SHORT STORY: Behold the Pale Horse by Andrew Davie

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  “Chashu,” Owen Shrike said when the server asked for his lunch order. He was in the cafeteria, on the second floor of the Sha Tin race track in Hong Kong’s New Territories. The track showed signs of wear and tear, as opposed to the Happy Valley track, that had been renovated numerous times since it catered primarily to the ex-pat community. Shrike had only been to the Happy Valley racetrack once, but that one time had been enough. The place had been crowded; finance guys. They stood around tables that surrounded the track. Most of them faced away from the race. Shrike was amazed that for all of their knowledge about event trading, derivative swaps, and high yield instruments, they all needed to be walked through filling out the betting ticket when they got to the teller’s window. Shrike had watched, and couldn’t help but laugh, as he saw a line of six get shut out at a window because one of these guys had taken too long to fill out his betting slip. Two of the people in line, both ex-pats, who weren’t able to wager, had walked by, both trying to stifle their rage. One of them was already caught up in a diatribe. 

   “I hope they convert the track into a coliseum and bring back gladiators. I’ll gladly watch these assholes hack each other to death or get eaten by giant pandas.”

   The Sha Tin track was different. While the celebrities and social elite were content to watch the races from above, in the luxury boxes, what kept the place going was the contingent below. Around Shrike right now was an army of elderly degenerate gamblers. Shrike took his tray of pork and rice, thanked the server, and got into the queue at one of the cash registers to pay for his meal. He sampled some of the food while he waited; it was good. He paid, recognized his target among a sea of people, and took a spot across from her at one of several tables underneath the windows that overlooked the track below. Two others, already in a conversation, joined them. Both men had pockmarked and leathery skin covered with liver spots. Unlit cigarettes dangled from their lips, and both clutched cans of San Miguel. Each held the racing form in their hands like it was a sacred religious artefact. Strange notations decorated the paper in blue, yellow, pink, and green highlighters. One of the men wore a jeweller’s loupe around his neck. They spoke rapid-fire Cantonese until one of the presenters appeared on the television screen near them. The presenter was about to go over the details of the upcoming race and both men went silent. The target had yet to lift her face out of her Chashu. Up close now, Shrike got a good look at her. She had a short neck and sunken features, so she resembled a toad. Using chopsticks, she mercilessly shovelled in the rice and pork. She paused every so often for air, but had breathing not been necessary, Shrike was pretty certain this woman would just inhale her food. The presenter issued her picks for the race. Both men consulted their racing forms, took out betting slips, and filled them. Shrike finished his meal and removed a metered-dose inhaler out of his pocket. Using the utmost care he had ground up hemlock, combined it with water, and filled an aluminium canister. He’d read hemlock tasted like fennel, so he wouldn’t have to mask it. Shrike walked past the woman and waited until everyone had eyes on the television monitor. He sprayed the contents of the inhaler onto her tray, bused his empty plate, and exited the cafeteria. It would probably take about fifteen minutes for the alkaloids in the plant to take effect. Her respiratory system would be paralyzed, and though she might exhibit signs of a seizure, Shrike had read it was a painless death. She would be unconscious for the duration. He watched the two men from his table run to the betting window. There was still ten minutes before the next race. Shrike decided, based on their enthusiasm, they thought they had picked a winner. He got into the line behind them. Why not throw down a few bucks? He had time before he needed to visit McClintock. 

      ***


McClintock’s apartment was in The Mid Levels, near the World’s longest escalator. It would take about half an hour to get there. When he arrived, Shrike walked into the courtyard of the apartment complex. It was accessible to the public, and the elevator opened directly into the apartment; each floor only had one. There was no concierge, but odds were he was being recorded. Shrike would need to watch the collateral damage. In the lobby, he pressed the button to summon the elevator. He heard the whir of the gears as the machine descended. He boarded, took the elevator to the sixth floor, and got out onto a recently polished marble floor. He pressed the buzzer, which imitated the chimes from a song he’d recognized but could not identify. A moment passed and the echo of footfalls resonated on the hardwood floor from the interior. 

   “Just a second.”

 The door opened an inch. 

   “Yes?”

 A squat Filipino man stared out. He wore a plain white Barong shirt with khaki pants. 

   “I’m here to speak with Mr. McClintock.”

 The man nodded and motioned for Shrike to enter. 

