I. Dollars and Cents
The first fist felt like a wrecking ball.
The second one, more like a freight train.
The morning sun bled orange light through the motel room’s only window and there was Daytona Diamonds, doubled over against the wall and falling to one knee on the dirt speckled carpet; his eyes bulging out from their sockets, his mouth gasping for the air that had just been knocked out from his lungs, that familiar mix of panic and dread finding residence within the crevices of his brain. It wasn’t that he was unaccustomed to taking a punch, but a fist to the gut from Jimmy Knuckles was something altogether different.
Jimmy loomed over him like a bird of prey, cracking his neck and snarling his lips, all bulging veins and infinite muscles, a brick shithouse by any other name. Hugo Alvarez sat on the edge of the bed with one leg crossed over the other, checking the time on his knockoff Rolex while his pencil-thin mustache twitched in tandem with the corners of his mouth. For a moment, however brief and however unlikely, Daytona had thought they wouldn’t find him there, that he’d pulled a good enough disappearing act that he might have been able to buy himself a few more weeks of respite. He knew better, of course, but where would we be without wishful thinking? These two were bloodhounds and they lived for the thrill of the hunt. Jimmy Knuckles, former heavyweight boxer turned deranged debt collector. Hugo Alvarez, former part-time used car salesman turned full-time sociopath.
This was what they did for a living.
This was their modus operandi.
This was their calling.
“You know, we really ought to stop meeting like this, Daytona,” Hugo said. “Say, how many times does this make now, Jimmy? Three times? Four?”
“Five times,” Jimmy growled. “I’ve been keepin’ count.”
“Five times, Daytona!” Hugo shouted, moving to stand. “Smack him again, Jimmy. I’d say this asshole’s earned it, don’t you think?”
An open palm strike across the side of the head sent Daytona sideways, tumbling down and down and down towards the carpet. For a split second, somewhere between Hugo’s command and the impact of Jimmy’s hand, Daytona took the opportunity to consider what had led him there and then, in that moment, in that space, flirting with his would-be oblivion.
It went like this.
Out there past The Strip with its monolithic hotels like headstones for the whole human race, past the neon lights and the everlasting spectacle and the spinning plates of modern life, past the legions of tourists spending their honest dollars on dishonest vices and the chef-turned-celebrity restaurants and magicians flanked by tigers and all the ephemera of simple existence in a place that only exists for the sake of excess, the neighborhood known as Naked City sat on an acre of bone.
It was only a few blocks off of Las Vegas Boulevard, tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, a whole district that acted as a drainage ditch for all of the city’s worst impulses. This was a place where gunshots rang out all through the night, where the denizens stalked the streets like emaciated zombies, where businesses operated with bars over their windows and locks on every door.
Amongst it all, The Desert Dream Motel sat on a lonely corner all by itself; an overgrown parking lot given back to nature like a gift, sun peeled paint on the exterior walls, and a pylon sign out front with the motel’s name written in neon cursive, most of the bulbs burnt out. A sign advertising weekly rates hung proudly in the office window, the vacancy light shining so bright that it might as well have been blinding.
Daytona Diamonds had been living there for seven whole days, for better or for worse.
A week and a half prior, he’d gotten the call from PRIME headquarters and he’d packed his entire life into a set of suitcases, leaving Carson City to chase the biggest opportunity of his life, a chance to make something more out of nothing but a hope and a prayer. The Desert Dream hadn’t been his first choice, but the price was right and his wallet was practically anorexic. It would do, for the time being; a stop gap on the road to fame, fortune, and all of those other old dreams just waiting to be realized.
Daytona had been wrestling for the better part of six years, stumbling forward in his father’s oversized footsteps. He’d made a name for himself in the Southwest headlining small time independent shows held in community center gymnasiums with no more than a dozen audience members, dive bars where the drunks pelted the ring with empty beer cans, and even the occasional county fair where he existed as little more than a sideshow act on the pathway towards the livestock auction. The problem with making a name for yourself is that a name does nothing to pay the bills. Even worse, the only things that Daytona loved more than wrestling was gambling more than he could afford to lose and snorting enough cocaine to make a Wall Street yuppie blush. He drank until his kidneys conspired in secret against the rest of his body and offered himself up to women like a gift from the gods all while he sped towards rock bottom with all the grace and precision of a kingfisher diving into concrete.
