It’s funny how things change as one becomes more successful.
The first time Nate Colton met with Alexa Van Horn, ACE Network’s Vice Director of Marketing and Public Relations, he waited in the lobby for twenty-five minutes before finally being sent back into her office.
A month later, Alexa came to the front personally, after only a five-minute wait.
Today, she was waiting for him as soon as he arrived.
“Nathan! So good to see you!” she said as he came through the doors. Before Nate even reached the front desk, Alexa was shaking his hand.
“You too,” he replied. “So what’s on the agenda for today? That big opportunity you’ve been talking about?”
“Absolutely. It’s time to make you the face of ACE,” she said, wearing her well-practiced smile of perfection. “But first, I want to show you something. Follow me.”
She led the way through the hall and back to her office, with Nate trailing a few steps behind. “Like a well-trained dog,” she would later tell her associates. Upon their arrival, she stood to one side and allowed Colton to enter the room, then waved her hand at a series of posters on the wall.
“What do you think?”
Nate looked at the row of posters, each one emblazoned with the Culture Shock logo but featuring a different match. Eminence vs. Winds of Change. Matt Ward vs. Brandon Youngblood. The Culture Shock Battle Royal.
And there, front and center, was the poster for the Five Star Title match. Nate Colton vs. Tyler Adrian Best. Nate’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his upcoming challenger.
“Don’t you just love it? Both men from great wrestling families, carrying a legacy into the next generation…but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different.”
“Meh, I dunno, shit all kinda looks the same to me,” a third voice unexpectedly croaked behind them.
To the surprise of both Colton and Van Horn, someone else had been waiting there in the office. Nate turned in time to see the wrestler Erik Black, better known to the mainstream world by the handle of Rezin, wearing the smug and dirty grin of a bastard.
A grin that swiftly morphed into a grimace as soon as a small but powerful fist found its way into his throat.
“NEVER sneak up on me like that again, asshole!” hissed Alexa, suddenly furious. She was never one to take kindly to unexpected surprises. So much so that she took personal defense classes on the side for such occasions, as Rezin had come to learn the hard way.
In an instant he was on the floor, struggling to breathe. Colton was more surprised seeing Van Horn’s vicious side coming out than the Universal Champion’s sudden appearance there in the office.
“How did you get in here?” she went on. “And where in the hell have you been? Didn’t anyone ever teach you what a phone is after they thawed you out of the ice?”
Unable to speak at that moment, Rezin answered by extending a finger. The finger. Van Horn likewise extended her leg. Multiple times, into his arms, chest, and back. Wincing and grunting with every shot, Rezin curled into a ball and did his best to cover up.
“Do not start with me, you piece of shit!” Alexa rasped over him, her high-heeled stomps raining down without impunity. “Ever since you won that title, my life has been an absolute hell! Do you have any idea what sort of position you’ve put this network into? What you’ve put me into?!”
By the time she had finished kicking him (the shoes were Louis Vuitton, and she’d be damned if she ruined them on this worthless scumbag), the Goat Bastard’s fit of coughing and choking slowly and subtly crossed over into laughter that sounded like gravel swilling at the bottom of a sludge-filled shop-vac.
“Well I’m glad I don’t disappoint in doin’ what I do best,” he said as he uncovered his hands from his face and revealed the grin to have reappeared, in spite of the physical toll that came with it.
Van Horn huffed in exasperation and went to her desk. “I don’t have time for this…”
“I think that’s enough,” Nate quipped as he offered to help him up. “How about we start over, and everybody plays nice this time?”
Rezin looked at Nate’s hand in muddled contempt before pushing himself up on his own power.
“Who says I’m here to play, Evansville?” he said back on his feet. “Was in town, figured I’d swing by to pitch some t-shirt ideas to Vanderbilt here.”
“The name is Van Horn, you idiot,” Alexa corrected from her desk. “And nobody is going to print that stupid drawing you sent me of a goatman sacrificing a naked woman over a pentagram inside of a giant bong.”
The Universal and Five Star Champions stood face to face for a moment, taking each other in. It was the first time they’d really been around one another in a few weeks, ever since that tense encounter backstage at the show.
