Farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear:
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost:
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Three shooter glasses hit the bar top. Private Cody Burkes, Private Raymond Delong, and me, Private Bruce Garland, formed our trio during basic training. Our friendship had endured a two-year jaunt into Egypt. Tonight’s festivities commemorated our first rotation home. Following additional training, we would again be deployed overseas.
The deep bass pumping out of the pub’s sound system vibrated my heart. Cody Burkes, christened Tex because he used TexMex seasoning like Shake n’ Bake on everything he cooked, and because his family owned a cow-calf operation numbering near a thousand head of prime Alberta beef, wore a thirsty expression.
Cody Burkes shouted, “Yo, Stingray. You’re up for another round.”
“Negatory. Ante up from your winnings and Ranger Bob and me will consider not telling the fine ladies in this establishment how far, and how often, you’ve had your arms up the back end of pregnant cows.” Turning to me, Ray continued, “Like to see him land some patch with cow patty Intel smeared over his hide.”
I said, “Affirmative. In his unique way, Private Stingray Delong is referring to how you cold-heartedly hustled our trusting and loyal asses last night. That was a zero-dark-thirty sting op, Burkes.”
“Roger that, Ranger Bob,” chimed Delong. “Low-class Burkes could win the stink off shit and not have his hands smell bad.”
As Cody Burkes waved the bartender over, he commented, “It’s a sorry fucking day when I gotta spend my future children’s college fund on a two crooked-eyed riflemen who can't help drawing to a gut-shot straight with equal winning potential as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”
My cellphone vibrated. Raymond Delong said something indecipherable. I brought the text message up. Gary, my brother-in-law, told me that Valeria, my big sister, was giving birth to her first child. If given the choice between facing my big sister’s wrath and staring down a squad of ISIS sand swimmers, I would happily dig sand out of every crack and crevice in my body.
“I gotta bounce and slide. Sis is ready to pop.”
“Road trip!” said Raymond Delong.
“This is a solo mission. You mutts make the best argument for Planned Parenthood that I know. The maternity ward isn’t ready for more than one mudtrudger. I’ll call in a sit-rep after a little recon. Until then, make sure Tex doesn’t blow our loot on shooters and hooters.”
“Hey, Ranger Bob, even you could get lucky on the maternity ward,” Cody Burkes sounded off. His words held my attention. “Every woman on that floor is waiting to put out!”
Wearing a good-natured grin, I carved a path toward the exit. Three boilermakers, chased by three shots of tequila, forced me to concentrate. When I found the cab stand, it was empty. Seven blocks west, in the same direction as the hospital, a taxi stand served a swanky hotel. The exercise would have a sobering effect, so I trotted down an alley, cut the next street and then entered another alley. Two giant green dumpsters behind a restaurant gave off moist and funky scents. Thick and grungy deep fryer oil stained the pavement, adding another layer of stink.
Somewhere down the alley and out of sight, harsh and quick voices fought the booze to register in my brain. Seven or eight running strides later, I sighted two men garbed in black leather coats, hoodies pulled up over their heads. Two more steps let me discern the biggest man pinned a third man wearing a sports coat, slacks, and shiny black leather shoes against the wall with a knife held under his chin while his partner pulled a fat gold wristwatch off his wrist. Sporting one black eye already, the well-dressed man offered no resistance to losing his timepiece. When he turned his head and sighted me, hopeful eyes pleaded with mine. Keep moving past the hostiles, I told myself. You are a rifleman, not a cop. Call the police. Valerie is giving birth. Do not stop, soldier. When the street thugs turned their heads at the sound of my footfalls and their narrowed gazes warned me to keep running, I dropped to a walk.
“What’s up, guys?” I said.
“This ain’t nonna your business,” said the tango with the knife.
His partner, a squat stumpy fellow weighing in around 200 pounds with broad shoulders and blocky fists fired a squinty look at me. Neither one of them had turned around fully, but presented profiles only, which clumped them into a neat little bundle, like bowling pins.
“Move along. You don’ want nonna of this shit.”
“Right. Neither does my friend. Release him and we’ll be on our way.”
“They’re robbing me!”
A deep ‘Humph’ escaped the man’s lips when the thug holding the knife drove a fist into his stomach.
“Shut the fuck up, asshole!”
As I stepped forward, the squat and stumpy man’s hand dipped into his jacket pocket. Never wait for your opponent to raise his fists. Hit first. Apologize later. One long step closed the distance between us. I tapped him once on the nose with a straight right to fill his eyes with tears and followed with a left uppercut that punched him backward into the brick wall. While he was moving away from me, I drove a palm thrust into his solar plexus. Air evacuated his lungs. Moving backwards removed enough force from my blow to do little more than disorient him for a few seconds, which earned me the knife wielder’s full attention.
