Braldt Chelsea threw back another shot of whiskey and tapped the glass on the counter. The bartender nodded and refilled the glass as she continued her conversation with another customer without missing a beat. Braldt turned in his seat to stare at the others in the pub who either drank alone, conversed with others, played darts or billiards, or hovered near the jukebox that blared rock music. He downed his drink and whirled back around in his seat to hold his head in one hand while the other draped the counter.
"Hey, tender," slurred Braldt. "Last one, I promise!"
"Stand for me and do a jig," she said wryly as she threw her towel over her shoulder. "Otherwise, you're done for the night."
"You're pretty." The tender chuckled.
"And you're drunk." She took his glass away and stuck it in a dirty dish bin. "Care if I call a cabbie?"
"No, no, I'll walk."
"Let me hold on to your wallet here so you won't get robbed."
"How nice of you!" Braldt pushed away from the bar and stood unsteadily to his feet, searching his pockets. He jumped slightly when the music suddenly changed to electronica and the tender looked over Braldt to glare at the table on the end behind the jukebox.
"Cut that out, Sloan!" she shouted. "Not tonight!"
"I'm just tryin' to conduct some business back here," Sloan barked. "Gimmie a break, will ya?"
"I'll break your legs!" Sloan hooted at her and the bartender shook her fist in his direction.
"Everything's already broke, babe." Braldt found the exchange hilarious and started laughing. "Now hold on…" Braldt swallowed hard as the table near the jukebox suddenly crashed over and a tall pale athletic man with shaggy platinum blond hair wearing an oversized dark navy denim jacket, tight stonewashed jeans and black riding boots stomped up to him. Braldt felt intimidated when he saw only his reflection in the mirrored sunglasses. Sloan stomped on the barstool Braldt fell back in, his boot striking the edge between Braldt's knees as he leaned in, grabbing Braldt by the collar. "What's so funny?"
"You are, man," Braldt said, grinning.
"Do you know who I am?"
"She said your name's Sloan." Braldt chuckled. "Sloan sounds funny. I like saying it."
"Stop saying my name!" Sloan snapped. Braldt felt a hand on his side and quickly grabbed for the wrist.
"Are you feeling me up?" Braldt asked as he pulled Sloan forward. "I usually don't care for that sort of thing, but at this point, I won't say no."
"I need money," Sloan said, flashing a mischievous grin as he held the wallet aside. The bartender reached over and took the worn black leather holder.
"I'll hold onto that," she said. "Now get your money the old-fashioned way: by actually doing your job and not rolling a drunk!" Sloan let Braldt go and Braldt released his hold on his wrist.
"Besides, even if I was interested," Sloan grumbled, "I can't play with ya, dig?" Braldt slipped forward and Sloan staggered back as he quickly grabbed Braldt under the arms to hold him up. "Shit, you need to fuckin' stop!" Braldt grabbed Sloan by the hand and set his free hand at the small of Sloan's back to pull him close, leaning into him. Sloan gasped, too stunned to strike back.
"Is that a gun in your pants, or are you happy to see me?" Braldt said, grinning.
"Look at my face," Sloan snapped. "Does it look like I'm smiling, you drunk fuck?"
"Let's dance!" Braldt said brightly.
"Damn it!" Sloan cried when swung around in earnest.
"After you get done with your job," called the bartender, "will you take him home?"
"Only cos I got a soft spot for ya," Sloan snapped and shoved Braldt back after a spin. Braldt stumbled over his feet and slumped back into a chair. "Sit there," commanded Sloan, pushing his fist into Braldt's chest. "Stay. Good boy." Returning to his place near the rear of the pub, he spoke in muted tones to someone behind the jukebox out of Braldt's line of sight. After an envelope was passed back, Sloan nodded and pocketed it inside his jacket. "Get 'em up, Dancing Carl," Sloan said upon passing. Braldt staggered to his feet and stumbled after him.
"Don't forget this," the bartender called and tossed Sloan the wallet. "Ring me when he's safe." Sloan caught it and waved a hand over his head as he stomped outside.
Sloan reached in his inside jacket pocket, withdrawing a cigarette case and lighter. Taking out a cigarette, he leaned back as Braldt stumbled around him.
