I didn’t really know for sure how many of them were out there.
Two, maybe three. For all I knew there could be a dozen. Their shoes were stomping along the hard-wood floor just outside my hiding spot.
“I saw him come up this way!” a muffled voice called out. “He’s gotta be here somewhere. Find him!”
As long as I stayed put and didn’t make a sound, everything would be all right. That was the lie I told myself.
Billy must have sent these goons after me. Who else could it be? I was once his number one delivery boy. It was a simple gig, really. All he had me do was deliver a package to a customer of his, get a thick envelope in return and bring it back to him. At the end of every transaction, he handsomely rewarded me for services rendered.
Problem was, I got a little too greedy. The envelopes were getting lighter. When he questioned me about it, I told him his customers might be trying to hustle him and even suggested that he send a couple of guys over to ‘straighten’ them out.
“The most valuable commodity on this earth is loyalty.” he always said. Billy and I go back a long time. I’d earned his trust. He’d never suspect that I was taking a little bit out of his envelopes for myself. After all, I had a family to support.
Looks like he finally figured out who was the one sticking their hands inside the cookie jar. Ripping off a guy like Billy was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
Here I was in the shady side of town, held up inside a tiny room on the top floor of an abandoned apartment building. And my pursuers were at the other side of the door, hunting me down.
The footsteps continued past—except for one set, which hung behind. Beneath the door, I could see a long, thin shadow approach. The knob slowly rotated.
I froze, trying unsuccessfully to control my breathing. My heart was beating so loud I worried they would hear it.
The knob seized rattling. Locked. The footsteps moved away.
Aside from the faint hiss of an old furnace, an uncomfortable silence fell upon the dimly lit room. I summoned the courage to take quiet, careful steps toward the door, and gently placed my ear against the wooden surface. I could barely make out their movements, probably somewhere farther down the hallway. Maybe this was my chance to make a run for it.
I thought of cracking the door slightly to see where they were before making my move. Sure I would risk giving away my position, but felt compelled to do something.
I was reaching for the deadbolt when the alarm on my wrist watch inconveniently started to beep. I quickly switched it off and stood absolutely still. I couldn’t hear anything coming from the outside. It was too quiet.
The door shuddered violently. I jumped backward.
“Open the fuckin’ door!” a voice shouted. “We know you’re in there!”
Hands banged against the door. My pursuers growled at me like a pack of bloodhounds that had just picked up the scent of their prey.
I was paralyzed with fear. It coursed through my veins, clouding my thoughts. I badly wanted to wake up from this nightmare. But it wasn’t a nightmare. This was my reality.
No amount of bargaining or pleading would deter them. All they wanted was blood. My blood. And they weren’t going to stop until they got it.
I dug into my pockets. My cell phone was nowhere to be found. It must have fallen out when I was running up the stairwell. Not that calling for help would have been an option; any rescue attempt would have arrived too late.
I was on my own. I had no particular fighting skills. And there was nothing inside the room I could use as a weapon to defend myself from the forces trying to get in. I had never felt so hopeless.
I looked around feverishly. A fire escape was visible outside the corner window. That was my only ticket out of this cage.
They were now ramming the door, and the hinges were slowly giving way with every hit. The one thing standing between me and them wasn’t going to hold out for much longer. I had no time to stand around and panic. If I was going to have a chance of surviving this night, I needed to move.
I rushed to the window and pushed the rusty frame upward. It made a loud, screeching sound as I raised it. The cold night air felt like a hundred tiny ice picks stabbing my face all at once.
As I climbed out onto the metal platform, the twinkling lights of the city skyline looked haunting against the grey clouds. But I wasn’t looking up; I was looking straight down at the ten flights of stairs leading to the ground. I held the railing tightly, feeling vertigo.
I fucking hated heights.
I shook it off the best I could and placed a foot on the first step.
A loud crash from inside broke my concentration. They had busted their way in.
“He’s on the fire escape!” one of them shouted.
I ran down the stairs, not daring to look back. The entire fire escape shook.
“Where ya going?! We just wanna talk!”
I kept going. But when I reached the last platform, I stopped. The ladder that would have taken me down was broken off and lying flat on the ground below.
I was trapped.
Directly above me, I saw the dark silhouettes of my pursuers racing down the stairs.
There had to be another way down. Come on, think!
A dumpster was situated almost directly beneath the platform. Its top was wide open. It would have to do.
I pulled myself up onto the railing. Just as my pursuers charged down toward the last platform, one of them reaching out to grab me, I leaped.
It felt like I was falling for an eternity. But in reality, the trip down didn’t even last ten seconds. I landed feet first in a pile of garbage bags.
I looked up. The men were staring down at me from the fire escape. There were five of them, all with black hoodies hiding their faces. Only their jaws were exposed. Smoke came from within those hoods, like they were fire-breathing dragons.
“We’re gonna get you, motherfucker!”
I hopped out of the dumpster and ran down the smoke-filled alleyway as fast as I could. The distant sound of thunder rumbled across the sky. I was running my ass off; my feet felt like they were going to take flight.
