'Step Right Up'
“I despise your killing, and raping.”
“Are you my judge?”
“It’s just... you should be punished.”
“I’m going to chop off your arm, so are you ready?”
TJ sat on his bed, half-watching a kung fu movie, trying to learn kung fu from osmosis. He polished his sword, checking for minor imperfections left by the douche in the knife shop, before wiping it off. He lovingly slid it back into the sheath and placed it in a red trunk at the bottom of his bed.
TJ’s bedroom was the standard, unashamed man-child room every man secretly desired, but had had taken away from them at some point by age or shame or usually a woman. TJ seemed immune to all. He was happy to like the things he’d loved all his life, with only a slight sour tinge of regret rolling around on his tongue before he swallowed it down with some mountain dew.
His room was a boxy affair in a reasonably-sized two storey house. He had chosen the room when he was a kid because it had one of those cool sloping roofs. It had a little skylight window that let in all the moonlight. And he could put posters on it too.
Movie and anime posters adorned the walls in no particular order from Dragonball Z, in pride of place above his TV and PS4, to Cowboy Bebop, over his bed, the one where Faye Valentine had her ass facing out in those little yellow hot pants. Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, Samurai Champloo and Attack on Titan and Berserk. His door hid a cute, pink Elfen Lied calendar that was way out of date. He had a Gantz wall hanging on the wall behind his desktop monitor that his mother sneered at. The tight black uniforms looked sort of ‘bondagey,’ she commented once, to which TJ, red of cheek, informed her that this wasn’t the case and it was his room and she should always knock before entering.
Then you had the zombie-related paraphernalia. You had your Walking Dead shirts and cap; Evil Dead bobble heads, which made various chainsaw noises and spouted the relevant catchphrases when tapped; original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead posters, both signed by the Tom Savini; a Return of the Living Dead tarman ‘action figure’; Return of the Living Dead 3 playing cards; Shaun of the Dead air freshener; Zombies on a Plane travel sweets. You get the picture; ‘nerd likes zombies trope’.
His real pride and joy lay dormant in the red trunk: an assorted collection of crappy fantasy knives and cheap knock off kung fu weapons that he had picked up at various flea markets and gun shows that rolled through town. He didn’t get much of an allowance to splash out on any one piece, or even a reasonably priced but painfully drab, cold, steel machete. And the thought of working some nine to five job just to buy something better seemed antithetical in a world that he believed would be all teeth and rotten flesh by the end of the year.
So he just picked up what he liked the look of, not really knowing what he wanted or what he wanted them for. They were all tacky wall hangers. His mother wouldn’t let him hang them on his wall though because they made him look like a ‘weirdo’. There they remained in that box under his bed, ready to be viewed with a satisfied smile as soon as he looked inside his little man-crate full of toys. When he closed it, he felt a hollow, little thud inside and felt maudlin. He stared at the bluing sky as night crawled out of the caves and crags to blanket the horizon.
TJ’s house was in a secluded part of town. The town itself was rural and mountainous, a small town lined by high trees and cliffs with a whole lot of nothing in between. Think Twin Peaks meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nightmarish small town America in all its horrible banality and tremulous quiet beauty. Only ruined by its noisy stereotypical inhabitants.
He took to staring off into the trees, trying to imagine hordes of his dead Facebook friends tearing through the undergrowth, and himself savagely cutting after them, sword flashing above his head like a Hun on heat. Then he started to think about them, their frozen stock photo faces, twisted and rotten, coming at him through the trees. And it was real for a second and he wanted nothing more than to buy a big gun and hide under his window, drinking and peeing in the same bottle, Waterworld-style, for fear of moving. It came in waves and he settled back into his fantasy, comfortable at the thought that it was an unlikely occurrence. But he also wanted nothing more than to have his mundane existence upended by throngs of the flesh-nibblingly inclined.
Well what little existence there was he thought to himself as he stared off into those dark esoteric woods. If only they’d come then he could be who he wanted to be.
“Hello, Sunday girl,” the man in white said without a hint of inflection in his voice.
The night was warm with cool breezes forcing themselves into your lungs. Sunday felt dizzy; her heart raced, her mouth filled with saliva; she could feel it coming on: a hot wave of adrenaline shooting up from her feet all the way up her body, as she took heaped helpings of the heady night air. Distant fires burned, the smoke of which mingled in the air, giving off sweet and bitter smells. She sashayed towards the man who called her name, the long grass raking across her bare legs. She smoothed her green hair back with her other hand as she walked with the bat over her shoulder.
