Episode Two by Shari J Ryan
“You hungry?” Axel asks.
I find myself staring at him as wrath coerces through every nerve in my body. Watching someone kill themselves, was not on my plan when I woke up this morning. Being evicted from my apartment was also not a part of this plan.
“Do you have to ask?” I question with a raised brow. Feeling my hands tremble, I hide them behind my back, needing to hide my apparent nerves. What scares me the most, isn’t the part of knowing what I’m capable of, but rather, the rush I’m experiencing.
I follow the four men down the hall, passing several other utility-like doors. Wishing I could see through them, I wonder what is on the other side. What “business” are these men conducting down here?
We take a different stairwell than the one we came down from, and Axel opens a door that leads back into the hotel. I nudge two of the men to the side and make my way up to Axel, grabbing him by the arm.
He stops and looks down at his arm first, acknowledging the simple fact that I touched him—informing me with just a look that I shouldn’t have touched him. I remove my hand and return it behind my back. “What?” he snips.
“I shouldn’t be in here dressed like this?” I tell him, quietly, feeling as though all eyes in this lobby are boring into me.
Axel looks over toward the front desk and the butler looking guy, nodding to them with zero expression on his face. “You’re fine,” he says.
His men continue walking, nudging me along the way, as I did to them seconds earlier.
Ignoring the looks from everyone around me, I trail behind the men, following them into a dark restaurant. With a glance in each direction, I’m a bit relieved to find the place mostly empty. The ambiance hides what shouldn’t be seen and it’s probably the best place for me at the moment—especially since I don’t want to even see myself.
We sit in the far corner of the restaurant at a round, dark, glossy table with three candle-lit votives in the center. Everyone is quiet as a woman in a black pencil skirt and a color-matching fitted button down hands us all leather covered menus. With her jet-black hair tied tightly in a bun on the back of her head, the only feature on this woman that stands out is her illuminatingly red lipstick.
I somewhat expect the men to check her out, but they’re more interested in the menus. As am I.
There is little to choose from but the top-line steak with all sorts of fixings and sides looks like a last meal if I were to have one. Even though I’ve decided on what to order, I keep my menu in front of my face, delaying the uncomfortable silence and cold stares.
It seems like only a couple of minutes go by before the woman in black returns to the table. She has her hands folded behind her back and her gaze is fixed on me. “I’ll have the filet, please.”
The men give their orders, simple and quick, allowing the woman to leave as fast as she arrived. Without our menus—my only hiding tactic—I glance up and notice that the last of the patrons that were eating here have gotten up and are leaving. Great… we’re alone.
“Are any of you going to fill me in on what this position is? I assume if you were going to kill me, I’d be dead by now. Are you dropping me back on the street after this meal, or what?”
“The position changes daily,” Axel says. “There is no real answer to your question so if it is a deal breaker, you have no commitments to us. We are all here because we are doing something we believe in.”
“Forcing someone to kill herself?” I question. “I told you I wasn’t up for anything illegal. And what the fuck — Are the paramedics on their way to handle the dead body just sitting in your office?”
Everett throws me a witty look as Axel glances around the restaurant before settling his ominous gaze back on me. He folds his hands, resting them on the table-top and nods his head so slightly, I might be imagining it. “You didn’t force anyone to do anything. You highlighted the reasons she needed to move forth with a decision she had been struggling with.”
“I didn’t highlight anything,” I argue.
“You’re right. So, tell me. How did you convince her?” Axel asks.
Needing a pause in the pressure, I wrap my fingers around the dewy, ice-cold glass of water sitting in front of me and I bring it up to my lips. Sipping slowly, I hear the seconds ticking by as the sensation of four pairs of eyes trying to break through my thoughts force an unwanted heat to expand within me. Axel clears his throat and a slight rise in his brow urges me to continue.
I place the glass of water back down on top of the metal coaster, keeping my eyes set on my blurry reflection against the water. “When I walked into the room, I noticed her knees bouncing up and down, one of her hands scratching away at the other. The sweat glossing over her forehead and nose along with the track-marks covering her arms. The suffering with anxiety and detox were her weakness.” I take the water back into my hand and replace it against my lips, needing more water as if it were air.
One of the men snatches the glass from my hand, creating a small splash that lands on my lap. “Finish,” he says.
“Everett,” Axel snaps, “Take it easy.”
Everett. The bearded man who opened the door for us. He must be Axel’s right-hand man. Although, I suppose the other two could play that role as well, but I haven’t heard either of them speak one word.
“I exploited her weakness,” I spit out. “What else do you want me to say?”