"Hey, hey," Braldt slurred, "gimmie one."
"Hell naw, man," Sloan snapped. "You'll light your stupid ass on fire." He flicked the lighter and lit his cigarette as Braldt stumbled down the sidewalk, humming and giggling.
"I'm not fuming that bad!"
"Hey, where is it you live?" Sloan asked as he caught up to Braldt and matched his stride.
"No place," Braldt mumbled.
"At least give me an idea where the hell you at so I can drop you off somewhere." Sloan kicked at a nearby rock, sending it sailing several feet as he clutched his cigarette. "Babysittin's not my thing, dig it?"
"Lady took my car," Braldt spat. "She sold everything I had and what didn't sell, she torched."
"Shit man, that's what you get dealing with crazy girls like that."
"Well, maybe I should start dealing with guys, eh?" Sloan's cigarette dropped out of his mouth as he came to a dead stop.
"Hey man, I don't care one way or the other, but I can't give it to ya." Ducking into an alley, Braldt unzipped his jeans and urinated against the wall. "Look at this mug, really look in good light-- it's a real freak show." Sloan leaned against the wall on the other side and Braldt leaned back to glance at him.
"You seem a'ight," he murmured. Sloan smirked as he lit another cigarette.
"It's 'cause you're drunk off your ass and it's dark as hell out here!"
"Why wear your sunglasses at night?"
"It's 'cause I wanna." Sloan pocketed his cigarette case and lighter. "You done?"
"Hurry it up and pack it in; I got shit I need to do." Braldt held a hand against the wall as he suddenly became warm and cold sweat broke out over his forehead and neck. He vomited painfully onto the cobblestones, and Sloan grunted. "You ain't gonna pass out, are ya?"
"Nah, I'm fine," Braldt moaned and spat on the ground, then zipped up his pants. "This way." Sloan blew a short sigh and followed Braldt down the alley.
"So, what is it you do?" Braldt asked as he walked alongside Sloan, who kept his hands in his jacket pockets and his shoulders hunched forward. He had chattered about everything to him, and Sloan appeared ready to knock him out at any minute for talking so much, but he never made the gesture. He also made no acknowledgement about anything Braldt said regarding being in the armed forces or his family who owned a metalworking factory or the crazy parties Braldt always found himself in by sheer accident because of his looks. The cool night blew a chilled breeze through them and Sloan turned up his collar.
"Shut up and keep movin'," Sloan grumbled after they turned down another dark alley.
"You know, I'm happy I've run into you," Braldt said. "Today I figured was going to suck hard. I just got kicked out the Corps and my lady left me since I didn't return a war hero."
"So you sat drinking your life away, huh?"
"Oh, I was going to shoot myself later tonight. There's no point in living."
"Lady put you out?"
"Oh yeah, and torched everything I had too."
"Right, you mentioned that."
Braldt grabbed Sloan by the arm and pointed ahead to the rundown motel in the distance at the end of the alley. "That's all I have left, in room sixty."
"And to think I was gonna drop you here to dry out and steal your cash." Sloan shrugged his shoulders. "Okay, you're here and I did my good deed for the night."
"Come in for drinks?" Braldt begged. "I don't want you to go just yet." Sloan looked skyward and Braldt walked ahead. "I've all sorts of stuff…"
"Why were you at the bar drinking then?"
"I ran out of whiskey."
"Sounds good." Sloan followed Braldt to the motel.
Sloan leaned back in his chair and reached into his inside jacket pocket, withdrawing his cigarette case and lighter. He lit his cigarette as Braldt poured a serving of gin and passed a shooter to him.
"I did my best for this country," Braldt complained as he sat on the edge of the bed, holding the bottle of gin in hand. "I kept telling them I didn't kill my comrades. Only because I had no other records, they let me go instead of throwing me under the jail."
"How'd they die?"
"I don't know… that's the thing. I can't remember!" Sloan shrugged.
"Hey, war does that to ya," he muttered. "Got you as a machine where you just kill and don't think no more."
"I don't like to kill."
"Then why join the Corps?"
"I wanted to die."
