Something was clearly wrong.
I guess Sektor dropped me on the head pretty fuckin’ hard, and at a weird fuckin’ angle. I say ‘I guess’ because my head had been ringing ever since I woke up, and as soon as my adrenaline started to wear off I could feel that old familiar accompanying twinge of pain in the C3 and C4 vertebrae that had cost me a good thirteen months in 2013 when I woke up from a kick to the head from Heidi Christenson.
Truth be told about that night, I only woke up a half an hour later when that crazy bitch tried to chew my fuckin’ finger off to get me to quit trying to pry her eyeball out of her head with a fork. Needless to say, things had gotten all the way out of hand back then.
I didn’t know why I was having a flashback to Heidi trying her absolute damndest to kick my head into the third row, and I couldn’t get that very same sensation out of my head right then and there, sometime after John Sektor had explained to the world his War Games decision with a couple of chair shots and an expertly executed C-Sektion. What I did know was that the water in the locker room bathroom wasn’t cold enough, and my head wouldn’t stop pounding like the inside of a drum.
Strangely, as I was disappointedly regurgitating a mix of bile and tepid water into the locker room sink backstage at the Yuengling Center, it occurred to me that it had been six years since the last time I’d been in the kind of fight that War Games was gonna turn into. I’d had another couple of good runs and won another few World Titles, but I hadn’t really gotten personally invested in a fight in a good goddamn long time.
Now, hear me out. Maybe, just maybe, I’d learned something in those six years. Maybe I’d figured out that I’d been letting the business get to me for too many years and it was time to disassociate. Maybe the lightbulb went off one day and everything just fell into instant focus and I figured out how to keep my nose clean.
My head above water, so to speak.
Naw, I just did what any man of my intelligence would have done in the same situation, adapt and overcome. I’d gotten pretty good over the years at convincing people to do the work for me, kept me out of the hospital for the most part and the heat squarely on somebody else. The only problem with that, though, is that after a while it got fucking boring.
These were the kinds of thoughts that were rattling through my head after I woke up from being dropped by Johnny Sektor. I could vaguely remember refusing medical help in the ring and shooting off by myself toward the locker rooms. I meandered my way around the building for who knows how long before stumbling into what I was pretty sure was my dressing room, splashed a little water in my face and threw it back up when I tried to drink it.
My head wouldn’t stop.
My neck was stiffer by the second.
Absently I wondered how long before somebody would go after my knees…
I took a look at myself in the mirror. The guy that stared back at me was disgusted with what he saw. That guy wasn’t a puking, concussed, outsider traipsing through hostile territory. That guy was the de-facto leader of the new Best Alliance. He was a former and future World Champion, a member of two Halls of Fame and a God among insects in the wrestling business.
That Eric Dane was not impressed with what he was looking at.
He was also a figment of my fuckin’ imagination.
The door opened behind me, instincts kicked in and I spun around, baring teeth and ready to fight. I must have looked pretty silly to MJ Flair and her diminutive fixer, Adrian Evans, because she stared at me like I had turds hanging out of my mouth and her weird little midget eyeballed me the way he always did.
Little shit didn’t like me one bit.
“Mr. Dane…” MJ was hesitant. “What are you doing in here?”
I dropped the tough-guy act and took a step in their direction, stumbling as I tried to say something smart. Fortunately for me, I landed in the surprisingly supportive and infinitely stronger than I’d imagined grasp of Adrian Evans. It’s a good thing, too, as I was already having flashbacks of the whole thing, except in my head I was blacked out after cracking my skull on the bench, while in reality I was sitting on the cold concrete floor with Adrian checking my vitals and MJ kind of sort of freaking all the way out.
I consoled her the best way I knew how. “The fuck are you talkin’ about?” That is to say, ignoring the obvious panic in her eyes and answering a question with a question. I found out later that I hadn’t, in fact, found my own locker room, but the Ladies’ dressing room. Flair and Evans had left only moments before I stumbled in, and had come back after some left behind thing or another.
“He needs a doctor, Ms. Flurstein.” Evans was slick, in control. He probably wouldn’t have pissed on me had I been on fire if it weren’t for MJ, but because of her he took control of the situation and got me out of there before I could further fuck myself up.
“Medical’s already gone,” I heard MJ’s voice, but couldn’t focus on her face. “Once they stitched me up they hit the bricks. He needs to get to the hospital, but we need to do it on the D-L.”
Doctors? Stitches? Vans? What the fuck were they talking about?
“It’s in the lot. Outside.” MJ sounded concerned, but that could just be my imagination.
“All right. Stay with him, keep him awake. I’ll get one of Mr. Best’s associates to bring the van in so we can move him without anyone realizing it.” Not a hint of emotion. Evans was definitely worth whatever money he was getting paid.
