THE BLUNT OBJECT AMENDMENT
Part One of the Five-Part Serial
FROM PARTS UNKNOWN
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Blunt Object Amendment:
Part One of the Five-Part Serial From Parts Unknown
Copyright © 2017 By George, He’s Got It
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
Cover Design: Rachel Bostwick www.rachelbostwick.com
Paul “Triple H” Levesque quote: Larnick, Eric (2011, September 9). Interview: Triple H: UFC Needs to Evolve More Than WWE, AOL Moviefone. Retrieved August 2, 2014, from http://bit.ly/1uCIL6t
Visit the author website: www.hesgotit.com
Some stories won’t let you go. No matter how many times you try to convince yourself that you’re satisfied with what you’ve written and that you’re ready to move on to something else, every now and then, you feel the story you thought was completed years ago grab you and say, “You’re not done yet.”
The story that became “From Parts Unknown” has a long history with me. Growing up a fan of professional wrestling, I’ve always enjoyed the over-the-top characters and storylines. While I was in college, a little “what-if” question popped into my head: “What if the characters and storylines were really happening and what if there was no predetermined outcome?”
The idea became an outline for a video game, then a treatment, then a screenplay that saw ten rewrites, and then – in November 2002 – a novel I self-published through iUniverse. During the nine years that the book was out, family members and friends bought, read, and enjoyed it, but it never broke outside that bubble. And I’m very thankful for that, because certain circumstances led me to give this story a complete overhaul and release it as a five-part serial, which you are reading right now.
There’s more to tell about the development of “From Parts Unknown,” but I’ll save that for Parts Two – Five.
Thank you to my beta readers: Cari Peden, Tony Acero, Shawn Lealos, Brian MacLaine, Rebecca Jaycox, Janet Cannon, Ilya Arbit, and the cover artist of the original 2002 novel, Jason Goodman.
Thank you to my friend Charlie Kessler, for helping me with the 2005 version of the screenplay, and for being a big part of taking the story to new heights.
Thank you to my fellow 411Mania writers for their constant words of encouragement over the years that I’ve been involved with the site: Chad Webb, Steve Gustafson, Leonard Hayhurst, Will Helm, Jeremy Thomas, Tony Farinella, Erik Leurs, Ben Piper, Bryan Kristopowitz, Scott Rutherford, Joseph Lee, Jeffrey Harris, Ryan Latimer, Andy Critchell, Mike Gorman, Adam Hill, Michael Melchor, J. Yayo Hernandez, Arnold Furious, the always-ubiquitous AJ Grey, Ashish Pabari (Thanks always for the deadlines, Boss!), and all the rest of the guys there.
Thank you to my wife Cheryl, for standing beside me through the highs and lows, and for letting me get this story just the way I want it. Love you always.
And of course, thank you to all of you for giving this serial a chance. Looking forward to hearing from you during this five-book stretch.
“I don’t see [WWE] needing to evolve to what UFC does because, quite frankly, sometimes the fights are long and boring, guys lying around and sometimes the fights are fast and over in five seconds. I’ve always thought one of the things about us, if you look at us solely from a sports standpoint, is that we always give you a good show. We’re never going to give you a crap game. I think if anybody needs to evolve, it’s them. Give more of an entertainment standpoint.”
-- Paul “Triple H” Levesque
“Is that Cari?”
Stephen’s eyes refused to look away from the wallet-size picture of the stunning brunette taped to the inside of his red locker door. She wore a simple white tank top that emphasized her outstandingly fit body. She was flashing a smile so dazzling one would swear it had the power to cure diseases. In her arms was a boy no older than six gleefully waving at the camera with a big toothy grin. That picture was the sole decoration the large, broad-shouldered man allowed in his locker, the one small area of the wrestling gym he claimed for himself. Jimmy Park’s question echoed throughout the otherwise empty locker room and Stephen had yet to acknowledge it. He was too preoccupied with sliding on his blue jeans and gazing at the picture, lost in the depths of his wife’s striking blue eyes which had a certain hypnotic quality to them that shone through even in the tiny photograph.
Park slapped his right fingerless-gloved hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey, Barker. You alright, man?”
Stephen’s nose immediately wrinkled as he snapped out of his trance-like state. “What the hell is that you’re wearing?”
Park pointed at the bottle in his locker. “GCL Reality.”
Stephen stifled a laugh as he grabbed his light blue button-down shirt from his locker. “My God, they released their own cologne? What do they put in it, concentrated Kyle Flyte sweat?”
Park shut his locker door, blocking his treasure from any additional mockery. “I like it and so do the ladies. You should see how they flock to me when I’m wearing it.”
“They like it because it keeps away the mosquitoes.”
“You’re just jealous, that’s all.”
Stephen nodded and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s it. Jealous.”
Park looked over Stephen’s shoulder and got a closer look at the picture. “Is that Cari? My God, she didn’t even look this good at your wedding. When the hell’d you get this taken?”
“Eight long years with you and she still looks this good? If she’s ever looking for an affair…” Before he could finish his sentence, Stephen gave him a quick punch right in the gut. Park took a step back.
“I’ll remember that when we’re at the tryouts,” Park taunted while rubbing his stomach.
“Good. That was the idea.”
Park walked back to his locker and grabbed his bag as Stephen opened his wallet. All the requirements were there: state ID, social security card, government assistance charge card with a valid date on it. No cash inside, but he didn’t need weird looks from anyone. “What are you doing with THAT?!” he had heard cash handlers being asked.
As Stephen slipped his wallet into his pants, Park asked, “You didn’t tell Cari about this whole thing, did you?”
“What do you mean?” Stephen asked as he slid on his shirt and buttoned it up.
“Last time I was over for dinner, she had a shit fit because Tommy was watching a GCL show. Now, here you are, trying out for the company. What’s she gonna say if you get accepted?”
“I’ll let the contract do all the talking. Once she realizes how much money we’ll be making, she should come around.”
“And if she asks you what you’ve been doing all this time? You’ve been out of work for what, three months now?”
“She knows I’ve been looking. And hey, look at what I’m doing here. If I can get in, we can build up enough credit to live in Manhattan!”
“And there’s always a chance to try out for the other rosters. There’s more than just the Eastern Division, you know.”
Stephen winced. “Ugghh. And deal with all the registration forms and being put on the wait-list to move to another state? No, I gotta do this here.”
Park slung his bag over his shoulder. “Yeah, well maybe you should at least do some of the talking. She sees GCL anywhere on that contract and it’s confetti. You of all people oughta know that.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, k?”
“Just don’t let her find your tights if you want to keep your balls!” Park laughed over his shoulder as he exited the locker room.
Stephen was wearing his street clothes when he stepped into the main gym area. He felt a shiver creep along his spine as he looked around the interior. No matter how many times he had seen it, he always felt as though he were seeing the gym for the first time. Located on 9th Avenue in midtown Manhattan and with a spray-painted exterior, any unsuspecting passer-by would just continue along without so much as a second thought.
The interior of the building, however, was a combination of museum and church. Sure, the black paint on the walls had started to peel over time and the constant stench of sweat and blood permeated the room, but the wrestling ring in the center was kept in pristine condition. The ropes were taut, the mat always spotless, the apron covering the sides straightened, and the block-lettered logo for the Gladiatorial Combat League served as a constant reminder to anyone in the gym of what was the only sport in town. A spotlight focused its brilliant intensity down on the ring to provide the closest possible atmosphere for wrestlers.
Around the upper walls of the gym were fourteen different framed animated posters of various epic moments from wrestling history, looped to play over and over, in chronological order, eerily akin to a Professional Wrestling / Mixed Martial Arts Stations of the Cross.
JANUARY 1948 – Orville Brown wears the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship as its first-ever champion.
APRIL 1963 – Buddy Rogers becomes the first-ever World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion.
SEPTEMBER 1981 – Ric Flair defeats Dusty Rhodes to win his first NWA Heavyweight Championship.
JANUARY 1984 – Hulk Hogan defeats The Iron Sheik to win his first World Wrestling Federation Championship.
AUGUST 1994 – Shane Douglas throws down the NWA Heavyweight Championship and declares himself the Extreme Championship Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion.
FEBRUARY 1997 – Mark Coleman wins the first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship Heavyweight Title.
MARCH 1998 – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin defeats Shawn Michaels to win his first World Wrestling Federation Championship.
DECEMBER 2001 – Chris Jericho becomes the first Undisputed Champion, combining the title lineages of both the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling.
MAY 2007 – Kurt Angle holds up the Total Nonstop Action World Heavyweight Championship, becoming the first champion of the title’s lineage.
JANUARY 2021 – Draco Edwards wins the United States MMA Championship for Fighters Gladiators Warriors.
OCTOBER 2022 – Johnny Cabrini stands victorious in the middle of the ring after winning the inaugural battle royale for Canada’s Stampede Alberta Wrestling promotion, becoming the first champion.
JUNE 2041 – Edward Flyte becomes the Fighters Gladiators Warriors North American Champion, absorbing the S.A.W. Championship.
FEBRUARY 2052 – “The Punch That Changed It All” – Togar punches Verne Dappy across the jaw and starts an actual fight during their championship match.
AUGUST 2053 – Kyle Flyte holds up the Gladiatorial Combat League World Championship.
Stephen smiled as he took in the different moments of history, and turned toward the ring to see a bearded, stocky gentleman running back and forth against the ropes. After the man bounced across the ropes for a third time, he launched himself and dropped an elbow on an imaginary opponent in the middle of the ring.
The man in the ring was about fifty pounds heavier than he’d been when he’d taken that history-making punch from Togar, but Verne Dappy still appeared light on his feet as he leapt up and continued running against the ropes, bouncing off and executing a leg-drop in the center. He had the same rough demeanor as he did during his peak years, with his long hair and big bushy beard giving a “common man” look that appealed to all demographics.
Stephen lowered his bag to the floor and leaned against the doorway to watch the show. He had caught Verne practicing his moves after his wrestling class before, and it always made him smile. Verne stood up and, oblivious to anyone watching, clenched his fist in front of his face – as though he were grasping an imaginary microphone – and began speaking to the imaginary crowd before him.
“I’m not a bitter man for what you did to me, Sotek. In fact, I’m damned happy that you did it. You see, I don’t know what the hell kind of man you think I am, but the last thing in the world I hold is a grudge. But the first thing I am gonna hold is your big moronic head as I squeeze the very life out of you. And after that, I’m gonna reach inside and grab whatever alien thing is possessing you…”
Stephen could no longer resist. “…and squeeze the very life out of it, too!”
Verne whipped around, startled out of his boots. “Christ, Stephen. Don’t do that!”
“I remember that speech. The first Colosseum Classic, right?”
“Seems so long ago. I still don’t know how Gary Blackman could afford putting up that special.”
“Think it would get this far?”
Verne leaned against the ropes. “It’s amazing what one ‘accidental’ punch can accomplish in this business.” He’d made the air-quote gesture when he said “accidental” and gave his jaw a rub. “But it was a lot more of a sport back in the day.”
“I’d say it’s more of a sport now than it’s ever been. You guys already knew who was winning and everything. And now that there are no run-ins or…”
Verne pointed a finger at Stephen, his now thundering voice reverberating off the gym’s walls. “It was always a sport to me. Back then, it required athleticism and an instinctive ability to pull off these moves without hurting yourself or your opponent. Now all you need is a reason to hit someone. For what?”
Stephen picked up his bag and shrugged his shoulders. “For the good of the public? For love of the game?”
Verne rolled his eyes in disdain. “For the good of the public, right.”
“Well, yeah. The President said that since all the other sports imploded, a company like the GCL was—”
“Was doing a public service. Blah blah blah. I don’t buy that line of happy horse shit for a second, and neither should you, Stephen. You’re here because it’s the only real high paying job that’s left anymore. You’re lucky they haven’t found a way to automate the wrestlers yet.” Verne stepped over the middle and lower ropes and walked down the metal stairs to stand on equal ground with his student.
“You don’t think it’s ever gonna be like that, do you?” Stephen asked.
“Nobody ever thought wrestling would be real. Look how that turned out,” his teacher responded. “On your way home?”
“Soon. The Evening News is starting up soon and I want to see the top story, then I gotta pick up my assistance money.”
“Ahh, yes, of course. You did make sure to notify the Assistance Bureau that you were trying out for the GCL, right? They throw in an extra twenty credits per week.”
Stephen nodded as Verne jogged to his office, grabbed a black hooded sweatshirt and put it on before shutting off the office light. The teacher and student strode side-by-side to the exit, and Verne swept his fingers along a touchpad adjacent to the door in a downward motion. As one, the lights dimmed until the room was pitch black, with the lone spotlight still hanging over the ring.
Stephen and Verne walked down 45th Street in relative silence, speaking to each other only to consider the swarm of men, women and children running past them to the Long Island Rail Road station. “You’d think that after so many people have been priced out of Manhattan, there’d be an easier way to get them home,” Stephen observed.
“You know how long it takes for them to get home. They could miss something on the Evening News. And everyone wants to be the first to know.”
“Yeah, and I’m one of those people too. Come on, we’re gonna miss it.”
Verne nodded. “Gotta get your info somehow without watching it at home, right?” The older man pulled up the hood of the sweatshirt he’d donned at the office, draping it over his recognizable face. They both heard the excited buzz of people and it was getting louder with every step they took.
The pair had reached the corner of 45th Street and 8th Avenue when Stephen glanced at Verne and noticed a faraway look on his wizened face. Stephen looked down at his teacher’s sweater and attempted to break the awkward silence. “You’re not sweating under that thing?”
Verne shook his head. “I’m fine. Besides, you know how it is these days. Seventy degrees one day, twelve the next.”
“Just wondering what new development’s going to happen with the company. I always feel this way the night before my students have their audition matches. I worry about all of you, I really do.”
“Do you have any last-minute advice for me and Park?”
Verne looked at his student and smiled. “Do exactly as you’re told. Keep your matches above the Ten-Minute mark. And remember all the training I’ve given you. That should add at least two, maybe three years to a career in the GCL. Especially now that they’ve passed The Ten-Minute Minimum Act. Without that, you’d just see guys trying to knock each other out early and not dedicating any of their time to entertaining the fans.”
Stephen nodded. “Right. Not to mention, wrestlers don’t get paid unless their matches last at least ten minutes.”
“Exactly. Oh, and one more thing. Even if you get picked to be on Vornakai’s side, you watch him like a hawk. I don’t trust him.”
Stephen shrugged his shoulders. “Well, he IS the bad guy, Verne. He’s not supposed to be trusted.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Verne warned, looking Stephen in the eye and gritting his teeth. “I never trusted him. Not even at the beginning of it all, when he was one of the good guys. I don’t care how charming he may be, you do NOT trust him either. You got it?” He reached out and grabbed Stephen’s right shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
Stephen nodded. “Alright, I… I won’t trust him.” Verne pulled his hand back and Stephen changed the subject. “What was it like back in those days? At the beginning?”
Verne’s warning glare gave way to one of fond memories. “Well, at that time, the GCL was just one amongst all the other two-bit promotions. Town to town, gym to gym, twenty bucks on a good night. Kyle was one of those guys, loyal through it all. He could have just gone into FGW like his father did, but he stood by Gary. That’s how he earned the GCL title.”
“Wouldn’t you say he won the title, not earned it? He had to beat you for it, and he has to keep defending it instead of carrying it around like a trophy.”
Verne’s glare returned and he jabbed his finger at his student. “Stephen, that title may be a lot of things, but it’s not, nor has it ever been ‘just a trophy.’“ Stephen felt humbled and had nothing to say in response. Point well taken.
As the two men reached 45th Street and Broadway, the typical commotion that accompanied Times Square had reached a fever pitch. Verne looked up and saw the collection of towering office buildings with their garish corporate logos gleaming over each main doorway. Despite the sun already having set for the day, the various electronic billboards above the bustling crowds blazed down, creating an artificial daylight hiding behind the 15-year-old skyscrapers. Verne squinted at the bright lights surrounding the titans of glass and steel and shook his head in disgust.
“I could never get a good view of the very top of those buildings,” Stephen said.
“You’re not supposed to,” Verne replied. “This is what they want, Stephen. This is what this whole borough has become.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look up there,” Verne said, pointing to the skyscraper with the most invisible roof. “When I was a kid, there was an over-the-top feel here, but there was at least some restraint. Now that construction’s been de-regulated, it’s become the most expensive pissing contest. They’re out-spending each other to see who’s going to have the tallest building, the highest view overlooking these poor saps that aren’t looking back. All they’re watching is the screens around them.”
“But if they didn’t watch the televisions,” Stephen started.
Verne cut him off. “Yes, I know. If they didn’t watch, what would we do for a living? Who would have seen me become the champion, right? I know it sounds like I’m biting the hand that fed me by talking about these people. But it doesn’t mean I’ m not right about it.”
Below the New Year’s ball and the 2058 numbers that still glimmered stood a gigantic television monitor that blared the electronic trumpets, signaling the GCL Newsflash. As the music cascaded through the streets, everyone stopped milling around and turned their faces toward the immense display in rapt anticipation.
Once the red, white and blue-lettered GCL logo faded from the screen, several men whistled their approval when the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beautifully sculpted face of Kitty West appeared. Sitting at her anchorperson’s desk, she smiled as she addressed her audience.
“Good evening, America. It is now 6:00pm Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, January 23, 2058, and it’s a comfortable 67 degrees in New York City. Welcome to GCL In the Evening. I’m Kitty West. We are just eight days away from our all-day-long coverage of the President’s visit to San Francisco. It will be the seventh anniversary of the loss of the Golden Gate Bridge. President Henderson’s administration has released a brief statement about this upcoming date, as well as the latest news about the nation’s conflict with North Korea. The statement reads: ‘This is a time for all of us as citizens to look back with regret at a tragic time in our history, and a time for all of us to look forward with faith that we will never be vulnerable again.’”
One of the thousands of people yelled out, “Who cares?” A smattering of chatter and laughter echoed that statement. Stephen glanced at Verne, who just shook his head in response.
“In other news, New York City Mayor Ronald Green has announced the completion of Project42, a luxury government housing facility that now occupies what was the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. It is said to fit five hundred families and the winners are selected from a special lottery that will begin tonight at 8pm. These lucky families will be given a studio-sized apartment, complete with a private bathroom, designed, constructed, and donated by the Construction Corporation of America.”
Stephen’s hands clenched into fists. Verne took note of the anger building in his student and said, “CCA. Those were…?”
Stephen nodded. “The assholes who bought out the construction company I worked for? The ones who cut over half of its employees? Yeah. That’s them.”
Kitty continued speaking. “The family will not only gain access to an apartment, but they will also be granted admission into the newly renovated Bryant Park GCL Access Theater.”
The chattering among the crowd dropped to a whisper as the image of Kitty West was replaced by a 3D rendering of Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, with a large white dome enveloping the park area.” When activated, the dome will be filled with a holographic projection of any Gladiator Colosseum throughout the nation, giving these lucky winners the best seats in the house. This lottery is open to all families that have been established in the public housing facilities for one year.” A mixture of groans and cheers came from the crowd. “The first batch of winners will be selected tomorrow night before the next installment of GCL Live. Now, our top story tonight comes from the GCL.”
Conversations between people were shushed so everyone could hear the news. “We have just received word from CEO Gary Blackman that the originally planned main event for tonight’s GCL Live has been postponed until tomorrow. The matches scheduled for the Central, Mountain and Pacific Divisions will remain the same, but the current Eastern Division Tag Team Champions, The Solar System, will battle Zarron and Norad of the Roswell Rejects at the main event of tomorrow’s broadcast.”
Both Stephen and Verne chortled at the mention of the Roswell Rejects. How they’d managed to remain on the GCL’s roster despite being labeled with what had to be the dumbest gimmick in the history of the sport eluded both the teacher and student.
“In their place will be the rematch that we have all been waiting for three months to see. Togar will be getting back in the ring against the man he put of action, P.T. Cruz.”
The entire crowd erupted into ecstatic cheers and many of them started a chant of “P.T. Cruz! P.T. Cruz!!”
Stephen leaned over to Verne and said, “That first match with Togar was on when Cari caught me watching GCL Live. She forbade me from watching it ever since.”
“What did she say when you told her about your tryout tomorrow?”
