Paxton Ray could smell when MESSIAH was in the building. It wasn’t some sense thing, and they weren’t particularly smelly people – no smellier than a bunch of 20-somethings in a wrestling gym, at least.
No, Paxton knew MESSIAH was there because Wilhelm von Krauser used the microwave in the kitchen.
“Fish again? That motherfucker,” Paxton grumbled as he grabbed an apple from the fruit basket on the break table.
“Not sure you can complain about that,” he heard behind him. He turned around to see Chet Fleetwood leaning against the refrigerator, holding a container close to his mouth.
“An’ why do ya think that?” Paxton asked.
“Why is MESSIAH here?” Chet pulled a long strand of noodle in his mouth and slurped it loudly. “Not like Bertrand Ward works for Gray’s. He’d look good in referee stripes though. They’re slimming.” Chet put the container down and walked towards Paxton. “No, they’re here because of you.”
“An’ why are ya here, Chet? Doin’ some lawyer shit? Suin’ Nova for beatin’ the shit out of Foster?” Paxton took a bite of apple and briefly contemplated spitting it in the shorter man’s face.
“Nothing that cool, I’m afraid,” Chet answered. “I’m here as a dad. Quinn is getting ready for that Madhouse thing and I want to be there for him.”
“Well ain’t ya just dad’a the year.”
Chet laughed. “Well I’m not sending minions across America looking for him, so maybe you got me beat there.” Chet turns around and grabs his food again. “This is a wrestling school, not some evil headquarters. I can’t wait for it to be a school again.”
Paxton hung in the doorway, his hands making fists. Then, he chuckled. “Me too, Chet. ‘Cause then I’ll have Nora back.”
Paxton’s smile dimmed when Chet only responded with, “Uh huh.”
“Right. Well, I better go see what they want. Gotta work on makin’ this place a school again for your boy to lose in a bar room brawl.” Paxton left the room without looking back.
As he made his way to Foster’s office, he heard hushed whispers, causing him to slow his pace. He struggled to identify any words until one jumped out at him like it was shouted through a megaphone.
Snarling, Paxton shoved the door open and tore inside, causing the men to look up. Along with Foster Nackedy and Bertrand Ward was Wilhelm von Krauser, the German whose lip curled up when he saw Paxton enter. Foster slumped in his chair, smiling despite the bruises and cuts all over his face and body.
“I’m gonna kill him for what he did to ya,” Paxton said to Foster. Krauser set aside his food and pointed at Paxton.
“See what I mean?” Krauser said. “Knocking down doors and threatening death. You’re going to need a new door one day because the firecracker here will blow up.”
“I blow up a lot more’n doors, Willy. Interested in seein’ a boom?” Paxton stopped as Bertrand Ward raised a cane to separate the two men. Krauser simply gestured to Paxton and raised his eyebrows.
Foster sighed. “I don’t have the energy to stop any fights today, so let’s not. And thanks for the kind words, Pax, but I deserved it. Like you said, we didn’t finish the job. I didn’t think Caesar was capable of that, though. You better be careful.”
“I’ll be good.”
“I’m sure you will.” Foster pointed to the chair in front of his desk. “Anyway, we’re glad you’re here because we need to talk about Operation Finding For Nora.”
“We ain’t callin’ it that.”
Bertrand Ward walked forward and handed Paxton a manilla folder. “As you know, we were unable to get Melissa’s location by infiltrating the hospital. But over the past few days, we were able to get someone else’s location.”
Paxton opened the folder and looked at the paper before tossing it aside angrily. “Jon? We don’t need t’know where he lives now. I can get him at the hospital any time I want.”
“And how do you think that would look to hospital staff? Security?” Bertrand asked.
“Your new little girlfriend?” Krauser spat.
Bertrand spoke quickly to prevent Paxton from responding to the German. “No, if we want to question Jon, to push his buttons so that he reveals Nora’s location, then we need him alone in his new house, which is listed on that piece of paper you tossed away.”
Bertrand stared at Paxton until he bent over and picked the folder up again, then gave it another look. “That ain’t too far. We can get there in ten if we leave now.”
The other three men in the room looked at each other. “You’re not going on this one, Pax,” Foster said.
“What–” Paxton started, but Foster cut him off.