"You got some kinda death wish or something?" Sloan threw back his shot. "Look, you're home safe and if you're trying to get in my pants, forget it. I can't do it." Braldt flushed darkly and waved him away.
"Let me die in peace then," he murmured and downed the remaining of the gin. Tossing the empty bottle aside on the bed, Sloan frowned as Braldt left his side and headed over to the nightstand on the other side of the bed, withdrawing a high-powered pistol.
"Uh, hey," said Sloan as Braldt withdrew a magazine and loaded the gun then pulled back the safety.
"Walk with me, will ya?" Sloan offered.
"Lemme think about your offer some more while you're still drunk." Braldt chuckled.
"If you wait too long, I might sober up on you." Sloan withdrew the envelope he had in his jacket and tossed it on the table.
"I got enough cash in here to buy several cases of all kinds off the harbor!" He rose to his feet. "Let's go."
"Like I said, I won't say no…" Braldt set the gun aside and walked with Sloan for the door.
Exiting onto a parking lot, Braldt put out an arm to hold Sloan back as he looked up and around and Sloan stiffened when he sensed a freezing sensation in his guts.
"Something's not right," Braldt murmured.
"Yeah, I know," grumbled Sloan as he reached for his side holster.
"Oh, my favorite nightmare investigator returns," a voice called brightly. "And you've a bodyguard this time too! How nice!"
"Hey, who's callin' for me?" Sloan shouted. "Get your ass out here or I'm smokin' ya out!" They heard boot falls clicking behind them and Sloan whirled around to face a tall man in all white: tight jeans, form-fitting T-shirt, snakeskin boots and a fedora cocked on the side of his long crimson hair exiting the alley. He wore two holsters and a belt of bullets slung low over his hips.
"I'm here, Mister Sloan," the young man said gaily. "Now let's talk."
"You gotta be off your chain, man," spat Sloan and grunted when Braldt leaned against him for support. "Who the hell you think you are, some kinda rhinestone cowboy?"
"Heh, cute." The young man stroked his chin. "I totally dig that." He nodded to Sloan. "Now, check this I'm looking for a few good men to join my team. You got mad skills."
"You can't afford me, Cowboy."
"Then how about this: I beat you up and you work for me."
"What if I win?"
"Who said you were?"
"Ballsy fucker, aren't ya?" The young man hooked a hand to his waistband, grinning deviously.
"First, you're gonna fight my buddies here. I'd hate to dirty my fresh gear."
"Don't worry," Braldt said as three men in dark suits entered the lot, "I'll help."
"I can handle it," Sloan grumbled back, "just get the hell outta here."
"No guns, now," the young man called. "Blood's hard to clean out of white!" Braldt nudged Sloan and pointed away with his chin in the direction of five more men in suits coming out of the darkness to surround them both.
"Who we fighting, Boss?" one of the suits asked.
"The one in glasses is the one I want. I don't care for the other one." The young man clapped his hands. "You've ten minutes. Get to it!"
"Shit!" Sloan charged for one thug and Braldt staggered back, leaning out of several furious punches from an approaching fighter. He threw a right hook into his aggressor and gave a backhanded punch to another who jumped on him from behind. Flipping the thug over and onto the ground, Braldt kicked the third back by the stomach and ran over to Sloan who threw wild punches into the men who kept coming after him, ducking out of swinging fists. Smashing an elbow into one and throwing the downed fighter into another, sending them reeling, Braldt cried out when tackled from the rear and slammed to the ground. He groaned when his face struck pavement and his opponent got up to rush over to help his comrades who continued fighting Sloan. Sloan staggered around, taking many hits, but he continued to swing. Jumping back out of kicks and turning out of potential grabs, Sloan slugged the few opponents left until they all struck the ground unable to move. "Holy fuck," Sloan griped and spat on the ground. "What the hell?" He immediately collapsed.
"What a wonderful show!" crowed the young man in white as he approached Sloan's downed body on the ground, heaving for breath. The young man withdrew a pistol and pointed it down at Sloan. "What a wasted talent on your part. If you weren't so--" Braldt struggled to his feet and lurched forward, making a grab. The young man slammed the pistol across Braldt's face, corkscrewing him to the ground, wheezing. He looked up at the young man who stood over him, grinning widely. "You fall down and get up again," he said gaily. He pointed his pistol down at Braldt and Braldt grabbed the muzzle. "What are you to keep coming after me like that?"
