Paxton Ray noticed something immediately as he walked into Gray’s Wrestling Academy: Jonathan Rhine’s face was everywhere.
New pictures adorned the wall: shots of Rhine holding up a title belt, Rhine leading a class in ring runs, Rhine standing outside the Roosevelt Hotel with Shweta, Chet, and Jenny Colton from the night of the Fighting For Nora Fundraiser Dinner. And the biggest picture of all, a full body shot of The New Life, wheelchair and all, right next to the picture of Foster Nackedy that had until recently been the only picture in the entrance. A plaque under it read: JONATHAN RHINE – CO-HEAD TRAINER, WRESTLING LEGEND.
Paxton shook his head, then looked over towards the conference room, where he saw a handful of people. He strode towards the room and tossed the door open, smiling as the door made a loud bang against the wall. “Hope I’m not interruptin’ anythin’ important,” Paxton said.
Foster Nackedy, his brother Ian, Jonathan Rhine, Chet Fleetwood, Shweta Kallemullah, and Bertrand Ward sat around the conference table. A stack of papers lay on the table in disarray. Foster smiled as he looked up. “Hey buddy, come and join the party!”
“Yes, we just finished cutting the cake.” Shweta’s tone could fit in the Saraha.
Paxton arched his eyebrows as he looked around. “I don’t see no cake.” Then he shook his head. “Ya were jokin’.”
Shweta smiled at Foster. “Your student has such intellect.”
“And two working legs, ain’t it crazy?” Foster gestured to a chair. “Sit down, Pax. Lot of things to talk about.” Paxton sat down across from Jon, whose eyes immediately averted his.
“First off,” Foster began, “tough loss against Rezin. He’s a former champ for a reason, and you had to lose eventually. The good news is it wasn’t for the belt, so you just have to get through Anna Daniels and you’ll be on a clear path to give FLAMBERGE exactly what he’s asking for at Turmoil.”
“The Time Lord,” Paxton mused. “All I know ‘bout her is she sells shirts and kicks heads. What else I gotta know?”
“A lot,” Ian said. “Have you ever watched Doctor Who?”
Paxton shook his head. “More of a Quantum Leap fan.”
“Really? I love…”
“Not really, ya dumb ass. Keep goin’.”
Ian chuckled. “Okay, so if the authenticity of Anna’s Time Lord title is to be believed, they are essentially a vessel for multitudes.”
“Meaning they are thousands of people in one body. They have all the knowledge and experience of people across time and space.”
Foster laughed. “Figured they’d have a better record then.”
“Thousands a’people in one body, huh?” Paxton rubbed his beard. “I kinda feel like that sometimes.”
“Oh yeah?” Ian asked.
“Yeah. I’m a wrestler, a student, a boyfriend, a father, an enforcer. Lotta different people rattlin’ inside a’me.”
Foster nodded as Shweta stood. Without a word, Shweta wheeled Jonathan out of the room. Paxton looked at his former tag partner, waiting to lock eyes with him, but The New Life refused to look in his direction.
Once they were gone, Foster shrugged. “That was weird. Anyway, speaking of being a wrestling student. We just finished the Battle for Gray’s draft before you got here, and surprise surprise, you’re Team Foster. Make me proud.”
“Duh,” Paxton replied. “Who’s my first opponent?”
“Kenny Truong,” Foster said. “He’s one of the new students. Don’t know much about him except he’s 20 years old and Jon signed him and drafted him. He’ll be doing some work with Nathan in a few minutes if you’re interested in scouting.”
“Sounds good,” Paxton said, standing up. However, Bertrand Ward held up a hand.
“Mr. Ray, a moment of your time, please.”
“Sure, what’s up?” he asked, sitting.
Bertrand looked at Ian. “Misters Nackedy the younger and Fleetwood, can we please have the room?”
Chet shot a look at Paxton and walked out without speaking. Ian stood up and looked at his brother for a few moments. Then, he put a hand on Paxton’s shoulder. “I’ll be in the gym, let’s do some work when you get out.” Paxton nodded and watched him go.
“We received some potentially good news last week,” Bertrand said, his fingers resting gently on his stomach. “We spoke to the doctor whose information you procured for us, and he has revealed your daughter’s location.”
Paxton stood up, his fists banging on the table. “Where is she? Why didn’t ya tell me sooner?”
Bertrand once again put a hand in the air. “Patience, my friend. Remember, we decided that it is best if you leave most of this to us. Therefore I have sent Mr. Von Krauser and Mr. Gouskos to Las Vegas to investigate the claim.”
