Brutal Prince: Chapter 22

CALLUM

I wake up with my hands tied over my head, suspended from a meat hook.

This is not a great position for me. I’m a big dude, and all that weight hanging from my arms for god knows how long makes them feel like they’re about to be pulled out of the sockets.

Plus my head is fucking banging.

The last thing I remember is some dude that wasn’t actually a dude doing the tango across the stage.

Now I’m in some warehouse that stinks of rust and dirt. Under that, a cold, wet, rotting smell.

And it really is fucking cold. Even in my suit jacket, I’m shivering.

Maybe it’s the after-effects of the drugs. My muscles feel weak and shaky. My vision keeps switching from fuzzy to clear, like a pair of binoculars going in and out of focus.

Drugs. Someone drugged my drink. When I was sitting with . . .

AIDA!

I whip my head around, looking for her.

Thankfully, she’s not hanging from a hook right next to me. But I don’t see her anywhere in the deserted space. All I see is a table, covered with a stained white cloth. Which is not, generally, a good sign.

I want to yell for Aida. But I also don’t want to draw attention to the fact that she’s gone. I don’t know how I got here, and I don’t know if she was with me or not.

My shoulders are screaming. My feet can almost, but not quite, touch the ground.

I try twisting my wrists, turning them against the rough rope to see if there’s any chance of wriggling free. The movement makes me rotate slightly, like a bird on a spit. But it doesn’t seem to loosen the knot.

The only good thing is that I don’t have long to wait.

The Butcher enters the warehouse, flanked by two of his soldiers. One is slim, with white-blond hair and tattoos down both arms. The other looks familiar—he might have been one of the bouncers at Pole. Oh, fuck. He probably was.

But it’s the Butcher who draws my attention. He fixes me with his furious stare, one eyebrow permanently quirked a little higher than the other. His nose looks beakier than ever under the harsh light, his cheeks hollower. The pitted scars along the sides of his face look too deep to be from acne—it might be shrapnel wounds from some explosion long ago.

Zajac pauses in front of me, almost directly under the single overhead light. He lifts one finger and touches my chest. He pushes, making me swing helplessly back and forth from the hook.

I can’t help grunting at the increased pressure on my arms. The Butcher gives a small smile. He’s amused by my discomfort.

He steps back again, giving a nod to the bouncer from the club. The bouncer strips off Zajac’s coat.

Zajac looks smaller without it. But as he rolls up the sleeves of his striped dress shirt, I can see that his forearms are thick with the kind of muscle built by doing practical things.

As he rolls up his left sleeve with deft, sure motions, he says, “People think I got my nickname because of Bogota. But it isn’t true. They called me the Butcher long before that.”

He rolls up the right sleeve as well, until it matches the left precisely. Then he strides over to the covered table. He pulls back the cloth, revealing exactly what I expected to see: a set of freshly-sharpened butcher’s knives, their blades arranged by shape and size. Cleavers, scimitars, and chef’s knives, blades for boning, filleting, carving, slicing, and chopping.

“Before we were criminals, the Zajacs had a family trade. What we learned, we passed down. I can butcher a hog in forty-two minutes.” He lifts up a long, slender knife, touching the ball of his thumb to the blade. Without any pressure at all, the skin parts and a bead of blood wells up against the steel. “What do you think I could do to you in an hour?” he muses, looking up and down my stretched-out frame.

“Maybe you could explain what the fuck you want, for a start,” I say. “This can’t be about transit property.”

“No,” Zajac says softly, his eyes colorless in the stark light.

“What is it, then?” I ask.

“It’s about respect, of course,” he replies. “I’ve lived in this city for twelve years now. My family has been here for three generations. But you don’t know that, do you, Mr. Griffin? Because you haven’t even paid me the compliment of curiosity.”

He sets down the knife he’s holding and selects another. Though his fingers are thick and stubby, he handles his weapon as dexterously as Nero.

“The Griffins, and the Gallos . . .” he says, approaching me with a blade in hand. “Both alike in your arrogance. The Gallos bury two of my men under cement, and they think that’s the end of it. You take my donation, then refuse to even meet with me face to face. Then you both make a marriage agreement, without even considering my sons. Or issuing an invitation.”

