Having your fingernails pulled out with a set of rusty iron grips, held by a burly, sweating, loan shark collection “officer” probably ranks among the most painful things that can happen to you. That’s also probably one of the best torture methods they ever invented, ‘cause just the real, immediate threat of that being done is enough to make you think about spilling your guts, in multiple ways.
I was fortunate I wasn’t the one who actually owed the money. I was unfortunate enough to know the guy who did, though, also know where he was hiding. The shark knew I knew too, so he sent his thug over to ask me nicely if I wouldn’t mind divulging the information.
Why do they never believe you when you say you don’t know? What if I really didn’t know? They’d probably pull my nails out anyway, and since I didn’t know, they’d get nothing out of me. They’d probably say “...ten! Whoo, this one’s a beauty! Well, time to work on them toes, princess.”
Sucks for people who really don’t know anything.
So anyway, when the hood gets pulled off my head, I’m duct-taped to a steel chair and desk combo that’s bolted to the floor in the middle of some warehouse the shark probably owns. My arms are in front of me, taped down with like five rolls of the stuff, but my hands are exposed, sittin' on the desk like I'm a third-grader on the first day of school. A pair of rusty pliers sits just out of reach of my hands. The thug, who I’ll call Mugsy, ‘cause he wouldn’t tell me his name before he got- well, anyway, Mugsy sits on a barstool type thing in front of me, smoking and saying unkind things about my lineage. Back at my apartment, he tasered me to knock me out and did the whole blindfold bit, so I have no idea where I am. During the transit, I thought about ribbing the guy about using a taser instead of punching me out, but I thought better of it. Mugsy's huge, and also bald. My past experience with bald people has taught me not to anger them unnecessarily.
Near the end of his smoke he stops insulting me and pauses to eat the cigar butt. Just kinda casually popped it in his mouth and chewed on it a bit before swallowing. It was still lit too. He was doing his best to intimidate me, even in subtlety, and it was goddamned working. He then went on a long description of the history and nuances of fingernail-pulling. I’m no nerves-of-steel guy, so I was really sweating it, but I’m probably the most stubborn bastard you ever met, so I was determined, just to piss this guy off, not to talk. I just didn't care. Honestly, I didn’t care about Jordan. To hell with that guy, getting mixed up with loan sharks. Maybe I’m a closet masochist, I dunno. But the way I figured it, if I talk, Mugsy wins.
I can't stand losing.
I didn’t really feel like a masochist when he picked up the pliers. Mostly I was thinking, “This is gonna hurt so goddamn much.” And I was more scared than any other time in my life. Mugsy could see it, too. I wasn’t doing anything to hide it.
“You going to tell me where Mr. Steinwick is, Sunshine?”
I don’t have the, uh, concentration to look tough or make a witty retort, so I just roll my eyes at him and look over my shoulder like he’s talking to someone else. I was ready to piss myself. Shaking a lot too.
“Thumbs’re the worst digit to get injured,” he said all apologetic-like, as he grasped my right thumb and dug the end of his pliers under my nail.
I tell you, I was able to take stock of just how many muscles are in my body, ‘cause every single goddamn one of them went tense.
You know when you go to the doctor to get a shot, when you’re a kid, and you think the shot is going to be a whole lot worse than it turns out to be? This was nothing like that. The worst kind of pain is the pain that surpasses your imagination, like, you never even dreamt something could hurt that much.
Man did I scream. I screamed loud, long, and as hard as I could. They say if you scream loud it takes some of the edge off the pain. I dunno if it did, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
My thumbnail gave, and a nice little squirt of blood shoots out as he staggers backwards with it gripped in his pliers.
“Whoo, that’s a beauty!” he said, holding for a few moments to scrutinize it.
“See this? This was once a part of your body. Now it is over there,” he said, tossing it to the side.
I can’t even think straight ‘cause of the pain, plus I think I chipped a tooth from grinding them. I was seriously considering compromising my principles; maybe turn over a new leaf and be a little bit less of a stubborn asshole in the future, but Mugsy doesn’t even ask me if I’ll tell him about Jordan now, and goes straight for my left thumb.
Right then, thank God, the big metal cargo door thing behind Mugsy folds up accordion-style like it was made out of paper, and this weird looking dreadlocks guy is standing there. It looks like he just scrunched a steel door with one arm, and Mugsy drops the pliers and backs up.
