After a drunken encounter with a knife wielding sociopath, things get weird for martial artist Rick Stancil; by Steve Smith.
Stancil stood and growled out a mixture of tension and elation. It was the first time he'd used his training outside the dojo and he had prevailed. His shoulders shook with a violent spasm, the last of the adrenaline kicking in, and it took all his control to keep from bellowing a victory cry into the night. Then a vagrant sense of guilt struck and he wondered if he shouldn't have pulled his punch. Under interrogation the guy might have admitted to some unsolved killings. But chances were he'd have skated and somebody else would have been his next victim.
The bar was a quiet place in a seedy neighborhood where Stancil stopped following his bi-weekly Tae Kwon Do lessons to relax with a beer before hitting the freeway and home. After taking a seat at the bar he had scanned the dozen or so patrons for a familiar face and caught the guy staring at him. He glanced at him, wondering if he knew him, then turned away and paid for his beer. After a swig he surreptitiously checked the guy out in the mirror behind the bar. Still burning holes in Stancil's head with a sullen scowl.
Ten minutes later Stancil drained his beer, swiveled on his bar seat and started for the door. Outside walking to his car along the cracked sidewalk bordering the building, he heard shuffling feet behind him. He spun, feet apart and braced, hands elevated and ready. A chubby guy, late twenties, about five-eight, and from his faded blue work shirt, stained jeans and corrupt sneakers, he looked like a factory rat just off his shift. He came to an unsteady stop a few steps from Stancil and blinked sleepily.
Stancil said, "You're the guy that was staring at me in the bar. Why? I don't know you." The guy swayed and didn't answer. After a moment, Stancil said, "Why don't you go back and finish your Shirley Temple. Whatever you have in mind, I'm sure your pastor wouldn't approve."
The guy stared up at Stancil's face, his eyelids slow to lift after each blink. Sour beer fumes beat against Stancil's face. He studied the guy's features, the dull glaze in his eyes. If he had a working IQ over 80, most of it was dog-paddling in beer.
Movement broke the impasse: the guy's right hand went into his back pocket and came out with a knife. Heat bloomed in Stancil's chest. This was his cue to take action, a clear threat that called for a disarming blow in response. But it seemed too easy. The guy didn't look athletic enough to evade either his fist or a foot strike.
The guy casually pressed the thumb stud and a four-inch blade swung out at a sharp angle. With a flick of his hand the blade snicked fully open and locked in place. He twisted it slowly, relishing the play of reflected light from the streetlamp in Stancil's face while looking into his eyes for the signs. A cocky gleam now sat in eyes that a moment before looked rheumy, dim and unfocused. The drunk act had been just that, an act to set him up.
Stancil exhaled to ease his tension and slid his right foot behind him. "Before you start playing with that knife, think about this - if I was scared I'd be running by now. Doesn't that tell you something?"
The guy said, "It tells me that you're a bluffer, that you fight with your mouth. You must have left your purse in the bar, Sandra. Or is your name Petunia?"
Stancil ignored the attempt to get him to react. He knew he could easily outrun the guy because of his pudgy physique and shorter legs. But there was something about his crude malice that made Stancil want to give hurt despite his trainer's words: Above all keep it impersonal. Stay above it. Use it in self-defense only. It's not about teaching someone a lesson. It's about avoiding harm to your person, that's all. And the people you're likely to come up against are not teachable...
The knife hand shot toward him. Stancil arched backward with a sucked-in hiss. The knifepoint hooked on his grey chambray shirt at the level of his sternum and slashed the material. The guy had been fast. His balance restored, Stancil felt his neck flush as chemical heat raced through his arteries. He took a stabilizing breath.
The guy grinned - he had reached inside Stancil and touched fear. He smiled and in an informative, off-hand tone, he said, "You're probably wondering why I followed you outside and started up with you? Well, it's like this - I like to cut people. It's surprising how easy it is to open someone up. It's kind of a hobby with me, watching all that rich red blood spill out. It's just what I do, that's all. Nothing personal, Petunia."
Stancil set aside the impulse to answer. Watching the guy's knife hand trace figure eights with a casual smoothness, Stancil took a mental step backwards. He had never made a study of psychopaths, but cutting up people as a hobby ranked right up there with the whole deranged catalog of medieval tortures plied by the Spanish Inquisition. He guessed that the guy had played out similar scenarios before. And since he had survived them it was a mistake to underestimate him. The pudgy frame and dispassionate coolness masked something lethal. This was not a bar fight between two tattooed bruisers, fueled by the usual beer and testosterone and ending with one of them on his back jabbing the fingers of one hand into the palm of the other in the universal sign for time out. The knife elevated things to another level. And for attempting to slice his belly open the guy wasn't going to dust himself off, spit out a tooth and walk away.