   ***


 McClintock, also the grandson of the founder of the company which bore his name, had turned forty-three when he had become CEO. McClintock’s first task was to destroy a paper trail which tied them to some illicit activities. Internal memorandums, emails, faxes, voice mails, and hard drives, were wiped clean or redacted beyond coherence. He was also able to convince Senator Lawson to call off a potential oversight hearing. McClintock remained the CEO for another few years before he decided to retire to Hong Kong where no one would question his appetites or prevent him from satiating them. Hong Kong was rife with activities suitable for McClintock’s liking and it wasn’t long before he had dabbled in most of them. 

      ***

   “Please have a seat,” the man said to Shrike, who sank into one of the high backed chairs which surrounded the outer ring of the foyer. The man spoke with a deep register to his voice. He was almost as wide as he was tall and corded muscles caused him to move in a jerky fashion. His nose and ears had been misshapen, but he didn’t look to be the type who cared too much about his features. The man disappeared into the next room.

   “Mr. McClintock will be right with you,” he said before he vanished. 

   ***

As an operative with the Benedict program of The Air Force Special Forces arm, Shrike had been instructed in more variants of martial arts than he could remember. His training was almost exclusively unarmed combat, so systems included: boxing from the United States, Capoeira from Brazil, and Savate from France. His education in the martial arts had been rounded out with a lot of grappling which included almost all forms of jiu-jitsu. One of his instructors, a rather eccentric fellow named Telford, would try to introduce a few new disciplines to Shrike each week. The man had been enamoured with most of the styles of the Far East, especially some of the Philippine schools which included Suntukan; essentially a Filipino form of boxing. However, that particular system was used primarily for street fighting. No rules had been created for its application in the ring. Coupled with Sikaran, which incorporated kicks, both systems had been designed to implement strikes to all parts of an opponent including the groin and spine. Head butts were also encouraged. Shrike had been weary to practice with his instructor since they would often go at more than half speed. Even though he wore an athletic supporter, Shrike would still feel the aftereffects of a training session with Telford days later. Unbeknownst to Shrike, McClintock’s servant, Jayson, the man who had just greeted him, was a practitioner of Suntukan and would have held a title had one existed. Currently, however, Jayson was off the clock for the remainder of the day. He was going to join other foreign workers at the HSBC Hong Kong headquarters building. He would be back in a few hours, but he didn’t think Mr. McClintock would need him. 

           ***

“Mr?” McClintock said as he opened the door. He wore a brown-coloured bathrobe as if he’d just taken a shower but hadn’t changed into his clothes yet. His skin also glistened like he’d been rubbed down with oil. Shrike didn’t know what a garden variety deviant would look like, but he’d be willing to wager McClintock could have been the poster boy.

   “Shrike,” he said and tried to keep the disgust out of his voice. The two men shook hands. 

   “Please,” McClintock said and motioned for Shrike to follow him into a separate room.

   “Would you care for a drink?”

   “Whiskey, if you have it,” Shrike said. He watched McClintock walk over to some shelves on the other side of the room. McClintock would have probably referred to the room they were in as a parlour. Shrike didn’t know what kind of sordid affairs took place while McClintock entertained in this room, but he chose not to think about it further. McClintock finished pouring the drinks, gave Shrike his, and took a seat.

   “Shall we discuss business?” McClintock said, sat down, and sipped his drink. 

   “Mr. Sharma sent me,” Shrike said and watched McClintock’s face change. It was a code. Very quickly though, he regained his composure.

   “You know, you can’t touch me,” he said with the air of someone who felt they were beyond reproach. Shrike said nothing in response, but McClintock read the subtext in the look on Shrike’s face, and McClintock wasn’t going to risk it. He was out of his chair and attempted to flee. Shrike put him to the ground. Shrike had also taken note of the grand piano in the room, and once McClintock was on the floor, Shrike sat at the keyboard and played the beginning of a Schumann composition. McClintock was still dazed, so before he could issue any of the usual threats he needed to get his breathing under control. Once he did, however, the ultimatums came in quick succession. Did Shrike have any idea who he was messing with? The rest of them were variations of that first one. Shrike worked on McClintock for a little under a minute. In the end, McClintock probably would have told him where Jimmy Hoffa was buried if he knew. After they had finished, McClintock continued to moan and stayed down on the floor. He rolled onto his back and alternated holding up his hands toward the ceiling as if his arms would be fixed through divine intervention. 

   “I don’t think so,” Shrike had uttered as he watched the man contort. 


