I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bus line that ended at the old ferry put me only a fifteen or twenty minute walk away from the loft that Lisa, Alec and Bitch called home. I could be spending a fair bit of time there before I gathered enough information or earned enough trust from them to turn them in to the authorities, so the convenience was nice.
It was a nice day, if a bit windy. The air was crisp and cool, the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue that was reflected in the ocean, and the sand of the beach sparkled in the light of the sun. Tourists were already crowding the railings or migrating to the beach, pinning down the corners of their beach blankets under picnic baskets and shopping bags. It was too cold to go in the water but the view was spectacular. I enjoyed it for a few moments before venturing into the crowd. I walked with my hands in my pockets, as much to protect the stuff in my pockets as keeping the worst of the chill out.
Living in Brockton Bay, you learned stuff like that. How to protect yourself, what to watch for. I knew that the Vietnamese teenagers who were leaning against the railing of the boardwalk were members of the ABB, even if they weren’t wearing their gang colors, because the only Asian kids in Brockton Bay that had that much swagger were already part of Lung’s gang. I knew the tattoo on the arm of the guy lifting boxes into the florist’s van that read ‘Erase, Extinguish, Eradicate’ meant the guy was a white supremacist because it had the letter E repeated three times.
The man in the uniform who was talking to a shop owner wasn’t a cop or security guard, but one of the enforcers the merchants of the Boardwalk hired to keep the undesirables from making trouble. They were why the Boardwalk didn’t have beggars, addicts, or people wearing gang colors hanging around. If your presence offended or worried the tourists, they would step up to scare you off. If someone shoplifted or panhandled in the Boardwalk, they ran the risk that one or two enforcers would drag them behind one of the shops and teach them a lesson. Anything more serious than shoplifting or panhandling, well, there was always someone on duty in the floating base of the Protectorate Headquarters. Any of the store owners or employees could call the likes of Miss Militia, Armsmaster or Triumph in, given a minute. The tourism revenue the Boardwalk picked up earned a lot of goodwill from the government and government sponsored capes.
I headed off the boardwalk and into one of the alleys leading into the Docks. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw one of the uniformed enforcers staring at me. I wondered what he was thinking. Good kids didn’t hang out in the Docks, and I doubted I looked the part of a guileless tourist.
The abandoned factories, warehouses and garages of the Docks all blended into one another very quickly. The colors of the building exteriors weren’t different enough from one another to make buildings recognizable, and the people or piles of garbage that I had been unconsciously noting my previous visit had all shifted locations or been replaced. I found myself glad for the artistic graffiti and the row of weed-entangled power lines that I could use as landmarks. I did not want to get lost. Not here.
As I arrived at the foot of the huge factory with the Redmond Welding sign, I found myself wondering whether I should knock or just go on up. I didn’t have to decide – the door opened just a second after I’d come. It was Brian, and he looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
“Hey,” he said, “Lisa said you’d arrived. I thought you had school.”
It took me a few seconds to get my mental footing. Any demonstration or mention of Lisa’s power kind of had a way of doing that to me, and that was on top of having a conversation sprung on me without a chance to prepare. “Changed my mind,” I said, lamely.
“Huh. Well, come on up.”
We headed upstairs. I saw Brian was wearing different clothes than what he had been wearing earlier in the morning. What he was wearing now bore a closer resemblance to his clothes from the day before – a green sleeveless t-shirt and black slacks with a lightweight fabric, like yoga pants or something.
Alec was waiting, leaning against the back of a couch, as we entered the living room. He was wearing a t-shirt with some cartoon or video game character on it and basketball shorts. He stood straight as he noticed us.
“Alec and I were sparring,” Brian told me, “Lisa’s on the phone in the kitchen. Rachel and her dogs are in her room. You can watch us, if you want, but no pressure. Feel free to use the TV, put on a DVD or play a video game.”
“Don’t save over any of my files, dork,” Alec said. He’d started with the ‘dork’ thing last night. It wasn’t exactly malicious, but it grated.
“My name is Taylor, not dork, and I wouldn’t do that,” I told him. Turning to Brian, I said, “I’ll watch, if it’s cool.”
Brian smiled and nodded, while I moved to kneel on the couch and watch them over the back of it.
As it turned out, it was less of a ‘sparring’ session than an attempt on Brian’s part to give a less than fully committed Alec some basic lessons on hand to hand fighting.
