A pile of photographs from Andy Murray’s collection sat on the ground. Each was a snapshot of his life, a portal to a different time and place, a moment immortalised. The breeze in the air meant they never really settled.
V/O: Begin message now.
MARVIN MURRAY: Dad. Just… just fucking pick up. Please. She’s not doing well, dad. How many times do I have to–… oh, fuck it.
A gust picked up a photograph of Andy and Vivica J. Valentine and carried it off-camera. One of the Scot and his parents, both long gone, was the next to go. The voicemail crackled with emotion.
MARVIN MURRAY: She’s in a fucking coma! Mom! Where are you?! How many messages do I have to leave?! She… dad, she tried to hang hers–…
Pictures of Andy with DEFIANCE friends Impulse and Calico Rose fluttered off. Next: Murray, Lindsay Troy, Jack Harmen, and the rest of their LoC crew. The pile lost a few more snaps of other past wrestling allies.
MARVIN MURRAY: Fuck this. I’m… I’m coming to find you.
V/O: End of message.
I want my War Games opponents to understand one thing.
If you are able to defeat me – if you are somehow able to find the intricate moment of battle that allows you to pin my shoulders one, two, three or, lord forbid, force a tapout or knockout – it is going to mean something. You will have done more than just achieve what no other HOW wrestler has been able to do thus far.
For the past month of my life, this pay-per-view has been my primary focus, and it has been my only one for the past two weeks. I have shed every piece of baggage preventing me from fighting as I have never fought before. Every safety net has been shredded, every nut and bolt tightened, and every drop of pain I have felt over the past three years has been reflected outward. At 42 years old I am badder, meaner, and harder than I’ve ever been.
Indeed, if you can pull it off – and I’m daring you to try – your victory will mean something.
But I don’t think you can.
Mike Best will attempt to prove that his HOW is not my HOW, attacking with a cutting barbarism matched only by his tongue, dead set on filing my name alongside the list of big names who came to HOW and failed.
Lindsay Troy will use snark, wit, and balls-in-a-vice jokes as a shield but unload a fiery, vengeful itch that wasn’t scratched by the 2-on-1 attack and has been burning a hole in her head for four months, not stopping until her knees have left my nose twisted somewhere around the side of my cheek and my eyes swollen shut, surrounded by pulpy, mangled flesh.
Dan Ryan will treat me with the same regard he’d have for a glob of bird shit on his coat. There’ll be a ruthlessness about him: a pop and snap to his offense that’ll seek not to render my body pinnable, but paralysed. He intends to bust my spine and my ego.
Cecilworth Farthington, who everybody tells me is the greatest wrestler on the planet, will coil his technicality around me like an anaconda and squeeze until the lights go out, something goes snap, or both, because psychopaths don’t know when to let go.
And if it comes down to it, if I have to battle my own teammates for ultimate supremacy, I know Perfection will reassert himself as the most devious serpent in the business, Eli Flair’s Dipshit Daughter will attempt to boot my head off and Max shall, I dunno, try to wear my skin.
A literal murderer’s row of talent, because at least one of them has decapitated a man with a shovel.
They will be brutal, laser-focused, without mercy.
I will be worse.
San Diego, CA | 16 June
For the first time since arriving in HOW, Andy Murray felt safe in his skin.
He had never been one to put much care into his image. Even as a fresh-faced twenty-something, looks meant little to an old-fashioned, knuckle-down fighter who didn’t even buy his first suit until well into his thirties. Perfecting techniques, diversifying, studying, and toughening up took precedence over the beauty pageant. Yet he had often paused upon catching his visage over the past few years, struck by how the ravages of recent life had left him looking a spectre of what he used to be.
Things were different now. The bags under the eyes, the scar at the corner of his mouth, the greys, the crags: these had become badges of honour. Signs of wear and tear from a war fought within, from which he had emerged a leviathan.
War Games had become his only priority. Sacrifices had been made, and now he stood in his consultant’s office ready to collect the one thing that would aid him on this journey without throwing something else away. If only the rest of his career was as simple.
In Andy’s pocket was an envelope from the drug testing centre that he’d neglected to open since it dropped through his letterbox that morning. Results, probably. He briefly considered looking into his own fate before the doctor burst in the room with a Cheshire Cat grin plastered across his face, clutching the product of his and Andy’s last meeting. The King of Wrestling still hadn’t bothered to remember the guy’s name through the plate on his desk told him it was Freeland. When you see as many medical professionals as Murray does, everything becomes a blur.
“Et voila,” this mad scientist said as he came careening across the room. It was a dull, cloudy day out, and the lights weren’t on inside, placing a gray overlay atop everything.