Axel shifts his weight around, resting an elbow on top of the table as he scratches as his rough shadow of facial hair. “For some reason, I can’t help but to think it was all a coincidence,” he says.
“A coincidence?” I question. “A woman slicing her wrist with a blade you left in the middle of the table—I’m not sure I’d call that a coincidence. Maybe, more like a setup.”
“Sure,” Axel says with a slight grin.
A man in full black attire arrives at our table with two arm-loads of plates. He places each one down in front of the appropriate person, then takes the folded up napkin in front of me and whips it out to the side before placing it over my lap. Embarrassed for forgetting what etiquette is supposed to be, I offer him a quiet apology.
The scent from the food makes my stomach gnarl in pain and I do my best to prevent drool from seeping through the corners of my mouth. I take a large bite of the mashed potatoes, followed by three more before my throat tightens around the food, making me feel like I’m choking.
“Take it easy,” Axel growls. “You don’t want to get sick.”
I wash the first few bites down with water and cut into the steak. Ravenously eating as fast as the food will go down, I don’t bother to look up from my plate for several minutes until I need more water. I realize I have been a form of entertainment for all of them as their eyes are focused directly on me. Everett has a cocky grin I can’t decipher and it’s making me uncomfortable—more uncomfortable, I should say. “Damn, girl. Where are you putting all of that? She eats like you, Ax.”
Axel’s focus shifts to Everett and his eyes narrow in on him ever so slightly. “I’m not the one who forgets to wipe food off of my face,” he argues.
I’m quick to drag the napkin across my mouth while looking over at Everett for his reaction to Axel’s low-blow. He slowly takes his napkin and wipes it against his face, which I now see has some kind of sauce splattered over it. “Touché,” Everett says against his napkin. “Well played, my friend.”
The joke between the two of them eases my nerves the slightest bit, showing their human side in a small form.
“Luke, there’s a case file you need to pick up downtown by eight tomorrow,” Axel tells him. “And Declan, there’s a body on Harvard Ave you need to attend to tonight.”
Axel, Everett, Luke, and Declan. I wonder if there are more of them or if this is it?
“Does this job come with room and board, or what?” I ask, taking the last bite of my steak.
“Yeah, we have a room for you,” Axel says before leaning to the side and retrieving his phone.
While I want to wish and hope this room or place I’ll be staying is somewhere inside of this hotel rather than in the warehouse we were in earlier, but I’m guessing my luck is about to run out.
“Twenty-eight is awake,” Axel says.
“I figured he’d be out for another hour or so,” Luke replies nervously.
“That’s not the problem,” Axel says. “I’m going to go handle it. It’s probably time to close this one up.”
Axel stands from the table and pushes his chair in neatly. “What do you want me to do with her?” Everett asks.
“She’s coming with me,” Axel says.
The three men look confused by this and it’s worrying me. “She is?” Everett questions.
“I’m going to see if the last test was a coincidence or if she is truly capable of handling the dirty shit that goes down.”
“With twenty-eight?” Luke repeats with a decipherable nervous hitch to his words.
“I’m not worried,” Axel tells him.
I am. What the hell are they talking about?
“I’ll see you the morning,” Axel tells them, taking steps away from the table. “Let’s go.”
Everett stands from the table, allowing me to slide out. As I stand, I feel the heaviness in my stomach from the food and it’s almost like instant energy. I haven’t felt full in over a year and regardless of everything that has happened today, I’m grateful for the meal.
Speeding my pace to catch up with Axel, I walk close to his heels as we cross through the lobby of the hotel and back around the corner to the fire-escape door. Axel takes a key from his pocket and looks behind us, checking for witnesses, I assume. We take the same path down the stairs, through the warehouse and back to the hall of utility doors.
“So, my name is Harley, in case you ever wanted to know who the hell you were working with,” I tell him.
“Is it now?” he says, insinuating some sort of disbelief. “You mean like the motorcycle?”
“Funny,” I quip. “Never heard that one before.”
“Hi, Harley,” he says sarcastically with an abundance of fake excitement. “Feel better now?”
“Sure. Yeah, now that I’ve spoken my name out loud, I feel so much better now,” I tell him, sounding as obnoxious as I intended.
He stops short, forcing me to walk into his steel-like back, then gives me a second to regain my footing and grins. “You know, for someone as desperate as you are, you have quite an attitude. Are you forgetting I just fed you?”
“Are you forgetting I just forced someone to slice her wrist for you?” I respond with haste.
“I never asked you to do that,” he replies simply.
