Bullet Truths

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Occasionally I will find a piece I wrote and squirreled away for some reason. This is a short-fiction piece I put together back in 2011. I figured I might share it just for the fun of it all.

Enjoy.

-J.


One of them was going to die.

I sat in the back of the smoke-filled room, my arms folded in front of me and my eyes locked on the two men standing across from each other, only a long polished oak dinner table separating them. I watched as they stood hurling obscenities and slander at each other like greedy politicians nearing election day. Spittle flew from their lips as they cursed and yelled and pointed their fingers all in a manner most heated. They both knew the gravity of the situation. They both understood exactly on what type of edge they were precariously perched. In the moment where a situation becomes a matter of life and death, a man’s instincts for survival take over and everything that society has imprinted on him; be it morals or values or a sense of honor, they all fly out the window like a canary let loose from his cage.

“You’re a lying sack of crap!” the man on the left yelled. “You don’t have the spine to admit when you screwed up and I won’t stand for it.”

He was breathing heavily. Exhausted under the weight of his own argument. I watched as his chest heaved and his left eye began to twitch. The man was mere seconds away from a violent physical altercation and yet I sat, calm and steady as a rock, knowing that my place was not to interfere.

“I know better than to lie,” his opponent replied. “I know things went to hell in a hand-basket today, but lying about what happened will only make things worse. If I did what you said I did, and I’m not saying I did, because I didn’t, but if I did, why would I shoot myself in the foot yet again by lying about it when everyone knows the truth will come out sooner or later? Why? It doesn’t make sense!”

My gaze drifted to the man seated at the head of the table. His hands folded in front of him and resting gently upon his lap. His eyes were hidden under the wide brim of his fedora. He showed no emotion. No indicator of his mood showed on his face. The man was a blank slate.

“Charlie,” the man said, his voice low, a hair-touch above a whisper. “I want you to tell me your story. Tell me what happened. In your own words.”

“Of course boss,” the man on the right replied, adjusting his collar.

“And Matthew,” the old man continued, “I want you to keep your trap shut while Charlie is talking. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir,” the man to my left replied, chilled to the bone by the boss’ icy words.

“Then begin,” he said, shifting ever so slightly in his chair.

I watched as Matthew took his seat, the fiery hatred in his eyes not daring to recede as Charlie cleared his throat and began his tale.

“It all started this morning when me and Matt went with Joey Q to pick up the weekly payment from Tommy Johnson, that old jerk who runs the antique shop. Every week the guy’s supposed to kick up ten percent of his take to Joey to pay off a debt for something I don’t quite remember.”

“Does it matter?” Matthew interjected.

“I’m trying to tell the damn story, alright?”

“You’ll get your turn, Matthew,” the old man said with a nod. “Continue.”

“Thanks Boss. Anyhow, Joey Q brings me and Matt along for backup because the old codger’s been busting his balls about the payments. Says that business is slow so ten percent is taking too much out of his bottom line or some other such line of crap. So he wants to bring us with him to show the old jerk that he’s got the muscle to take the money if he doesn’t want to hand it over willingly.

“So we get to the store and Joey says to the old man ‘Do you have my money this week?’ To which the guy says ‘I’ve paid my debt and then some, you’re not getting anything else’ and so Joey busts him one across the lip to show him who’s boss. Well the old guy reaches under the counter and Mr. Shortfuse sitting over there assumes he’s going for a gun and pulls a piece of his own. Before I know what the hell is going on he’s popping six shots off into the old shop keep.”

I kept my eyes on Matthew, trying to gauge his reaction to Charlie’s story but he doesn’t flinch. He knows he’ll get his chance to tell his side of the story. He doesn’t want to give up anything before he’s had his say. He’s smart and he’s collected. He knows his place.

“Turns out Johnson was going for his stash box to get Joey his cash, but Matthew got jumpy and plugged him. Of course, the gunshots bring the kid who works the back room running out and he’s got himself a shotgun. Matthew emptied his gun into the old guy, so he’s standing there like a squirrel on a railroad crossing while this kid racks off a shotgun blast into Joey Q’s face. Of course then I pull my piece and shoot the kid twice in the chest and we high-tail it out of there before the police get there.”

As Charlie took his seat I took a glance at the boss. He didn’t offer any reaction. He was always good at that. Keeping himself in check and letting nobody get close. He’d been a crime boss for close to forty years. He came to power back when gangsters were still gangsters. The kind who could walk up to a parked car in broad daylight and empty a clip into the guy inside and walk away without fear of police action. He was the kind of gangster that people wrote books about. The kind that stood covered in the shroud of American myth and nobody knew how to get to. His name was Vito Castiglio and he was the last of his kind.

I had seen Vito in many meetings just like this one. I had watched him sit there, unmoving and unyielding, as he boiled any situation down to its core and resolved the issue with the steely resolve that came with decades of finely tuned illegal business savvy. Today would be no different. While these two idiots yelled at each other, convinced that one’s story would influence the boss to their favor, neither of them understood like I did that the outcome had been decided before either of them had stepped into the room.

“Derrick,” he told me, “I’m a patient man. More patient than most men in my business. But people will always test my patience. The fact that even with my reputation people still try to pull the wool over my eyes forces me to treat every word that comes from the mouth of anybody as inherently false. There are three sides to every story, the way one guy sees it, the way the other sees it, and the truth. I make it a point that I find the truth. Every single time. Let someone get away with a lie once and they know they can do it again. The bold grow bolder when left unimpeded. You’ve got to show them that you are above them. So far above them that they’re almost beyond notice at all. That’s how you succeed in this business.”

That stuck with me. It’d been years since he gave me that speech and it still rattled in my brain like a song stuck on repeat. The way I saw it, someone like Vito Castiglio could make his own truth by sheer force, but he wouldn’t let himself work that way. I guess he could have just as easily been the greatest police detective the world had ever seen if the money was right. Vito Castiglio took enormous pride in cutting through the mystery and solving the puzzle. It was just another way to feed his ego.

