(Featured photo can be found here)
Why wasn’t he on that hill? The question repeated in his mind. Libby Hill was a grass covered knoll that held one hundred and sixty-seven cracked and crumbling concrete steps arranged in three sets of partially renovated stairs. They led up the side of a fairly steep slope that was consistently ambushed by unidentifiable vegetation reminiscent of thick jungle bush in the warmer months. The hill had a single level between each of the stair sets that provided flat and even land for about ten to fifteen feet. It gave an individual the false hope that he or she might quickly reach the summit just before revealing the next level of concrete to ascend. He ran the hill five times a week through any and all conditions. He even tried them in the snow once; he fell nearly breaking his ankle. He decided extreme ice would be the only time he’d take a necessary safety break, and even then he still felt guilty. So as soon as the first legitimate thaw presented itself he made his way back to the bottom of the hill. And from that vantage point, near the road, he could see the top of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument peering up into the stratus clouds and heavy green tree tops.
Sticking steadfast to its southern roots, the city of Richmond had long ago erected statues commemorating its role as the home of the Confederacy. They had so many heroes to salute, in fact, that the citizens aligned their statues along a two-way street in the shade of low hanging oak branches in the middle of town and named it Monument Avenue. As Virginia entered a more progressive age, however, it was agreed that perhaps additional accomplished men of the city should have their legacies forever adorned with a copper and marble effigy as well. The trail began with Robert E. Lee mounted on horseback; it ends with Arthur Ashe standing amongst laughing children, a tennis racket in one hand and a book in the other. This was the full dichotomy of the “New South” on display. The solemn Confederate of Libby Hill stood at least a seven minute drive from the stoic General Lee. The sunlight would beam down and the granite soldier casted a shadow across the cobblestone turnabout that was its home. It stood alone in the world, he thought, at the top of Libby Hill. To just run up those crumbling steps – overgrowth brushing his legs – and reach the crest to look across the James River and into downtown was a cathartic release. The act gave him clarity. It helped him focus on the things that were most important – health, strength, having some inkling of a man’s miniscule standing in a world full of Libby Hills. These things his father used to preach to him incessantly before he died. Those were the building blocks of a man’s character, his father would say, and anything you can do to better understand and sharpen them you should take on with a near-reckless abandon. That’s why he needed the hill. That’s where he wanted to be. That was the groggy dream that was floating through his mind, as it sometimes did, during those difficult instances. But today he found himself a little low on the euphoria. Instead of feeling the sun against sweaty skin and watching the silhouettes of the trees and the monument dance against the stone staircase he was being restrained in a chair. He was sitting in some cold, dark room tied down to a goddamned chair.
Stale, metallic. The smell, the aroma, overpowered the room. The odor got caught in your nostrils and the next thing you knew you tasted it. If failure had a taste this was it. You could almost feel the defeat hitting your tongue and teeth as you walked through the threshold. To him, the atmosphere was similar to the locker room for a prize fighter who just finished getting the living shit beat out of him. The clichéd dimly lit single bulb hanging precariously from the frayed wire swayed in the breeze provided by an HVAC vent above. The cinderblock walls were caked with dark unidentified substances much in the way his lip was caked with dried blood. Other men, he thought, had gotten more than their feelings hurt in this dark little corner of Hell. Some of them probably didn’t make it out. They didn’t make it back to their Libby Hill; he might not either.
Three snaps and some smelling salt dragged him out of his dazed state and back into the pain of the moment. “Joshua? Mr. Joshua Whitman, are you with us? I need for you to focus for me a bit.” Snap. Snap. Snap, again.
He realized his right eye was almost swollen shut. He heard a whizzing sound, like a balloon letting out a tiny amount of air from a pinprick. The sharp stabbing pain in his left side let him know that he was the one making that noise. Probably had a broken rib that was pushing up against his lung, which may or may not have been puncture. Regardless, it hurt like hell. His wrists were rubbed raw from the zip ties they’d used to strap him in. And all the subsequent movement from the beating bestowed upon him by the two-hundred and seventy pound gorilla of a man didn’t help his cause. Yes, this was dumb, he thought, letting himself get caught in this predicament. And it, too, would be an uphill climb. There was just nothing euphoric about it.