“I let you go with Bertrand and Gouskos to the hospital and it didn’t go great. But more importantly, you need to respect the process and the rules that we need to follow. I know you’ve got Nova in a week. Falls count anywhere. Feels fun, right? Like anything goes. But this isn’t a match. This isn’t wrestling. Remember what I told you when you said you wanted to paralyze Jon?”
Paxton leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. “You told me that I needed t’do it in a ring because the company would protect me from gettin’ arrested.”
“Exactly. The inverse is true here. If you attack Jon and get caught, that’s assault. You won’t get DQ’d from a match; you’ll get arrested.”
Wilhelm von Krauser moved quickly until he was standing over Paxton. “And I don’t know if you’ve gotten it through that thick skull of yours, but all of our work means nothing if you get yourself caught.”
“Listen, ya piece of shit, I–”
Foster was up in a flash, separating the two men. He then slumped over the desk, wincing. “What did I say?” He looked at Bertrand. “I’m not the only one with a hothead in my ranks, am I?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Bertrand through a wan smile.
“Paxton, he’s right.” Foster sat on top of his desk gingerly, fixing his client with a glassy stare. “Not only does this operation fall apart without you, not only will the gym likely follow…you want your daughter back. Think about what happened with Nova when he got arrested. He couldn’t be with the people who needed him most. Plus, you think you’d get Nova’s deal with PRIME? Wear an ankle monitor to matches, be welcomed back with open arms?”
“No,” said Bertrand. “You would be released by a woman who has been looking for an excuse ever since you did what you did. You would be, unfortunately, another young man left behind by professional wrestling.”
Paxton leaned forward, his elbows landing on his knees a bit too forcefully. He grit his teeth, then nodded. “Fine. So who’s gonna go?”
“The other hothead,” Foster snorted.
Krauser stood to his full height and smiled. “Don’t worry, kid. I’ll give him a punch or two for you.”
Paxton stared at Krauser for a moment before looking at Bertrand. “Then whaddaya want me to do?”
Bertrand smiled. “Well, I think it would be nice for you to be as far removed from this as possible. So why don’t you take some time off? Find something to do for the next few hours?”
“You could always train for the practice Battle Royale I’m running at the end of the week,” Foster said.
Again Paxton mulled over their words. He stood up, nodded, and left the room while pulling his phone out of his pocket. As he walked through the open gym, he dialed a number and waited. “Hey, Julie? It’s…uh, it’s Paxton. Listen…are ya off work? Good. I’d love t’take ya up on that cup’a coffee.”
Jonathan Rhine stood at the end of the long hallway, his hands shaking as they gripped the walker in front of him. His lips pulled back to grit teeth, and then he barely nodded.
“Alexa, play ‘Pay Dearly.’”
Jon closed his eyes as the violin entered the speakers that hung in the corner of the hallway. He took three deep breaths. Then, as the vocals started, so did he.
I hope you’re not hoping I fall to pieces
Jon gripped the walker tighter, then moved it forward with his hands. It slid across the floor a few inches.
I’m not losing sleep, I’m not begging please; you won’t find me weeping
Now came the hard part. Jon’s breath sped up.
Oh can’t you see the seeds you’ve sown are ripe for reaping
He looked down at his feet as his cheeks began to puff out. “Move,” he told his toes.
You picked a fight but you got a war
For a few seconds, nothing. Then, he looked up across the hallway at the picture he hung on the door at the end. He stared at Paxton Ray’s snarling face and tried again.
I want you to pay dearly for what you stole from me
Say that you won’t, I’ll burn down the door
He could feel it. Almost, at least. Something was moving down there. He stared at his toes again and muttered, louder. “Move. Move.” Sweat dripped from his forehead and mixed with the tears forming at his eyes, then dropped to the floor.
I want it paid to me
Then, finally, movement. Barely perceptible. It could have just been a speck of white dust near his sock. But he knew it wasn’t. He knew he did it.
It’s that easy
He smiled for one second before a leg came in and kicked the walker, causing him to collapse onto the floor.
Paxton sat in the corner of the store with his back to the entrance, which he immediately realized was a mistake as he kept looking over his shoulder.
“Stop bein’ an idiot,” he grumbled to himself and stared at the wall, determined not to turn around. After a few minutes, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up at the smiling face of Julie.
“Why are you staring at the wall? Kind of weird, huh?” She laughed as he attempted to answer. “Just messing. I’m going to get a latte. B-r-b.”