Paxton raised his eyebrows. “Vegas? She was there the whole time?”
“Apparently Jon and Shweta enlisted the help of one of Jon’s friends, Timo Bolamba, to hide the girl.”
“Ya shittin’ me? The ref?”
“That’s what we’ve been told,” Bertrand said, looking at his hands.
“That don’t even make sense,” Paxton growled.
Bertrand shook his head. “On the contrary, it makes perfect sense. Jon and Timo have a long history, and the referee is famous for his resources, his philanthropy, and — apart from some brief manic episodes — his penchant for doing the right thing. Indeed, it makes too much sense, almost as if it were designed to look that way.”
“So you don’t believe it?” Foster asked.
“I admit that I am skeptical. It feels odd. The doctor gave us the information quickly and freely, and in my experience that usually means he is lying. Nevertheless, we are investigating and we should know more within the hour. I will let you know as soon as we find something.”
Paxton nodded. “If he’s tellin’ the truth, Lindsay Troy is gonna need t’hire a new fuckin’ ref.” He pounded the table again. “What if he’s lyin’?”
Bertrand sighed. “If he is lying, the doctor will be dealt with. And then we will have exhausted the last external resource we have. So it becomes imperative for you to get the information from someone here.”
Paxton looked from Bertrand to Foster. “He means Jon,” Foster said.
“Jon didn’t break when your boy shook him down.”
“That’s right, he didn’t.” Bertrand fiddled with his bowtie. “But Stephen King did not throw his novel in the trash after it was rejected by publishers. So we try, try again.”
“I don’t really read much, but all right,” Paxton said, nodding. “One last thing – ya said the doctor will be dealt with. How?”
Bertrand smiled and stood up as well. “Let’s only worry about that if he is indeed lying. Now, I believe you have some training to attend to?”
Paxton had only made it five steps out of the conference room before bumping into Chet. “Sorry, Chet.”
“Not as sorry as you will be,” Chet growled.
Chet pointed in Paxton’s face. “Quinn told me what you did two weeks ago. Stop targeting my son.”
“Or what?” Paxton asked, bearing down on the lawyer, who did not flinch.
“Or I’ll sue you so hard that PRIME will be paying you garnished wages until you’re in a retirement home.” Chet put his finger in Paxton’s chest. “Quinn is Team Foster, just like you. You’re on the same team, so fucking act like it.” Without waiting for a response, Chet turned and walked away.
“Asshole,” Paxton muttered.
“So when do we vote on Most Popular Guy at Gray’s?” Paxton turned around to see Ian leaning against the wall, smirking. “I know who has my vote.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Paxton followed Ian towards the ring, but stopped as his phone rang. “What now?” He pulled his phone out of his jean pocket and answered. “Hello?”
“Hey Pax!” Julie’s sweet voice filled Paxton’s ears. “What’s going on?”
“Jus’ about t’punch my trainer for bein’ a smartass,” Paxton said, grinning.
“Oh so you’re working out?” Paxton could hear her frown. “I was hoping you’d be able to get lunch.”
Paxton looked over his shoulder at Ian, who beckoned him to the ring. “I’d love nothin’ more, believe me. It’s jus’ a bad week right now. I got a title defense, and then this tournament for the school…don’t think I’m gonna have time to even eat anythin’ to be honest.”
“Well…okay. Work hard, okay? I’ll be rooting for you on your title defense!”
Paxton laughed as he entered the ring. “No ya won’t, ya can’t stand t’watch.”
Julie laughed as well, causing Paxton to smile wider. “You’re right, I won’t, but I’ll be watching Ted Lasso and thinking very positive thoughts. See you later this week?”
“Ya bet. Bye, Julie.” Paxton hung up, then sneered at Ian. “Don’t say nothin’.”
“What’s there to say? Even Hitler had a girlfriend.” Ian ducked under a right hand from Paxton and put up his fists. “So I take it you’re ready now?”
“Yep,” Paxton says. “How did the draft go?”
Ian rolled to the side and grabbed at Paxton’s leg, and Paxton kicked at him. “You sure you don’t want to talk about your opponent next week?”
Paxton shrugs. “We jus’ did. Time Lord, punts people, split personality. How’d the draft go?”
Ian shook his head and ran in. “Well, the strongest team is the one you’re on.”
“Well yeah,” Paxton said, grabbing Ian and lifting him over in a suplex. “Who did Jon pick first?”
