One positive about having a gland problem that gets me blissed out on rage is that there is no limit to the amount of adrenaline I seem to be able to produce and no limit to the endorphins that accompany that production. So as I fight, I get more and more adrenaline and I get higher and higher on the endorphins as a result. I was already high as a kite, stumbling blissfully through the bad neighborhood in which my studio apartment was located. The high was suddenly washed away on a tide of adrenaline as my brain noticed something my eyes saw but ignored in my inebriated state, namely the half dozen thugs with pipes and bats who appeared out of an alley mouth half a block in front of me. My ears let me know they had friends and when I looked behind me I saw four more guys who seemed well-equipped for a pick-up game of ball at this ungodly hour. They were strangely missing the balls and gloves, though.
My focus was suddenly sharp; my muscles flush with blood as my hands curled into fists. "Yous lost?" I asked, because these guys were definitely not from the neighborhood. Too many gold watches on their wrists, gold rings on their fingers, and too much fine Italian leather on their feet.
One of the very Italian-looking gentlemen stepped to the fore. "Our boss has decided you have meddled in things that do not concern you for the last time. Sal's reputation as a neutral party protected you before but tonight's little fiasco crossed the last line," he said with an eager smile. He was Gambino muscle who ran collections for one of their loan sharks. Looking at the rest of the faces in front of me showed more faces I recognized.
I turned so my back was to the brick façade of a run-down brownstone and saw a surprise: Genoveses. They were Genovese muscle. "What makes me so special that Genoveses and Gambinos who were nearly at war tonight at Exposé are cooperating to rub me out?"
The biggest and fattest of the Genovese bully boys took a step forward, smiling. "Just like a dumb Mick like you to think this is about you, FitzKiern. This is about respect and the rules," he said scathingly, bouncing the barrel of a Louisville Slugger in his left palm, a gleam of manic anticipation in his eyes. "Not even Sal's bouncer gets to flatten Family men and not pay the consequences."
"Even if those same Family men were about to start a war by shooting each other in what is supposed to be a neutral location?"
"Even if, you dumb fuckin' Mick," the lead Gambino musclehead replied just as eagerly, waving his guys forward. "Besides, this isn't your first offense, just the one that gets your skull caved in. You have been irritating our bosses with your shit for a while."
"Bosses don't like lieutenants getting whacked in titty bars," the Genovese added, "but they like uppity bouncers putting their guys in the hospital ward at Rikers and threatening their family even less."
"Your guys fucked up first by deciding to do the OK Corral in Sal's place. It's supposed to be neutral ground, you fucks! What the fuck do you expect me to do when you stupid guinea fucks show up pulling iron?" I growled irritably.
"We don't give a shit!" the Genovese said, leading his guys forward. The Gambinos lurched into motion, too. I was so fucked!
I dodged the Genovese's first swing, slamming his face into the bricks. An impact exploded into my left shoulder, thankfully not directly on the stitched-up bullet wound. It was the Gambino leader. He reared back for another swing with the copper pipe he carried and I grabbed the next attacking Genovese and threw him at the Gambinos, fouling up their attacks and putting him right in line to get cracked in the skull by the descending pipe. I turned just in time to get a glancing blow to the head from another club, a Genovese bat this time, quickly followed by a copper pipe to my left forearm when I jerked it up to block another bat to the head.
At that point I was pretty sure I had a concussion and blood was trickling down both arms. The bandage from earlier that night was missing and that was where some of the blood was coming from, but not all of it. I kicked one of the two remaining Genovese thugs in the chest and grabbed the bat of the other as he swung it at my ribs. I yanked him into a knee to the gut and then threw him at the Gambinos, who had finally untangled themselves. The Gambinos avoided getting fouled up again by the simple expedient of clubbing the Genovese to the cement.
Six to one odds. Better than ten to one but now I was woozy, bleeding, and I probably had at least a broken left forearm because the last throw hurt like a motherfucker. I backed up to the bricks again, making sure the Genovese was still unconscious with an absent kick and keeping my eyes on the Gambinos.