The bat, it appeared, had had something of a blowtorch makeover. All manner of spikes and nails and barbed wire, pointy cutlery and pennies were now fused to the aluminium bat, creating a fearsome and intriguing piece of sporting equipment.
“I see you came prepared; that’s good,” the man in white said.
A tall, gaunt, black man stood in front of her, wearing a pressed white suit. He was standing as if he was in the middle of some elaborate piece of modern art, not in the ass end of nowhere, on the edge of a dense wooded area.
She’d seen him before but she could never get used to his face, or maybe it was his eyes. Although his skin was black, his face lacked any of the related African features. It seemed to lack any features at all, flat and squared off, as if belt-sanded or as if he came off a factory line. Sunday couldn’t help thinking, if everything wasn’t that smooth, maybe he was a giant Ken Doll.
His eyes were the worst. He regularly wore night vision goggles, as a strange birth defect made him almost blind in low light. Although he rarely uncovered them, Sunday remembered his eyes to be small, round and shark-like, empty-looking like black pins. He had a smile that stretched all the way up his face, and had a mysterious aura around him that made you think he’d turn into a giant, freaky monster for a final boss fight.
“Evergreen, this is the last time,” Sunday said with a faux cold aloofness she’d cultivated for nineteen years. “I’m done after tonight”.
“Hmm, was that a question?” the tall man said. A glint of sharp white teeth under a shark’s grin ruptured the night. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware you had any other ‘talents’, and it’s ‘Mr’ Evergreen.”
Sunday cleared her throat and took a tight snort of the night air. The tall man known as ‘Evergreen’ stepped back. His white suit blotted out by things that looked like garbage bags oscillating in the moonlight, tossing up white sparks of light as they squirmed. Three hunched figures stood shaking in front of him, held like wild dogs by Evergreen’s men who seemed to fade into the background, unmoving. Hard to focus on, their tactical gear gave them the ambiance of a shadow’s shadow in the shaded light of the moon and trees.
The three figures were hooded with zip lock garbage bags covering their whole torsos. Their arms were locked tightly to their sides. They were swaying and squirming in staccato bursts of furious thrashing.
“Your backer thought you might need a head start.” His voice came from all around her, sweeping around on a vile wind. “He’s paid a handsome sum to secure these three for you, help you shake off the cobwebs. You’ve been dormant quite a while.”
Evergreen’s shadows moved the walking garbage bags around Sunday until they surrounded her in a wide arch. Sunday turned her back on them. Closed her eyes, emptied her mind and took another intoxicating breath of night air. Lightning collecting at her heels, her blood swelling to a crescendo of encroaching violence.
Evergreen clapped his hands theatrically. With rehearsed whipping nylon sounds the shadows pulled the zip lock garbage bags off of the figures, shambling corpses bought and paid for by Sunday’s shadowy backer were vomited onto the set.
They were born in the cruel few seconds, wet and quivering. The shadows fell back and became translucent against the woods. Two silent night vision goggles lenses caught a little light in the black canvas of the dense wood. She could imagine a Cheshire cat grin of growing white shark teeth but that would be too perfect.
The newborn corpses fell forward, sniffing the fresh air. Sunday’s body tightened like a coiling spring. The first rotting carcass lurched towards her as if pulled along by marionette strings, with a hungry, yawning sound. Before the zombie could summon enough oxygen to make an exasperated noise, the bat crashed down with a terrible weight. The creature’s skull cracked and a faint hissing sound burst forth like a small hole in a bicycle tire. The shifting plates of the skull relieving the pressure. A frothy pink liquid bubbled up from the cracks in its skull. The bat pushed nails and other foreign objects into the bone and tissue. It staggered, still standing; she tugged the bat playfully, pulling the cadaver left and right.
She smiled a little, a nervous tick, as she heard shuffling feet. A blind, hungry longing looming at the back of her neck. She tugged hard at the bat, the adrenaline pumping through her veins, leaving her muggy. Her arms felt like wet noodles, her legs encased in wet sand. It got closer and she had to react now; waiting and smiling hadn’t worked up to this point. She levered the bat, using the force to propel a devastating back split kick at the zombie approaching from behind. Her heel dislocated the walking corpse’s head from its shoulders; nevertheless it still stood. The bat was dislodged by the force of the levered kick; the first zombie fell in a heap on the ground, the liquid in its head spilling out like egg yolk on the patchy grass.
