In the middle of the ceiling, a naked bulb blazed brightly, casting harsh light on the concrete walls and floor. The center of the room had a wooden table and two chairs.
Shin squinted his eyes and brought a hand up to block the luminescence. “Wow guys, third-world interrogation much?”
The leader ignored him. “Take a seat at the table.”
Shin lifted his lips into a semi-smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. He made a noise that was a cross between a squeak and a hiss; the universal expression for: Sorry. Thanks but no thanks. “I’d prefer to remain standing.”
He pitched forward as somebody shoved him from behind, causing his hips to bang into the edge of the table. A heavily scarred hand dropped onto his shoulder and violently pushed down, forcing him to sit in one of the chairs. His hands and elbows shot up from the unexpected force.
“One way to do it.” He muttered, brushing at his jacket.
The leader walked to the other end of the table, flipping the opposing chair so that he sat in it in reverse, his forearms crossed over the back.
“So,” he said, “What kind of name is Tak Shin anyway?”
“Save it. I’ve heard all the ching chong jokes. And no, I don’t know karate. What’s your name?”
The man dipped his head and chuckled, grizzled forearms rippling. He had shucked his suit jacket, revealing a short sleeve dress shirt. A shoulder holster was draped across his thick frame. “Not where I was going with it, but you can call me Mr. King.”
“Fair enough. Mine’s short for Takezo Shinmen.”
“Sounds familiar-feel like I’ve heard it before. From a movie or something, right? That your birth name?”
“It’s as close as you’re getting.”
“Cut to the chase Frank. Frank Lemming, correct? You should use your real name. Suits you better.”
Frank sat up, the affable menace disappearing, replaced by shocked puzzlement. Trying not to show the extent of how shaken he was and failing at it. “How’d you know my-”
Tak beamed at him and took on a patronizing tone. “Frank…I make it my business to know about all the Vitruvian’s hired jerkoffs.” He nodded at the three others, speaking to each of them in turn. “Hey Brad. Travis. Chad.” He lowered his head and snickered. “Damn but you guys got some boring-ass names. Straight the fuck out of suburbia.”
The four of them exchanged uneasy glances.
Frank cleared his throat. Moving on. “The Vitruvian wants to make an offer.”
“What a surprise.”
“Come work for him. You’ll get more money than you know what to do with. Women. Toys. Travel.” Frank spread his arms. “The world will be yours.”
Tak appeared to consider for a moment. “Sorry Frank, but I can’t work for anyone that starts their name with the word “the.” It’s like when celebrities refer to themselves in the third person, you know? Actually-” Tak looked up to the side as if something novel had occurred to him. “Voldemort. He did it all the time.” He turned his eyes down to look at Frank directly. “You read Harry Potter?”
“Do I look like I read Harry Fucking Potter?”
“Your loss. You know what they say: Om mani padme hum.”
“What?” Frank snapped back.
“Enlightenment is in all things.”
The thug shook his head, clearly exasperated. He put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “Look, you’re an idiot if you don’t take this gig. I usually don’t restrain myself from beating the organs out of smug little pricks like you but the boss told me to make an exception. You mean something. He’s willing to show extra consideration. And let me tell you…as far as money goes? This guy makes the Koch brothers look like a pair of Thai lady-boys selling their assholes for a Kit Kat.
Shin looked hurt. “That’s my favorite candy bar, man.”
Frank leaned back and covered his eyes, rubbing at them. An exasperated sigh escaped from his mouth as he turned his head towards the ceiling. His hands went back to the table and he angled his eyes at the goon standing behind Shin. He nodded once.
A fist crashed into the side of Tak’s head, pitching him sideways, nearly off the chair. His left hand glanced out and straightened against the floor, preventing him from falling. Salty copper flavor filled his mouth. Leaning to one side, he spat out a mouthful of blood.
Frank rose sharply, all business. “Hold his arms.” Another thug had made his way behind Tak, and he felt two pairs of limbs snake around each arm, lifting him to his feet.
“Uh.” Tak grunted as a clenched hand slammed into his right side. At the last second he twisted his body to keep the punch from hitting his liver. Don’t want to be taken out this early in the game.
Frank spoke forcefully. Professionally. “Tak. My man. This goes on for as long as you want. Either we keep going until your heart stops, or we keep going until you say yes. So why don’t you just take the job, huh? If you’re as badass as you make yourself out to be, you know that everybody’s got their limit.” He gave off a false air of fairness: You’re only hurting yourself buddy. Don’t make me have to do this
Two more punches. Another spritz of bloody saliva.
Frank talked off to the side as he distractedly fished in his pocket. “Look,” he said, trying again. “Make the smart play here. You’re going to die eventually, right? Why not have all the fun you can before it’s time to check out?” Frank leaned against the wall, taking out a cigarette. He closed his lips around it, bringing a lighter up and flicking it on, the other hand cupping the flame. A hazy, comforting reek of smoke filled the concrete cell.
Tak looked up and tsked. “Come on man, you know those things are horrible for you.”
Lemming sucked a long drag off his smoke and blew out unconcernedly. He stared at Shin’s propped up form for a long moment, then he chuckled. His eyes met with the goon that was doing the beating and he shook his head, smiling. “This guy. Just doesn’t get it. Give him another taste.”
More punches. Tak’s body shuddered and twitched from the violence of them. Frank stood off to the side, one hand crossed over his ribs with the opposing elbow resting over top of it. He covered his mouth with some fingers as if he was contemplating.
His eyes flicked toward the guy who’d been hitting Tak and he nodded again, causing two more solid punches to thunder into Tak’s ribs. A piece of gelled hair broke loose and curved in an arc over his forehead. Pained wheezing grated through the air as his body slumped in the goons’ arms.
