“I hear you are a very, very talented fighter, correct?”
Berlati continued, “Oh, yes. I’d like to test that myth. You shall battle my man, Mr. Crow. If you can survive five minutes in the cage with the Titan, I shall allow you and your ‘partner’ to walk out of here with your lives…and whatever shreds of dignity you have left. But if you should fail…you will, y’know, die.”
Crow mumbled, “That’s not much of a choice. If I don’t take the offer, bullet in my brain. If I do take the offer, fist in my brain. Neither one sounds too groovy…”
Berlati continued to smile, and Crow was sorely tempted to strike that smile right off his smug face. The man said, “So, which is it, Crow? Die a pathetic death with a hole in your skull, or take the chance of surviving a beating from my best fighter? I will warn you now; I find it highly unlikely you will be able to last even one minute with the Titan.”
Crow looked to Boris, who, to his amusement, simply shrugged, as if to say, either one’s okay with me. Crow cursed under his breath, and thought hard. He really didn’t want to die, especially from a shot to the skull whilst sitting helplessly. But the Titan looked like an even less appealing end, getting turned into an omelet by a superhuman steroid man. He tried to think of an alternative, something to propose to Berlati to possibly help his odds, but no ideas were coming to him. Frustration bubbled within him. Frustration at Carson, at Rath, at Berlati. This was a stupid situation, one he and Boris should never have gotten into. He cursed one last time, before finally making his decision.
If there was even a chance of surviving the Titan and being spared by Berlati, he had to take it.
Berlati clapped his hands together, as he happily exclaimed, “Excellent! This should be a very entertaining show!” He walked over to one of his men, and whispered something to him that Crow couldn’t make out. Then the guard that Berlati had spoken to took out his gun, and aimed at Crow and Boris, muttering in English, “Go downstairs. Now.”
Crow and Boris complied and got up from their chairs, moving toward the staircase. The guard had his pistol pointing at both of them, to make sure they didn’t try anything. As they began walking down, Crow looked one last time at Berlati, and to his anger, saw the old man give him a thumbs-up.
They reached the room of screaming, wild, manic spectators, and saw that the Titan had just finished pummeling another poor bastard. The man was dragged out of the cage, moaning loudly, and Crow muttered, “This should be fun…”
Boris suddenly stopped him, and the guard raised the gun higher, yelling, “Keep moving!” However, Boris waved his hands at the man, as he said, “Just one moment!” He turned to Crow, and Crow hissed, “Whattaya doin’?”
And then, to his complete surprise, Boris proceeded to unbutton Crow’s shirt. Within seconds, the garment had been removed, exposing Crow’s bare upper torso, muscular and healthy. Crow yelled, “What the fuck, Boris?”
Boris smiled. “You don’t want shirt destroyed, do you? I keep it, until you get out, and then return to you.”
Crow rolled his eyes. “Boris, I’m going to die. I really don’t care that much about the shirt.”
The guard bellowed, “Get moving!”
Boris backed away into the crowd, the guard by his side, as Crow did what he was commanded. He walked through the crowd, ignoring the whistles and cheers from some of the ladies, and arrived at the massive cage, which was large enough to hold two full-grown men and gave just barely enough room for them to move around. Before the guard pushed him forward, Crow couldn’t help but notice how rusty and old the bars of the cage were.
The announcer saw them approach, and his malicious grin told Crow that the man was looking forward to watching ‘Titan’ pulverize another brainless challenger. He walked up to the door of the cage, and swung it open, saying, “Come on in, boy! Step right up to your doom!”
Crow resisted the impulse to snap the man’s neck right there as he entered the cage. The guard, having apparently consigned a colleague to ‘babysit’ Boris, went up to the announcer and whispered something into his ear. Crow watched them, and saw the announcer’s grin grow even more, almost turning into a Rictus. Then the guard stepped back, and the announcer walked into the center of the cage. He raised his microphone, and yelled in Thai, “Ladies and gentlemen! We have another challenger! But this is no ordinary fool, no sir!”