"Fucking Genovese pussies!" the Gambino leader spat, sending his own absent kick at the prone form at his feet. He stepped over the body and they formed a semi-circle around me. He gave me a grudging smile of respect. "Now I see how you managed to take out ten guys with pulled pieces. Too bad you didn't fall in with one of the Families or at least the Westies. Sal's protection don't stretch far and only as long as he's useful. This shit is way outside his bounds and useful went out the window when you made our guys look like bitches."
They all rushed me at once. I ducked a copper pipe aimed at my head and slammed an open palm into another guy's nose, crushing it and sending bone fragments into his brain. As he fell, I grabbed the Louisville Slugger he was holding and used it to block the two swings at my head. I kicked one guy in the crotch and spun into the other guy, smashing my elbow into his temple. Both of them fell to the pavement, their weapons making loud clanks on the cement.
Then I felt my head explode and my lower right leg crumple and pain blossom in my left arm. I tried to raise the bat to defend myself but it fell from nerveless fingers as the world slid sideways. As the curtains came down, my eyes saw something that made no sense. More feet appeared in my vision and suddenly the remaining thugs were collapsing to join me on the pavement. The last thing I remember seeing was the Gambino leader's head looking at me, eyes fluttering like hummingbird wings, while his body fell a few feet away.
My memories after that were mostly flashes; disjointed sounds and images that only made sense later, when it was all put together in a narrative for me.
" ... if his vitals are steady. Rico, get the clean-up cr..."
Someone was carrying me on a handheld stretcher, my neck immobilized. The cool night sky was overhead, stars mostly unable to burn through the light of the big city and the moon a nail pairing high in the sky. I felt straps over my chest and thighs and a rough wool blanket keeping me warm. " ... as soon as we get him in the van. He is concussed at the very least and I am pretty sure he is in shock. If we can't steady the vitals we are going to lose him!"
I felt a sharp jab in my arm followed by another in my hand. I was warm, at least, though the sounds of medical equipment echoed wherever we were. My eye lids were too heavy to lift and the sound kept doing that Doppler shift that made it seem at first like everything was near me and then receding rapidly. It didn't seem to matter much to me that I was sure I was not in a hospital or that I did not know who it was that saved me from the ambush. All that kept going through my head was that I was probably going to miss my meeting with Detective Reynolds.
" ... is he?" a deep, rough, masculine voice inquired near my head.
"Stable, for now," a soft and very weary feminine voice replied from farther away. "We've given him three pints of blood, set the left arm, re-stitched the left arm, set the right leg, stitched the head, and got the internal bleeding stopped. He is going to have some neurological symptoms at the very least; possibly amnesia of some duration and blurry vision for a short time. He is a big, strong, healthy man; otherwise you would have been too late. The night he had the other night would have killed most people, including most of us."
"Why do you think he is here and not at Roosevelt?" the male voice said, mild amusement in his voice. "Mr. FitzKiern and the boss need to have a little talk before he either gets himself killed or winds up in prison. He needs to be made aware that even we have rules and the penalties for breaking them are much harsher than the rest of humanity's."
The pain had been washed away on the tide of first my own natural high and then helped by whatever the people who came to my rescue pumped into me to help them keep me calm and out while I healed. My first moment of lucidity, therefore, brought the pain back with a vengeance. Moans of agony echoed through the room I found myself in, making me wish the blackness had kept its grip on me. The sounds of a heart monitor then intruded on my consciousness, providing ample proof that I was alive and kicking. I knew there were lights somewhere overhead because their stark light nearly penetrated my eyelids, the illumination was so intense.
"Give me a second and I will lower the light and you can open your eyes, Mr. FitzKiern," a familiarly unfamiliar female voice told me. I felt a hand on my wrist and then strong hands were moving my arms and feeling my legs and head. "I know you hurt in general, and I am sorry for that, but it is necessary to get you up and moving so we withdrew the medications we were giving you."
"Uhn, whu-what ha-happened?" were my brilliant first words upon waking. I was keeping my eyes tightly shut because what light I could see through my eyelids was stabbing into my brain.
"You just try to collect yourself," she said kindly. "I'll adjust the lights and go get the man in charge."
There was a loud, cavernously echoing click and the light was mostly gone. Carefully opening my eyes freaked me the fuck out! I was in a fucking bubble! There was semi-clear plastic hung from a metal frame surrounding the bed I was laid out on and the medical equipment that orbited it. There was the heart monitor that I had already heard along with a digital IV stand, blood pressure cuff, and a few more gadgets I couldn't identify. The floor was harder black plastic and raised from the floor of what looked like a large, empty warehouse through the fuzzy plastic walls. There was also a chair next to the bed set out of the way of the machines.