Fortunately, Hayes had been there to keep it from getting ugly. But it remained to be seen if the vice director would need to jump in and act as referee.
“Actually, I’m glad you’re here, Rezin.” said Nate.
Rezin snorted. “No you’re not.”
“No, I’m not,” Nate admitted. “But since you are here, afterwards we can go over the match we’ve got coming up.”
Rezin scoffed. Colton, who was by now familiar with much of the Goat Bastard’s more vicious quirks, mindfully leaned back to avoid the spray.
“Slow down on this ‘we’ business, kid. Just because they booked us together don’t mean I have any intention of teamin’ up with ya. I figure since ya went and pissed me off a few weeks ago, ya can deal with Youngblood and Sykes on your own.”
“What the f–what the hell, man?” Nate snapped, almost forgetting his manners after Rezin’s announcement. “I’m not in love with the idea of teaming with you either, but that’s no reason to just bail.”
Rezin shrugged. “As if there’s a reason to go through with it? Normies like you cramp my style.”
“You can’t be serious!” exclaimed Alexa sternly, inserting herself into the conversation. “I’ve personally got a lot riding on Nate right now, you will not ruin this opportunity for him by abandoning him in the main event!”
The Goat Bastard’s attention went back to the vice director. Something about the authoritarian edge in her voice seemed to tickle his intrigue. It just begged him to further push her buttons.
“And just what are ya gonna do about it?” he daringly asked.
Her teeth now visibly grinding together as she struggled to keep her anger in check, Van Horn slowly rose from her desk.
“Listen, asshole,” she began. “If you hate yourself so much that you’ve become determined to slowly commit suicide by wrestling yourself to death, then fine by me. But do us all a favor, and go do it in a pole barn or bingo hall back in whatever bayou bumpkin promotion you came from. Within this network, there are people actually trying to run a business. Actual careers are at stake here. And unlike sensible people like Nate here, you’re using your status as champion to disrupt everything we’re working toward!”
Rezin groaned, having probably heard this speech being told to him so many times he’s become bored with it.
“Lady, this is professional wrestlin’. This business ain’t something anyone can ever control. Shit happens all the time in this sport. If ya had any brains or real wit, you’d find a way to roll with it. That’s what keeps gettin’ me by, anyway.”
“Whatever,” Alexa’s eyes rolled hard. “I’d be happy to see how far you roll after I have security throw your ass out of here.”
“I’m on my way out anyway, but I appreciate the offer,” he said, gesturing toward the posterized likenesses of Nate Colton and Tyler Adrian Best. “I’ll leave the two of ya to your corporate propaganda party, or whatever it is ya got goin’ on here. I see ya snubbed me again on the poster. Classy move, Vanderbilt.”
“Well, Erik, if you actually showed up for your scheduled photoshoots, maybe you would be on there,” Van Horn snapped back. “Haven’t you noticed your championship photo on the website hasn’t been updated? We even tried to mock something up using AI with the words ‘Rezin as Universal Champion’. It crashed the server.”
Nate couldn’t help but snicker, earning him another sideways glance.
“I take pride in that, actually,” grunted Rezin with another salutary puff from his spliff. “But whatever, I’m out. Have fun in Houston, Evansville.”
With that, the Goat Bastard crowed with laughter and deliberately bumped into Colton’s shoulder as he went for the door.
“What are you going to do now?” Alexa asked Nate as he joined her at her desk.
“Guess I’ll have to go it alone,” Colton replied with a sigh.
“You’re joking,” Van Horn said. “You can’t possibly think you can win on your own.”
The young man from Evansville shook his head. “Nope. But I’m not about to miss out on my first main event, and certainly not against two of the best wrestlers in the company.”
“I suppose not, but it’s still not ideal,” said Alexa, watching Rezin open the door with a look of indignation. “But who knows? Maybe it’s more ‘punk rock’ to just walk away from opportunities like that?”
Colton could tell where she was going, and decided to roll with it.
“Maybe,” he said agreeably, slyly throwing her a wink. “Can’t say I’ve ever been interested in that. I just know I wasn’t raised to back down from a challenge, no matter how bad it looked.”