Stephen turned his head back toward the screen as the camera on Kitty West pulled back to reveal an older balding gentleman wearing glasses, a pinstriped suit and a jeweled pinky ring.
Kitty continued with her report. “I’m here tonight with famed wrestling historian and author of the new eBook, ‘How the GCL Saved America from Itself,’ Ernie Salt. Ernie, it’s a pleasure to have you here tonight.”
“Pleasure to be here as always, Kitty.” Ernie said with a tone befitting of a perverted uncle.
“So, Ernie, it has been three months since both men were last seen in the ring. P.T. Cruz was out of action due to the brutal concussion he sustained at the hands of Togar, while Togar was suspended for repeatedly smashing a crowbar against Philip’s head. What are the repercussions from an act such as Togar’s?”
“Well, Gary Blackman and the front office have been spending the past three months debating how best to proceed with this. Should they view this as an isolated incident or would this be something that could be used to enhance the sport? So the United States Department of Sports & Entertainment, chaired by our esteemed Speaker of the House, John Barth, started incorporating this quandary into their weekly public polls. Should the weapons ban continue, or should they be allowed with certain stipulations placed on their use?”
“And what were the results of those polls, Ernie?”
“The results were intriguing, Kitty. Approximately 76 percent of our viewers approved the possibility of permitting weapons in the ring. And out of those who posted comments along with their votes, an overwhelming majority requested that the use of such weapons be regulated. Only one per wrestler or tag team, the weapon must be presented to the troubleshooting referees outside the ring prior to the match to ensure that there are no sharp edges, and the weapon must be a blunt object only. Firearms are still, and will continue to be, banned from use.”
“Oh, that’s a relief,” Verne spit with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“What about the other 24 percent?” Kitty asked. “Those who voted against the use of weapons in the ring?”
“It’s interesting that you should ask because, when the data from the 24 percent that voted against was scanned, we discovered that the age range of the viewers was from 50-75 years. And that’s understandable, since they had a ringside seat, if you will, of wrestling evolving into the only game in town over the past two decades. But as we heard from Vornakai…”
Ernie stopped talking for ten seconds to allow the entire viewing public to boo the name of the GCL’s head booker. And as expected, everyone around Stephen and Verne unleashed a tirade of booing, jeering, middle finger waving, and obscenities at the mere mention of Vornakai’s name. Of course, Ernie didn’t just shut his mouth and sit there doing nothing. He let out a small cough and took his time opening a small bottle of water and taking a sip. By the time he finished drinking, Stephen could hear the uproar begin to dissipate.
“Scary, isn’t it?” Stephen asked Verne. “Even from their studio, they can tell when people are cheering or booing.”
“It’s all part of the big picture, Stephen,” Verne responded. “Vornakai was made to be booed.” Stephen could tell that his teacher was becoming more and more uncomfortable being among the crowd of fans.
Verne tugged on the strings of his hooded sweatshirt and looked up at Stephen. “I gotta get somewhere,” he said. “Good luck tomorrow, and don’t forget what I said.” He gave his student a strong handshake and disappeared from sight.
Ernie swallowed his water and continued. “Vornakai stated that Gary Blackman and the front office are considering this measure. We’ll know before long whether this will be another bill to pass by the United States Department of Sports & Entertainment.”
All of the onlookers began chattering amongst themselves. Stephen could barely understand what was being said, but he could sense the very tangible, nearly electric aura of eager anticipation buzzing through the crowd. As Ernie and Kitty continued discussing the rest of the lineup for tonight’s GCL Live, Stephen strolled around the crowd, taking in what they were doing and how they were reacting to the news. He smiled as he observed everyone reacting as one. They all cheered when they were expected to cheer, they all booed when they were expected to boo and they talked among themselves when the two on the screen were discussing the expected attendance at New York City’s Gladiator Colosseum.
“Enjoy it, folks,” Stephen whispered to himself. “After tomorrow, you’ll be cheering me on.”
Stephen glanced at his watch and walked toward the 49th Street subway station. He could still hear the voices of Ernie and Kitty discussing tonight’s main event as he walked further and further away from the crowd.
“So tell me, Ernie. This is not only the first time in the ring in three months for P.T. Cruz, but it’s also the first time for Togar. Have you been in contact with him? How is he preparing for tonight’s match?”
“You can say what you will about Togar…” Again, he paused so the audience could boo, but this time he allotted five seconds instead of ten. He knew from his years of experience that Togar may be hated, but Vornakai? That guy was despised. “… but one thing you can’t say about him is that he’s lazy. He’s been spending almost his entire suspension in the GCL gym. Every day I was at the main offices in New York’s Gladiator Colosseum, he’s been in the weight room. It’s going to be a great match between these two.”
Kitty flashed another vapid smile. “Thank you for your time here, Ernie. Once again, Ernie Salt, GCL historian. When we come back, we have more information to share about a police infiltration of the AFFD domestic terrorist group. We’ll be right back.”
As Stephen continued walking uptown, the fanfare for the national news broadcast gave way to the whirring of the automated construction site creating another Times Square skyscraper as easily as a child building a tower made of multi-colored Lego bricks. The foreman – the lone human being at the site – sat at the control panel with one eye on his machines and another eye transfixed on the oversized screen seven blocks away.
Stephen shook his head in sad disbelief as he looked to his right and saw a completed office building at the corner of 48th Street and 7th Avenue. He could see the exact line where his construction team stopped on that building when they were laid off, and where the machines had taken over.
He looked up at each neighboring skyscraper that made up the Times Square area and smiled at each billboard that featured various GCL stars. There was a video screen showcasing the gruff and angry face of Max Mercury swinging his fist and striking a Roswell Reject in the jaw and holding up a bottle of Power Cola with a wide smile. The advertisement ended with, “Only a Reject Turns Down a Power Cola.” There was Kyle Flyte wearing his customary red and blue high-cut singlet, with his GCL World Championship over his shoulder. Above him was the tagline: “We’re Watching You, Champ!” Below him was the logo for the GCL Network show, GCL Champion Behind the Scenes. Next to him was a spinning GCL logo, reminding fans that GCL Live matches air every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8:00pm EST. There was the Lightweight Lunatic, flying through the air in his red tights and matching red sleeveless shirt, with the slogan, “You’ll Flip for Choco-Crunch Candy Bars” right under him.
Stephen took a moment to keep looking at all the different signs covering the area and admiring from afar all of the stars of the GCL hyping various products, services and television shows. Maybe there’s room for at one more sign.
Stephen looked at his wristwatch and gasped. Just three minutes until the next subway train was scheduled to arrive. He bounded down the steps of the 49th Street Subway Station and power-walked up to the turnstiles.
Behind the turnstiles, all Stephen could see was one row after another of people just like him. The poor saps that come into Manhattan to either work for their corporate masters or look for work. He winced at the thought of being squeezed into the train, which somehow was able to keep running after decades of use with minimal maintenance.
Before Stephen could pass through the turnstiles and claim a spot on the platform a familiar voice grabbed his attention.
“I’d recognize those arms anywhere!”
Stephen turned around and saw a decrepit newsstand with a chubby balding man about ten years older than him standing inside it. He had a smile on his face, but even from a distance, Stephen could see that living had taken a lot of life out of the man’s eyes.
“Joey?” He made his way closer to the newsstand and extended his hand to his old friend. Joey took the proffered hand and shook it. “How have you been?”
Joey outstretched his arms, his fingertips grazing the wrappers of the three-month old chocolate bars and the perforated rolls of lottery tickets. “How much better can I be? This right here, this is my palace. Amazing, isn’t it? The hard jobs get automated and the ones like this, they let someone like me run it.”
“How long has it been now? Three months since we were working on the 48th Street buildings?”
Stephen could see the bitterness spitting out of Joey’s mouth. “Since we got replaced by those big freakin’ toys? Yeah, I think it was three months. You need anything here? I got magazine scan-boxes for your eReader, I got Choco-Crunch bars, those are really popular.”
“Nah, I’m good. I’m just trying to get home. My train should be here in about two minutes.”
“What are you up to now?”
Stephen shrugged his massive shoulders. “I don’t know yet. I’m trying out for the GCL tomorrow.”
Joey’s eyes widened. “The GCL? Wow, how great would that be? Maybe when I have a night off from here, I’ll be able to see you on TV. Or you could get me a ticket or somethin’. Well, you’re definitely the kinda guy for that job. You sure got the look for it.”
Stephen smiled and nodded. “Thanks a lot, man. I need that kind of support tomorrow.” He shook his friend’s hand again and headed back toward the turnstiles.
Joey called after him. “And hey, if you don’t make it, we’re always hiring over here!” Stephen refused to look over his shoulder, just in case he wasn’t far enough away to prevent Joey from noticing the sudden burst of fear in his eyes.
“To the good times.”
Verne was still catching his breath as he lifted his already half-empty glass of Dewar’s and Sprite on the rocks.
Although he hadn’t run from Times Square to the Ringside Seat Bar & Grill on the corner of 31st Street and 8th Avenue, Verne had done the most power-walking he’d attempted in quite some time. The trek had taken a lot out of him as he’d managed to bob and weave through the New Yorkers, getting home as quickly as possible. He threw open the door of the bar, pushed his way past the myriad patrons who kept motioning in the general direction of a table in the back, and gave a slight wave to the gorgeous bartender with the shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling green eyes.
“Hi, Verne!” she called out to him in her distinctive honeyed voice that could garner a goofy-looking schoolboy grin from any man—especially an old childless widower like Verne.
“Hey, Maria,” he sputtered as he struggled to catch his breath. She wasn’t helping, nor was her strategically flattering cut-off T-shirt. “Thank you again… for helping my friend… with the job.”
“Oh, no problem at all,” she smiled. “It wasn’t me who did the hiring, it was Deanna. Besides, we need all the help we can get. Kyle’s here and he’s waiting for you.”
Verne waved to her again, wiped the sweat off his brow with a cocktail napkin, and walked to his usual table in the back of the bar, beside the staircase that led to the dining area. He nodded to Rufus, the large ebony-skinned man standing beside his table, his thick, muscled arms folded across the black polo shirt covering his broad chest. Emblazoned upon Rufus’ shirt was the signature block-lettered GCL logo with the American flag graphic embedded in the letters, and the bodyguard gave the slightest of nods as Verne sat down.
The aging teacher was greeted by the smiling face and intimidating physique of Kyle Flyte sitting across from him. Even with his street clothes and a jacket on over his tights, Kyle’s athletic frame captured the attention of the various customers at the bar. With his short, spiky blonde hair and smooth face, he had the look and charisma to connect with the general public, and Verne always felt a tinge of pride whenever he spent time with him.
One curious patron tried to approach their table, but a hard glare from Rufus prompted the poor soul to back off and go about his business without protest.
The current GCL World Champion raised his half-full glass of vodka and orange juice and the two men clinked their glasses together in the center. They both took deep sips of their drinks before placing them back on the table. Verne’s breathing soon returned to normal as he felt the liquor already doing its part to relax him.
“So where were you?” Kyle asked. “Usually, you’ve got two empty glasses and a half-eaten basket of chicken fingers on the table by the time I get here.”
Verne shrugged his shoulders. “They’re really good.”
“Something that tastes THAT good can’t be good for you, you know. Ever think about that?”
“To answer your question from before,” Verne evaded. “I have to train the next generation of GCL Warriors. Especially if they’re going to keep giving the okay sign to lay both locker rooms on a slab.”
“It’s not gonna be that bad,” Kyle responded.
“So you say.”
“Yes, so I say. It’s one of the benefits. My opinion DOES matter a bit backstage.”
“I hope you’re right,” Verne muttered and took a swig.
“Maybe you should get another drink. You seem to be a little on edge.”
“So you say,” Kyle said with a smile. “How are the new guys you’re training?”
Verne placed his glass back on the table before answering Kyle’s question. “These two guys I’m working with now are great. They’re both going in tomorrow for their final auditions, so you’ll see what I mean. They’re big guys and they really want it. Although I can’t help but feel worried with the new rule changes they’re considering…” His voice trailed off.
“They’re not going to happen, Verne.” Kyle reassured, but Verne refused to listen.
“Kyle, I know how Gary works. I know that it’s all about what the consumers want.” He waved his arm with a slight air of contempt toward the customers still glancing at their table, and gestured toward the small crowd of people on the street outside gawking at them through the glass wall to Verne’s right. “If the latest polls say that the general public wants the Warriors to bring in shotguns, you might as well start stocking up on bullet-proof vests because I guarantee you’ll see a ‘Shootout Match’ booked for the next special.”
Kyle raised his hand and motioned it down. “Verne, calm down. I know Gary too, and I know that with all the different evolutions wrestling’s gone through over the years, he’s still a traditionalist. He believes in the ultimate heart of this sport: two men going head-to-head to see who the superior athlete is. He’s not going to piss it away and turn it into something that it’s not just because the general public is pressuring him to do it. He knows what’s best for us and he’s going to look out for us. Like he always has since the beginning.”
Verne nodded. “The beginning.” He raised his glass again. “To the good times,” and gulped down the remaining alcohol. “He always did look out for us, back when it was just him that we had to impress and not any elected officials.”
“Don’t worry about them. Gary’s already assured us that it’s his voice everyone needs to pay attention to, no one else.”
“This all used to be so much simpler.”
“Of course it did. And the arenas used to be a lot emptier, too. Not to mention smaller. Would you rather we go back to that?” Kyle’s voice grew louder. “Struggling to get any decent airtime on television? Trying to keep our heads above water after every event and dealing with football, basketball, hockey, baseball, even soccer getting the priority timeslots? Where are they all now?”
“That’s right! Gone. Well, maybe not soccer, but AMERICAN soccer is gone, just like the rest of them. And it was because of us. You and I, and the rest of the guys on the roster. Gary knows that and he’s not going to jeopardize our safety. He owes us too much.”
“It’s not him I’m worried about, and you know it,” Verne responded as soon as Kyle stopped to take a breath. “You’re not the only one with Gary’s ear. If I’m not mistaken, Vornakai is still the head booker of the matches, right?” Kyle nodded. “He’s always been an opportunist. Any chance he’ll get to take that title from you, he’s going to jump on it. Just look at the first rule he put in once he was given the authority and the locker room was split into two factions.”
“I know the rule, Verne,” Kyle said with a hint of annoyance. “The leader of each faction has the right to claim the championship title for himself if he sees fit.”
“Right. And where were you when this happened?”
“That’s easy. I was beside Gary, adding the stipulation that the head booker position and GCL World Champion were of equal and separate status. No one man is to hold both positions.”
“Touché,” Verne acknowledged. “You’re smarter than you look.”
“I had a good teacher,” Kyle quipped. “All this talk about how you don’t like the direction the sport’s going in, and here you are having a drink with the ultimate representative of that sport.”
“No I’m not,” Verne retorted, grinning. “I’m having a drink with my friend and my best student.”
“Who’s the smart one now?” The two of them laughed for a moment before Kyle finished off his drink.
“I still don’t trust him,” Verne said.
“Who do you think?” Verne’s voice lowered to a loud whisper. “He’s up to something, I know it. Just the way he would walk around backstage, before your time, before Togar even hit me, it seemed like he lived in Gary’s ear.”
“You’re afraid that he’s pulling Gary’s strings or something?”
“At least he did before the government got involved and Gary upgraded to a new puppet master.” He tried to look into Kyle’s eyes as the World Champion lowered his head and took another sip of his drink. “You know I’m right about this. I’ve seen him behind the scenes. Nobody is that much into their gimmick that they believe they’re some twisted cult leader.”
“Relax, Verne,” Kyle said as he pointed to his friend’s glass. “Want another drink?” Verne shook his head no. “You don’t have to worry about Vornakai. I’m keeping an eye on him, and he’s just trying these scare tactics because he knows he can’t beat me. I beat him in the ring twelve times already. Gary had to order him to stop giving himself title shots. Trust me, he’s harmless.”
“To you, maybe. Good thing Togar’s coming back tonight or else you’d die of boredom in the ring.”
“Now you’re saying I don’t give my all?”
“I’m just saying…” Verne tried to come up with the right words that wouldn’t hurt his friend’s feelings. “… Just saying that you look bored. At least when Vornakai was going after you all those times, you had someone in the ring who could keep up with you. You’re almost like a bully out there, I’m surprised you didn’t take Esker’s lunch money when you were done with him.”
“They’re the best of what’s left, what can I tell you?” Kyle took another sip of his drink and changed the subject. “You know, you could always just join the front office team. You don’t have to rely on me to get your backstage gossip. I’m sure Gary would have no problem with you running the gym or—”
Verne cut him off. “Not happening. I’m happy where I am. Besides, Gary asked me to join after I lost my ‘Loser Leaves’ match.”
“You never told me that.”
“Well, there wasn’t much to tell. I kept up with Togar for so long before he got me with the spear and pinned me.”
“He just asked you once you came backstage? What did he say? What did you say?”
“Relax. Like I said, there’s not much to tell. He asked me to work as a trainer for the up-and-coming GCL Warriors. And I said, ‘No thank you’ and walked out the door without looking back. I know I was only involved with the promotion during the first two years that it was ‘all real,’ but man, those two years can take a lot out of you.”
Suddenly, a collection of voices cut through the chatter from outside. “Where is Full Disclosure?! Where is Full Disclosure?!”
Both Verne and Kyle turned their heads toward the window and saw two men and two women that looked like they were in their twenties, dressed in camouflage pants, red white and blue shirts and matching camouflage jackets. Each of them held a sign in their right hands and marched together through the crowd of onlookers gawking at the current GCL World Champion and the former champ. The signs all read: JUSTICE FOR FULL DISCLOSURE! FULL DISCLOSURE – MIA! GCL, WHERE IS FULL DISCLOSURE?
“What are they doing here?” Kyle asked as he motioned with his head toward the protestors.
“You know them,” Verne responded with a dismissive tone. “Any place where the GCL is, they’re going to keep showing up.”
Kyle nodded toward one particularly loud protestor in the middle of the crowd. This man who appeared to be in his late 20s was thin to the point of looking malnourished, his long stringy hair hung over his eyes and his arms flailed as he chanted along with his cohorts. “I’ve seen that one around a lot. One time he pointed at me and shouted, ‘There is the enemy!’ That same day, I made a pitch to Gary that maybe I should have a bodyguard. So he hired Rufus.”
Rufus nodded his head in acknowledgment, keeping his eyes ahead and using his God-given intimidation tactics to give Verne and Kyle the privacy they craved.
Verne asked, “How long do you think it’ll take before the police…” His voice trailed off as a police siren began wailing in the distance and the protestors ran west toward 9th Avenue.
“Never mind,” Verne said while shrugging his shoulders.
“Gotta love New York’s finest,” Kyle said. “At least when the show is getting ready to start. They want to watch it too.”
Suddenly, all the television screens at the Ringside Seat Bar & Grill lit up with the GCL logo and its traditional ten-minute countdown timer. “Alright, I gotta get going. The show’s about to start.”
“Hello, GCL fans!” came a booming off-camera voice that prompted a burst of applause from the customers at the bar. “I’m former Tag Team Champion Ty Meerson and it’s a pleasure to once again welcome you to the GCL Live Pre-Show!”
Kyle shook Verne’s hand. “I’ll give you a call when I can meet up again.”
Verne smiled at his friend. “I’ll make sure not to be so winded on my way here next time.”
The GCL World Champion gave Rufus a playful slap on the shoulder. “Let’s do it.” And as the customers stood with their necks craned toward the closest television screens, Rufus held out his thick arms, creating a path for Kyle as though he were Moses parting the Red Sea. Kyle glanced back at Verne and waved to him before exiting the bar.
Verne turned toward the window and saw Kyle and Rufus walking across the street to what was once called Madison Square Garden, and which now held the simpler and more uniform moniker of “Gladiator Colosseum: New York City.” He was immediately pursued by throngs of ticket-holding fans cheering for the champion and holding out their hands for high-fives. Kyle obliged them as always, but refused to stop moving and remained behind Rufus at all times.
The GCL logo faded from the screen, replaced by Ty Meerson with his trademark headset microphone locked in place around his ear. Verne smiled as he saw Ty wearing his sunglasses. He knew behind those glasses were a pair of bloodshot eyes with bags underneath them. And of course, he wore a sleeveless tuxedo so his “guns” had a chance to breathe.