It was hard to watch as Matthew told his version of the day’s events. “Look, we showed up to the store like Charlie said. Except Charlie decides he wants to play ‘Mr. Tough Guy’ and grabs the kid working there and says he’ll kill him if the old guy behind the register doesn’t pony up the dough. Turns out that old man Johnson isn’t as useless as he thought and he pulls out a shotgun from under the register and aims it square at Joe’s head. Charlie freaks and plugs away at the shopkeep, who as he’s falling down pulls the trigger, scattering Joe’s brain across the ceiling tiles. The kid rushes at me like a damn banshee and bites my damn arm so I pop him once in the head with my piece. I even got the bite marks to prove it.”

Matthew rolled up his sleeve to reveal a bandage wrapped around his upper forearm. Showing it off to Vito and proving nothing in the process. The bandage covered whatever the wound really was and for all I knew it could have been a cheap trick covering nothing at all. I wouldn’t put it past the guy. I hadn’t known

Matthew long but he was a con artist to rule all con artists and my gut reaction said that bandage was a fake out.

“Are you both finished?” Vito asked looking up from the table, his pale blue eyes glinting in the dull glow of the lamp hanging overhead. “Because my time is valuable and I have places to be.”

“I’ve said everything I have to say,” Matthew half-mumbled.

“Same goes for me,” Charlie echoed.

“Good,” the old man said.

Neither of them had time to react as the old man fired two bullets into both of them, his hand gripping a smoking gun underneath the table. The two men slumped over in their chairs and fell to the floor, groaning as the blood seeped from the holes in their gut.

“I know everything. You should have just left town, you might have lived longer,” Vito said, stepping around the table and aiming his gun at Charlie’s head. “You both had a beef with Joey and you wanted him dead. So you killed him and tried to use the shop keeper as a patsy.”

Another shot rang out as Vito put a bullet in Charlie’s head.

“You thought he would be alone, but the boy showed up and you had to take care of him. You not only cost me the money old man Johnson was kicking up every week but you betrayed one of your own to do it. And worse than that, you thought you could lie to me about it.”

Another shot and another bullet. This time into Matthew’s head.

“When you lie you dig your own grave.”

The old man handed me his gun and I wiped it clean with my handkerchief as he walked out the door letting it slam closed behind him. I shoved the gun into my waistband and walked over to where Charlie lay bleeding out onto the floor. I shook my head in frustration. I told them to be discreet. I told them never to panic. If I had known how this would have turned out I never would have asked them to kill Joey Q. I would have done it myself. The old man trusted me. In all the years I’d known him I’d been the only one to keep him fooled. All that talk and all that rhetoric meant nothing when it came to family.

My name is Derrick Castiglio and I am my father’s son.

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Creation and Ownership – The Value of DIY Publication

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It has been said that nobody reads anymore. Of course, each successive generation since the time of Plato and Aristotle has been branded lazy and unintelligent by the one that preceded it. But if you look at the reality of the situation, perhaps things are not as dire as they seem. According to a study reported by The Atlantic, “[s]ome 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year compared with 79 percent of those older than 30” and “high school and college-aged people reported reading more than survey respondents in their late twenties.” This is encouraging, isn’t it? The idea that literacy is not dying and that in truth casual readership is on the rise? It certainly seems so.

One of the biggest questions I get asked when I’m promoting a book or talking about my experiences as a writer in general is why I self-publish. Have I tried to submit to a major publisher? If it isn’t good enough for a major publisher, why would anyone want to read it? All manner of questions that, while frustrating, are valid.

As an author, I have submitted far more pieces for publication than have seen the light of day. The world of publishing is, honestly, a relentless thunderstorm of noise and confusion. Something that I feel has value may not fit the vision of a particular publisher. A publication house has to think about their audience and their finances and the truth is even if reading as a common pass-time did drop to an all-time low,  there would be no shortage of hungry, eager writers looking to see their work published.

As of late, I have adopted a DIY attitude toward publication because as the cultural landscape changes and we see an increase in younger people reading, the importance of big publishers does seem diminished. Big publishers care about their bottom line. That means telling and selling stories that will find the broadest audience so that no money is lost. But, and I know I’m getting older and I can’t claim to be part of the “younger generation” much anymore, young readers want to read stories that are unconventional. Stories that big publishers might not want to take a risk on.

That’s why I wrote Madeline McCallister. That’s why I wrote a series about a bi-sexual female protagonist whose main ally is a black British agent who rejected his affluent upbringing to forge his own identity. That may not seem bold or groundbreaking, but it is a turnoff for some publishers. And the fact that it is even part of the conversation is why I put the work out into the world on my own, unfiltered by any mandate other than my own.

In the past, writers had to trade their vision and their control of their work in exchange for an audience. That was the power publication houses dealt in. Now, that isn’t precisely the case any longer.

For example, I have a few friends who work in the comic book industry. That world is so much bigger than Marvel and DC in terms of where stories are being told and what type of books are being produced. I look at what people like Isaiah Broussard and Jessi Jordan are doing and wonder why that same determined, boots-on-the-ground approach cannot work in the realm of literature the way that it does in comics. I understand that they are two different monsters, but in the age of social media and digital content, perhaps the differences aren’t as vast as they may once have seemed. Unfettered creative control that leads to genuine, interesting media in turn will find an audience. At least in theory.

So, in the interest of being clear, I want to assure people that I stand by the quality of my work. In fact, I would say that the DIY approach that births the projects published under my own banner allows me to take full responsibility for what I produce. That allows me to engage with my readers in a way some other writers are simply not able to. Maybe it is my affinity for the old punk rock mindset, but I take pride in my process. Does that mean I do not have designs on seeing my work distributed by a major publisher? No. I’m not against major publishers. I just want to combat the preconceived notion that self-publication should be dismissed as amateur hour.