Gauging the distance between them, Stancil backed slowly, a hard anger now simmering beneath his cold turn of mind. Despite the knife he estimated that with his height he had a six- to eight-inch advantage in reach. He set himself and said, "People who use knives are generally compensating for having a tiny dick. With all that ugly fat on you I'm surprised you can even find it."
The guy smirked. "Think I'd fall for that sucker bait, Petunia?" He shifted his weight cockily from side to side, then suddenly lunged forward. His knife thrust was brought short by Stancil's looping left jab to his nose, which sent the guy's head backwards and buckled his knees. At the release of tears he shook his head to clear his sight while blindly jabbing the knife before him.
With his left forearm, Stancil parried the flailing arm thrusts, timing them for an opening. Then from a crouch he put his entire body behind the strike, ramming a straight hard right under the guy's chin, driving through to an imaginary point past his neck and feeling the tracheal cartilage crumple before his fist.
As quickly as that, it was over. Among the roil of his emotions, Stancil felt a tiny sag of disappointment.
The guy staggered back several steps, blinking in surprise as he regained his balance. Stancil kept his hands cocked and his weight on his right foot, poised for a foot strike. The guy seemed to be listening inwardly as if awaiting an accounting from internal damage control. Furrows appeared in his forehead. His eyes widened and the knife clattered to the sidewalk. He clawed at his throat and forced a strained smile, raising his hands in apology and supplication.
Watching the guy's eyes, Stancil moved in and kicked the knife away from him with his right foot. The guy made soundless gulping motions like a cat trying to dislodge a hairball. He lurched forward, eyes earnest and beseeching. Holding his throat with one hand he clawed at Stancil's shirt with the other. A thin, high-pitched squawk came as he sucked in air through a tiny aperture in his damaged throat. Stancil moved backward in step with the guy's stumbling advance. The guy frowned and gestured that he was in serious trouble, that he couldn't breathe and needed help. Couldn't he see that?
Stancil almost laughed at the irony - the guy expected him to care? He displayed his empty hands. "Sorry, left my purse in the bar."
The guy's eyes flared. He glanced around, located his knife and tottered toward it. After two listless steps he pitched forward, slamming chest first into the packed ground, his head following with a wet thunk. He lay motionless for a moment, attempted a push up, then jerked and flopped. His feet pushed against the earth as if he were climbing steps. His shoulders twitched and he went limp.
Stancil now felt his diaphragm quiver. Chills streamed down his back and his hands shook. Except for his slashed shirt he was untouched. And he had taken his man down, reducing the murderous scum of the city by one. He wondered how many others had underestimated the guy to their regret. Even with his training it had been close. He unleashed a shuddery sigh of relief.
He picked up the knife, closed the blade and stuck it in the back pocket of his chinos, gratified at having chosen to square off with the guy instead of taking the more judicious tactic of running. And the remorse he expected to feel, beyond a fleeting image of his Sunday school teacher's frown and wagging finger, was wholly absent.
If he goes down for good, don't flog yourself over it. The streets are potential war zones these days, prowled by people that prey on the weak and helpless. And when a weapon comes into play the situation is critical. You can't apply half measures out of misplaced Christian forbearance, so put your innate decency aside and let the warrior loose. Then get the hell out of there.
He remembered the charge that went through him hearing those words for the first time. Then, like a smack in the head, the thought struck him - he had just killed a man. He was now a potential entry on the police docket.
A clammy hand clutched at his insides. The tiny hairs on his neck lifted as if stirred by a cool breeze. He glanced around for witnesses. There was no foot traffic so late in this neighbor-hood, but a passing car might see the body and call the cops. The cops themselves might come by on a routine patrol. He realized that he was more unnerved at being caught up in the meat-grinder of the justice system than he had been facing a knife-waving drunk.
The need for haste gripped him. No one had witnessed the attack or what led up to it, but if someone came upon the scene now they'd see one man standing over another, the latter evidently dead. Sympathy would naturally go out to the deceased, and suspicion and dread attach to the one standing over him.
After the 911 call the cops would arrive in their usual maniacally tense and wired state, followed by the handcuffing, the shove into the back-seat cage and the ride to the nearest precinct. After he was booked then came a grilling behind a one-way mirror. A week or two later appearance with counsel before a grand jury.
