The barking stopped within seconds after Trueblood spoke. He wasn't certain whether it was because of him or if perhaps The Undertaker also had said something and that it was his words that brought about Buford's obedience. Whatever the reason, the barking stopped. Trueblood saw Buford straighten up and back away from the corner. The bald behemoth was still gripping the pistol, but it was pointed at the floor.
As Trueblood started shifting his attention to the other side of the room, where The Undertaker stood, his eye caught movement in the corner in front of Buford. The back of Bart's suit coat was undulating as the man wearing it struggled to rise from his kneeling position. Trueblood looked away, not wishing to witness the remnant of his boss rising in his humiliation.
Then it became a one-on-one with The Undertaker. The success of his initial effect neither surprised Trueblood nor emboldened him further. His mental and physical state, this sense of unwavering equilibrium, was beyond his conscious control. He'd become a weapon, operating on instinct and intuition. He experienced no emotion in this condition yet knew without hesitation the appropriate passions would rise and enable him to neutralize an opponent at whatever moment such action was needed.
“You should be director here, not...” Trueblood watched The Undertaker nod toward the corner, where Bart Gladstone was still struggling to his feet.
The Undertaker's words startled Trueblood, because he was not accustomed to hearing anyone else when in his present condition, or, rather, hearing their voices as anything beyond background noise. In this instance The Undertaker's voice was no different than Trueblood had heard it previously. The same conversational but oddly flat, slightly nasal tone with seemingly exaggerated inflections at the end of certain sentences. The nod toward Bart took the place of what otherwise likely would have been an emphasis on thing, had he said “that thing over there.” The Undertaker fixed his eyes on Trueblood's.
The Undertaker's eyes looked mild, at a distance. They were not noticeably large or small or spaced too wide or narrow. Ordinary eyes. Mild, some might say meek, unthreatening eyes in an unobtrusive face. The face's vague heart shape rising balloon-like from a fragile-looking chin to a mat of sparse, mousey hair further robbed it of manliness. At a distance.
Trueblood was near enough, half a dozen or so feet away, to see the sneering slant of The Undertaker's mouth, which, with its compressed lips pushing dimples into the cheeks at each end, lent much at a distance to the illusion of easy friendliness his face projected. This was the nearest Trueblood had been to The Undertaker since he'd begun accompanying Buford to Bart's office. Now, the facial features, both in their components and in the whole, revealed a mien that was subtly hard and cruel. The eyes in particular, buttressed by the sneering mouth, played the treacherous game of luring you in with a tired ambiguity that delivered you to their soul-dead unforgiving centers.
The rest of him was unprepossessing, at any distance. Thin almost delicate build, no sense of being tall nor short nor quick nor strong nor athletic in any way. His tan chinos and unzipped, faded denim jacket implied no intimidating intent. The ambush revealed itself solely in his face.
“What should it matter to you?” Trueblood said.
The Undertaker cocked his head to one side and squinted, as if appraising his opponent. The compressed lips twitched, offering a partial smile that conveyed derision. “A reasonable question,” he said.
“Not that you deserve an answer, but let's just say I would find it more amusing to watch your inevitable descent into total corruption than to see that bag of gas over there even for one more minute pretend he has the remotest iota of integrity left in him.”
The two continued their staring duel. To Trueblood it seemed as if the distance between them had shortened. He could smell something unpleasant – sauerkraut for breakfast? – in The Undertaker's breath, and noticed several large scales of dandruff about to leap from their hairy perch behind his temple onto the nearest ear. Trueblood's eyes rested a microsecond on a ripe pimple near the tip of The Undertaker's nose before returning their full attention to the eyes behind the cloud of rancid breath.
He said, “I've always heard power corrupted, but I wouldn't have expected such depraved boredom to be one of the costs.”
“You think this is power? Huh? You think I have power? Ha ha, you are naïve, aren't you. No, you little worm, I may be an inch or two up the power pole from you and gasbag over there but there's a long way to go above me. I'm just one more functionary on a hierarchy that extends beyond our imaginations, yours and mine.”
“I can't imagine what you must have had to do to win this promotion.”
“What? You're feeling superior to me? Morally superior? Ha ha, you pompous hypocrite. An advertising man lecturing me on morality. Ha ha.”
“You're a long way beneath me on the pole of depravity, you WACKO thug. Morally superior to you? Granted, that's nothing to brag about, but you're damned right I am.”
As Trueblood spoke he became aware of rapid movement in the corner where Bart Gladstone had met his humiliation. Without moving his eyes from The Undertaker's he diverted enough peripheral attention to this movement to see that his boss and the behemoth goon were engaged in a furious struggle. Something flew across the room and bounced off The Undertaker's arm before landing with a clatter on the floor. The silenced pistol. This brought both Trueblood's and The Undertaker's heads snapping around in time to see the completion of Bart's graceful kickboxing whirl as he landed into a perfect stance from which to launch another, with the other leg. Simultaneously, the WACKO behemoth rocked back as his massive foot came swinging around. Somewhere inside the next second the two giants were spinning, leaping, whirling and foot-clubbing each other with the terrible grace of lethal ballerinos. Grunts of exertion in both delivery and reception punctuated the thuds of landing blows and the occasional crash as one or the other of the combatants made inadvertent contact with wall or furniture.
Concerned now that Doris, hearing the commotion and worried about his safety, might rush from the adjoining office and blunder into the mayhem, Trueblood began backing away toward the door. The Undertaker moved away, too, but his was a sidle toward the desk under which the silenced pistol had slid. Trueblood lurched forward as The Undertaker crouched to retrieve the firearm. Trueblood, crouching as well to grab his adversary, avoided by a hair or two having one of the swinging feet from the nearby rumble land on his upper body and, he knew, surely coldcock him without further ado.
As Trueblood reached to grab The Undertaker's jacket The Undertaker sprang up abruptly – too abruptly, Trueblood thought, for someone in such a low crouch – wearing a sheepish grin. The eyes, however, despite the softened mouth, were deadlier than ever. The two now were within three feet of each other. They hopped sideways in tandem, as if engaged in a gavotte, to achieve a safer distance from the whirling legs of their battling associates, and continued the glaring contest. As it happened their hop was unnecessary. Bart and Buford had stopped fighting. They slumped, facing each other in complete exhaustion, panting heavily, sweat streaming down their faces. Of course they continued hurling mutual stinkeye in a vein similar to that of Trueblood and The Undertaker.
Trueblood, his attention riveted on The Undertaker's eyes, had no warning, and the slap caught him so hard on the side of his head the proverbial stars came out for real. He lost his balance, staggered backward until he bumped into someone. Doris. Her arms restrained him now. Her thundering voice overwhelmed his attempt to speak.
“God damn, you assholes! One more god damned peep outta any o' you and I'm calling the White House Police. I don't care how big a deal y'all think you are. You're nothing but assholes, and I won't stand for it! Hear?”