Paxton raised an eyebrow. “Did ya jus’ say B-r-b out loud?”
She laughed again. “Wait until you say something really funny. I lol.” She walked away and he watched her go with a smirk on his face.
When she returned with her coffee, she sat down in front of him and smiled. “Thanks for inviting me out, Paxton. I really…when I met you last year, I really wanted to get to know you better.”
“Why?” Paxton answered.
She looked down at her coffee, tracing the opening of the lid with her finger. “I…don’t know, actually. You just seem fascinating.” Her eyes widened a little. “Uh, this isn’t what you tell somebody on a first date, is it?”
Paxton shrugged. “Hell if I know. I ain’t been on one since I was 16. And that wasn’t even a date. I jus’ took Melissa t’prom.”
“Wow,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “Was she your first love?”
“I guess so. ‘Sides some middle school crushes. She was the first girl to say yes.”
“This is more what you talk about on first dates, I think,” she said, smiling.
“Ya sure? Feels kinda heavy for first date talk. We could talk ‘bout the weather or somethin’.”
“Boring!” she said with a laugh. “I guess we could talk about your work.”
Paxton’s eyes widened. “That may be more borin’ than the weather.”
Julie smirked at Paxton. “Don’t you beat people up for a living?” A silence settled in that overstayed its welcome judging by the frown on Julie’s face. Suddenly, she said, “I always wondered how someone who loved his daughter so much could put his body on the line every week for a paycheck.”
“Well we have a very understandin’ boss, so it’s once every two weeks,” Paxton said, forcing a laugh that Julie matched. “Ya know what I did for money before Nora got sick? Before I started beatin’ people up for a livin’, as ya say?”
“I worked at a body shop. Notice I didn’t say I was a mechanic, ‘cause I wasn’t. I was the lowest of the low. I didn’t know enough. Couldn’t get enough education t’learn.” Paxton leaned back, looking across the coffeeshop. “I wasn’t makin’ shit. And then when Nora got sick, and Melissa couldn’t teach enough classes at the university…”
Julie reached her hand across the table and grabbed his. “I’m sorry. I was being insensitive.”
He waved a hand lazily across his body. “Nah, don’t worry ‘bout it. Point is, I do what I do ‘cause I love my daughter so much. I’ll fight anybody I have to jus’ to get her back.”
Jonathan looked up to see a dark-haired man standing over him with a wolfish grin. “Hey New Life,” the man said in a slight German accent.
“Who are you?” Jonathan asked from the floor.
“That was really inspiring stuff there. Barking orders at your feet. Shuffling the walker like you’re eighty. If I hadn’t stopped you, you would have reached Paxton’s picture in about six years.”
Jonathan’s eyes moved towards the kitchen. “If it’s money you want, there’s a safe under the kitchen island. The combination is…”
The man interrupted him with a loud laugh. “I’m not here for money. My employer keeps me well taken care of. I’m here for something else.”
“Who is your employer?”
The German man bent down on one knee so he was only a few inches from Jonathan’s face. “Someone you know very well. In fact, he’s the last person to ever pin you in a wrestling ring.”
The realization was instantaneous. “You work for MESSIAH,” Jonathan said, closing his eyes.
“Very good,” the man answered. “Now let’s see if you can use those same powers of deduction to figure out what I want from you.”
Jonathan’s chest heaved in and out. “Nora,” he whispered.
“That’s right. Now, I’m sure you’re feeling very frustrated right now. A man you thought was your friend took away your ability to walk. And now you have nothing left, and he still sends someone to take more. If I were in your shoes, I’d be confused and upset.” The man stood up and began to pace around Jonathan’s fallen body. “But that’s the wrong way of looking at it. I’m not here to take anything from you. I’m just here to listen. I’m here to listen to you tell me where your girlfriend hid Paxton’s daughter.”
Jonathan still did not open his eyes. The man continued to circle him, looking down at Jonathan with derision. “Paxton is an angry, unreasonable person. He’s hell to work with, as you know. But me? I’m very reasonable. Just tell me where she is, and I’ll call 911, tell them you fell down, and I’ll leave. You’ll be just fine.”
“But Nora won’t be.”
The German man clicked his tongue. “Now, now. Paxton would never do anything to his own daughter.”
Jonathan opened his eyes and looked up at his attacker. “You’re talking to the one person who knows exactly what Paxton Ray is capable of. Don’t bullshit me.”
