I. Hopes and Dreams
That’s what they’re called, right? A sudden, unsolicited insight into the mysteries of the universe. A revelation, skittering and ricocheting across your mind, bound for your very core. A voice amidst all that white noise, so loud it sounds like God. Sitting in his father’s living room with his nose still broken and his face still bruised, surrounded by championship titles hung from the walls and keepsakes from the golden age of pro-wrestling, Daytona Diamonds had one of those.
It came bearing strange fruits; harsh truths and genuine guilt. It all boiled down to a single statement, as simple as it was poignant: You really fucked up this time, buddy. Daytona felt that in his bones, wriggling like worms beneath his skin as he sat fidgeting on that ancient couch, eyes peering across the coffee table to where his father sat in his wheelchair, narrowed eyes and complete contempt on Jack Desmonds’ face, steeped in anger and tempered by years of disappointment, but he didn’t look surprised.
This was everything he’d come to expect from his firstborn son.
It wasn’t enough that Daytona still owed more money to Larry Lawson than he could ever hope to repay. It wasn’t even enough that, during his tenure with PRIME, all those fines had eaten away at his income until there was barely a penny left. Top that off with the gambling, the drinking, and the pissing off of the entire extended Troy family and… well, the epiphany says it all. You really fucked up this time, buddy. Royally. Absolutely. Completely. You took a golden opportunity and, without care or even the slightest hesitation, you ruined it. Everything touched, turned to shit. King Midas, eat your heart out.
And that’s without acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“Frank’s still missing, Daytona,” Jack said. “It’s been a month and he’s still missing.”
A month. A month. A whole fucking month. Daytona’s jaw tensed, every muscle in his body following that same cue, eyes instinctively averting away from his father and down towards the carpet. There were missing person flyers posted all over Las Vegas. The cops had been called, they took statements, and then they followed up with sweet fuckall. Daytona searched the city high and low, tunnels and back alley bars and places where most feet dare not tread, but all he had to show for it was empty hands and whispers on the wind, a giant question mark hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
“Yeah,” Daytona muttered. “I know he is, dad…”
“Well, of course you know. You’re the one who got him into this mess, ain’t you?” Jack said. “And instead of trying to find him like you oughta be doing, you’re off getting arrested and starting fights with your employer’s son. Is that what you amount to, Daytona? Attacking some boy with a goddamn chain?”
“That boy deserved it,” Daytona said. “And it ain’t got nothin’ to do with Frankie. Listen, I’m–”
“No, son, you listen to me,” his father snapped. “Your brother’s probably dead in a ditch. And if he is, it’s your fault. You get that, right? There won’t be no one to blame but you.”
It felt like a slap across the face, a punch to the gut, a knife through the heart. Most of all, it felt familiar. How many times had this happened before? How many times had Jack Desmonds belittled, disparaged, and shot his son full of holes? How many times had Daytona sat across from him, head hung low, shamefaced and conscience-stricken, crawling out of his own skin? The worst part of it was that his father was usually right. This time, especially so. Daytona knew that. How couldn’t he?
“I’m… I’m gonna find him,” Daytona said. “He ain’t dead, dad. I know he ain’t. I can feel it.”
Silence. His father only stared, daggers in his eyes and a disgusted scowl on his face. Pictures of a younger Jack Desmonds stared out from the walls with that same expression; permanently etched, forever captured. Daytona hung his head, tapping his fingers nervously on his knees. The clock on the wall ticked and tocked, each second an eternity, until his father finally waved his hand and looked away, a gesture that signified a single word: leave.
And so, Daytona left.
It would be simple to say that he left with tears in his eyes and an ache in his heart, but he didn’t. Not really. Instead, there was only a numbness, a cerebral teething. Walking through the foyer, Daytona stopped at the front door and looked back out of some longing for a different time in his life; past the staircase that led up to his and Frankie’s childhood bedroom (simpler, easier, better times), past his mother’s ashes in an urn on the mantle (sacred, holy, never forgotten), through the sliding glass door and out into the overgrown backyard. There in the half-light, as the sun dipped below the horizon and cast the world in an effervescent haze, the ruins of a wrestling ring sat amongst all those towering weeds, given back to nature like a gift; the apron torn and frayed, the ropes collapsed, the turnbuckles turned to rust.
