Troubleshooter: Scorched Earth Policy, Part 1

(Just a reprint, for those who forgot it.)

1 – Thugs

Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before. -Steven Wright

Nothing suggested you’d made horrible choices in your life like waking up in the trunk of the car.

Z tasted blood in her mouth and her head throbbed like a stubbed toe, and her wrists and ankles ached from where the ties were cutting into her skin. It was stuffy in the trunk, smelled like tires even though they had to take them out to make room for her. She hated that smell; it gave her a headache and a bad taste in the back of her throat. She listened carefully for what seemed like an eternity, but was really just about ten minutes. She didn’t hear anyone, and she guessed they’d left her for now. Stupid mistake. Did they really think, simply because she was bound and unconscious in the back of their car, that they had beaten her?

She’d had worse. She wondered how far she’d have to take it before they realized she’d expected all of this. Probably all the way, because none of them struck her as a brain trust. You rub their heads together, you might get a spark of thought, but it would probably be nothing more than static electricity.

She oriented herself, figuring out where the back seat was in relation to her, and then began kicking it hard. Most back seats would give way under pressure, although the amount of pressure varied from doable to impossible. She’d figure out which one this was soon enough.

She hoped that Shan was doing better than she was.


While the new medication didn’t make him as groggy as the other stuff did, Shan also found that it wasn’t always as effective at warding off seizures. So he’d begun to investigate other ways to head off his seizures, but that wasn’t easy. Not only were petit mal seizures of the kind he had somewhat rare, but the damage done in his left parietal lobe just didn’t respond to things such as “think positive thoughts”. He had found if he could mentally distract himself in high stress situations, though, he could delay them or prevent a fit entirely. Concentrating on song lyrics or TV episodes seemed to be just distracting enough.

Which was why he was trying to recall all the lyrics to “Comfortably Numb” as the first gunman got a call on his cell and ducked outside his apartment to take it, holstering his piece before stepping out, leaving him with the other two gunmen. They sat on his couch, guns on their laps, looking at him and occasionally the playoff game on his set behind him. “So you used ta do that?” The smoking man said. You could tell he fancied himself a Scarface wannabe, as he had his hair slicked back in a kind of pompadour style he’d only ever seen in that film.

It was a hockey game, Edmonton at Colorado, and he’d actually been about to turn the channel, as the game was boring. It was too one sided to be of any interest to him, and to add insult to injury, he saw one of the guys he’d played with in college on the Edmonton side. It did no good to think that that could have been him if things had been different.

“Play hockey? Yes. I was on the University of Michigan’s team. Go Wolverines.”

The men both snickered derisively. Scarface had a bloated face from one too many late night benders, while his friend was thin and wiry, as nervous and twitchy as a coke fiend, although the pockmarks and spray of aggravated acne across his cheeks suggested he might be more into meth. Either way, Shan had already deduced that Ratboy was more of a danger than Scarface. “That’s kinda faggy, isn’t it? Skating an’ shit?” Ratboy said. He had a vaguely Eastern accent. Not as distinctive as a New York or Boston accent, but definitely somewhere from that region.

“Have you ever skated? It’s harder than it looks.”

“So how does that damage your brain exactly?” Scarface asked. When they initially stormed into his apartment, they laughed over Z – or as they called her, Zero – having a brain damaged hockey player as a “henchman”. They couldn’t think of anything more lame, beyond a cartoon platypus.

They didn’t deserve the real answer, but he decided to tell them, because it wouldn’t matter. “I lost my helmet during a game, and before I could replace it, I was cross-checked and hit the ice head first. It fractured my skull, and I had to have emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on my brain from intra-cranial bleeding. But there had been some damage done in spite of it all.” He paused briefly, watching Scarface’s expression turn from snarky to slightly queasy, and added, “It’s all rather faggy.”

Ratboy, who hadn’t been put off by the story, laughed. “But why hockey, man? That’s a lame sport. You coulda done basketball or somethin’, wouldn’t have made ya a retard.”

Shan narrowed his eyes at him, holding his rage somewhere in the center of his chest. If he allowed himself to get mad, he could trigger a fit, and he was too close to his objective to fuck it all up now. “I’m not a retard.”

Scarface elbowed the guy. “Dude, you don’t call ‘em that anymore. It ain’t polite.”

Oh yeah, this guy was really Miss Manners. Shan swallowed the urge to say something, and then, thanks to satellite problems that briefly silenced the play by play announcers, he could hear the gunman outside almost shouting into his phone. Z was frustrating them? She was really good at that. If that was an Olympic sport, she’d have a lifetime gold medal. But he supposed that this was his cue to start frustrating them himself. Shan made a show of looking at the time, and said, “I have to take my meds now. Can I get a drink?”

They both looked at him with suspicion. “Meds?” Scarface asked.

“Anti-seizure medication. If I don’t take them at certain times of the day, I’m liable to have a fit.”

Both Scarface and Ratboy looked disgusted by the idea, but it was Scarface who elbowed Ratboy again, and said, “Go get him some water or something.”

Ratboy looked almost horrified. “Why me?”

“’Cause I’m telling’ ya to, asshole. What, you want him all foaming at the mouth and shit?”

Ratboy scowled at him, but tucked his gun into the front of his pants as he stood, going to the sink in a huff. He banged the cupboard as he got a glass, and filled it up from the tap. From the cursing, he splattered water on himself. Shan had guessed Ratboy was the subordinate because he was younger, but it was nice to have confirmation. See, he could be smart about thugs. Z was rubbing off on him. He still loved how everyone just assumed his fits were the limb jerking, foaming at the mouth type, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. It might have been more acceptable and easier to explain if they were the violent type. But oh no, he just zoned out and froze, and never really realized it until it was over and he’d come through the other side. This was why he hadn’t gotten laid in years, or so he liked to think. Z had once pointed out him being something of a hermit probably had something to do with it, but hey, his seizures were increasing in frequency, and it was hard to pick a woman up if you paused midway through for no reason at all. Besides, there was some consolation – the new meds had almost totally killed his sex drive. It seemed like a distant urge right now, like his occasional craving for beer; half remembered nostalgia, a dream of a better time he could never get back.

