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CHAPTER 19 – Temporary Distraction

The leer on Mickey’s face said even more than his words, which, following a snicker, he repeated. “Oh, hell, yeah!” He rose up to stand over her before continuing. “But, let’s have a look at our prize. I’m ready for something different.”

She shivered with wide-eyed terror as the horde closed about her.

“I know …” Mickey said, after a moment, “How about after we’re all done with her, we skin her – just to see if she’s black all the way through?”

She tried to withdraw farther into the corner, to melt into the wallpaper, to merge with the shadows of the room. But the men were already closing in on her, leering down at her, reaching for her. She had to fight down the scream building in her throat; to submit to screaming would be to surrender to panic. And panic would accomplish nothing but to rob her of any chance she might have. She was not yet ready to give up, to submit to the fate that these animals had in mind for her.

A hand, strong and brutal, gripped Matti’s right arm just above the elbow. Fingers clamped about her arm like the unfeeling jaws of a vise and raised her to her feet. Other hands, eager and impatient, began groping and grasping. Some even caressed.

“Whoa! Back off, you guys,” Mickey said while keeping his unrelenting hold on her right arm. “You start yankin’ on her like that and we’ll wind up pulling her into pieces before we’re ready to. She’ll make the rounds, don’t worry. You’ll all get a shot at her.”

The mob backed away and Mickey walked her out into the room. “Okay, listen up, you animals. Before you get too distracted and too worn out, and so I don’t have to do it all myself while you lie panting on the floor, let’s get things ready for later. Joey, get a couple of those big hooks that are screwed into the rafters in the garage. There’s some bikes hanging upside-down on ’em. Put ’em up there.” He pointed at the ceiling over there heads. “About six feet apart. You think you can figure out where the ceiling beams are?” After a round of chiding put-downs, he went on. “That should be about right to spread her legs, good. Angie, go see if you can find some rope. That one out there hanging under the tree should do.”

“Hey, Mickey,” Chris called out. “Think we should get some knives from the kitchen?”

Mickey snickered and replied, “Shit, I don’t need no kitchen knives.” His eyes glistened, and his gaze bored into Matti’s as he whipped an ebony handled knife from its sheath. “I’ll do just fine with my own.”

Mickey was a smallish, freckled man of twenty-three years, wearing a tangle of red hair that seemed, at times, to move in the breeze like flickering flames. Ropey muscles moved his slim body, muscles he proudly exercised daily. But what really made Mickey the terror of his world was the pair of knives he carried. One, his right-hand blade, was ebony handled. Its scimitar blade swept up and out to a tapered point seven inches from the hilt – seven inches of fine steel honed to a razor’s edge. The left-hand blade, also skinning-knife style, curved and graceful and with a short spur on the backside for a thumb rest just beyond the hand guard, extended six and a half inches but with a slightly wider blade than its mate. Its handle was natural antler with a steel pommel in the stylized shape of a hawk’s head and beak. It, too, had the edge of a razor.

He continued his response to Chris. “But, you go ahead and get a steak knife or two, if you want. What’d you have in mind? You wanta pick up a fork, too?”

This got a round of laughs and more chiding.

Matti’s mind buzzed. Oh, God! I gotta get out of here!

The leers on the faces surrounding her left little to her imagination, and Mickey let the time stretch out until mutterings of impatience began around the room before he spoke. “You gettin’ a good idea what’s in store for you?”

When she didn’t answer, he re-sheathed his knife before grabbing a fist full of her hair and jerking her face up. He growled, “I asked you a question.”

She tried to nod her head in answer, but his entangled fist wouldn’t allow it. She squeaked out, “Yes.”

He released his grip and stepped back. Using his other hand still clamped onto her arm, he turned her to one side, then to the other, ogling the way her jeans conformed to her body. “That’s good, ’cause I’m gonna make you an offer. We’re all gonna screw you, anyway – at least once apiece – but if you go along with it, you know, so’s we all enjoy it without a fight; and then afterwards in the days that come whenever any of us gets horny, we’ll forget about the rope and hooks and knives. You could live a good life, all the food you want, protection from anyone else you might run across on your own, and your own harem of men for when you get horny. Deal?”