As I gear up to begin promotional work on Too Close To Kill, part of that mission is also to educate people on the wonderful work being produced by other skilled writers like myself who are consistently producing excellent work that finds itself overlooked in the marketplace. Small and independent press are where some of the strongest and freshest literature in the modern world is being produced.

At this point, I simply want to raise enough money to convince Jeff Goldblum to record himself saying “literature finds a way.”

That would make it all worth it, don’t you think?

The Author’s Edict – 5/1/2017

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Greetings to everyone who regularly or irregularly reads this blog. As we launch into the month of May, an exciting time for me, I wanted to take the time to discuss the projects I’m working on and provide a short update on what to expect in the coming weeks.

With regard to Counted Out, the ongoing saga of Michael Hill and Marshall Ellis’ redemption in the world of professional wrestling has been a welcome change of pace. Writing it weekly has been a challenge and the format has given me avenues to write in a way that is noticeably different from my typical process.

The story will be taking a hiatus this month as I finish work on a project that I am infinitely proud of, the sequel to 2015’s One Fate for Failure.

That novel, Too Close to Kill is in the final stages of development. That means proofing, editing, revising, formatting, and designing the final print editions. I want my focus to be entirely on ensuring the success of that project, which means my other work will have to take a slight downshift in pacing. I will still be working on Counted Out, I simply will not be publishing the chapters until June rolls around. This will allow for more careful deliberation in the development of the story, hopefully resulting in a more enjoyable end product.

Expect notes and updates about Too Close to Kill to populate the blog until its eventual release this summer. You can grab a copy of One Fate For Failure now to prepare for the follow-up. The next book is bigger, bolder, and better in every regard. I can’t wait to share it.

Counted Out – Chapter Six

This is a new experiment for me. I want to write a weekly serialized fiction project. Every Friday I plan on posting a chapter of the story. I do not know how long the story will run. As I said, this is an experiment. I hope some people find it interesting.

Here is a brief synopsis of the tale about to unfold.

“Michael Hill is a showman without a show. Once the promoter of one of the most popular live television programs on the air, he is now trying to reclaim his former glory in the aftermath of a terrible on-air tragedy. Marshall Ellis was his biggest star, and the one probably most affected by the downfall of Hill’s empire. Together the two have a plan to rebuild. They want to start something new. They want to change the business forever. They are not yet Counted Out.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

10


Chapter VI

Michael Hill found himself looking at the assemblage of talent gathered in the conference room and had to push down the urge to vomit. The looks he was getting from Trent Travers and Jack Van Jones were enough to drive a murderer to confess. He had not known if Travers would have accepted his call. Of all the former guys who had worked for him, Travers had probably done the best for himself. The podcast he ran got major attention even outside of the usual professional wrestling circles. Michael Hill hoped that whatever new crossover audience his former midcard staple had been able to generate would transfer over to his new venture. He did not tell this to Trenton Travers because Travers had plenty of reasons to hate him already and he did not need to add fuel to a fire that he was hoping would eventually burn out.

Marshall sat by himself in the corner of the room, back to the wall like an old-west lawman hoping to avoid being ambushed. The others gave him a friendly nod as they entered the room but nobody approached him. They didn’t know how to talk to him. Should they act like nothing had changed? Should they tiptoe around the glass shards of the past, careful not to touch an exposed nerve? They obviously felt it was better to not speak to him at all.

The only person who had even said hello was Nicki and that had been brief and professional. She mirrored him, taking a seat at the back of the room in the opposite corner. Two loners isolating themselves and trying not to make waves.

“Alright,” Michael said standing at the front of the room and adjusting his tie. “Before our contact from the network arrives I would like to thank everyone for coming to this meeting. I know that some of you have ample reason to balk at ever being in the same room with me ever again. That’s fair. I acknowledge that. I want you all to know that I get it. In a lot of ways I failed the people in this room. My downfall was a result of my arrogance. And if it only affected me, it would have been fair. But everyone here ended up as collateral damage.

“Everybody in this room was in the building that last night. Everybody here saw what happened. You all noticed that Marshall is here too. If there is anybody on the planet who deserves to hate me to my core, it is Marshall Ellis. I am going to be completely honest here; if Marshall had not agreed to come, I probably would have called this whole thing off. What we are going to try to build is special. Unlike anything that has ever been done with our brand of entertainment. It doesn’t work without him. And because he is going to be such a cornerstone of this new endeavor I want to take the time to, first, thank him for being here, and, second, encourage the rest of you to remember that regardless of what may have happened between all of us, we share a story. Now comes the part where we write some new chapters together.”

Trenton Travers stood up and raised a hand in front of himself, like a cop directing traffic. “That’s great Mike,” he said. “I love the sentiment and I am actually happy to see so much of the old crew together. I think most of us here have at least tried to remain close. What I am worried about at this moment is opening a can of worms. Lord knows that Marshall and I haven’t always been the best of friends but I sure as hell respect him. And the last thing I want to see is him crucified by the media anymore than he already has been. I appreciate your dedication to your people, Mike, I really do. But you’ve gotta ask if you’re helping or hurting.”

“I appreciate your concern Trent,” Michael said. “But I have a handle on this.”

“You said the same thing two years ago,” Trent replied.

“Do you really want to go there?” Michael asked.

“It’s pertinent,” Trent said. “You wrote checks with your mouth that you didn’t have the capital to cash. Most of the people in this room walked away just fine. But your boy back there? He was the one who took the hits. Judging from the look of him, I don’t know if he can take those hits again.”

“He won’t have to,” Michael protested.

“He’s a damned lightning rod, Mike.”

“I don’t need to be coddled, Trent,” Marshall said leaping from his seat so fast it toppled the chair. “I appreciate your concern but let’s get one thing straight here; I’m here because I want to be. If I could have faded away and let the IWPA survive without me, I would have done it. But things didn’t work out that way. And after what happened, it never would have been the same anyway.”