“So why did you call her Zero?” he asked Scarface, mainly to distract himself from any self-pity.

Scarface snorted. “Ya don’t know? That’s her name.”

“Zero is a number, not a name.”

“Don’t need to tell me that. She’s batshit. ‘Sposedly she changed her name to that when she joined MI-5 or 6, or whatever the fuck that limey organization is. Who changes their name to a fucking number? The bitch is crazy.”

He didn’t believe it, but oddly enough, it sounded like something Z would do. She would be just the type to name herself 0 and sign things by just printing the number. Maybe she was crazy, in her weird ass Australian way, but she was just the kind of crazy person who could accept him, stupid ass seizures and all. There was a hierarchy to this, he was sure there must have been, a line where not crazy enough became pity and screwed the entire pooch.

Ratboy came to him with his glass of water, and that’s when Shan finally got to do what he had been waiting to do.

Their guard was down, because he was such a pathetic piece of shit. Retarded, as they said. So that’s why Ratboy let him take the glass, and why he still had his hand on it as Shan shoved it hard right into Ratboy’s face, where it shattered and cut him at the same time, glass shards ground into his eyes as Shan continued to push it. He also cut his hand on the glass, felt it bite into the soft pad of flesh between his thumb and forefinger, but he was used to a certain level of pain and it didn’t bother him.

Ratboy was squealing bloody murder and scrabbling blindly for the gun in his belt as Shan stood and drove a knee right into his balls, ripping the gun from his hand before he dropped to the carpet. Shan barely had his gun before he charged over to Scarface, who was so shocked that the retard could do that – and move that fast – he was just bringing his gun up from his lap when Shan hit him across the face with Ratboy’s gun. The metal butt cracked something in his jaw, and the sight tore the flesh, making him bleed. Shan plucked the gun out of his stunned hand, tucking Ratboy’s gun in the back of his jeans. Z had told him that the first rule of anything was collect your opponent’s weapons, even if they were dead. You just didn’t want to give anyone an edge of any sort. She sounded like his old coach.

Cell guy obviously heard something (Ratboy’s squealing, probably), started to come in, but Shan met him at the door by slamming him in it as he came through (he must have thought it was Shan who was squealing, as he didn’t have his gun out), and helplessly wedged between the door and the frame, Shan began elbowing him in the face as hard as he could. Three solid hits, during which his elbow went numb all the way up his arm and something cracked inside cell guy and blood splattered on Shan’s neck, and the guy went limp. Shan opened the door and kicked his body out, barely remembering to grab his handgun before closing the door on his bloodied body.

Okay, look, he was new at all this cloak and dagger shit. Usually Z was around to lead the play; he was all on his own here. He was doing pretty well, if he didn’t say so himself.

He turned with one of his guns out (he was feeling seriously weighed down by all this hardware), and it was a good thing, as Scarface looked like he was getting up from the couch, but upon seeing Shan and the gun he lowered himself back down. “You don’t wanna do this,” Scarface cautioned him. He had a big bloody gash across his cheek, which he was trying to staunch with his hand. He had a big pinkie ring, which Shan honestly thought was the stupidest piece of jewelry ever invented. “We were just ‘sposed to watch ya, not kill ya.”

“Yes, because you leave witnesses alive all the time.” As he walked past the squealing Ratboy, who looked like he was trying to hold his eye in (it wasn’t actually coming out, but it probably hurt like a motherfucker), he kicked him in the head and sent him sprawling on the carpet. “Look, I may be a “retard”, but I’m not stupid. You were all wondering why Z picked me as her lackey? Here’s a clue: you don’t need a perfectly functioning brain to kick someone’s ass. In fact, having a traumatic brain injury is almost a positive boon.”

He walked right up to the sofa, where Scarface was still sitting and bleeding, watching him with wary, devious eyes, but mostly focusing on the gun in his hand. Was he going to make a grab for it? “I didn’t think you could move that fast,” Scarface admitted.

“I’m a bouncer by night, but I also teach kids how to play hockey at the rec center during the day. I’m in great shape. What, you think I’m wearing a sweatshirt because I’m cold? Z suggested I hide my muscles, look weaker than I am. She said you didn’t think much of me, so you’d believe I was some coach potato.”

His eyes, as pale as watercolors, widened slightly. “She knew?”

He nodded, and glanced down quickly to see where Scarface’s feet were. Oh, great, in perfect position. “You were coming? Oh yeah. She’s crazy, but she’s not nuts.” He then stomped down on Scarface’s left ankle, twice in succession, and he heard the join crack with a sound like a thick branch snapping.

Scarface attempted to scream, but the suddenness of the pain sucked all the air out of him, so he simply turned red and let out a high pitched noise that probably only dogs could hear. Shan stepped back as he reached for the foot, which was now at an odd angle. “Just think, if I was wearing my skates, I’d have chopped that right off.”

He was still making kettle whistle noises, and Shan shoved him back into the couch, pressing the barrel of his gun against his left shoulder. “Listen to me, assface. That was just the start of me dismantling you. Next will be your knees, your wrists, your elbows, and if you really piss me off, I’ll rip off your dick and shove it down your throat. Either you tell me where Z is and what you’ve done to her, or we’re both gonna find out how much pain you can take before passing out.”

Wow, that sounded awesomely macho. He had to write that down before he forgot it.

Z would be so proud of him.

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