“You told me, only one of us was coming out alive,” I remind him.
“It didn’t have to be you,” he corrects me as he continues down the hall.
Now he has the nerve to look over his shoulder and wink at me. Seriously? “I know what you’re thinking,” he says.
“Oh, did you hear me call you an ass in my head?”
“Sure did,” he says, stopping in front of a door labeled twenty-eight. Axel takes his suit coat off, hangs it on the door knob and rolls his sleeves up.
“Are you locking me in another room?” I ask him through a heavy breath.
Axel opens the door into darkness with the only source of light coming from the dim-lit hall we’re in. What is with this locking-people-in-the-dark shit?
“Ready?” he asks, flipping on the light, bringing our focus to a man tied to a chair near the back corner. What this hell is this now?
“Sure, yeah, I guess…”
We walk into the room and Axel pulls out two chairs, placing them in the center of the room, facing the tied up man.
The strange thrill I felt after walking out of the last room is returning and while I should be nervous and stressed out as I’m standing in an empty room, facing God knows who, I’m actually a little excited. Maybe that’s weird.
“Where am I,” the man groans, sounding distressed and confused. “What the fuck is this? You prison guards were supposed to kill me. You guys fuck this up too?” More groans growl from his throat as he tries to shift his body around. “Fuck you, ass.” The man’s words come out in long forms of slurs like he’s either wasted or has been beaten to a pulp. And I’m going with the latter half. Regardless, I want to know what he’s is talking about.
Axel laughs. “You’d be lucky if I were a prison guard,” he says with a surprisingly decent Spanish accent.
Walking toward the man in the chair, Axel lifts his leg, and plants his heel into the guy’s face, instantly knocking him out cold. Luckily, I close my eyes just before the crack of his jaw echoes through this small room. I’ve already seen enough today.
Peeking through one eye, I confirm my assumption in that the man is out cold, and I move my focus over to Axel. “We’re doing this again,” I groan with question. “Do you guys just beat people up all day and convince others to kill for recreation? And what’s with the shitty cliche accent?” I know my questions will get a rise out of him, but I’m not sure I care at this point.
Axel looks at me and cracks a half smile. “What? You didn’t feel like you were being wooed by hot date, dining in a fine Mexican restaurant somewhere?” The way in which he’s speaking to me forces warmth through my cheeks. A hot date? Axel might be the definition of hot, but a date…with him? I don’t think that would go over well.
“Yeah, Axel, a hot date who just stuffed his foot down some guys throat, causing blood to spew like spray paint all over the white walls,” I retort. “Seriously, why the hell am I here?”
Axel’s admiring his handy work while rubbing his hands together and looking kind of sinful—in a proud way. He peers over at me and grins. “You’ll learn everything you want to know as time passes,” he says, his voice returning to the monotone dryness I’ve become accustomed to in the past several hours. So much for the jokes. “Right now, just think of it as your first day of training…with many more to come.”
I push away from the wall I’ve been leaning on, taking a couple steps toward Axel as my anger reemerges. “I already told you, I’m not in this to beat, kill, and do the rest of your dirty work, all while wondering if I’m really going to make it out of whatever this is, alive.”
Axel looks over at the guy who is still hunched over in the chair, apparently checking if he’s still unconscious. Yup! You probably nearly killed him. “Look,” he says calmingly. “I’m sure it looks like we’re some brutal group of men walking around, committing atrocities that know one knows of, but there’s a much bigger picture here.”
I fold my arms over my chest and sit down on one of the empty chairs. “Hmm. Seems like a nice cover story to me,” I say, forcing the sarcasm. “Your whole super plan is to basically smooth me over so I’ll take a blind eye to what you’re doing. Right?” I release a long sigh, needing my chest to loosen from the amount of stress I feel. “So I take it, you’re going to pay and feed me a little bit, then dispose of me the same way you do all the others?” I’ve been getting into people’s heads for years now, but for some reason, I can’t get a good read on whatever the hell is going through Axel’s head. I don’t like it. I get the feeling if I don’t figure him out soon, my fear of ending up in one of these rooms might just come true.
Axel takes a couple steps toward me and cocks his head to the side. “You know, for the fact that you have the balls to walk through a sketchy looking door for a job and then exploit a mentally ill woman under what I would call an impossible circumstance, then willingly sit down with us to have lunch, says to me you’re not as innocent and righteous as you’re pretending to be.”
He has a point. Anyone I’ve ever known wouldn’t have even walked through that open door, never mind play along up until now. Though, I suppose that’s always been my problem. That’s why my situation is what it is. That’s why I’m here now, doing unthinkable things for food and money. I’ve always been great at taking interests in things I shouldn’t and then letting those interests consume me until I get myself in trouble.
