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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.”

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.”