“No disrespect Marshall but I think you’re just so eager to reclaim your glory days that you aren’t thinking about how dirty this could get.”

“This isn’t about glory, Trent,” Marshall said. “Not for me at least. Why are you here, though?”

“Gentlemen!” Michael shouted, attempting to wrest control back from the two titans dominating the room. “I know emotions are running high. But nobody is here against their will. And whatever reasons anyone has for coming are their own. What matters is that we are here. And if anyone wants out, nobody has signed anything yet and you can walk away right now. If you have reservations or concerns we can address them, but the only person who can make the decision as to whether you will stay in this room is yourself.”

“That is technically true,” a voice said from the doorway. The room collectively turned to see Ms. Green standing with an attache case in one hand and a latte in the other. “However the decisions as to whether you remain a part of this project are also made by me. For those of you who I have not had the pleasure of meeting, My name is Alexandra Green and I represent the network side of this project. I have supreme confidence in Mr. Hill to establish a compelling and engaging product. What I do not have confidence in is the ability of the personalities in this room to coexist peacefully.”

“Ms. Green is the one who ultimately gave this whole project the green light, no pun intended, and I trust her instincts. While you may be able to manipulate me because I give a damn about each and every one of you personally,” Michael explained. “She will be less inclined to be suckered in by your bullshit.”

“The people in this room are people who Michael or I believe need to be the foundation of our creative project moving forward,” Green said. “Marshall is the lynchpin, obviously. He’s the hook. Everyone in this room has a different part to play. Marshall can’t anchor the show himself. He needs a foil. He needs an antagonist, someone to fight over the sole spot at the apex of the mountain.”

“That’s going to be you Ace,” Michael said.

Suddenly the room buzzed with an air of electricity as Trenton Travers once again locked eyes with Marshall Ellis. Had things escalated moments earlier they may have started trading legitimate fists, and here they were being told that they would be working a main event program together. The energy in the room had unexpectedly changed in dramatic fashion.

“I hate to be that guy,” Trent said. “But we need to talk money. If I’m going to be carrying the top of your card it means I give it one hundred percent. That means I have to cut back on my personal projects. You’re going to have to be able to cover the revenue loss and then some.”

“We have money,” Michael said.

“You will be well compensated,” Ms. Green continued. “The network understands the value of your names. That is why you are all in this room right now.”

“You’re going to anchor an entire show around three people?” Jack chimed in.

“I’m here too, by the way,” Nicki interjected.

“Right,” Jack said. “But we’re not working a program together. The ladies’ roster is a whole different thing. You know you were the only one worth a damn back in the day, don’t get it twisted. What I mean is you’re gonna elevate whoever you work with. People will buy it. Me? If we’re talking the value of a name, mine doesn’t have much to the people who watched IWPA outside of tag stuff. So if I’m one of these ‘cornerstones’ you are so big on, I don’t think you’ve thought this through.”

“There’s supposed to be one more person here,” Michael said. “I’m a little disappointed that he isn’t. But Jack I have to say that two years is a long time in our business. So much changes in twenty-four months. You’ve got indy cred now that you didn’t the last time you were on TV. I read what people say on the internet. I shouldn’t, but I do. And people want you to get your shot. That’s why we’re going to push you. We have to start thinking of what we do in terms of ‘seasons.’ That’s how we’re going to structure this whole thing. Year one, we do a slow build. Establish you as a contender. Make the fans want to see you succeed. We break their hearts when you get close but can’t seal the deal. We make that moment when you take your spot at the top mean something.”

“What if the people don’t buy into it,” Jack asked. “You can’t force things on these people. They will turn their backs on me outright if they don’t feel it.”

“We will make them feel it,” Ms. Green said. “You have the talent. You are going to carry the mid-card of this show until the time is right.”

“So who didn’t show up?” Trent asked. “And can you really trust them if they can’t make it to this meeting?”

“Sorry I’m late,” another voice called from the doorway.

“Thank you for coming Pete,” Michael said.

Pete “Painkiller” Patton tossed his gym bag at the front of the room and glided past Michael and Ms. Green to sit next to Jack Van Jones. Painkiller Pete had a reputation as one of the stiffest workers in the business. He was the elder statesman of the old IWPA locker room. A good handful of the wrestlers who had worked with him despised him. It was accepted common knowledge that Pete Patton was only ever looking out for Pete Patton and wouldn’t do anything in the ring that didn’t make him look good. If you were going over on Painkiller Pete, he wasn’t going to make it a fun experience. He also had been around the block long enough to garner the sort of clout that makes people overlook the fact that you’re an asshole. Doing business with Pete Patton was just something people had to do.

“It’s good to be back Mike,” Painkiller said. “Doing half-assed indy shit just doesn’t appeal to me. Big leagues or nothing, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “I don’t imagine you do a lot of repeat business with indy feds.”

“You know you’re right,” Pete replied. “I’m a once in a lifetime opportunity for most of those guys.”

“You are unique,” Travers said. “Nobody ever disputed that.”

“Alright guys,” Michael said. “Listen up. If you’re in this room it is because you are going to be carrying your respective divisions. While Marshall and Ace tear up the main event fighting over our brand new world heavyweight title, Jack and Pete will be carrying the mid-card and duking it out over the Television championship. It’s a new belt that we’re going to use to replace our old mid-card title. We’re going to tie it to the fact that we’re on a paid network and so it can only ever be defended on broadcast. You wanna see the TV champ, you gotta pony up the dough to watch the network.

“Nicki will be the rock we build our women’s division around. I’m putting out feelers right now for interested workers. If you know someone that I don’t, give me their number and I’ll run a try-out. When we go to production we are going to run a four week tournament for the world championship. When someone gets knocked out of contention they fill a loser’s bracket for the TV title. These stories are going to build off of each other. Nobody is going to want to miss a damn episode.”

