Collateral

Part One
My Personal Little Vindication

Beautiful, the way the orange light of the sun sets on his face. How it reflects in a torrent of graceful sparkles on the sweat on his forehead. Heartwarming, really. I push the gun deeper into his mouth, scratching the barrel against the inside of his cheek, and can’t help but let out a frustrated grunt.

This day has turned from bad to worse in the wake of a terrible migraine and a breadcrumb trail of empty gun shells and dead bodies. Around us is nothing but a foul-smelling river and garbage. The noise of speeding cars on the bridge above us is near deafening. If I would pull the trigger now, nobody would hear it. Nobody would care. We would all move on with just one more dead nobody rotting between piles of garbage and filth. Water under the bridge, nothing more.

With bright blue eyes pleading guilty, and muffled screams for mercy, this weak excuse for a man before me slowly comes to terms with his imminent demise.

He should be so lucky.

First, I need answers. I need to know where all this madness will end, and this punk has what I wanted. Before I’d pull the trigger and release him, before I allow him to make peace with whatever version of god he used to justify his pathetic life, he will tell me where I can find Marcello.

The piece of dirt Marcello. My former boss. My friend. Before I turned rogue and became something like mobster turned robin hood, but with a very short fuse and no moral convictions, I used to be his loyal soldier. I stood by his side when he rose up the ranks of this little band of criminals ruling over this small piece of shit territory in the worst part of town. When he broke arms and legs of helpless people, those small, insignificant shop owners and neighbours just trying to make it in a world gone wrong, I was with him. He didn’t believe in being weak. Being left behind, to him, meant you could only push forward, fight. If you have nothing to lose, you have everything to give. This you owe to yourself.  Those that felt inspired by his leadership joined together to a militia of gangsters and frustrated, oppressed scum. I was the commander of this small band of urban pirates, while our little crime syndicate elevated from a war on the streets to a war on society. A war against the system, against the world. Even when Marcello beat his own father to death in a burst of uncontrolled rage, because he’d grown tired of the old man’s hesitation to get the job done, I stood loyal and never questioned him. And for my loyalty, he made sure I was taking care of. Money, drugs, leisure. For looking the other way when needed, and taking care of his garbage, I had nothing else to worry about anymore. It was the perfect pact with the devil.

Now look at me. I carved my way through his personal army, took out corrupt police men and got shot at more times than I care to recall. Every muscle burns like acid. This smell like burned hair and stale, used breath lingers in my nose. I  feel my pulse throbbing against my forehead, and it seems as if someone is poking a fork against the back of my eyeballs. This is a disaster. Now I’m pushing a gun down the throat of Marcello’s brother.

Carefully, and with a voice that’s strangely calm, considering that I’m covered mostly in someone else’s blood, I explain that he would not find peace until I have found vindication.

My personal little vindication, as if there’s anything just or righteous about this. As if this would somehow turn into a story of heroes seeking revenge for lost love ones and broken promises. This isn’t a tale of heroism, it’s a path straight to an endless string of anxiety attacks and therapy. Assuming I’d somehow survive the end of this. I’ve spiralled out of control. By now, most of what happened is starting to blur into a cocktail mixed from blood-red mist, a death wish and an unhealthy amount of pain killers.

Marcello’s brother has never done anything useful in his life. He’s the living cliché of a loser leaching off the success of his older sibling. He talks the talk, and can back it up only with the short temper of his sociopathic brother. Not this time, though. Today, this very moment, there’s only him and I. No bruiser protecting him, no phone calls for help. Just a crying man with a hot barrel in his mouth, cowering on his knees under a bridge.

“This is it,” I say over the noise of speeding cars, “this is your reward. You have one chance to make this right.”

“One chance,” I say, “to let me finish this.”

I say, “And maybe, if you don’t fuck with me, maybe there’s a part of your forsaken soul that can be saved.”

With the deafening noise echoing between the columns of the bridge, his final moments are but a muffled scream and a muzzle flash.  I know now what I need to know. I could see in his dying eyes that he had no reason left to lie to me. He knew no loyalty, only greed, and something tells me that he wanted his brother to go with him. After all, it was Marcello’s fault that I’m going after his family. I believe what he told me about his brother’s hiding place. And given my condition, and the fact that I have both his mob and the police on my trail, I have no choice but to push forward. To move to the finale of this drama. The apex of my madness. This I owe to myself.