“Fair enough,” the man said, kneeling down again. “The truth is I don’t know what Paxton will do when he finds Nora, and I don’t care. That’s not my job. My job is to get her location from you. So, tell me now before I finish what Paxton started.”
Jonathan looked down the hall at the picture of Paxton before sneering at the German. “You were right about one thing. Paxton took everything from me. I have nothing left. Which means I have nothing left to lose.” Jon reared back and spit in the man’s face. “But Foster and Paxton? They have a lot to lose. So you better kill me, because I’ll never tell you where she is.”
The man stared at Jonathan for a few tense moments as he slowly wiped his face. Then, he stood up and started laughing. The laughter built until he had to rest his arms on the window ledge. “Well played, Mr. Rhine. You know we won’t call your bluff. You will not die today.” Jonathan felt his muscles relax for a moment, only to tense up again as he heard keys jingle in the other room.
The man noticed, standing upright. “But you were wrong.” The man slid to the right of the doorframe. “There is always something left to lose.”
“Jon?” a voice called.
“Shweta! Don’t come in here! Run!”
The panic in Jonathan’s voice caused Shweta to disobey his command and she sprinted to the hallway. She was stopped by a stiff backhand, causing her to spill to the floor right next to her boyfriend. She raised a hand to her lip as blood started to trickle to the floor.
“This is a warning, friends. Do not get in our way. We will find Nora.” And the man left the room as Shweta and Jon huddled together, checking each other’s wounds.
“So your whole division is just an excuse to hit each other with weapons?” Julie’s cup was empty now, so she traced her finger along the straw. “No wonder I don’t like your sport. It’s horrifying.”
“You don’t know the half,” Paxton said. “The guy I face in a couple weeks…we can fight anywhere. Anywhere in the whole arena. It’s crazy to think about sometimes.”
“Is he a big guy like you?”
“Kinda. He’s older, pretty crazy, wrestled in an ankle monitor for a while.”
Julie’s eyes widened. “Sounds like a tough guy.”
“Yeah, ‘s why I gotta be tougher. Anyway, enough about my work. Everybody has dumb work shit.”
“You’re telling me. Sometimes I feel like I’m always working.”
Paxton nodded. “Long hours?”
“Yes, but also because of this thing.” She raised her phone in the air. “They have you put all of your logins on it – email, case logging, company directory, time sheets, everything, so they can always keep track of you. Someone says they need you to do some quick work, even being in another city won’t stop you because you can do everything on your phone.”
“Shit, that’s rough. At least ya like your new gig, right?”
She smiled. “Yeah. I try to tell myself that every day, because we always tend to focus more on the negative things. So when I get annoyed with the day-to-day, I remind myself of the good things my job gave me.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“The opportunity to make people better. The knowledge that I’m making a difference in people’s lives.” A small smile crept on her face. “And sometimes you meet a really special girl who has a cute dad and you want to get to know him better.”
Paxton smiled. “Well I hope gettin’ to know him doesn’t scare ya away.”
She cocked her head to the side and looked at him for a few seconds before shaking her head. “Not yet at least.” She looked down at her watch. “I do have to get going, though. My dog’s been home all day and I need to let her out.”
They both stood up and walked towards the coffeeshop entrance. When they got there, she reached up and hugged him. “I’d like to do this again.”
He returned the hug, then reached behind himself to scratch his back. “Same. I’ll call ya.”
“You better.” They both left the shop and walked away in different directions. Paxton turned around and watched her go, then chuckled.
Paxton strode through Gray’s, whistling tunelessly. He went to Foster’s office, where Bertrand and Wilhelm sat. As he entered, Bertrand smiled. “Hello, Mr. Ray.”
“How’d it go?” Paxton asked. Wilhelm refused to look up.
“We did not get the information we needed,” Bertrand said. “I do hope you enjoyed your time away.”
“Sure did,” Paxton said. “And it sounds like maybe I made more progress than y’all did.” Paxton reached into his back pocket and tossed a phone onto Foster’s desk.
“Nurse’s phone. Everythin’s on there. If we can crack it, we can get some answers.” Paxton turned around. “Now if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got some trainin’ to do. Lemme go find Quinn, see if we can’t put on a nice show for his daddy.”
He walked out of the office, the faint smell of fish once again penetrating his nostrils. He smiled. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad smell after all.