The crowd continued to scream.
“The man you see before you has agreed to a special duel…to the death!”
The audience went crazier than before, with some even shouting things like, “Rip out his heart!” and “Eat his face!”
Crow grimaced. I’m surrounded by cannibals…
He then turned his eyes to the man known as Titan. He was currently standing in one corner of the cage, leaning against the wall casually, and grinning evilly at Crow. The announcer continued, “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right! This man must spend at least five minutes in the cage with the Titan in order to leave this building alive! This fight will be no-holds-barred! No restrictions on moves or brutality! This truly is a fight to the death, in every way!”
The crowd continued to roar its approval, and Crow spotted Boris amongst them, the original guard having returned to Boris’ side. He couldn’t suppress a laugh, as he saw Boris waving Crow’s shirt above his head like it was a banner. The announcer beckoned Crow and the Titan forward. The two met in the center of the cage.
He whispered to them in English, “Like I said, no rules. Just try to keep the kidneys intact. The Triads are running short on them this month.”
Crow snarled at him, “If you don’t shut up right now I’ll personally see to it that the Triads get more than one pair of kidneys out of this cage!”
The announcer grinned, clearly unfazed by the remark, and spoke again into the microphone, not breaking eye-contact with Crow, “Fingers-crossed the mouth goes first!”
Crow smirked at him, not saying a word.
Once the announcer swiftly exited the cage, the door was slammed shut. Men locked it at once, and then the announcer shouted, “Let’s begin!”
A bell went ding-ding, and the crowd began to scream like a million climaxing prostitutes. The Titan sneered at Crow.
“Too bad, man. You’re not leaving this cage alive. You know that, right?”
Crow sighed, looking up at the hulking man. “Thanks for reminding me.”
Titan nodded, and the two moved out of the center of the cage, moving to opposite corners. Crow leaned his back against the cage, and thought hard. How do I go about this?
And then the Titan charged, roaring like a furious lion. Crow finally decided, hell with it, and charged as well. But when they collided, Crow was knocked into the air, sailing like a cannonball, and smashed hard into the cage bars. He felt the wind knocked out of him, and as he tried to breath, the Titan clutched onto his shoulders, getting him to his feet. Then a fist was shot at Crow’s face, and he stumbled back from the force, his back hitting the bars again.
It was like being on the sea. Everything was wobbling and shaking. His vision was blurry, the world looking little different than a vibrating expressionist painting. The silhouette of the Titan approached him, yet while his brain told him to duck, his body would not respond. The next fist hit him in the stomach, forcing Crow to let out a cry of agony. The Titan began to viciously blow punch after punch into Crow like he was cardboard. With every hit, Crow felt like he had been blown apart by a shotgun. His head was still unstable from the earlier blow to the face, and so he was unable to fight back.
Then the Titan clutched onto his throat, and drove a knee into Crow’s gut. The man snarled at him, “Come on, you bastard! I’ve been fighting all day. Give me a goddamn challenge!”
And then Crow’s head finally began to clear, and he looked into the furious face of the Titan. By his side, he could see Boris looking intently at him. Yet it was not a look of concern, it was a look of anticipation. He was waiting for an opportunity to do…something. Finally, Crow gasped out, “You want a challenge? Fine!”
Crow suddenly raised his hand, and with a single move, the Titan became a Cyclops.
“Try keeping an eye out next time.”
The Titan screamed, stumbling backwards as he held the bleeding socket of his left eye. Crow tossed away the eyeball he had just snatched out of the man’s face, and watched as the Titan thrashed around, roaring in agony, cursing over and over. The entire crowd had gone dead silent, overcome by shock, and now all that could be heard was the Titan’s cries.
