Water sprays in all directions as CB misses a step, stumbling into an ankle-deep puddle. He fights back the urge to swear and steadies his pace as he races down the alley. He sees a flash of green—BDU pants—as Bruiser disappears around the corner of a building at the far end.
CB ignores the water seeping into his left sock and runs. He’s fast, but Bruiser has a head start. He reaches the corner and emerges from the alley into an abandoned street. It looks like it was evacuated during a hurricane, and nobody ever bothered to come back—storefront windows are boarded, doors are barricaded—but the boards are warped and cracked, and some are falling away. The road looks like a shattered window, spidery web-like fractures running through the asphalt, making it look more like a series of shattered windows laid out on the ground.
No sign of Bruiser.
CB slows, then stops, listening intently. He reaches into his trench coat pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and fishes for one of his last three. He stops, ignoring the chase for a moment, and lights up, glad to smell something other than wet, moldy city. For a moment everything is silent.
There. Off in the distance. Splashing footsteps. He thinks a moment, trying to match the direction of the sound with his knowledge of the city. A moment later he realizes what Bruiser did, and where he’s probably going to be in the next twenty seconds.
CB runs down the cracked sidewalk, stride lengthening with each step, cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. He reaches down to his waist and with a smooth motion he unloops a worn leather belt from his jeans. Still running, he wraps one end around his right hand, letting the heavy metal buckle trail behind him.
Two buildings down is an abandoned store with a large sign hanging over the barricaded front door. The wood in the sign is mostly rotted away, but it has a metal frame, and hangs from a thick, rusted metal chain on each end. CB runs, jumps, and with a snap the belt arcs over the frame, threads itself through the chain, and CB’s left hand closes around the buckle just as his momentum causes the belt to snap tight. The entire sign jerks to one side, the chains rattle, rusted bolts groan but don’t give. CB’s arms burn from the force, but he keeps his grip and pulls, flipping up and over the sign, into the rotted wood covering a second story window. The boards crumble away as he smashes into them. He releases the buckle as he arcs through the window, belt trailing behind him, and lands into a roll on the soft, sagging wood floor.
It’s a small room; it might have been an upstairs office once. The door is open to the hall, and on the other side is a window covered with a single sheet of particle board.
CB gets to his feet and runs. At the last moment he jumps; his feet hit the board first. Nails pop, and it falls outward like a drawbridge opening. The board falls to the ground. So does CB.
He lands harder than he wants—the ground is concrete, covered in a layer of wet, foul-smelling mud. He falls into a roll, managing to shake the worst of it, but it hurts, and now he’s filthy. His cigarette, which managed to survive to this point, falls out of his mouth and disappears into the mud. CB growls in frustration and climbs to his feet.
He stands in a service road. Immediately to his left is a narrow alley that winds off in the direction he wants. He sets off, feet sliding over the slick road until he reaches the alley, where the ground is drier. By the time he reaches the privacy fence he’s at a full sprint: he jumps, vaults over the top, and hurtles into a busy street. Farraday City is like that, sometimes—one street completely abandoned, the next street over full of people.
Pedestrians scatter out of his way as he lands in a crouch at the sidewalk. Cars swerve at his sudden appearance. Car horns honk frantically as other cars swerve in turn. Today there are no accidents, only near misses. CB takes a moment to orient himself, then sprints down the sidewalk. As soon as he runs off, people go back to their business. It’s Farraday City. This kind of thing isn’t unusual.
As he nears the end of the block he sees a young, muscular man wearing a white tank top and green BDU on the intersecting sidewalk. It’s Bruiser—not running now, not even really paying attention to his surroundings because he thinks he’s safe. CB gauges the distance between himself and the corner, between Bruiser and the corner, and focuses on a streetlight set right at the point where both sidewalks meet.
Bruiser looks up just in time to see CB leap toward the streetlight, leather belt looping around the pole, then snapping taut as CB whips around the pole and smashes feet-first into his chest. Bruiser launches back, a full four feet into the air, before he tumbles onto the concrete walk. After that, all he can do is gasp and writhe in agony.
CB stands over him. “Think you cracked a rib, Bruiser.” He leans over and hauls Bruiser to his feet, ignoring his cries of pain. “We need to talk. Asshole.”
CB half-carries, half-drags Bruiser back to the service road. He isn’t followed: the locals have decided that what’s going on is none of their business. He binds Bruiser’s arms behind his back with the leather belt and forces him to sit up against the crumbling brick foundation of one of the old stores. Bruiser isn’t going anywhere. His shoulders sag in defeat.
CB fishes a cigarette out of his pocket. “For the record, ‘Bruiser’ is a really stupid name.”
Bruiser glares at him, but it’s all show.
“I mean, if you were over six feet, weighed in at maybe two fifty, it might work. But you’re not. People hear the name ‘Bruiser’ they expect a linebacker. You’re not a linebacker. You look more like a basketball player. Not out of shape, just the wrong shape. Your handle needs to fit you, or people are just… going to laugh.”