“Tonight is going to be a very special episode of GCL Live, and as always we will be simulcast from four different Gladiator Colosseums. Los Angeles will feature the long-awaited grudge match between “The Gnome” and “Goodfella” Jimmy Torini. We’ve been witnessing this feud develop over the past several weeks as “Goodfella” claimed that Gnome was going to be planted in his front lawn head first and The Gnome retaliated by blind-siding him with a hard punch to the back of the head before “Goodfella” could exit the ring after his latest victory.” The image of Meerson was replaced by a highlight reel from two weeks ago. The customers all let out a collective “Ooooh!” as they saw the wrestler with the purple and green spandex outfit wrapped around a short and stocky frame slide under the ring ropes, get on his feet and sucker punch the lankier wrestler with the pinstriped tights designed to look like a suit. “Goodfella” dropped to his knees as he clutched the back of his head.
The camera cut back to Meerson. “Detroit, Michigan has a fun match scheduled as its main event, with Reno Copeland going toe-to-toe against his Tag Team partner Chad Harris. We’ve seen these two young competitors tagging each other in without the other’s consent and this behavior has led them to a series of frustrating losses against upper echelon teams such as Black & Friday and The Solar System. Now they get to take all of their pent-up frustrations out on each other and who’s to say whether or not they’ll still be a team once the dust settles?”
Verne could hear the customers at the bar chattering to each other about who they are rooting for in that match. “That’s gonna be a hell of a match.”
“I don’t know. They haven’t impressed me much.”
“Harris has this one. He’s been carrying Copeland the entire time they’ve been there.”
“Of course, Detroit will be abuzz next week when the top roster of the GCL – the New York division – will be making a special trip there in preparation for the Seven Deadly Sins special taking place in the hometown of GCL World Champion Kyle Flyte, St. Louis, Missouri.” Suddenly, Meerson placed a finger to his ear and listened to the voice inside his headset. Everyone in the bar silenced themselves in eager anticipation as Ty’s eyebrows went up.
“Folks, have I got some news for you,” Meerson started. Those words made Verne’s stomach churn as he knew the GCL Rule Book was about to get a little thicker.
“We have just been informed that the USWA itself has acted upon the will of the people and, starting next week, certain matches will feature weapons available to the GCL Warriors at ringside.” The crowd erupted as though a match were about to start right there in the center of the bar and Verne felt a chill creeping up his spine.
Ty continued with the stipulations. “USWA Chairman and Speaker of the House John Barth has signed off on this amendment and further details will be disclosed before tomorrow’s broadcast begins.” The chatter in the bar became so loud and heated that Verne couldn’t hear the rest of the rundown of tonight’s fights.
The old teacher turned his head back toward the Gladiator Colosseum and felt a twinge of sadness in his heart for his oblivious student. “You were saying, Kyle?”
It took twenty minutes from the time Stephen stepped off the subway train for the stink of the train mixed with various body odors to dissipate from his clothing. He spent that time on Astoria Blvd in the middle of a line of men and women with the same fragrance as him. None of the people in front of and behind him looked happy, and all of them did their best to avoid eye contact. Stephen couldn’t blame them. He wanted nothing more than to renew his unemployment credits and get home as quickly as possible, so he concentrated on the rusted sign for the old Neptune Diner, which was now covered by a simple yellow sign with black lettering: UCX Office – Astoria Division.
“Why do they have to make us come over here?” he heard an angry young male voice behind him. “They could just renew the credits online, but they want us to come out here. They might as well just yell out, ‘Hey! Look at these deadbeats!’“
“It’s how they get their rocks off these days,” another older male voice yelled from the back of the line. “I hear them laughing whenever I go in for interviews in Manhattan. And my friend told me about a limo driving by a UCX with the guys inside pointing and laughing.”
Stephen kept silent, letting the chatterers around him continue with the “us vs. them” talk. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that Unemployment Credit Exchange offices like this one are set up for security reasons, so nobody else could hack into your account and get your money before you do.
Stephen let out a sigh of relief as the woman in front of him walked away from the counter. Finally!
“Next!” came the female voice from behind the two-inch-thick glass. Stephen stepped forward and slid his piece of paper under the small slot parallel to his stomach.
The woman with her red hair pulled back into a ponytail and glasses over her eyes looked up at Stephen and smiled. “Hello, Mr…” She looked down at the sheet of paper, then looked back up. “Barker. If you could please stare into the retinal scanner, I’ll get you taken care of right away.”
“Sure,” Stephen responded as he took one step to his left and looked into the small lens of the gray retinal scanner.
“Don’t move,” the woman instructed as she looked down at her monitor and typed on her keyboard. “Your scans show a match. You have been looking for work, yes?”
“Good. Any luck so far?”
“One lead.” Stephen hesitated to give any details, out of fear of jinxing himself, but remembered they were going to know at some point. “The GCL.”
The woman stopped and looked at Stephen up and down. Her smile grew as she asked, “The GCL? Really?”
“What about the GCL?” the voice from behind Stephen called out.
“He’s trying out for the GCL!” the woman yelled out from behind her desk, pointing to Stephen.
“Alright!” a younger male exclaimed. “Finally, someone representing Queens is gonna be in the big league! Make sure you give us a shout-out!”
Stephen felt his cheeks warming up and he nodded and turned back to the desk.
“Here you go,” the woman said while handing Stephen a brand-new unemployment credit card. “Good luck,” she added with a wink.
“Thanks,” Stephen said. He turned and walked past the long line of people. Each person he passed gave him a pat on his back or shoulders.
“Good luck,” the people said. Stephen saw some of the men and women on the line holding up their camera phones and he waved to them. They yelled back “Kick some ass for us!” and some started a “GCL!” chant.
“I’ll do my best,” Stephen answered.
Before Stephen could walk away from the line, one older man with a gray beard and sunglasses over his eyes grabbed his arm. “You’re going to try out for the GCL?” he asked with a deep raspy voice.
“Yes,” Stephen said before turning to face the old man. He recoiled when he saw the deep red scar that started on the right side of his forehead, disappeared under the sunglasses and re-emerged down his right cheek to his chin.
“Take my advice, kid,” the man warned. “Don’t do it.”
“I have to,” Stephen responded. “A job like this will give my family more than they could ever want—”
“What they want is their father to be safe,” the old man cut Stephen off as he pulled off his sunglasses.
Stephen took another step back from the old man when he saw the hole in his head where his right eye used to be.
“There are many more jobs that you can do that won’t put you in danger. Trust me, son. They will do what they have to do to stay where they are.”
“Don’t listen to him,” a younger fan wearing a blue and white windbreaker with the GCL logo emblazoned across the front yelled out. “You’re gonna be the next Kyle Flyte!”
Stephen nodded to the young fan and looked the old man up and down. Despite being a couple steps away, he could still smell the stench of alcohol on his tattered, filthy clothes and on his breath. He shook his head and said in a flat tone of voice, “I’ll be fine,” as he turned away.
“I thought the same thing!” the man yelled after him.
The buzzing on Stephen’s leg prompted him to shift around everything he was holding – the bouquet of tulips and the large pizza box – so he could reach inside his pocket and grab his cell phone. He pulled it up to his face and saw “1 Message Waiting” flashing on the touch screen. After pressing it, he stood in front of his doorway and read his message.
“Shit,” he whispered as he almost dropped the pizza box. A sudden wave of panic washed over him as he sucked in his lips. I can’t believe this had to happen now, he thought as he shoved his cell phone back into his pocket.
Five different keys opened five different locks. Stephen opened the door and held it open with his body as he knelt down to pick up the bouquet of tulips and the large pizza box. Once he stepped inside his two-bedroom apartment off Astoria Blvd., he placed the pizza box down on the white marble coffee table and took a deep breath. “Don’t say anything yet,” he whispered. “You’re going to get this.”
Stephen checked his watch and cursed once again under his breath. Despite spending less than a minute on the subway platform, it had still taken him almost an hour to reach his Ditmars Boulevard stop. He could still smell the trash littering the train floors, which he assumed had been left there since Demolition Day of 2053, the last day of America’s baseball stadiums. By the time he’d reached his destination, Stephen had to race down the steps to get his federal assistance cash before the office closed, cross the street to get the pizza and stop at the corner florist to get the tulips before 8:00.
Maybe stopping in Times Square to watch the news report may not have been the best of moves, he thought to himself. Once he heard the rummaging in his bedroom, he let out a sigh of relief. “Cari?” he called out. “You still here?”
“Still here,” he heard the voice that made all his troubles vanish. “I’m still getting ready.”
“Sorry I’m late. The train took forever to get to the station,” he lied.
Stephen hung up his coat in the closet beside the door, walked into the bedroom, and saw Cari bending over in front of the mirror on her dresser. “Gotta love the dress code,” he said as he watched her putting on makeup. He let out a low whistle. Despite his recent news, seeing his beautiful wife just made everything feel better, if only for a little while.
“Especially now, during the winter. Headlights flashing all over the place,” she answered, still checking herself in the mirror.
“For my favorite barmaid,” he told her as he held up the bouquet.
Cari turned to face him and smiled. She was wearing a white cutoff T-shirt showing off her flat stomach, the shirt saying “Ringside Seat Bar & Grill” across her chest. Her jeans were so tight that Stephen wondered how she had gotten them on, or how she could expect to sit down anywhere. She took the flowers from him as she said, “Thank you, honey!” She kissed him on the lips, leaving a trace of lipstick behind as her voice shifted to a suspicious tone. “What’d you do?”
Stephen took a step back and held up his hands. “Can’t a husband bring his wife some flowers without apologizing for anything?”
Cari snickered as she reached up and patted Stephen on his cheek. “I love getting you agitated.”
“At least someone’s enjoying themselves. I just wanted to bring you flowers, that’s all. Husbands do that, you know.”
Cari inhaled the fragrance of the flowers and walked past him into the kitchen. “Not many of them, but I’ll take you at your word. I’ll just put these in a vase. Any luck with the job hunting?”
Stephen gave the back of his neck a squeeze as he answered. “Well, there’s a chance for something tomorrow. The day laborers have been a big help and the assistance office rewards people actively looking for work.”
“Oh, good,” she called out from the kitchen as she grabbed a bouquet of dying flowers from the vase on the kitchen table and tossed them in the trash can.
“Yeah, and I saw Joey Dee on the way home. He’s got a new job.”
Cari’s voice grew hopeful. “Oh yeah? Where?”
Stephen knew that tone of voice all too well and struggled to get the next words out. “Well… he’s at a newsstand at the 49th street station.”
“Oh.” Her tone dropped.
“Yeah. And I passed by the old site on the way home. It’s depressing, only one actual human left. If the machines they developed could execute the tasks on their own, he’d be gone too.”
Stephen sauntered back into the living room and saw an empty computer workstation. A half-empty glass of soda was left beside the monitor. He picked it up and walked into the kitchen where Cari was putting the vase of flowers in just the right spot in the middle of the kitchen table. “Tommy’s out with Marcia?”
“Yeah, he got another A in History, so 10 extra credits were put into his account. He’s picking out a new game.”
“That’s my boy,” Stephen proclaimed with a proud smile. “History buff just like his old man! Maybe there’s hope for this whole home-schooling thing after all.”
“There’d better be, since that’s all that’s left.”
Stephen put an extra rasp in his voice to sound as much like a doddering old man as possible. “You kids don’t know nothin’. Back in my day, school was an actual place where we had to go. And we liked it that way!” When he heard Cari laugh, he dropped the old man voice. “So you’re all set with this new job?”
“Yeah, I gotta get going in a couple minutes. Who was it again who set this up for me?”
Stephen stammered for a second before answering. “Just… an old friend from work.”
“Well, make sure to thank him for me the next time you see him. Just think, I do well there for a year and health insurance kicks in. We can finally get off the little bit that we get from your unemployment.”
Stephen looked down at the pizza, if only to hide his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. That’ll be great.”
Cari returned to the bedroom and checked herself in the mirror one more time. “So what do you and Tommy have on the agenda for tonight?”
After clearing his throat, Stephen answered. “I got a pizza for us already. I’m thinking maybe we could lay low, watch some TV and maybe see a movie tomorrow.”
“Well, if you’re doing that, please don’t take him to that awful horror movie, alright?”
Stephen walked into the bedroom after her. “You have something against Bourbon Street Bloodbath II?”
Cari sat down on the edge of the bed and grabbed her sneakers. “Don’t think for two seconds that I didn’t notice the glint in your eyes when you saw the trailer for it last night. And remember how he got nightmares for a week after you took him to the first one? Kept saying how Greg Gumbo was gonna kill him?”
“He’s a smart kid. He’s been watching that stuff since he was four. He knows it’s just a movie.”
“Between that and the GCL crap I keep catching him watching…”
Stephen looked away so he could roll his eyes without getting into trouble. Here we go again with this. Still, maybe there was a chance she could be convinced to look at the company a little differently. “What’s wrong with the GCL?”
Cari glanced up at him with her, “Do we really need to have that talk again?” look. “Do we really need to have that talk again?” she said aloud.
“I’m just saying that it’s a great way to make a living. And with the rest of the job market as unstable as it is…”
She cut him off. “Don’t you dare use the job market as an excuse. You know damned well how I feel about the GCL.”
“All I’m saying is I’m just one step away from sitting in the newsstand by the subway with Joey!”
“And you can’t break your neck selling candy bars, can you?”
“You don’t know Joey.”
“Don’t make jokes. And I don’t care how good that money is. There are plenty more ways to make a living and I don’t want any of us in that life or you risking yours, for that matter, got it?”
Stephen nodded his head. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Okay. Now how do I look?” Cari stood up and held out her arms, displaying the logo on the tight T-shirt. Stephen let out another low whistle.
“You sure you have to go tonight?”
“I’ll be worth the wait,” she promised as she sashayed over to him and laid a long, lingering kiss on his lips. As soon as she broke the kiss, she smiled at him as she instructed, “One mention from him about Greg Gumbo tomorrow night, and you’ll be sleeping on the couch.”
Stephen smiled. “I love you too.”
Cari strutted past him as she grabbed her coat from the closet and slipped it on. Before she walked out the door, she turned back at him and pointed an accusatory finger. “I find out that you and Tommy were watching GCL and you’re under the couch tonight.” She gave him a wink and a smile, and walked out. Stephen waited for a moment until he knew Cari was gone. When the coast was clear, he pulled out his cell phone, and re-read the message waiting for him: “Congress Unanimously Cancels Unemployment Health Insurance. Effective Immediately.”
Reading those words made Stephen’s stomach drop once again. All this time, he was so convinced that the government was on the side of the people, and here were the people who needed the most help being cast off as though they were a nuisance. Survival of the fittest at its finest.
Stephen’s thoughts drifted back to the half-blind old man at the Unemployment Credit Exchange office, his warning not to be a part of the GCL, his good eye staring him down. That could be me, he thought. Penniless. Torn up clothing. Scraggly beard. Disabled. Alone.
That could be me if I don’t get into the GCL.
Stephen opened up the pizza box and pulled two slices onto paper plates. Just two minutes passed before Tommy walked in the door. His short dirty blonde hair was combed down over his forehead and it stopped right above his big brown eyes that still held a sense of wonder that life hadn’t managed to snatch away just yet. Stephen shook off his concerns and gave his son a big hug, relieved just as he was every day that the light in Tommy’s eyes was still there.
“How’s my little genius?”
“I’m not a genius, Dad. I just got another good grade.”
“Trust me, son. You’re a genius,” Stephen corrected him. “And we need as many of those as possible these days. Marcia already left?”
“Uh-huh. She picked up Mom so she wouldn’t have to take the train.”
“Ready to eat?”
“YEAH!” Tommy pulled off his coat, tossed it to Stephen, dashed to the couch, and plopped himself down on it.
“Wait,” Stephen commanded with a smile. Tommy froze as he looked up at his father. Stephen raised his voice in an excitable game show host-like pitch. “Next week is the anniversary of WHAT national tragedy?”
Tommy rolled his eyes. “Give me a harder one, Dad. The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“Exact date and time the bridge was destroyed?”
“January 31, 2051. 9:00am Pacific Standard Time.”
“Not bad. Okay, one more. Since we now have troops in North Korea, tell me the name of the group they were lumped in with in the early 2000’s.”
“The Axis of Evil,” Tommy said with a proud smile.
“Alright!” Stephen exclaimed. “Now we can eat!”
“Did you blot off the grease like Mom does?”
“Of course,” Stephen answered as he ran his hands through Tommy’s hair. “Got it all over my hands, too.”
Tommy pulled his head away from Stephen and reached up to check his hair. “Dad!”
“Gotcha,” he teased as he poked his son in the stomach and sat down beside him. “So, you’re all set for tomorrow morning?”
“Yup. My studies don’t begin until noon.”
“Good. And you heard about who’s in the main event?”
“It was announced in the mall,” Tommy answered with an excited smile. “P.T. Cruz’s back!” The two of them high-fived each other as Stephen handed Tommy the television’s remote control.
“Do the honors.”
Tommy happily took in a deep breath, then let out a loud sneeze. Stephen’s eyes widened. “You okay?”
Tommy nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. There’s just a lot of pepper on the pizza.”
“Oh, phew. Good,” Stephen said as he gave his son’s hair another tussle. “Bless you. Now, you can do the honors.”
Tommy pressed the side button on the remote and spoke loud and clear into the microphone on the top. “G! C! L!”
Gary Blackman stood in the production booth, watching his trusted director Lenny Wilson, a television veteran of over forty years and the only man on Gary’s list of choices to be the main director for GCL Live. Wilson was hard at work, his hands working one set of buttons after another at his console and barking his orders into a small microphone.
“Okay, guys! Last call before we go live! Los Angeles, you got the first match on the schedule. You ready?”
“LA is ready!” A voice from the speaker on the console answered.
“Miami, you’re up next. Ready?”
“Miami is ready.”
“Chicago, you’re up to start the second hour. You ready?”
“Chicago is all set.”
“Good job, guys,” Gary said over Wilson’s shoulder. “We’re all set here in New York for the main event. Let’s give them a good show.” He gave his director a quick pat on the back before taking a step back. “What do you think, Lenny? Ready for tonight?”
“Should at least be more exciting than that snooze-fest on Monday. Was Kyle even conscious during that match?”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s a great champion, always has been.”
“Another fight like that and he will be a ‘has-been.’“
Gary nodded. “It takes more than being good in the ring to be a worthy champion. You have to represent the company well and you have to watch over your fellow Warriors. Ready to drop the screens?”
“Dropping the screens now.” With a press of a button, Wilson activated four large digital screens that lowered in front of each side of the ring in the arena. The familiar GCL logo appeared, bringing the crowd to their feet, cheering, screaming and applauding.
“Let’s give them a good show,” Gary said to himself as he folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the production booth wall.
The constant screams of the boisterous crowd never failed to give Philip Thomas Cruz a shiver, and he took delight in standing as close to the entrance area as possible to soak in the adulation. So what if their attention was aimed at the large monitors showcasing the match in Detroit, Michigan? He knew that, as loud as they were at this moment, they would be twice as uproarious for him when he made his long-awaited return to action.
He was so wrapped up in absorbing the energy of the crowd and the action on the screen that he barely responded when he felt Kyle’s hand on his shoulder. “Welcome back, bro,” Kyle said as Cruz turned to face him. “How are you feeling?”
“Not too shabby. Just anxious to get back out there.”
Cruz shook Kyle’s hand and felt a rush of adrenaline that a fan would feel if they got this close to the GCL World Champion. He had to hand it to Kyle; he had the look of a champion, with his title belt around his waist and when he was in his full costume, consisting of the same blue and red singlet and matching tights that he wore on his poster in Times Square.
“Your head’s okay?” Kyle asked.
“My head’s been okay for a while now. So I pretty much just spent the last two months at the gym, keeping up with my conditioning. What did I miss while I was gone?”
“Well, the Gnome just beat Goodfella so I hear he’ll be going after one of the members of the Roswell Rejects, maybe Sotek. Whoever wins between Copeland and Harris will have the final say on whether or not they want to remain a tag team.”
Cruz cut him off. “That’s not what I’m asking about. I want to know what happened behind the scenes ever since I got slammed in the skull with a goddamned crowbar. When the hell did that become part of the sport?”