“Bravery in the face of certain defeat? The viewers are going to eat that up,” Van Horn said with a grin, as if she were already counting the t-shirt sales. “I applaud your courage, even if it’s not the ‘punk rock’ thing to do.”
Upon hearing these words, Rezin froze mid step on his way out the door. Knowing they had him hooked, Colton and Van Horn exchanged smiles. They probably would have high fived, had it not been too obvious.
“Ya know, on second thought…” began the Goat Bastard, turning back into the room. “What kinda message would the ANTI-Champion be sendin’ to the meager masses if he weren’t out there in the ring, showin’ them what an all-out wrestling APOCALYPSE really looks like!”
He pointed across the room. At Nate.
“So FINE, Evansville! I suppose this one time I will resist the urge to vomit at the sight of your bland, boring face and stand at that corner with ya! If anything, just so Youngblood has someone he can suplex into a pulp, while I catch Sykes cryin’ all over himself or whatever and put him out of his misery!”
With that, the Escape Artist twirled and left.
“I hate to–” Nate started, but was cut off by Rezin slamming Alexa’s door. He waited a few seconds before trying again, but only got as far as “I ha–” before he was cut off again, this time by the outer door to the ACE Network offices.
Colton took a breath, and after deciding it was safe, tried one more time. “I hate to do this…but I should go too. Gotta head up to the Old Strip for that commercial shoot.”
Van Horn gave him a disappointed look. “We still need to go over this contract. I wanted to fully secure our partnership as soon as possible.”
“I know,” he replied. “But I didn’t leave a lot of time for this meeting, and then Rezin…happened. Do you mind if I take a copy to go over at home?”
“Of course,” Alexa said, and picked up a nondescript blue folder from her desk.
“Thanks,” he said as he took the documents. “I’ll call in a couple of days, and then we can get this done! Have a good one!”
They shook hands again, and Nate took his leave, making sure to give warm smiles to everyone else he passed in the ACE offices. A few short steps later, he was out in the hallway. He pressed the call button, then opened the blue folder and leafed through the papers as he waited for the elevator to arrive.
“Man, could they print this any smaller?” he muttered, just as the door started to open. “Gonna have to get a magnifying glass to just to–”
Just as he was about to walk through the doors, a head popped in from around the corner and screamed. “HEEEYYY THERE, PARD!”
Not even close, Nate.
Colton dropped his papers, then cast an annoyed glare at Rezin as he scooped them up off the floor. “Should have let Van Horn keep kicking the shit out of you.”
Rezin smiled broadly, proud of another job well done. “Goin’ down?”
Nate snarled a little, but finally stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor. Rezin pressed the same button himself…as well as the buttons for most of the floors in between. Not second, though. He knew what kind of shifty bastards hung out there, and wasn’t about to give them a chance to do their dirty work.
“Seriously?” Colton asked. The Goat Bastard locked eyes with him…and pressed the button for the second floor as well. He could use Colton as a human shield if those fuckers tried anything.
Nate rolled his eyes, but said nothing, and the pair of Hoosiers rode in silence down to the next floor down, where the doors opened for nobody. As the elevator closed again, Colton finally decided to break the tension, after a quick check to ensure the elevator had no fire extinguishers.
“So…you knew Brent Herschberger, then.”
Rezin’s expression turned sour, even more than usual. “Yeah, I knew him. Dude was a piece of shit. What of it?”
“I assume there’s a story there, or you wouldn’t have tried to kill me the last time I brought him up.”
Rezin groaned. “There’s not much more I can tell ya that you prolly ain’t already heard. Dude was supposedly a great wrestler. Coulda gone on to be something greater, but then he tried to break something that couldn’t be broken, and fucked up his career. His whole life, actually.”
The doors opened. And closed.
“Hmm.” Nate knew there was more to the story, but wasn’t sure he could get any more out of the Goat Bastard, and he knew he couldn’t get away with “sharing your personal secrets is punk rock.” Nate was about to try a different approach, but before he could–and moments before they stopped at the fifth floor–Rezin started up again.
“Ya wanna know another name I knew back around that time, while we’re talkin’ about the wrestler’s of the ‘great state’ of Indiana’s past? Here’s one for ya… Jake Colton.”