I still don’t know how she did it, but little Mariella Jade Flair got two hooks under my arms and dead-lifted me straight up off of the floor and back onto my feet. She took on the majority of my weight by throwing my arm over her shoulders and off we went, completely led by her, with me doing my best to hang on for the ride and not lose my guts again.
“Fuck we goin’, kid?” I was half-slurring. “Time to hit the ring? I got a pipe stashed around here somewhere…”
Apparently, my brain had somehow managed to jump back in time. That C-Sektion was a motherfucker of a head drop, I was for sure gonna have to avoid that in the future. I couldn’t remember anything about MJ and I coming down to the ring through the crowd, I’d forgotten cracking Farthington over the head with a pipe, and I couldn’t even imagine Scottywood jumping off the cage onto the lot of us or anything else that had happened after that ICON Title match.
“Yeah, we need to give ‘em some payback.” I noticed she was walkin’ us away from the arena even as she said it, but I couldn’t get out of her grip. Fuckin’ gym rat. “But first we need to get you cleared. We’re gonna kick their dicks in, we do it the right way, man. Right? And they’ll never see us comin’.”
My head started spinning, my stomach turned, I could feel the bile burning at the back of my throat again and I lurched forward, pulling MJ toward a garbage can where I once again tried to evacuate the contents of my stomach. The problem at this point was that there was nothing there to lose but mucus and stomach acid and that only made the whole affair worse.
God, I’d have killed for a pack of Rolaids right about then.
“Where’s Bobby?” I asked in a bizarre moment of clarity. “He’s got my keys… My… stuff.”
The moment of lucidity was gone as quickly as it had set in. I wiped at my chin with the Fellowship of the Finest t-shirt that I’d been wearing since a few minutes after working what felt like an eternity ago but was likely more like an hour, hour and a half tops.
“No idea, man, Aunt Lindz said she saw him running off right after your match but I couldn’t say for sure.” MJ was full of answers tonight, answers and solutions. I tried to make a mental note but I’d lost my mental pencil sometime after J-Sek dropped me on my noggin’. “Don’t worry about it, Adrian will handle it.”
“Pretty sure that guy hates my guts.” I blurted. “Prob’ly throw my shit in the Bay…”
I could feel her rolling her eyes, don’t ask me how.
“He doesn’t, and he wouldn’t.”
“You don’ know…” I was fading, fast. MJ man-handled me around a corner and out the door to the loading dock. Adrian Evans stood, smirking might I add, next to a large Ford Econoline van parked at the curb right across the fire lane, both doors open wide open and ready for me to climb into so I could curl up and die.
Or, I guess, maybe not that. Fucked if I knew.
“Where’s my-” I stumbled. MJ held on but my weight was starting to tire her out. She’d been in her own war earlier tonight as well, I reminded myself.
“Keys?” Adrian dangled them in front of me. “I’ll be driving your rental along to the Hospital behind you and Ms. Flurstein in the van.”
“How did you-”
“Your associate Mr. Dean left them along with an oddly articulate apology letter back in your locker room. Apparently, he was afraid for his life after dropping the pinfall to Kael tonight.”
Aw, right in the goddamned feels!
“That big fat bastard…” I started, trailed off, and then found it again, “He’s a good egg.”
And then I stumble/fell onto the floor of the back of the van. I must have looked similar to how Halitosis looked a couple of weeks ago when Dan Ryan put his head through a window. MJ lifted me again and shoved me as hard as she could further into the back of the van.
“Ah!” I hit my head. “Fuck!”
“Try not to let him hit his head, again.” Adrian admonished her. “And whatever you do, keep him conscious. Keep him talking, don’t let him go to sleep!”
“On it,” replied MJ, “In case of emergency, break glass and call Cally.”
Hah. That’s smart, that Cally chick can talk. And talk. And talk. She’s entertaining in that she doesn’t know that she’s so goddamn entertaining, and fuck if she don’t make a hell of a cupcake.
And then it occurred to me how much I wanted a cupcake.
That is to say, Parts Unknown.
It’s a real place, don’t fuck with me about semantics, okay?
Suffice it to say the exact time and date is as obfuscated as the location of this clandestine convergence of the best little alliance of go-getters that High Octane Wrestling has ever seen, let alone been entertained by. At the center of the room is a large, oval table. There are five high-backed leather swivel-chairs set out for a very particular five people, each seat assigned to a specific person by gleaming platinum placards engraved with the following names:
Dan, Texas Man
Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the overwhelming ocean that surrounds this particular dark fortress. Swimming by with menacing looks on their evil faces are a platoon of ill-tempered guppies, thirteen blowdart-armed pufferfish, Pennywise the Clownfish, a catfish cosplaying Michael Douglas from Falling Down (uzi included), a green-beret’d garrison of Sea Monkeys all dressed like Chuck Norris, the stingray that killed Steve Irwin, and a Sith Lord Kraken with his apprentice, a morally ambiguous angler fish.