A hissing noise made me look towards the door and I realized the bubble was being kept pressurized because there was a man in a gray suit in a small, clear plastic room just outside the bubble. Then the hissing ceased, he opened the plastic door and entered with a possessive air about him, as if all he surveyed was his. Hell, for all I knew, it was his. Somebody had set all this up and the nurse said she was going to get "the man in charge." He certainly fit the bill, from his two thousand dollar Armani suit to the leather loafers I knew came from no cow to the big, clunky ring on his left hand flashing emerald fire in the low light. The gentleman was not Italian, which made me relax a little. In fact, he looked more like a Swiss banker than anything else. He was just under six feet tall with a build that suggested he kept in shape but was not a fanatic about it, like I was. That was belied by the steel cable sinews I could see moving under the skin of his manicured hands and the gracefully muscled neck showing above his collar. His gray hair was carelessly brushed back so that he looked like he should be running along a beach in a Cialis commercial, which meant it took professional care and money to cut and maintain. His face was unlined and clean shaven, giving a clear look at his Germanicly handsome, but not too handsome, features that were dominated by cornflower blue eyes gazing at me from beneath sculpted, arching brows. That gaze was measuring and steady. This was a man who would be dangerous, both physically and intellectually. He was a boss, not merely muscle.
The question was whether he was the boss.
Those intelligent blue eyes looked over the monitors, as if he knew what they had to say about my health, and nodded with a smile that showed perfect white teeth. "Doing much better, Mr. FitzKiern, though I can see you are still in a bit of pain," he said in a melodious baritone that I did not recognize. His accent was educated and tinged with upper class Boston area, say around Harvard. "I am pleased my men were able to salvage you ere you met the fate the Italian businessmen had planned for you. My people tell me you should be able to walk on the cast they put on you when you are ready to leave this bed. The cast on both your arm and leg will need to come off in three to four weeks."
I raised the sheet off my arm with difficulty since my right arm was taped to a board with the tubes snaking into my veins, I guess so that I didn't accidentally yank them out in my sleep. The left arm was immobilized (read strapped down) as well and lifting the sheet further showed that I was naked as a jaybird, had stitches all over my chest and a catheter in my dick, and there was another plaster cast on my right leg.
"We used plaster because we were unaware whether you were allergic to fiber glass," the gentleman explained as I finished my inspection of their work. "All of the stitches are dissolvable and will fall out in another day or two."
"How long have I been here?"
"Almost a week," he replied with a slight smile. "Five days and just about twelve hours. We had to open you up to repair some internal bleeding and fix your punctured lung that the broken rib perforated. The rib was repaired also, so you are probably going to be sore for a while. The beating you took would have killed most people and that brings me to the purpose of my visit.
"We don't generally go around saving bouncers being eliminated by organized crime for making them look foolish. We usually let the Darwinian nature of the streets take care of things," he told me, his tone taking on a slightly pedantic note. "You, however, we have had our eyes on for a while. You would have been contacted sooner, but you were lost to us for a few years. I was contracted to find you and watch you until the time was right. Watching you, I began suspecting it was only a matter of time before such a situation as occurred a few nights ago happened. Even so, my men nearly missed watching you be clubbed to death."
"Who the fuck is 'we, ' dude? Nobody I know but the upper bosses in the mob families and their best men wear suits like that and none of them wear anything but Italian leather. Whatever is covering your feet, they ain't from a cow."
He smiled again. "You may call me Mr. Schwansteiger," he said, pronouncing his name with a Germanic accent, as it should be pronounced (shvän-shtī-gār), hinting that while his accent was from Harvard, he either lived abroad or his family hadn't been in the U. S. long, "and hmm, the rest is a bit hard to explain. You just woke up and a proper explanation, which you deserve, is both complicated and difficult for most who don't grow up with it to accept at first. I was hoping to save that conversation until after you recovered a bit more."
"Dude, until you let me out of this bed and I go home, anything you say is gonna be captivating to me," I retorted, struggling to sit up a bit more, twinging my ribs and stretching some of the stitches. He reached over and pressed a button on the bed rail, raising the bed into a reclined sitting position. "Thanks."