Before Matti could answer, a chair crashed backward to the floor when its occupant abruptly stood and, with the sneer very clear in his voice, declared, “You guys are disgusting. Look at her; she’s black! You gonna tell me you get turned on by that?”

It only took Mickey long enough to drop his hold on Matti and turn to face the speaker before he responded, “Well, hell, James, it ain’t like we’re gonna marry the nigger and take her home … like your daddy did.”

There was a moment of icy silence finally broken by the sound of someone shoving another chair backwards and heavy shoes repositioning on the floor. Then, “Before I cut your throat, dick-face, I’m going to rip your tongue outta your mouth and ram it up your –”

From behind Matti, “Aw, why don’t you two call a truce?”

“Truce, my ass.” James lumbered toward the middle of the room. “I’ve had about all the mouth I’m going to put up with from this pukey little ass-hole.”

Those same rough hands as before clamped Matti from behind, just above her elbows. They walked her back to the recliner in the corner and plopped her onto the floor beside it.

The man who had caught her sat down on the recliner and crossed his legs. He reached over the side and grasped her left wrist with a vice-like grip. “Okay,” he said. “You two hurry up and get it on, then. I’m horny.”

They circled about in the middle of the room, Mickey armed with a knife in each hand, and James wielding a knife in one hand and a small hatchet in the other.

Most of the spectators had climbed on top of the backs of the sofas to give the combatants as much room as they could. A missed knife thrust could be as lethal to them as to the intended target. But, at the same time, no one wanted to give up a front row seat.

Matti’s tentative attempts to pull her arm free got her a painful jerk sideways, and a brief tightening of the fist on her wrist convinced her that future lessons could be crippling. She peered over the arm of the recliner at the combatants, pleased for the moment that another mountain of muscle was between the combatants and her.

The first overt move was the hatchet in an overhand loop that swept down at an angle aimed at Mickey’s head, but a last-instant spin took the target out of range. The force of the swing and the weight of the hatchet carried James half way around to his left, exposing his right side for a brief moment. The spin brought the knife in Mickey’s right hand around to slash across the back of the hatchet arm. First blood.

* * *

It seemed to Mickey that James howled more from rage than pain. But that was good. Now that he had drawn first blood, and James had started on that relentless slide to the loss of control of his emotions, and thus, his actions, Mickey could start to enjoy this little show.

James was bigger than any other man in the group. At six feet three inches in height and carrying close to two hundred and forty pounds, he was more than intimidating. James’s dark hair matted with dirt and grease and jutted out in an unruly tangle in all directions and had probably not felt a comb in weeks. Likewise, James’s untrimmed mass of whiskers probably invited every crawling thing in the area. He wore his pants legs tucked into the tops of a pair of heavy boots and nothing above his waist but a shiny leather vest, the classic image of an outlaw biker. Mickey couldn’t help but wonder if the big man had not simply scavenged the costume from some un-protesting corpse lying next to a wrecked Harley-Davidson before joining the group. Mickey could more easily picture James on the seat of a John Deere tractor than astride a Harley chopper. The guy just didn’t carry himself like someone accustomed to raising hell and breaking bones. The bulging muscles on James’s naked arms and torso completed his image as a wild, ferocious, outlaw biker, deadly in any form of combat due to his obviously considerable experience. But he tended to be too blustery at times, as though he played the role of a character he didn’t really understand. Mickey suspected the big man lived in fear that the group would discover his lie.

Towering over Mickey, he could be downright terrifying – if Mickey believed the man was a capable fighter, which he didn’t. The larger man didn’t exhibit the instinctive balance or moves of an experienced fighter. He saw James as a boy on the school grounds pitted against a smaller but more skillful bully. And, like others Mickey had encountered even back in his own school days, James would soon be responding by closing his eyes, flailing his arms in all directions, and charging forward, thinking, in all his innocence, that he was mounting an effective counterattack. How many times had Mickey observed that the boys’ eyes were not only closed, but frequently streaming tears? Whether they were tears of pain or fear or rage, they had always bolstered Mickey’s self-perception of his own prowess as a fighter.

Mickey had never shed a tear that could have been witnessed by others and interpreted as a sign of weakness. But, sometimes, he recalled, the picked-on boy might land a blow or two, perhaps even bloodying his nose. And that was something that could prove not only painful but embarrassing to him as the smaller but more skillful fighter who was simply trying to assert his own dominance – his own superior degree of cool – over his peers.