That’s when I heard more footsteps splashing in puddles behind me. I didn’t need to look back to know that more of them were coming.
I was way in over my head, regretted ever getting into this business in the first place. I kept telling myself I was doing it for my family. The truth was I didn’t have the balls to go out into the real world and earn an honest living. The temptation of fast money was too great for me to pass up on.
The glowing lights of the main street lay up ahead. If I could make it out into the general population, perhaps I could lose my pursuers. I pushed myself to run faster.
I was actually feeling hopeful. Maybe I still had a chance to get out of this thing alive. I swore to the man upstairs that if he could get me off the hook this one last time, I would change my ways. I’d turn over a new leaf. I knew I had the power to become a new man. A better man.
Unfortunately, my prayers went unanswered. A crowd of hood-wearing figures flooded into the alleyway ahead of me, blocking my path to freedom. It was a terrifying sight to behold. I stopped dead in my tracks, and they charged at me.
“There he is!”
These guys were relentless.
I turned—the pursuers behind me were closing in. I frantically surveyed the walls of the alley, looking for an escape.
A flash of lightning revealed an opening on a side wall that I hadn’t realized was there. I dashed through it just before the two groups converged on me. I could hear them following as I sprinted down a series of narrow passageways. I glanced over my shoulder and could no longer see them, but their collective grunts echoed off the walls, sending a shiver down my spine. They were thirsty for my blood.
After rounding a few more corners, I came to a tall chain link fence. I started to climb.
A pair of hands grabbed my leg. “Gotcha!”
I held on to the fence for dear life while the hands tried to pull me down. With my free leg, I kicked my pursuer right in his face. He lost his grip and fell backward. I pulled myself up and over the fence, jumped down, and continued to run.
I didn’t get very far before I reached a dead end. Brick walls on all sides. Much too high to climb. No openings, no passageways. Nowhere to hide. I was cornered like a rat in a maze, exactly where they wanted me.
I yelled up at the sky, cursing the big man. He had no intention of bailing me out this time.
My pursuers were getting closer. I could hear them calling out my name. “We’re coming for ya!”
They say that your whole life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. I used to think that was total bullshit. Tonight, I saw first-hand that they were right.
As I awaited my inevitable fate, I started to reminisce about the simpler times. Before all of this mess started.
Drinking beer and playing cards with friends.
Hugging my folks.
Holding on tightly to the love of my life. Stealing a kiss.
Judy. God, I missed her. If only I could see her beautiful face one last time. The thought of never seeing her smile again caused me to break down.
Those days were long gone, a dim memory. Now, I was alone with my back against the wall. My pursuers were on their way to claim their prize.
I’m no angel; I’ll admit that. Done some bad things throughout my life. Made some wrong choices and got involved with some not-so-nice people. Disappointed the ones dearest to me. I know now that I sealed my fate a long time ago.
Maybe I had this coming. Karma sure was a real bitch.
I looked up at the sky again, and rain started to fall on my face. The drops became a full-on downpour, washing my tears away.
And then the moment I had dreaded arrived.
They strode slowly down the alley and encircled me. A total of twenty of them stood shoulder to shoulder. To say that I was ridiculously outnumbered was an understatement. Even with their eyes being concealed underneath their hoods, I could feel them staring into my soul.
One flicked open a switchblade. The rest were putting on brass knuckles. They were ready to punish me for my sins.
Preparing myself for the pain, I lowered my head. And as I did, something on the ground caught my attention—a metal pipe, glistening in the rain. I kneeled down and grabbed it. For some strange reason, I felt suddenly powerful.
And as I stared at the piece of metal, something inside of me shifted. Like a veil removed from my eyes, I no longer saw a pipe. I saw a sword. And not just any sword. Excalibur.
My fear was gone. Replaced with rage.
All my life I had run away from my problems. Always looking for the short cut, the easy way out. But now I realized I was never going to outrun my demons, because they always knew where to find me.
The time had come to make a choice. Either roll over and let my demons consume me—or stand tall and fight.
I chose to fight.
The big man upstairs was giving me a second chance. A chance to make up for the mistakes of my past. A chance to redeem my soul. The scared, defenseless, pitiful excuse of a man I used to be was dead. I was now King Arthur, ready to charge into the battlefield.
These guys had no idea the hell I was going to unleash upon them.
I stood tall under the heavy rain and faced my tormentors for the first time in redemption alley. I didn’t know whether or not I would survive the night. But one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. If I was going to die, it would be my way, not theirs. If they wanted my blood, they were going to have to come and pry it out of me.
Whatever happens, I would stand my ground until the very end. I’d make sure they remember me until their last breath.
This was for my family. For my friends. For Judy. Most of all, this was for me.
They chuckled when they saw me holding my Excalibur. One of them stepped forward. Smoke escaped his mouth as he spoke.
“End of the line.” I could just make out a grin beneath his hood. “Billy sends his regards, paid us extra just to make sure we took our time with ya. We’re gonna enjoy this. Any last words?”
I returned his grin and calmly said, “You should have brought more guys.”