That was where it had all begun, just a couple decades prior. That was where his father taught him how to throw a punch, how to run the ropes, how to take a bump. That was where he broke Frankie’s leg by accident and ruined any potential wrestling career his brother might have had. That was where Daytona fell in some version of love with the sport, where he found the whisper of a calling, and where he got his first taste of life in the squared circle.
That was where Daytona’s future became a poor facsimile of his father’s hopes and dreams and that fact only made him want to scream as walked out the front door.
II. Love and Violence
A good woman. A lousy motel room. A bottle of wine. A baggie of cocaine. A panacea for the soul.
As bad as Daytona felt leaving his father’s house, it didn’t take much to make himself feel better. A phone call here, a little bit of money there, and presto! Instant gratification, the king of all cure-alls! Bambi the Showgirl was curled up beside him, naked beneath the sheets, hearts in her eyes and a smile on her face. The little room in the Desert Sands Motel was a mess of discarded clothes and debauchery. It almost felt normal; her head against his shoulder, his fingers drawing little doodles along her spine, two twin high maintenance machines in the throes of a would-be romance if they were two different people with two different lives.
“My friend keeps telling me you’re dangerous, you know,” she told him. “Says you’re real bad news.”
“Yeah?” Daytona asked with a grin. “Why d’ya think she says that?”
“Probably because she saw you choke another man with a chain on live TV,” Bambi said. “Call me crazy, but that might be part of it.”
“Aw hell, is that all?” Daytona scoffed. “Listen, that boy had it comin’. Walkin’ ’round all high and mighty just ’cause his bitch of a mother owns the damn place. If’n there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s god dang nepotism.”
Another smile, a roll of her eyes, a kiss on the cheek, and then she reached for the nightstand, plucking a clove cigarette from her fresh pack.
“If you say so, cowboy,” she said, cigarette perched between her lips as she fished beneath the covers for a lighter. “But maybe you should take it easy on him in that match next week, huh? We don’t want my friends getting the wrong ideas about you.”
“Oh honey, that friend of yours best not tune in,” Daytona said. “That boy declared war. He sicced his god dang dog on me and got my nose broken. I ain’t takin’ that sittin’ down.”
Bambi sat up on her knees, taking a long draw from her cigarette, glassy eyed and higher than a kite. “Yeah?” she asked. “What are you gonna do to him?”
“Well, that’s easy,” Daytona said. “I’m gonna break every fuckin’ bone in his body and give his mama somethin’ good to whine at me about. He ain’t never gonna forget my name.”
“Fuck, that’s hot,” Bambi beamed. “You’re so bad.”
It had been a month since they met in the casino lounge where she told him about The Shaman and three weeks since he found her again. At first, he blamed her for Frankie’s disappearance. They had a shouting match right there on the casino floor that led out onto the sidewalks until they were up in each other’s faces, hurling obscenities back and forth… until eventually he was kissing her and she was kissing him back and… well, from there, it was a lot harder to stay mad.
“This is the big one, honey,” Daytona said. “I’m gonna march out there and show all them peckerwoods just how damn good I really am. That boy’s fixin’ to learn. I’m leavin’ Louisville a god dang star. You’re about to be arm and arm with the next big thing. You like that?”
“I love that,” she told him. “I always wanted to date a celebrity.”
And then they were kissing again, bodies intertwining, passions flaring… until a loud bang echoed through the whole room and the door was nearly knocked off its hinges, wood splintering where the lock broke through. Daytona jumped up fast, just in time to see Jimmy Knuckles rushing into the motel room, Hugo Alvarez following right behind him.
Daytona started to say something that sounded a lot like pleading.
Jimmy Knuckles just laughed.
He grabbed Daytona by the hair and dragged him out of bed, naked body clambering across the floor. Bambi wrapped herself in the bed sheets, moving fast to the furthest corner of the room as Jimmy Knuckles lifted Daytona to his feet and delivered a quick punch to the stomach. The air came barrelling of Daytona’s lungs, eyes bulging and body going weightless. Hugo lit a cigarette as he looked from Daytona to Bambi and then back to Daytona.
“Well, well,” Hugo said. “Sorry for the intrusion, folks. Is this a bad time?”
Daytona was gasping, looking to Hugo as he tried to catch his breath. “Hugo, Jimmy… guys, listen… I ain’t–”
“Oh, shut the fuck up, Daytona,” Hugo said. “Remember when I said you had two months to pay back what you owe? Well, time’s up, buddy. Larry wants to see you.”