Mickey could have told James that muscles alone did not allow the strong to survive. He also needed to use his superior strength in a manner that always – always – brought victory; to lose even once was to die. And that meant skill to use the muscles as a fighter, as a killer. Now James was just going to have to learn the hard way.

Mickey’s knife flashed forward to within half an inch of the end of James’s nose, and only a quick, reflexive head jerk saved James from a painful cut. But, then his own knife swept upward in an arc that raked its tip across Mickey’s withdrawing forearm – first blood answered.

Although the cut was not serious, it burned. But, more than that, it showed Mickey was vulnerable. That was something he could not allow. He would have to be sure to thoroughly humiliate James before killing him, just to be sure the others recognized this wound as akin to the annoyance of a flea bite, and that James had scored it by sheer luck.

James blocked an upward thrust of one of Mickey’s knives with the shaft of his hatchet across Mickey’s left forearm. If he were the instinctive fighter he portrayed, it would have been the head of the hatchet that struck Mickey’s arm, at least breaking the bone or, since this was more than a friendly sparring match between comrades, lopping off the hand.

Mickey swept low with a slashing jab at James’s groin causing him to jump backward half a step, and while his balance was still recovering, Mickey came in again, slashing and jabbing at the groin.

Mickey knew that it was not simply a matter of James getting his balls cut off, an abstract prospect that would have caused howls of coarse laughter a few weeks ago in the bars he frequented. If James was, indeed, a dumb farmer or rancher, as Mickey suspected, he had probably done his share of castrations, a common and necessary chore in the management of livestock, and he would know how disabling such a funny thing could be, about as funny as real birdshot in the ass. Funny as hell when it happened to some stupid, talking animal on Saturday morning cartoons, but deadly serious in real life.

Mickey anticipated a stab or a slash in James’s groin area, or even the lower abdomen, to end this duel. The others would remember such a killing more than just a thrust through the heart, and they would remember, as James rolled about on the floor in agony and bleeding to death, that Mickey was capable of that – and more.

But what if James managed to make a simultaneous stroke? Mickey’s victory might last no longer than it took him to bleed to death along side James. Or, if nothing else, if he was not turned upon and slaughtered by the other members of the group like a wounded rat by his fellow rats, he would probably die of infection in this new world with its lack of hospitals and doctors. No, when he went for the kill, Mickey decided, he would have to make it a clean one. He would give them a show if he could do it without endangering himself, but only if.

James jerked his body forward and recovered his balance. With his knife and his hatchet flashing in the filtered light as they wind-milled about, he drove forward in a sudden charge.

Caught off guard by James’s unexpected and totally unorthodox onslaught, Mickey switched his own attack to defense, to block and parry the wild swings of James’s weapons.

He observed James’s eyes were not closed and tearing, but open wide and alight with a fire of that familiar rage to which he occasionally drove his victims. In this case, though, the other boy was holding a knife in one hand and a hatchet in the other. And, if he continued to make these bull-like charges, at times even overwhelming Mickey’s defenses, he could conceivably beat Mickey.

Icy fear sent tendrils snaking through Mickey’s disciplined muscles, robbing them of vital strength, diverting the aim of their precision of movement, making him become clumsy and awkward, and he felt the saw-toothed edge of panic begin to cut away at his own resolve. Seldom had he felt himself this close to the unrelenting approach of death.

But, then Mickey sensed James’s imminent loss of control. He could see it in the widening of the eyes, in the iron-hard clamping of the jaw, in the quivering of muscles attempting to wield the two weapons in a manner that would both maim and disarm but were increasingly failing to do either. With the reflexes of an experienced fighter, Mickey pushed this teetering of advantage.

Mickey firmly believed a fighter must use anything and everything at his command, or he died. A foot, well placed into the opponent’s crotch or scraped against his shin or slammed down on his instep, could distract or disable him enough to allow for a killing blow. And, if a fighter was truly great, observant of all aspects and prepared to take immediate advantage of the least crack in his opponent’s mental armor, there are times when a well-timed word, or even a knowing snicker, could have the effect of a heavy war club slamming against a weakened shield arm.

