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.
“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…”