That was when Crow saw Boris act. Taking Crow’s shirt, he suddenly wrapped it around the guard’s head, using the man’s disorientation to grab his neck and effortlessly snap it. Before any of Berlati’s men could retaliate, Boris snatched the guard’s gun and shot out one of the room’s spotlights. A large section of the chamber was plunged into darkness as a shooting match started to commence.
The Titan continued to scream, and Crow realized this was his shot too. He backed up a few feet, and then launched himself forward with a great bellow. Crow struck the Titan head-on, and they both flew backward right toward the cage bars.
And went through them.
Upon striking the bars with such incredible force, the rusty metal broke apart, and the two men sailed into the crowd, which had barely been paying them heed since the gunfire started. Crow and the Titan landed on three people, and Crow slowly got up, dazed by the fall. The screams of hundreds of horrified spectators submerged the room as the violence merrily continued.
More and more of Berlati’s men fell as Boris fired at them. The Titan, however, paid no attention to Boris. He was more interested in meeting Crow’s challenge. The cycloptic hulk began to advance on him, snarling in fury, his eye fixed for the kill. Crow could only back away as the panicking crowd around him tried to get out of the way of the two fighters. One unlucky person got in the Titan’s way, and was punched to the side. Crow kept moving, making his way to a nearby table. He grabbed a chair, and roared as he smashed it against the head of the Titan…who responded as if he had merely been smacked with a flyswatter. The man punched Crow hard, knocking him backwards, and Crow knew he could not give the Titan another chance to hit him.
Crow looked briefly up at Berlati’s balcony. Strangely, the man seemed disinterested in the pandemonium erupting beneath him. Can this guy get any smugger? Instead, he seemed to be talking to someone on speaker phone again, holding up a brown package that he had plainly just received. Apparently he can.
Crow diverted his attention back to the Titan. Thankfully, a good many of the people had cleared out of the club by that point, but Crow’s opponent was still as determined as ever. So he began to dodge and weave as the Titan furiously tried to grab onto him, a task now made much more difficult due to the loss of his eye. Crow moved like flowing water, trying to break through the barrier of the Titan’s flailing fists. He managed to land a few hits, but they did nothing to deter the Titan, who seemed like an unstoppable rampaging monster.
Suddenly Crow heard a voice yell, “Gully!” He turned his head, to see Boris, a trail of dead security men in his wake, aiming an automatic directly at the Titan. It jammed. In that split second, the Titan finally latched onto Crow’s head, and began to squeeze. Crow let out a cry of pain, as he felt the enormous pressure on his skull.
However, the Titan then received a punch to the back of the head that made him let go of Crow, who fell to the ground, panting. Crow looked up, to see that Boris was now facing the Titan. Not waiting to see if Boris had any more tricks up his sleeve, Crow tackled the distracted Titan, and began to throw every fiber of his strength into his blows. The Titan was launched backward, while his face suffered a constant barrage of Crow’s fists. Crow felt an incredible surge of hope. He might actually be able to survive this after all.
But then the Titan lashed out with his hand, and caught one of Crow’s fists. Crow threw his other one, and this was caught as well. Now they both stood there, pushing against each other, face to face. Crow growled, “So, should I call you One-Eyed Willie now, or what?”
The Titan snarled back, “Your ass is mine!”
Crow suddenly pushed forward even harder, and the Titan lost his grip on Crow’s fists. Crow was livid.
“That’s my line!”
And then he charged. He became a whirlwind of punches, giving all he had to the Titan, who found himself unable to block the endless flurry of hits. Crow focused on the Titan’s face, knowing that hits there would be especially painful thanks to his bleeding socket. The Titan cried out in pain as his head was smacked around by the blows. Crow roared with exertion, as he felt his knuckles start to get raw. His speed was unbelievable. His arms were moving like they were alive themselves, sharing the common goal of defeating the mountain before them.
And then, Crow finally stopped, gasping in lungfuls of air. The Titan wobbled in place, stunned by the intense hurricane of punches he had just endured. Crow raised a fist, preparing to give a final, powerful hit to the man, but to his dismay, the Titan instead toppled backward, and fell to the ground with a loud thump.