You know, I have one simple request, and that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads! Now evidently my cycloptic colleague informs me that that can’t be done.
What, you didn’t see Dan Ryan there at the table at his assigned seat with Lindsay Troy sitting across from him?
The Lady of the Hour rolls her eyes and jabs her straw into her Captain and Coke, sending ice cubes clinking against the glass. Were she standing, she’d be more Lioness of Brittany at the helm of the Black Feet than Captain Morgan with one foot on a barrel, but Cally shooed her over to the table upon her arrival, a drink at the ready.
Seriously, Dan? How old are you?
You’re sitting there drinking Seamus Levine’s favorite drink, but I’m old?
At the center of the table is some kind of a CGI holo-display with various floating screens, one having headshots of each member of the World’s Okayest War Games Team, one with a SWOT report detailing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing our antagonists in the upcoming Game of War. A third screen has the banking information of every citizen of the city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Or is it Arkham Asylum? Does it matter?
Standing at the edge of the table and trying to manipulate the holographic display with his hands as if he were Tony Stark is a short, white-haired, snowhawk-wearing individual with a wide cheshire grin. He wears a suit jacket overtop of a t-shirt and long matching slacks. He stops fumbling with the holograms and reaches down, picking up a sparkling placard reading “Flyer, Supa-Highest”
Aww, somebody here remembers me! It’s even got little drops of blood on it. See?
Jack Harmen gushes over the little placard proclaiming him the Supa-Highest Flyer. He shows it to Troy as if he were a child receiving a gift from an aunt.
I could never forget you, you’re waaaaaaaaay too weird. But when BAWSman said you were in his club I felt the mighty need to double his order.
Harmen goes back to messing with the holograms unsuccessfully.
Of cupcakes? Yes. I agree.
Decidedly not a part of the best little alliance of go-getters that High Octane Wrestling has ever seen, Calico Rose moves swiftly from chair to chair, refilling drinks as quickly as she can. At this point, pulling back a bit we see that the scene is actually in TC’s Pub. The fish swimming past are on rear-projection televisions and the regular table setup is pushed to the side. The high-backed chairs are really just busted up folding chairs and the hologram screens were actually crayon drawings and computer print-outs.
Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me, Cally.
The youngest member of the Alliance approaches the table with a bewildered smile on her face, staring at the bartender, shaking her head. Cally looks at her and shrugs.
What? BAWSman wanted an evil underwater lair, and I never get to be evil. But I’m also on your dad’s budget so this was the best I could do on such short notice.
And she salutes.
Welcome aboard the USS PartsUnknown, matey!
Harmen frowns, confused, and plops into his seat. He rubs the back of his head.
Wait, is this… are we on a boat? Or in an underwater base? My inner Hank Scorpio is tingling.
Officially it’s an abandoned nuclear missile silo located on the inside of an underwater volcano on the Dark Side of the Moon, but I used up all of the projectors on ambiance so we don’t have anything left for bad movies or boss tunes!
I understood that reference.
Right. Anyways, Cally – can I get a double shot Absolut?
You may have a root beer, small fry.
But you’re not open, it’s not illegal.
Cally holds up her index finger and shakes it.
Resigned, MJ steps to the table and looks at the name tags. She sits down in one of the two empty chairs, this one labeled ‘Fry, Small.’
Okay. Where’s Dane?
You sure? From the moment I agreed to sign with HOW, Eric’s been in my ear about what he thinks we need to do next. He never shuts up about it. But now, none of us have talked to him since Sektor brained him.
I did. I have. Trust me, he’s on the way. Soon as he gets here we can get moving.
I talked to him, too. Or he talked to my voicemail and I talked to his. It’s like a conversation. Besides, he said he’s paying the tab and he’d never skip out on a bar bill.
Momentarily everyone in the room’s eyes dart to Cally in shock and/or disbelief. A weird couple of seconds pass as every single person around this table has, at one point or another, had to pay at least one tab for The Only Star.
If you’ve talked to him, MJ, you mind telling us how rough of shape he’s in? Because I know he’s just gonna brush it under the rug if any of us ask him point-blank.
Seriously, man. Just. Okay?
Okay nothin’, kiddo.
She levels MJ with a pointed “Mom” stare.
We’re all in this together, right? And I get that you feel an obligation to Eric, seeing as you and Adrian were the ones who brought him to the hospital. But if one of us is down, or going into a situation not at a hundred percent, I want to know so I can figure out the best course of action for the team to put us in the best position to succeed.
She’s right. And succeeding means making sure Eric’s able to go, or making sure we all can get him through this one way or another.
