The lights flicker on; momentarily I’m blinded.
The sudden shock of the light plus what a thick puddle of my blood pooling on the ugly linoleum below me has my head spinning. I retch, but there’s nothing behind it. Reaching for the wall beside me I come face to face with his message again.
“See you next week, Partner.”
Who in their right mind would scrawl that shit on a wall with a man’s own blood?
Like a shotgun blast to the back of the head it came back to me.
The fanatics, or whatever they were. Mumbling, chanting…
That piercing, mind-bending red light.
That is, Max Kael’s better half. Possibly the most dangerous version of the most dangerous man in the history of High Octane Wrestling. But why? So far as I can remember I’ve never had much actual interaction with Kael, just the occasional trading of insults on Twitter and there was the small matter of that War Games match that I failed so spectacularly in last year…
As for the Minister, well, this is all new ground for me.
However, the question remains; why?
My phone chirps, some of the cobwebs start to shake loose. My lips crack as I smile, I can taste the fresh blood again. It’s all coppery and thick and mixes with the bile in my stomach and I almost retch again, but I choke it back with a smile and a gutteral chuckle. It hits me like an iron headbutt to the back of the head.
It’s Lee Best, and he’s fucking with me.
More chuckling. Pensively I raise a hand to the back of my head as I fall back against the wall, uncomfortable sitting on the floor alone but not yet ready to stand. I can feel more of my gooey life-force leaking from the point of impact where that maniacal motherfucker The Minister knocked me all the way the fuck out. Fucking Christ, I’m in sad shape. There might have been a time when I was smart enough not to get caught by myself and beaten up by a bunch of henchmen and their comic book villain of a boss. Then again, there was also a time when I was that villain…
…the henchmen were mine to control.
Fuck, I’m not the Eric Dane that I once was.
The phone chirps again. I reach for it, slide it unlocked, and am completely unsurprised by either the sender or the message.
>Class dismissed, dickhead.
>When you wake up, call me, I’ve got a surprise for you.
Of course it’s Lee. Of course he has something snide to say, I’d be worried if he didn’t. In a small act of defiance I close the phone and stuff it back into the pocket that it came from. If I’m honest with myself I don’t think I can stand the sound of his voice right now, not until I get a half-a-bottle of Tylenol in me to calm down this fucking headache.
A thought presses in through the pain.
What if I’m going about this in the wrong way?
All this defiance, all this raging against the proverbial machine. And for what? All it’s earned me over the last half a decade is misery, grief, and a series of concussions that I’m low key glad I can’t afford to go to a doctor for. If anybody ever really understood how much mashed potatoes my brain is these days they’d never clear me to work again, and I’ve got to work.
This whole thing is obviously a lesson. He’s asserting dominance, putting me in my place. And who am I to rebel against that? I did the same thing for a decade when I ran my own company. Because of that I know every single reason for every single thing that he does as a boss and promoter, you’d think maybe I wouldn’t buck the system so much, right? You’d think wrong, though, as it turns out Eric Dane is a stupid, stubborn, selfish son of a bitch who can’t see the forest for the fucking trees.
Maybe that’s why contract negotiations have fallen through so many times between myself and Lee. I’m too stubborn to let the man in charge be the man in charge, and he’s too stubborn to give me one centimeter of one iota of the satisfaction of throwing anything in his face.
And so here I sit, beaten and bleeding, the recipient of a very obvious message sent from a man who holds not just my future, but the future of everything that matters to me anymore, right in the palm of his hand. A sigh escapes me and I drop my head between my knees. Coming here was a bad idea.
Coming back here, after everything, was not only the worst possible idea that I’ve had in a good long while, but it was the only goddamned option on the table. Here I am trying to fuck it up, and for what, pride? You’d think I’d have given that up right alongside my soul and my dignity at any point in the last twenty-five years, and again you’d be wrong.
With every bit of strength I can muster combined with the steadiness of the bloody wall beside me, I force myself up to my feet. For a moment the dizziness almost takes over, and for the third time in the last five minutes I want to puke up what had otherwise been a fairly pleasant meal. Yesterday. Steeling myself, I take one last look back at the bloodstains crusted to the wall where the Minister smashed my head against it. I let his message burn itself into my retinas, I have absolutely no intention of letting this slide.
I take a step, my knees give a twitch but I’m mostly in control.
At forty-eight, almost forty-nine years old one thing is becoming abundantly clear to me as I lumber my way down the hallway. My body can’t take these kinds of beatings anymore. Not that I took a lot of them when I was in my twenties or thirties, but the last few years have been hard on these old bones. Somewhere deep down I know that if I’m gonna make it through the end of this year, or hell even through this probation, something fundamental is gonna have to change.
Fuck knows what, but something.