  ***


Once McClintock had realized his threats had fallen on deaf ears, he had tried to bargain. He spoke of how quickly he could accumulate a large sum of money which he would be happy to wire anywhere in the world. McClintock quickly discovered Shrike was not someone with whom he could negotiate, so he began to plead. In the end, Shrike gave orders, and McClintock simply obeyed. Shrike had commanded McClintock to sit at the piano. The man sat at the bench with his shoulders hunched, hyperventilating like a student whose recital was coming up and hadn’t practised enough. There had been hesitation on his face, and he’d begun to shudder. He was instructed to begin playing, and McClintock reluctantly did so. Shrike brought down the piano cover onto McClintock’s forearms and heard the audible crunch. Both of the man’s wrists had been broken. Of that, Shrike was certain. McClintock screamed, slid off of the piano bench, and onto the floor. He cursed Shrike’s name and suggested Shrike would pay for this. He passed out soon after making that declaration. 

      ***


Jayson continued to anticipate being fired even though Mr. McClintock never mentioned it. He wiped Mr. McClintock’s chin and helped manoeuvre the straw, so he could take a sip of his beverage. Both of Mr. McClintock’s arms were set in casts, and he was essentially immobile, so Jayson’s duties now included overseeing Mr. McClintock’s grooming and feeding. Upon his return the evening Shrike had visited, Jayson had discovered Mr. McClintock beaten and barely conscious. The casts went from his hands up to his elbows, so Mr. McClintock could still move his arms, but it would be difficult. Over the next few days, while helping with rehabilitation, Jayson kept expecting the axe to fall, but he remained on staff. The shame he’d felt weighed heavily on him; not because he cared about McClintock. Moreover, he felt he’d failed in his duty. Obligation to duty had been something instilled in him as a child, and it was one of the few ideas he still valued. So, this morning, when McClintock asked Jayson if he would oversee a team to handle retribution for McClintock’s misfortune, Jayson saw it as a chance to redeem himself. He assured Mr. McClintock that this man Shrike would be dealt with. 

   “Break all of his limbs first.”

       ***

Jayson had put together a handpicked crew of capable but morally flexible people. Neither of them had previous military experience; one of them, Ocampo, had even served time. They wouldn’t win any medals or provide examples for a training manual, but Jayson didn’t care about that. He just needed for them to serve their purpose, and that they would most certainly do. Jayson stood in the hallway outside of Shrike’s room. He held the frequency jammer and pressed the button with his thumb. It would disrupt any signal in a twenty-foot radius, so Shrike would be unable to use his cell phone or WIFI while the jammer was operational. Jayson secured the button with duct tape and opened the fire extinguisher case on the wall. He rested the jammer at the bottom, out of sight, and closed it. He caught a glimpse of Ocampo at the end of the hall and wiped his nose; the signal everything was still a go. Rosamie had sent a text earlier stating she was in place and had eyes on Shrike’s room from the neighbouring rooftop. The blinds had been open, and Shrike was inside. Jayson took his place at the doorway. He was going to be the tip of the spear and go in first. Ocampo would trail him after a few seconds. Jayson tried the handle. 

 ***

 The sound Shrike made hitting the Makiwara board had now been diffused by the blankets he’d hung on the walls. It still gave off a sound similar to a piece of wood snapping, each time he struck, but he was pretty certain the steps he’d taken would almost soundproof the room. Shrike was about to start his third rotation of Kote-Kitai to strengthen the durability of his hands and forearms. He hit the board one last time, took out his burner, and pressed the programmed number. He put the phone to his ear and heard garbled static. His eyes shot to the door; as the handle turned, Shrike was already in a defensive stance. The door had been locked, but the man on the other side had been able to power through the paltry lock which acted more like a door stopper than for safety. It was McClintock’s man, Jayson, and he closed the distance between them. Jayson looked like he knew what he was doing and opened with a severe attack. Shrike managed to parry most of the incoming blows, but the inertia brought both of their bodies together. Shrike managed to cartwheel away and grabbed the inhaler from the night table next to the bed. As Jayson approached, a second man entered the room. This man was gangly, all limbs, and had long hair fashioned in a ponytail. He wielded a bolo knife. 