Lindsay nods in agreement.
To be honest, I’m also kinda wondering why you aren’t being more forthcoming. If Eric is compromised and goes down, it’s your ass, too.
Jack Harmen loudly slams his boots onto the table’s edge, then kicks off it to lean his chair back.
Listen, this is all sweet and saccharin, but I believe I was promised violence.
The Queen smirks at her frenemy; these two have tangled with – and sniped at – each other more than a handful of times over the past decade. If it wasn’t for a mutual protégé in Mary-Lynn Mayweather keeping their heads level, and their fists holstered, Harmen and Troy’s coexistence may not have ever become a thing.
Calm down, Jack. Plenty of time for the hoos and the hiyahs and the kickings.
And the killings.
…Maybe not the killings.
A voice thick like hot gravel interrupts the proceedings.
“Hey now, this is HOW. I’m told murder actually might be on the table.”
All eyes shoot to the door where the topic of conversation leans against the threshold. The Only Star is dressed down, #97red HOW t-shirt and a pair of khaki cargo shorts capped off with a pair of red and black Jordan 1’s.
Lindsay Troy: (incredulous)
Jesus, this is bad. He jumped a teen and took their clothes.
Dane shoots the Queen the bird. That, or he tells her she’s #1.
I’m not always in the mood to wear ridiculous shit just for a reaction, and after the week I’ve had maybe you can cut me some fuckin’ slack, eh? The kid, too, while you’re at it.
Dane strolls on over and drops easily into the seat next to the daughter of Eli Flair. That’d be MJ for you slow mooks too busy drinking beer and talking shit to see our work. The Player/Coach of the Best Alliance shoots a pair of finger-guns across the room to Cally, who lights up with a smile and scurries off momentarily.
I’ve got everyone’s best interests in mind here, Eric. But it’s cool.
She holds her hands up in surrender, not looking to antagonise the man further.
Consider the slack cut.
Very much obliged. Now. What’d I miss?
The Ego Buster doesn’t miss a beat.
You missed the last half-hour of some of us being here on time and wondering where you’ve been for the last few days, Big Shooter.
Eric Dane: (deadpan)
I’ve been busy.
Doing what, being concussed?
Among other things, yes.
Assuming this is on TV, this is where we see the split-screen staredown. It gets hot for a quick second, and then bothered. Before anything can be done about it, this entire fiasco is both hot and bothered until one Ms. Rosalyn Callasantos interrupts by dropping a double-sized tray of cupcakes in front of The Antagonist. Lindsay Troy is then served her own, regular sized tray.
Eat these, Ms. Troy. Trust me.
High Flyer: Harmen sighs.
Amazing, delicious, but the prospect of violence is dropping by the second.
Harmen shoves a cupcake down his gullet in a single motion.
Alright look, all cards on the table…
He side-eyes The Queen; she makes a point to ignore him.
I told you guys from Jump Street what kind of deal this was. I took MJ with me instead of making this a big thing because I knew she’d be ready, willing, and all the way able to make an impact without overthinking it.
Yeah, and we got our asses kicked because we weren’t on the same page. Get it straight, man, we got caught with our pants down because of you and your secrets. Yeah, we all know what we signed up for, but you’d better figure out real fuckin’ fast that this team works off of trust, not good intentions and bad ideas. You keep secrets from Mike Best and his crew. You don’t keep secrets from me.
Troy glances at her brother-in-law.
Dan Ryan doesn’t even acknowledge her correction, instead staring straight-on at The Only Star. Dane answers by taking a bite out of the pharmaceutically-infused cupcake in front of him. Finally, with a mouthful of baked goods, he answers.
You’re right. My fault. Won’t happen again.
He grabs another cupcake. Harmen eyeballs Dane, as he’s now holding two cupcakes and only one of them is half eaten. He looks over to Cally across the table as if he were a child asking permission, and then quickly reaches out to the tray of cupcakes and drags it closer. He starts scarfing down on one, two, three cupcakes as the conversation continues. Troy takes a bite from one in her tray, happy to find that Cally made them rum-soaked. She takes a second, then pushes the rest across the table to Dan.
You heard the bartender.
Ryan gives her a look like he’d rather eat his own hand than a fucking cupcake. Harmen notices this look, and instantly distrusts Dan Ryan more than he ever has before.
Do I need to get a fork and play airplane, Daniel?
I don’t eat cupcakes, Cally.
Ryan grunts, then picks up a cupcake and begrudgingly shoves it into his mouth.
And he glares at Cally, which silences the propeller noise she’s been making. Harmen also stands down, satisfied. He turns to the rest of the group.
Alright, alright okay. Listen, help me play catch up. I’m kind of late to this party. You got domed, we all have, no big, but. Did medical at least clear you for action?
Yeah, about that…