“The wedding was short notice,” I say through clenched teeth. My shoulders are on fire, and I don’t like how close Zajac is getting with that knife.

“I know exactly why the wedding happened,” he says. “I know everything . . .”

I want to demand where Aida is right now if he knows so much. But I’m still wary of giving her away. She might have managed to escape. If so, I hope to god she’s calling the cops, or her brothers.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anybody is going to get here in time. If they even knew where to find me.

“This was a slaughterhouse,” Zajac says, gesturing around the empty warehouse with the point of his knife. “They used to kill a thousand hogs a day here. The blood ran down there,” he points down the length of a metal grate that runs below my feet, “Down that pipe, straight into the river. The water was red for a mile downriver from the plants.”

I can’t actually see the pipe he’s referencing, but I can smell the dank stink of dirty water.

“A little further down, people swam in the water,” he says, his eyes fixed on the blade of his knife. “It looked clean enough, by then.”

“Is there a point to this metaphor?” I say impatiently. My shoulders are fucking burning, and if Zajac is going to kill me, I’d rather he go ahead and do it already. “Am I supposed to be the person swimming in the dirty water?”

“No!” he snaps, eyes on my face now. “That’s everyone in Chicago, who wants to think their city is clean. You’re the person who eats the bacon, thinking you’re better than the man who butchered it.”

I sigh, trying to pretend to be interested, while actually scanning the room. I’m eyeballing the two bodyguards, looking for some way out of this mess. All the while I’m chaffing my wrists inside the rope, trying to twist them free bit by bit. Or else just rubbing my skin off—it’s hard to tell.

Zajac is done monologuing. He cuts off my suit jacket and shirt with a dozen quick slashes. Parts of the sleeves still hang off my arms, but my torso is bare, bleeding from five or six shallow cuts. The Butcher is skilled enough that he could have done that without touching my skin, but he slashed me on purpose. He’s whetting his knife.

He presses the point against the lower right-hand side of my abdomen.

“Do you know what’s right there?” he says.

I don’t want to play this game with him.

“No,” I say.

“Your appendix. A little three-and-a-half-inch tube of tissue, extending from your large intestine. Likely vestigial for the modern human, but sometimes brought to prominence when it becomes infected or inflamed. I don’t see any laparoscopy scars, so I assume yours is still intact.”

I stay stubbornly silent, refusing to play along.

The Butcher rests the flat of the blade on the palm of his hand. “I had intended to wait until after the election for this, but you had to make a nuisance of yourselves, smashing up my casino and bothering my mistress in her place of work. So here’s what we’re going to do. The Gallos are going to return the money they stole from my casino.”

I don’t know how much they got, but I hope it was a fuck ton of cash.

“You’re going to sell me the transit property, at a steep discount.”

Nope. Also not happening.

“And you’re going to provide me with a city government position of my choice, after your election.”

When pigs fucking fly.

“As a down payment on these services, I’m going to take your appendix,” Zajac says. “You won’t miss it. The surgery, though painful in the absence of anesthetic, won’t be fatal.”

He raises the point of the knife once more, positioning it directly above the apparently non-essential portion of my guts. He takes a breath, readying himself to slice into my flesh. Then he begins to press the knife into my belly.

He pushes it in agonizingly slow.

I grind my teeth together as hard as I can, eyes closed, but I can’t help letting out a strangled yell.

It really fucking hurts. I’ve heard that being stabbed is more painful than being shot. Having recently been grazed in the arm by my loving wife, I can definitely attest that having a knife slowly, torturously burrowed into your guts is about a hundred times worse. My face is sweating, and my muscles are shaking harder than ever. And the knife is only an inch or two into my flesh.

“Don’t worry,” the Butcher hisses. “I should be done in an hour or so . . .”

“Wait a second, wait a second . . .” I pant.

He pauses, without taking the knife out of my stomach.

“Could you take a break for a second and scratch my nose? I’ve got an itch, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Zajac gives an irritated snort and tenses his arm to drive the knife deeper into my body.

