July 1, 2023
San Diego, California
“Get in the fuckin’ car, let’s go!”
Foster Nackedy sighed as he pulled into the driver’s side of his rental car, immediately looking at Paxton Ray in the passenger’s seat. “Where are we going?”
Paxton fixed Foster with a glare that Nackedy had been calling “The Butcher’s Block,” because when you saw it, it meant you were in the mad man’s line of sight. “Where the fuck ya think? Airport. Philly. Let’s fuckin’ go.”
Foster’s eyes widened as he started the car. “Philly? Now? No. You just had a match and got your head knocked in. We’re not going anywhere but the hotel.”
“Every second we stay here is another second your bitch ex-girlfriend gets to move my fuckin’ daughter somewhere else. If I ain’t gonna kill that Luchador fuck tonight I sure as hell am gonna find my daughter.”
The car bucked as Foster careened over a curb on the way out of the parking lot. “You think MESSIAH let Melissa know she was found out?”
“No, but I think your dumb ass just announced it to the world when you thought it was a bright idea t’tell me an hour before my fuckin’ match.”
July 1, 2023
Foster looked over at Paxton and started drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. He opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it. He couldn’t stop a sigh from escaping his lips, which finally got Paxton’s attention.
Foster’s eyes shifted in Paxton’s direction and widened them in what he hoped looked like genuine surprise. “Me? Yeah. I’m great. What about you? You ready?”
Paxton responded by leaning back his chair and sticking his feet out of the window. “Yeah, I’m great. ‘Bout to get my hands on some assholes, give that Colton fuck a few right between the eyes. I feel good. Relaxed.”
“Relaxed enough to commit car etiquette crimes, I see,” Foster said, scowling.
“They out the window, ain’t they? Unless ya want me to put ‘em on your side, I can happily…” Paxton started to shift his feet back into the window, causing Foster to momentarily release control of the car to hold his hands up.
“Stop, stop!” Foster grabbed the wheel in time to right the car as Paxton leaned back and chuckled. “Jesus you’re a fucking psycho.”
“I’m your fuckin’ psycho. Ya want the results, ya get my feet out the window.” A silence settled in for about a minute. “I don’t believe ya, by the way.”
“That you’re good. I ain’t seen ya this wired since ya let MESSIAH take over the gym.”
Foster scoffed. “I didn’t let them take over the gym.”
“Yeah, you’re right, ya just let a fuckin’ cult in your doors, I’m sure they ain’t bidin’ their time before indocrinatin’ every young kid there in their weird-ass outfit.”
Foster sighed and looked ahead, maneuvering his way through traffic. After a moment, his brow furrowed. “Hey.”
Paxton looked over. “Whaddaya mean?”
“You’re about to be in the ring with Jared Sykes again after y’all nearly killed each other. Could get your hands on two former champions. What is it about Nate Colton that made him first out your lips?”
“Ah, yeah. Uh…” Paxton looked out the window, lazily dangling his foot. “This is gonna sound stupid.”
“You’re from Lafayette. Everything you say sounds stupid.”
“Fuckin’ prick. Anyway, I jus’…I get this feelin’ that the Colton family has somethin’ t’do with Nora.”
Foster’s eyes widened slightly. “How do you figure?”
“Well, Nate was at the fundraisin’ dinner. An’ he an’ his family are fuckin’ do-rights – they always try t’save the day. An’ ya said that Bertie thinks the person who helped Shweta works for PRIME. So yeah, I think he an’ his oldfuck dad may be hidin’ Nora from me. So I wanna punch it outta him.”
“Fuck,” Foster said in a way that was more sighing than speaking. He closed his eyes for a moment before pulling into the Petco employee parking lot.
Foster waited until he parked the car to look over at his student. “I have to tell you something about Nora. It isn’t the Colton family, but it is a member of PRIME.”
“Woah, woah, woah. You can’t just absolve yourself of responsibility here. I didn’t attack TAL at ringside. I didn’t fling a chair at his head. I didn’t do all of it right in front of cameras and reporters.”
“But ya did try t’get me angry right before the fuckin’ show. If a bottle rocket blasts into a group fulla kids, they’re gonna blame the person who lit the fuckin’ thing.”
“Glad to see you’re excited for the upcoming holiday,” Foster grumbled. “Listen, we can’t go to the airport tonight. We need to be methodical about this. There probably aren’t even any direct flights to Philly this late. Come back with me to the hotel. We’ll take a rest and be at it first thing in the morning, okay?”