Kyle answered, “Based on what I heard after I got here, we’ll see something like that happening more often.”
“Not tonight. Your match has been scheduled to be a simple one-on-one ever since the return dates for you and Togar were announced.”
“Oh, well that’s a relief,” Cruz responded with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Before either man could say anything else, they heard the crowd erupt at the ringing of a bell, signaling the end of a match. They looked to the smaller monitor on their right and saw Reno Copeland raising his arm in victory. He glanced down at his tag team partner, Chad Harris, who was still struggling to get to his feet.
The noise from the crowd began to subside as Copeland held his hand out to Harris. The defeated tag team partner reached up to grab Copeland’s hand and, as he was helped to his feet, raised Copeland’s arm and pointed to him. The crowd burst into applause as they were given the signal that Copeland and Harris would remain a tag team. They ducked under the top rope together and strode back to their dressing room.
Kyle nodded his head. Good. They’re still together. They might be able to take on the Solar System if they keep at it.”
Cruz swung his arms back and forth and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air and exhaling through his mouth. Kyle looked at him and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ve seen you act like that when you’re tense about something.” Cruz nodded. “Well, can you blame me? My first match back and I get to take on the very same guy who put me out of action to begin with.”
“That’s Vornakai for you. I kind of figured he’d pull some sort of stunt like this for the sensationalism.”
Cruz shrugged his shoulders. “Eh, better to just get this match over with, I guess. I make it through this and I can move on to someone else.”
“Just relax. You still got a half hour to go.” Kyle patted Cruz on the shoulder. “I gotta check in with Gary. Have a good match.”
“Don’t worry.” Cruz smiled as Kyle walked away.
Victor Vornakee sat alone in his private dressing room. With the exception of his folded button-down shirt, black pants, and his touchpad tablet showing e-mails spewing venomous hatred from GCL fans, the counter top stayed impeccably clean. A small monitor was set up in the top left corner of the room, keeping him apprised of all the various matches taking place across the country. The one framed picture he allowed in the otherwise stark room was of himself standing in the middle of the ring, looking down at his vanquished former tag team partner. His first true moment of glory, the first of many.
He was almost finished getting dressed, wearing his black spandex pants with the gray stripe down each side. His matching shirt hung on a hanger behind him with his long black trench coat in its protective covering.
Victor looked down at the small gray box lying open on his dressing room table. He rubbed his fingers together, tempted to reach in and remove the object inside, but he resisted the urge. “Perfect,” he said to himself as he smiled.
Victor shut the lid on the box, grabbed his spandex shirt, and pulled it on. Everything was as close to his skin as possible. Not a single strand was dangling, ensuring that his opponents could never use a frivolous piece of decoration to their advantage. As Victor stretched his shirt down over his chest and stomach, he filled his lungs with air and felt his chest expand. Putting on this outfit always seemed to transform him and tonight was no exception.
As Victor held up his trench coat and slipped his arms through the sleeves, he felt whole again. He sucked in a deep breath and let out a long exhale.
He was no longer Victor Vornakee. He was better than that. He was the living embodiment of power in the GCL, Vornakai. And nobody would see him as anything else.
Togar sat alone in a corner of the north dressing room. He faced the wall as always, his eyes transfixed on the reading tablet in front of him. It was his second week of reading Ernie Salt’s bestselling tome – “How the GCL Saved America from Itself” – and he reached the moment where Ernie had his big meeting with Gary Blackman himself.
“We’re just two blocks away,” my driver informed me and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Ever since the world of sports was turned upside down and the Great Takeover began, everyone around the country had demanded to know the secret behind the most powerful and successful promotion in sports and entertainment history. The assignment to uncover the answers was given to me, but with an added bonus. I had been granted full unrestricted access behind the scenes of Gladiatorial Combat League – even into the life of the Founder & CEO of the company, Gary Blackman, himself.
If you’re as familiar with the company as everyone else in the country, you know that Blackman is something of an enigma. He rarely speaks to the press, allowing his athletes to promote the upcoming matches, preferring to remain in the background conducting his business with total privacy. According to GCL Warriors that left the ring, however, he is not the puppet master in the shadows as the general public has been led to believe. They say Blackman makes sure to greet everyone in his company with a hearty handshake, he makes time for anyone who has an issue and he is as warm with the wrestlers as he is with his parents.
I made my way through the secretive stage door entrance in the lower level of the New York City Gladiator Colosseum and I could see remnants of the sports palace that this building once was. If I told you where it was, they would kill me. At least that’s what they told me, and I’m not quite so sure whether or not they were joking. When it was known as Madison Square Garden, this arena had seen some wonderful moments that brought New Yorkers together – from the New York Knicks winning the NBA Finals to the New York Rangers winning the NHL Stanley Cup, to Vince McMahon’s WrestleMania I, X and XX, and so on. As I walked through those blue-carpeted halls to the dressing rooms and Gary Blackman’s office, I could see framed posters commemorating the history that the athletes in this building had created.
I was led into Gary Blackman’s office and found myself face-to-face with the man who had redefined the world of sports for his entire generation six short years ago. Considering everything he had done, I was half expecting an all-powerful deity instead of the well-dressed humble-looking gentleman who resembled the proverbial man behind the curtain to whom I was not supposed to pay attention.
Today, Gary was dressed in a white button-down shirt, black tie and navy blue sweater vest that seemed to match the carpets. He stood up, running a hand through his thinning hair to groom himself – despite the fact that I had not brought a video camera to capture the moment – and smiled as he shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, Ernie,” was the first thing he said to me. The man was responsible for creating a revolution in our country and he was happy to meet me.
As I responded with, “Thank you, Mr. Blackman,” he cut me off and insisted that I call him Gary. After exchanging more pleasantries, he went into discussing his family’s legacy and how they found themselves in, of all things, the wrestling business. He told me about how his grandfather, so animated in his performance, would tell young Gary about the wrestling he grew up watching and loving. His grandfather – a modest salesman who’d grown up a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment – was a storyteller at heart and his re-telling of such significant events in sports entertainment history as the Survivor Series Montreal Screwjob of 1997 (during the time when it was still known as the World Wrestling Federation) was a key element in Gary falling in love with wrestling himself.
When his grandparents were killed in a tragic automobile accident in 2025, Gary was awarded a majority of the family’s inheritance with one specific stipulation: the money had to be used to pay for Gary’s college education and, after he graduated, to realize his grandfather’s dream and start a wrestling promotion.
“Easier said than done, right?” Gary told me. “Of course, my parents were against me going in that direction, but at least they were relieved that they didn’t have to pay for college.” I watched his eyes focus on the full-color photograph on the wall behind me. Captured within that snapshot was a Gary Blackman twenty years younger, his smiling face filled with ambition and carefree drive as he stood tall in a black pinstriped suit, ready to conquer the sports world.
We talked about the name of the promotion that he’d settled on: GCL (Gladiatorial Combat League), a name that would invoke more memories of leather-clad men with spears fighting off lions than of Hulk Hogan dropping a leg on The Iron Sheik or Ric Flair stylin’ and profilin’ with one of his many custom-designed wrestling robes. Why that name?
“It just came to me in a dream,” he explained. “Wrestling at its core is a pair of men competing to see who is the stronger of the two. They’re gladiators. And of course, around that time, the word “Gladiators” was being thrown around quite a bit with the rise of the MMA promotion FGW (Fighters, Gladiators, Warriors). That name may have worked for them, but it didn’t work for me. Fighters, gladiators, warriors, they’re all the same thing. So I took the strongest word of those three and just put it out there so everyone knows what to expect. You come in this colosseum, you are expecting gladiatorial combat. And that’s what we deliver, every single week.
“We started out in 2041 as just another promotion traveling from town to town, trying to find our footing. We had to stop and start up again once or twice due to lack of funding, and through it all, Verne Dappy stuck with it. He was doing a good job as our champion, but as time passed, around late 2050, we realized that we’d hit the glass ceiling concerning our potential audience. It was a saturated market. Sure, the decline of the bigger companies had allowed for the rise of the smaller promotions, and this was a great opportunity for a lot of newer names to connect with a larger fan base. But it just wasn’t clicking the way we had hoped it would.”
“Granted, I can understand why attendance wasn’t as strong as we would have liked. It wasn’t even two years since the Golden Gate Bridge was destroyed so people were kinda on edge. A bomb threat was called in at that time almost every other day, and when some were found at different arenas and stadiums, that – plus the fact that the different leagues were fading away already – just killed it for sports in general. Look at all that was at the people’s fingertips as recently as 2049. Major League Baseball, National Football League, the NBA, the NHL. All of them just imploded, around the time when the US Department of Sports and Entertainment was formed to snatch up all their archives. Then all the players left for other countries that still had their sports. It wasn’t the best of times for our line of work.”
But everything clicked for Gary on Sunday, February 13, 2051, a mere two hours after his wrestlers helped him celebrate his 41st birthday. One of Gary’s favorite wrestlers in his promotion – Ronnie Ragot, who’d been repackaged as Togar – was in the midst of a championship match against Verne Dappy and it was in front of little more than fifty fans inside a school gymnasium.
“Verne was going through his customary match,” Gary said. “They lock up, Togar makes a move, Verne counters the move, Togar gets thrown to the ropes, Togar bounces off, Verne gives him a hip-toss, wash, rinse, repeat. We could tell backstage that Verne was just going through the motions, as though he’d somehow lost a bit of the fire he’d had prior to winning the world championship. Seeing so few people in the stands watching your performance could be cause for anyone to consider taking it easy. But Togar didn’t agree with that.”
While Verne was in the midst of countering yet another standard move Togar attempted, the contender got fed up with going through the motions and punched Verne right across the jaw. This stunned Verne for a moment, as well as the crowd, which began to sit up and take notice of what was transpiring before them, as though they realized as one that they were witnessing history in the making.
“All of a sudden, Togar decks him again and it was like a light switch flicked on in Verne’s head because he started punching Togar back and the two of them started an all-out brawl in the ring. The crowd could sense a different kind of energy emanating from the ring and responded to it. They were up on their feet and cheering for both guys. And Verne had to cinch up to get an actual 3-count on Togar. The fans went crazy over this! And we could see them calling or text messaging their friends to inform them that they had to come and see the GCL the next time we came to town.”
“How many times must you keep reading that same section?” Togar turned around and saw Vornakai standing behind him, his arms folded across his chest. “How many times do you go to sleep at night saying to yourself, ‘I’m the reason why we’re all here?’“
Togar held up his eReader. “It’s in the book, so it must be true, right?”
Vornakai patted his colleague on his shoulder. “That it is, my friend. That it is. Of course they failed to mention the moment when I took you backstage and suggested that you punch Verne during the match.”
Togar genuflected toward Vornakai. “Well, I never forgot how much I owe my success to you.”
“Good. And look at us now. Are you ready to go out there tonight?”
“Of course. Thanks for letting me finish what I started.” Togar pressed his fists together. The sound of his knuckles cracking echoed through the room.
Vornakai smiled. “Don’t thank me. This was set up ever since the end of your first match. And judging by the way you look, you won’t need a crowbar this time.”
“Well, the supplements you’ve been getting me while I’ve been away haven’t hurt.”
“You’ve been a great guinea pig, Togar. I’ll give you that. But we still have a lot to do. I need you to see The Doctor before you go to the ring.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Togar,” Togar and Vornakai turned toward a young man wearing a gray blazer with a small GCL patch on the right side. “I need to get your thumb print for our drug test. It’s set fifteen minutes fast as usual.”
“No.” Vornakai held out his arm to block Togar from moving toward the page.
“No? But it’s my job. I have to collect something for our reader. Otherwise, it could—”
“Togar will be ready to scan for you at the official time of the match. No earlier.”
Togar nodded. “Of course. I got nothing to hide, right?”
“Of course not,” Vornakai replied. The page nodded and walked away with a confused look. Vornakai turned his attention back to Togar. “When you see The Doctor, find out about the new formula,”
“What new formula? Does the boss know about this?”
Togar nodded and left the room without another word. Vornakai walked through the rest of the north dressing room and saw four GCL Warriors studying themselves in a mirror that covered an entire wall. Michael Esker, James Sotek, Paul Zarron and Tony Norad all wore matching green spandex outfits that covered their entire bodies, as well as red contact lenses that were still comfortable after wearing them almost every night for ten years. Vornakai smiled at how the four men took a great deal of pride in looking as polished as possible for the audience and in doing their jobs to the best of their ability. So what if they were saddled with the terrible “Roswell Rejects” gimmick? They were still getting a paycheck and they were a constant presence on GCL Live every week.
Vornakai slapped Sotek on the shoulder. “Be ready,” was all he said before exiting the north dressing room via its entrance to the arena. As he strutted down the ramp, the symphony of hatred from the audience enveloped him. He smirked and basked in the attention, making his way to the ringside area to sit beside the timekeeper. Any other night, he would have leapt into the ring to address the crowd, getting them more and more riled up. But this wasn’t his night. Tonight, he was a spectator.
Togar roamed the halls of the Colosseum, passing by various employees and superstars that were going about their typical loitering routine. A group of pyro-technicians taking a cigarette break looked up when they noticed Togar walking past them. He strode by without so much as a glance, but the technicians felt uneasy in his presence. Yes indeed, this man was born to be in a wrestling ring.
Togar stopped at an obscure door and knocked. On the door was a rusted nameplate with one simple word: “Doctor.”
“Come in,” answered a voice from behind the door. Hinges squealed as Togar entered.
The contents inside could barely be classified as a doctor’s standard equipment at all. A simple chemistry set of test tubes, beakers and Bunsen burners crowded one stainless steel table in the corner. A garbage can near the sink overflowed with wadded up pieces of paper, cotton balls, and used syringes that, according to medical guidelines, should have been disposed of in a sharps container. In the center of the less-than-sterile room was another table, this one supporting a stack of papers and two large containers of a navy-blue colored fluid.
Togar could see that the man with his back to him was standing over the sink washing his hands. He wore a generic white lab coat, which he used to dry his hands.
“Out of paper towels again?” Togar asked.
The man turned around, smiled at Togar, and motioned for him to sit in a chair near the table with the navy-blue liquid.
“Roll up your sleeve, Togar,” The Doctor instructed. Togar did as he was told and held out his arm. The Doctor pulled out a small silver injection gun filled with the navy-blue liquid, pressed it against his patient’s skin and pulled the trigger.
Togar flexed his fingers and took a deep breath as the formula entered his bloodstream. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that feeling,” he said. “Of course,” The Doctor answered. You’ve been my test subject for the past couple of years, but the formulas are always changing. If you’ve gotten used to it, something would be wrong.”
“Speaking of formulas changing, Vornakai was talking about a new one you’re working on.”
“I’ll need one more day on that one. From what I heard, tomorrow’s recruit will be the test subject. Will you be making the selection?”
Togar rolled down his sleeve and stood up, heading toward the door. “Not this time. Vornakai wants to make the call himself.”
“Understandable. Have a good match,” The Doctor called out to his patient.
Togar turned back and smiled, his eyes looking just a bit wilder than they had a few moments before. “Oh, I will.”
Cruz stood just out of view, watching the men, women and children on their feet. Nobody sat once throughout the show; not even during the periods of time when they were staring at large projection screens watching events unfold across the country. He often found himself in awe of their fans, at their ability to shout their lungs out during matches and leave afterward with little to no effect on their vocal cords.
Cruz turned around and saw a young GCL page holding out a small tablet. “I need your pre-match drug test, please.”
“Sure,” Cruz responded while pressing his thumb on a small box on the tablet screen. He winced as the box grew brighter for five seconds, then dimmed. A green light appeared and the page nodded. Cruz stretched out his thumb and gave his hand a brief shake. “That’s one part I haven’t missed. I’m sure Togar’s getting tested too?”
“Of course, sir,” the page replied. “Welcome back. Have a good match.”
Cruz waved at the page, who walked away with the tablet, and looked toward the ring. He took a step back and leapt through the doorway leading to the entrance ramp. Once he was in view, the cheering and screaming escalated. The returning GCL star smiled as he heard the applause. After all the time he had spent nursing his injuries and keeping out of the public eye, not only did the fans still remember him, their hearts seemed to have grown fonder in his absence.
Joe Revis, the senior ring announcer, stood in the middle of the ring. The oldest employee of the GCL held up his microphone and said, “The following contest is scheduled for one fall. Coming down the aisle, from Miami, Florida, weighing in at 235 pounds, P.T. Cruz!” The crowd erupted with another hearty burst of cheering and applause at the mention of his name. Cruz walked into the ring from under the ropes and waved to the crowd. Flashbulbs exploded like lightning throughout the arena, the stroboscopic effect almost blinding him, but he wasn’t fazed.
“Are you ready for your scan now, sir?” the GCL page asked while holding out his tablet.
“Absolutely,” Togar said with a smile. He pressed his thumb to the tablet screen and held it. After five seconds of waiting, a green light appeared.
“All set,” the page said while exhaling a sigh of relief. “Have a good match.”
Togar gave his hand a shake, squeezed both hands into fists, and started jumping up and down in place. When he saw the lights in the arena dim, he strode into the arena and laughed at the hostile boos from the crowd.
“And his opponent, from Brooklyn, New York, weighing in at 254 pounds, Togar!” Just like Cruz before him, the announcement of Togar’s name increased the volume of the crowd as he walked stone-faced down the entrance ramp.
Cruz looked down at the mat covering the ring and knelt down to press his hand against it. He felt the electronic sensors covering every inch of the mat, and glanced up at the control booth overlooking the arena. He waved to the official at the control panel, who waved back.
Togar turned toward ringside and smiled. Vornakai sat with his legs crossed and his arms folded across his chest. He looked at Togar and nodded his head.
The timekeeper rang the bell and the anticipated fight was underway. The raucous audience began hollering as both men circled one another for a moment. Finally, the two Warriors came together and locked up. Togar shoved Cruz into the turnbuckles and broke the lockup.
Once his arms were free, Cruz caught Togar off guard with a flurry of punches to the head. The audience was at a fever pitch. A group of teenagers in the front row started the chant, “P.T. Cru-uz!” followed by five claps. Cruz could hear Togar wincing as his fists bounced off his opponent’s face.
Cruz pushed Togar back and jumped up, executing a dropkick that knocked him off his feet, his back slamming on the mat.
“Yes!” Cruz yelled over the deafening crowd, pumping his fist as he pushed himself to his feet and stood tall over Togar. The adrenaline rush of gladiatorial combat flowed through every nerve of his body. Cruz wanted to keep his attention on his opponent, to continue pummeling him for every day Togar put him out of action with that damned crowbar. But he also knew that the crowd wanted to enjoy this fight as much as he did. They deserved this night, and he deserved the paycheck that went with it.
Cruz took a step back and watched Togar get back on his feet, ran to the ropes, bounced off them, and launched himself. His punch landed on Togar’s forehead, putting him down to the mat once again. Cruz took a moment to reflect on the amount of abuse he was dishing out, but none of these punches or kicks were having as much effect on Togar as he expected.
Kyle kept his eyes on the same backstage monitor he had seen Cruz watch earlier. Although his friend’s punches looked solid, they still failed to keep Togar on the mat.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around to face two of the most successful Warriors in the business: Max Mercury and Scott Saturn,
The pair known as “The Solar System” wore their tag team championship titles around their waist as Max pointed at the image of Togar on the monitor.
“Why isn’t Togar hitting back?” Max asked.
Kyle turned back to the screen. “He keeps glancing at Vornakai. They’re planning something.”
Max responded with, “Maybe he’s just letting Cruz tire himself out for the ten-minute preliminary period?”
Kyle nodded, distant and still skeptical. “Maybe.”
Max’s next question reeled the World Champion back in. “So you’re setting me up with your sister, right?”
“My cousin,” Kyle corrected. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”
“Maybe you should go out and make sure they’re not doing anything unscrupulous?” Scott suggested. Kyle nodded and walked to the arena entrance.
Kyle stood at the entrance position, watching the match continue to unfold. He heard the crowd’s cheering growing more boisterous as Cruz scaled the top rope and hit a cross-body that slammed Togar to the mat. Cruz leapt back up and struck another pose for the overjoyed crowd, which responded with an ear-splitting uproar.
From Kyle’s vantage point, he smiled with pride as his friend and comrade played to the crowd. The champion looked toward Vornakai, who stood and yelled to Togar, “Now!”