A muffled groan played in stereo around her head and a foul, dank smell brushed the hair from around her ears. Her adrenaline jerked her skeleton like an electric current and she snapped back to a standing position like she was on wires. Her head snapped back caving in the soft orbital cavity of the cadaver attempting to goose her, bone to rancid bone.
It swayed before falling in a heap like a toddler. It did everything but burst into tears. Jagged teeth fell out of its mouth on stringy, green-red streams of bile. A visible crack from its jawline to its eye socket exposed bone.
A cold Converse shoe was pressed onto its chest and it fell onto its back like a collapsing church roof. It didn’t attempt to get up; it just wriggled like live bait, its bony arms writhing in the long grass.
A sliver of moonlight hit the aluminium bat and became infused with the cool brutal night. Electric shivers shot up Sunday’s arm, making sparks. She brought the bat up with one arm as if it was a lifeless extension of her own body. She brought it down using only its own weight. It landed with a dull thud on the zombie’s brow. The crack in its eye grew a little wider with a small audible snapping sound. It continued to writhe; a bubbling, gargling noise started in the back of its throat.
She lifted the bat into the moonlight again, calmly putting her other hand on the tape-wrapped handle, bringing it down with twice the force. Its head caved in completely this time. Blood and brain and chips of skull popped out around its head, like a muted halo. It began to wind down like a broken clock, clawing at the dirt as it became lifeless once again.
Sunday felt it again, the rush of blood, like it was only yesterday. It came rushing back and then as soon as it was there it was gone again and she wanted to bring it back; it wasn’t enough. Resting her knees on the corpse, she struck its head again and again and again. Until she was pounding wet earth, blunting the nails on her bat.
She swallowed hard, her breath coming back to her, wet slabs of cold air hitting her lungs as she got back to her feet. Letting the bat swing idly at her side, she cocked her head, looking up at that cold, laughing moon. The warm spots of gore on her face cooled fast on her porcelain skin.
“Fuck it, let the games begin”.
Deeper into the woods, leaves quivered as pulsating waves of air pounded them. In a clearing a few miles out of town a helicopter touched down, parting a sea of high grass, unheard by the sleepy mountain community. The soft whipping of the helicopter’s dying blades was soaked up in a cacophony of owls and crickets competing to be the headline act of the night in the middle of nowheresville.
A cream door slid aside as the engine sounds began to quieten. A pair of expensive crocodile skin shoes slithered off the elegant chopper. It was a large, ex-military chopper, a heavy people carrier that had gone through an extensive ‘pimping,’ resulting in the interiors looking like a cross between Liberace’s basement and a hunting lodge. It came complete with crystal chandeliers and a real rhino head on the wall: all mahogany with wingback chairs and a hot tub; nothing short of a complete culture clusterfuck.
“Awwhight mate,” said a dapper-looking Sikh gentleman in a laboured cockney accent, wrestling with a lisp. He was a husky middle-aged man, in his mid-forties; he looked sporty. His suit was all over the place, but still expensive and unique. A cream evening suit with Burberry patches on the elbows and lapels. An open white dress shirt poked out from the jacket, revealing some oddly tasteful bling nestled in salt and pepper chest hair. This was topped off with a gaudy set of DG sunglasses. He wore a turban, but it matched his outfit. A gold broach, in the shape of two curved blades, held it together in the centre.
“You’re late, Mr. Peshwari,” the man in white said. His strong, masculine voice cut over the sounds of the dying engine, his expression unchanged by the powerful wind of the propellers.
“Sorry mate, I didn’t miss anythin’, did I? You the one I talked to on the dog and bone, Mr.err?” Peshwari hunched forward a little to offer a hand adorned with gaudy gold rings.
“You can call me Mr. Evergreen; the games will be beginning shortly, Mr. Peshwari.” His voice ebbed to its regular calm monotone as the engines whined to a stop. His head had stayed perfectly still.