“I apologize if I take a little time out to gloat in this moment, Joshua.”
He still couldn’t quite make any more sense of the surroundings; his good eye wasn’t quite focusing quickly enough. It was dark when they’d began pounding on him; it didn’t give him much time to see faces or take any additional notes to make him aware of what the hell was going on. He could, however, distinctly hear the voice. It was a man’s voice, and it was familiar.
“But, brother, I’ve gotta be honest. You are one hard son of a bitch to find!” The man let out a cackle, slapping his hands together as if he were applauding himself. Then, using his fingers to flip through the items in his head, he counted out a list. “No car, no ID, pays for everything in cash. Not so much as a year book photo on file for you. They’ve got this crazy thing called the internet that lets you connect with people! Have you heard of it?” he laughed. “Only child, parents died when you were eighteen. Man, we had to find your maternal third cousin before we got so much as a whiff! And shit, he hadn’t seen you since you were fifteen and isn’t the most reliable mind these days considering all the garbage he pumps into his veins. Damnedest thing I ever saw, but after a few months and some elbow grease,” the man pointed to the chair, “here you are.”
The shadows were moving now, becoming solidified figures. The man had his back to the chair now, clad in a steel grey pinstripe suit and an out-of-date Kango. He knew exactly who this eccentric drunken-uncle-at-the-dinner-table was. He inhaled deeply letting the pain refresh him, and in a slurred remark as though to gain some strength from the act. He muttered a name out loud: “Libby Hill”.
He could feel their eyes all staring at him strangely, wondering if they’d pounded away a few brain cells too many.
“What was that? A little prayer?” The thin man asked.
“Something like that.” He spat a little blood onto the bare concrete floor. “You must be Eugene Fisher.”
Fisher turned to face him. His white teeth shined through the corners of an insincere grin, a look reminiscent of a hungry shark. He was a thin man with a pencil-thin mustache, a thin burgundy striped tie and thinning strands of jet black dyed hair disappearing under the cool gray of his hat. His shirt was the color of heavy cream which matched his shoes perfectly. Eugene Fisher was a poor man’s John Waters every day of the week only twice as creepy. The grin twisted itself into a full blown smile displaying a pair of somewhat eerily sharp canine teeth next to his incisors that seemed better suited for some animal or monster. The man in the chair could have been seeing things, however. His bruised mind quite possibly wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses at that moment.
Again, Fisher slapped his hands together. “Ah! So you know my work, I take it? When two individuals like us enter into the type of situation in which we find ourselves, Josh – wait, may I call you Josh?”
Shifting uncomfortably in the seat he nodded at the oddly polite gesture.
Fisher spoke with a lot of big hand gestures, moving his arms and hands rapidly throughout the words like a drunken magician. “Josh, when we find ourselves in a situation like this, understanding one another’s history is of the upmost importance. It makes everything flow much more smoothly. For instance, I have a history, some might argue, of a propensity towards the use of violence –”
“You don’t say?” he spat more blood onto the dirty floor at his feet.
Fisher shrugged. In a sigh the smile finally dissipated. “Yes, well, that and I have… well, let’s say overzealous employees, perhaps.” From the chair he couldn’t see him but could hear the man-gorilla shuffling around behind his seat in the dark. To the left he could make out a small Asian woman. She was generally attractive wearing jeans with stiletto heels that match her red leather moto jacket. She didn’t look like a killer, just a trendy clubber, maybe. A table that rested behind her, however, alluded to her a demented past time or profession. An assortment of metallic objects was laid out across the polished metal top that continued to flicker every time the light hit them. He knew the Asian would be with Fisher. Her name was Soto, and Soto had an affinity for knives.
“But that, Josh,” Fisher walked closer to the chair finally kneeling down in front of it, “is why we start things off the way we do. I don’t begin with the long-winded, sanctimonious ‘talk or I’ll kill you’ bullshit all those other pricks that never got enough of their mother’s love throw at you. The bastards just want to be heard. No, sir. I want to show folks up-front, right off the bat, that I’m a straight shooter. I’m a man who believes his word is his bond. So I start off with perhaps a more non-traditional method. I beat the shit out of you ahead of time. No questions asked. I already know you’ve got what I’m looking for and you know you’ve got what I’m looking for, so let’s just skip the formalities. Griffin back there behind you,” he motioned in the direction of the man-gorilla, “beats the piss out of you, then we come to phase two.”