Cruz had his back turned as Togar regained his footing and snatched him by the back of his shirt. With one fierce shove, Togar heaved Cruz off the rope.
Cruz’s back arched, his hands clenched into fists, as he landed hard on his spine. He got back up, but Kyle could see Togar cracking his knuckles in anticipation.
The crowd voiced concern for Cruz and hostility for Togar, as Togar smashed his fist against Cruz’s jaw. Blood and teeth sprayed from Cruz’s shattered mouth, landing in the laps of those with ringside seats.
A small drop of blood landed on Vornakai, who wiped it off as though it were an insignificant raindrop. Cruz took one punch after another from his opponent and, after a series of rapid blows to his head, he collapsed to the mat with blood streaming down his face.
Kyle gasped and took a few long strides toward the ring. At the same time, he saw Vornakai stand up and wave his right arm. Suddenly, two of the Roswell Rejects – Esker and Sotek – dashed from the north-side backstage area and grabbed his arms.
Despite moving in the reverse direction, Kyle kept his eyes on the ring. He watched as Togar eased back on his assault, allowing Cruz the opportunity to regain his footing. Cruz propelled Togar into the ropes, hurled him with all his might, and launched himself as Togar bounced off the ropes. The two men crashed against each other in the middle of the ring, Cruz landing on top. The crowd applauded once again as Cruz forced Togar’s shoulders onto the mat for a near pinfall. Togar kicked out after the two-count.
Kyle struggled to shake off his captors as the other two Roswell Rejects, Zarron and Norad, ran out from the north-side dressing room and joined Esker and Sotek in the battle to prevent Kyle from reaching the ring. They pummeled his back with their fists, and Kyle could feel each hand equipped with the added endowment of brass knuckles. The champion grimaced, but his outrage provided an extra burst of adrenaline. Kyle struck Norad with his elbow and knocked him off of his back. When Zarron leapt onto his back, Kyle dropped to one knee, reached back and grabbed Zarron by his neck. He flipped him over his shoulder and, as he flew, Zarron’s knee hit Esker right in the jaw. Togar exchanged a glance with Vornakai, who made a swift slashing motion across his neck. He nodded with a smile and, just as Cruz came rushing toward him, executed a clothesline that almost took the smaller man’s head off.
Togar got down on one knee and clutched Cruz by the hair. He raised his fist and fired shot after shot at the Warrior’s face. First, he heard Cruz’s nose break. Then, he felt the blood clinging to his fist. After that, he felt the bones in Cruz’s face start to give way and yet still, Togar would not stop.
Kyle shook off the last of Vornakai’s cronies and broke into a sprint toward the ring. He began climbing the stairs outside the ring,
“Togar!” Kyle called out. As the champion ducked under the ropes to enter the ring, he felt a hard strike to the back of his legs. He whipped his head around and saw Vornakai holding the folded chair he was sitting on throughout the match. Kyle’s knees buckled and he crashed to the floor. From his point of view, he could see Vornakai walking back to his spot beside the timekeeper, unfolding his chair and sitting back down. Cruz lay in the ring motionless. The noise of the crowd started fading in and out. He tried to put his hand in front of his face, but could only get his hand up so high. He tried to speak, but the only sound he could make was a gurgling noise as more blood oozed from his mouth. Kyle looked up in time to see Togar waving at him with a smirk, then stomping on Cruz’s chest.
The crowd grew more hostile with each passing second. A chorus of profanity filled the arena. Ringsiders hurled their trash into the ring. A full beer can completely missed Togar, but struck Cruz on his forehead.
As Kyle rose to his feet, he watched Togar holding up Cruz’s head by his hair. He glared at Kyle and smacked Cruz in the face with a fierce backhanded punch. Cruz’s head dropped to the mat.
“Philip!” Kyle’s desperate screams echoed through the arena as Togar dropped to one knee and pinned Cruz’s shoulders to the mat for the three-count and the victory.
The bell rang. The match was over. Togar had won. The official time of the match was nine minutes and forty-five seconds, not enough time to warrant a paycheck, but Togar felt as though he had won the lottery.
Vornakai sat still, his arms once again folded across his chest.
Stephen and Tommy both stared at the television screen in a complete state of shock. Stephen flinched reflexively with every punch Cruz took from Togar. His arm was draped around Tommy and had started trembling as the match reached its gruesome conclusion.
For a moment, Stephen struggled to find the right words to follow such a horrific match but the words stuck in his throat. What could he say that would ease the tension in the room? He had spent so much time excited for his audition tomorrow and, for all he knew, he may just as well be on his way to sharing the same fate as P.T. Cruz. Or worse.
Tommy looked up at his dad. “That’s not gonna happen to you, is it Dad?”
Stephen thought of the old man he saw outside the unemployment credit exchange office. Was he really a Warrior in the past? And did he experience the kind of beating that P.T. Cruz just suffered? Was that waiting for him if he were to make the roster?
Stephen looked down at Tommy and smiled as he rubbed his son on the top of his head. “Of course not,” he said, trying to make it sound like the truth, hoping and praying that it was.
The paramedics assigned to be on standby backstage at each show invested everything they had into reviving Philip Thomas Cruz. His broken body still lying on the gurney, Cruz’s hands twitched, his eyes rolled back in their swollen sockets.
Kyle stood some distance away, trying to focus his attention on the paramedics. Every time he caught a glimpse of Cruz, his eyes filled with tears and he had to look away.
The sound of the paramedics doing their job echoed through the otherwise silent dressing room. Kyle heard rapid footsteps growing louder and louder by the second. He shifted his gaze toward the hallway just as Gary Blackman burst into the room.
“How is he?” Gary asked anyone who would listen.
“How do you think?” Kyle spat, his tone dripping venom.
Gary walked over to his champion. “How about you? Are you okay?”
“Don’t worry about me. I can handle myself. I want to know what the hell that was all about and what you intend to do about it!”
“What do you mean? That was a legal match. No weapons, no—”
“Don’t give me that, Gary! You know what I’m talking about! Philip was down on the mat, the match was over. Togar could have pinned him and that would have been the end of it. He didn’t have to beat him like that!” He pointed to the paramedics surrounding Cruz to further emphasize his point. “I want to see his drug test. None of us signed up to take part in a match like that! “
Gary acquiesced and held up his hands. “I’m gonna talk to Vornakai about all this at tomorrow’s meeting. For now, just go home. The paramedics are gonna do everything in their power to make sure Cruz is back on his feet again.”
Kyle nodded. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.” Gary reached out to shake his hand, but Kyle stormed off in disgust. Gary looked at the other men who were standing in the room, listening. Various crew members along with several members of the babyface roster stood by, some shaking their heads in disappointment while others glared at Gary, not even attempting to conceal their fury.
Gary gulped, wiped the sweat off his brow, and backed out of the room just as the cell phone in his pocket started to ring. The CEO pulled out the phone and cringed when he recognized the number. He pressed a button on the screen and held the phone up to his ear. “Yes?”
“That was quite a match, Gary,” came an authoritative baritone voice on the other end. “The overall opinions online are very intense regarding Togar. The fans are already demanding that he get back in the ring.”
“Well, they’ll just have to wait a little while, Mr. Barth,” Gary answered. “The lineup for tomorrow’s show is already set and Togar is not booked to fight again until late next week. I’m sure Vornakai is already penciling that in with the writers.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from him,” John Barth responded. “You put on a good show, Gary. We’re quite pleased with what we saw this evening.” The click on the other end was Gary’s indication that the conversation was over.
“Man of the people,” Gary whispered to himself in bitter contempt. “My ass.”
Vornakai stood up and pointed at Togar, who stood victorious in the ring and welcomed the barrage of boos that the two Warriors shared from the crowd. He pointed toward the entrance to their stable’s dressing room and Togar nodded back at him. As Joe Revis stepped into the ring to thank everyone for attending GCL Live, the two most hated men in the company made their way backstage.
“How do you feel?” Vornakai asked Togar.
“Didn’t break a sweat,” Togar responded. “That was fun.”
“What did The Doctor have to say about the new formula?”
“Should be ready for tomorrow.”
Vornakai nodded and, as soon as he was out of the fans’ sight, he heard a very generic ringtone coming from his pants. He reached into his pocket, grabbed his cell phone and checked the number. Despite the speaker on the other end not able to see him, Vornakai still stood up straight as he pressed the “Talk” button. “Yes sir?” he said.
“Are you convinced yet?”
“That Togar could take apart someone that hasn’t been in the ring for three months? I don’t think I needed very much convincing of that.”
“That’s not what I mean. I want to know if you’re convinced that I’m looking out for you.”
“By authorizing weapons? That’s not going to do me any good.”
“What are you talking about? I just put you on the inside track toward the championship, and the fans will love every moment of it.”
“You think I care about what the fans love?” Vornakai asked. “I told you what would work, and I’m going ahead with that!”
“And I say you’re wrong. One man isn’t going to make a difference. You need as many advantages as possible, and the new weapons stipulation will give you those advantages. The people may think that putting weapons into play will help their heroes even the score, but—
Vornakai cut him off. “Trust me, I have some idea of how to play this. But I don’t tell you how to do your job, so don’t tell me how to do mine.” He hung up and took a deep breath.
He’s a fool, Vornakai thought to himself. That man should just stick to what he knows and let him run the organization the way he sees fit. His mind drifted away to a time when he would be second to no one. To a time when the GCL World Championship would be around his waist. To a time that would happen soon enough.
Kyle trudged through the hallway of the Colosseum alone, trying to keep the tears from flowing down his cheeks. He stopped and leaned back against the wall, striving to collect himself, when the paramedics rushed past him, wheeling the gurney that held Cruz’s broken body.
Despite his previous efforts to recover his composure, witnessing Cruz being rolled away filled Kyle with nothing but anger. His eyes remained fixed on the passing team of paramedics while his knuckles blanched as he clenched his hands into tight fists.
“Kyle!” The voice echoing down the hall startled the GCL World Champion. He whipped around to see Max Mercury striding toward him. Kyle could see the concern on his friend’s face. “You alright? That didn’t sound like you in there.”
Kyle and Max walked together down the hallway, making their way to the exit. Kyle kept shaking his head in dismay and disbelief throughout the journey. “I can’t believe what happened in that ring. Vornakai’s gone insane over this damned belt.”
“Well, he who owns the belt controls the game. You should know that by now.”
Kyle whirled on Max in frustration and pointed to his Championship Belt around his waist. “Do you see me holding any control over anything right now? I never condoned a bludgeoning like that and I never would. This was not a normal match, no matter what Vornakai or Gary say. And even if they had approached me about all this, I would have-”
“You would have said no, and Vornakai would have gone around you anyway,” Max stated.
“Dumb sons of bitches. All they care about is keeping the people hooked. And did you hear what Gary said? He’ll have a talk with Vornakai? I thought we all worked for Gary! He has no idea what’s happening in his own company!” Kyle reached the Colosseum’s exit door and flung it open in rage. Max walked out after him.
“Sure he’s got an idea,” Max answered. “That’s why the pay is so good. And don’t forget about the bene—”
Max stopped himself when he saw the paramedics standing over Cruz’s body. They could see him beginning to stir.
“Thank God,” Max whispered.
Kyle rushed over to Philip’s side, his outrage forgotten as he knelt down beside Cruz and the young Warrior’s eyes fluttered open. “You there, Phil?”
Philip drew in a deep breath and winced as he felt his shattered ribs. He managed a hoarse whisper to the World Champion. “Di… did I win?”
A tear rolled down Kyle’s cheek and landed on Philip’s face as he smiled with relief. “You’re gonna be just fine,” he said, not bothering to answer the question. Cruz forced a smile in spite of his swollen face and moved his right hand into a thumbs-up position before the paramedics whisked him away.
Kyle and Max watched Philip getting loaded into the ambulance. “Between tonight and the new law legalizing weapons… one way or another, this has to stop before we’re all in the emergency room. I guess we’ll just have to turn up the heat ourselves,” Kyle declared, his former state of unrestrained outrage now replaced by a sense of relief along with a slight hint of cunning.
Max gave Kyle a confused look. “I thought you, of all people, would never stoop to Vornakai’s level.”
Raising an eyebrow and flashing a conspiratorial grin, Kyle had an immediate retort for him. “I thought you liked staying alive. We’re not lowering ourselves to his level. We’re just following the new… rules. You’re not afraid to get your hands a little dirty, are you, Max?”
Max nodded his head and smiled back. “Understood.”
“Go tell Scott.” Max turned and hurried back into the Colosseum. Kyle waved to the ambulance as it pulled away, lights and sirens piercing the night. “We’ll get him for you, buddy.”
The savage beating that P.T. Cruz received was so intense that the cleaning crew at Gladiator Colosseum felt it in the air the next day. While the echoing sounds of various conversations would fill the arena on any other given day, everyone kept quiet as they went about their business of picking up the plastic beer cups, popcorn boxes, nacho trays, and ice cream bowls strewn across the floor between each row of seats.
The crew consisted of men, women, and children ranging in age from teenagers to folks in their sixties, doing whatever they could to scrape together a few extra dollars each day. As always, the cleaners made sure not to bother Max Mercury, who stood stone-faced at ringside while two men were sparring with each other in the ring. He took his eyes off of the action long enough to glance down at the tablet he held in his hand, occasionally making notes as the audition continued.
Eight other men sat in the front row seats, all of them wearing multi-colored wrestling tights, watching the action in the ring. One little boy sat by himself, using his touch-screen tablet to complete his homework.
The Wannabe Warriors in the ring were in their mid-twenties, one of them with a buzz cut and the other one completely bald. The bald one wearing black tights with matching black boots kept making over-the-top facial gestures, including sticking out his tongue, and letting out a low scream at his opponent whenever he had the chance. Max rolled his eyes and kept his attention on the young man with the buzz cut, who stood and blocked a kick aimed at his ribs.
Max nodded with approval as he watched the young man shove his black-tight-wearing-facial-gesture-making opponent away, bouncing him off the ropes, then following through when his bald opponent rebounded back toward him with a hard clothesline across the bald man’s neck, knocking him to the mat. Four of the eight Wannabe Warriors who were studying the action let out a loud cheer, which reverberated throughout the almost-empty arena. The cleaning crew day-laborers stopped what they were doing for a moment so they could cheer along.
Stephen Barker and Jimmy Park sat beside each other, Park nodding his head while Stephen cheered. Stephen glanced to his left, looking past the other men auditioning, and smiled at Tommy. The boy caught his father’s eye and smiled back.
“All right, that’s enough,” Max shouted, prompting the two men in the ring to stop their match and look in the Tag Team Champion’s direction. “What’s your name again, buddy?” Max pointed at the kid with the buzz cut.
“Eddie Anderson,” he replied.
“Anderson, right.” Max nodded his head and added a note to his tablet. “Next two will be Park and Barker.” Stephen and Jimmy shook hands, climbed into the ring, and began their audition match.
All of the other Wannabe Warriors were so enthralled with the action taking place in the ring that they never even noticed Kyle Flyte strolling into the arena and tapping Max on the shoulder. “How are they looking?”
Max shrugged his shoulders. “Pretty good. You should have seen the kid who was in the ring a couple minutes ago. He has a good clean-cut look to him and he got a great response from the cleaning crew and the other guys.”
“It’s just you here?”
“Yeah, I thought Togar was supposed to show up, but he’s probably off sulking somewhere since he’s not getting paid for last night’s match.”
“Of course. That’s what’s important, right?”
“Not quite, Kyle.” Max and Kyle turned to their right and saw Vornakai sauntering their way. He wore a black long-sleeve button-down shirt, blue jeans and heavy black shoes that attracted the attention of the cleaning crew. He glowered at the closest day-laborer who had made the grievous error of stopping to stare slack-jawed at the intimidating Warrior. “Don’t you have work to do?” he growled. The worker promptly resumed cleaning.
As though nothing was amiss, the leader of the heel stable held out his hand to Max. “Good morning, Max. I’ll make the decision for my group today. I advised Togar to stay out of the public eye until his next match.”
“Nice to see you thinking of someone’s welfare.” Max shook Vornakai’s proffered hand and returned his attention to the ring. Vornakai offered his hand to Kyle, who didn’t bother to look away from his enemy’s eyes.
The Wannabe Warriors let loose with another cheer as Stephen grabbed Park, held him over his head, and slammed his friend down on the mat. He looked around and nodded to the crowd as Park sluggishly rose to his feet.
“Way to go, Dad!” Tommy hollered with an enthusiastic pump of his fist. Stephen stopped strutting around and glanced in Tommy’s direction, returning his son’s proud gesture. Before he could turn around, Park executed a dropkick to the back of Stephen’s head, smashing him head first to the mat.
Max winced as he watched Stephen fall to the mat and made a mark on his tablet. Vornakai smiled as Park leapt right back to his feet and bellowed a loud war cry.
“I like this guy’s style,” Vornakai announced. “Taking advantage of any opportunity is a trait more Warriors should have. Don’t you agree, Kyle?” Kyle glared at him, keeping his lips shut. Vornakai allowed a second to pass before speaking to Max again. “What’s his name?”
“Jimmy Park,” Max answered.
“I like him,” Vornakai affirmed with a nod. “Mark him down for me.” Max made a check mark on his tablet.
While Stephen struggled to get up, Jimmy bent down and grabbed the back of his opponent’s neck and hissed through his teeth. “That was for sucker-punching me in the stomach last night.” Still grasping Stephen by the neck, he jammed his face down into the mat and backed away to allow Stephen time to stand up.
Outside the ring, Kyle took a few steps back out of earshot of the others and beckoned Vornakai to join him. Vornakai acknowledged and strode over and Kyle lit into him. “Where the hell were you this morning?”
Vornakai shrugged his shoulders. “Overslept. It’s not like I missed anything special. Gary telling us about how we’re still the most popular show on television, how Mr. Barth is so pleased, the buildup for Seven Deadly Sins and Colosseum Classic X, etc. You know as well as I do that Gary holds these meetings just so he can hear himself talk.”
“Well, he was waiting for you, so you could explain what happened last night,” Kyle responded.
“There’s nothing to explain,” Vornakai said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “In just one night, Togar’s become the second-most hated Warrior in the company.”
“Second only to yourself, of course. Exactly the way you want it,” Kyle snarled.
“No, not exactly the way I want it,” Vornakai answered. “But I’ll get it.” He glanced back at the action in the ring. “Has Max decided on the next potential victim?”
Kyle was appalled. “That’s all you see these men as?”
“How else should I see them?”
Kyle tightened his fist so hard every vein and tendon in his forearm popped to the surface. He desired nothing more at that very moment than to smash the egotistical expression right off Vornakai’s face, but fought to suppress the urge. If he was going to get physical, it would be in the ring. “I take it that’s all P.T. Cruz was to you? Just another victim?”
Vornakai’s eyes widened in feigned innocence and shock. “For me? Maybe that chair shot got more of your head than I thought, but Togar was in the ring. Not me.”
“Don’t even try handing me that line of crap, Victor!” Kyle made sure to emphasize the name “Victor” with just enough extra volume to enable the day-laborers to hear him. Vornakai took a deep breath and pushed back his shoulders. Kyle could see that the name-calling was getting to his adversary. Always had a thin skin, and always will. . “You did this just to get your hands on my title. That’s what all this underhanded bullshit is about, isn’t it? Wipe out all of my guys so you can get your hands on the championship?”
Vornakai smirked and shook his head. “Your title? Kyle, it’s not about your title. You can keep making your little tours to all the hospitals and all your signings while we stay here and create this new direction for the company. And Mr. Barth is behind me on this new direction.”
Kyle nodded. “Behind you, huh? That’s funny, I always thought he was on his knees in front of you. Besides, I know Gary won’t let his own company dissolve into chaos. And as the champion, I won’t allow that to happen either.”
Vornakai sneered at the champion. “Kyle, you’re already a relic and you’re not even old yet. Until you realize that, more of your men are going to get hurt. I know that’s not what you want. And besides, you keep having those kinds of title defenses like what you had on Monday, and you won’t have to worry about having it much longer.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You just worry about yourself for now. Max, make sure what’s-his-name gets sent to my office the moment he’s finished.”
“Park,” Max reiterated.