Paxton stopped moving for a moment and was caught by a punch to the face from Ian. “Fuck!” he said, holding his face.
Paxton got to his feet and put his hands back up. “Jus’ surprised, is all. Connor ain’t really a great fighter.”
“I disagree,” said Ian, moving around Paxton and grabbing him in a waistlock.
“You hafta, you’re his uncle.” Paxton powered out of the hold and sent an elbow backwards that landed in Ian’s neck.
“It’s more than just that. Connor has been talking aikido since he was in kindergarten. He is sound technically and is probably the best pure counter attack wrestler I’ve ever seen at his age.” Ian started to circle again. “This is something I’ve noticed from you in our short time together: you underestimate people.”
Paxton shook his head, ducking under a punch. “No I don’t.”
“Oh?” Ian backed off a few paces and raised his hands to show he was done fighting, and Paxton relaxed. “Let’s look at the people you lost to. Jared Sykes, who you just thought was a little guy in a mask. Rezin, who you underestimated even though I told you not to. And what about Jenny Colton?”
“She got me with a small package. It happens.”
Ian laughed. “I was there, Pax. I saw it. She got you with a small package she never should’ve been able to get. You hit her with the Lullaby. It should’ve been over. But you picked her up to do it again. Why was that?”
Paxton smiled. “Because I wanted t’send a message. And because I like doin’ it.”
“You did send a message. You told everyone loud and clear. Here, sit down.” Ian sat in the ring and Paxton followed. “You didn’t think she’d be able to stop you, so you played with your food. And if you want to keep your title, you need to stop doing that. Did you disrespect her because she was smaller than you? Because she was a woman? You better hope not, because the person you face at 28 is a smaller woman, and she’s more than capable of beating you.” Ian looked past Paxton and pointed. “Here’s another example. The guy walking in is your opponent in the tournament. Take a look.”
Paxton turned his head to look at Kenny Truong, the young man in track pants following the giant Nathan Boswell to the far ring. He stared at him for a moment. “I know what you’re sayin’. Anyone can beat anyone. But these guys are…” Paxton stopped as a foot connected with his head, sending him to the ground.
He groggily looked up, holding his head, as Ian stood over him. “Boom, you just lost your title. Don’t underestimate anyone, and don’t lose focus.” Ian held a hand out for him.
“I’ma get ya back for that,” Paxton said, but simply grabbed his hand and let himself be lifted up.
“I hope you do.” Ian put a hand on Paxton’s shoulder. “Everyone here treats you differently. They give you a wide berth, they treat you with kid’s gloves. And it’s because everyone wants you to be something different. Foster wants you to be his ace, Jon and the others want you to be a boogey man.”
“Whaddaya want me t’be, Ian?” Paxton asked, holding his head.
“I want you to be the best goddamn wrestler you can be, and the only way that’ll happen is if I treat you like any other student. So listen to me, take your opponents seriously, and try to get everything else about Nora and MESSIAH out of your head.”
“That’ll be tough,” Paxton said, leaning against the ring ropes. “I’m the Multitudes, remember?”
Ian laughed. “Go check out your competition for the tournament. I’m going to go work with Connor.”
“Hope ya give him a boot t’the head too.”
Ian grinned. “That’s my nephew you’re talking about.” Ian exited the ring and Paxton followed him out, rubbing his head. He walked towards Kenny and Nathan Boswell and watched them work on rest holds. Out of the corner of his eye, Kenny noticed Paxton and let go of his hold.
“You scouting me?” the young man asked with a smirk.
“Somethin’ like that.”
“That’s smart, it might give you half a chance.”
Behind Kenny, Nathan Boswell scowled. “That’s not wise, kid.”
“Nah, let the boy cook,” Paxton said, walking up to the ring and pulling himself up. He looked the young man up and down and noticed his t-shirt: it was an old SCCW shirt with Jonathan Rhine’s smiling face on it. Paxton looked at Rhine’s face on the shirt, then looked back up at Kenny. “So lemme guess. Ya saw that ya got booked against the PRIME Intense Champ seconds after joinin’ the school and ya thought…yeah, I could take that guy?”
Kenny looked up at Paxton, his smile never wavering. “If I don’t believe it, then I shouldn’t be in this business.”
Paxton nodded. “Yeah, makes sense.” Then he kicked Kenny in the stomach, lifted him in the air, and planted him with a brainbuster. He rolled out of the ring and walked past the ring where Ian and Connor were watching. “Can’t underestimate ‘em if they never make it t’the match.”