It was one-sided, and not just because Alec wasn’t trying very hard. Alec was a very average fifteen year old guy in that he had little muscle worth speaking about. Brian, by contrast, was fit. He wasn’t big in the sense of a bodybuilder or someone who exercised just to pack on muscle like you saw with some of the people just out of prison. It was a little more streamlined than that. You could see the raised line of a vein running down his bicep, and the definition of his chest showed through his shirt.
Besides the difference in raw physical power, there was also the age and height gap. Alec was two or three years younger and nearly a foot shorter. That meant Brian had more reach – and I’m not just referring to the length of his arms. When he stepped forward or backward, he moved further. He covered more ground, which put Alec on the defensive, and since Brian was stronger, that put Alec in a bad position.
Brian stood without much of a fighting stance, hands at his sides, bouncing just a little where he stood. Twice in a row, I watched Alec swing a punch, only for Brian to lean out of the way. The second time Alec’s arm flew by, Brian leaned in and jabbed Alec in the center of his chest. It didn’t look like much of a punch, but Alec still sort of woofed out a breath and stepped back.
“I keep telling you,” Brian said, “You’re throwing punches like you’d throw a baseball. Don’t bring your arm so far back before you punch. You’re just broadcasting what you’re about to do and it doesn’t add enough power to the hit to be worth that.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?”
“Look at how I’m standing. Arms up, bent, then I just extend my arm, wrist straight. Fast enough that whoever I’m hitting generally can’t step out of the way, so they’ve got to either take it or block it.”
“But you weren’t standing like that ten seconds ago when I was punching you,” Alec complained.
“I left an opening to see if you would take advantage of it,” Brian replied.
“And I didn’t,” Alec noted with a sigh.
Brian shook his head.
“Well fuck this then,” Alec said, “If you’re going to go easy on me and still kick my ass, I don’t see the point.”
“You should learn how to fight,” Brian said.
“I’ll do like I have been and bring my taser,” was Alec’s response, “one poke and they’re out cold. Better than any punch.”
“And if the taser breaks or you lose it?” Brian asked. He needn’t have bothered. Alec was already sitting himself down in front of the TV, remote in one hand and game controller in the other. Brian’s disappointment was palpable.
“Mind giving me a few quick and dirty pointers?” I asked.
Alec sniggered, Beavis and Butthead style.
“Grow up, Alec,” Brian said, “If you want to quit, fine, but don’t be a dick.” He turned to me and flashed that boyish smile. Then we started.
I knew he was going easy on me, but he was still a damn tough teacher.
“Make two fists. No, don’t wrap your fingers over your thumbs. You’ll do more damage to your hands than you will to the person you’re hitting, if you do that. That’s better. Now jab at me, okay?”
I tried to emulate what he’d been describing to Alec. Arms up, bent, and extending my fist with a snap. He caught my right hand in his left.
“Okay, now you’re going to do two things different. Step into the jab so you’ve got your body’s momentum behind the hit, on top of your arm’s power. Second, I want your left arm up as you’re jabbing with your right, and vice versa. If I see the chance, I’m going to pop you one on the shoulder or ribs, so be ready to fend me off.”
I winced at the idea, but I played along. I jabbed, he stepped away, and he jabbed me in the shoulder. He didn’t hit as hard as he could have – I think he only hit as hard as it took to make it hurt and drive the lesson home, but I suddenly felt a stab of sympathy for Alec.
Things continued in that vein. Brian didn’t stay on one topic for long. When I started struggling with something, he shifted gears to another area that complemented or built on what I was having problems with. When I failed for the fifth time to fend off his retaliatory jabs at my shoulders and ribs, he started talking about posture.
“Rest your weight on the balls of your feet.”
I tried it, then told him, “I feel like I’m going to tip over backwards if you hit me.”
He bent down to check, and I lifted my toes two or three inches off the ground to demonstrate how I had my weight balanced on my heels.
“No, Taylor. The balls of your feet. He raised his bare foot and pointed at the padded part between his toes and the bridge of his foot.
“How is that a ball?” I asked, raising my own foot to point at the vaguely spherical part of the foot where the ankle met the ground, “this is the only part that looks ball-like.”
“You guys are so lame,” Alec chimed in, without turning around. Brian swatted him in the back of the head.
We moved on from posture, Brian’s recommendations on balancing did help, to self-defense again. From there, we changed topics to the mental side of things, both for me and my opponent.
“So I throw a punch like I’m aiming to put my fist through them?” I confirmed.
“Right,” Brian said, “Instead of just trying to make contact with the point where your hand meets their body.”