Would they understand that the fight was not of his instigating? That the guy had forced it on him? That he had to deliver a killing blow to survive? Suicide by persistent aggression? How could anyone in the safe, sheltered civility of the courtroom hear a dry recital of the facts of this case and appreciate what really took place? How could they empathize with the feelings of an unarmed man attacked by a vicious drunk brandishing a knife and having no recourse save through deadly counterattack?
None of this would register with twelve good citizens having no first-hand experience of the raw violence animating the city's dark streets while they sat safely in their homes watching Wheel of Fortune. Sitting in judgment of his actions they would tut! their righteous disapproval and consign him to some bleak cubicle of repentance.
No way was he going to stake his future on the capacity of twelve uninterested or biased strangers to comprehend something totally alien to them. Which meant that he had to do something before the body was discovered. And do it damn quick.
He glanced down the street in both directions. No one in sight. A gossamer night mist hung fifteen feet above, giving a false sense of seclusion. He thought of dragging the body forty feet into the alley and leaving it hidden behind a collection of trash cans. That idea sank almost immediately. Since both he and the dead man would be recognized by the bartender and half the people in the bar, it wouldn't do to have him found nearby. Better to dump him somewhere else and make it look like a mugging gone bad. To do that still meant dragging the body into the alley out of view of passersby.
Better yet, pick him up like a passed-out friend and haul him with a dead arm held over his shoulder and his feet bumping across the seams in the sidewalk, singing "O Danny Boy" until they were safely in the shadows of the alley. After dumping the body he could retrieve his car, heave the body in his trunk and search for a more likely site far from here.
He turned the body over and shoved his hands under the arms. He was about to heave himself onto his feet when he felt the top of his skull lift free of his head and something cold and gelatinous spread over his brain. His weight seemed double. His eyes dimmed and as gravity tugged at him he faded...
He came to, shook his head to clear his groggy brain and orient himself. Must have passed out from trying to lift the body. He took a deep breath to clear his head and glanced around. He was on one knee with the opposing palm braced flat on the sidewalk.
And next to the body stood a stranger.
Adrenalin released, jolting him alert, his body realizing he was in trouble even before he came to his senses. He was caught.
He shook his head wryly as the invisible net closed around him. With a sigh of resignation he craned himself up. Breathing deeply to clear his head he wondered what to say, then sensed that explaining what had happened would only sound defensive, which would stamp him as guilty.
He studied the stranger. He was slender, average-sized, a nondescript man in dark clothing and baggy, rumpled pants that looked slept in. Under his jacket, a long-vanished style with broad lapels, he wore a gray turtleneck. His feet were encased in shapeless toboggans, size fourteens at least. The whole effect looked as if he had just outfitted himself from the Salvation Army racks. He even smelled faintly of mothballs and mildew.
Stancil noticed a tattoo on his left hand, on the web where his thumb and index finger joined: three triangles in a row, each about the size of a pea. Probably put there by a former cellmate using a piece of wire and a ballpoint pen. And maybe it was his mind playing tricks, but it looked to Stancil like he hovered an inch or so above the ground. The shadows cast by the streetlight beneath the man's shoes seemed to shift from moment to moment. Unsure if he was fully restored from his blackout he dismissed it as an illusion.
The man's gaze rose from the dead man. He smiled. "All right, Mr. Stancil, this is a good piece of work. This one was morally defective and thoroughly unredeemable. His dossier if you will was packed with unsociable actions of every type and description, including several random killings never officially attributed to him. He was what you people call a sociopath."
Stancil's forehead furrowed. You people? What are you - a martian?
The man went on, "You've done well, helped clean up the neighborhood, so to speak, and the world is the better for it. People like this sow all manner of difficulty and pain during their brief sojourn on this planet, interfering with other lives purely for the warped pleasure they get from it. Unfortunately those lives he's brutally canceled have to start all over again at the beginning of this stage in their journey and all they've managed to glean from their former experience is lost. It's really quite wasteful, stupidly so, and quite sad as well."
Stancil looked down; his feet were firmly planted on the sidewalk. Yet he somehow felt unmoored from reality. Questions clanged together in his mind: Where were you? Standing aside somewhere watching while a guy tried to work me over with a knife? He gave his head an abrupt shake. "Were you in the bar? I don't remember seeing you. And how do you know my name?"
The man nudged the corpse with his shoe. "This fellow would certainly have caused a great deal of trouble if allowed to continue his destructive ways. No, I'm afraid the best thing for people like him is a quick trip back to the great drawing board in the sky, where he'll no doubt come back as a member of a lower order, one with a hard shell and six legs." He smirked and glanced at Stancil.