Bruiser struggles not to rise to the bait.
“I bet you get laughed at all the time.”
The young man’s eyes flash. “Fuck you, man.”
“Oh, so he can talk.” CB nods, satisfied, then lights his cigarette. “I wasted a perfectly good cigarette trying to track you down. Right over there.” CB gestures to a muddy spot on the other side of the street. “And there’s only one left after this. For the record: my patience will probably last as long as it takes me to smoke both cigarettes.”
“I got nothing to say,” Bruiser looks down at the muddy ground, face sullen.
CB shrugs. “Suits me. ‘Course, if you haven’t started talking by the time I finish my second cigarette, I’m going to drag your ass down to the boardwalk and leave you there. I’m sure somebody will find a use for you.”
Bruiser stares at him in disbelief. “You’re full of shit.”
CB shrugs again. “Guess we’ll find out in…” he scrutinizes the burning cigarette. “One and three quarters of a cigarette from now.”
“They’d kill me!”
CB nods. “Probably. It’s one of the things they like to do.”
Bruiser’s eyes narrow. “You’re full of shit. I know who you are. I know who you run with. You’re one of the heroes, man, you wouldn’t leave me on the Boardwalk like that.”
“Know what I was before I became one of the heroes, Bruiser?” CB flicks his cigarette absently. The ash disappears into the muddy street. “I was a bona-fide, Grade A, big-league villain. FBI had a file on me. Hero groups tried to take me down. You know why I stopped being a villain?”
Bruiser struggles against the leather strap binding his arms, but he feels shooting pain in his sides every time he tries to get free.
“One guy,” CB says. “One guy talked me down. Seriously, like out of a goddamned movie—he gave a little speech about ‘choices’ and ‘possibilities’ and he turned me away from a life of crime. That guy was Liberty. If you were wondering.”
CB blows out a stream of smoke in Bruiser’s direction. It dissipates long before it reaches his face, but he coughs reflexively. Coughing hurts as much as struggling.
“He was my conscience for a long time,” CB continues. “Any time I’d find myself in a thorny moral dilemma I’d ask myself ‘what would Liberty say?’ And then I’d do whatever I decided he’d say. The thing is, I got into thorny moral dilemmas a lot. Still do, apparently. I seem to be in one now. Think about it—right now I’m contemplating abandoning a wounded, bound man in the middle of the Farraday City Boardwalk, which would surely end in the wounded, bound man dying in some horrible and potentially undignified manner.”
“Come on—” Bruiser doesn’t get a chance to finish. CB cuts him off.
“So I’m asking myself ‘well, what would Liberty say?’ It’s the question I always ask myself in situations like this. Do you know what the answer is?”
Bruiser tries to scoot a little to one side, edging away from CB, but his legs can’t get purchase in the mud.
CB takes a step forward, looming over him. “Hey. Bruiser. I asked you a question. And we’re down to one and a half cigarettes.”
Bruiser looks up at CB and flinches. “Liberty… he would say… ‘don’t do it.’”
CB crouches down in front of Bruiser, so that their heads are almost level. His expression is soft. His voice is soft. “That’s just it, Bruiser. He wouldn’t. He can’t. He’s dead.”
Bruiser shrinks back. He’s seen that expression before. He knows exactly what it means.
“You know who killed him, right?” The words come out almost jovial, as if CB were about to tell Bruiser a secret joke. “Johann Richter. I know you know who he is. You’re working for him.”
“I never saw him!” Bruiser protests.
“Of course you never saw him,” CB snaps. “Richter isn’t an idiot. But you’re smart enough to have figured it out—though you’re not much smarter. Bragging to your girlfriend about it? Dumb.”
Bruiser shakes his head in confusion. “How do you know Gabby?”
“Funny nickname,” CB says. “Appropriate, too. I don’t know your girlfriend, moron. I know gossip. I heard from a guy who heard from his girlfriend about a girl who goes clubbing with yours, and about how she couldn’t stop talking about the new crew you were running with.”
“Goddamn it!” Bruiser shouts. “When I find her I’m gonna—”
“If you ever see her again,” CB says, “you will be so happy to be alive that you’ll let it pass.”
Bruiser falls silent.
CB stands again, stretches, takes a step back. “You don’t work directly for the people I’m looking for, so I don’t really care about you, or your girlfriend. Or pretty much anything that has to do with your life. Not today, at any rate. You tell me who your contacts are. You tell me everything you know about their operation. In return I’ll loosen that belt a little and be on my way. Not a bad offer compared to what I’m willing to do if you keep standing in my way.”
Bruiser looks up at CB and shudders. “If I say anything and they find out…”
CB shrugs. “Not my problem. That said, I don’t plan to tell them we talked.”
CB looks at his cigarette, now burned down almost to the filter, and throws it out into the street. He reaches into a trench coat pocket and pulls out a rumpled pack. He holds it up in front of Bruiser.
“Last cigarette, Bruiser,” CB says.
Bruiser starts talking.