Mickey forced a grin to reveal his teeth even though fear still hooded his own eyes, and he forced his mind to a moment’s calm as it clearly formed and paced his words with just the correct blend of friendly banter and biting ridicule, spicing them with just the right amount of seemingly repressed laughter.

“Jesus, James, you’re starting to fight like a girl.”

Then, making sure James saw the gesture, he pretended to catch the eye of one of the others, and he winked.

If James had been able to look behind him at where Mickey had winked, he would have seen no one there. Of course, even if James had done so, by this time he probably would have rationalized that whoever had been there had moved; the growing certainty of the others siding with Mickey should be, at this point, as solid as the floor beneath his shuffling feet. As Mickey well knew, at such a moment, in such circumstances, nothing was more effective at cementing a conviction of conspiracy than a simple, well-timed and executed, subtle wink.

The effect was immediate. James bellowed like a bull.

“Hey, James, you want to hold it down a bit?” Mickey said in a soft, advisory tone, then, with a snicker carefully weighted with obviously mock fear, said, “You’re gonna frighten the guys.” Guys, of course, referred to all those around them and included Mickey, but not James.

Fury and rage engulfed James. He sputtered and coughed as he tried to catch his breath. Mickey could imagine his vision blurring to a monochromic red, edged by dark shadows at the sides as his mind centered on his one desire, to rend Mickey to shreds, to rip him apart – to make Mickey pay. Big, Bad James was right on schedule.

As James’s control diminished, Mickey’s returned. He felt his facial muscles slacken as the tension of his own fear bled out of them, and the grin that spread his lips over his even teeth became more genuine. His feet became lighter as he danced about, bobbing and weaving across the floor, back and forth, not giving James a stationary target to charge. Not yet.

First, like the performers in a bullring, he would play. He would dazzle his audience with his skill and daring. But he would use no mounted picadors to tire and weaken the raging bull with their lances, nor banderilleros to further bleed off the power of the bull’s weakening muscles with thrusts of barbed darts. He would perform these tasks himself with the grace of a ballet master before, as the matador, he would end the display in an artful and graceful placement of his steel through the heart of the beast.

James’s wide-eyed focus bored into the middle of Mickey’s face. Then Mickey recognized the rapid stutter of the axe as nerves and muscles reacting to inexperience in battle combined with surging adrenalin preparatory to delivering a blow. The two together, along with a death-glare focused on the middle Mickey’s face told him the target was the half-inch wide space between Mickey’s eyebrows. And so, when the falling hatchet descended, its target deftly stepped aside, and the deadly blade continued down through unresisting air, arcing back towards James’s own leg. At the last instant, James moved his left leg outward to give the swinging hatchet free space in which to move between his legs before he was able to stop it.

“Well, shit, James! I mean, hell, if you’re gonna de-nut yourself like that, why am I even working up a sweat? Shit, I’ll just have a seat over there with the guys, and we’ll all have a good laugh watching you try to hold onto your balls while you chop ’em off.” He made sure James saw the wink.

With his fury-razed mind now incapable of rational planning, James again hurled himself at Mickey. His left hand, holding the knife, jabbed out as he stepped forward, missing by several inches. Without any attempt to withdraw to recover his balance, he swept sideways as he leaned toward Mickey and lunged again, pulling him even farther off balance. He tried, then, to recover, but too much weight bore down on his cocked left leg. With a crash of the coffee table splintering, he tumbled onto the floor and sprawled amid the jumble of wood.

He heaved his body upward with his powerful arms, thrust his right leg beneath him and propelled himself to the left, spinning as he went erect, crouched on both feet and ready to attack or repel as needed. If he had been receptive to the concept, he might have caught a flicker of surprise and maybe even respect in Mickey’s widened eyes and raised eyebrows. But it was only a flicker, and Mickey squelched it immediately lest any of the others see it.

“Now look what you’ve gone and done. James, James, such a clumsy boy, you are. I simply can’t take you anywhere, can I?”

Bellowing like the bull he had become, El Toro charged.

Mickey restrained himself from assuming the stance of a matador, gracefully erect and allowing the bull’s horns to pass within scant inches of his body as the adoring audience shouted Ole’! He wasn’t sure James’s control had deteriorated all that far.

