Chapter 3: Ennis
I have been driving around with this feral man for just under two weeks, and I'm surprised that I'm still sane. Every word out of his mouth is crass and antagonistic. He stares at me with those dark eyes until I stare back, then he acts like he's won some sort of secret game. He smokes and drinks constantly, and I know for a fact that he likes killing for fun. But I'm trapped in this range-rover with him until we get back to the base.
I pull in to the abandoned gas station that Judy had radioed about a few weeks ago, before Ballard had lured me away. It had been clear earlier in the month, she'd said. The entrance to the dirt road leading to it had been hidden, covered in tree blanches and leaves, by a few of Judy's boys to keep it that way. Still, it was always hard to predict who might stumble upon a Rebel hideout by mistake.
I peer through the side window of the car at the old building, and I keep the car running. The place looks quiet on the outside. Trees and weeds have reclaimed most of the yard and the shop windows are covered in dust. I feel eyes on me but I ignore them. Finally, Devlin whacks my arm with his hand.
"Yo, moron, quit wasting gas." He says, grabbing the duffle bag at his feet and his case of beer from between us.
"We don't know if it's been compromised or not." I say, but he's already kicking his door open and tossing his bag into the grass.
"Then I guess we'd better get our asses in there and find out." he says as he slams the door shut.
I sit there for a few moments, alone in the running car, before I curse and turn the key in the ignition. The car falls silent. I watch Devlin, the brazen idiot, trot right up the steps to the front door. I sigh as I yank out the keys and grab my backpack from behind my seat. The motorcycle takes up the entire back of the vehicle. Useless thing.
By the time I reach the porch he is already inside and on the second floor. I peer into the structure, one foot still out the door. Unlike the renegade thundering around upstairs, I've learned that caution keeps people alive. I don't run into situations without a plan and I don't enter a strange building without an exit strategy.
Devlin is already stomping back down and looking at me pointedly from halfway up the staircase, a cigarette already in hand.
"Are you just gonna stand around letting the bugs in?" he asks, and I frown at him and step inside and allow the door to shut behind me. As the little bell on the door jingles, I hear him mutter "Fucking dumbass." As he marches back up. I roll my eyes and remind myself that this is a temporary arrangement. I just need to put up with him until we track down Ballard, or at least until we rendezvous with the rest of my team.
I tread carefully as I investigate the entire ground floor. Nothing but a handful of dusty cereal boxes and an empty cash register on the cash desk. There was a back door, and after a quick look around I locked it. Then I tested each window and locked them too, locking the front door last after a final glance outside.
I come upstairs to find Devlin leaning out the window, halfway through his cigarette. The smell brings back memories of my father and his belt. I inhale through my mouth to avoid the stench. The room is empty except for an old mattress in a corner and a wooden chair beside it. I pull the broken radio from my bag and retrieve my screwdriver and pliers from my belt. Again, I feel Devlin's eyes on me, but I pretend that I don't.
"Took you long enough," he says, blowing a cloud of smoke into the room, "What, were you taking a shit down there?"
"I was making sure it was safe." I say simply, suppressing a cough when the smoke reached my side of the room.
The skinny idiot chuckles through his cigarette and pulls one of his beers from the box.
"We won't have much luck shutting Ballard down if we get lynched on the way by petty scavengers." I add, and he stops chuckling and shrugs, popping the can open with his ring finger.
"If Ballard thought that I was even the tiniest threat to him, fucker woulda tried to kill me before I walked out on him." He says as he pulls the cigarette from his mouth and takes a swig of his beer. "Mm, shithead probably still thinks that I fucked off to have a tantrum. He'll be expecting me to come back asking for work when we find him."
I sit cross-legged on the barren floor as I crack open the radio's casing, revealing its twisted wired innards. I act as if I don't care about what Devlin is talking about, but I don't miss a word.
"Plus," he says after another gulp of beer, "He definitely won't be expecting me to have help. Least of all a serious fuck like you. Not sure if you've noticed, but I don't play so well with others."
"Oh, I've noticed." I can't help but say. I glance up to see his wide shit-eating grin, and when he takes another drag of his cigarette I'm relieved to see that there's barely any left.
"Anyway, we've got 'em by surprise either way is what I'm saying," He crushes the cigarette butt on the windowsill and chucks it out the window, "So there's no point flipping your shit over traps n' ambushes n' shit. Nobody's fucking looking for us, so calm your tits."
I find the damaged wires in the radio and pull them out as Devlin talks, fishing in my bag for fresh roll of wire to replace them.
"I think we're better off being careful than presuming anything when it comes to Ballard," I say as I clip lengths of new wire, "He's not as stupid as you think."