Trent raised his hand like a schoolboy.

“Ace?”

“How long until we go to production?”

“Two months,” Ms. Green answered, cutting Michael off before he could reply.

Marshall and Michael locked eyes from across the room. Marshall offered a raised eyebrow which was repaid with a cursory nod.

“The locations for the first shows have already been booked,” Michael said. “When we get rolling we’re going to be playing very small venues. This is a risky venture and we want to save our production budget. We’re going to focus on the stories, not selling out arenas. The two months is so we can expand the roster, pick up some fresh blood and get you sad sons of bitches back into fighting shape.”

Painkiller Pete stood and clapped Michael on the shoulder.

“Some of us kept working, Mike,” he said. “You weren’t everybody’s only option.”

Pete walked out the door and it was as if the room itself exhaled. Marshall stood up and walked toward the front, eyes following him from the back of the room. He understood that whatever happened next would be a big risk for everyone but himself. He had the least to lose. The other wrestlers in the room had managed to salvage their reputations. Just being seen with him might be enough to ruin that. He appreciated that this many of the old guard didn’t simply hang up when Michael called.

“I want to thank you guys for not thinking this is crazy,” he said.

“It is crazy,” Trent said.

“Okay,” Marshall shrugged. “It’s crazy. But it is a good kind of crazy. Maybe we’ll do something people will never forget. Maybe we make history. Maybe we flame out and get mocked until the day we die. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like that the longest entry on my Wikipedia page is the ‘controversy’ section.

“We can’t change the past. God knows all of us wish we could. But I want to make things perfectly clear; if I was put in the same situation all over again, I don’t think I could do anything differently. I did what I did because someone had to. I would like to think if that nutjob pulled a gun on me instead of on James, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But I hesitated and he pulled the trigger and James is gone.”

Ms. Green turned her head to look out the window, as if looking away might shield her from having to hear Marshall speak about something that he had not spoken about publicly since the night in question.

“I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Marshall continued. “So I did what I had to. And you don’t get over something like that. I play a tough guy on TV but I’m not a cop. I was never in the army. I was never trained to mentally cope with the responsibility of using deadly force. I just did what I had to in order to protect myself and everyone within the range of that lunatic’s gun.

“And because of what happened our world fell apart. The media wanted to blame Mike for that asshole’s decision to come into the arena with a loaded .45. They wanted to blame me for not taking a bullet. They wanted to blame the production for not cutting the feed. They needed someone to blame. I get that. I really do.”

Heads nodded in agreement. Michael put a hand on Marshall’s shoulder.

“Let’s give them something to really talk about.”

Counted Out – Chapter Five

This is a new experiment for me. I want to write a weekly serialized fiction project. Every Friday I plan on posting a chapter of the story. I do not know how long the story will run. As I said, this is an experiment. I hope some people find it interesting.

Here is a brief synopsis of the tale about to unfold.

“Michael Hill is a showman without a show. Once the promoter of one of the most popular live television programs on the air, he is now trying to reclaim his former glory in the aftermath of a terrible on-air tragedy. Marshall Ellis was his biggest star, and the one probably most affected by the downfall of Hill’s empire. Together the two have a plan to rebuild. They want to start something new. They want to change the business forever. They are not yet Counted Out.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

10


Chapter V

Nicki O’Neil smiled pleasantly as she posed for photos with the fans who had stood in line for what must have been hours just for the opportunity to meet her. She had always been grateful for her fans, even the ones who sometimes bordered on the creepy, simply because she knew that without them she would probably be stuck in some menial job with little to no prospect for advancement and slowly dying in a loveless relationship with some loser she found on an online dating website. You could say that Nicki was the most optimistic cynic you could ever hope to meet.

Her appearance at the Orlando CultureCon had been a last minute deal, struck in the hopes of recouping the loss of a booking at a local promotion that fell through. The payout was similar but Nicki hated to be advertised for a match that never happened. It was that sort of thing that was likely to lose her some fans and make it harder for her to get booked the next time around. She still had close to eight hundred thousand followers on social media, and she logged thousands of interactions and digital engagements per day. That meant that Nicki could still command a price but independent bookers were notoriously tight with their wallets so those able to pay the price were few and far between.

She had considered taking a contract in Japan like so many in her situation usually do but decided against it simply because she did not want to upend her entire life to make the journey to the land of the rising sun. She had enough saved from her time working in the IWPA that she wasn’t going to starve any time soon. She had been smart enough to realize that the IWPA was never going to last forever. Some of the other names on that roster would have done well to remember that.

Nicki’s reputation as one of the smarter women in the business was well established. Every write-up about her career seemed to touch on it in some regard. She had a master’s degree in Library Science and had been a national debate champion in high school; the logline for so many thinkpieces regarding her place in the industry utilized some variation on the phrase “her brain is the strongest muscle she has” or some other such tripe. Nicki hated it. She hated the very concept that you could not be viewed as simultaneously intelligent and physically strong, and that somehow it was all the more impressive because she was a woman.

She also hated when her success in the business was somehow attributed only to her looks. Calling Nicki O’Neil beautiful would be akin to calling the moon a slightly large rock. Her father was a Scottish immigrant from Glasgow who settled in the warm sunlight of San Fransisco, California and managed to live comfortably there despite his fair complexion. Her mother was a second generation Chinese immigrant whose charm and grace had knocked her father for a loop and ultimately resulted in a daughter who grew up to be considered one of the most beautiful women ever to step into the ring. Nobody else in the business looked like her, and while that was great for selling herself as a commodity, she never wanted to be reduced to being photogenic. There were very few people in the world of professional wrestling as proud of their physical accomplishments as Nicki O’Neil.

“You were always my favorite,” a young girl wearing a shirt with Nicki’s face said, holding a copy of a poster from an old IWPA magazine. “Nobody else came close.”

“That’s so sweet,” Nicki gushed.