He ducked beneath the grasping arms and spun away. But he couldn’t resist planting a foot against James’s posterior as he went past to plow heavily into one end of the sofa farthest from the window. It had been a calculated risk, putting his own balance in jeopardy in the kick that had no hope of doing harm – not physical harm, anyway. But the further harm it inflicted on James’s crumbling confidence made it worthwhile.

Mickey beamed at the sounds of appreciation rebounding about the room.

“Cool move!”

“All right!”

“Right in the ass!”

“Dumb fool dared the wrong one, this time.”

Yeah, it was a worthwhile gamble.

Despair bled from James’s cry of challenge, and Mickey savored the rich taste of impending victory. Tears streamed down James’s face from half blinded eyes, and Mickey couldn’t resist pointing at them as he snickered and nodded to his audience.

James lunged again at Mickey, sweeping wildly with his two weapons at the same time, but that merely made him appear even more the awkward fool.

Mickey stepped into the stroke lightly, almost daintily. The edge of his right-handed blade ran a line of scarlet across James’s naked chest then withdrew as deftly as the tongue of a butterfly from a delicate blossom. To demonstrate his daring, his finesse, his cool, he turned his back on James – just for a moment, long enough to step part way across the arena. Of course, his ears listened carefully for the thud of heavy boots thundering behind him. In his mind, he could hear the cries and shouts of adulation: Ole’! Ole’!

When he turned again to face El Toro, he watched James’s head rise slowly from looking at the line of pain across his chest to a glare of pure hatred as their eyes locked on each other.

In a mock salute, again designed to goad James to even more errors, Mickey raised his blade to stand erect before his face in salute, clicked his heels in his best Hollywood, and said with a smile, “Touché.”

Because he was expecting an immediate, violent response, Mickey easily ducked beneath the thrown hatchet that buried its head in the wall behind him. As he rose back up, not at all sure James’s knife wouldn’t be thrown, as well, he smiled to see the blade transferring to James’s right hand. It was clear that James had realized his error in throwing one of his weapons away and was now taking his best hold on the one remaining.

Pressing his oral attack to further advantage, in a tone used by schoolteachers to admonish a first grader for displays of childish anger on the playground before sending the offender to the sideline for a Time Out, he said, “James! Control yourself! Do you realize how close that came to hitting me? Why, you could have hurt me.”

“I’ll hurt you, you sonofabitch!” James’s speech was guttural, almost inarticulate, emitted from deep in a throat constricting itself closed as every muscle in his body tied itself in knots.

He hurled himself forward again, his arms stretching outward. His empty left hand hooked into a claw, the right gripped the knife low, poised to disembowel. His head remained low, nestled within the protection of his muscular shoulders. He drove forward on powerful legs, determined to crush Mickey like a bug.

The grim look of death in James’s eyes and the deaths-head grin spread across his face bored into Mickey’s eyes and straight into his heart. It would have disarmed the smaller man, reduced him to the quivering, terrified and defenseless little man that in his heart of hearts he might have been, if, all along, he had not been maneuvering James to this exact move, like the matador’s flicked corner of his cape inciting the bull to charge.

And, so, like the matador whose role he had assumed in their dance of death, Mickey raised his blade to eye level and sighted along it. He raised himself up onto his toes – unnecessary, even detrimental to his own balance, but solidly dramatic – and waited for James to come within range.

As the muscular arms began to enclose Mickey, he dropped to a tight crouch, and the spring-steel-like muscles of his legs propelled him to the right, taking him beneath and out of the circle of the sweeping arms. At the same time, his left hand jabbed out, driving the blade of his knife up into the tender flesh of James’s left armpit, angling the steel up into the shoulder joint. Riding his momentum, he gave the knife a vicious twist as it withdrew, mutilating the ligaments. He landed on his back, but quickly rolled over onto his shoulder and back up to his feet in a smooth, well coordinated move.

James’s momentum carried him crashing into the corner where Matti cringed, almost landing on her. He got up slowly with his head hanging in despair, but still not defeat. Mickey grinned as he imagined James’s shoulder burning deep inside, like the tip of his blade had deposited a live coal there, and at the same time throbbing with the force of hammer blows.

Ignoring the heavy flow of blood streaming down his side where his useless arm hung like a piece of meat in the butcher’s locker, James hefted the knife still in his right hand, reassuring his grip.