I take the phone out again, unlock it, and reread Lee’s messages from throughout the night. That guy’s nothing if not a pain in the fucking ass to get in touch with, but he said to call so I’m calling. The only thing left to chance at this point is whether or not I can keep my mouth shut long enough to find out what he’s got to say.
Camera-phone footage, it’s all the rage these days.
Eric Dane, as much a slave to trends as the next man, sits opposite of an unnamed camera operator in an ornate iron deckchair, perched comfortably on the porch/balcony of the second floor walkup in the Warehouse District of New Orleans that he now calls home. Historically the Big Easy native had called the French Quarter home but years of being late on the rent and verbally abusive toward the landlord will put a strain on any relationship, and a serious downturn in earning potential will nip that kind of deal in the bud faster then Mike Best can sign another HOAX merchandising deal.
From behind the camera comes a feminine voice.
“Are you ready?” The voice, while familiar, is tinged with a mix of annoyance and frustration.
Squinting, Eric nods.
“Hang on a sec,” he says as he dons a pair of cheap sunglasses. “There. Better now. Goddamned sun is setting right behind you.”
“Sure,” she says. “Doesn’t hide that cut, though.”
She’s referring to the cross carved into the head of The Only Star, a potent reminder from The Minister that in the land of High Octane, defiance gets you nothing but trouble. Eric reaches for his vaporizer, an overpriced rig that mixes a potent blend of thc, cbd, nicotine, and that mud-flavor of coffee and chicory that he loves so much; he takes a deep pull.
He’d forgotten about that cross. Fuck knows how, it had managed to score him a bevy of dirty looks since he’d made it home to New Orleans on Monday. It wasn’t a deep cut, probably wouldn’t scar, but combine that with the serious bags under his eyes that he’d developed recently and The Only Star wasn’t exactly looking the part.
Exhaling a thick plume of steam, he growls an answer.
“Can we get this show on the fuckin’ road, please?”
An irritated chortle comes from behind the camera.
“Oh, yeah, about that. I’ve been recording this whole time.”
Eric stares hatedaggers. Even behind the thick black plastic of those gas station sunglasses the rage is apparent. He sucks at his teeth, fighting the internal fight to keep his thoughts to himself and let it the fuck go.
Mindfulness, it’s a thing he’s trying out.
“Count me down, wouldja?”
She does. “Three… two… One…”
The Adversary gives it a moment.
“Mikey Unlikely,” he snorts. “And Jesse whatever the F stands for Kendrix.”
His eyes narrow.
“The Hollywood Bruvs.”
If you could see his eyes behind those shades you could see how tired he is already. Three weeks into being back in High Octane Wrestling and the cracks were already beginning to show. Not that the stubborn former champion and leader of men would ever admit to that.
“I gotta tell ya, when you two got together a few years ago I never thought it’d last. The pair of you were the punchline to the kind of joke that made everyone laugh at you, and you guys were so young and dumb at the time that you either didn’t know or didn’t care that they weren’t laughing with you. You persevered, though, and despite yourselves you’ve turned that stupid guy schtick of yours into a winning combination. The two of you have won singles gold all over the place, and together you’ve won every tag team title you’ve ever set your eyes on…”
“Even those shiny HOW belts that I once won with Dan Ryan.”
“I’m proud of you, boys, in a few short years you’ve gone from mid-level laughing stocks to bonafide tag team royalty. You’re still a couple of schmucks that I can’t wait to smack around for ten minutes, but nobody can call you tomato cans anymore…”
“Unless we’re talking about Mikey’s movie career.”
A wink follows.
“Or Kendrix’s… whatever it is he’s supposed to be.”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is that I haven’t wrestled in months. And do you wanna know what the icing to that cake is? My last match might’ve been in January, but I haven’t wrestled anybody near the calibre of a Mikey or a Kendrix since I left HOW a little over a year ago.”
“Thirteen months, to be exact.”
“I fucked about in a string of shitbox indies for the first six months, but it was never the same. These days High Octane Wrestling is the only place worth being whether I like it or not. The drop off in talent from here to everywhere else is so drastic that it’s depressing. While we’re on the subject, let me go ahead and tell you a dirty little secret, something that up until just this week I wouldn’t even admit to myself.”
He pauses and takes another drag from the vape, carefully crafting the next sentence. In his mind he expects it to be thrown back in his face a thousand times, so he wants to at least word it the right way to get the point across before the peanut gallery turns it into the next HOW meme.
“I missed this place.”
“If I’m being honest I probably fired off two-dozen unanswered texts to Dan and Lindz, fishing for some kind of olive branch or something, like I hadn’t walked out on them a couple of days before a scheduled Tag Title defense last year.”
He gives a shrug.
“This place is an addiction, that much is for sure. You walk in and it’s like that first big fat fuckin’ rail, it’s all adrenaline and awesome and big dick energy at first, then the next thing you know the drip hits and you get lost in enormity of it all…”
“Just ask the Champ, he’ll be happy to tell you. At length.”