“Oh it’s awight, err, call me Pete.” He dropped his hand, looking a little exposed, trying to mask his disdain using his index finger and thumb to flatten out his bushy black moustache. Mr Evergreen turned to one of his men to exchange a brief hand gesture. “Err, just flying back from the Congo. Had a right larff hunting gorillas out there. Piece of piss. Then they ’ad some gorilla baiting; never seen anything like it.” The middle-aged business man scratched his bulbous nose as he tried to fill the uncomfortable silence with hot air. He noticed the rustling of heavy boots coming out of the undergrowth as Mr. Evergreen stood mute in front of him. “They ’ad’em in, err, like cages and they trained them, to fight. You should see’em, rip each other apart they do; the strength is incredible. Where is that little shit with my bags? HA-JI!” Pete called back at his assistant who fumbled with several Armani suitcases at the door of the helicopter.
“Coming, Mr. P” The boy, eclipsed by expensive suitcases, spoke with a mouth full of camel leather.
“Anyway they fought and we took bets and then they usually cooked up and ate the loser, right? But I said ‘fuck that’ and I pulled out my custom luger. Solid silver mother of pearl inlayed ’andles. And I put one in the winner’s face.” He smiled and made a gun out of his right index finger. Pointing it down and sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth. “Stumbled for a minute, it did, right? But then crumpled like a bag of bangers, and I said ‘I wanna eat the fackin’ winner.’” Another long, uncomfortable pause as Mr. Evergreen stared at him with a blank expression. Pete cleared his throat, dropping his gun hand. He looked back at his assistant who was shambling over to them.
His assistant set some of the bags down, dropping a few as he bent down. Pete looked down at him over his nose and mouthed the word ‘cunt’. The boy was a young Asian lad in a loose-fitting Asian-style white shirt with a soft V-neck and a plain-looking turban.
“Err?” he said.
“Took your sweet time, didn’t you, Ha-ji?” Pete said with an air of bitter condescension.
“Well I’ve only got two arms and I wish you’d just call me ‘Dave,’” he said, summoning a brief spell of heavy breathing and a redness to his dark brown face.
“I’ll call you whatever I want, you little shit! Now keep your tongue or I’ll have it off! You ’ear me?” He turned back to look at Mr. Evergreen and dropped his wagging finger as if someone had pulled the plug. He was mesmerised by the sheer stillness of the man who stood like a suit of armour in a dusty castle. “Anyway, it was awight, pretty tough, but tasty: bit like ostrich. I liked it, but, fuck, there was a lot; got at least a dozen of them tinfoil swans going cold in the back if you fancy one.” Pete pointed a thumb, lowering his brow a little, trying to get a reaction out of Mr. Evergreen who waited in silence. Pete’s expression lost its torsion and silence came upon them again.
An awkward moment of silence passed and finally a piece of darkness took on a life of its own and walked up to Mr. Evergreen’s side. It was a man in full tactical gear, his face covered with a mask. He had no distinguishing features other than an obscure insignia, of a lazy cat sitting atop a globe, on his arm. Atop his head was an expensive set of night vision goggles with multiple lenses; by his side, a black case. Other tactical gear hung off of him, becoming visible and invisible as the night breathed in and out.
As if woken by the turning of a key, Mr. Evergreen turned to the shadow and the case.
“We had some trouble acquiring what you asked. Our rules strictly forbid outside firearms and food. All weapons are OSP, but for our premium customers, we do make some exceptions”. He spoke facing the case at his side. He began to open the clasps.
“You what, mate? OSP?” Pete began to lean forward, craning his neck around the open side of the case. His curiosity overcame the uncomfortable silence. “Ooh, I do like surprises; that’s not a shootah!” The lines on his face came together to form a spiderweb of cracks in his fake tan.
“On site procurement; standard contestants must ‘acquire’ all weapons in the field. Backers may offer support but no weapons are to be brought from the outside. And firearms within the game are regulated for the sake of a fair playing field.” Mr. Evergreen lifted the strange black rifle-like weapon out of the case, regarding it as if he was the only person there, seeing it for the first time. He looked down the scope, resting the stock firmly in the crux of his shoulder. It looked like a high tech rifle. The stock and the handle and the scope were all reminiscent of a plastic-based European assault rifle, but the upper receiver and barrel were replaced by a long thin pipe and a crank and pressure gauge. “This, Mr. Peshwari, is a state of the art, high-powered, air, arrow launcher.” He spoke patiently, breaking his words up, looking down the scope at Pete as he spoke.
“Oi, I don’t pay a cool half a mil US to chuck spears at fucking red necks awight? I want a fuckin’ shootah! Not some jumped up cousin fucker crossbow!” Pete’s patience was wearing thin. His polite patter had worn off within the first couple minutes.