His glare swept across the room and focused on Mickey, and he stood there, crouching, catching his breath, as though trying to concentrate on how he could wrest victory from defeat. But, of course, he could not. Not now. They all knew it. He knew it. Still, he charged.

Mickey expected James to make another mad-bull charge, so he moved to the middle of the open space where he had room to maneuver. Just before James came within reach, Mickey made a quick feint to his right, raising his right hand-held knife toward James’s injured side.

James reacted instantly, reflexively, as Mickey knew he would to protect his vulnerable left side. James spun partially to his left, drawing that shoulder away from Mickey and raised his right arm upward to act as a shield against the blows Mickey had faked. He also used the power of his legs to halt his drive, to bring him up short. And, even as he did so, he seemed to realize he had been had – again. In that pose, with his burning left shoulder turned away, his right arm raised protectively, and his legs bracing him against further forward movement, he couldn’t help but to see himself as Mickey saw him, and probably how everyone else in the room saw him, as a big, awkward, farm boy who was being picked on simply because he made it so easy. It was also obvious how exposed he was to Mickey’s real attack. Before he could move to counter it, he saw how quick Mickey really was when he moved in with his two knives.

Mickey’s left-handed knife slashed across James’s right triceps, slicing deep into the muscle that didn’t even have the minuscule protection of a shirt sleeve. Almost simultaneously, the knife in his right hand laid open the exposed flesh of James’s waist on his right side, again, the finely-honed steel slicing deep.

James had only just begun to swing back to face his assailant when Mickey’s blades bit again. And, then, he seemed to forget how to go about meeting Mickey’s slashing attack; or he had simply given up the battle as lost. He twisted and jerked with each searing touch of the knives, but they fell upon him with such speed, that he had no chance to avoid successive strokes. The left one jabbed hard into the right kidney, exposed when the bottom edge of the leather vest lifted with James’s raised right arm, and as quick as the darting tongue of a probing snake, withdrew again. The right-hand knife slashed across James’s tense right thigh muscle, slicing through the heavy denim and the flesh beneath.

Working his way around behind James in a fast, wind-milling dance, Mickey’s steel laden hands flew with the blinding speed of a Japanese chef performing before awestruck diners. His last stroke, and one that drew a few snickers from the appreciative crowd and one outright guffaw, was another fast jab in and out of James’s right buttock. Unlike when a farmer jabs one of the Three Stooges with his pitchfork, James experienced excruciating, burning, crippling agony that was anything but funny. He bled profusely.

After Mickey withdrew his blade from the heavy muscle that had much to do with the operation of James’s right leg, he turned his back on the quivering man who slumped to the floor, and he strutted slowly to the edge of the open space. He stood there for a few moments while he allowed the spectators to savor the display of his amazing skill. He wanted them to get a good look at the state to which he had reduced Big James, still upright but on his knees and slowly slouching back to sit on his feet.

They had all been a little intimidated by James simply because of his size and the muscles exposed by the mode of his dress. All but Mickey. He had suspected, all along, that James was not a fighter. The big man just didn’t have the look in his eyes, the moves, the … presence. And Mickey wanted the others to know that he, Mickey, did possess these qualities. He had the look in his eyes, the moves, and the presence. He was a fighter. Any of the others would think twice, now, before challenging him. This had turned into a good opportunity to anchor his leadership. And, so ….

James seemed to sense Mickey’s approach and looked up slowly, knowledge of certain, brutal death glazing his eyes, his muscular arms lying useless in his lap. He was weak, becoming weaker as crimson pooled on the floor beneath him, his strength draining away with each pulse of his heart. Only the blazing fire of his wounds kept him conscious.

Mickey stepped around him slowly and with affectation. His arms spread outward to receive all the praise and adoration that showered upon him from the crowd of admirers. He grinned broadly at each of the spectators, soliciting further acclamations of his greatness. As he completed his second, full circuit around James, he spun back to his defeated enemy. His right hand darted out with its steel blade flashing and, with an embellished flick of his wrist, opened James’s throat from one side to the other.

A surprising amount of blood spurting across the blood-spattered room. James flopped over onto his side, quivered for just a moment, and lay still.

Mickey reached down and wiped the blood from both blades on un-bloodied patches of James’s clothing. When he stood, he swept about the room with his eyes until he located Matti cowering in the corner behind the chair in which her captor still sprawled.

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