"Not as—" Devlin explodes in a fit of laughter, "Fuck man, I'm sorry, I'm just the guy who worked for that shithead for the past two years, but no, you're right, I don't know shit."
He laughs a bit more and stares at the ceiling.
"Fuck…" he sighs as he chugs the can in his hand.
I eye him as he drinks.
"Maybe you should slow down," I say, and when he looks at me I nod towards the beer.
He swallows and raises his eyebrows at me, as if taken aback by my nerve.
"Man, do you have a problem with everything that I do?" He asks, and he waits for me to look at him again, "I'm only the fuck who saved you're sorry ass from getting flambéed."
"Yeah, and I would be grateful," I say rolling my eyes, "If you hadn't done it just because you want to put I knife in Ballard's throat and I'm a means to that end."
"Well I didn't see any of your rebel buddies rushing to help you out."
I turned to him briskly.
"They were still a mile out when Ballard threw me into that oven." I snap, narrowing my eyes, "They knew they'd only be rescuing a charred corpse by the time they got there. I'm the one who radioed them from inside and told them not to bother coming."
Devlin giggles as he toys with tab of the beer can with a fingernail. He's enjoying getting a rise out of me.
"Yeah, but you wish they'd come anyway, am I right?" he says, "I mean, I know you've got your pride an' all that, and it fuckin' bites to admit it, but you wish they'd still come anyway, for solidarity's sake, even if they knew they wouldn't make it in time."
He looks me right in the eye as he says it, and I look away. I don't bother answering. We both know he's right. It's a stupid thing to want, for your friends to risk themselves trying to save you when there's no hope anyway. Logically it made no sense. Logically, I was relieved that they'd stayed away, that they'd stayed safe. But when the words came out of Devlin's mouth, I felt my heart clench. If they'd come for me, at least I wouldn't be alone with this nasty piece of work.
"Had I known it would turn out like this, of course I would have wanted them to come." I say at last. He snorts derisively and I stand. "Not like you'd even know what it's like to miss your friends. Have you ever even had one? A friend, I mean. Has anyone ever been able to tolerate you long enough to even want to be your friend?"
Devlin's face turned cold and it was my turn to smile.
"I have friends, and they're alive because I sent them away." I say, not bothering to sound humble, "They think I'm dead right now, and they're probably grieving for me, which is why I'm fixing this goddamn radio. If it takes too long they might even have my funeral before I talk to them." Devlin's expression almost looked hurt, so I continued with a cruel smile on my face, "I bet you don't have anyone to throw you a funeral, do you? Forget the funeral; would anyone even bother to bury you? If you get killed you'll probably just end up some corpse on the side of the road, feeding the birds. So don't try and make me feel shitty about my situation!"
I've overstepped some hidden boundary, I can tell immediately. Devlin is not even looking at me, he is staring at the ground, silent. I feel the mood of our argument change. This wasn't hurtful banter anymore. Something I'd said had altered the conversation. I try to think back on my exact words, and already I feel guilty for everything I've just said.
"Shit, I—listen…" I start, then trail off when Devlin looks up at me.
"You don't know when to shut up, do you Ennis." He says, his voice low and severe.
I feel a shiver run down my spine when his eyes meet mine.
The man eyes me like a cat eyes a rat. He gulps down the last of the beer and crushes the can in one hand, then releases his hold on it. I watch the can clank and tumble at his feet. He's sizing me up; I recognize it in his face. I've seen him do it every time I've faced him over the years, every time I've had to fight this psycho off while his boss attacked our base or stole from us. He'd always take a good long look first and weigh his options for a takedown.
Was there a crack in your armour? Maybe an old injury; a leg that you tried not to put pressure on, a hand that couldn't punch with as much power, or maybe a blind spot, just on your left, where he might catch you off guard.
I take a step back. I want to dissuade him. It's pointless for us to fight when we're working towards the same goal; taking down Ballard and his organization. But common sense didn't seem to be one of Devlin's strong points. He was less of a person and more of a wild animal. I'd let my guard down earlier when I'd reacted to his taunting, and getting him to settle down now strikes me as an unlikely feat.
"Look, Devlin, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that." I say, throwing my hands up sheepishly, "I went too far."
He doesn't blink. He just watches me, staring me in the eye, and he stares for so long that my palms begin to sweat and the hairs prick up on the back of my neck. There is something distinctly unnatural about his behaviour, about the intensity of his stare that disturbs me. It's a challenge. He's thrown the gauntlet and I hadn't even noticed.