"He was walking me home," Braldt snapped. "I don't like it that you just attacked us."
"Guts, I like that." The young man pulled the trigger and the gun clicked. Braldt pushed him away and gagged as the dry heaves overtook him. The young man laughed aloud. "Wonderful show, gents!" he crowed and sheathed his pistol. "I loved it!" He clapped his hands. "Lovely show of aggression and restraint!"
"You did this for entertainment?" Braldt growled.
"No, my friend, I did it with other intentions." The young man perched on his haunches across from Braldt. "You're coming with me."
"What for?" Braldt groaned as he sat up.
"I need someone not afraid to catch bullets. You're perfect!"
"I thought you wanted Sloan…"
"He'll do for another day. You my new friend are going to be fun, fun, fun!" The young man rose to his feet as headlights suddenly switched on from the other side of the lot. "All right boys, pack it up!" An engine roared to life and a sleek black sports car barreled up to the young man in white, stopping inches from his knees. Two heavily armed men exited and he got into the car as they approached Braldt to yank him up by the arms.
"Wait!" Braldt cried as the two guards dragged him over to the car and the trunk popped open. He let out a stunned cry when thrown in and the trunk slammed shut over his head.
Braldt moaned as a harsh light shined in his eyes and fierce pain suddenly hit him at once everywhere, with the worst in his head. He let out a cry as cold water splashed over him and he sat up with a start, coughing and sputtering.
"Good morning!" a familiar voice said brightly. Braldt looked up to find himself in a small room with walls crafted of stone and concrete floor. He felt chilled and looked down, realizing his clothes were missing. A large flood lamp shined in his face and he squinted at the young man who stood before him, empty bucket in hand. "It's time for your examination!"
"What?" Braldt ran a hand over his wet face, trying to recall where he was. "Where are my clothes? Who are you…?"
"No time, let's go." Braldt cried out when two large guards grabbed him and dragged him over to a stainless steel table with leather restraints. He sagged back when punched hard in the face and grunted when slammed onto the cold table and his arms and legs strapped down onto the table. A short elderly man in white lab coat over a slate gray suit entered with a chart in hand.
"What would you like with this one?" the doctor asked.
"Just examine him," answered the young man.
"That's too bad," the doctor murmured. "I was hoping for a new specimen to test that drug on…"
"Don't worry; I'll get you one soon."
"Hey, tell me your name," Braldt said.
"Is he particularly nasty?" asked the doctor, completely ignoring Braldt.
"He seems nice," the young man said. "Well, he didn't resist when I checked him over last night." Braldt's face flushed dark red when the doctor wrote notes in his chart.
"Nurse, bring me my tools," the doctor ordered and set the chart aside on the cart.
"What are you examining for?" Braldt demanded as an athletic young man with short dark hair and pale green eyes wearing a white scrub shirt, slacks and walking shoes entered the room moments later with a cart full of instruments. He handed the doctor a pair of gloves.
"Gag him," the doctor ordered as pulled into his gloves with a snap.
"Hey!" Braldt cried out and thrashed as the young man silently withdrew a ball gag from the cart and grabbed Braldt by the face to restrain him. He jammed an elbow into Braldt's chest, forcing the air from his lungs as he strapped it in place. The young man walked around the table, smiling warmly as Braldt screamed and jerked when the doctor cut into his skin with a scalpel for tissue samples and extracted teeth and fingernails while his assistant performed his duties silently without much prompting. After getting his fingerprints burned away with acid, several vials of blood drawn and having his reflexes checked followed by a rough physical, Braldt wheezed for breath when the flood lamps turned off and everyone left the room, leaving him alone in the dark.
After what felt to be some time, the door opened, flooding light into the room, and the mysterious young man entered with the light at his back. He seemed to blend into the shadows, wearing all black, from his boots to his fedora. The young man sauntered over to the table, standing over Braldt and holding one hand behind his back. Braldt felt cold sweat break out on his forehead and he craned his neck to see what the young man held. The young man grabbed him by the face and slammed him back onto the table. Braldt groaned as the young man leaned in toward his ear.
