The room was filled with the screams and cheers of spectators, as they bore witness to savagery. In the center was a large metal cage, trapping within two men who were engaged in violent combat. Both were incredibly muscular and menacing, but only one of them could win. The room was dimly lit by small, exposed light bulbs, and the air smelled of smoke and booze. On the far side was a betting booth, where the man in charge of all gambling money, whom knew full well that if he even dared contemplate pocketing some of the money he handled regularly he would be made to deeply regret it, resignedly took wagers from various desperate people.
Crow and Boris entered the room, their senses instantly overwhelmed. Their gaze naturally gravitated toward the match taking place, and Crow winced as he saw one of the fighters, a tall beefy man wearing all-black with dyed-green hair tied in a braid in the back, mercilessly punch his foe over and over again. Each blow looked like it had the power of a god behind it, and finally, the victim shouted out in Thai, “Mercy! Mercy!”
The big man spat on him, and kicked him away as he turned to the crowd, whom exploded into applause. Another man unlocked the cage and entered, approaching the fighter. This man held a microphone, and was dressed in a white suit that looked thoroughly out-of-place in the otherwise decadent setting. He boomed into the mike, speaking Thai, “Another win for the Titan!”
Crow stifled a laugh. The Titan?
“Who dares confront the mighty foe of the gods? Who dares meet him in single combat? Who dares to confront pain itself?”
Boris nudged Crow, whispering, “So, what is cunning plan?”
Crow, distracted by the flamboyant speech of the announcer, said, “Huh? Oh, yeah, find Berlati and ask him for the ring.
“I can think of one or two problem with it, though.”
“Yes. First, what make you think Berlati is here?”
“You Americans and your gut instincts. Has ever occurred that it may be indigestion?”
Crow smiled, and directed Boris’ gaze to a higher level, above the room they stood in. Above them was a balcony with a view of the entire room, and sitting in it were five people. Four of them were tough-looking men with stone-cold expressions, clearly bodyguards for the fifth figure.
The fifth was an elderly man, contentedly watching the spectacle below. He wore a white suit, like the announcer had opted to do, and had a large cigar in his mouth with which he would occasionally blow smoke rings. The man was clearly enjoying himself.
Crow continued, “That’s him.”
Boris frowned. “I still do not understand why we here to talk to man, when we supposed to be discreet and steal ring?”
Crow laughed. “Steal from Shinzi Berlati? He’s one of the most feared criminals in the world. His men are highly, highly-trained professional killers. The artifacts he steals are given the best protection you can imagine. There’s simply no way we can steal the ring and escape with our lives. Rath might know that Berlati is not the most amicable of businessmen, but if she thinks that I can waltz in here and so much as borrow one of Berlati’s pens, she’s clearly off her pills. It’s simply batshit.”
“So, you think only way to get ring is to negotiate?”
“Of course not, that’s stupid. I was thinking of begging.”
Crow began to move through the wild crowd, occasionally having to forcefully move a person out of his way, as he and Boris made their way to a staircase leading up to the balcony. To his dismay, he found two of Berlati’s guards standing there. When he reached them, Crow cleared his throat, and said, in English, “Hi there. Name’s Gulliver Crow. I couldn’t help but notice Mr. Berlati is here tonight. Could he perhaps squeeze in a few minutes for me?”
He was caught off-guard by the words that then came from one of the guards.
“He is expecting you. Go on up.”
Crow stood there for a moment, stunned. I’m expected? How the hell—?
Boris then said, “Gully? Better move.”
Crow, still confused, began moving, and both guards stepped aside to let them ascend the staircase. They began walking upward, ignoring the thunderous roars from the crowds and the obnoxious bellowing from the announcer below. As they continued to ascend, though, a voice thoroughly out of place with the environment started to emanate from the balcony. It was young and slightly high, but distinctly aristocratic and powerful. It couldn’t have been the elderly Berlati’s voice, and it definitely could not have been one of his guards. Was someone else with Berlati?
Finally, the two came to the balcony, and before Crow could say a word, he and Boris were instantly frisked by the men accompanying Berlati. Crow looked around for a sixth figure, but could find none. That was when he noticed a speaker phone next to Berlati, from which that same voice was clearly audible.
The voice continued, “…I hardly see the point of your requesting my opinion on the authenticity of the object when you are unwilling to even entrust it to me. The man I sent to Bangkok was to act merely as a courier.”
Berlati responded, a cigar in his mouth, “I thought his credentials were perfectly satisfactory.”
The voice incredulously replied, “Perfectly satisfa—? He’s an office boy, Berlati! His presence here is almost entirely dependent upon my aversion to your infernal city!”
“Look, I needed an immediate evaluation, and your ‘office boy’ was ready, willing, and perfectly accredited.”
“So you have no concern with staking both our professional reputations on the help?”
“Yes, my reputation, you toad-faced imbecile! I will not have my name associated with an erroneous evaluation. I’ll be the laughing stock of the committee!”
“Which you already are.”