“Do you ever miss it?” the girl asked. “Being on TV every week?”

“Sometimes,” Nicki admitted. “But I also like having the free time to do things like this. I have gotten to meet so many of my fans since I left.”

“It was so nice to meet you,” the girl said. “I’m never going to forget this.”

Nicki smiled. She wasn’t lying. She really did love doing things like this. Something she never truly was able to do while on tour with IWPA.

“If I ask to talk do you promise not to murder me?” a voice asked.

Nicki looked up to see Marshall Ellis standing in front of her in the autograph line, wearing a faded old “Darling Nicki” shirt and holding an 8×10 photograph. He had a sheepish grin on his face and to Nicki it appeared as if he had aged a decade since she had last seen him.

“Marshall?”

“Yeah,” he said. “But keep that to yourself, most of these people don’t recognize me.”

“I barely recognized you,” Nicki said.

“That bad, huh?”

“No,” Nicki said, trying her best not to appear flustered. “It’s just been so long. And there is something different about you.”

“It’s probably just months of living with guilt and anxiety eating away at me from the inside,” Marshall said in a way that the tone undermined the severity of the words. “Also I got a new haircut.”

“I don’t like it,” Nicki said. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“Nothing ever did,” Marshall replied.

 

An hour later Nicki and Marshall were sitting at a booth at the back of a pub near the convention center. Everything was a shade of brown or green and the air smelled like a pitcher of the darkest draught you could imagine. Marshall nursed a pint of Guiness while Nicki ordered herself a glass of iced water. There had been a time when neither of them would be open to drinking alcohol, but Marshall’s resolve had been tested and found wanting in the aftermath of the IWPA’s demise.

“I can see why this would be tempting for you,” Nicki said. “But I don’t think it is a good idea.”

“You are probably right,” Marshall said. “But Mike can’t do this without me.”

“You don’t owe him anything,” Nicki said, barely able to contain her disdain for Michael Hill’s name as she spoke. “And let’s be honest, if he wants the thing to work he’ll get the thing to work, with or without you.”

“I know that is true,” Marshall sighed. “But I don’t work without Mike.”

“That’s bullshit,” Nicki said.

“It is bullshit,” Marshall nodded. “It’s bullshit that my options for working boil down to Michael Hill or not working at all. So when it comes right down to it, I’ll choose Mike. I would choose Mike every goddamn time.”

“I’m sorry,” Nicki said. “I do have options. And going back to work for Michael Hill isn’t the best one for me. Not right now at least. I’m happy where I am.”

“I think this would be good for you,” Marshall said. “I think this could give you the cache to go anywhere you want for the rest of time. This lady, the one from the network, she asked for you by name. The network knows how valuable a commodity you are. I think you could ask for any number you wanted and you would get it.”

“What are you getting?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Marshall said.

“How much are you getting, Marshall?” Nicki pressed.

“Enough,” Marshall said. “Enough to pay off my backlog of medical expenses and move out of the apartment I’m co-renting with a hoard of large rats. Enough to make sure that when I die they don’t leave me in an unmarked ditch.”

Marshall sat back and let the air settle. He took a large swill from his beer and gazed across the table at Nicki. He hated that he had to be the one to ask her. He knew he had to be because Michael would have turned the whole ordeal into an argument before there was ever hope of a discussion but he did not want the responsibility of urging Nicki back into Michael Hill’s circus. He knew how Nicki felt. He knew the terms on which they had parted ways. While she and Marshall had always been very close, he did not like the idea of taking advantage of their relationship in order to push her into something she did not want to do.

“If you decide not to come in on this, I will understand. I really will. Everyone has their reasons for wanting you back. The network wants you because you’re the damn best female wrestler in the world and they know the publicity for snagging you will be worth whatever price tag they have to pay. Michael wants you back because he hopes that he can fix something that he damn well knows that he broke. He knows it probably will never be square between the two of you, but damned if he won’t at least try to make up for what happened.”

“Why do you want me to come?” Nicki asked.

“What?”

“What are your reasons?” Nicki clarified. “You said everyone has their reasons so what are yours? What dog do you have in this fight?”

Marshall hesitated. He took another drink and carefully considered his words.

“Because I miss you,” he said. “And because this is going to be hard. And most of the people walking around that locker room are going to look at me out of the corner of their eyes. I need a friendly face, Nicki. And yours is the friendliest I have ever known.”

Nicki took a sip of water. She had never seen Marshall Ellis the way he looked now; desperate, filled with a hope he did not fully believe in. She set down her drink and leaned back in the booth.

“Make the call.”

Counted Out – Chapter Four

This is a new experiment for me. I want to write a weekly serialized fiction project. Every Friday I plan on posting a chapter of the story. I do not know how long the story will run. As I said, this is an experiment. I hope some people find it interesting.

Here is a brief synopsis of the tale about to unfold.

“Michael Hill is a showman without a show. Once the promoter of one of the most popular live television programs on the air, he is now trying to reclaim his former glory in the aftermath of a terrible on-air tragedy. Marshall Ellis was his biggest star, and the one probably most affected by the downfall of Hill’s empire. Together the two have a plan to rebuild. They want to start something new. They want to change the business forever. They are not yet Counted Out.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

10

Chapter IV

“You looked larger on TV,” Ms Green said as she shook Marshall Ellis’ hand, maintaining the sort of unbroken eye contact that causes killers to confess to heinous crimes.

“Yeah,” Marshall said. “I haven’t exactly kept up with my regimen.”

“We’ll have to change that,” Ms. Green said. “The audience expects to see ‘Marshall the Mechanic’ in all his glory. Such as it may be.”

Michael Hill sat sipping from a mug of herbal tea on a black leather couch near the open window of Ms. Green’s office in Boston. The decor was modern and industrial and cold, the ambiance matching the aura of Green herself. She was young but had presence, an aura not dissimilar to a jungle predator or a bird of prey. Her hair was darker than obsidian and her eyes were a vibrant shade of her namesake. Michael Hill admired the steel of her resolve. Marshall found himself slightly unnerved by it.