"So, are you going to comply?" he asked sweetly. Braldt's breath quickened as the young man tightened his grip on his face. "I like you and want to keep you. I might have to beat you into submission, however." He pulled at the ball gag and ripped it free, forcing Braldt to cry out.
"Tell me your name!" he shouted.
"Not until you submit to me!" Braldt glared at the young man in return and the young man grinned at Braldt, stroking his cheek. Braldt grunted and jerked his head away.
"I'd rather die!"
"I'll take you to the edge of death then I'll bring you back again, my pet!" The young man stepped back and slammed a heavy whip into Braldt, cracking the smooth leather over his skin. Braldt screamed as the strip sliced his chest, the wound burning in contact with the air. The young man laughed as he whipped Braldt until Braldt passed out from the pain, only to wake up sputtering as a bucket of cold water splashed over him. Braldt screamed harder when the whip lashed into his wet skin. Soon the young man grew tired and sagged against the wall, heaving for breath. Braldt gasped for ragged breath, wheezing as he struggled to breathe.
"Are you done?" he hissed.
"Why are you so intent on dying?"
"You must not mean it, because I'm not dead yet!"
"Oh, it's only because I'm playing with you." The young man dropped the whip and undid Braldt's straps. "There, you're free to go."
"Just like that?" Braldt asked warily as he sat up.
"Just like that." Braldt stepped off the table and staggered forward. He grunted as he gripped his aching side and shuffled for the entrance. His hand met the doorjamb and he yelped when the whip came around his throat and quickly grabbed for the leather that wound tighter. "You think I'd be that stupid to let you go?" the young man screamed in his ear as he tightened his grip. Braldt struggled to throw off his opponent, only to have his knees grow weak and his vision become spotty when his breath thinned. He reached for the light at the end of the door when he saw a figure approaching. Abruptly, everything turned dark.
"Are you awake?" a voice called from afar. Braldt's eyes snapped open and he groaned when he faced a pair of feet in green snakeskin boots in a dimly lit room with titanium walls and floors. He looked down to find he hung upside down and the mysterious young man stood over him wearing a green suit. He held an electric baton that he tapped against his palm. "Now if you get turned on by this, I might change your job from Bullet Catcher to Sex Slave." He grinned. "So, which is it?" Braldt shut his eyes and clenched his teeth.
"Either way, I'm screwed," he thought.
"Answer!" the young man thundered. Braldt screamed when a harsh volt of electricity coursed through his body and his back bowed from the shock.
"I submit!" he wailed.
"Good," the young man said firmly. "Men, cut him down and clean him up. Bring him to me." Braldt grunted when taken down and shackled by his wrists, ankles and throat. He gave no resistance when led down a dark corridor before entering a warm hallway with lush carpet and pale wallpaper. Braldt and the guards entered a new room and a lady servant wearing a blue-gray skirt and blouse carrying a dark brown silk bathrobe approached Braldt.
"This way, Sir," she said politely and Braldt numbly followed her into a large marble-tiled bathroom with a walk-in shower. Braldt felt tense when the lady servant sat in a chair across from the shower while he washed. After toweling off and throwing on the robe over his shoulders, the lady servant led Braldt into a bedroom where a manservant stood near the bed that had several exotic colored suits and dress shirts laid out. The nearby open walk-in closet displayed numerous equally brightly colored hats and shoes.
"Sir has plenty of watches and bracelets here as well," said the manservant and unlocked Braldt's bracers.
"The suit's fine," Braldt replied, rubbing at his wrists. "Have any underwear?"
"Sir goes without."
Braldt's face flushed darkly. "If I'm to play this game, I want underwear!" The lady servant reached into her blouse and withdrew a small revolver from her brassiere to point at Braldt.
"Sir goes without," she said evenly. Braldt tensed when the lady servant pulled back the hammer. Braldt nodded and dressed somberly in an electric blue suit with a pale blue dress shirt. After donning silver cufflinks and bright blue boots, he shook his head when offered a silk tie. Braldt heard a knock at the door and whirled around as it opened, revealing the mysterious young man.