From there, it was only a matter of time before his life of excess led him to the loan sharks.
Daytona pushed himself back up from where he’d fallen on the floor, wiping a streak of bloody spit from his busted lower lip. He looked up towards Jimmy and Hugo, wide-eyed and tongue tied, his voice sputtering out in a series of vowels and half-frenzied pleas.
“Uh… I… listen! Just stop for a god dang second and listen!” Daytona shouted. “Hear me out here, boys! Things are changin’! I’m changin’! C’mon now, we ain’t got to do this!”
“Here we go again,” Hugo sighed as he knelt down so that he was level with Daytona’s eyes. “Tsk, tsk. Exactly how many second chances are you expecting, Daytona? Do you even know how much money you owe Mr. Lawson at this point? Jimmy, go on and tell him.”
“Two hundred and fifty-six thousand, two hundred and seventy-seven dollars,” Jimmy said. “And twenty-four cents. I’ve been keepin’ count.”
“He’s been keepin’ count, buddy!,” Hugo said, reaching out to pinch either side of Daytona’s cheeks between his thumb and index finger. “We all have. And Mr. Lawson, especially. He’s not happy, Daytona. He’s got a soft spot for you and we both know how far back he goes with your daddy, but that kindness only goes so far. If you were anybody else, well… Lake Meade’s just a short drive up the road, isn’t it?”
It all began and ended with Larry Lawson. He was an old sonuvabitch, but just as vicious as the day he was born. Once upon a time, he was a wrestling promoter out of Carson City and he built a small empire with Daytona’s father as the cornerstone, but those were different times and the sport had changed in a thousand different ways. It wasn’t long before Mr. Lawson discovered the wonders of lending out money beneath the table at higher rates than anyone in their right mind was willing to agree to. In a place like Nevada, though, desperation ran deep and so did degeneracy. You’d be surprised what a man might agree to just to scratch his own specific itch.
“I know, god dangit, I know,” Daytona spoke through pursed lips. “Just… I’ve got a big thing goin’ here, you get me? I’m talkin’ big, boys! I got a call from PRIME! Y’all have heard of PRIME, ain’tcha? It’s the big leagues! Top of the mountain! This time six months from now, I’m gonna be livin’ in high cotton and I’ll pay back every red cent I owe! Cross my heart!”
Hugo paused. His eyes gleamed like gold dust in that fluorescent light, tightening his fingers on the sides of Daytona’s face before finally letting go. His head tilted to the side as he stroked his chin in consideration.
“Is that so, Daytona?” he finally asked. “If you’re bullshitting me right now, it ain’t going to be good for you.”
“No bullshit,” Daytona sputtered. “Swear on my mom’s grave, Hugo. This is it. This is my big break. Just give me a chance, okay? One more chance. That’s all I’m askin’ for. Tell Mr. Lawson I’m gonna do right by him.”
“One more chance,” Hugo muttered. “One more chance, one more chance, one more chance…”
An exasperated sigh escaped from Hugo’s throat as he moved to stand. He fished a crumpled pack of cigarettes out from his pocket and placed one between his lips, lighting it up and taking a long drag as he shook his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. Jimmy Knuckles never stopped staring down at Daytona, baring his teeth like a rabid dog. Daytona stared back and didn’t dare start to stand, haunched back against the wall with both eyes darting back and forth.
“Here’s the thing, Daytona,” Hugo said. “You’ve got two months. No more, no less.”
“Two months?!” Daytona shouted. “C’mon now, I need more time than that! I’ve got to get myself establis–”
“Two months,” Hugo repeated. “And that’s a gift from Mr. Lawson, not from me. If it were up to us… well…”
There was a long silence between the three men, the threat hanging unspoken in midair. It didn’t need to be said. Daytona knew exactly what Hugo meant. Jimmy Knuckles looked disappointed, turning and walking towards the front door with one last scoff. Hugo lingered for a few moments more, finishing his cigarette before flicking the still-smoldering butt towards Daytona where he sat on the floor. A wide grin spread across Hugo’s lips as he watched Daytona squirm, winking as he turned and made his way towards the door.
“We’ll be seeing you soon, Daytona,” he called back. “Real, real soon.”
And just like that, Daytona was able to breathe again, even if only for a moment.
II. Born Under Punches
“Jesus Christ, Daytona. You look like shit.”