           ***

Ocampo had been a member of a death squad. He’d had difficulty finding legitimate work after his prison sentence, but since he had the required temperament, he was recruited and trained for one of the operational groups in his hometown. Most of his instructors had a military or law enforcement background. They provided him with a motorcycle, weapons, and taught him tactics. Over time, he began to view himself as a weapon; an instrument. It helped him to keep things in perspective. His targets were usually suspected drug dealers, but the truth was Ocampo didn’t care. This was an opportunity for him to capitalize on his skillset. In the beginning, he kept count of the bodies, but once it grew past ten, he stopped. Whereas most of his victims couldn’t offer a suitable defence against his attack, his current target was more than capable. Ocampo would not take this man lightly, even if it looked like Jayson had been handling things easily. Upon entering the room, Ocampo watched as the man sprayed Jayson in the face. Jayson had continued with his attack. Ocampo stopped momentarily, caught up in the artistry of what he was watching, then quickly crossed the room and swung the bolo at his opponent. While the primary use for a bolo is to open coconuts and for farm cultivation, it is also a weapon in Arnis. Ocampo had thought about using a machine gun and simply strafing across the room, but he also had Jayson to think about. Not to mention, Hong Kong wasn’t like back home; the penalties for owning a firearm without a license were severe. In the end, he settled on using a bolo. The man dodged the incoming slash, kicked Ocampo in the knee, and managed to trip up Jayson. The bone on Ocampo’s knee had split through the skin in a compound fracture and sounded like a tree limb being ripped from the trunk. Ocampo’s yell turned into a long moan. He was on the ground and rolled around to diffuse the pain. His eyes were filled with tears, so what he saw was blurred, but he made out the sole of an incoming shoe getting closer until it blocked out his vision entirely. 

         ***


Shrike brought his foot down on the man’s head and felt the vibration of the bone crunch beneath his boot. Surprisingly, it made a hollow sound. Blood began to pool around the body almost immediately, and Shrike was careful not to step in the growing circle. Nearby, McClintock’s man Jayson had already gotten back on his feet. 

   “You’ve been poisoned,” Shrike said as Jayson looked to attack again.

   “I can give you the antidote.”

  Shrike watched the information process on Jayson’s face. Shrike walked over to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. He removed some Aspirin, shut the cabinet door, and returned to the room. Jayson had already sat on the bed. He looked feverish, though it was probably all in his head. It would still take some time for the alkaloids to work. 

   “Take this.”

 Shrike opened the bottle and handed Jayson two pills. 

   “Do you have any water?” Jayson asked. He suddenly stood up ramrod straight. His knees buckled, and he fell to the floor. 

   “If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard it’s painless,” Shrike said as Jayson passed out. 

          ***

Rosamie had watched through binoculars from the rooftop across the way as their target, Shrike, had killed Ocampo. Now, the man stood over Jayson who was on the floor and incapacitated. Forget this, Rosamie thought. If this man was able to take both Ocampo and Jayson, what trouble would she be able to give him? Deep down, she knew the fight was over, and her side lost. It would be better to accept this, leave, and live to carry on for another day. Perhaps, she could go back to working as a Doumi at the karaoke bar. Odds were she could still get her job back. She took out her pocket mirror and looked at her reflection. In dimmer light, she could still be attractive. Was getting felt up by drunk businessmen, and listening to off-key renditions of pop ballads worse than this?

     ***


McClintock gritted his teeth as the pain flared up his left arm. He knew he’d been pushing himself too hard. As a result, his recovery would take much longer, but he hated feeling like an invalid. He looked at the clock on the wall. Odds were Jayson would be returning within the hour; he could wait until then to have dinner. Perhaps he’d have some beef Wellington to celebrate. They could take the Benz and go to The Jacobs Club. How long had it been since he had dined there? It had been one of his favourite restaurants, and he couldn’t remember why he stopped going there. Aside from the great menu, they had seven different types of salt they served with the meal, and allowed you to select your own steak knife. McClintock took another two Acetaminophen/Codeine pills from the bottle and chased it was some iced tea. He was about to check the time again, but he forbade himself. The phrase “A watched pot never boils,” crept into his mind. Jayson would be back soon enough. They would go to The Jacobs Club, and that was that. McClintock stood, felt light-headed, and reached out to steady himself. This time the pain was a dull throbbing as opposed to the electrical current which it had felt like earlier. 

   “Time for another piano lesson,” the voice said. 

   McClintock’s heart jumped into his throat. He felt the urge to scream, but he was unable to make a sound. Though he didn’t remember following orders, he suddenly found himself seated on the piano bench in front of the keys. He’d just put his hands on the keyboard when the cover had begun to come down. This time, the sound of his bones breaking was coupled with the crunch of the Plaster-of-Paris compressing. The pain was so immediate and intense, McClintock couldn’t emit any sound. Instead, his teeth locked together as if he suddenly contracted tetanus, and he bit his tongue. Throughout all of the distraction of the pain, he could taste the copper of the blood. He started to pass out but was shoved from behind. 

   “You can’t go to sleep yet,” Shrike said. “We’re only just getting started.”

THE END


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid haemorrhage. His crime fiction novella Pavement was released in by All Due Respect Books. The follow-up Ouroboros is scheduled for December 2020 and his novella Dig Two Graves is scheduled to be released by Close to the Bone in September 2020. His other work can be found in links on his website: asdavie.wordpress.com


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