"You are welcome," he replied with a sigh. He looked at me with that serious, soul-piercing gaze and shook his head. "I can see you are not to be dissuaded, Mr. FitzKiern."
"Michael or Mike. You calling me Mr. FitzKiern reminds me too much of my run-ins with law enforcement types," I told him with a grimace.
"I thought your first name was Angus."
A snort escaped me as my head shook. "It is but the only person on the planet that calls me that is a sexy, redheaded Irish stripper who makes Angus sound like something other than a type of beef," was my irritated retort.
"Michael it is, then. Where to begin?" he said, leaning back in the chair, crossing his legs, and steepling his fingers in front of his mouth as he rested his elbows on the armrests. "I suppose I should start by informing you that this is generally not my job. Informing those who are being ... awakened is generally a task given to someone more suited to it. I am a manager, a strategist and tactician; someone you bring in to clean up messes, manage fallout, and strike back at enemies who may have created the mess. Usually initiating a new member of our ... society, no ... civilization is a better word for this discussion, is generally the task of a historian or elder, neither of which I am," he told me somberly, inhaling deeply, his eyes focused on the semi-transparent plastic ceiling.
"I guess I will begin by using a metaphor to describe the world as it is, not as you grew up believing it to be. Had your father raised you, he would probably already have told all of this to you because he is most definitely a member of our civilization and such things are generally taken care of by the time one is thirty. But like I said when I started, you were lost to us for a time," Schwansteiger said, his tone a mix of respect and something close to fear as he talked about the father I did not know. "I like to think of things like this; the world is made up of three groups of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Nobody who is a sheep knows about us unless they are one of our minions. Most of those who are sheepdogs do know of us. And most people who know about us are wolves. Some are sheepdogs, but that is by choice and nature. Now, before you start equating sheep with good and wolves with bad you need to know there are millions, tens or even hundreds of millions, of bad sheep, not unlike the men who attacked each other at the club and those who ambushed you on the way home. And just as there are bad sheep, there are good wolves, among which I like to count myself. As for sheepdogs, few are they who go bad. It is too much in the nature of a sheepdog to guard the sheep for them to go bad. You were a sheepdog until five nights ago."
"You do realize I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, right?"
He grinned. "Patience. I am hoping it will all make sense at the end, otherwise I will have to send for my historian and he is out of state at the moment," he replied with grand amusement plain on his face. "We are an old, very primitive part of this world; the part that gave rise to priest-kings, shamans, and prophets. Not to say that we were somehow chosen by God (or the gods), but we rose back when primitive man began walking upright, eating meat, talking, and realizing some plants returned to the same place every year. We convinced others staying put was better than the nomadic existence humans had known. We convinced them farming and domesticating animals would feed more of us than hunting and gathering. And it was we who introduced the concept of organized warfare to fight for more. More resources, more land, more people. We gave rise to many of the great empires of old. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. And taking our ideas and practices, humans spread this idea to India and China, Europe and Africa, North and South America.
"It was Greece, and the end of the Age of Heroes, that made some of us realize humanity had outgrown us. The Fall of Rome merely confirmed that our time leading humanity around by the nose was at an end," he said with ineffable sadness that never touched his face but was palpable. Those blue eyes had lost focus but suddenly snapped to my face. "With our failure to maintain Rome, we gathered in Persia and decided our time on thrones was at an end. We were what gave rise to conspiracy theories about secret societies that controlled the world. Humanity had known our guidance for centuries untold and felt our squabbling and fighting. Then, suddenly, we were gone. Europe felt it hardest, though Byzantium kept the Empire alive another millennium.
"The rest of the world, however, felt it as well, just in a more positive fashion. Persia, India, China flourished without us steering the ship just fine. We learned humanity had finally grown up," he said with a wry smile, shaking his head. He snorted derisively. "It was a hard thing for us to accept. We, of course, could not help but 'nudge' things. But more and more we learned humanity had become too unpredictable, too willful for us to do that in the ways we had in the past. So we wound up with things like Mohammed and Islam, the Hundred Years War, the Crusades, the various pogroms in Russia and China, and the African slave trade and all the ills that flowed from it.