“Whatever.” Vornakai snorted, doing a swift about-face and marching away from Kyle. The champion wandered back over to Max just as the two Wannabe Warriors were preparing to wrap up their match.
“What an asshole,” Max muttered to Kyle under his breath.
“He’s an ambitious asshole,” Kyle elaborated. “Those are the worst kind.” The two looked back at the ring as Stephen knocked Jimmy down to the mat with a clothesline, ran to the nearest turnbuckle, and climbed to the top rope. Jimmy stood and Stephen launched himself through the air, hooked Jimmy’s neck with his right arm and landed in a seated position on the mat. Jimmy was yanked down with him, landing on his back.
The Wannabe Warriors watching the action applauded as Stephen held down Jimmy’s shoulders. Max shouted out, “1-2-3!” Once Stephen got the three-count, he jumped to his feet and held up his right arm, his fist clenched in triumph. Stephen looked up at his fist as though he were looking at a championship belt in his possession.
“Not bad,” Kyle said, nodding his head in approval. He whispered to Max. “What do you think?”
“I’d say he’d make a great contender, but…” He pointed toward Tommy, who was standing and applauding his father’s performance. “… I don’t want to see that kid crying because of one of Vornakai’s attacks.”
“Yeah. This isn’t exactly the best kind of business for a family man. So who do you see?”
“I’m liking this other guy. He has the good combination of someone who can take care of himself and get the crowd on his side.”
“Okay, then.” Kyle looked up at Stephen and Jimmy, who were still standing in the ring. Jimmy rubbed the back of his neck and gave his head a little shake. “That was a great move there,” Kyle said. He raised his voice a little louder so the other Wannabe Warriors could hear him. “I hope all you guys paid attention to how quickly he got up those ropes too. Even during the 10-minute preliminary section of each match, you have to remember that it’s all about the competition. Your opponent wants to win as much as you do, and they’re sure not going to let you take your time to pull off a cool-looking spot. If your opponent is on the ground and you want to jump off the top rope, you don’t give him time to move. You make sure that he’s not going anywhere and you get up the turnbuckles and jump off right away. You got that?”
The Wannabe Warriors all nodded in acknowledgment and Jimmy extended his hand for Stephen to shake. Stephen smiled and shook Jimmy’s hand.
“Excuse me, sir?” Kyle looked out at the group of Wannabe Warriors and saw a bald and burly young man, wearing a simple black singlet, raising his hand. “But if this is a competition, why is there a preliminary ten-minute round?”
As an answer, Kyle pointed to every member of the cleaning crew picking up the trash. “You see them out there?” The young man gave his answer with a quiet nod. “For three days a week – four when you count the monthly events that incorporate all of the different divisions – millions of people around the country come to the arenas and watch their televisions to see us in action. For a few hours, we let them forget about their hardships and just be entertained as they cheer us on to victory. The last thing we want is for that moment to be too brief. We’re giving them everything we have to make sure that they come out of each show and say, ‘Yes, that was worth it.’ Anyone can win a fight, but it takes a special kind of person to win a fight and have everyone in a sold out arena on their feet applauding their every move. You see where I’m going here?”
The young man nodded again. “Good,” Kyle said. “I want you all to let everything you’ve done today sink in. Even if you’re not one of the two selected to be a part of the GCL roster, I hope you keep trying. Despite what you saw last night, this is still everything you could hope for in a job. You get to travel around the country, your health benefits are at the same level of our nation’s lawmakers, and as long as you fulfill your obligations to entertain the crowd as much as possible, your job security is second to none since we are the only sport that has been subsidized by the United States Government… so far. And I want you to remember that whether you will be working with me or with Vornakai, you are providing a great service to all of America’s different society classes and the rewards for your service are…” An image of Philip’s broken body flashed before his eyes, but he shook it off before finishing his sentence. “… very rewarding.”
Max looked down at his tablet and stepped forward. “Okay, guys. Everyone did great. But the two we’re going to go with this time are Anderson for Kyle Flyte’s team…”
Eddie Anderson leapt to his feet. “Yes!” he yelled so loud his victory cry could be heard for five more seconds in the arena.
“… and Park for Vornakai’s team.” Park’s eyes widened in disbelief. This time, Stephen held out his hand in congratulations for his friend and colleague.
As the other Wannabe Warriors shook Park and Anderson’s hands, Park leaned close to Stephen and whispered, “You mind if I steal that move?”
Stephen grinned at Jimmy and answered through his teeth. “Yes. Yes, I do mind.”
“I had to ask,” Jimmy chuckled.
“And I had to answer. I’ll give the good news to Verne when I go back there to tune up for the next auditions.”
“I’ll make sure I’m your first opponent.”
“You got yourself a deal,” Stephen replied, giving his friend a wink.
Max held up his hand to silence the men in the arena. “Everyone else, thank you so much for coming. To show our appreciation, you will all receive two front-row tickets to tonight’s GCL Live event. We invite you all to take advantage of this if you intend to come back and audition for us again. Oh, and Park, before you leave, Vornakai wants to see you in his office.”
Jimmy’s eyes moved past Kyle and Max and they lit up as he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’ll go in just one second.”
The other Wannabe Warriors followed Jimmy’s eyes and started whistling and cat-calling. Stephen looked up and whispered “Jesus” under his breath, almost wishing that he could get out of the ring quick enough to cover Tommy’s eyes before he saw anything. Then again, why deprive the kid?
A group of ten drop-dead gorgeous young ladies with various hair styles, matching white tank tops and black spandex shorts walked through the arena. An older woman wearing a more conservative outfit of a white T-shirt and longer shorts, socks and sneakers walked over to Max and Kyle. She shook their hands as she introduced herself.
“Mr. Flyte, Mr. Mercury, I’m April Gosling. Pleasure to meet you both.”
Max nodded. “April Gosling, I’ve heard of you. You won the Presidential Dance Award last year, right?”
April nodded. “And the year before that, yeah. I’ll be the choreographer for these girls, the GCL HeadTurners. Are you finished with your auditions? I need to go through some steps with them.”
Kyle answered, “Of course. Feel free.” As Kyle looked up at the ring and watched the Wannabe Warriors stepping out of it, the HeadTurners walked up the stairs and made sure to keep their legs straight as they stepped through the ropes. They lived up to their names as the bald Wannabe in the black tights had his head turned in their direction and forgot there was another step in front of him. He grabbed at air as he fell on his back, his head striking the stairs.
The first HeadTurner in the ring turned toward Kyle and waved, flashing a gleaming white grin, her long blonde hair halfway down her back in a ponytail. Kyle waved back as Max leaned over to whisper in his ear. “Who’s that?”
Kyle smiled at Max as he answered. “My cousin.” He stepped away and called out to April. “The ring’s all yours, April.”
“Thanks, guys,” April answered before turning her attention to the lovely ladies in the ring. “Alright, let’s get into position!”
Max caught up with Kyle as he put two and two together in his head. “Wait. That’s your cousin you’re setting me up with?”
“Yeah. There a problem with that?” Kyle chuckled and arched an eyebrow at Max.
“You know you’re my best friend, right?”
Stephen took a long look at himself in the dressing room mirror. The disappointment was still evident in his eyes, as was the slight panic at the thought of no longer having any health insurance. Stephen looked back and forth between his own image in the mirror and his son’s. Tommy smiled his infectious smile, and Stephen had little choice but to reciprocate.
Stephen grabbed the envelope on the counter. He handed it to Tommy. “Hold onto these, will ya?” Tommy opened the envelope and pulled out two tickets to that night’s GCL match.
“Wow,” Tommy exclaimed.
“Now, if Mommy asks, what do we say?”
“You took me to the movies tonight,” Tommy responded with a conspiratorial glimmer in his eyes.
“That’s my boy. And what did we see?”
“Something other than Bourbon Street Bloodbath II.”
Stephen laughed. “What’s wrong with Gary Gumbo?”
The office of the head booker had been Vornakai’s domain ever since leaving his old tag team partner behind and transmuting into the promotion’s dominant heel. He sat in silence at his desk, his eyes scanning the framed 8 × 10 photos displaying the hierarchy of the promotion. Nearest the ceiling were two photos: one of Kyle Flyte holding the GCL World Championship and the other of himself. The room was impeccable; nothing out of place, everything polished and shone to its greatest potential. Vornakai himself sat behind a gleaming wooden desk that felt just as big, if not bigger, than the moment captured in the portrait of Vornakai standing dominant in the ring.
A knock at the door broke Vornakai’s reverie and he called out, “Come in.” The door opened and Jimmy Park entered. Vornakai looked up and smiled, beckoning him inside with a wave of his hand. “You must be…” He struggled for a moment before the name finally came to him. “Park.”
“Mr. Flyte said you wanted to see me, Mr. Vornakai?”
“Just Vornakai. Please sit.” Park walked inside the office, took a quick look around, and grabbed a chair in front of Vornakai’s desk. Vornakai stood up and walked around Park, inspecting him. “So you’ll think you’ll make a good heel, eh?” Vornakai asked. “Ready to take the title from Kyle?”
“I won’t let you down, sir.”
Vornakai noticed that Park’s eyes gravitated from his eyes to the wall behind him. He pointed toward the pictures and smiled. “You want your picture to go up there soon, don’t you?” Park’s face started to redden. “Well… uhhh… well, I know I would be new so I would be starting…”
Vornakai held up his hand. “Relax. Of course you want to be on that wall. There are champions up here. If you don’t want to be a champion, you don’t want to be involved in this business. Now, I know you’re looking at my picture and wondering why it’s there if this is a wall of champions.” He paused to allow Park to respond. When he saw the young man staring ahead with a fearful look in his eyes, Vornakai waved him off. “Relax. This isn’t about titles. This is about power. This is about control. Notice that Kyle and I are on the same level? The Champion and the Head Booker. See, Kyle gets the glory as the figurehead of this company, he gets to be the one guy that everyone in this company strives to be. But the hero never gets anywhere without the antagonist. That’s where I come in, and that’s why he and I are on equal positions.”
Vornakai leaned forward on his desk and looked into Park’s eyes. “And you, my friend, are going to be the next obstacle against Kyle. Does that sound like something you can enjoy doing for a living?”
“Absolutely,” Park replied.
Vornakai smiled at Park’s enthusiasm. “Very good. I have some plans for you, Park. I’ll tell you about them as we walk. Come on.” Vornakai walked to the office door and opened it, beckoning Park to follow him down the hall. Park stood up and walked side-by-side with Vornakai as the two of them walked past the various technicians and stagehands. “You know what’s always been a constant type of heel character in wrestling, Park?”
“Ummm… the… bad guy?”
Vornakai nodded. “Well, yes. That’s what we all are. And you’re going to find it’s a lot more fun than being a babyface.”
“Oh yeah. You don’t go to hospitals to visit sick kids. You don’t walk around everywhere with a big smile on your face. People come up to you for an autograph, you get to shove them aside as you walk to your car. We’re the driving force behind this whole operation because the fans pay money to watch us see if we’re going to lose our matches. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we don’t and that keeps them coming back.” Park stayed quiet, nodding along with Vornakai’s preaching. “But to get back to you, the constant in wrestling is that there was always a heel who had a lot of money, expensive suits, flashed their wealth around, and that would get the crowd riled up. There were some guys called the Four Horsemen. You ever hear of them?”
“Oh yeah. I remember hearing about them a while back.”
“You would have that kind of persona, playing up your last name of Park. It’s like Park Avenue, you know? Now, with today’s economy the way it is, a character like that would be a perfect fit and when I saw you earlier today, I knew you were the guy to fit the bill. And before you know it, you’re gonna have enough money where you can live on Park Avenue.”
The new recruit smiled. “Well, to tell you the truth, I got a girlfriend in Staten Island and we’ll be able to get a place together with this job.”
Vornakai nodded his head. “Well… that’s fine too. We just have to give you a little boost to get you ready for your first match. And once you’re all set, you’ll be our new star ready to go after that title.”
The two men stopped at the door outside The Doctor’s office. Vornakai knocked three times and turned the doorknob, walking inside and motioning for Jimmy to follow him in.
The Doctor’s office was just as messy as it was the night before, if not a little messier from the extra crumpled pieces of paper lying on the floor next to the overflowing wastebasket. The Doctor himself was standing in the middle of the room, using a dishrag that used to be white to wipe away any excess gray liquid that spilled down his handy injection gun.
Vornakai announced to the room’s lone occupant, “Doctor, may I introduce the newest member of our ranks, Jimmy Park.”
The two men shook hands, and The Doctor reached for a pair of rubber gloves. Once he put them on, he asked Jimmy, “May I have your arm?”
“I told you,” Vornakai said. “We just have to give you a little boost before you can get in the ring. You want to win your matches, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“Then…” Vornakai nodded toward The Doctor, who was standing by with his injector gun. Jimmy hesitantly rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm to The Doctor.
“You’ll feel a little bit of pressure,” Anton said as he pressed the injector gun to Jimmy’s arm and squeezed the trigger. Park winced and his eyes rolled back as the fluid worked its way through his system.
Vornakai stood by, watching the whole ordeal. He smiled with approval as Park’s muscles tensed up. His whole body stiffened and his veins bulged, the liquid taking hold.
“What… is… happening… to…?” Park tried to speak, but he was cut off when blood began to leak from his mouth. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. His body stiffened and spasmed for a long moment, until, as though he were a puppet with his strings cut, Park dropped to the ground and laid silent. His body spasmed again for a moment, then didn’t move again.
The Doctor bent down and checked Park’s pulse. Nothing. He looked up at Vornakai. “He’s dead.”
Vornakai looked down at the mess lying on the floor that used to be his latest find. He shook his head and took a deep breath. “A shame. So much potential,” he said more to himself than anyone else.
The Doctor nodded. “The compound may have been too strong.”
Vornakai turned and walked toward the door. “Start finding out what went wrong and fix it. Now. Dilute it, mix some things around, I don’t care. Just do it!” The Warrior threw open the door and walked out, cursing under his breath.
Gary hated moments like this.
The CEO of the Gladiatorial Combat League looked into the set of cameras pointing in his direction, backing him into a corner in his own office. The eyes of the people, he heard them being named time and time again. They are always watching, even when they don’t see anything.
Gary rubbed his tired eyes as he once again looked down at the electronic tablet on his desk. He had read this document several times already and each time the language was completely foreign to his sensibilities. The people really wanted this? They had voted for this? Why?
Sure, the people had seen lead pipes, brass knuckles, frying pans, even sledgehammers in wrestling matches before, but that was during the days when wrestling was purely athletic theatre. This was a new era and Gary felt so positive that he had found the perfect blend of over-the-top theatrics and good old-fashioned “may the best man win” sportsmanship. But this… Gary knew this could be a harbinger of worse things to come and he hated every single person behind the camera and those watching him from their television screens.
Gary’s heart began to race as he heard the authoritative voice of John Barth, standing behind him. “My fellow Americans, today I welcome you to the latest stage in the evolution of professional wrestling. The GCL has established itself as America’s most successful sport in history, and our people refuse to rest on their laurels. Everyone in this company has been keeping their eyes open for any and all new methods to hold on to the attention of the people of this great nation. And combining the actions of three weeks ago with the match that occurred just last night, we feel that the people have made the correct decision in adding this very special element to our matches.”
John rested his right hand on Gary’s shoulder and the CEO resisted the urge to push it away. “Starting next week, matches will feature GCL Warriors bringing blunt objects to ringside so they may be used against their opponents. The Warriors have all been debriefed of what is allowed and what is not allowed, and they have been made aware of the maximum amount of times a weapon can be used in a match.”
Gary placed his hand on his forehead and rolled his eyes. Way to look out for the safety of the roster. God forbid anyone should think about them.
John continued his speech. “We are pleased to say that we have followed the will of the people of this great nation by adding this amendment to the GCL Rule Book, and we look forward to your suggestions in the future as we take this sport even further than its creator ever imagined.” He then slapped Gary on the shoulder and looked down at him. “Isn’t that right, Gary?”
For a moment, Gary’s words stuck in his throat as he tried to summon the right words that would hide his contempt with the American people. “Well…” he started.” I think John said it best. I never imagined… this.”
John let out a hearty laugh as he gave Gary’s shoulder another slap. “Yes, our fans continue to amaze us.”
Not quite the choice of words that Gary would have said off the top of his head, but he still nodded and kept his lips shut. As John continued to drone on about how grateful he was to the American people for making this decision to let the game evolve and how the GCL would be nowhere without the millions and millions of citizens tuning in five days a week, Gary’s thoughts drifted back to all the other amendments that were brought to his attention. Whether each issue was brought forward by the “will of the people” or the will of John Barth, Gary noticed that they started coming in after Kyle Flyte ascended to the championship.
Gary had no problem signing off on the Leadership Priority Clause, which granted both Kyle Flyte and Vornakai the right to claim the championship belt for themselves if anyone on their factions ever won it. Kyle agreed, knowing that he would never do that to any of his people. Vornakai had no issues with it since he saw it as not a quicker means to obtaining the Championship, but he was smart enough to know that this would enhance his character in the eyes of the audience. How dare he just take the belt away from his own men without earning it! At least that amendment wasn’t going to cause extra harm to his roster.
But then he thought about the Squared Circle Protection Clause, and his hand started to tremble as his pen hovered over his tablet. Barth stopped himself in mid-sentence and looked down at the visibly troubled CEO. “I can tell Gary’s just as excited as I am about this next step for the promotion, so without further ado, let’s make this official.”
Gary glanced up at John, who pointed to the tablet. “It’s what the people want,” John whispered.
The CEO nodded and pressed his pen against the tablet, and after one last moment of hesitation, he wrote his signature on the bottom of the document.
The New York City Gladiator Colosseum buzzed with excitement. Everyone was talking amongst themselves about the events that happened the night before and about the historic signing that was televised two hours before. Some of them even pointed out the big stain in the middle of the mat that soaked up Cruz’s blood. Others sat in their seats studying reactions from everyone around them as the dark matches – non-televised matches shown only for the paying audience – finished up.
Stephen and Tommy sat in the front row, thanks to the tickets that Kyle gave them earlier that day. While everyone else around them talked about Cruz’s near-death at the hands of Togar, Stephen kept his eyes on Anderson, one of the two wrestlers in the ring. Anderson spotted Stephen in the crowd and gave a little wave, which distracted him enough to get hit by his opponent. The audience released a collective groan.
Stephen laughed as he watched the match. “Remember him from today?” he asked Tommy. Tommy nodded as he watched Anderson collect himself and score a pinfall. “I wonder how Park’s doing.”
Max Mercury and Scott Saturn were silent as they finished putting on their costumes and checked their hair in the mirror. Usually, they were chatting it up between each other, maybe even pulling a prank or two on the other GCL wrestlers. But this would not be an ordinary wrestling match and they knew it. Max looked around and could tell by the silence in the dressing room what everyone was thinking. He knew that some were thinking how Cruz’s beating was now part of the game. Others were asking themselves why they got into this business in the first place. But everyone there at some point was thinking, That could have been me. I could have been the one who got his teeth knocked out and his brains beat in. I could have been the one who was carted out of the ring on a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. And the most dangerous thought was the reality that this could happen again, anytime and anywhere to any of them.
Kyle knocked on the Solar System’s dressing room door and peeked his head in. “You guys ready?”
Max nodded his head. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Go get yourselves tested, and remember what I said earlier,” Kyle instructed.
The crowd erupted in cheers as the exploding pyrotechnics signaled the beginning of GCL Live, the current most popular show on television. The crowd also voiced approval as the GCL HeadTurners, all dressed in the same skin-tight outfits they were wearing earlier that day, came running down the aisle to the ring.
Joe Revis took his usual place in the middle of the ring, holding his microphone. “Good evening, New York City! And welcome to GCL Live! Our main event is for the GCL Tag Team Championship of the World!” The crowd shouted and cheered their approval. “And now, may I present to you, the latest addition to Gladiatorial Combat League, the GCL HeadTurners!”
On cue, the HeadTurners ran into the ring and began their dance number. Immediately, some of the teenagers in the front rows started pulling out dollar bills and calling the dancers over to them for a lap dance.
Tommy’s eyes widened. Stephen glanced at his son and smiled. “Think Mommy will dress like that for me?” Tommy laughed and shook his head.
Kyle watched the HeadTurners from the backstage monitor. He kept his eyes on the girl on the far right of the group, Bonnie.
