The ceiling lights inside Big Carter’s Bar were shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke. One amongst dozens, a trail from Hannibal Frost’s cigarette curled over the rim of his leather cowboy hat, before rising to join the others in the cloud above. He hadn’t looked up from his hands in what felt like an hour, opting instead to zone out as he watched neon embers hungrily devour the tobacco in his cigarette. The clean, smooth surface of the paper sizzled and flaked away. Frost was too tired to contemplate the metaphor in all that, so he took one last drag before stubbing out the little symbolic representation in an ashtray.
Finally looking up, Frost found Marcus still seated across from him. The younger, and probably more handsome man, was patiently waiting for him to come out of his stupor. Once he realized Hannibal was back amongst the living, Marcus threw him a concerned nod.
Marcus: You okay?
Frost: Yeah. Tired.
Hannibal didn’t have a deep voice, but it was definitely a rough one. Smoking hadn’t done him any favors on that end. He was too stubborn to quit though, and had learned to accept the bad days as inevitable.
Marcus: You sound rough, bruh.
Frost: I know. You think about what I said?
Marcus shrugged, his eyes scanning the room around them. He always called dibs on sitting against the wall. Hannibal let him get away with it because he felt safe with Marcus watching his back.
Marcus: A lil’ bit. I’ve been preoccupied. You know, doin’ my job?
Frost, undeterred by his young apprentice’s snappy jab, raised a jagged eyebrow as he searched his long-coat for another cigarette.
Marcus: It definitely feels a lil’ off, ya’ know? Like, everything’s all good at first glance, but the longer you look, the more it seems like people just goin’ through the motions. Real robotic lookin’ too.
Finally finding his stowed pack of cigarettes, Frost hurriedly got one to his lips and lit it up.
So, Marcus was seeing the same things then. The twenty-two year old genius generally had a pretty good read on people. Hell, anything really. He’d been the one to outfit Frost’s prized aviator shades with a poly-carbonate frame and micro-cam. Foresight was definitely his forte. It had saved his ass more than once.
Which meant Hannibal had to listen when Marcus spoke, because the truth was important to him. Apparently, the truth about High Octane Wrestling was that something was amiss.
Frost: And what does that tell you?
Marcus: I’ve seen some sinister ass shit come to fruition due to the circumstances I heretofore have witnessed.
Frost: Don’t be a smartass.
Marcus: I’m not. That’s legit.
Marcus stole a glance at the crowd around them, before leaning in closer and with a quieter tone.
Marcus: You ever found yo’self in a body snatcher scenario?
Frost: Look who you’re talking to.
Marcus: I think we got us a hive mind situation goin’ on.
Hannibal had tossed that idea around for a brief moment earlier, but if Marcus was seeing the same thing, it must be the real deal.
Frost: That’s a bold call. What category?
Marcus: That’s what I’m stuck on. It’s either two or three. If it’s three though, that parasite gotta’ come with a compounding rate of cellular mitosis that’ll beat out the degradation of brain cells and synapses. Keeping up with their image maintains the illusion.
Frost: You suggesting the threat is sentient? That’s an immediate upgrade to category five.
Hannibal took another drag off his cigarette, ruminating for a moment before exhaling towards the ceiling.
Frost: I was thinking category two. Simple amplification.
It would explain the above average lust for violence- which was an organic, yet ugly, human trait. It would also explain the selfish tendencies displayed in most of the High Octane roster. The human prefrontal cortex isn’t equipped with organic defenses against paranormal willpower manipulation, and people sure as hell aren’t strong enough to fight it on their own.
The only thing giving him pause was the opponent he’d been set up for at the next Refueled…
Darin Matthews was the name on the card he’d been emailed. He’d immediately recounted the match he’d seen him lose. It was a hard fought contest. The physical prowess of these people wasn’t being called into question, though; it was their mental stability. Matthews was one of the few that was an outlier amongst the lunatics. Frost didn’t have much to go on, but the guy sure had a fire in his eyes during the match with Kael- a fire that a category two or three would’ve snuffed out by now.
Even though Hannibal tried to keep the two sides of his life separated, all they wanted to do was beat the shit out of each other. A good, clean fight was the only thing Frost really wanted. If the Darin Matthews theory was solid, it meant Hannibal’s dreams of a fight for competition’s sake was being derailed because people just won’t quit being selfish, ignorant little brat monsters. At this point, it was a fifty-fifty fuckin’ chance.
Matthews was one of HOW’s “best” examples of human decency and competitive spirit. Frost knew, after that loss to Kael, he’d be battling a man that had been stripped down to his basic essence. This next match would make or break him, and it would serve as a perfect litmus test concerning the possibility of a paranormal contagion. Hannibal wanted to revel in the nervous excitement that proceeded any wrestling match. Of course that joyous feeling had to be tainted with paranoia.
Frost: Why’s it always gotta’ be parasites, or zombification, or subdermal worm bombs? Can’t people just fight because it’s fun?
Marcus recoiled a couple of inches in confusion.
Marcus: Fun? What?