At that moment, a bottle comes flying through the doorway, with a smoking rag stuffed in its neck. The bottle shatters on the cement floor, the flaming liquor spreading out in a pool, and shards of fiery glass spinning outward. One catches the bouncer’s sleeve. He spins around, trying to slap it out again.

There’s another smashing sound, and then an explosion, loud and close.

“Deal with that,” Zajac hisses to his men.

The blond one splits off at once, skirting the wreckage of the Molotov cocktail and heading through a side door. The bouncer heads straight for the main door, only to catch a bullet in the shoulder the second he walks through.

Pierdolić!” the Butcher hisses. He jumps behind me, in case the shooter is about to come through the door.

But as we wait, no one walks through. And I know Zajac is torn—on the one hand, he doesn’t want to leave me here alone. On the other, he’s now unprotected himself. He has no idea how many people are storming the warehouse. He doesn’t want to be caught in here if it’s my men who come barging through the door.

As the seconds tick by, and we hear the confusing sounds of shouting, running, and something else smashing, but it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. The Molotov is still burning—in fact, the flames are spreading across the cement floor somehow. Perhaps the paint is burning. It creates clouds of acrid black smoke that make us sweat and cough.

Finally, Zajac curses again. He strides over to the table, seizing a cleaver in one hand and a machete in the other. Then he hurries out through the same side door where his blond lieutenant disappeared.

The moment I’m alone, I start wrenching and working on those ropes. My left arm is almost totally numb now, but I can still move the right one. I pull as hard as I can. My hands, my wrists, my arms, and shoulders are all screaming. It feels like I’m going to dislocate my thumb. But finally, I twist the right hand free.

Just then, a figure comes sprinting barefoot through the door, jumping over the fallen body of the bouncer who was shot in the shoulder.

It’s Aida. Her dark hair streams behind her like a banner as she flies across the cement. She nimbly avoids the flames and shattered glass, pausing only to grab a knife off the table. She presses it into my palm.

“Cut the rope!” she cries. “It’s too high for me to reach!”

She’s got blood running down the right side of her face. Her left hand is wrapped in a rag.

“Are you okay?” I ask her, reaching overhead to saw at the rope still holding my left hand in place. “Where’re your brothers?”

“I have no idea!” she says. “Those goons took my phone. Took my gun, too—Dante’s gonna be pissed. I’m the only one here!”

“What!” I say. “What the hell was all that noise, then?”

“A diversion!” Aida says gleefully. “Now hurry up, before—”

At that moment the rope parts, and I tumble down on the concrete. My arms feel like they’re not attached to my body. My legs are throbbing, too. Not to mention the puncture on my right side.

“What did they do to you?” Aida asks, her voice shaking.

“I’m fine,” I tell her. “But we’d better—”

At that moment the blond soldier returns, with another of Zajac’s men. They’re both armed, standing in the doorway with their guns pointed right at us.

“Don’t move,” the blond says.

The air is thick with smoke. I’m not sure how well he can actually see us—well enough to shoot us, I’m sure. I grab Aida’s arm and start inching backward.

We’re following the metal grate along the floor, back to the dumping spot where the butchers used to offload the blood and viscera into the river.

“Stop!” The blond shouts, advancing on us through the smoke. He raises his AR, fitting it against his side.

I hear a dull clang as I step on a hinged grate.

Keeping my eye on Zajac’s men, I press the toe of my shoe against the corner of the grate, trying to lift it without using my hands.

It’s heavy, but it starts to move upward, enough that I can get my whole foot under.

“Stay there and keep your hands up,” the blond soldier barks, closing in on us.

I kick the grate all the way open.

Then I wrap my arms around Aida and say, “Take a deep breath.”

I feel her body tense up.

I pick her up bodily and jump down through the grate, down into a pipe four feet wide, that leads god knows where.

We plunge into the filthy, icy water.

The current is swift, dragging us along.

It’s dark, so dark that it makes no difference if my eyes are open or shut. Keeping an iron-clad grip on Aida, I reach up with one hand to see if there’s air above our heads. My hand swipes the pipe, without any space between water and metal

That means we need to get through as quickly as possible. The current is moving us along, but I kick with my feet, propelling us faster.