Paxton looked over at his manager for a few moments, scowling. “First thing in the mornin’.”
July 2, 2023
“You’re the fucking worst,” Foster muttered as he entered the rental car and started it. “Did you sleep in here?”
“Prob’ly smells a lot more like my feet than it did last night.”
“Jesus.” Before starting the car, Foster pulled out his phone.
“No need for directions, I know the way.”
“No, I’m not putting in directions, I’m trying to see if anyone knows where TAL is on Jabber.”
Paxton scowled. “That stupid fuckin’ app.”
“It’s a stupid app, but it’s also an important app. It keeps this roster of hooligans and fist-shakers connected, and our boy Tom is addicted to it, so it may give us an inkling to where he is.”
“That coward ain’t in Cali anymore,” Paxton said. “He prob’ly left late last night like we shoulda.” Paxton realized that Foster still hadn’t started the car. “We goin’ or what?”
“Just checking PRIME email. You’re booked for 31.”
“Cool. Start the car.”
Foster shook his head and turned over the engine, then began backing out of his space. “You’re not even going to ask who you’re facing?”
“Is it the asshole who hid my daughter from me?”
“No, it’s not that luchador.”
“Then I don’t–”
“It’s the other one,” Foster interrupted. “Rocky de Leon.”
Paxton’s lips turned down. “Is this gonna be one of those things where you try t’get me t’think ‘bout my match so my mind’s off killin’ Tom and gettin’ Nora back?”
“Is it going to work?”
Paxton didn’t answer. Foster pulled onto the highway, which was practically deserted at nearly 5 in the morning. Foster felt so bold as to check jabber and drive at the same time. Mess with some of the roster, send another few warning shots at Tom. He had enough time to forget what they last talked about, so when Paxton said, “Go ‘head,” it took him a few seconds to answer.
“He’s quick, and his whole thing is using his opponent’s energy against him. You ever see that episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes a boxer?”
“That the one with the yella people? Never watched it.”
“You never…?” Foster raised his hands in the air. “Every day I learn something new about you that makes me realize how different we are. Anyway, the whole point is that Homer realizes he can take a ton of punishment and his boxing career surges based off of that. He lets his opponent go crazy with punches until they exhaust themselves, and then Homer finishes them off when they’re too tired to fight back.”
“Sounds dumb,” Paxton said.
“Rocky’s the same way. He isn’t really dangerous until you’re tired, and his stamina is what gives him an advantage. So I figure when we get back to New Orleans we can focus more on cardio the next few weeks, just to make sure you’re prepared when you face him.”
“When we get back to New Orleans after Philly, you mean.”
Foster rolled his eyes. “…Yeah, that’s what I mean. But let’s not even worry about that right now. Hell, Von Krauser and Gouskos are trying to find her now. I bet they round her up before we even get to the airport.”
“That idiot. Nora’s not going to be there.” Dimitri Gouskos stared out the window of the car, frowning.
“Have faith, Dimitri,” Wilhelm Von Krauser said as he sped down a road in Philadelphia. “It was thanks to Director Bathory’s guidance and insight that we were able to find Nora. I trust that the information he gathered will lead us directly to her.”
“I’m sure it would’ve before the hothead and his idiot trainer announced to everyone that we knew she was here. It’s bad enough that Director Bathory chose this wrestling school as his new pet project. But then we have to rely on these volcanoes to not erupt when we’re so close to finishing this job.”
“I don’t disagree,” the German said, his hands gripping the wheel tighter. “I blame the leadership. Foster Nackedy is no leader.”
“You can say that again.”
“So I will. He is no leader. He thinks he is a smart man. He thinks he is in control. But he can’t control someone like Paxton Ray.”
Gouskos snorted. “No one can. The man is a pitbull.”
“I must correct you there. Even Paxton Ray can be controlled. In fact, eventually I believe that Director Bathory will do just that.” Von Krauser removed one hand from the wheel to form a fist. “To control a pitbull you have to hold the chain tight. Every time you feel a pull, you pull back harder.” Von Krauser moved his fist back quickly. “He cannot walk, he cannot eat, he cannot fight unless you loosen the chain. And you use that against him.”
Gouskos laughed. “Yeah, and Foster is barely holding the chain.”
“My dear friend,” Von Krauser said, pushing his foot down on the gas, “Foster doesn’t even realize he isn’t holding one.”