With Mugsy out of the way I get a good look at the guy. He’s shirtless, and ripped as all hell, wearing some crazy white baggy pants, like Arabian style, with lots of gold trim. He’s barefoot, and wearing nothing else but a cloth belt and some gold armbands. Got tanned skin and his hair in long black dreads, that hang down clear to his shoulders. He kinda looked like he belonged in one of those artsy-fart circuses where they don't have clowns, and everyone's an acrobat. I dunno, he was weird.
Anyway, the guy just stands there, and he looks mad; like somebody just shot his puppy and slapped his mother. Mugsy pulls out a gun and shoots him smack in the middle of the face. The guy doesn’t even blink and we hear the bullet ric to the ceiling. Mugsy empties his clip at him and just wastes bullets. Arabian Guy walks to Mugsy, all slow-like, and Mugsy tries to pistol-whip him, but the guy catches the swing and it’s like Mugsy got his arm cemented into a wall. Can’t budge one micron.
The guy finally speaks, and it’s a voice like a goddamn volcano erupting.
“Perversion of a man,” he, or maybe it, I’m thinking by this point, says, getting all in Mugsy’s face, “As you are, you are not fit to live among humanity.”
It was bad theatrics, really, but he had damn good presence. I forgot all about my thumb.
Mugsy swings a punch with his other arm, and this one connects. There's a really loud cracking noise, but it's pretty obvious whose body made it. Mugsy yelps and his free hand starts quivering in a way that makes me almost feel sorry for him. He tries to drop to his knees, but he’s held at the elbow by Arabian Guy, and he starts bawling out, begging the guy not to kill him. Arabian Guy shows like no emotion now; his face goes flat, no anger, nothing. The voice doesn't change a bit, though.
“Fear not. I am not here to take your life, but to alter it.”
Mugsy sorta brightens at this; for a just a sec he looks up and smiles hopefully at Arabian Guy, but then the guy wraps his hands around Mugsy’s fat skull and lifts him right off the ground. Mugsy’s a good half-foot taller than the guy, but Arabian Guy still manages to make his feet dangle.
The angle they’re at, I can’t see Arabian Guy's face, but I can tell there’s some kinda light coming from it somehow, ‘cause it’s reflecting off Mugsy. His eyes are plastered on Arabian Guy’s face, and he looks like a mouse being squeezed by a snake.
Man, did he scream. If Mugsy, at that moment, and me, with all twenty of my nails being yanked out at the same time, if we got into a screaming contest, he would’ve taken gold and silver.
Near as I could tell the guy wasn’t doing anything to physically hurt Mugsy. Oh, I’m sure being held up by your head is no picnic, but the way Mugsy was going on about it, you’d think he was being shoved into a blender filled with battery acid.
After about a minute of this performance, Arabian Guy drops Mugsy, who collapses into the fetal position, convulsing a little. He then comes over to me and, get this, gently removes the duct-tape. I didn’t lose a single arm hair.
He says nothing to me the whole time, and gives me a cloth thing to wrap around my thumb, then turns to leave. I’m totally out of words there, and, I mean, just listen to me. I usually have scads of them.
Finally I manage to say something. I really should be thanking him, but I can't get over what just happened.
“W-wait!… Hey! What the hell did you just do to him?!” I shouted after the guy, who turned around and looked at me.
“I removed from him the capacity to enjoy the suffering of others.”
And me, I dunno what to say to this. I figured this meant Arabian Guy messed with Mugsy's mind somehow, and I was thinking, what, was Mugsy going to be retarded now or something?
“How the hell?…” I began, but the guy just turned around and kept going.
After a couple seconds it sinks in. If what the guy said was true, he just, like, mentally raped Mugsy’s brain and screwed it up. If I was smart, I woulda kept my mouth shut, but no, not me. I felt like, man, humanity just got invaded by something worse than a million Mugsies, and I wasn't gonna let it exit stage left without me giving it an earful of what I thought of it. But in the heat of the moment, I didn’t even have the goddamned intelligence to make a good insultory phrase; and I'm usually the Einstein of insults, the Stephen Hawking of- anyway, I just lost my mind and shouted one word at him with all my lungpower.
Arabian Guy didn't turn around to look at me, but he stopped for a second and said just one goddamned word back.