Nate cocked an eyebrow, and his fists tensed slightly. He didn’t want to start a brawl in an elevator…but while he could ignore Jabber’s litany of assholes talking shit about his family, he couldn’t do that in person. It would violate not just his personal code of ethics but also Indiana state law, which famously begins: “Say That to My Face, You Son of a Bitch.”
“It was down in Evansville for an independent gig in the spring of aught-two, I think my third or fourth real show since I left home. He didn’t fight, obviously. Your old man was already on the national circuit by then, so it’s not like they could afford him. But that night he was in town and hangin’ backstage to see some old friends.”
Fourth floor. The doors open and close.
“I’m there, some scrawny kid in a goat mask, grindin’ for his hotdog and handshake, as they say. I’m gettin’ my ass lit up by dudes twice my size on a near nightly basis, and this night’s no different. But it is what it is; I’m just wantin’ a few bucks and a chance to get some time in between the ropes.
“I’m backstage, back bruised from my neck to my asscrack, practically crawlin’ back to the locker room, and there’s Jake Colton, just lookin’ at me like I was something that had come crawled its was out of his toilet. Lookin’ at me like, ‘This fuckin’ kid is never gonna make it.’ Ya know what he says then?
“He says, ‘Jesus Christ, kid. Hang it up before you get yourself killed.”
Erik Black winces slightly.
“Mind you, my background wasn’t exactly on the up and up. I learned to wrestle in backyards and scrap heaps. Back then, my heroes were the Novas and the High Flyers. If ya told me something as simple as ‘collar-and-elbow’, I woulda confused it for a Muay Thai Dog Collar Deathmatch. I was an idiot back then, I know now. So I don’t hold it against your old man for feelin’ the way he did.”
Nate relaxed a little as he took in the Goat Bastard’s story. “I’m sorry he couldn’t help you. I know he wasn’t really thinking about training other people until pretty late in his career.”
Second floor. Rezin’s eyes darted back and forth, waiting for the first sign of trouble so he could shove the Next Diamond into it. Fortunately, the doors closed again without incident.
“My issue ain’t with him. But you? Ya had everything I ever wanted. Had the training. Had the opportunities. Ya were groomed to be great… and it pisses me off seein’ you hot-shotted right to the front, like back up there on that poster, while I had to become great through twenty years of constant struggle and sufferin’.”
Finally, Nate had enough, and turned to face the ANTI-Champion. “Hey, man. I know how it looks, the hotshot kid with the famous dad getting all the breaks, while you had to work a lot harder and longer to get to the same place. That sucks, and it ain’t fair. But let me tell you two things. First…my old man had to go through a lot of shit too, before he made his name. All he wants is to make sure things are better for us than they were for him. I bet you can understand that.”
Rezin said nothing. He stared back in quiet silence. Then the doors came open again…
On the first floor, a mousey mailroom clerk suddenly looked quite reluctant to interrupt whatever these two rough-looking individuals were sorting out.
“I’ll…get the next one,” she said, and the doors closed.
Nate continued, as if someone had just pressed the Pause button after sitting back down on the couch. “And second…yeah, he’s helped me out a ton, on both sides of the business. But he never handed me a single damn thing. Everything he gave me, he made sure I’d earned it first. God, it used to piss me off, but now I’m glad for it. Made me appreciate what I’ve got, instead of walking around like another entitled asshole. So maybe to you it looks like I’m getting pushed to the front of the line, but I promise you that I worked for what I’ve got, and I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Rezin stood in silence for another tense moment, until finally opening his pants, pulling out a joint, and lighting it up.
“…okay, kid.” he said after taking the first drag. “I’ll give ya the benefit of the doubt on that. But I still don’t hafta like it. Ya might think you’ve earned what ya got, but one day you’ll come to find that there’s more to bein’ a ‘great wrestler’ than havin’ it all handed to ya. Something that prick Tyler prolly knows nothin’ about. Ask yourself, what would you be without it all? Why do you want it?”
With a ding, the elevator reached the ground floor and opened its doors for the final time. “Maybe you’ve got a point,” Nate said. “I got a question for you, too. When are you going to realize that not everyone wants to screw you over?”
Unfortunately, he said this to an empty elevator. The Escape Artist had already worked his magic.