Foster felt a chill as they walked into the airport. He could blame it on the blast of air conditioning over the doorway, but as he looked over at Paxton he knew the real reason.
“Okay, there’s a flight to Philly in less than two hours,” The Bayou Butcher said, scanning the board. “Ya think TAL will be there too? Maybe we can catch ‘im in the act of hidin’ her. Have my cake and kill it too.”
“Pretty sure that’s not how the saying goes,” Foster said, looking up at the board as well. He spent an extra second looking up and down, then nodded his head towards the desk. “I’ll go buy the tickets, get yourself a snack or something. Need to get some energy after waking up so early.”
“Aww, did wittle Foster not get enough sweep?” Paxton mocked, following Foster. “I’ll be fine, let’s just buy these tickets and get goin’.”
Foster stopped in his tracks. “I got it, you don’t need to worry about me.”
Paxton stopped as well, smirking as he looked down at his trainer. “Ya know, when ya say somethin’ like that, it kinda makes me think I do hafta worry ‘bout ya.”
Foster looked over to the desk, looked back at Paxton, and sighed. “Fine. I wasn’t going to buy tickets to Philadelphia. I was buying tickets to go home.”
“I fuckin’ knew it.”
“This is crazy, Pax! We can’t go all the way across the damn country to find a girl who may not even be there anymore! We have two very capable men on the case! There’s nothing we can do. What, you’re going to rip TAL’s head off? You’re going to storm into some random hotel and carry your daughter over your shoulder? That’s murder, that’s kidnapping. Those are crimes for the criminals we fucking hired need to commit, not the most public facing person in our enterprise!”
Paxton looked at Foster for a long moment before unslinging his backpack and sitting in a nearby chair. He fiddled through the backpack for a moment before bringing out a small piece of plastic. “Ya know what this is?”
Foster examined the object. “Yeah, it’s, uh, one of those things you plug into your outlets to child proof them.”
“Yep. Sometime in January I went back t’the house to get stuff I thought I needed. Most of it was picked clean, but I saw this lyin’ in the corner.” Paxton looked at it, a small smile on his face. “She’s eight now, so we ain’t used ‘em in a while. But when I see it, I think’a her as a baby. Crawlin’ around, tryin’ t’put her little fingers behind the plastic.”
Paxton looked up at Foster, his face morphing back to its commonly held sneer. “Ya ain’t gotta tell me who an’ what I am, ‘cause I already know. But I’m still her fuckin’ father. And I’m gonna see her again if it kills me. I can’t let anythin’ or anyone stop me.”
“How did he find us?” Melissa Matthews asked from the front seat of a car Shweta Kallemullah drove westbound on the interstate.
Shweta flicked her eyes up to the rearview mirror to look at Nora, who was looking down at her Mighty Thor action figure. Looking back at the road, Shweta said, “He didn’t. There are men – dangerous men – that Paxton and Foster have aligned themselves with. And they have time, resources, and patience.”
“All the things that you assured me you also have,” Melissa spat. After a moment, she softened. “I’m sorry. This isn’t your fault. I’m just so scared. Scared for Nora, scared for myself…”
“I understand, Melissa,” Shweta said, once again using the mirror to make sure no one was following. She saw a black car that looked suspicious, so she moved to the right lane to take the next exit. “All we can do is continue to try and keep you safe. Tom is doing his best. He will still help. We don’t want to use the emergency plan yet, but…”
“What’s the emergency plan?” Nora asked from the backseat, looking up.
Shweta saw the car pass them as she exited the interstate. She exhaled, then looked over at Melissa nervously. “Well. It…”
“You can tell her,” Melissa said. “She’s stronger than she looks. She can handle it.”
“Very well. Nora, if we aren’t able to keep you safe from…from your father here, we can send you to another country. It’s far from here, but it’s a lot like our country. Have you ever heard of England?”
Nora thought for a moment. “Is that where Peppa Pig is from?”
Shweta looked over to Melissa, who nodded. “Yes. That is where Pepper Pig is from.”
Nora smiled and returned her gaze to her action figure as Melissa laughed. “Pepper Pig. That’s good.”
“I thought that’s what she said.”
“It’s actually…” Melissa started, then stopped. “Thank you, Shweta. I know you’re doing everything you can.”
“I truly hope you do not need to leave the country, Melissa.”