“Berlati, I will not-!”
Berlati cut the connection. He then said to the silent speaker phone, “So you won’t object to the evaluation? Well, that just works out perfectly.”
Crow could not help by chuckle at Berlati’s choice of collaborator. The man clearly didn’t have the foggiest idea that Berlati made his living out of all varieties of dishonorable ventures. Evaluations for any object owned by Berlati were mere formality, done merely as a kind gesture of security for his clients. If Berlati had Andvarinaut, you had better believe it was Andvarinaut.
The old man suddenly turned to Crow and Boris. His men spoke to him in Thai, “They are clean, sir.”
Berlati stood up, turning around to face his visitors, and waved away his men, who sat back down. He walked up to them and, with the cigar still in his mouth, he said in English, “Mr. Gulliver Crow. I’m sorry for not attending to you immediately. My associate, for all his education, has not exactly cottoned on to what it is I actually do with all my time and money.
Crow responded understandingly, “Trust me, I know what it’s like to have someone moan about reputations.”
“Oh, he doesn’t care about his reputation, he just enjoys being a pain in the arse.”
“Nevertheless, I must stress how much of a sincere honor it is to meet you.”
He extended his hand, and Crow hesitantly took it, muttering, “Sure it is…”
Berlati turned to Boris. “And you must be his pilot.”
“Partner,” corrected Crow. Boris gave him an appreciative look, and Berlati caught this. He removed the cigar from his lips, and breathed a cloud of smoke as he surveyed the two men. He then said, “Please, take a seat, both of you.” Berlati turned, and ordered two of his men to vacate their seats with the severity of his mighty finger. They did so at once, standing up next to the chairs, as Crow and Boris sat down in them.
Berlati sat as well, though now his chair was facing them and not overlooking the room below. They could hear the announcer boast, “The Titan has another challenger! Will he survive? Will he finally defeat the mighty mountain of brute strength that is the Titan? Let’s find out! Begin!”
There was the clang of a bell, and then the sound of punches and screams of pain from below. Crow smirked, and said, “Is the entertainment always this civilized?”
Berlati smirked right back. “Well, you know how Bangkok loves its theatre…”
“And you seem to love carnage.”
“Well, Titan is my fighter, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a slight sense of ‘paternal’ pride in watching him cracking someone’s spinal cord.”
“We all have to get our jollies from somewhere, I suppose.”
“True. And I hear you have a similar interest in bodily mutilation.”
“Only under the right circumstances.”
The three men stared at each other for a short time before Crow continued, “Hypocrisy is rarely a mercenary’s enemy, Mr. Berlati.”
“I have no right to talk, Mr. Crow. I once beat an old lady to death after she kept the line in the supermarket up for a full twenty minutes because of her rather generous collection of coupons.”
Crow nodded. “I hate that.” He paused before continuing, “So, I’m curious, sir. How’d you know we were coming?”
“I didn’t know Rath had a Facebook page?”
“She doesn’t. Only a paper trail as luminous as the yellow brick road of Oz.”
Crow nodded again.
Berlati sucked on his cigar, before continuing, “So, we know why you are here. Rath wants her silly little ring of delusion. Now, what are you willing to pay to get Andvarinaut back?”
Crow sighed. “Don’t suppose you take paper clips?”
“No. Store policy.”
“Well I got nothing on me, pal. Nothing, at least, that would be enough to replace such a priceless object. And by the way, you got some balls having your men rob Lydia Rath. She gives the impression that she is not someone you want to cross.”
“I’m very well-protected, Mr. Crow, as you can see.”
“Could be better.”
“Me not being up here, for a start?”
Berlati jollily queried, “Are you threatening me?”
“More trying a different tact of negotiation. After all, this ring business needs to be resolved.”
Berlati sat back in his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Crow looked at Boris, and his partner gave him a helpless and slightly accusatory look. You just had to be a smartass, didn’t you? He turned his head back to Berlati, just as the man said:
“If there is nothing for you to give me in return, Mr. Crow, then the only resolution that I can think of to this…conundrum, is for me to kill you.”
Instantly Berlati’s men whipped out their pistols, and aimed them at Crow and Boris’ heads. Both raised their arms, as Crow hissed, “I don’t suppose you could reconsider?”
Berlati smiled unpleasantly. “I could, but I won’t. I really am quite sorry, Mr. Crow. I would have loved for you to be in my employ, given your reputation as an incredible—”
He suddenly stopped himself, and his expression was rapturous. He yelled at his men, “Weapons away!” They instantly obeyed, tucking the pistols back into their coats.
This can’t be good…
“Can we put our arms down?”
Berlati stood up abruptly, grinning eagerly. Crow and Boris lowered their arms slowly. Then, Berlati said:
“I am in a generous mood today, Mr. Crow. I’m going to offer you a choice.”
He leaned down, so that their faces were only inches apart. Crow gagged on the smell of cigar smoke.
End of Chapter 3
Tune in next week to find out what happens to Gulliver Crow now he's in the hands of Berlati