"You think your so much better than me, don'cha?" he says, a slow smile creeps to his lips as he takes a step forward, "You think your the shit. The Rebel Army's fearless leader. Everybody's favourite." His smile doesn't reach his eyes as he saunters over, "You flash 'em a smile with that pretty face and those cheekbones and they just part like the goddamn red sea and let you through, patting you on the back the whole way."
I take two more steps back. I know better then to let him get close. Trust was never even a possibility when I agreed to work with this man, but there was something in his face that told me that he didn't want to break our bargain. He didn't want to kill me. He wanted to hurt me.
"The infallible Ennis, hasn't been hated a day in his life. Talks his way out of all his scrapes, self-proclaimed master of narrow escapes—oh that rhymes doesn't it?—and that pride of yours. Never seen a thing like it. Well, not since Ballard anyhow." He cracks his knuckles at this point, "So confident. You're the kind of man that only gets into fights on his own terms, am I right? Doesn't throw down when he knows he can't win, but talks the would-be opponent into the thinkin' he woulda won anyway. Quite a trick."
He ambles over, hands deep in his coat pockets and taking long, even strides, hips cocked forward in mock relaxation. He is standing close now, near enough that he could grab me. But I am ready for him. My body is tense and I watch him carefully, every nerve in my body on full alert. I am nervous though, I can't help it. He's right about me. I don't start fights that I can't win. But he's the one starting it, and I don't know if I can beat him in hand-to-hand combat.
He grabs the front of my shirt and I slap his hand away instantly. There is a pause. He is smiling again, watching my face. That was a test, I note. My attention is split between his expression and his posture. His shoulders are relaxed, his arms lie limply at his sides, but his eyes are wild and interested. His calm stance is a ruse. He's going to strike me again.
When he does I am expecting it. He grabs at my shirt with both hands, grasping fistfuls of fabric, and I shove him off roughly. He reels backwards briefly, but he doesn't wait this time. He launches himself onto me, hands splayed wide, fingers bent. His intention is to grab me. He wants to find some part of me that he can hold me down with and restrict my movement. I have seen him do this to others. I've seen him strangle a man with his own sleeve once.
I detach his hands from my jacket and kick him square in the gut, sending him staggering. Before he has time to recover, my jacket is already off my shoulders on the ground. One less thing he can use against me.
He lunges forward and his hands find me again, but this time they've balled themselves into fists and they're targeting my abdomen. I deflect a few blows, grab one of his wrists and twist it, turning him sideways as he tries to wriggle out of my grasp, then I kick him in the shin and regain my footing.
I was right to be worried. I can feel my stomach throb where it was hit. Devlin looks like skin and bones, but his blows are powerful and deliberate. His grandstanding keeps me distracted while he picks his targets. He doesn't punch at random, he only hits where he knows he'll cause pain. My only option is to hurt him back.
I don't wait for him to come at me. I am on him the moment his focus slips. I grab around the back of his head with my arm and hold him in a headlock. I manage multiple hits to his upper chest and jaw before he squirms out of my grip like a cat. He twists himself around to face me and grabs my hair again. I try to pull him off but he yanks me forward and knees me in the gut. I grit my teeth and ignore the pain, throwing my weight forward and grabbing him around his middle. He still won't let go of my hair, but he's struggling to get me off. I push him backwards and he refuses to fall, but the momentum allows me to push him so far that his back slams into the wall behind him. At last he releases my hair and tries to pry me off with both hands.
I release him completely, confusing him, and then I grab his throat with one hand, holding him against the wall and punch him in the gut relentlessly with my free hand. He grunts with every hit and I see blood trickle from the corner of his mouth, but still he smiles. I punch and punch and he doesn't stop smiling.
Frustration wells up inside of me. I want to punch that grin off of his face. I risk a few seconds to reposition myself and aim for his teeth. Devlin was waiting for this. He grabs both my shoulders, pulls in his legs and swings them forward. His heels hit me in the collarbone and send me flying backwards. I struggle to get up but I am slower now. Punching him had winded me.
He rushes me and pulls me up by the front of my shirt. He tries to punch my right side, but I deflect his hand with my upper arm. He throws another punch, to my left this time. I fail to block it, and my kidney takes the brunt of the impact. I cry out and fall to my knees, struggling to find my breath. Paralyzing pain radiates from my side, and I clutch the blossoming bruise with my arm. I can't fight him off as he grabs the back of my head and slams it to the ground, and my cheek is parallel with the wooden floor.
For a moment there is only pain and panting. He holds me down but doesn't move and I am hurting so badly that I cannot even push myself up. He is behind me, above me, but I can hear him smiling through his laboured breaths. I know that he's not finished.
It's when his hand snakes down the back of my jeans that I understand his endgame.