“Marshall will be back to his prime by the time we host our first televised event,” Michael said. “His body is a machine and ‘the mechanic’ knows how to fine tune a machine.”

Marshall stifled a chuckle. Mike was always in promoter mode. He didn’t fault him for it because that was what made him so successful. If Michael Hill weren’t a consummate showman, Marshall ‘The Mechanic’ Ellis would never have been a household name. It was also that showmanship and charisma that kept Ellis out of prison when everything went to hell. Marshall knew that. He wasn’t sure if Ms. Green did.

“Some of our investors are concerned,” Ms. Green said. “That your recruitment for this new endeavor seems to skew in a particular direction.”

“What direction might that be?” Michael asked.

“Male,” Ms. Green said. “Analysis shows that the popularity of females in combat sports is at an all time high and yet there is nothing in your treatment that mentions a female contingent to your roster.”

“My focus is on telling a very particular story,” Michael said. “And so my focus has been on touching base with my guys from IWPA.”

“Are you looking for longevity here, Mr. Hill?”

“Of course,” Michael replied.

“Then let me paint a picture for you,” Ms. Green said. “Imagine the headlines the day after your first show reading ‘Michael Hill Tries To Regain Former Glory With Same Old Bag Of Tricks Semi-Colon Fails Spectacularly And Embarrasses Own Self Yet Again’ because you think that controversy will be enough to keep you on the air.”

Michael set his tea down and tented his fingers, his eyes displaying the tenacity of a cornered animal. “What I am building here,” he said. “Cannot be subject to the whim of fads, trends, focus-group second-guessing or the personal agendas of suits sitting back and collecting checks.”

“And what about the whims of a man too stubborn to let the past stay buried or too afraid to try something new?”

Hill and Green stared at each other in silence, the tension between them lingering in the air like the dying echoes of a sustained power chord. Marshall watched them the way an anthropologist might watch an unfamiliar tribe; with caution and just a modicum of suppressed excitement.

“This show will be unlike anything that has come before,” Michael said. “I know we’re talking about a damned professional wrestling program, but there are always expectations. Some people try to shake things up by using a hexagonal ring. Some people go for celebrity cameos. We are here to tell a story. The story of men, and women mind you, affected by the death of IWPA. Ultimately, this is a show about grief. About reconciling the process of mourning with personal growth. And I will not compromise that by using my time to fill a quota because the network doesn’t think I have enough female athletes.”

Ms. Green took a seat behind her desk and pulled a folder from the drawer to her left.

“Nicki O’Neil,” she said. “Why isn’t she part of your plan.”

Marshall and Michael exchanged hesitant looks.

“Nicki is a complicated matter,” Michael said.

“No she’s not,” Marshall said. “She’s just a headache.”

“A complicated headache,” Michael said.

“She was one of your top stars,” Ms. Green interjected. “Why are you so hesitant to bring her on board?”

“Because he wanted to fuck her and she shot him down,” Marshall said.

“That’s enough Marshall,” Michael snapped back.

“Would she be uncomfortable coming back?” Ms. Green asked.

“No,” Marshall said. “Because Nicki is a professional.”

“I’m a professional,” Michael protested.

“Yes,” Marshall said. “But you’re also emotionally vulnerable, no matter what sort of ‘all-business’ personal you want to adopt. Nicki isn’t like that.”

“Yeah, she’s a heartless bitch.”

“You see what I mean?”

Ms. Green threw her hands up. “Gentlemen,” she said. “I think it would be worth exploring the possibility of contacting her. I can’t help but feel that there is a hole in your narrative without her.”

“Yeah Mike,” Marshall said. “We need to fill Nicki’s hole.”

Ms. Green actually smiled. Michael didn’t see it.

Counted Out – Chapter Three

This is a new experiment for me. I want to write a weekly serialized fiction project. Every Friday I plan on posting a chapter of the story. I do not know how long the story will run. As I said, this is an experiment. I hope some people find it interesting.

Here is a brief synopsis of the tale about to unfold.

“Michael Hill is a showman without a show. Once the promoter of one of the most popular live television programs on the air, he is now trying to reclaim his former glory in the aftermath of a terrible on-air tragedy. Marshall Ellis was his biggest star, and the one probably most affected by the downfall of Hill’s empire. Together the two have a plan to rebuild. They want to start something new. They want to change the business forever. They are not yet Counted Out.