Axel rolls his sleeves down and buttons his cuffs closed. “Are we done assaulting people for the day?” I ask as he walks to a closet, opens it, and reaches inside to retrieve a dark blue jacket. He pulls it over his shoulders and zippers it halfway up while straightening his collar.
“Is that your I’m-trying-to-look-normal jacket for going home to your wife and kids?” I ask, not hiding the fact that I’m trying to be a total smartass.
He offers me a quick smirk and turns back toward the guy in the chair, which allows me to see three big yellow letters spelling out “ATF” on the back of his jacket. “I don’t have a family, Harley, but thanks for the ass-umption.”
Ignoring the part about having no family, the pit in my stomach surfaces, instantly becoming a lump in my throat. Was this a setup? Did the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms lure me here to see if I’d actually convince someone to kill themselves, or better yet, willingly follow some brutal group of men who are committing every type of felony I can think of?
Before I can even start blurting out some sort of backpedal to an ATF agent, the guy in the chair starts to move. Axel is quick to hover back over the man and I immediately close my eyes in preparation for another pounding I don’t want to see this. Wait a minute, if he is really an ATF agent, would he be beating the pulp out of someone tied to a chair?
“Mr. Santiago, you’re lucky we got to you in time,” Axel asserts in a way that demands the respect of this man. I also notice his Spanish is accent is now gone. What the hell?
“What the fuck are you talkin’ about, man? Where the hell am I?” the guy groggily asks from the chair.
“My name is Agent Williams. Twelve hours ago, your own cartel captured you from the death-row they put you in,” he says. “They brought you to a basement room, which looked very much like this and interrogated you into thinking you had some information they needed—information they needed before we could execute you.”
“Fuck you, man” the man seethes.
“Funny,” Axel says. “That’s the same thing you had said to them as we breached the room and saw one of them knock you out with their foot.”
The guy struggles against the chair, clearly in pain and uncomfortable. “They knocked me out?” the guy asks through struggled laughter. “Well, at least they could do something right. Unlike you, fuckers.”
Axel glances back at me, squinting with question like I’m supposed to understand any of what he’s doing or what’s going on. With no response from me other than the confusion probably written across my face, Axel’s foot comes up and catches the guy right in the back of his head, forcing him into another unconscious state. It seemed easier this time, though, considering Axel didn’t hit him nearly as hard.
Axel takes his ATF coat off, and throws it back into the closet, then rolls his sleeves back up, and ruffles his collar.
Wait a minute…I know this technique.
“Time for a hot Spanish accent?” I ask, breaking my five minutes of dead silence.
“Too predictable?” he asks, with that same sinful half-smirk.
“I’ll go ahead and assume you’re not with the ATF?” I lament with a raised brow.
Axel grins as he leans back against the wall. “Such a smarty-pants,” he says in a stupid mocking tone, talking to me as if I were a child.
How To Turn Your Best Friend Into a Puppet was the name of Dr. Phillips’ practicum at Boston University. He thought the name was funny, but really, it was the worst pun I had ever heard—more like an awful dad joke. He didn’t go around instructing us on how to beat our friends to a pulp, but the gist was that manifesting different and alternating realities after each subsequent trauma to the brain, the subject would become washed enough to be a puppet. Dr. Phillips used drugs instead of concussions, but the concept was the same. The funny part is, this is only the beginning of what Dr. Phillips covered in his subject matter, yet Axel, whoever he is, thinks this must be common practice.
“You know there are more efficient ways of washing him, right?” I say, mimicking his pole-in the ass sophistication.
Axel glances at me with a blank stare, like he’s desperately trying to hide that he’s constructing his next comment.
“If the next blow to this guy, after you’re done sweet talking him like a Spaniard, is too hard, he’ll have a secondary concussion, his brain will swell, and you’ll lose your subject,” I inform him.
“What type of psych degree did you say you had?” Axel asks, looking taken aback. “I assume the one where you tell me drugs will produce a better result, maybe?”
“Drugs are worthless,” I reply with confidence. I can’t believe this is happening again, after everything I’ve lost. Fitting, I suppose, after watching my life come full circle, but still.
“Let me have your phone, and a pair of headphones,” I tell him, nonchalantly. “And if I’m going to help you, lose the shitty costumes.”
Please note: these episodes are not edited.
Copyright 2016 - Shari J. Ryan
Make sure you check back next Friday for the next episode!