Crow lowered his fist, uncurling his fingers, and looked around. The entire room, sans Boris and the obnoxious announcer (whom was scrambling to pack all his belongings in a scruffy suitcase before anyone could notice him), had been vacated, the spectators having fled for their lives. Boris stood not far away, the spent automatic in his hand and a stare of utter incredulity on his face. Crow was panting loudly, and all over, he ached. He mumbled, “That wasn’t so bad…”
Suddenly there was the sound of calm, slow clapping, and Crow turned around. Coming off of the staircase to the balcony was Berlati, accompanied by his only two remaining men, guns trained on Boris and Crow. The man was smiling, his cigar sticking out of one side of the mouth. He stopped clapping, and said jovially, “I am deeply, deeply impressed, Mr. Crow.”
Crow, still panting, stumbled over to an overturned chair, turned it upright, and sat down, his shoulders slumped. Boris came over to him, and Crow saw him extend an arm holding his brown shirt. Crow chuckled, and took it, putting it back on. As he buttoned the front, he muttered, “So, a deal’s a deal, right Mr. Berlati? We can go?”
Berlati raised a hand, to signify he wanted quiet. He sucked on his cigar, and blew a huge smoke-ring from his lips. Then, with his other hand, he reached into his suit.
Crow and Boris braced themselves.
But to their surprise, Berlati was not taking out a weapon of some sort. Instead, when his hand came out of the suit, he held out the brown envelope…
“The evaluator just returned the MacGuffin, as well as his assessment.”
Berlati removed the ring from the envelope, held it ceremoniously up to the light, and dropped it on the floor. With his Wingtip, he proceeded to crush the antique into the grimy floor. Crow did not have much difficulty in assuming what said assessment determined.
“Guess your associate was right, then.”
The old man, for the first time, actually frowned at Crow. He removed a pistol from his jacket and pointed it directly at Crow.
“Do not remind me!”
“Christ, you two aren’t exactly friends, are you?”
“Mr. Crow, do you have any sense of self-preservation?”
“Not really. I find the people who do aren’t often preserved very well.”
“Well, you need not fear that.”
If that ring was a fake, Crow knew that Berlati would lose a lot of credibility tonight. You’d have to be a genius to dupe Berlati, and Carson and Rath were no geniuses. And that ‘associate’ certainly couldn’t have done such a thing; the man sounded far too unimaginative. That only left...Crow.
Berlati continued, “You switched it, didn’t you? So you could get me to sell you a fake artifact? So you could blackmail me?”
Crow was coy. “I didn’t offer you any money, Berlati.”
“All the more reason for the act to work. If you look unwilling to pay for it, I’d be assured of its authenticity. Classic reverse psychology.”
“I would have still had to pay for it, though.”
‘Well, of course! You’d have done that after the match. I mean, you wouldn’t be so idiotic as to actually walk in here with no money!”
Yeah, who’d be that stupid…
Shinzi Berlati chuckled, but then assumed a deadly air of determination. The side of his face twitched a bit, before he prepped the gun to blow Crow’s head off. He aimed, he turned, and he shot the announcer in the back. The man did a banana flip, his scraggy briefcase bursting open and all his belongings flying into the air, before landing on his still, dead body.
Berlati then said, “Well played, Crow, but you should have done the old switcheroo after the evaluation.”
“I suppose we learn from our mistakes.”
“Yeah, presuming you can survive them.”
There was an awkward silence, before Crow asked, “Will we survive this one?”
Berlati nodded, “Yes. I’ll let you and your Russian friend live. You’re an impressive fellow, Crow. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose such an invaluable source of entertainment.”
Crow smiled, “I’m flattered…”
I'd like to thank Jonathon Anthony and Samuel Inglis for allowing me to post their work on my blog.
Hope all my fans have a prosperous New Year