The pounding on my door jerked me out of sleep like a cold shower, dousing the fire of my dreams with stark reality. I cracked open one eye and stared at the clock. Three a.m.? Who would be pounding on my door at three a.m.? Was the apartment building on fire?
I rolled out of bed, staggered for a bit until I found my balance, and pulled on a pair of dirty shorts. The kitchen light sent shards of agony deep inside my brain when I flicked it on. I squinted, my eyes watering, and fumbled with the lock.
Two men in dark, double-breasted suits stood in the hallway, their hands clasped behind their backs. I stepped back involuntarily, raising my hand above my eyes to I block the glare of the light, but it didn't help. I had never seen them before in my life.
The taller one had a nasal Brooklyn accent that grated across my nerves and sent them singing. His nose skewed sideways, giving him the appearance of a wannabe prizefighter. His hair reminded me of a skunk, black as night and liberally shot with gray. The other man stroked a pencil thin blond moustache and gave me a smile that showed only a few of his crooked teeth.
"Yes?" I realized that was a mistake as soon as I said it; no one with legitimate concerns would pound on a guy's door at three in the morning.
They exchanged glances.
Brooklyn grinned at me, exposing capped white teeth. "May we come in?"
"I'm not sure..."
Before I could finish my refusal and shut the door in their faces, the blond one took me by one arm and propelled me backwards, into the kitchen. Brooklyn followed, still grinning.
"It will only take five minutes of your time, really," he said. "We only have a couple questions."
"Where is it?" the blond asked. He shook me and I felt another pang of agony shoot through my poor abused brain.
"Where is what?" I tried to pull away from him, but he was stronger than he looked. He calmly pulled me into the living room and pushed me into my favorite chair.
The first tendril of panic bloomed in my stomach. I tasted sour fear in the back of my throat. I tried to stand. The blond pushed me back down.
"Mr. William Spark." Brooklyn stood next to me, his arms folded against his chest. The guy had to be a bodybuilder or something; he outweighed and outmuscled me by at least a rottweiler. Whoever these guys were, they meant business, even though I had no idea what business they were in. Or what they wanted from me.
"Where is it?" the blond asked again.
"Tell us the truth, Will Spark," Brooklyn said, and pulled a switchblade from one of his pockets. He inspected his nails, and then methodically began to clean them with the tip of the blade. I couldn't tear my eyes away from it.
"Mr. Spark, we represent a certain...shall we say, party who is interested in something you saw right around midnight."
"Three hours and," he consulted a Rolex on his wrist, "four minutes ago."
"I was..." I trailed off when I realized I had no idea where I had been around midnight. "I was drunk." That much, at least, I remembered. I had gone to a party. Larry's party. And he had refused to give me back my keys. I had walked home in the dark, but I didn't remember one step of that journey.
"You weren't drunk enough," Brooklyn insisted. "Talk to us, Will Spark. What did you see and where did it go?"
"It what?" I shook my head, which only made things worse. "I don't know what you're talking about." I started to rise out of the chair, intending to lunge for the phone on the coffee table, and the blond punched me in the stomach.
I gagged and barely managed not to puke all over my nice clean carpet. Brooklyn grabbed a hunk of hair and pulled me up. The blond punched me again.
This time, I couldn't hold it back.
"Look at the mess you've made, Mr. Spark." The blond shook his head. Brooklyn handed me a handkerchief to wipe my mouth. He waited until I had straightened back up, and then he had the blond hit me again.
"Talk to us, Will Spark," Brooklyn said. "I don't want to have to hurt you."
"I don't want you to have to hurt me either," I gasped, struggling to catch my breath.
"Then tell us what you saw and where it went," the blond suggested.
"I don't know! I was drunk!" I didn't realize I was shouting until Brooklyn's hand covered my mouth.
"Quietly, Mr. Spark. We don't want to worry your neighbors."