“And I take it phase two includes the Iron Chef over here,” he nodded, his head still drooping from exhaustion and the beating.
Fisher eyes locked onto Soto over his shoulder, “A clumsy metaphor, I’d say. I think of her more as –” he paused as though to flip through some mental thesaurus, searching for just the right adjective “an artist of a sorts.”
Fisher’s head tilted, his glare still fixed on her. She smiled in return with her doe brown eyes shimmering in the dim light of the swinging bulb. You’d almost forget she’s a complete sociopath, he thought. “You do catch on quick, Josh. Sharp as a knife…no pun intended there,” Fisher waved off the comment with a motion of his hand.
“Of course not.”
He could feel a strong, overwhelming desire to get to Fisher’s punch line. He was still alive, and he knew there was a good reason for that. Though, the theatrics were a necessity on his part to ensure he remained that way, the chair wouldn’t be his home for much longer. The wounds weren’t going to miraculously heal with him locked away in this hellhole, and every second he overstayed his welcome was another chance for his life to come to an end. But he just needed a little more time. “What’s your plan here, Fisher?” he asked wincing in pain.
“My plan? Oh, of course. You mean why aren’t you dead? Why all of this ‘phase two’ talk? Eager to get to the ending of all this, Josh? Doesn’t seem like much of a survival instinct, but I’ll bite.” He walked over to the far corner of the room near the door cloaked in darkness and recovered an identical mental chair. Fisher sat down in it in front of him, crossed his legs, and let out a dog-tired pant of a breath. “Phase two is when I ask you a series of questions and you give me a series of answers. If I get what I need and it checks out you die as peacefully as I can make it. If I don’t, you get to be the lady’s next work of modern art until I get what I need or you die, whichever comes first.”
“And what is it that you think I have?”
Fisher rolled his eyes. “Josh-u-a. We aren’t going to play games, remember? That’s not what I do. I worked tirelessly to find you. Tire-less-ly. Called in favors, Griffin literally broke a man in half. Literally, Josh. That’s not a metaphor. He shattered some poor man’s back just so I could find you and now you want to pretend like you don’t know what the hell I’m looking for? Josh, I honest to God,” Fisher lifted his right hand in the air as though to recite some pledge, “I obsessed over finding you for the better part of three months! I thought poor Griffin was going to put his hands on me next because I wouldn’t shut up about you! Whitman this, Whitman that. Every damned night. I must have sounded like some school girl with a crush. I don’t like coming across so…” he paused again to conduct a mental search for the word. “Undignified.”
“So you stick me down here for my last minutes on Earth so I’d know what the lack of dignity felt like?”
Fisher tossed his head back in a hearty laugh. “No, don’t be ridiculous! I brought you down here so no one could hear you scream.”
“Alright. So let’s get to it. Is it going to be the information or a modern artist’s depiction of Joshua Whitman?”
He adjusted in the chair; his wrists had been rubbed raw by the zip ties, but still he didn’t make a sound.
“Wow, kiddo. If that’s the route you want to go. Not the typical choice, but each to his own.” Fisher stood and waved Soto over. “Madame, you have the floor.”
Soto retrieved the first object on the far left. As she approached the chair he could see now that her blade of choice was a highly polished scalpel. He needed to do something. Fast.
“What about Libby Hill?”
Fisher grabbed Soto’s arm. With a frown she stared at him for a moment, then returned to her original position again next to the table. “I’m sorry, Madame, but the man does speak.” Then, towards the chair: “Okay, Josh. Who or what is Libby Hill?”
He looked up at Fisher. The HVAC had stopped blowing now, and the light was hanging directly overhead silhouetting the thin man like a haloed angel. Staring off into space he replied, “Eugene Fisher suffers from a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. You don’t have to have every shirt in your closet on wooden hangers and all of your sandwiches don’t have to be cut in exact diagonal halves, but sometimes you obsessive over things, Eugene. Typically just minor details, but if you came across something big enough you wouldn’t stop until you got the answer you were looking for.”