Frost: High Octane… I just-
Marcus’s eyes widened in apparent astonishment.
Marcus: My guy, I’m talking about the situation that’s literally taking place in the immediate vicinity, not yo’ bullshit hard-on for fisticuffs.
Before Hannibal could answer, a shadow fell over them as a stranger pulled up a seat at their table. The sudden, distressing, yet smiling youth was decked out in a name brand puffer coat, some stupid expensive bling, and a loud ass diamond-imbedded grill. The young man clasped his hands together and set them on the table, his smile still beaming.
Hannibal immediately recognized him from the surveillance photos. It was the owner himself, Carter.
Carter: Welcome to the establishment, gentleman. Lemme’ introduce myself, I’m-
Frost: We know who you are.
The way Frost said it made Carter’s smile twitch. He then watched as the young man wiggled out his grill, revealing a set of short, vampiric teeth. The canines and side incisors were more than sharp enough to rip flesh.
Apparently Carter was a vampire.
Carter: What the fuck yall doin’ in my place of business?
Marcus let his gaze drift about the room before taking the lead.
Marcus: We’ve got files on three reported missing persons. You seem to have all three in yo’ bitch ass place of business.
Carter twisted on one of his braids before running a hand down his face. He looked more exasperated than defensive.
Carter: Tell me something… how long did I have left before you ash’d my ass sans communication?
Frost: We don’t do-
Carter: Yeah well mothafucka’, ya friends do! My crew’s down two since last week, and I knew them dudes for over two hundred years! Sure, they’d been hustlin’ some product, but they drank pig’s blood, you dumb fucks! PIG’S BLOOD!
In one fluid motion, Carter rose to his feet and slammed his fists on the table. His eyes were black, lightless voids and his fangs were bared.
Marcus had been ready, as was apparent by the HK tactical pistol in his grip. It was leveled with perfect technique at Carter’s face.
Marcus: Nine millimeter silver. It’ll put you down long enough for us to rip that heart right out yo’ chest.
Carter: What!? You think I kidnapped these white bitches!? They came to me, plain and simple. Then when they boyfriends got here they decided to stick around too. That’s the power of these pheromones yall. C’mon, you know that.
Frost watched as Carter’s irises began to shrink, letting the white of his eyes show again. This was genuine distress Hannibal was sensing off him.
Frost: Can we talk to them?
Hannibal motioned towards the crowd, but as he looked out at them, he saw it: the fire in their eyes. It was literally just in their eyes, since the vamp pheromones were acting as a mild sedative, but it was there all the same. The room just looked like a Christmas party full of coworkers before the office prankster spikes the punch. Frost sighed in relief as he motioned for Marcus to stow his piece.
Frost: Trust me, it’s the pheromones. Time has a way of completely disappearing when your high on vamp extract.
Carter: Oh snap, white boy knows about pheromonal time-lapse?
Marcus: Yeah, and he’s the stupid one.
Frost rolled his eyes, gesturing to Carter with a big ‘thumbs up’.
Frost: Hear what he said? He believes you. He’s just an asshole who’s still a fucking toddler when it comes to handling his anger issues.
Hannibal gave Marcus a pointed look before nodding him towards the exit. He got up at the same time, crossing behind Carter to get the door. As Marcus stepped through the threshold, Hannibal turned to say one last thing.
Frost: We’re not like alot of the other hunters out here. We know when we recognize good. Just don’t ever mistake that for weakness. You start hurting people, I will have no problem turning you into a pile of ash.
Carter responded, at first, with what seemed to be a slow, pensive nod.
Carter: That really sucks, dude.
Carter: I mean, it really sucks that you said that. I can’t just let you leave now.
Frost grimaced, squaring his shoulders as the familiar tingle of adrenaline raced through his muscles.
Frost: You gonna’ kidnap me too?
Carter looked confused for a moment, and then laughed at what seemed to be a miscommunication.
Carter: Nah, man. You can totally leave. It’s just that now I have to kick you out.
Frost slumped his shoulders in defeat.
Frost: Looking back, I didn’t really have to say that, did I? It kind of goes without saying…
Carter nodded in agreement.
Frost: I hate it when I deserve this shit.
Carter: You know you banned permanently, right? Goodbye.
And with a stiff heel to the chest, Frost was literally kicked out of Big Carter’s Bar.
He hit the sidewalk eight feet out from the door, losing his hat in the process. Hannibal didn’t have long to ponder his mistakes before Marcus was throwing his ‘lost’ hat back at him.
Marcus: You wanna’ lay there while I get the car?
Frost: Yes, please.
Marcus barked a frustrated laugh as he stepped towards the parking lot and out of sight.
Hannibal took a few deep breaths before assessing how much his chest actually hurt. Good thing he had plenty of time before his debut match. Besides, he’d wrestled in worse conditions than this. It most certainly wasn’t his own physical health he was worried about. He wasn’t gonna’ die until he could die happy. No, he was worried about Darin Matthews. After the card for Refueled was finalized, Matthews became the first question in a long line of many…
Was High Octane Wrestling the right place to call home?