Frank closed the distance and put his face right up against the gambler’s. He lowered his voice and whispered. “Look man, it doesn’t have to be this way. You come work with us and you get whatever the fuck you want. You’ll be like Aladdin, with your own personal genie. You telling me you don’t want that?”
Tak lifted his disheveled face and smiled. “No thanks, fuckface. I grant my own wishes.”
“Boss.” One of the thugs holding Tak said in a warning tone of voice. Dark smoke shot off Shin’s upper sleeves. Frank stared in disbelief, his lips parting.
“What in the…”
The thugs holding on to Tak let go, crying out in pain. They stared dumbly at their reddened hands, palms and fingers turned up to expose fresh patches of second-degree burns coated in blisters.
Tak’s sleeves burst into flames. The goons were disoriented, not sure what they were seeing, but it wouldn’t last. These guys knew how to shut off extraneous input and get the job done. Move, Tak.
His leg swept back like a soccer player’s, then swooped forward as his waist bucked hard, sending a full force kick arcing out to smash against the sensitive underpart of Frank’s right knee. The impact knocked Frank’s leg back and caused him to lose his balance, both feet sweeping violently out from below him. His fall was broken by the same piece of inflamed knee tissue he’d just been punted in, doubling the pain. He let out a rough, “AHHH!” and squinched his eyes shut, grabbing at the joint. Tak grinned. Osgood schlatter is not your friend.
One of the goons made a grab for Tak and he slipped the attempt. Simultaneously, his left fist uppercutted the man’s liver, causing the man to yell out while he grabbed at his side and collapsed to the floor. That’s a rupture. Tak thought.
Quick thrust kick to another one’s chest, sending him sprawling backwards on to his butt and buying Tak the second or two it would take for the man to get to his feet. The move opened the gambler’s body up and thug #4 took advantage, stepping in and scoring a hard cross into Shin’s jaw. His head whipped back and went light for a split-second. From the corner of his eye, he saw the other hand coming in for a hook. Typical follow up. Twitching forward off his back leg, Tak hammered both fists into the attacking arm’s bicep and shoulder, disrupting its momentum and stopping his assailant’s rhythm.
Tak curled his body tighter and rotated the other way, generating as much power as he could. He used the motion to arc his left forearm into a diagonally sweeping downward strike onto the man’s carotid artery. His attacker’s eyes closed, his body going unconscious and limp.
The guy who’d been kicked got up and ran at the gambler. Tak wrapped the man’s arm and guided his head into a wall, tracing a small circle with his rear leg. An Aikido-style move that ended with the guy’s head slamming into concrete, knocking him out cold.
Three men down in a matter of seconds. Tak whipped off his flaming jacket. The sleeves on his white dress shirt were blackened and crisped, prevented from lighting due to the jacket’s smothering effect.
As Tak was dispatching the three Frank had stood up, heavily favoring his uninjured leg, face screwed up in pain. He held a taser out at the gambler. Tak saw it and raised both hands, squaring up to face him.
The thug spoke through a clenched jaw. “You fuck. If the boss didn’t want you so bad I’d carve you into bits. The full goddamn Thanksgiving turkey deal. How’d you do that…trick?” He jerked his head toward the jacket, burning despondently on the floor.
Shin smiled. “Anybody can do it.”
“Bullshit. What do you have, some kind of customized igniter or something? Why would you even have something so fucking stupid?”
“Abracadabra, Frank. You know what they say about magicians and their tricks.”
“You’re supposed to be some kind of genius detective, right? Can you guess what’s going to happen next?” Frank took two choppy, limping steps forward, the taser zeroed on Tak’s chest.
“Umm…I prefer the term ‘personal investigator’”
“What-the-fuck-ever. Investigate 50,000 volts, you piece of shit.”
A fraction of a second before the galvanized probes jumped at him, Tak dropped into a deep, ass-to-calf squat on his right leg, simultaneously shooting the sole of his left foot out in a side kick that crunched sickeningly into Frank’s uninjured left knee. The knee bent backwards from the hit, ACL completely torn.
Metal darts passed harmlessly over Tak’s head, clattering against the concrete wall while Frank collapsed, screaming in agony. The leg that had gotten kicked looked like the knee joint was bending in the exact opposite direction it should have been. The entire limb was shaking from shock and pain.
Through ground-together teeth Frank hissed, “You fucking…You’re fuckin’ dead. You think you’ll get another chance? You know what kind of message this sends?”
Tak ripped his under shirt off and threw it to the side. He was quickly and urgently stripping an unburned jacket and shirt from one of the unconscious men. He glanced over at Frank.
“Exactly the one I want. Tell the Vitruvian to eat the smegma off an unwashed dick.”
Frank let out a pained laugh. “Funny.” He exhaled hard a couple times, trying to regulate his pain. “I don’t get you man. I thought you said you didn’t know martial arts. Who taught you-”
Tak finished shrugging on a fresh blazer. He started hastily buttoning up his new dress shirt. “I said I didn’t know karate. The move’s from Man Without Fear issue #2. Miller and Romita. Matt Murdock uses that same knee kick on Slade.”
“The fuck’re you-”
“It’s a comic book. Ever hear of Daredevil?”
Frank closed his eyes and laughed for real this time. Disbelievingly. “You’re telling me you learned how to fight…from a comic book?”
“Just that move. You know what they say-”
Frank kept his eyes closed. “Would you just tell me? You don’t need to say ‘you know what they say…’ all the time. Stupid fuck. What-what do they say?”
Tak finished stuffing his shirt into his pants. He paused and grinned at Frank.
“They say that life imitates art.”