I fell like the mythical Thunderbird, with wings of dark clouds and claws made from lighting. I am storm incarnate, an unstoppable force of nature. Savage, yet necessary, like a raging fire in midst of the calmest forest.

I leave his body with the filth he deserved, and turn towards the last sunlight disappearing behind the rooftops.  My heart’s beating too hard, pushing enormous amounts of adrenalin through my veins, and my eyes are burning with the determination of the angels of death. I start making my way to what was surely the end of it all.

Hell of a way to go out.

***

Part Two
Something Distant, Yet Familiar

Marcello’s men circle around me like cats toying with their prey.  They’re laughing and grunting, beating and kicking. Every single of their hits on my broken and battered body feels like dying a thousand deaths. And every time they pick me up off the ground, it feels like another chance, another resurrection. As I’m being held up, giving the illusion to stand upright on my own two feet, it seems like I’m given hope. But only so it can be torn away again and again. I’m allowed to stand tall, just to be brought down to my knees seconds later, as the men start to beat me over and over.

Needless to say, I’ve found Marcello’s hideout, and my arrival turned out to be about as promising as anyone could have guessed.

When I first arrived at the rundown hotel, I had no way of knowing what awaited me on the inside, but I had a pretty good idea. There was also no guarantee that Marcello would actually be there.

I admit I was surprised to learn that Marcello would maintain safe houses that not even his most trusted soldier, such as myself, knew about. I guess cultivating a healthy paranoia comes with the job.

Looking at the old facade of the building, the brittle cement between the bricks and boarded up windows, it promised nothing good. The rotten, beaten cadaver of this hotel was both foreboding and eery. Somehow I already felt as if I was to fall to the same fate. Left behind broken and condemned.

I needed a plan of attack. A safe way in, unseen and subtle. Instead, I kicked open the front door and started walking into the lobby. Many men jumped up and turned at my sudden entrance, not knowing whether to duck or start shooting. My pulse rushed through my temples, and before my mind knew what was happening, I had both my pistols in my hands and started firing at the people inside. Everything slowed down to near a stand still. I could feel the air pushing past my skin, as many bullets started to fly towards me. My senses sharpened to their peak. I saw an empty glass on a table, flies buzzing midair and motionless around it. Their tiny wings flapped in an endless echo, pushing steady growing, yet slowly fading waves of air in every direction. Nothing would move for a heartbeat that seemed endless and eternal. I felt as if I could look into the eyes of my opponents, one by one, just long enough to say goodbye.

Little did I know that dying right here would have been a better fate than what was to come. If only a lucky bullet would have found its way into my chest or head, I would have been spared a lifetime of pain to follow.

A sharp pain to my head pulls me back to the dark room in the basement of the hotel.

My mouth filled with the taste of rust and iron. It’s filling up with blood faster than I could get rid of it. If I’d spit it out, it would hang from my cracked open lips. If I’d swallow, my stomach would turn and make me choke. My left eye’s bruised and swollen. Several ribs might be broken.

I’m on my knees with my hands tied at their wrists behind my back. Two of Marcello’s muscle bags circle around me, laughing and swinging wooden clubs. One after another, I take the beating. Eventually, I can’t resist anymore. I have to give in. As I succumb to the last of the beating, I fall forward and roll onto my back. The pain is more than any human being should be able to handle.

For a moment, my memory seems to black out.

I must be slipping into limbo.

Everything is turning.

My vision fades to black.

The laughter of the bruisers is nothing but a muffled whisper.

Every single hit of their clubs is mere a knocking on a distant door.

I start to forget about the pain.

Slowly, my consciousness crawls into the deepest corner of my mind. With legs pulled to its chest, my soul can only rock back and forth slowly, watching and crying.

Am I giving up?

I remember a voice. Something distant, yet familiar. I remember the smile of an angel. A young girl I once knew.

I miss her.

