staring death in the face

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i knelt on the ground, the tiny pellets of concrete gravel digging deeply into my knees so that they bled, making the act of holding the gun straight out in front of me nearly impossible.

i spat at frank’s feet, sending him into a frenzy and he struck me again, this time across the face, and with a fractured two-by-four rather than the back of his nimble, bony hand.

“i don’t want to say it again, boy,” he said, taking the cigarette from his dry-lipped mouth and flicking it into a little scum pond that had collected in the tall grass behind the warehouse during yesterday’s rainstorm.

“shoot him, or we shoot you. get it?” i looked at him through my swollen eyes as my view of the world dimmed slightly from the obvious onset of a concussion. around me stood three goons, each as large as the next, and all with a serious penchant for creating scenes that culminate in humiliation, piss and blood, but not necessarily in that order.

i then turned my gaze to ralph, that poor son of a bitch standing not ten feet in front of me, and raised the gun so that the better of my two eyes peered at him through the sight, making him tremble uncontrollably.

even though most of my life had been wrapped up in crime (the plotting of crime, the execution of crime and the profiteering of crime), i had still never been in a situation where i was the one who was being asked to take the life of another.

i steadied myself and began to breathe slowly, demonstrating my deadly-intent to frank while buying myself a few more seconds of precious time to assess the situation and create a out, both for me and for ralph.

my brain buzzed and my ears rang as i thought about what to do. do i shoot him or not? if i don’t, they’ll just kill both of us and it will all be over, our bodies to undergo some defaming form of burial, whether burned, drowned or buried, but not before they beat us to an unrecognizable pulp, which of course, occurs just before they shoot us both in the head.

if this was war, and my commanding officer had ordered me to shoot a prisoner or a rogue defector that we had captured behind enemy lines, i would, without question, draw my service revolver and send the dirty commie to burn in hell with a single shot between his eyes. this, however, is a back alley in chicago, not the fucking russian steppes, and death without hesitation doesn’t exist for me…yet.

suddenly, sammy, the larger of the three goons, grabbed my neck with his thick, sausage-like fingers and squeezed as hard as he could, sending stabbing pains up through my skull like lightening. he shook me violently and shouted in my ear in a staccato rhythm, his hot, ghastly breath reeking of garlic, cigarettes and vodka, “shoot him, shoot him, shoot him!”

i looked directly into ralph’s tearing eyes, his face pleading with me to have mercy. “paul,” he moaned, “paulie, don’t.” i focused my eye through the sight and squeezed the trigger, preparing to bolt from the scene as soon as the gunshot sounded and ralph fell sideways to the ground.

instead, the son of a bitch moved to the right just as i squeezed the trigger. he fell dead instantly, blood and brain oozing from the back of his head, his pants stained with urine that steamed like a hot cup of coffee in the cold february air.

i felt sick to my stomach and began to wretch on the gravel in front of me. i dropped the gun and stared at ralph, lying lifeless in front of me, humiliated in the most excruciating of ways.

i cursed myself as frank and his goonish mob left me to survey the scene. “ralph, you fucking idiot,” i whispered to his lifeless body, “i was aiming for your shoulder.”

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