I nodded, frantic to take a breath. When he removed his hand, I slumped in the chair and gasped for air.
"I was drunk," I finally said. "I don't remember much when I'm drunk."
"I think Mr. Spark needs some help with his memory, Lyle."
I tried to duck away from the blonde's punch, but I didn't duck fast enough. His fist slammed into the side of my head. I felt a burst of pure pain, and then nothing.
* * *
When I came to, I couldn't move. I raised my head and realized I sat in one of the old kitchen chairs I'd picked up at the local Goodwill, bound hand and foot with duct tape. I could move my hands in a limited way, but I could not escape. Duct tape isn't only good for pipes, after all.
Brooklyn and Lyle stood in front of the kitchen table, facing me. Lyle leaned against the battered table, his arms crossed. Brooklyn seemed bored, as if beating up a guy was all in a day's work. I had feeling it was, for them.
My head had stopped pounding. Now, it throbbed in time to my heartbeat, in great unending waves of pain. When I tried to focus on Brooklyn, the kitchen lurched around me head and I had to struggle not to gag.
"Should I hit him again, boss?" Lyle asked and raised one meaty fist.
Brooklyn stared at me for a moment. "Are you ready to talk to us, Will Spark?"
"I don't think I have anything to say," I whispered. My voice sounded funny and the whole left side of my face felt swollen and strange. I did not want to look in a mirror.
"What did you see and where did it go, Mr. Spark?" Brooklyn asked. "We wouldn't ask you if it wasn't important. It could be a matter of National Security."
"I doubt that," I muttered. Lyle raised his fist. I flinched back before I could stop myself.
Brooklyn smiled. "Hit him again, Lyle. See if you can jog his memory a bit."
"No, you don't have to hit..." my protest went unheard. Lyle drew his fist back and plunged it into my stomach. I tried to curl around the pain, but I couldn't move.
He hit me again for good measure, and I felt something pop inside my chest. Another streak of pain joined what already dimmed my fading vision. I tried to lose myself in darkness.
Brooklyn threw a cup of cold water in my face. It jerked me back to the present long enough for me to notice that the switchblade had reappeared. This time, Brooklyn wasn't cleaning his nails with it.
"I could kill you right now, Mr. Spark," he said, his voice both calm and cold. "I could drive this into your heart and you would die."
I stared at him. My stomach hurt too much to take a breath, let alone a deep one. "Why would you want to kill me?"
"You saw something you weren't supposed to see," Brooklyn said. "Lyle, I don't think hitting him will jog his memory. I think we'll have to do something a bit more...drastic."
"Drastic? Look, guys. I don't know who you are or who you work for, but could it be possible that you have the wrong..." I shut up when I saw the gun in Lyle's hand.
Brooklyn smiled. "Now we're beginning to understand each other. What did you see after you left the party, Mr. Spark?" He waved the knife in front of my face.
I tried to remember, I really did, but the whole previous evening was a smudge of booze in my memory. Mom had been right. She'd always told me that drinking would bring me to a bad end.
"Do you want me to shoot him now?" Lyle asked.
"Shoot me?" I tried to twist out of the chair, overbalanced, and ended up on my back, staring up at the fluorescents. I tasted blood in the back of my throat.
"Look, can't we talk about this?" I'd never been much of a fighter, but I didn't want to die.
Brooklyn bent over me. "We only came here to ask you a few questions, Mr. Spark. You refused to answer. What more can we do?"
"I don't remember!" I was babbling now, and we both knew it. "Hell, I'm lucky I remember where I live when I'm drunk. Ask any one of my friends. Ask my neighbors. Ask anyone you like, just don't..."
"I think it's too late," Lyle said, and leveled the gun at my head. I stared up at death. The words shriveled and died in my throat. A hot wetness spread over the crotch of my shorts.
Brooklyn turned away. "Lyle, you know what to do."
Lyle gave me a sorrowful look and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot deafened everything and sent me barreling down into darkness.