Before, back in the lobby, it didn’t matter anymore whether they were foes or friends, neutrals or innocent. As I walked forward in what seemed to be slow motion, many bullets started flying past me. They hit the floor by my feet, destroyed the wooden objects around me. In kind, I kept shooting at anything that moved. Any muzzle flash I spotted, one of my guns would aim and fire at. I felt my teeth grinding. Sweat built up on my forehead. I cried like a maniac, like a wild beast. An unstoppable force of nature, clapping its wings in a roar of thunder. A raging inferno, my soul was on fire. And I was here to burn this building down. One by one, the men fell. They went down to the ground, slipping behind cover with already lethal wounds. Some fell from the second floor, tumbling down the stairs.

As my weapons would only respond in empty clicking, I realized that there was nobody left. They were all dead, or wounded badly enough to not be a threat anymore. I also realized that my shoulder was soaked in fresh blood. My blood. In my rage, I didn’t feel the pain. The bullet shot straight through my shoulder, it came and went. This fire inside of me sustained me, fueled me.

Then it got quiet. Standing in the lobby of the hotel, surrounded by yet another pile of dead bodies, I took what seemed to be my first breath since I kicked in the door. My shoulder burned like fire from the bullet that ripped through it. Marcello would be hiding upstairs. He hated basements, because they never offered a way out. Like a death trap. Looking up, the stairs to anything beyond the second floor have collapsed a long time ago. I pressed the hot iron from the barrel of my pistol against the gun shot wound on my shoulder. Grunting in a pain that will always be worse than the wound it’s sealing, I pressed my teeth together and pulled through. Now I was standing before the only closed door on the second floor. I guess there was no reason to wait for an invitation. I burst through the door like I was justice herself coming down onto the scum of the earth. But I looked more like a psychopath soaked in blood and with nothing to lose.

There he was, sitting behind a desk. A pistol was on the table before him. He should have been upset, in fear, scared out of his mind. But instead he just smiled with this damn smile of satisfaction.

I wanted to say something. I wanted to yell at him, finding him guilty of everything wrong in my life, but I couldn’t come forth with a  single word at the sight of his calm demeanour. Instead, I cried out. I roared. His chest in the crosshairs, I stepped towards him. I hesitated, shocked and humiliated by his wicked smile. In my confusion I didn’t notice the other guy in the room. From behind, he swept me off my feet, and then knocked me out with a swift kick to the head.

Somewhere in the distance, I can hear Marcello’s voice, but it’s distorted and followed by a deep, howling echo. He speaks in tongues of demons inside my head.

He says, “You shouldn’t have come here, my friend.” I can feel my beating heart slowly calm down. The taste of blood runs down my throat, and I start to forget what air felt like.

He says, “You were one of mine. Family. I loved you deeply. Know that killing you will bring me little pleasure.” My voice croaks at the demon’s words spewing from the darkness before me. His whisper echoes in an endless spiral, grows louder and louder with every bounce from invisible walls inside my mind.

Quietly he says, “But I forgive you.”

I’m starting to laugh. And even though I’m spitting blood and vomit, I know there’s nothing those goons could do to me now. Not even Marcello has anything to make me suffer anymore. I feel no pain. No fear nor rage. Am I dying? Am I starting to dream? Something distant, yet familiar.

When they first started to beat on me, as the pain rose to unspeakable heights, my mind kept pushing me back to the lobby. Trying to remind me of the rage and anger drowning out the chaos of the shootout, it too could sustain me through this torture. But none of that matters anymore. Not the dead people in the lobby. None of dead people I left in the wake of my rage. Let the bad guys be bad, the corrupt be corrupt. There’s just nothing left to worry for me. I have no reason to be here, other than a wish to die.

Now, while lost memories start to flicker before my eyes, while I balance the fine edge between limbo and reality, I think to finally have found the end to my path. No, I don’t fear it anymore. I want it.

Slowly he says again, “I forgive you.”

Maybe he wants to humiliate me, maybe he just needs to justify his actions to himself, but he says, “This battle was never yours to win. You can’t bring her back. Nothing you do will ever change what you’ve done.”

I feel his hot breath on my ear.

“You have always been weak.”

Then I remember her. Again, I remember her voice. She wants me to listen to her.

Marcello says, “You deserve worse than this.”

I remember why I’m doing all of this. Why I’m so ready to suffer. God, I miss her.

I feel the cold metal on my forehead, hear the click of the pistol in Marcello’s hand.

After everything I’ve been through, and if I’d remember nothing else, I know that this is not how I will let it end.

***

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