“What about when they’re attacking me?”
“Best bet? Don’t give them a chance. Stay aggressive and keep them on their heels. If neither of you have formal training, then that’s going to give you the best odds. They won’t be able to turn the tables on you unless you make a mistake or they can guess what you’re going to do as you do it. Which is why you mix it up. Rights, lefts, punches, jabs, elbow, knee, kicks and if you’re bigger and stronger than them, you can try tackling them to the ground. With all of that, you stay on them until they aren’t in a position to fight back.”
“Are you formally trained in anything?” I asked. I suspected he was, since the only other way for him to know as much as he was demonstrating was to have actually been in a good number of fights, and I wasn’t thinking that he seemed the type to fight without reason.
“Ehhh,” he hedged, “Some. My dad was a boxer when he was in the service, and he taught me some when I was little. I moved on to other stuff on my own – Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga – but nothing really held my interest. I only took a few weeks or a month of classes for each. I know enough and keep in shape, which is enough to hold my own against anyone who isn’t a black belt in whatever, which is the important thing, I think. Keeping up with the more serious martial artists is a full time job, and you’re still going to run into people who are better than you, so I don’t see the point in stressing too much over it.”
We moved on to key areas to attack.
Brian pointed to the body parts in question as he explained, “Eyes, nose, temple, chin and throat are the areas above the shoulder. Teeth or ears if you can hit hard enough. I can, you can’t.”
“Sure,” I said. I wasn’t offended by his bluntness. He was stronger than me, so he had more options. Tip toeing around it didn’t do either of us any favors.
“Below the shoulders, diaphragm, kidney, groin, knee, bridge of the foot, toes. Elbow is a good one if you can do anything with it,” he took my wrist in his left hand and my shoulder in his right, extending my arm straight as he brought his knee up to gently tap the outside of my elbow. I could see how he would have screwed up or broken my arm if he’d done it full strength. He went on, “But in my experience, it doesn’t come up often enough to worry about.”
It was a little disquieting to hear Brian methodically describing how to break a human being. I saw him as a nice guy, if I ignored his career choice.
Not entirely by accident, I changed the subject, “I was thinking about investing in a weapon for hand to hand. When I was fighting Lung, fists were no good and I found myself really wanting a knife or a baton or something. Don’t know if they would have been any good against his armor, but you know…” I trailed off.
Brian nodded, “Makes sense. You don’t have a lot in the way of upper body strength, no offense.”
“None taken. I tried to get something like a push-up routine going, but I got sick of it fast. At least with running, there’s that sense of going places, you get the scenery.”
“Push-ups get repetitive, yeah. Well, the boss is good about supplying us with gear. Lisa’s the one who talks to him, she’s talking to him right now, in fact. Put in a word with her if you want something like that. It’s untraceable too, so the good guys aren’t going to be tracing any serial numbers or whatever from your weapon back to your purchase.”
The fact that Lisa was talking to their boss made me very curious, all of a sudden. That said, I couldn’t really traipse in to eavesdrop without being suspicious. Instead, since Lisa was out of earshot, I thought I’d seize the opportunity to ask, “So who is this boss of ours?”
Brian and Alec exchanged a look. When they didn’t immediately say anything, I wondered if I’d pushed it too far. Had I been too nosy?
“Figured you’d ask,” Brian said, “Thing is, we don’t know.”
“What?” I asked, “We have an anonymous sponsor?”
“It’s really fucking weird, yeah,” Alec said, then he hammered a button on the game controller, “Boom! Triple headshot!”
“Alec, stay focused,” Brian sighed the words, with a tone suggesting he didn’t expect to be listened to.
Alec bobbed his head in a nod, his eyes not leaving the television, before adding, “It’s weird but it’s basically free money, a good team, contacts, access to everything we need for stuff, and pretty much no drawbacks.”
“Lisa knows, I think,” Brian grumbled, “But she says that when she joined the Undersiders, she made a deal that she was going to keep quiet on the subject. I’m not sure if that means she knows who he is or if it’s just to keep her mouth shut if her power tells her.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said, “This guy gathers you all together, offers you a salary and what? Doesn’t ask for anything in return?”
Brian shrugged, “He asks us to do jobs, but most of the time it’s stuff we’d do anyways, and if we say no, he doesn’t make an issue of it.”
“What kind of jobs does he ask us to do?” I asked.
Lisa’s voice just behind me startled me, “This. Pull up your socks, boys and girl, because we’re robbing a bank.”