Scowling, Paxton walked towards the locker rooms. Standing near the door was Bertrand Ward, his bowler hat in his hands.
“Hey Bertie,” Paxton said. “Listen, I’m kinda in a bad mood right now, so I could use some good news about Nora.”
Bertrand sighed. “I do wish I could give that to you. Unfortunately…”
“They didn’t find ‘er.”
“My suspicions seem to be correct. Timo was not there, nor was the girl. They turned the gym upside down. From what I gather, his friend El Temblor defended the gym with luchador skills and scorpions.”
“That’s what Von Krauser said. Anyway, they searched every inch. It seems the doctor was indeed lying.”
“Fuck.” Paxton rubbed his face. “So that means…”
“Yes. You are about to have to have an uncomfortable conversation with Mr. Rhine.”
Paxton banged his hand against the doorframe. “Uncomfortable for him, maybe.”
Jonathan Rhine had gone nearly three weeks successfully avoiding eye contact with his former friend and tag team partner. He left the room whenever possible, and whenever it wasn’t possible he kept his eyes on his hands. At this point the old cliche had never been more true: he could see every wrinkle on the back of his hands when he closed his eyes.
As he heard heavy footsteps outside his office door, he knew that he could no longer avoid it.
The door swung open and The Bayou Butcher entered, his lips turned down. Rhine finally looked into the eyes of the man who destroyed his life and found nothing to connect to. Gone were the days of looking for something in common, for trying to teach this man about the business.
“Hey boss,” Paxton said. “I gotta talk to ya.”
“There’s nothing for us to talk about.” Jon wheeled himself back a few feet, keeping his hands at the ready. “Anything you need from me you can get from Foster, Ian, or Nathan.”
“Nah.” Paxton walked forward and sat on the edge of Jon’s new desk. “Don’t think they can tell me what I wanna know. Ian don’t know where my daughter is.”
Jon’s eyes closed. “Your punks tried this before. I didn’t tell them. Why do you think I’ll tell you?”
Paxton slid off of the desk and took two steps around the desk. “Oh you’ll tell me. Ya didn’t know the German fucker. Ya figured ya could stand your ground…” Paxton paused to chuckle. “…and he’d back down. But ya know exactly who I am, and exactly what I’m capable of.”
“Capable of destroying a friendship. Capable of trying to kill a man who gave you a chance.” A stray tear fell down Jon’s cheek.
“Exactly,” Paxton growled. “And I’m the sort of man who ain’t gonna stop until I have my answer. So…tell me where she is.”
The silence that followed felt like ages to both men. Neither broke their stare, neither moved. Finally, Jonathan shook his head. “No.”
“No,” Paxton repeated, taking another few steps towards Jon. “Ya sure about that?”
“I’m sure. Because over a year ago, I made a promise to protect Nora. To help her fight against an unseen enemy. I pledged my time, my money, and my livelihood to that goal. And now I’m continuing to protect her against another enemy.” Jonathan looked out of the window for a moment. “You know that thing you said in the conference room? About being like Anna Daniels?”
Paxton raised his eyebrows. “A lotta people in one. Yeah, that’s me.”
“No it isn’t,” Jon said, locking eyes with Paxton again. “Father, student, wrestler? You forfeited every one of those when you put me in this chair. You aren’t multi-layered. You’re not some combination of different things. You’re only one thing.” Jon bared his teeth. “You’re a fucking monster, and Nora never wants to see you again.”
Paxton stood for a few minutes, staring at his former mentor. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened his eyes again. As he inhaled deep, he caught a whiff of fish in his nose. His hands formed into fists, and he nodded. “I guess you’re right. Jon. I’m a monster.” And he rushed forward, grabbing Jon by his shirt. He lifted Jon out of his chair, his nostrils flaring. “At least it prob’ly won’t hurt.”
Suddenly the door burst open and in walked Julie, her arms holding a paper bag. “Hey, Magen said you were in he…”
As she saw her boyfriend choking her patient, she took a step backward and the bag fell from her hands. The styrofoam container inside burst and pieces of fish and french fries spray onto the floor. She turned and ran, the door slowly closing behind her.
Paxton dropped Jon in a heap in his wheelchair, then slumped over the desk. Looking over his shoulder, his eyes once again locked with Jonathan Rhine, who flashed a wide smile.
“You’re a monster, and everyone knows.”