Frank stared, half-concerned and half-surprised, from across the booth to where his older brother sat. Daytona was slumped over with an ice pack against the side of his head and eyes full of daggers, the cowboy hat that sat atop his head casting a long shadow across his entire face.
“Tell me somethin’ I don’t know, Frankie,” Daytona muttered. “Sons of bitches caught me with my pants ‘round my ankles. Knocked on the door, I went to answer it, and bam! That’s when all hell broke loose, I reckon. I hadn’t even had my damn coffee yet.”
“Wait, wait,” Frank said. “Which sons of bitches are we talking about this time?”
“Hugo and Jimmy,” Daytona muttered. “You know the ones.”
“Aw dammit, Daytona!” Frank shouted. “I told you to stop messing around with those mobsters! You see what happens?!”
“It ain’t like I invited ’em over for a cup of tea, Frankie!” Daytona shouted back. “And they ain’t no damned mobsters! Jesus! They’re just a couple of low-rent good-for-nothings that Larry keeps around to do the dirty work he don’t got the balls to do himself. This ain’t the 1950s, Frankie. Ain’t no god dang mob in Las Vegas.”
The Blue Velvet Bar and Grill had become one of the only bastions of sanity in Daytona’s week-long stay in Sin City. It was a rinky-dink little shithole down some rusted alley where they kept the lights turned way down low and nobody spoke unless they absolutely had to. They just sat there in the darkness and practiced the ancient art of self-destruction where nobody else could see them. The stucco walls were left bare and painted jet black so that it looked like the bar stretched into infinity. The bartender only ever spoke in a series of affirming grunts with the occasional growl mixed in for good measure. The air was heavier than it should have been and the whole place smelled like a mixture of dead fish and excessive body odor and stagnant cigarette smoke and outright death.
But the drinks were cheap and, in the end, that was all that Daytona could really ask for.
“As your agent, I’m begging you to get your shit together,” Frank said. “Pleading. Hands and knees, Daytona.”
His younger brother, Frank, had been Daytona’s ‘agent‘ for the better part of his career. Frank had done a good enough job tracking down rings that were willing to play host to Daytona’s particular brand of wrestling and handled all of the logistical nightmares that Daytona had no interest in handling himself. Frank was the liaison between his brother and the cutthroat world of professional wrestling; Daytona’s closest confidant.
“Besides… We can’t have you getting buried in any unmarked graves before I tell you the good news,” Frank said. “I got a call back from PRIME this morning.”
At that, Daytona perked up. In truth, from the moment PRIME first reached out and even up to signing his name on the contract’s dotted line, he had been waiting for the rug to get pulled out from underneath him. It was only ever a matter of time before the other shoe dropped and Daytona had a history of always getting caught underneath it. The fact that things were going well for once… well… that was a cause for concern.
“Well, don’t get me all revved up for nothin’, brother!” Daytona said, unable to hide his excitement. “What’d they say?”
“They told me to tell you to pack your bags,” Frank said. “You’re going to Pittsburgh. You’ve got your first match on the next show.”
“Well, hot damn!” Daytona shouted, half the bar looking towards him and grumbling in annoyance. “Why didn’t you say so?! That’s the best damn news I’ve heard all day! Who am I up against? That one commie dicknose? One of them pretty boys with the good hair?”
“Well, here’s the thing,” Frank said. “They… booked you in a triple threat match. Against Ria Lockhart and Bobby Dean, I think they said?”
All at once, Daytona’s joy metamorphosed before Frank’s very eyes into something entirely different. It began at his left eyebrow which started to twitch erratically and then moved to his forehead, those worry lines becoming so pronounced that they resembled the Grand Canyon. Daytona’s nostrils flared and his eyelids blinked in rapid fire, the curling smile on the edges of his lips starting to crack as he stared across the table at his brother. When he spoke, it was through gritted teeth.
“They… booked me… in a… goddamn triple threat match?”
And just like that, Daytona Diamonds segued into a nuclear meltdown.
There was screaming. There was shouting. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. As Frank tried his best to soothe his brother’s outburst, Daytona got so loud that the bartender came over with a baseball bat slung over his shoulder and told him to leave. Daytona had some choice words and rare insults for the bartender, hands balled into two twin fists, the veins in his neck bulging until they were ten times their size. Frank, bless his heart, took Daytona by the arm and ushered him out of the bar as quickly as he could, before any mistakes were made. Once outside, the tantrum continued on the sidewalk beneath a street light’s halo.