We’ve probably been down here thirty seconds so far. I can hold my breath for more than two and a half minutes. I can’t expect Aida to manage more than a minute or so.

She’s not struggling in my arms, not fighting me. But I can feel how rigid and terrified she is. She trusts me. God, I hope I didn’t make the worst kind of mistake.

We rocket along, me kicking all the harder. And then we shoot out an outlet pipe, falling down about five feet right into the Chicago River.

The current drags us out to the center of the river, about twenty feet from either bank. That’s not where I want to be, in case any boats come along, but I’m not sure which way I should be taking us. I look around, trying to figure out exactly where we are.

Aida clings to my neck, only paddling with one hand. She isn’t a very strong swimmer, and the current is powerful. She’s shivering. So am I.

“How’d you know we could get out there?” she asks me, teeth chattering.

“I didn’t,” I say. “How in the fuck did you come find me?”

“Oh, I was with you the whole time!” Aida says gleefully. “That backstabbing bitch Jada drugged our drinks, but I didn’t actually drink mine cause it looked weird.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?”

“I was going to!” she says. “You had already slugged it down. I don’t want to make this a cultural critique, but you Irish could learn to sip a drink once in a while. Not everything is a shot.”

I roll my eyes.

“Anyway,” she says, “I tried to get you out to the car, but you were stumbling and slurring, and the bouncers closed me in. So when you passed out, I pretended like I was passed out too. I was so floppy, you would have been amazed by my acting. Even when the big one slammed my hand in the trunk, I didn’t break character.”

I’m staring at her in amazement. While I was knocked out, apparently, she was plotting and planning.

“So they brought us to the warehouse. Then they carried us inside. They took you away, and they put me in some kind of office room. The guy hadn’t tied me up cause he thought I was still out cold. He left me alone for just a second. Locked the door, though. And I didn’t have a phone—he took my purse and Dante’s gun. So instead, I went up into the air vent—”

“You what?”

“Yeah.” She grins. “I used my fingernail to turn the screw, got the cover off. Climbed right out. Remembered to put the cover back on, too. I wish I coulda stayed to see the guard’s face when he came back—he probably thought I pulled some kind of Houdini move. I lost my shoes along the way, cause they were making too much noise in the vent. Then I dropped down in a little kitchen—it had a fridge, freezer, full liquor cabinet. That’s how I made the Molotovs. There was all kinds of stuff in there—Zajac must work out of this building a lot, not just when he’s torturing people.”

She pauses, eyebrows pinching with concern.

“Did he cut you? You were bleeding . . .”

“I’m fine,” I assure her. “He just poked me a little.”

“Anyway,” she says. “I heard the guards freaking out. They didn’t want to tell him I escaped, cause they’re all terrified of him. So that gave me some extra time to run around raising a ruckus. I stole a gun and shot one of them. Then a different one grabbed me from behind, shoved my head into the wall, and I had to shoot down at his foot like nine times before I hit it. Then I didn’t have any more bullets. But I found you right after!”

I’m staring at her in absolute astonishment. Her eyes are bright with excitement, her face alight with the thrill of what she accomplished.

It’s crazy and hectic and we could have been killed.

But I’ve never felt more alive. The freezing water. The night air. The stars overhead. The light reflected in Aida’s gray eyes. I feel it all with painful acuity. It’s absolutely fucking beautiful.

I kiss grab Aida’s face and I kiss her. I kiss her so long and so hard that we sink down under the water, then rise to the surface again, our mouths still locked together.

“You’re incredible,” I tell her. “Also, completely insane. You should have just run!”

Aida fixes me with her most serious expression.

“I would never abandon you,” she says.

We’re spinning slightly in the current, the city lights rotating around us. We’re holding each other, looking into each other’s eyes, while our feet tread water.

“Neither would I,” I promise her. “I’ll always find you, Aida.”

She kisses me again, her lips chilly and trembling, but still the softest thing I’ve ever touched.

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