Freeland placed the brace on the desk, stepped back, and admired his team’s handiwork. “Well?” he asked, brow raised.
“Looks about the same as the ones I’d pay $100 for,” Andy said, leaning in for a closer look. “Maybe a little thicker. Maybe a lot thicker.”
Save a few white branding spots, the brace as entirely black and larger than the average man’s forearm. Of course it was: it was designed to Andy Murray’s specification, down to the millimetre, and The King of Wrestling was a giant.
Murray picked the elaborate apparatus up for the first time. “Shit’s got some heft,” he said, caught off-guard. He curled a fist and rapped his knuckles against the front panel and felt the titanium plate beneath the softer exterior.
“Just like you asked for,” the suit-clad pro said, leaning back against the wall. “Complete protection, stability, stopping power, and as close to 100% flexibility as you’re going to get. That thing’ll hold it together even if you think you can’t.”
A wry smile crossed Andy’s features. He knew a lot about trying to hold it together.
“Mind if I try it on?”
“I’d be offended if you didn’t.”
Up rolled the leg of Murray’s sweatpants – wearing anything else on a long travelling day was madness – above the bad joint, the skin over which was marred and knotted by the scars of old, ineffective surgeries. There was a reason he’d switched to full-length tights a decade ago. Off slipped a Nike and past his foot slid the brace.
“The locking system looks simple but I swear to god, that thing won’t slip a millimetre,” said Freeland, watching Andy labour to pull the device over his tree trunk leg. “Pull both straps in behind, lock, and twist.”
The initial shot of pain dissipated once the brace settled over his kneecap. Back, lock, and twist, Murray repeated in his head, flubbing the first attempt but getting it right the second. The damn thing felt as secure as a prison as soon as it was locked in place.
“Christ, that’s tight,” Andy grimaced, standing up.
“But it doesn’t hurt, right?”
“Uhhh,” Murray began. The pain was always there, particularly now that he wasn’t medicating, though the pressure wasn’t creating anything new. On the contrary: it was helping. “Damn, where have you been all my career?”
The King took a few steps around the room and found the brace bent fluidly, effortlessly, with his natural movements. He slowly raised the knee as if to throw its titanium against Dan Ryan’s thick skull, then pivoted once, twice, thrice, checking how it twisted. The movements were a tad more rigid than usual, but his joint hadn’t felt so solid since it started falling apart.
He was almost like a kid on Christmas morning, Andy: buoyed by a shiny new toy that had cost his boss more considerably more than the average HOW office worker’s salary, protecting injuries that could only truly be fixed by career-ending surgery.
This was what he was doing while his son’s world was burning: hanging out at the shiny fucking knee store, ignorant to the suffering he was causing across town.
Dead to it.
From now on all respect between as shall be administered through fists, elbows, knees, and head drops. You will get all of that and none of the gags because I came to smash the pillars of HOW to sand, and what better place to do that here?
You will give me a war. I am confident of that. What you will get in return is the most dangerous cunt in this whole damn place, free of crutches, ready to coat the beaches claret.
It’s down to my team, your team, and the violence now, but shit, just when I thought MJ had a monopoly on high-school drama around here, look! We’ve got some snugglers. Lindsay Troy, not content with just letting Mike Best fuck up her career, is now letting him fuck her as well.
Too “basic”? Sorry about that. At least Mary Queen of THOTs can take comfort in her recent promotion. Congratulations! With Max gone, you’re now the 4th best Group of Death member. What a triumph.
A genuinely hilarious move on both sides, but the Son of GOD gets no more heat from me. Idiot just spent 30 minutes of his life deconstructing points I, myself, have already deconstructed. Sorry, Mike, but I rebutted you before you even opened your goddamn mouth.
I expected more, oh burial artist.
Neither Dan Ryan nor Cecilworth Farthington has shown their full hand yet, but that’s cool. I’m not intimidated by the World Champion busting up a defenceless dentist or big bloody Daniel noncing around in a mansion, dropping Dorian Gray jokes, when the only Oscar that guy should be touching isn’t Wilde, but the one earned from his barely-convincing portrayal of a standard-bearer in 2020.
I hate these people, truly.
They will feel the extent of it in France.
San Diego, CA | A Few Hours Later
It was a piece of shit, San Diego International Airport, yet considerably smaller and quieter than most Andy passed through on business and less strenuous than the horrors he’d face at London Heathrow in roughly 12 hours time. A connecting flight through the worst place on Earth – without any of his boys for shielding and support.