“A triple fuckin’ threat! For my first fuckin’ match! Now, what in the good goddamn is that?!” Daytona screamed. “What are these scumsuckin’ dicknoses tryin’ to do?! Ruin me?! Feed me to the god dang wolves?! I don’t do tag matches, I don’t do hardcore matches, and I sure as shit don’t do triple threat matches! You know that, Frankie! You’re ‘sposed to be representin’ my better interests! What the hell kind of agent are you?!”
“Daytona, listen, it’s going to be o–”
“And Ria Lockhart?! Bobby fuckin’ Dean?! I ain’t never heard of neither of ’em! I’m a god dang star, Frankie! King of the god dang Rodeo! And they’re throwing me in there with a couple of jobbers?! There ain’t no pay day in wrasslin’ nobodies, Frankie! I’m here to make the big bucks, dammit! You want those damn mobsters to break my knee caps?!”
“Daytona, if you’d watch last week’s ReVival like I told you to, you’d know who the–”
“LI don’t even give a shit! Those two nobodies oughta be as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs! ‘Cause I’m gonna whittle ’em both into kindlin’! I’ll show ’em! I’ll show ’em all! You tell them I’m comin’ to Pittsburgh and PRIME ain’t ever gonna be the same, Frankie! I’ll wipe the god dang floor with ’em! All of ’em!”
Frank watched as his brother wandered off down the sidewalk by himself, ranting and raving and howling at the moon like a maniac, all sound and fury and unhinged bliss.
At least it went better than he thought it would.
III. While You Were Sleeping
That night, Daytona dreamt that he was in the middle of the desert, flanked on either side by twin canyons that rose out of the ground for as far as the eye could see. Out there, you could still see the stars; each one a tiny pinprick in the heavens where the gods could peek through at the world of man.
The landscape was a harsh and endless place. Dark clouds like islands in the sky drifted overhead and the sands swirled in shapeless patterns with the wind. Thunder roared in the vast distance to the west and the whole world shuddered at that sound and so did Daytona even as his feet carried him forth into the darkness and the cold and the limitless night.
A fire was burning in the distance, all Halloween orange and red like blood. Smoke rose out of the flames tracing a tower to heaven and Daytona marched towards it on aching feet, his arms crossed tight across his chest and his back hunched forward as his teeth chattered against the cold.
Daytona approached the fire with his hands outstretched, the warmth pulling him into its embrace. He sat there cross-legged by the flames, shivering and shaking and alone, until a sudden flash of lightning revealed a figure there before him, wrapped in shadows.
“Who’s there?” Daytona asked. “I ain’t got no money, so don’t be thinkin’ about robbin’ me.”
“I’m not here to rob you,” the figure said. “You haven’t got anything worth stealing.”
The figure stepped forward into the fire light and Daytona’s breath caught in his chest. It was his father, that trademark scowl Daytona knew so well etched across his face, the worry lines on his forehead crinkling down towards the bridge of his nose. He was dressed as a cowboy clad in black, the same outfit he’d worn every night in his golden years as a wrestler.
Once upon a time, his father was “Diamondback” Jack, the Terror of the Southwest. Now, he was old and any terror he might have inspired had long since died.
“I wish I could say I was proud of you,” his father said. “I wish I could, son. Look at yourself. What’s there to be proud of?”
Daytona didn’t speak. He couldn’t find the words to say. He only hung his head.
“You call yourself a wrestler, but you’re barely even a man. You ain’t never been a champion. You’ve drank and you’ve gambled and you’ve whored yourself silly, but you ain’t never done nothing worth a damn. You’ve just walked in my shadow, resting on your laurels. Tell me that ain’t the truth.”
His father spat on the ground.
“This ain’t that big break you’ve been waiting for, son. No, it ain’t. This is just another failure on a road that’s full of ’em, one more chance for you to prove what a disappointment you really are. It ain’t Larry Lawson and his band of cronies you’ve got to worry about, boy. It’s yourself. God, I’m ashamed of you, Daytona.”
As Daytona began to speak, his eyes welled up with tears that drew little tributaries down his cheeks. He looked up from the ground and his father had disappeared as if he was never even there. The canyons quaked. The stars all fell from the sky. The wind whipped and the fire went out and the darkness swallowed Daytona whole.
And then he woke up.