Daytona’s heart sank. Bambi looked shell-shocked in the corner, clinging to the covers. Hugo only smiled.
“Let’s not keep him waiting, huh?”
Jimmy Knuckles reared back his fist again. This punch caught Daytona’s jaw and sent his head sideways. Another scream poured from Bambi’s mouth, but to Daytona, it sounded muffled and distant, fading along with every other sound. His eyes were full of fireworks, exploding and growing brighter, until another punch caught his already broken nose…
…and then the whole world went black.
III. Devils and Deals
That’s what they’re called, right? Waking up in the trunk of a car, wrists cuffed behind his back and a cloth gag between his lips, Daytona Diamonds had one of those. It came quiet, trickling into his brain like a stream into a river, flooding his consciousness until there was no room left for any other thought. It all boiled down to a single statement, as simple as it was poignant: You really, really, really fucked up this time, buddy.
Daytona was in a half-daze. His jaw ached and so did his nose, dried blood crusting above his upper lip. He was in a fetal position, wriggling and squirming helplessly, panic building in his chest until it worked its way into his brain. Muffled screams and kicking legs, eyes all bloodshot in the darkness, that impending sense of doom and dread and death like a specter haunting his very being.
For thirty minutes, Daytona laid there feeling like he was suffocating until the car began to slow. The road turned to gravel and he jostled around in the compartment, bouncing with the tires, until everything stopped and the engine sputtered to a halt. Seconds, minutes, hours, days; time meant nothing here. This was purgatory. There was only darkness and waiting, the worst thoughts of all racing through the bombed out streets of his mind. Daytona didn’t know how long it was before the trunk’s hatch popped open, but when it did, he looked up to see Jimmy Knuckles and Hugo Alvarez staring down at him, side by side with smiles full of malice etched into their faces.
“C’mon,” Jimmy said, grabbing Daytona by the arm and hoisting him out of the trunk. “Let’s go.”
“And don’t you try anything funny, buddy,” Hugo said, flashing a gun in front of Daytona’s face. “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be. You get me?”
Daytona stumbled on bare feet across the gravel driveway, led by Jimmy Knuckles’ hand wrapped tight across his shoulder. They were somewhere in the desert, Las Vegas a lifetime away, every star in the cosmos visible in the pitch black sky. In the distance, coyotes howled at the moon. Up ahead, an opulent ranch house sat like a beacon in the night, warm light bleeding out from the windows. Hugo and Jimmy led Daytona through the front door without even knocking.
They were in an expansive foyer, decorated in farmhouse chic; wood floors and expensive furnishings, the smell of fine leather and fresh tobacco wafting through the air. They led Daytona down a hallway hung with paintings of the desert at dusk, the sun pouring red wine over the landscape, beautiful and foreboding in equal measure. Through a pair of ornate double doors and they were in a room with a roaring fireplace, elegant and timeless, dimly lit, a gilded ceiling with golden filigree, leather upholstered armchairs, an ambiance that screamed wealth and luxury.
There amongst all those grand trappings, Larry Lawson sat in a chair next to the fireplace, a cigar between his lips, the smoke tracing a ladder to the ceiling. Daytona’s heart folded in on itself. Larry looked up and smiled.
He was an older man on the wrong end of his seventies, but in no way reduced by time’s forward march. Skin as white as a cotton field, gray hair worn atop his head like an unkempt crown, clean shaven, slender and refined. He exuded a sense of purpose, each movement however slight seemingly preordained. One leg crossed over the other, dressed as if he were going to a funeral. He stood to meet Daytona. When he spoke, each syllable was slow and deliberate, measured as to not let a single word go to waste.
“Thank you for joining me tonight, Daytona,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see you. Boys, would you care to uncuff our guest and remove his gag? I believe we have matters to discuss.”
Jimmy nodded, producing a key from his pocket and unlatching Daytona’s handcuffs before pulling the gag from his mouth. Hugo left the room, shutting the doors behind him. Immediately, Daytona began to frantically search for the right words to say.
“Larry, I think we oughta take it eas–”
“No, no. None of that,” Larry interjected. “For now, why don’t you take a seat and get comfortable?”
Daytona didn’t have a choice in the matter. Jimmy shoved him towards a chair, plopping him down on the seat. There was a long stretch of silence, Daytona staring at Larry and Larry staring back, the crackle of the fire singing like a funeral dirge.
“You gonna kill me?” Daytona asked.