Stancil felt the need for haste. "Listen Mister, I was forced into the fight. All I wanted was get the hell away from this joker, but he -"
The man lifted a hand. "I completely understand, Mr. Stancil. I saw it all and I'm not here to admonish you for your actions. On the contrary you could hardly have done otherwise and survive. Your actions were entirely appropriate according to the threat facing you, so don't chastise yourself over it. There really is no answer to people of this ilk but to have done -"
While the guy droned on Stancil wondered if this was one of those so-called reality TV shows where roving crews captured your image on tape during the commission of a crime, then recorded you later in interview. After accepting a handful of money, you signed a disclaimer, which prevented you from taking them to court for unlawful use of image and so on. Then they were free to use the tape with your face blurred and voice altered to prevent identification. He had seen the program a number of times and wondered why the law didn't confiscate their media and use them for arrests.
He glanced around. There was no parked van nearby that might conceal an operator filming the episode through a one-way window. And in spite of the man's slept-in appearance, he seemed cultivated. Stancil took a deep breath to get more oxygen to his befuddled brain.
"Okay," he said. "Who are you and what the hell are you talking about?"
The stranger gazed at him patiently. "I understand your confusion, Mr. Stancil. My name is Ritters. I'm a remover. I was once a weeder also, but when I moved on to the next plane I was given the option of becoming a remover to complete my penance."
He smiled at Stancil, still regarding him with a frown of incomprehension. "You understand penance? Reparation for your impure actions on a former plane of existence?"
Ritters studied Stancil for signs of cognizance, then went on. "There are a number of us living unobtrusively among you, and this is my... district. Over the years it was determined that guardian spirit work was ineffectual as mortals for the most part are caught up in the shallow world of instant gratification and tend to ignore their inner voices or intuitions. So we gave up trying to assist with sub-vocal or tactile warnings and decided to manifest only after such acts as you performed today. Our mission is to render what help we can to beleaguered doers of good, when and where we find them. You were clearly in need, so here I am."
Stancil's mouth curled up on one side. He glanced at the sidewalk, the side of the bar, the corner streetlamp around which a few moths orbited, saw the reflection of light from the windshield of a parked car the next block over. Over everything hung a spooky mist like some 1940's zombie movie set on a Caribbean island. Except for that everything seemed in order. He apparently wasn't having a hallucination. He looked the guy over again. The impression, despite the guy's shabby appearance, was of ingenuous and simple sincerity.
Ritters said, "Mr. Stancil, I know you must have questions, but we really don't have time for -"
Stancil flung up his left hand. "Okay, Let's start over. You pop up out of nowhere because this guy takes a header and you all but give me a medal for it. Who are you? Who do you work for?"
Ritters smiled with a tinge of regret. "You don't believe any of this, do you?"
"Only that you're standing here talking to me."
Ritters nodded. "I can see you're too intelligent to be taken in by someone you regard as an obvious quack. So, again, I commend you on a good piece of work. The gene pool is all the better for it. You've made a useful contribution to the betterment of the world, which is what we're all here for. You have the proper instincts for this work. You're not overloaded with the usual misguided moral imperatives, that is. You know how and when to act and that is sorely needed in these confusing times."
Stancil's eyes glazed over. Then a thought bloomed in his mind with instant clarity. "Wait a minute - you did something to make me pass out, right? How'd you do that? Why'd you do that?"
"To make you more... tractable, of course. I didn't want you taking a swing at me in your current state."
"Oh." Stancil frowned, assimilating this.
Ritters continued. "Now, because of the good you did here I can't let you walk away. You'd probably have to make a full confession to get relief from your overweening feelings of guilt and then your life would take a definite downturn, the authorities being incapable of comprehending such transcendent notions as guide us here. So, I'll erase this event in its entirety from your memory and whisk you to your residence as though it never happened."
Stancil could only blink. His brain seemed filled with sludge.
"And there is another reason that overshadows all the rest: I can't let you leave knowing there are removers like me walking about among your kind. It would make our work all the harder if you were taken seriously and curious journalists began looking for us."
Stancil grunted. "I'm sure they would look you over and dismiss you as just another home-less person. So when do you put the arm on me?"
Ritters frowned. "The arm?"
"Yeah. Blackmail." He extended his left arm to indicate the corpse on the sidewalk.