Airports were never fun in this profession, though being aligned with some of the worst men in the sport and becoming one himself made them more bearable. Chances of being accosted by autograph-hunters and other dicks who don’t respect your time were diminished, if not completely eliminated. Still, Andy wouldn’t let his guard down as he hurried inside, hit the fast-track check-in queue, dumped his bags, and headed for a security gate he’d passed through hundreds of times before.
A voice called to him. Not a fan’s, though.
So ravaged and wrought was the voice that Andy wouldn’t have recognised it if not for that word. His son – a tall, lanky 6’3” whose frame still hadn’t filled out at 23 years old – was storming across the concourse, finally in sight of his avoidant father.
“You’re just leaving?!” Marvin Murray spat angrily, his face flush with red anger. Steam was always building up behind his thin-framed glasses.
“I’m going to France,” Andy responded, cold, heartless. He was thinking about driving RICK’s head through the mat and cracking eGGs. “I have a mat–”
“What?! Your ex-wif–… my mom put a noose around her neck and–” he couldn’t complete his own sentence. He’s a choked up ball of agony, rage, deep sadness, and everything in between, unable to compose himself. “And you could have stopped it!”
A hint of genuine emotion crossed Andy’s face in the form of confusion, but only a hint. “How?”
“Because you cut her off! You stopped her payments, they tried to throw her out, and when it got too much–”
“Marvin, they told me this on the phone.”
Marvin’s words started drifting through his father. The signal had become noise and Andy, if he was ever really there, no longer was. All that was in his head as his boy rightly pointed out the full week of ignored voicemails, texts, emails, and phone calls was War Games.
His only priority.
The force numbing him to everything else, even the mud creeping back into his head for the first time since he drove himself to unconsciousness on his basement floor.
Marvin was losing his mind, but Andy may have already lost his. Lindsay Troy and Dan Ryan occupied his inner cortex, both rattled, broken, and bleeding on the mat. Cecilworth Farthington’s dumb face getting pounded into an exposed turnbuckle again and again and again. Mike Best, en route to the shadow realm, eyes rolling back in his head as titanium connected with bone.
The thunder before him spluttered ineffectively, words like “bastard” and “hate” and “heartless” drawing more from passers-by than the intended target. Elsewhere, Andy was holding the HOW World Championship aloft, in tandem with Perfection, the new ICON title-holder.
While Jane’s life hung by a thread, her only son bashed distraught, weak fist after distraught, weak fist into the barrel chest in front of him. Its owner barely budged.
He was already in Normandy as security guards rushed forth, taking Marvin for an attacker, then turned from the soundless noise, walking decisively from the wreckage of his personal life – the wreckage born of his addition.
But one did survive the wreck.
Underdog stories are fairytale bullshit for children. Stupid, made-up nonsense designed to make people like Bobby Dean and Brian Hollywood feel good about themselves. Swerve me with that.
I don’t look at the bookies’ odds, see how these people rate my chances of getting through both War Games matches, and see a fairytale. I don’t see an impossible job. I don’t see a task too tall for anyone, let alone this battered old bet.
I see four titles and a fucking challenge.
I should be afraid, but the only thing I’m even remotely worried about is the fact that I’m not afraid.
Tick, tick, tick, goes the time bomb that connects my thigh to my shin. At least one of my teammates can’t be controlled, and more depending on what mood MJ and Jimmy show up in. This shit’s going to hurt, too, but I learned how to stop worrying about that a long time ago.
The team is what it is. Max Kael will try to murder motherfuckers while they try to murder them and hopefully take their eyes off the prize too, in the wake of his betrayal. I know the Son of GOD will come to Normandy clutching his receipt. Flair’s head’s in the clouds, she hates me, whatever… but she also came closer to pushing me over the edge of defeat than anyone I’ve faced since getting here, including Dan and Lindsay. And Jimmy? If you don’t think that cutthroat fuck isn’t built to thrive in an environment like this, you’re mental.
So I’m not stressing about our team either. I’m not worried about “togetherness.” We will be together for as long as we need to be to take these pricks out, bet on it.
I’m not worried about the eGG Bandits, the Bruvs, HATE, or the Group of Death when maybe I should be, putting myself through this torture twice in one evening.
It’s not because this won’t be the most challenging and deadly night of my career, which it will be.
It’s because I can’t afford to worry.
I have seen my fate. I know exactly how professional wrestling ends for me, and let me tell you. It’s ugly.
My throne is bleak, I inherit hell. The King will reign over decay.
… but not yet.
I don’t have the luxury of time. Now, every fight is a fight to the death. There isn’t a night I don’t walk out ready to lose a year of my life, man, let alone my career.
