it tucked away in the back of the closet, under a hundred different kinds of crap."
Billy brought it back over, squatted down again, and held the photo up to my face. "Recognize this guy?"
My blood ran cold.
Behind the decade-old photo, Billy smiled. "Thought so." He got to his feet, tucking the picture into one of his jacket's inside pockets. "Big brother's gotten himself in a bit of a bind, Matthew...he's currently in possession of some money that isn't rightfully his, and instead of delivering said money to its proper owner, he's gone and run off with it."
I said nothing; I stared straight ahead, body tensed, eyes wide, mind working furiously.
But I thought he had kidnapped him.
"Now," Billy continued, pacing in a slow circle around the chair in which I sat, "normally, that wouldn't be a big deal. You see, Tom, Paul, Pete--"
--Pete, the guy from the street is Pete--
"--and myself are a part of a fairly large group of guys: maybe five, six hundred. Without going into all the details, our operations take place over a wide area, so finding people doesn't typically pose too great a problem to us. This guy, though..." Billy smiled again, chuckling to himself. "Your big brother, he's a different story. I killed a lot of people in my time. I dunno what kind of fucked-up shit you two went through when you were kids, but that little bastard has given us the slip on five separate occasions. His last disappearing act was particularly impressive - he left us nothing to go on."
‘‘So he escaped.’‘
Billy came around in front of me, and tilted my chin upwards to face me. "Can you believe that?" he asked in amazement, and for the first time I could sense the purest form of fury simmering beneath his words. "Nothing."
"But I thought you kidnapped him?" I asked, hyperventilating. "We let him go. He paid his dues. Then we found out he owes us more. A lot more."
"So why come here?" I asked slowly, his voice deadly even. "What makes you think I can help you?"
Billy's smile deepened, as did the malicious intent beneath it. "Because we need to know where his hiding places are, where we can look and have a chance at catching him. You, my good man, are one of a select few that would know these things."
For the first time, I returned the grin. "Well," he said flatly, "I have no clue, Billy."
Billy's face changed right then. It was so quick and so total that it took my brain a moment to actually differentiate between the deceptively calm smile that I had seen before and the murderous, death-to-all-existence snarl that I was faced with now.
Against my better judgment, I groaned and started to move around. All conversation stopped, and I opened my eyes a crack to see the two men standing a few yards in front of me. Both had turned to face me, and twin smiles graced the faces of his two guards. I had been correct in his assumption - one of them was indeed Paul, who was still twirling the baseball bat he had knocked me out with in his right hand. His smile was easily the more sadistic of the two; I knew right off the bat that he planned on inflicting more punishment, whether it was provoked or not. As the two men started towards him, he heard a whimper from his right, and swivelled his head around to see Katie staring at the two of them, walleyed with fear of the darkest kind.
"Well, well, well," Josh said. "Look who's awake, Paulie! Did ya have a nice nap, honeybunch?"
Seeing as neither of them had a gun, I immediately began struggling against his bonds. Pete the Boy Scout had been the one to tie his hands together, and luckily for me, I could still recall a thing or two about how to UNTIE them. As Paul and the other man advanced on me, the former wielding his baseball bat, I felt the ropes binding my wrists fall away.
'Come here, honeybunch."
Suddenly, with quickness that can only be learned in a professional wrestling ring, I lashed out with both arms and grabbed Josh by the front of his jacket. He pulled him close, bracing my knees against the man's midsection and at the same time throwing myself backwards. The motion upended the chair, and I tossed the man over my head and onto the concrete floor in a bizarre kind of monkey flip. I then drove both feet into Paul's gut, causing him to drop the billy club and stagger back and giving myself time to scramble to my feet. Josh was on his knees, starting to get to his; I darted forward and caught him with a stiff punt to the temple, and he collapsed in a limp heap.
I turned to see Paul, still clutching his gut, start to reach for the baseball bat. He threw himself at the man, taking him to the floor and landing on top of him.
What immediately followed contained no trace of technique; there was no training visible in the way that I tore into one of the men that had ruined my beloved's birthday, no restraint or remorse in the way I brought my fists down on Paul's skull again and again and again, and certainly no humanity in the way that he refused to let up, even when the beloved in question cried out for him to stop.
No, he didn't bring an end to the massacre until the hands of Jack's companions descended upon him, dragged him away from the now-lifeless corpse with a barely-recognizable facial structure, and in a cruel twist of irony beat him into submission.
I was forced to my knees. A pair of feet stepped into his line of sight, and I looked up to find Billy staring down at me, shaking his head in disappointment. "Too bad," he said sadly. "And you were just so close, too."
I didn't bother struggling; there had to have been at least four guys holding me in place, and I wasn't delusional - not by a long shot. "He won't come, you know," I said, grinning harshly up at Billy. "He's too smart to full for some bullshit trap like this."
"We'll see; you underestimate how important things like family are to some people." With that, Billy turned on his heel and started to walk away. "Tie him back up," he called over his shoulder. "And do a better job, this time, eh?"