The whites of Fisher’s eyes again appeared momentarily. “There’s a point somewhere in this, isn’t there, Josh? You’re becoming rather…” another pause, “bothersome.”
“I’m not even completely sure what it is you’re looking for, to be honest. I just know you want it badly. That’s what they told me, anyway.”
Fisher knelt down again. From the small of his back he retrieved a shiny forty-five. A small bead of sweat fell from his brow and he quickly wiped it away. His once jubilant spirit was nowhere to be found. “I’m only going to ask you one more time,” he whispered, “then I’m going to personally hack you into tiny pieces myself. Who the hell are you talking about, Whitman?”
The man in the chair grinned ear to ear just as the single bulb above blinked out placing the group in complete darkness. “They are the ones that have been looking for you for the last two years. They are the ones that needed a way to get to you, Eugene. Sorry to have to tell you this, but Libby Hill wasn’t a prayer –”
A muffled scream echoed in the distance. Then another. And another. They were coming from the opposite side of the door. The sound of bodies smashing to the floor like sandbags reverberated against the concrete. It was the sound of well-orchestrated ambush. Fisher let loose a guttural yelp – the battle cry of a man that fears he’s about to meet a bitter end. The door was blown off the hinges, a deafening pop followed by hot, white light, then nothing.
When the buzzing in his ears had subsided Griffin, Soto, and Fisher were on their knees in front of him. Black cloth hoods hid their eyes from the room full of men in tactical gear and weapons that surrounding them. A mid-twenties smart mouth with shaggy blonde hair cut away the zip ties with one of Soto’s knives, threw an arm under him and helped him to his feet.
“That seemed a lot longer than three minutes for the breach,” he told the blonde.
“Layout was slightly different than what we expected. We had to improvise,” Billy glanced around the room. “But Jesus Christ, why didn’t you make the call sooner? You let them beat you like this before you gave the signal?”
He groined grabbing his side gingerly. “You really think I’d sit here and let a man beat me without a good reason? Assholes started hitting me first. Didn’t ask me a question; just kicked the crap out of me. As soon as I could confirm it was Fisher I gave the go-ahead.” He winched in pain again. “Sometimes, Billy, you just gotta bear down and take a good, old fashion beating.” He nodded to the guard standing behind Fisher who removed the hood from his head. The other guards dragged Soto and Griffin out at that time, both struggling against their respective captors and shouting.
“Two years, huh? I feel loved,” Fisher wiggled in place with his hands zip-tied behind his back.
“You’re probably going to feel lots of things, Eugene. This may be the last time you feel love, though. You should probably embrace it.”
Fisher nodded, his head hanging in exhaustion or defeat or both. In a whisper he asked, “Can you tell me one thing?”
“Did Joshua Whitman ever exist? Was he just some fantasy drawn up all for me?”
Staring down at Fisher the man from the chair flatly replied, “Does it really matter?”
“Matters to me.”
Mimicking Fisher’s whisper the man answered, “In about an hour I can honestly tell you the existence or whereabouts of Joshua Whitman will be the least of your concerns, Eugene. And I know how much you enjoy your honesty.” Again he nodded to the guard who replaced the hood over Fisher’s head. Then, as with his comrades moments before, he dragged Fisher out with the old man kicking and cursing the name Whitman in a shrill howl that finally, after only seconds, dissolved into silence elsewhere in the building.
“What will they do with him, you think?” Billy reached into his jacket pocket retrieving a pack of Parliaments. He offered one up to the man who gladly accepted it. He then recovered a silver butane lighter and placed the blue flame against the cigarette’s tip igniting the tobacco.
He inhaled a long drag of smoke, exhaled it like a dragon through his nostrils and began hobbling away from the chair towards the exit. “Billy, I couldn’t give less of a shit if I tried.” He knelt down picking up Fisher’s Kango and dusting it off in the process. He whispered to one of the team members to quietly go find the medic as fast as he could.
Just before he made it to the door Billy gave him a parting request: “Someday you’ll have to tell me what’s so special about Libby Hill, sir.”
“Sorry, Billy. Some things I keep for myself,” he replied.