Max walked over to Kyle and patted him on the shoulder. “I think I need to remind you once again that you are a dear sweet man.”
“Just do your business in the ring and she’ll be waiting for you after the show.”
“You already set everything up?”
“It’s waiting for you. Now get into position.”
The GCL fans were treated to another terrific show that night. The HeadTurners introduced themselves in the best possible way, the telecast from St. Louis showed Awesome Aaron Anderson losing against Ricky Rage and the fans in Dallas enjoyed The Lightweight Lunatic in a fabulous high-flying match against Dark Crystal, Jr. Copeland & Harris stepped into the ring as a unified tag team once again and enjoyed their rekindled partnership with a victory over David Shock & Chris Awe. But the main event was about to begin: Zarron & Norad of The Roswell Rejects vs. The Solar System for the GCL Tag Team Championship.
The Roswell Rejects walked out to a chorus of boos. Both of them were wearing their intergalactic-looking silver costumes and their dark contact lenses were in place. The lights in the arena dropped and a trap door on the stage opened.
A platform slowly started to rise, and as the audience saw Max and Scott standing on the platform, they leapt to their feet as one. An explosion of pyro followed and Max and Scott ran to the ring, their Tag Team titles in hand. Norad and Zarron were taken by surprise as the lights came up.
Vornakai sat in his office, keeping his eyes on the large television monitor he had installed there. The Doctor sat beside him, his head turned toward the screen.
“You didn’t give Zarron and Norad the same formula that you’re working on now, did you?” Vornakai asked.
The Doctor answered, “No. They got what Togar had yesterday. They’ll be just fine.”
The match unfolded like any other championship bout. The two teams exchanged holds and – with paychecks in all four of their minds – made sure to pull their punches so they wouldn’t knock their opponents out too early.
An alarm sounded above the ring and all four Warriors stopped and turned toward the official watching from above. A light below the control room began to flash and Max and Scott stopped looking at their opponents and turned to each other.
“You want this?” Max asked.
“Yeah, that’ll work,” Scott answered. Max stepped out of the ring and watched from the other side of the ring ropes as his partner faced Norad. The fans quieted down to watch the match as Scott and Norad ran toward each other and locked up in the middle of the ring. Norad grabbed Scott by his wrist and twisted his arm around, holding it behind his back. Scott winced as he felt Norad pulling harder on his arm and ran backwards, pinning Norad between him and the turnbuckle.
Norad released his hold on Scott and the pace of the match quickened with both the Solar System and Roswell Rejects tagging each other in and out of the ring. The more the match built, the more Max and Scott could feel themselves having to suck in more breath. The Rejects, however, acted as calm as they had when they first walked to the ring.
Max glanced up at the clock above the control room. Eight minutes had passed. He looked down at the apron under the ring and Scott shook his head. “Not yet,” he said.
The match continued and the crowd began chanting louder. “So-lar Sys-tem! Clap! Clap! ClapClapClap!” Sweat dripped down both Max and Scott’s brows as they moved in and out of the ring.
“Just keep going,” Max said over and over. None of the Warriors in the ring had the luxury their predecessors from years past enjoyed, when they could slow down their pace and stay down on the mat for extended periods of time. The action had to build and build, and there was no time to rest.
Scott lunged toward Zarron to pick him up for a body slam, but Zarron met him with a roundhouse punch to his jaw. The crowd let out a loud, “Ooooooooh” at the impact that almost knocked Scott off his feet. Zarron scooped Scott up and slammed him to the mat instead.
Zarron tagged himself out and Norad in, and Norad stepped between the ropes and watched as Scott pulled himself to his feet. He licked his lips in anticipation and the crowd started to boo as they felt the momentum shifting to the Roswell Rejects.
Max yelled out to Scott, “Twenty seconds!”
Scott looked back at Max and nodded. “Now!”
As The Doctor and Vornakai watched the match continue, Vornakai nodded his head and smiled. “They’re looking pretty good. We may not even need…”
Vornakai stopped himself as he watched Max step off the ring and reach under it. He pulled out a small pipe and climbed back onto the ring, holding his hand out for Scott to tag him back into the match.
Zarron reached for Scott again, but Scott rolled out of the way and tagged Max. Max stepped in and ran towards Zarron, the lead pipe in his hand. As he delivered a hard shot to Zarron’s skull, Vornakai yelled to nobody in particular. “Son of a bitch! I told him it wouldn’t work!”
As Vornakai and The Doctor watched, Max continued to beat Zarron down. Zarron gritted his teeth, but he did not appear to show any pain.
Max swung harder with his pipe, connecting more with Zarron’s head. After five more unanswered shots, the Roswell Reject dropped to the mat as the crowd’s cheering grew louder than ever.
Gary Blackman watched the different screens as he stood in his customary position behind Wilson in the production booth. On each screen, the different cameras showed the different angles of the crowd and the ring action. The Camera 1 screen showed Max beating Zarron with the lead pipe. This was the image that was being shown to the millions of televisions across the country.
Gary’s eyes widened as Max beat his opponent. “Oh shit,” he said out loud. “Wilson, maybe we should cut to a shot of the crowd.”
“Yes sir,” Wilson answered.
As Wilson flipped a switch on his control panel to switch to the camera overlooking the bloodthirsty crowd, Gary’s cell phone began to ring. “Too late,” he muttered as he answered the phone. “Yes.”
John Barth’s annoyed voice rang in Gary’s ear. “Mr. Blackman, is this how the good guy is supposed to act? Circumventing the rules to inflict harm upon his opponent?”
Gary ran a hand over his head and felt himself starting to sweat. “Mr. Barth, I will be speaking to Kyle about this matter.”
“You better, Gary. The last thing I or our President wants to see here is that the CEO of their own company has no control over it or its employees.” The mention of the word “control” caused Gary to start sweating even more. His hands started trembling and he forced himself to concentrate on slowing his accelerating pulse.
“You don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Barth. I’m still in control of this company. This is an isolated incident.” He wanted to say so much more. He wanted to yell, “What the hell do you want from me, Barth?! You cause a big media spectacle about the authorization of weapons to be used in the ring, and then you get your panties in a bunch because they’re not being used in the way you see fit?” In his mind, Gary also cursed at the crowd. They shouldn’t have reacted the way they did. If they had booed the Solar System for committing such a “heinous” action, he could have used that as leverage to have the amendment overturned. Instead, they cheered even louder than they had before and were chanting the names of the men with the lead pipes beating on their unarmed opponents.
“I trust that you will, Gary,” Barth responded. His voice grew calmer and Gary could almost feel the Speaker of the House smiling while speaking into his phone. “Kyle must be reminded of his place as the champion. If he is willing to sink to these low tactics, maybe he should be removed from that position.”
“Mr. Barth, this isn’t like the old days,” Gary responded. “I can’t just strip the title from Kyle. He’s the champion until someone beats him in the ring.”
“You’ll think of something,” Barth said before hanging up the phone.
Gary took a deep breath as he hung up his phone and placed a hand over his heart. Wilson turned to his direction. “Are you okay, sir?”
The CEO of the GCL nodded. “I’m fine. I’ll be in my office,” he said as he turned to leave the control room. “Send a page to tell Kyle that I want to see him there as well.”
“Oh hell yeah!”
The fan’s screaming almost made Cari drop her glass for the first time that night. She was in the middle of preparing the same fan’s fourth shot of whiskey in twenty minutes. As she poured the drink, she heard more cheers and yelling from the frat boys, old drunks and GCL fanatics that took up the usual crowd at the Ringside Seat Bar & Grill. She kept telling herself that the more she would be in the bar during an episode of GCL Live, the more she would be able to handle it. Or, she hoped, at least be able to handle the crowd this show tended to attract.
As Cari served the whiskey and swiped the customers’ charge cards for payment, she turned around just as Stephen and Tommy appeared on the screen. Both were cheering and yelling, their voices being heard the most since the camera was right on them. Cari’s eyes went wide, then narrow. Busted.
She turned toward her manager Deanna, who was just as busy as she was. “Deanna, I’m gonna leave early. While I’m gone, call 911 and tell them someone’s gonna die tonight.”
“’Kay,” Deanna replied.
While Zarron remained down on the mat, Scott punched Norad in the face over and over. Scott followed up the punches with a series of kicks to the chest and head. The rabid fans reached out and smacked Norad on his head as he stumbled.
Before Norad could drop to the ground, Scott spun him around and executed a dropkick that sent Norad into the staircase, stirring the fans up into a frenzy. “This is for P.T. Cruz!” Scott yelled to Norad, while the crowd roared again in approval.
Max tossed his lead pipe away and back-flipped off the rope. He landed on Zarron hard and held his opponent’s shoulders down on the mat.
The electronic screen above the ring flashed to life as the sensors detected Zarron’s shoulders. The counter on the screen counted 1-2-3 for the pinfall and the win. The bell rang. The match was over. Scott joined Max in the ring and the two of them posed for the adoring fans. Both men held their tag titles above their heads, and the fans basked in their glory.
Vornakai slammed his fist on his desk. The Doctor took a hasty step back. There was a long silence before The Doctor began to speak. “Well, it looks like the formula kept Zarron from feeling any pain.”
Vornakai turned his head toward The Doctor. “We need the new formula. What’s the status?”
“I finished the latest round of tests before the show began. It’s looking very positive.”
“And your subjects. I don’t want to know exactly what you did, but what was their reaction?”
“Much more resistant to pain than anything else we’ve ever used. Punches, kicks, hitting with blunt objects. The subjects responded as if nothing happened.”
Vornakai nodded. “Now we just need a new test subject.” He glanced back at the television just as Stephen and Tommy were shown applauding. He pointed at the screen, a light bulb illuminating over his head. “That guy there looks familiar. Doctor, we still have the last batch of applications, don’t we?”
“I’m sure you have it somewhere.”
“I think I do. You’re confident that this formula’s all ready to go?”
“Sure. The side effects are there as expected, but it was done by your specifications and the mechanism you requested is complete and ready for use.”
“Excellent. See to it that the formula is 100-percent ready. I need to see Sotek and Esker, and I gotta get one of the pages to do me a favor.”
“Excuse me, sir. I just need to check your seat number.” The GCL pageboy distracted Stephen and Tommy as two paramedics rushed into the ring to attend to Zarron. Sitting in the ring, Zarron tried to get to his feet, but stumbled and dropped back down to the mat.
The page looked at the piece of paper in his hand and the seat number on the arm of Stephen’s seat. He smiled at Stephen. “Sir, you have the lucky seat of the night. You are entitled to a free backstage pass to meet the GCL Warriors. I’m sure your son will enjoy that.”
Stephen smiled back at the page. “He’s not the only one who would.”
The page led Stephen and Tommy up the ramp to the doorway leading to the dressing room for Kyle’s stable. Paramedics wheeled their gurney holding Zarron up the opposite ramp.
Kyle stood still outside his dressing room doorway, leaning against the wall and smiling with total satisfaction. Another page walked up to Kyle and whispered in his ear. Kyle nodded and his smile dropped as he turned to leave the room. As he left, he noticed Tommy looking around the backstage area out of the corner of his eye. He smiled at Tommy. Tommy smiled back and waved at him. Kyle waved back while rushing toward Gary’s office.
The page that led Stephen and Tommy backstage walked up to Vornakai, who kept himself out of Kyle’s sight by waiting in the corner of the room. Esker and Sotek both stood beside him, and Esker asked Vornakai, “Are you sure we should even be here? This isn’t our dressing room.”
“Relax, Esker. Anyone on this side would have no problem walking a kid around. Just drop him off with one of them.”
The page attracted Vornakai’s attention and walked up to him, whispering “He’s there, sir.” The young man cocked his head toward Stephen and Tommy. Vornakai smiled and motioned to Esker, who held a small black rectangular device in his hand. The end of the box had a silver strip alongside and the top had a small screen attached with a key pad beneath it.
“You have your card, right?” Esker asked.
“Of course,” the page replied, holding up his credit card. Esker pressed the silver strip of the device against the card and pressed the number 50 on the key pad.
“50 credits transferred,” the tinny voice from the device announced.
The page smiled at Vornakai and Esker. “Thank you,” he said before walking away.
Vornakai caught Stephen’s eye and motioned for the two of them to walk to them. He gave Stephen a firm handshake, complete with bright and toothy smile. “Stephen Barker, I presume?”
“You know my name?” Stephen asked with a smile, as he shook Vornakai’s hand and winced at Vornakai’s grip. Stephen looked down at Tommy. “Tommy, you know who this is? This is Vornakai.” Tommy shook Vornakai’s hand, holding tight onto his father and trying his best not to be scared.
Vornakai let out a slight laugh. “Oh, he’s so cute. Lots of kids get scared around me, but I don’t know why. I’m really a nice guy.” He glanced over to Esker. “Can you take Tommy over to meet some of the guys? Maybe get him some autographs? I need to have a word with his father.”
Esker nodded and smiled at Tommy, offering his hand. Tommy glanced to Stephen and waited for the green light from his daddy.
“Have a good time, Tommy,” Stephen said, re-assuring him. “Get some autographs for me.” Tommy smiled and took Esker’s hand, walking off with him.
Stephen could hear one of the Warriors asking Esker, “What the hell are you doing here?” Esker simply gestured toward Tommy and the boy was whisked away to meet his heroes.
Once they were out of view, Vornakai put his arm around Stephen and led him to a corner of the room. “I saw your match today and I gotta tell you, I was really impressed with what I saw. It’s too bad that Kyle had different feelings.”
Stephen was more than ready for an answer. “Well, I do plan on auditioning the next time around.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
Stephen gave Vornakai a confused look. “So there isn’t some lucky seat contest?”
Vornakai gave a hard pat on Stephen’s back and let out a hearty laugh. Stephen felt the sting from Vornakai’s pat for the next minute as Vornakai spoke. “Well, there is, but it’s not a contest. I just happened to see you in that seat and it jogged my memory from earlier today. Now, if I’m not mistaken, you were auditioning to be a face, right?”
Stephen nodded. “My trainer never thought I had the look to be a heel.”
“Your trainer has a valid point, but your look is exactly why I want you on my team.” Vornakai leaned in closer as his excitement level heightened. “Here’s my idea. We bring you in saying you’re an alternate member of Kyle’s team. You work your way up as a face, turn heel when you get close enough to Kyle, and become the biggest name in the company. How does that sound?”
Stephen smiled, liking the possibilities that something like this brought. “I would be the biggest name in the company? You don’t tell this to everyone who comes in, do you?”
Vornakai shook his head. “Only to the people whom I believe have what it takes to be the biggest name in the company. So what do you say?”
That was good enough for Stephen. He shook Vornakai’s hand. “I’ll do it.”
Vornakai’s toothy smile returned. “You made the right choice, Stephen. Now don’t tell your son or the rest of your family yet. Come by the office early tomorrow around 7, and I’ll have the paperwork ready.”
Stephen felt a rush of adrenaline run through his body that he hadn’t felt since he first became a father. It was all there in front of him, everything that he had wanted for Cari, for Tommy, for himself. His smile grew even wider when he saw Tommy standing a short distance away from him shaking the hands of his soon-to-be fellow Warriors. Tommy looked in his direction and waved while holding up a handful of autographed 8 × 10 photos. Stephen grabbed his son and scooped him up.
“You’re going to make him even happier than he is now,” Vornakai said as he pointed at Tommy.
Sotek looked at Vornakai and nodded his head in approval. “That’s a nice setup. Start him out as a face and turn him heel? That’s just what this sport needs.”
Vornakai shrugged his shoulders. “It would be what it needs if it were actually true.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We have a lot to do and we need to start right away. We have no time to build his character and turn him. He needs to get in the ring as soon as possible. You and Esker better get to the other dressing room and see to Zarron and Norad. I’ll be taking care of some things before I go home tonight.”
Gary took a deep breath and felt his nerves start to calm down enough so that the ice cubes in the glass of water he was holding stopped clinking against the glass.
“What’s up, Gary?” Kyle asked as he walked inside.
Gary motioned to the empty chair in front of his desk. “Sit down.” Once the champion did what he was told, Gary started talking. “I understand you were the one responsible for the vicious mugging that went on in the ring just now?”
Kyle nodded. “I am.”
Gary’s next words almost choked in his throat with anger. “And may I ask WHY you thought it would be a good idea for a student of tradition and honor, not to mention the representative of this company, would validate such a reprehensible act?”
“Based on the crowd’s reaction, I don’t see that as reprehensible at all! When all Warriors get in the ring, they are required to be able to defend themselves. And I didn’t want a repeat of last night to happen.”
“I thought we had finished talking about last night. You saw the drug test, they came back negative. And what does it say about good guys that have to defend themselves with a lead pipe that hasn’t been approved for use in the ring?”
Kyle’s voice raised. “I thought you were the one running the company! I thought you were the one looking out for all of us! Christ, Gary, ever since I won the championship, it’s been nothing but a constant stream of rule changes just to make it more difficult for me and my men! What are you mad about, now? It was okay to bring a weapon to the ring, but I had to clear it with you first?!”
“Yes, there have been some rule changes, Kyle,” Gary responded. “And if you had taken a moment to come to me about this before tonight’s show, I would have told you that I made sure there were enough limitations attached to the rule that every Warrior – including yours – would be given a chance to win their matches without being hospitalized. Instead, this happens. The good guys are attacking their opponents from behind and being as ruthless as common thugs.”
“Like the common thug that beat P.T. Cruz senseless? Was Togar brought into your office and sent to his room without supper?”
“I’ve already dealt with Togar, Kyle. He is not getting paid for his match and Vornakai already told me he’s staying home until the end of next week.”
“Boy, you really showed him, Gary. You know, from what I’ve been seeing, I figured you would be supportive of Max and Scott’s actions. Is it you who’s speaking to me now or is there someone pulling your strings and making you more upset than you really are? I have a right to know who’s running this company!”
“No, I’m talking now. You let me finish.” Gary sat back, taking in Kyle’s words. “We go back a lot of years, you and I. I watched this company grow and I saw how our championship became the richest prize in all of sports. And I’m proud to have won it, I’m proud to hold it and I will continue to hold it. But I want to know right now if Vornakai’s planning on wiping out all of my guys just to get to me. Tell me now if that’s the case and I’ll make him happy and give him another shot at the title.”
Now Gary had had enough. “Don’t try pulling power games, Kyle. You may be the champion, but you’re still an employee of my company. I run it the way I see fit, and I have the final say on what gets added to our rule books and how it gets added. If you’re not happy with that, I can always get myself a new champion.”
“Good luck,” Kyle answered. “Because the only way it’s coming off me is in the ring.”
“That can be arranged.”
All the lights were out in the Barker apartment when Stephen and Tommy got home. When Stephen turned the lights on, he saw a sheet, a blanket, and a pillow on the couch. Cari must have come home and already been asleep.
“Mommy expecting company?” Stephen asked. Tommy yawned and shook his head no. “Why don’t you go to bed? It’s late and you got your classes tomorrow.”
“Okay. G’night Daddy.” Tommy kissed his father on the cheek and ran to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him. Stephen glanced back at the pillow and blanket on the couch and walked into his bedroom.
Stephen squinted when he walked into the bedroom, trying to see if Cari was in bed asleep. When he saw that the bed was still made, he turned the light on.
BAM! Stephen felt a fist smash against his face when the light came on. He took a step back, covering his nose, and saw Cari standing in front of him. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“It seems that violence is the only way anything gets through to you!”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t take him to the movie.”
“No, you took him to the GCL match.”
Stephen stuttered. How did she know? “What…? No,
Cari cut him off. “Front row seats, too. Where’d you get the money for the tickets?”
Stephen stammered, trying to come up with some sort of answer. Please God, anything but the truth. His mind flashed to his friend and former co-worker who introduced him to Verne in the first place. “I got them from… Chuck’s brother…”
“Wrong again. I called Chuck.”
Stephen tried again, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Maybe she used up her best punch on him already, he thought. “Fine. Fine. They gave them out today at the tryouts.”
“Tryouts?” Cari lashed out with a right jab and punched him again in the jaw, this time a little bit harder.
“OW! Jesus, quit it!” He was wrong. She did have another good punch in her.
“What did I tell you about that place?” Cari asked Stephen, as if she was his mother.
“It was gonna be a surprise if I got in.” Stephen said, reeling in pain.