Click Here for Chapter One

Click Here For Chapter Two

10

Chapter Three

“Welcome back to ‘Ace in the Hole,’ the pro wrestling podcast that takes you deep inside the world of wrestling in ways you never thought possible. I am your host Trenton ‘Ace’ Travers and I am here speaking with someone who I have known practically my entire career, you probably remember him from our time as tag-team champions in the IWPA, may it rest in peace. He is the one, the only, Jack Van Jones. It’s good to see you again Jack.”
Jack Van Jones smiled. There was something inherently funny about “Ace” Travers recording a podcast out of his home office in Austin, Texas. The man had been an A-list talent before everything went to shit and now he was running a glorified talk show with other washed up wrestlers from a middle-class neighborhood and living off of whatever profit he made selling merch in his webstore. Things certainly had changed.
“It’s good to see you too, Ace,” Jack said, lying through his teeth. Ace and Jack had indeed been good friends once but the fallout from the death of the IWPA had taken its toll on the personal and professional relationships of anyone who had previously worked for Michael Hill. Nobody wanted to talk about what had happened. Most of the roster had managed to stay afloat, grabbing bookings where they could but a choice few never really recovered. Nobody else had fallen quite as hard as Marshall, he thought, but that was to be expected.
“What have you been up to lately?” Ace asked, taking a sip of his coffee and checking the level on his mix-board. He had gotten pretty good at this podcast game in the last six months. He had sponsors and did live shows at conventions. It was enough to pay the bills and that was enough for him. He took the occasional indy booking to put a little extra scratch in the savings account but he knew there was more longevity for him outside the ring.
“Traveling,” Jack replied. “Did a tour of the UK last month.”
“Good fans in the UK,” Ace said. “Different type of people than here.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “Vocal. Passionate.”
“But a different kind of passionate,” Ace said. “You and I both did work in Japan and those people are passionate, but it’s a different sort of vibe.”
“I think it comes down to the product they’re used to,” Jack said. “UK wrestling still feels very underground to me, you dig? Japan is this whole other thing. It’s culture there, where you look at England and Ireland and whatever and it’s just something else.”
“You’re right there,” Ace said. “In Japan I had people offering to buy me dinner every night. It was surreal. They just looked at me different.”
“Every scene is different,” Jack said. “In the IWPA days, that was something else.”
“You ever miss it?”
“Yeah,” Jack replied. “Don’t you?”
“Honestly,” Ace said. “Most days I don’t. It was too big for itself, you know?”
“You mean it was too big for Mike?”
“I didn’t say that,” Ace said.
“But you did, kinda, I mean, Mike was that company in a lot of ways, right?”
“No denying that,” Ace admitted. “But he handled the business fine. If things hadn’t happened the way they did, and it was no fault of Michael Hill’s by the way, I want to say that clearly, then we would probably be on a whole different level, but some things just happen the way they do and you’ve got to roll with it.”
“Then what do you mean by ‘too big for itself’?”
“Who is interviewing who here?” Ace joked.
“Hey,” Jack said. “I’m just intrigued. Because I don’t necessarily disagree with you, actually. I just want your perspective because, let’s be honest, you were the bigger draw and so you had a different experience than me.”
“Well,” Ace said. “I mean that the bubble was going to burst, right? That even if things hadn’t gone tits up the way they did, they would have gone tits up some other way.”
“But you said Mike handled the business well.”
“I did,” Ace said. “And I stand by that. This isn’t about Michael Hill. Mike was was Mike, and Mike would continue to have been Mike and kept things going as long as he could. I’m saying that culturally speaking, it was too big for itself. We were a part of a very particular zeitgeist and I just don’t think it was sustainable. And hey, it wasn’t perfect. There were tons of guys that got brought in who got zero screen time because the roster was so stuffed. A lot of people resented Mike for that. Because they could have gone somewhere else; Japan, Britain, one of the other feds, you know? But Mike built a damned leviathan of a company and they wanted their chance to grab the brass ring. I know some guys are still bitter about what happened because they feel their time at IWPA was wasted. They didn’t get over enough on that stage to justify the booking fees they would like now that they don’t have Mike signing their checks.”
“It doesn’t do anybody any good to be bitter though, does it?” Jack asked. “I wasn’t exactly at the top of the card when things went down but I turned out okay.”
“Yeah,” Ace said. “But you made your name. People remember us. We were tag champions, after all.”
“I get that,” Jack said. “But afterwards, I wasn’t exactly a hot commodity. I didn’t do well in mid-card. I had always been a tag guy, even before we hooked up.”
“I remember seeing you do tag stuff in a couple of indy promotions before you came on board,” Ace said. “There’s an art form there. It’s all chemistry and timing and really being able to tell a story. I was never really much of a tag guy, but then when you came to me and pitched the idea to tag together, something made sense because our styles work so well together.”
“I agree,” Jack said. “Which is why I’ve stayed mostly solo on the indies, because people tie my name so heavily to our time as a team that it is hard to really sell the storytelling element of it with any other partner. I’ve done appearances and tagged with some of the old timers, you know, to sell an event as truly unique or whatever but I haven’t returned to that style full time.”
“So you’ve found that direction you think you were lacking as a solo worker in IWPA?”
“I think so,” Jack said. “Yeah.”
“So what’s next for Jack Van Jones?”
“I really don’t know, man,” Jack said. “Always working. There’s still some places I haven’t been. I want to work in Mexico. That’s always been a dream.”
“I’ve done a stint down there,” Ace said.
“Really?”
“Yeah,” Ace replied. “It’s a whole different world. Different culture. Lucha libre is unlike anything else in the world, and working that style is intense.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “I want that challenge.”
“I’m sure you’re up to it,” Ace said. “We’ve gotta take a break, plug some sponsors, and we’ll be right back.”

Later, after the tape stopped Ace and Jack sat on the well broken in couches in Ace’s living room, each with a beer in hand as they watched a tape of one of their old matches on the giant TV that took up most of the real estate in the modest living area.
“I heard a rumor,” Jack said, gingerly sipping his beer. “You heard it?”
“I hear lots of rumors,” Ace said. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Don’t shit with me,” Jack said. “About Mike.”
“Again,” Ace said. “Specificity is key. Mike is a damn rumor magnet. Which one is this one? Jail time? That he’s running for the senate? What?”
“He’s getting back in,” Jack said. “Hooked himself up with a network contract and plans to get the gang back together.”
“No fucking way,” Ace said, putting his beer down on the coffee table. “Nobody would be stupid enough to hand that man the money he would need.”
“Someone did,” Jack said.
“Who is your source?”
“Pete.”
“Shit.”
“Yeah, shit,” Jack said. “It is going to put a lot of eyes back on us.”
“I know,” Ace said.
“Things have been hard Trent,” Jack said. “I’ve had to do some real shit to scrape by. That UK tour saved my ass, but before that…”
“I know,” Ace said. “We all fell pretty hard.”
“So what are you going to say if the phone rings?”
“I don’t know if I can go full time again,” Ace said. “I’ve gotten pretty complacent.”
“Here’s another question,” Jack said picking his beer back up. “What are you going to do if the phone doesn’t ring?”
Ace took a long drink.
It was a good question