"Brother, how are you?" he cried gaily. Braldt stiffened when hugged tightly. "I haven't seen you in ages!"
"What?" Braldt yelped, stunned.
"Come meet Mother and Father! They've missed you dearly!" Braldt clenched his teeth when taken by the hand and dragged down the corridor. "Mother Anya!" the young man called as they entered a large study with many book-filled shelves on the walls. A middle-aged woman with silver hair pinned up into a bun, wearing a wine-red double-breasted suit and matching painted nails sat at a desk surrounded by papers. "Mother, I've found Paul for Miss Marta," he said.
"Good," Anya replied. "Maybe the girl will stay."
"Erm, who is Marta and why am I here?" Braldt asked.
"Don't you remember, Paul?" the young man replied. "Marta's your sister and Anya's your mother. Your father Tabor is very busy but he cares about his son very much."
"And who are you?"
"I'm your cousin Reginald and we're quite close." Braldt winced when Reginald squeezed his hand.
"However you got into that horrible accident is beyond me," Anya murmured. "Hopefully your memory returns and you can help with the family business."
"I'd rather die than stay here," Braldt snapped and yanked his hand out of Reginald's grip. "Will somebody just kill me already and stop torturing me?" Reginald gave a backhanded slap that threw Braldt to the floor.
"That's no way to talk!" he shouted. "I looked all over for you and you just want to end your life?" Braldt winced when kicked in the side. "What would your dear sister think?"
"Yes, what would Dear Sister think?" Braldt looked up from his place on the floor and saw a young woman with straight long brown hair that met her shoulders and pale violet eyes behind frameless glasses. She wore a form-fitting dark pink dress and black flat shoes. Braldt felt the dark flush on his face spread to his ears. Reginald stood over him, his face coming into view.
"You're so intent on dying because you think your life is so bad, eh?" Reginald grinned. "Stick with us and start a new life. You don't have to give it all away, not with the talent and skills you have."
"If I'm going to be your bullet catcher, you might want to reconsider." Braldt grinned darkly. "I might fall on a bullet by accident."
"Oh, no," Reginald said, chuckling. "You won't fall by accident. I'll make sure of it." Braldt felt uneasy as Reginald walked away, laughing. Braldt sat up, dumbfounded and took in a shallow breath when Marta dropped to her knees and hugged him tightly.
"Oh, Paul, I'm glad you're back!" she squealed. "I'm so happy to see you! Please don't leave again!" Braldt felt chilled when he glanced back at Anya who wrote in a book, ignoring them completely.
"They just accept all this and no one questions anything!" he thought. "I don't have my wallet on me and I don't know where I am, so how can I call someone to find me, and let someone know who I am if I do get seriously hurt?"
"Let's go Paul," Marta said brightly. "I want to show you your room!" She scrambled to her feet and Braldt stood, watching her with general discomfort as she skipped out of the room in bright spirits. He followed her reluctantly.
Finding a room sparsely decorated, with a brass bed and wall shelves full of books and a nightstand with a lamp and rotary telephone, Braldt quickly approached and picked up the receiver to dial the number to the pub. After two short rings, Braldt felt his blood freeze in his veins when he heard Reginald on the line.
"Bad boy, that's the wrong thing to do," Reginald chastised. "The phones here only accept incoming calls. There are no outgoing calls."
"I have to leave here sometime," Braldt snapped.
"You will, when you take your medicine."
"You have headaches, Paul," Marta interjected. Braldt turned and seethed when pierced in the chest with a syringe. "These headaches make you forget who you are and make you wander off and leave me!" As the contents of the syringe drained into his body, Braldt's world became hazy and he dropped the phone. "So Cousin Reginald asked me to give you the medicine so you won't forget ever again!"
"I've died and gone to Hell," Braldt moaned and slipped to his knees, disturbed by Reginald's tinny laughter from the receiver swinging off the edge of the nightstand.
"Is it nice?" Marta asked gently. Braldt groaned and fell over onto his side as the fuzziness in his mind intensified. He felt her soft warm hand run tenderly through his hair and everything grew dark.