“A surprise?” Oh, this was too much. Cari added on, sarcastically, “Oh, surprise honey! I’m GONNA DIE for the amusement of millions of morons!”
Stephen shut the door so Cari’s yelling wouldn’t wake up Tommy. “I wanted to get in so you wouldn’t have to work at the bar anymore.”
“I told you before that I don’t mind working. I’m with Tommy during the day while he’s doing his studies and you’re with him at night.”
“Yeah, that was a real swell arrangement until my job was eliminated. And before that, we were just getting by.”
“We’re still getting by, Stephen. And we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t require you to get the shit beat out of you! You get to see your son every night! And I know it’s not much but we have the insurance that comes with your unemployment.”
Stephen walked around the room. This was just the spot he wanted her to arrive at. “Not anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
Stephen reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He flipped to the page showing the dreaded message and held it in front of her face. “The Government canceled health insurance coverage for everyone collecting unemployment.”
Cari pointed at the touch screen. “You got this message yesterday and you never thought to tell me this? What if I did something that put me in the hospital last night? I would have been thinking, ‘Oh, it’s okay, we got the insurance, I’ll be fine!’“
“Because if I got into the GCL, the insurance would have kicked in right away and everything would have been fine!”
Cari pushed Stephen’s hand holding his phone away from her face and looked her husband in the eye. “You still don’t get it. I! Don’t! Want! You! To be! In the GCL! This is not a sport where you’re having a drink with the guy you were in the ring with an hour ago. This is a sport that’s getting more and more dangerous every week. I would be an idiot to even allow you to put yourself in harm’s way. You want me to be without a husband? Do you want Tommy to be without a father?!”
“It’s not just about having a job with insurance. Even when you were working at all those other bars, you haven’t been writing and we’ve barely been together for more than one night a week.” She wasn’t responding. At least for this moment, he had her attention. “Think of it. You could write again. We could move out of Queens. We’ll have enough credits to get into an apartment in Manhattan! Tommy won’t just have his online notes and Marcia part time for his education. We’ll be able to get a Government-issued tutor full-time. We wouldn’t just be getting by anymore. Sure, I’ll be doing some traveling but the way the promotion is structured, there isn’t as much as it was in the earlier days.”
For a moment, Stephen could see Cari considering the idea, but she shook her head no. A tear rolled down her cheek as she said, “It’s not worth it. I don’t want you in that life. I don’t want Tommy in that life. And I’m not putting myself into that life. And I’m not gonna wait up at nights for a call saying that someone went too far in a fight somewhere in fucking Texas. So, you’re gonna have to make a choice. If you want that life, take it. But you’re not taking us with you.”
Oh, shit, Stephen thought to himself. She’s serious this time. Any other time, it was just, “Don’t think about it and don’t watch it.” But now, she was one step away from packing up and taking Tommy away from him to go to Mother’s. Stephen could feel his childhood dream slipping away from him with each silent moment, but he knew deep down – as much as he wanted to ignore it – Cari was right. He fell in love with her for a reason. He married her for a reason. He created a child with her for a reason. And it wasn’t to take them off to GCL land to watch dear old Daddy get beaten up every night.
Verne would be disappointed, having trained him all this time for nothing. When Stephen called earlier to tell him that he didn’t get into the company that day, he could sense that the old teacher was anxious to get him back to the gym and fine tune everything until he was ready again. Same with his parents. Hell, Stephen remembered his mother telling stories of his father watching wrestling while she was in the bathroom ready to give birth to him.
At that very moment, Stephen decided the time was right for him to grow up. The GCL turned him down for a reason. They saw something in him that he couldn’t, that he wouldn’t let himself see. The men the GCL was looking for would be willing to leave their lives behind, if need be. Only now, with the love of his life threatening to walk away from him, did he allow himself to see the truth.
As painful as it was, Stephen nodded his head and sacrificed his childhood hopes and dreams in the same second. “Alright, you win,” he said. “I’ll stop.”
Cari looked into his eyes, ever so closely. “Are you sure, Stephen?”
Stephen gulped and nodded his head again, this time finding it a little easier to nod. “Yes. Yeah, I’m sure.”
Cari smiled and ran her hand through his hair. “Good.”
Stephen forced a smile. “Do I still have to sleep on the couch?”
As an answer, Cari kissed him hard on the lips. “You can stay in here as long as you put some ice on that nose.”
Stephen pushed his hand against Cari’s previous target and winced.
“You’re such a baby,” she said with a teasing grin. “If I can do that, you think you stand a chance in the GCL?”
“True. You should go instead.” Stephen said as he headed for the kitchen.
Esker walked into Vornakai’s office and saw him holding a thin silver collar with a blinking light attached. “Is this for the guy tomorrow?”
Vornakai nodded as he inspected each end. He saw that once it closed, it would lock into place. He reached in again and pulled out a small remote control unit. On the controller were two buttons pointing up and down, a red button and a tiny screen. Vornakai pressed the up button and saw the screen on the controller come to life. He pressed the up button again and watched the numbers go from one to ten, then pressed the down button to bring the number on the screen back down to one.
“Very interesting,” he said more to himself than to Esker. He looked past Esker and saw a beautiful woman standing in the doorway. With her long red hair, brown eyes, pale skin, and a body both tall and curvy, Miranda Esker was hard to miss.
“Is that your wife?” Vornakai asked. “Bring her in here, it’s been a while.”
“Oh, sure,” Esker nodded, then turned and beckoned for her to come inside. Vornakai stepped out of his chair and walked over to Miranda, giving her a big hug.
“Good to see you again,” he said with a disarming smile.
“Good seeing you too, Victor,” Miranda responded.
Vornakai winced and stepped away from Esker’s wife. He turned to the Roswell Reject and instructed, “Come here.”
Esker stepped forward and Vornakai handed him the collar. “Press this up to your neck, but don’t close it. Or else it will lock and we’ll have to cut it off you.”
“Good to know,” Esker said while doing as instructed.
“Now, Miranda, if you’d be so kind as to stand in front of your husband?”
Miranda shot Vornakai a skeptical glance. “Why?”
“I just want to try something. Trust me.”
Esker’s wife stepped in front of her husband, her eyes darting back and forth between Esker and Vornakai.
Vornakai held up the remote control for the collar, ensured the number on the control was set to one, and pressed the red button.
The collar emitted a powerful shock into Esker’s neck. He let out a startled scream, his face contorting into an expression of pure anger as he stepped toward his wife. He pulled back his fist and his wife took a step away.
“Michael! Stop! What is he doing?!” she yelled.
Vornakai lifted his finger from the button and grabbed Miranda by her arm, yanking her out of the way.
Esker blinked and pulled his punch before it went all the way forward. He tore the collar away from his neck and dropped it back on Vornakai’s desk. He turned to his wife with genuine concern. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” Miranda tried to form an answer to the simple question, but all she could manage was, “I’m gonna wait… for you outside.” She backed away from her husband and walked out of Vornakai’s office without saying anything else.
“Holy shit!” Esker exclaimed while rubbing his neck. “That hurt!”
“That’s the idea. What were you thinking when you felt that shock?”
“Thinking? I don’t even think I was. It was just… rage. I wanted to beat the hell out of whoever was in front of me.”
Vornakai smiled. “Then it works.”
“You know, you could have just put yourself in front of me. You didn’t have to do that to Miranda.” Esker felt indignation building in his voice.
“I know,” Vornakai answered.
“So why did you turn her into a guinea pig like that?”
Vornakai held up two fingers. “Two reasons. One, I needed to see just how powerful this would be, to see if it would make you act against someone that you loved.”
“And the other reason?” Esker asked.
“She called me ‘Victor.’“
Esker said nothing in response to that. “When do you see him getting in the ring?”
“The sooner the better. As long as his body doesn’t reject the new formula, we’ll be in good shape. He could start as early as next week.”
“And we’ll have The Doctor manufacture a new supply for everyone else, just like the last batch. Right?”
Vornakai stood up. “No. I’m going to check up on Zarron and Norad. Then I have to run by the costume department. You go home and get some rest. Miranda’s waiting for you downstairs. Just make sure you’re here at 7:00 in the morning.”
As Esker turned to leave the office, he looked back and asked, “All this for just one rookie? What do you see in him?”
“Esker, this is not all for just one rookie. You’ll see what this is all about once he’s in the ring.”
Stephen rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn and took a quick shower. He had dried himself off and was halfway done getting dressed when Cari woke up. She glanced at the clock and looked back at Stephen. “Why’re you leaving so early?”
Stephen answered, “I want to meet up with Chuck and see what kind of work he has available.” This was not a lie, he intended to meet up with his old friend and co-worker. However, he would see to that after disappointing Vornakai with the bad news.
Cari nodded and her head hit the pillow. Stephen allowed himself one more longing glance at his beautiful wife. The two of them had made love for the first time in a number of weeks, and Stephen felt one hundred percent secure in his decision to turn down the job with the GCL. Sure, life would be difficult for the three of them for the time being, but none of them knew what the future may bring and Stephen was happy not to end up like P.T. Cruz. Or worse, the Roswell Rejects.
Stephen stepped out of the train station on 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, pressing his feet to the ground to avoid getting swept up by the mob of people packed in the subway with him. Even before 7:00am hit, half the borough had the same thought: leave early to avoid the packed trains. The swarm of men and women all rushing to their jobs or the nearest coffee houses split up into several smaller groups heading up the stairs or the nearest escalators to the streets above.
Before Stephen had gotten on the train, he reached Chuck on his phone and asked him to meet up for some coffee. Chuck was all too happy to oblige, the ultimate morning person.
As Stephen took a deep breath of the Manhattan air, which he always believed was a little sweeter and more intoxicating than the air in the outer boroughs, he saw a line of men, women and children wrapped around what was once the New York Public Library. It looked longer than usual and the sound of kids chattering and whining about having to stand up echoed through the streets that grew busier and busier as each minute passed.
Stephen nodded and remembered the news from earlier this week about the Manhattan 42 Housing Facility. These must be the winners, he thought as he walked east on 42nd Street and made a right turn on to Fifth Avenue.
The lions on either side of the staircase for the New York Public Library still stood, overlooking the sidewalk. Beside each lion was a metal sign bolted to the black fence that read “MANHATTAN 42 HOUSING FACILITY.” Stephen walked up the stairs and saw five NYPD officers in their uniforms flanking two men dressed in matching black suit jackets and pants. The two men kept looking down at their tablets and flipping through the pages on their touch screens. Stephen watched as the majority of families were sent off with a simple shake of their heads and a policeman escorting them out of the line.
A heavyset balding man seemed especially animated, pumping his fist and slapping the backs of those in front of him. He looked at the staircase and held up his arm to wave. “Hey, Stephen!”
Stephen waved back and smiled as Joey came bounding over to his friend. “What are you up to?” Stephen asked when Joey was close enough.
“I…” Joey’s smile dropped as he got a good look at Stephen. “What happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, your nose looks really swollen.”
Stephen almost forgot. He grazed it with his fingertips before answering. “Oh, that. Happened during the GCL tryouts. So what’s going on here?”
Joey’s smile returned. “It’s Manhattan 42! I’m moving in!”
“You were on the list?! That’s awesome!” Stephen’s smile grew as he high-fived his old friend.
“Yeah! I mean, I should be pissed since it was the Goddamned CCA that did all the remodeling, but now I’m not gonna need you to get me tickets to GCL anymore. I get to watch it on the big projection screen! Can you believe this?” Joey let out a loud belly laugh to emphasize his euphoria.
“So you got out of the facility in Brooklyn?”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure you can still smell that dump from here. Now the only thing I gotta worry about is if I’m gonna live next door to one of those A.F.F.D. scumbags. But even if I do… this place…” Joey turned toward his new home. “This place is gonna be like a friggin’ palace. And I can’t wait to watch you guys in the ring.”
Stephen held back a wince when Joey said “you guys” while talking about the GCL. He checked his watch and said, “Hey Joey, I gotta run. I have to meet up with…” He hesitated before telling him the truth, but then figured, why not? “I have a meeting with Vornakai.”
“WHOA!” Joey yelled out. “You’re gonna be on HIS team? I was all set to cheer for you! But do me a favor and give him a bust in the mouth for me, okay? For what he had Togar do to P.T. Cruz, I was ready to kick his ass myself!”
Stephen chuckled. “Yeah, well, we’ll see how things turn out, okay? You take care of yourself. And congratulations.”
“You too, bro. You too! I gotta go make sure nobody cuts in line!” Joey and Stephen shook hands and went off in their separate directions. Stephen could still hear Joey yelling to anyone within earshot, “This is my new home!”
Vornakai sat at his desk, letting out a loud yawn as he checked his clock. If he knew how long the costume department was going to take, he would have at least scheduled the contract signing for 11:00 AM instead of 7:00. He took another sip of his coffee as Esker – in his street clothes and almost as groggy as Vornakai – walked inside the office. He kept his distance from his leader, not quite over what he was made to do inside that office. “He’s here,” he said. “Stephen’s here.”
Vornakai smiled and let out another yawn. “Bring him in, and go get The Doctor.”
As Esker left, Stephen walked inside and Vornakai had yet another toothy grin all ready for Stephen. “Right on time,” he said. “You’re off to a hell of a start here, Stephen. I can… what happened to your nose?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Stephen answered. “I’ll be fine.”
“Endurance, I like that,” Vornakai said with a pat on Stephen’s shoulder. “You’re gonna fit in great here.”
Stephen nodded and forced out his response. “Yes, but I have some bad news. I’m, uh, afraid I’m going to have to, um, decline the invitation.” Vornakai’s smile dropped, but Stephen added, “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. But last night I realized that I shouldn’t be in…”
Vornakai interrupted him. “Your wife said no.”
“Well, yeah,” Stephen admitted. “Kind of.”
“That’s not who…. did that?” Vornakai pointed to Stephen’s nose.
“No, no. That’s not… don’t worry about that.”
The Doctor walked in and stayed behind Stephen. He held his injection gun filled with black fluid in his hand. Esker walked behind The Doctor and stayed in the corner. Stephen turned and glanced at The Doctor and a bead of sweat dripped down the back of his neck.
Vornakai nodded and did his best to keep Stephen’s attention. “This is why I told you not to tell your family until after everything’s been taken care of.”
“Ummm… yeah,” Stephen said as his focus moved back toward Vornakai. “I mean, I didn’t tell her that I got in. But she saw me at the show last night and threatened to leave if I pursued this. And as much as I want to do this, I don’t want to sacrifice my family.”
Vornakai put his hands up and smiled, always the salesman. “I understand completely, but I do have a surprise for you that might help change your mind.”
Stephen gulped and looked back at the injection gun in The Doctor’s hand. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about that. And don’t worry about your wife, Stephen. She’ll come around just fine when she sees the sort of money you’ll be making here. We don’t spread this info around much, but did you know that heels get paid more than the babyfaces? Us ‘bad guys,’ we have the extra pressure of always acting against the “good guys.” All they have to do is react to what we do to them, so we get more money because of it. Other than Kyle Flyte, of course. The champion gets a little extra leeway around here. They get more of a cushion when it comes to bending the rules.”
Vornakai walked over to Stephen and put his arm around him. “And I think you have what it takes to get that belt away from Kyle.”
Stephen tried to move away from Vornakai, but his grip was just too damn strong. “Um… no. No, I didn’t know that. But I still have to say no. I promised…”
“Promises were made to be broken,” Vornakai said.
“Not mine,” Stephen responded. “I’m sorry.” Stephen turned to leave, but before Stephen could do anything, The Doctor pressed the injection gun against Stephen’s arm and pulled the trigger. The new and improved liquid shot into Stephen’s body.
“Surprise,” Vornakai deadpanned. Stephen turned toward Vornakai and lunged toward his throat.
“What did you… put in me?” Stephen forced out as his grip on Vornakai’s throat tightened. Esker walked over to pull Stephen away, but Vornakai waved him off.
After a few moments, Stephen’s grip on Vornakai’s throat started to loosen. Stephen took a step back, dropped to his knees, and fell forward onto his face.
“I like that kind of attitude in my men,” Vornakai said with a smile. He turned to The Doctor. “Make sure he’s not dead.”
The Doctor knelt down and checked Stephen’s wrist. “He still has a pulse,” he said. “He should be ready soon.”
Vornakai opened his desk drawer and motioned The Doctor forward. He pulled out a black metal mask from the drawer and handed it to him. “While he’s out, I want this put on him. Nobody knows who he is, not even himself. Got it?”
The Doctor looked at the mask in his hand. “You want me to fuse this to his face?”
Vornakai nodded. “As quickly and painlessly as possible. Esker!” Vornakai snapped his fingers to get Esker’s attention. “Get him to his feet and help him to The Doctor’s office. Once he’s there, empty his pockets and destroy any form of identification. Wallet, phone, charge cards, ID, everything. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a blank slate.”
Esker nodded and helped The Doctor move Stephen from the office, leaving Vornakai alone. The head booker waited a moment before grabbing his cell phone and pressing a button in his phone book.
“You better have some good news for me if you’re gonna wake me up at this hour,” the hoarse voice on the other end threatened.
“It’s more like good news for me. I’m about to prove you wrong.”
“That’s why you called me? To gloat?”
“Half to gloat, and half to ask you to have some faith in me for once.”
The other voice took a deep breath and responded with, “Okay, fine. I’ll let you run with this. I still think you’re asking too much of your doctor.”
“Are you kidding? If my subject survives this, it’ll be his masterpiece. I won’t need him for anything else.”
“And he’ll be ready for Monday’s show?”
“I don’t see why not. And I already have his first opponent selected.” Vornakai said with a smile. “You may want to record that match.”
Stephen laid on a metal table all alone, his arms and legs strapped to it to keep him from escaping. His eyes were still shut, having been put into unconsciousness by the black fluid.
He bolted awake and sucked in a deep audible breath. His body began to tremble and tense up. He struggled to catch his breath as he felt his muscles tighten and enlarge. He tried to scream in pain, but no trace of his voice escaped his throat. Stephen saw in his mind’s eye constant images of his wife and child. And those images began to dim and disappear at an alarming rate.
After moments of excruciating pain, Stephen relaxed. His eyes remained widened, his face paled, his eyes gave off a deadened look and stared straight ahead. He was ready.
TO BE CONTINUED IN
THE AGE OF SUBMISSION
Part Two of the Five-Part Serial
FROM PARTS UNKNOWN
THE STORY HAS JUST BEGUN!
CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW
TO ORDER PARTS TWO – FIVE OF
FROM PARTS UNKNOWN
Available August 8, 2017
Available August 22, 2017
Available September 5, 2017
Available September 19, 2017
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George Sirois has yearned to be a storyteller all his life, no matter the medium. That drive first led him to drawing his own characters while in grade school, and then – when his skills never advanced beyond the most primitive sketches – writing about them in various short stories and screenplays before moving on to novels such as “Excelsior” and the five-part serial “From Parts Unknown.” He is a regular contributor to Write Pack Radio () and was named President of the Missouri Writers Guild in May 2017.
After living in New York City and Richmond, Virginia, George, his wife, and their two dogs now happily call St. Louis, Missouri their home. In his spare time, George is an avid cinephile, a collector of film scores, and a lifelong fan of the New York Giants. He enjoys West Coast Swing dancing, and is currently pursuing work as a voice actor & audiobook narrator.
“Excelsior” and the first of two sequels – “Ever Upward: Part Two in The Excelsior Journey” – will be available from Aelurus Publishing in 2017: .
George's Twitter handle is @GeorgeSirois and his Facebook page is . For more information, go to .
Abduction. Betrayal. Conspiracies. Murder. Welcome to the future of Sports Entertainment! Out of work. Out of insurance. Out of options. All Stephen Barker wants is to provide a better life for his wife and child, and his only answer is to become a star in the last remaining sport in America, the Gladiatorial Combat League. But while Stephen's intentions are noble, he has no idea that the GCL is becoming more and more corrupt behind the scenes. The current World Champion, Kyle Flyte, is forced to deal with constant rule changes proposed by the head booker Vornakai, including the use of weapons in the ring. But Vornakai is keeping his latest plan to usurp the championship a secret from everyone. If it works, it will turn an ordinary man into a weapon to tear through the GCL ranks. All he needs is a test subject. Someone like Stephen.