“I hope so too, but from what I know about him…” Melissa stopped, biting her lip. “One time, in high school, Pax and I were dating, and a guy hit on me. It was nothing. He asked me if I wanted to get ice cream, and I said no. But Pax went ballistic. Beat the guy with a baseball bat. Got arrested and everything. And I was scared, but I was stupid, and I ignored the signs because he said he was sorry and it’d never happen again.”
“No. But I also remember the other thing he said after it happened. He said ‘I was out of control, but only because I thought I was losing you. You’re mine. And I’m going to protect you. I’ll always protect you because I will never stop protecting what’s mine.’ Shweta, it doesn’t matter that we changed her last name. Nora is always going to be his. And I’m afraid that he will never stop coming for us, and he’ll be out of control until he finds us.”
Shweta looked back at Nora through the mirror, then opened her mouth to respond and found that nothing would come out.
“We ain’t goin’ back to New Orleans.”
“Pax, come on. I understand. I get it. But there’s more to this than just your daughter. You have a tournament match against El Coco…”
Paxton stood up suddenly, causing Foster to take a few quick steps back. “Fuck your fuckin’ tournament. Move my match to next week after we find her.”
“I can’t do that. After what happened with Roosevelt having to forfeit his match, it’ll reek of…”
“Favoritism? Bendin’ the rules? What the fuck do ya care, Foster? I swear, this goddamn act of straddlin’ the line between reliable business owner and mustache-twirlin’ villain gets on my damn nerves. Either you’re on my side or you’re not. Fuckin’ forfeit me. Lose your fuckin’ gym. I’ll go find Nora without ya.”
Foster looked up at the wild eyes of his charge and sighed. “…Fine. I’ll make the call to Dith.” Paxton nodded and started to walk away before Foster said, “But I’m only postponing it a week. And get one ticket. I’m not coming.”
Paxton turned around. “No?”
“No. Do what you have to do, but I am done trying to hold you back. I have things to take care of at home, and I just realized now that you’re a lost cause, and I won’t get lost following you to Philly.”
“So you’re a coward, I get it.”
“No, Paxton, I’m a fucking human being, not an out of control rage robot!” Paxton took a few steps towards Foster in anger, but Foster stopped him by holding a hand in the air. “Look at you! Remember earlier when I said that Rocky de Leon will use your energy against you, so you should work on your cardio? Do you know why I didn’t try telling you to just be smart and pick your spots, not to fall into his trap? Because I know you can’t! I know you can’t fucking help yourself. You’re anarchy in a fucking tank top. And I have been trying to keep you reeled in to the best of my ability, but I’m done. You’re not my psycho anymore. You’re your own psycho. You want to get on that plane? Ruin my chances of keeping this gym? Lose your fucking job? Go ahead. When you’re done, I’ll see you at home. I have students to train who know how to fucking listen.” Foster started to walk away.
Paxton watched his trainer go, then shrugged and walked towards the counter. But as he did so, he saw a tall man standing in front of a kiosk, a man who he instantly recognized. “Bathory. What the fuck are ya doin’ here?”
Julian Bathory grinned and held his arms out. “I’m here for you, Paxton. I knew you would be here, ready to take on the world to get your daughter back. It is admirable, and it is right. We at MESSIAH appreciate a noble cause.” Julian looked behind Paxton at Foster, who had stopped to watch the Carpathian Devil. “Your worries make you desperate, make you angry, make you lose control. Come with me and relinquish your worries, your anger to me. MESSIAH will take care of everything.”
Paxton turned around to look at Foster’s stern stare before nodding. “I want my daughter.”
“And you shall have her. Our reach extends to the ends of the earth. We found her, and we will find her again. And we shall be quieter next time.” Julian smirked at Foster. “Come with me, Paxton. Let’s get some rest, and then we can approach this problem with fresh enthusiasm and rigor.” Julian looked at a nearby vending machine. “Perhaps you would like some refreshments?”
Paxton scratched the back of his head and nodded. “Uh, yeah. Some beef jerky sounds good.” He walked towards the vending machine and Bathory strode to Foster Nackedy.
“Paxton is an incredible man. He needs someone who recognizes that and will not hold him back.” Bathory looked Foster up and down. “I imagine there are many men at your Academy in need of similar guidance. Forever the Crown.”
Julian walked after Paxton. Foster looked around and saw the tiny outlet cover sitting on the chair nearby. Grabbing it and flinging it, he sat down in its place and hung his head in his hands.