“No,” Larry said. “I don’t think I will. Not yet, at least.”
“I ain’t got your money,” Daytona said. “I tried, but I jus–”
“Oh, I knew you wouldn’t,” Larry said. “We’ll get to that. But first, how would you like some good news, Daytona? You look like you could use it.”
Daytona blinked rapidly, not sure how to answer. Good news from Larry Lawson was very rarely actually good, and when it was, it was always tainted by consequence.
“You’re no fun,” Larry said. “Fine. Hugo! Bring in our other guest, please!”
Silence, for a few brief moments, and then those double doors swung opened wide. Daytona turned to look, bracing himself for impact, but nothing could have prepared him for what came next. Hugo stood at the threshold of the room with Frankie in tow, his brother dazed and wide-eyed, arms hung limp by his sides.
“You no good sonuvabitch,” Daytona began to shout. “What’s he doin’ here?! What the hell did you do to him, Larry?!”
“I thought you’d be happier,” Larry said with a faux pout. “We found him behind a 7-Eleven, scared and ranting about shamans and hoodoo. Can you believe that?”
Daytona looked towards his brother again, but Frankie didn’t react. He only stared vacantly, slackjawed with a trickle of drool hanging from his lower lip.
“It’s been quite precarious, I’d say. We’ve kept him cared for and medicated, as you can see,” Larry said. “With any luck, he’ll be right as rain in no time at all… that is, of course, if you’re willing to play ball, Daytona.”
Daytona squeezed his hands into the arms of the chair until his knuckles turned white. He watched as Hugo lifted his gun and placed it against Frankie’s temple.
“Alright, alright,” Daytona said. “I see how it is. Whaddya want, Larry? Quit jerkin’ me off and get to the fuckin’ point already.”
“Well, that’s simple,” Larry said. “I’ve kept my eye on you in PRIME, you know. You’ve made quite a name for yourself, albeit for the wrong reasons. I suspect that this is partially your brother’s fault, wouldn’t you say? As your agent, he’s only acted as an enabler for your worst impulses. Seeing as he’s rather incapacitated at the moment, I’d say this is the perfect opportunity to find you a handler who knows how to keep you on a short leash… and I suspect I might be the best man for that job.”
“You… you wanna be my agent?” Daytona asked, confusion taking hold. “The hell’s in it for you?”
“My money, for one,” Larry said. “I’ll be taking a majority cut of your earnings. That means we’ll need to be a bit more careful about those fines, yes? And, just to sweeten the pot, I’ve decided I’ll be making a few bets here and there on your matches. So, when I say win, it’s in your brother’s best interest that you win. And when I say lose, well… what’s a little bit of match rigging between business partners, hm?”
“Nuh-uh,” Daytona said, shaking his head back and forth. “Ain’t no fuckin’ way I’m losin’ just to fill your god dang coffers, Lawson.”
“Oh, but you will,” Larry said. “Eventually. Not yet, don’t worry. We still have to build you up, don’t you? Under my tutelage, you can be everything you pretend to be. A superstar, world renowned, the best there’s ever been. Why, we can start with your next match, can’t we? Against Kazuhiro Troy, isn’t it? I saw what you did to that young man, Daytona. The Troys aren’t the type of people you want to make enemies with, but I suppose legends are built on their own hubris. I’ve already placed a bet in your favor. Did you know the odds are against you, Daytona? The bookies don’t believe in you like I do.”
“Well, they better fuckin’ start,” Daytona shouted, his pride getting the better of him. “I ain’t losin’ that match. You can dang well count on that.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Larry said. “For your brother’s sake. That being said, I want you to walk out there and not only win the match, but prove a point. Show that you’re a force to be reckoned with. I want you to make our dear Kazuhiro suffer. Break his nose like they broke yours. Let the ring run red with blood. I have a lot of money riding on this being a star making performance, Daytona. Do you understand?”
“I was already plannin’ on all that,” Daytona said. “That boy ain’t leavin’ Louisville the same way he came in.”
“Good,” Larry said. “That’s exactly what I hoped to hear. So, I take it we have a deal?”
Larry’s hand extended out for a handshake, hovering in midair. Daytona hesitated, looking from Larry’s hand to his brother and back again. He bit at his lower lip. He weighed every option only to find there was only one choice to be made, one way to keep his whole world from crashing down.
A resigned sigh.
A slow nod.
Daytona took hold of Larry’s hand and they shook.