“But then you get away from it, and each new day brings a brand new itch for a fix. Even if you manage to get through the fuckin’ DT’s and make it in your new, ‘better’ life I can tell you from experience that every single goddamned day that addiction pops its ugly head up deep in your subconcious and reminds you of what you had, nevermind how fucking horrible it was for you…”
Pausing a moment, Eric contemplates.
“So I lost the fight, yanno? I called the dealer and I made a deal. I traded everything I had to give for just one more taste, and here we are boys. Lee opened up his big bag of dope and sprinkled me out a sparkly fuckin’ pile of the Hollywood Bruvs to chop up and snort.”
The Only Star grins, to drive it home he actually snorts.
“But enough about that, I don’t want to step on any toes, know what I mean? These tropes go round and round, in one side of the meat grinder and out the other all sausage-faced and ugly. So what I want to do instead is I want to talk about us and them. That is to say, the haphazard combination of myself and The Minister, and the World Tag Team Champions the Hollywood Bruvs.”
“The Minister and I can’t possibly cooperate.”
“That’s the theory, at least. After all, he and his pack of devotees sent a pretty clear message to me last week at Refueled, right? To go a step further, it was equally as clear who that message was from. It’s public domain that Lee Best is yankin’ my chain these days, right? He’s got me doin’ his dirty deeds and he’s got ol’ Minister kickin’ my shit in to learn me a lesson…”
“Let that shit sink in, bruvs.”
“But you two strapping young lads aren’t worried about the likes of us, right? You probably shouldn’t be. I was out of my prime before either of you guys were pissing standing up, am I right? I’m on the wrong side of forty-five years old fellas, been wrestling since before Mikey ever tried buying his first virgin daiquiri with Monopoly money. And Minister? He’s a zealot with an affinity for cruelty, he’ll rip your insides out and then tell you it’s your own fault for letting him.”
“He’s a goddamn maniac, and I sold my soul to this business decades ago, before either of you two hipster douchebags cut your first tooth or made it through your first full night in big boy pants. Together we’re the all hating, all abusing, soul-crushing underbelly of this business and we’ve both ended more careers through sheer violent force of will than either of you two have had matches.”
“Don’t worry about us, though. All you’ve got to do is show up with your fake money and your fake smiles and your fake reputations and all the frappes and craft beers that two bustling young professionals could ever dream of, yeah? Defying all logical expectations your post-fratboy fuckery has somehow against all logic elevated you two despite yourselves into a force of nature in the tag team division, and you’re in there against an abomination and an over the hill egomaniac with more complexes than Mikey has shitty acting credits on his imdb page.”
“Don’t make the mistake of confusing my levity for underestimating you two, though. I know exactly how efficient the Hollywood Bruvs are! I have no doubt that you two can beat any tag team in the world on any given day and twice on Sunday. You’re going to find, however, that the Minister and myself aren’t on any sort of the same page. We are decidedly not a tag team, and we ain’t gonna be working together to cut the ring off and work a body part or any of that classic wrestling bullshit.”
“This isn’t going to be classic tag team wrestling.”
“We ain’t gonna work like a team because we aren’t one.”
“What we are is a couple of killers.”
“We are men of swift, violent action.”
“And you boys already know this, don’t ya?”
“I’ve got it on the highest authority that the both of you pissed your pants when you took a look at the lineups and saw yourself against The Minister, and you’re right to. He’s likely the most out of his mind batshit crazy motherfucker that either of you two will have ever come up against. And then there was me, right there on the poster beside him. And who am I but a twenty-five year veteran that’s got more tricks up his sleeves than either of you two schmucks have in your cute little bodycounts with the ladies.”
His smirk widens.
“Then again, maybe you’ll look at me and hope that I’ll be the weak link. I’m coming off a year out of HOW and six months out of the ring, after all, I’m bound to have some rust, right? Go ahead, make that mistake and find out what happens. I’ll admit that you’ve both got me in the quickness and stamina categories. I don’t have a lot of hours left in me and there’s no use pretending otherwise. You might even have me in the strength category, I’ve never been a muscle guy and you two are in your prime.”
Pause, his lip curls into a knowing sneer.
Isn’t there always a but?
“While I may not have the same gas tank that I had in 1998, neither of you on your best day will ever come close to me in sheer grit inside and outside of that ring. You’ve know idea what lengths that I’ll go to just to make sure I don’t shit the bed in my first match back with the company, but you’re gonna find out! You’re gonna find out what happens when you get the unlucky draw of Eric Dane when he’s got nothing to lose and a point to prove! And hell, even if I can’t get the job done by myself I think you’ll find out that the Minister is more than capable of holding up his end.”
“So make your jokes, boys.”
“Dance around like jackasses.”
“Just don’t expect us to have mercy once we’ve got our boots to your necks.”