Mr. Evergreen paid him no attention. A sly smile crossed his cold, stony lips as he freed one of the black aluminium arrows from the padded case. He held it up and inspected its finely crafted angles, its shark tooth tip: barbed hunting arrows for shredding soft flesh. He held it up in front of his face. The tip summoned finer points of moonlight to dance on the head of a pin, refracting off of his nightvision goggles. “I believe a demonstration is in order,” Mr. Evergreen said flatly.
“Wat?” Pete said incredulous, a sour look on his face as he scratched a designer stubble chin with a manicured mitt.
Mr. Evergreen slid an arrow over the long tube at the front of the rifle and it locked in place. He pumped the arm a few times until the pressure gauge was high and then steadied the launcher against his arm. “A crossbow puts all its force behind the base of the arrow, which causes a lot of wasted energy, moving through the back to the front of the arrow as it gyrates in the air, losing accuracy and power”.
“I don’t facking care, mate. I want a shootah and I want one now or I’m getting back on my helicopter and I’m going back to Burma!” Pete stood and waved an indignant finger, like a man haggling over the price of a refrigerator, in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night, surrounded by faceless mercenaries.
“The Congo,” Dave cut in.
“Oh wuteva!” Pete balked.
Mr. Evergreen continued to ignore Pete’s cocky posturing. He steadied the launcher, looking down the scope at an unseen target between the trees.
“The launcher uses compressed air instead of kinetic energy and places it right behind the head of the arrow, reducing arrow shake and loss of power, increasing accuracy tenfold.” He began to sound almost excited, as if they’d got their wires crossed with an infomercial.
“’Ere, what are you aiming at?” Pete narrowed his eyes at the trees, leaning forward with his hands on his hips. He strained to see a pair of feet hanging from a tree in the distance. The zombie’s face was covered by a hood and it had been hung from the tree by the neck using a fine length of nylon wire, its hands tied behinds it’s back, its legs allowed to kick.
Mr. Evergreen squeezed the trigger and there was no sound but a hiss of gas escaping. The air cut through the thick night like a scalpel fired from a jet engine. There was a faint slicing noise, like a blade of grass snipped with a pair of fine nail scissors. The arrow hit the hanging creature and cut its throat. It ripped right through its neck, leaving a gaping wound opened by gravity.
The second shot, a swift and accurate blow landed only an inch from the previous shot, sheering the other side of the creature’s neck. And gravity did the rest. The head peeled off, the weight of the body straining against the nylon wire. The devastating cuts pulled the neck apart like warm bread. The body hit the ground and crumpled like a cheap suit full of chicken bones. The head followed after, tangled in the cord. The weight pulled it down with a wet thud. Trapped heat escaped in the cool air, making an exasperated yawning sound.
“Fack me,” Pete said. The sight of the creature’s sad body and the power of the weapon left him reeling for an accurate emotion.
“It’s also as quiet and as deadly as an email to the wrong person.” Mr. Evergreen turned away from the target and approached Pete, brandishing the weapon. A dark, drawn, serious expression accumulated on his face like a storm cloud.
He turned to his man with the case and set the weapon down with a hint of melancholy, as if it was a china plate on its way to a Greek wedding. He closed the case with an exaggerated pause and then waved his hand at the man.
Mr. Evergreen turned on his heels and walked towards Pete who had remained there in fearful awe. “Please check it for yourself; there’s ammunition, a cleaning kit and some oil. And as a little added bonus, my employer, whom you will never meet or contact directly, is something of a fan of Asian culture. He added something he thought you might like.” Mr. Evergreen spoke in a whisper.
Pete opened the clasps of the case and looked inside. He caressed the rifle, in awe of its ergonomic design, raw and elegant. His hand glided over the stuffed ammo quiver and the small cleaning kit, but stopped at an ornate buffalo hide sheath decorated with multicoloured beads. A knife with a horn handle stuck out of the sheath. He lifted it out. An impressed smile hung on his face as he turned to Dave, feeling the weight in his hands.
He took a firm grip of the sheath and pulled on the curved horn handle. With a cold, sticky motion, a sliver of polished metal came out.
He breathed out and withdrew the full length of the blade as it curved around. The kukri looked hot and sharp in the night; it looked like it drew in all the light. A full twelve inches long. Pete looked at his distorted reflection in the curved blade and cut an obnoxious grin.
“I like it.”