“What the fuck are you still doing in this city?”
The question was heavy with the threat of violence. It wasn’t a surprise. These things happened once, maybe twice, a month. The bruises had usually faded before the next set was inflicted. A fresh bottle of vodka was all I’d come out for. It was cheaper than whiskey and you could mix it with anything.
“I don’t believe we have been introduced,” I said, in the hope that I might be able to talk my way out of this. Judging by the snarl that rumbled up from the heavyset man’s chest, maybe not.
“I don’t like you,” he said. Not an original line, but I suppose he felt he had to start somewhere. There were a couple of friends behind him, but they didn’t seem to want to get involved. A small blessing.
“Really? You don’t even know me.” I backed up a step. “Perhaps if we sat down for a drink or two you might come round to liking me.”
“I don’t like you ‘cos you killed them all.” He took a step forward. I could see the veins and arteries in his neck pulsing. The problem was, I couldn’t deny the accusation. I had killed them all.
“Listen,” it was worth a try, “it went to court and all through the due process of law. Now all I want to do is go home, have a drink and get some sleep. Why don’t you just walk that way and I’ll go the other way. You’ll never have to see me again.”
I’m no ninety pound weakling and, like every person of my age and older, I’d done my service time. He must have had a couple of stone on me, if not more. Another step back and I looked around for assistance. Helpfully, my fellow shoppers had created a boxing ring out of their bodies to prevent my escape. The shopkeepers stood in their doorways, watching the spectacle. None of them made a move towards a communicator or city panel. Store camera’s would catch the action from multiple angles and I’d bet this would be all over the clips later on. If I was lucky I might be able to see it through blackened eyes. Unlucky and I’d be seeing double or, even worse, not at all. I wasn’t sure my medical insurance could cover the cost.
The big man took in the crowd, noting their unwillingness to let me pass, and grinned. He took a step forward and raised his thick-fingered hands up in front of his face, curling them slowly to form fists.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” he said, moving towards me.
“I’m not.” I switched the bottle to my right hand. There was no way I was getting through the crowd without fighting them all. It was a battle I was sure to lose. I sighed. “Come on then, get it over with.”
He roared and charged. As his left foot stomped down, shifting his weight forward, he threw a right hook at my head. I stepped forward, into the swing, and down onto one knee. The sledgehammer of his hand passed over my head. The bottle in my hand, I swung upwards, between his legs, as hard as I could.
The great roar he’d given rose in pitch by several octaves into a high, squealing falsetto. I slid to the side as his hands lowered to grab his squashed balls. The squeal ended as he ran out breath and began to gulp in air like a goldfish.
I decided to do him a kindness he didn’t deserve. Sometimes you have to help people who are in a lot of pain, it is the humane thing to do. However, no good deed goes unpunished and the bottle broke on the back of his head. The vodka splashed all over the floor, dribbling away between the metal grill. I was left holding the neck of the bottle.
“Fuck,” I said, “and who roars before they throw a punch?”
His friends came out of the crowd, eyeing me warily. I didn’t move. They’d seen me take out their leader in the space of a few seconds. Mostly by luck, if I am honest. If he’d decided to grab rather than swing, I am not sure there is much I could have done. If I backed off now they’d just get a free shot at my back. I needed them to be scared of me.
“Pick him up and clear off,” I said and took half a step forward, brandishing the sharp end of the broken bottle in their direction.
“You’d better watch out, mister,” said one of them, a short, skinny fellow with nervous eyes. “He’ll come after you.”
“I know,” I said. The crowd parted as I turned away from the fat man who rested face first in the puddle of my vodka. He’d get to drink more of it than me. The remnants of the bottle went into a recycling chute.
The police would be round later, the clips shows and the shopkeepers would inform them even if the crowd didn’t. That’s why I had made sure my vodka soaked friend had swung first. The cops knew me and I knew the law. At least those parts of it to do with getting accosted and beaten up.
I patted my pockets, looking for change and realised I couldn’t afford another bottle.