Ritters nodded. "Oh, I see. Nothing I have said has penetrated. And I realize from long experience that it's not that you don't believe - it's that you can't. Most of those we assist are as unable to grasp the idea as you. Lack of imagination, insularity in one's upbringing, any number of things. When you're fed the pabulum of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a child, then have the inevitable collision with reality, it's hard as a cynical adult to believe that there actually are extra-earthly beings drifting about among you."
Stancil grunted. Weary of trying to sort all this out, he capitulated with a tired wave of his hand. "All right, all right. What about the body?"
"It will be relocated. He'll have had a bad fall, poor chap."
"And his car? It's probably around here somewhere."
"It will be stolen and left somewhere far away."
"Of course," he said airily. Then gestured at Ritters' tattoo. "What do those marks stand for?"
Ritters turned his left wrist over and smiled. "As I said, I was a weeder, once, too." He turned his right wrist, showing the same pattern of triangles tattooed there.
Stancil didn't get it. "A weeder? What the hell is that?"
Ritters indicated the dead man. "Mr. Stancil, I'm sure you grasp the concept: this earth as a garden populated by all manner of life forms both good and evil requiring constant attention by weeding? And I understand your reluctance to trust me. All the same we're glad to have you with us, Mr. Stancil. We can't seem to enlist good people in the numbers we need to keep up. While we grow incrementally, they do so exponentially. The fact is we're falling behind and society is in danger of -"
"Wait a damn minute," Stancil interrupted. "I'm the one who's falling behind. Who the hell is they?"
Ritters nodded heavily. "All right, Mr. Stancil, I can see that it's hopeless to -" He glanced past Stancil and froze. "Oh, good heavens."
Stancil followed Ritters' glance expecting to see a cop car rolling past. He instantly felt lethargy overcome him. His eyelids drooped and he was just starting to snarl at the ease with which Ritters had suckered him when he faded again.
He awoke in the back seat of his car and saw that he was parked in his driveway. He frowned, wondering how he had got there; he didn't remember driving home. He opened the door, swung his legs free, then pressed the door shut with a quiet click out of consideration for his sleeping neighbors. After a visual sweep of the neighborhood, he started up the drive.
Suppressing a yawn with his left hand, he noticed something there. It was a small triangle about the size of a pea on the back of his hand by the base of his thumb. It looked like it was put on with a ballpoint pen. He stopped, wet his finger and tried to rub it off, but it was indelible, like an old tattoo. It must have been put there by somebody in the bar, but he didn't remember talking with anyone. In fact he didn't remember anything after going inside the bar. He must have had some kind of temporary memory glitch, a fugue or something.
There was something hard and bulky in his pocket. He fished it out - a knife, one of those assisted-opening models. It was similar to one of the many weapons he'd trained against in his Street Safety for Urban Executives classes. He stared at it, wondering if he had found it in the bar. He couldn't remember and it didn't seem to matter anyway. He didn't have a care in the world. It was enough to simply bask in this rare state of inner peace and quiet power.
Sticking the knife back in his pocket, he inhaled deeply of the cool night air. He felt different somehow, as if the night itself entered with his breath. His left hand tingled. While scratching the little triangle, tingles of electricity went down his arm. The nighttime world, once a haven of peace and connection with deep space, had revealed itself to be a jungle, a landscape of obscuring shadows prowled by predatory humans more feral than wolves.
No unease attended this mutation in the order of things. Rather he knew with an inner quickening that his orientation had shifted, that he had found his proper sphere within the social order. And his former bland life, built upon the ideas of forgiveness and charity implanted during childhood, with their attendant enfeebling restraints on clear and decisive action, had been sloughed from his makeup like chaff. He sensed that inwardly he was harder, more robust, amplified.
A tremor wormed beneath the skin of his torso. He waited for it to blossom into a full-blown seizure. His upper back itched like mad as if hair was suddenly sprouting there in snaggled profusion. Staring at the three-quarter moon overhead, he suppressed a raw urge to throw back his head and howl, settling for a low, sustained growl. A jolt of fear went through him as he remembered the werewolf movie he'd seen three times in one day as a kid. He swept his tongue over his upper teeth, relieved that nothing there had changed. It wouldn't do to go to work the next day with fangs where his canine teeth had once reposed. He laughed at the thought.
He keyed open the side door. He was hungry enough to eat a javelina, hooves and all, but decided that a sandwich of cold pork would have to do for the moment. He was surprised to find that he was too invigorated to sleep. Maybe he'd go out later and see what he could scare up. There was a need for men like him, and at night the shadows stirred with candidates for weeding...