I figured it was now two against two, but as soon as the tango with the blade let go of his victim, the well-dressed dude hared out of the alley without a backward look. His dress shoes tapped a quick retreat. The jig was up. He’d be hailing the closest cop, I assumed, so the mugger in front of me would probably collect his injured partner and double time out of the alley.
Instead of leaving, the tango turned a slender six-inch length of double-edged steel in my direction, making me wrong again, which put a perfect two for two on the red side of the column. Had I possessed a clearer head I would have run in the opposite direction. Pivot and run; that’s all I had to do. Instead, I turned sideways to minimize my profile and dropped into a hand-to-hand combat crouch. It was against my nature to turn my back on someone who threatened my safety. Besides, I was heading in the direction they blocked me from travelling.
“The last time I checked Canada was a free country. Move aside and we can still part friends,” I told my aggressor, getting angry inside, psyching myself up.
“Up your cash, cellphone, and credit cards.” A groan came from his left. His partner wobbled on his feet shaking his head. “Tony. Collect this dumbshit’s party fund contribution.”
Common sense dictated caution. Caution mandated a degree of passivity. They outnumbered me. One of them wielded a knife. Since fear was what they expected, I supplied it by moving to the left seeking escape. When the knife-wielder slashed forward to prevent me from slipping around him, I pivoted to the outside, grabbed his wrist in one hand and jammed the heel of my other hand to the back of the elbow, but not with sufficient force to fracture the tibia. Sudden pain popped open his fist. The elbow joint had been my target, but alcohol hindered my coordination. When the blade clattered to the ground, I kicked it away. It came to a rest against the brick wall. Had I been less drunk, I would have struck a second time, and then a third if necessary to shatter his tibia bone and put him out of action. Another mistake.
Tony, the thug who had reacquired mobility, slugged my kidney. Pain shot up my side. Despite the sore elbow hugged to his side, his partner followed through with a stinging left hook that rocked my head. Tony moved in to finish his partner’s starting punch.
As soon as he committed himself, I lashed out at his kneecap wearing combat boots and felt a crunch. Wailing painfully, he fell to one knee grasping the injured joint in both hands. Meanwhile, his partner closed in behind me. Angry as hell, I issued a spinning back fist and felt it land, not much more than luck in my condition, but it counted. I followed through with double hooks to his ribs.
Tony was leaning against the dumpster to keep the weight off his damaged knee when he spied the discarded knife. Reaching for the knife presented his back. I needed to stop him. One and a half steps separated us. A sidekick full of power and momentum rammed the hardened sole of a combat boot into his spine. A vertebra snapped on contact. Another cracked like a drumstick broken inside out.
Unintelligible screams filled the night. Tony’s partner, instead of retreating from the body shots I had delivered, roared toward me like a Mac truck with a four-foot-long chunk of two-by-four wood that he had plucked from the dumpster.
Baseball bats, which included pieces of two-by-four, made poor weapons when swung. Thrusting their ends produced better results and did not open the body to counterattack. Two counterattack methods worked well against a baseball bat swing: one, move quickly inside the arc; or second, wait for the swing reach apogee and then move forward. The dumbshit I faced held the chunk of wood as though he stood at home plate. Even so, I stumbled backward as he swung at my head, nearly dumping myself on my ass to avoid the wildly swung left to right homerun attempt.
At the end of the last movement, when he had overextended himself and his shoulders stretched fully at the apex of his swing, and the back of his leg twisted sweetly into position, I transferred my weight from my rear foot to my front foot and jammed my heel into his calf, which jerked his knee to the ground. One more powerful blow to the back of his leg brought him down to both knees. Follow through, I heard the drill instructor say, finish your adversary or he will finish you.
So, that’s what I did when I grasped the top of his head in both hands, dug my fingers into his orbital sockets and wrenched the head backwards. Vertebrae cracked and popped. Life drained from his body. Several heartbeats more and he collapsed onto the pavement, head resting at an unnatural angle. The whole fight lasted under three minutes: one hundred and eighty seconds to destroy three lives. Twenty seconds after that I heard the first siren.
I text messaged Gary an apology to pass onto my sister, said that I would explain later, and stood my ground waiting for the cops to arrive. There was nothing I could say to make anything right, so I did not try. Instead, I crossed over to where Tony lay with a broken back and felt for a pulse. He lived.