A lot of wrestlers will tell you that this is all they have, yet I am the only one who can say it with any degree of credibility. You know my story. You know this to be true. You know that not even god can slow me down, and you will be one step closer to meeting yours as soon as I hit the beach.
… are you guys really ready for this? Truly?
San Diego, CA | One Hour Later
The last man on the flight thanks to a confrontation that should have shaken him to his core (and the awkward conversation with security that followed), Andy sat down in first class for the first time in years, thanks, again, to the boss’ dollar.
Whether Lee Best liked or even respected Murray didn’t matter to him. GOD understood Andy’s mastery of the violent arts – and looked after his team members.
A hostess took Andy’s drink order then returned with a whisky that didn’t quite keep the mud at bay, but at least numbed him to it. They were in the clouds before he knew it. Time passed quickly as they touched the sky, with only the envelope he’d forgotten about breaking his War Games focus, sliding out of his pocket and onto the floor as he adjusted.
Should probably open that before we land, Andy thought to himself, retrieving the crumpled paper.
A thumb ran behind the adhesive seal. The test results were out of the envelope, now.
Eyes closed. Deep breath.
Unfold the paper, hurry past the fluff, get straight to the results.
The numbers meant nothing to him.
The phrase “… have found your levels to be within acceptable limits…” meant everything.
Andy was clear.
But he knew he’d be clear.
The King of Wrestling didn’t know why he let such things spark his anxiety. They always had, from his very first one at 16 years old, and he figured they would all the way to the end.
Andy Murray was an addict, this was true. The addiction had destroyed his life away from the ring to feed the one inside it. It had controlled him for decades, shattering his relationships with Jane, Cayle, Sid, Vivica, and now his own son.
Yet the addiction within Andy Murray wasn’t to pain pills.
No, this was worse.
He dozed off an hour into the flight, returning to the world that had dominated his slumber all month. Only this time it didn’t end in failure. He emerged from the cage, not a King, not a GOD, but something greater.
My last batch of pills disappeared down the toilet bowl four weeks ago. I watched the first of the crutches blighting my career swirl around that rancid, pissy whirlpool, the pipes guzzling them down. Thousands of dollars of the stuff. Gone.
The pain is excruciating now. That’s fine: I’m used to it, and it’s one of the only things that is real in this sport anyway.
There’s something about extreme, physical pain. It locks you in. It gives you clarity. When it flares up and your whole world starts burning – every single day of your goddamn life – when you feel like your existence is under threat and survival mode kicks in, you figure it out, man. You start to understand what really matters.
What you need to do to survive.
And what you need to do to win.
I have done it all.
Group of Death, agony will fit you like your own skin when that cage door shuts. I’m bringing the hell I went through to get here, the hell I go through to stay here, and the hell I have become.
My words are a death rattle. The old King is dead.
A new one reigns at War Games.
This time, a telephone conversation. Only three photographs remained in the pile.
MARVIN MURRAY: I saw him at the airport and it was like he just wasn’t there. I said all these things, I tried to get through and just… nothing. I’ve never seen him like this, Cayle. I’m worried. How could he let this happen to her and not even flinch!
CAYLE MURRAY: This is worse than I’d thought.
A photograph of the Murray brothers – Andy, Cayle, and Sid – disappeared into the night. Gone.
CAYLE MURRAY: He and I went through this months ago. This is obviously worse – this is Jane, your mother – but… it’s like he’s consumed. Like he’s locked into these behavioural patterns and can’t get out, as if the stresses and strains of the past few years, and now of HOW and 24K, have become him. And he’s hooked. He can’t quit. Everything else has been killed to feed this–
MARVIN MURRAY: Like an addiction?
CAYLE MURRAY: Exactly like an addiction.
Down to one photo, now, as another blows away. The goner was from over 20 years ago: Andy and Jane, a happy young couple, hold their young son in their arms, full of life.
CAYLE MURRAY: Look, you stay there. Get some rest if you can and I’ll be in San Diego by tomorrow afternoon. We’ll get through this. Andy is lost. He has gone too far. This life, Marvin, it’s the only thing he’s ever known and he loves it – but it doesn’t love him anymore, and he’s trying to stop himself from drowning. He’s scared. Fragile. We… we’ll figure out how to help him, I promise.
The last photo.
A press shot of Andy three years ago. Stood on the second turnbuckle in a packed out arena, with tens of thousands serenading him, he had his last World Championship held aloft. It was the last time he was truly happy.
Perhaps happiness would come again.
But at what cost?