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Chapter 13

Extravaganza

I

Johnny was right on the money when he described the building as a

warehouse. The outside was wooden. Some of the boards were newer than

others. The walls were at least fifty feet high graced at the top with rectangular-shaped

plexiglass windows. The roof was flat. If it wasn’t painted pink, it could

have just been any other building.

      The inside was a different story. Seating ascended from floor to ceiling on

all sides—brown wooden planks, like the bleachers of an old minor league

ballpark. There were four spotlight stations on their respective sides, and

numerous lights, like those in a gymnasium. Many plant and flower arrangements

decorated the structure, pots in every row of every aisle, and flowers wrapped

around the square poles that supported the roof. The arena had a dirt floor

apparently spray-painted pink, oval in shape, surrounded by three-foot high boards

like the wall of a hockey rink. The enormous amount of greenery coupled with the

brightness of the floor gave artificial life to the building, like the pit of a Venus Fly

Trap.

     At the north end of the arena floor was a doorway, about twice the size of a

garage door. Pink curtains hung in front of it, as well as around it, hiding the

concrete ramp that led to the basement. Torches as high as the doorway itself

stood to each side, the two flames burning halfway to the ceiling like Olympic

torches.

     Roman entered before us—one of the first in attendance—to put into action

the first part of the plan. He called it “insurance,” but wasn’t anymore specific

than that. “Don’t deviate from the plan,” he’d said to me and Johnny probably

twenty times in the last day. It was also the last thing he said to us as we pulled up

to Freddy’s warehouse. To Heather he said, “Whatever happens, stay in the

vehicle.” With that he pulled down his mask and disappeared inside.

     Me and the Killer made our way to the line that was forming about twenty

minutes later. I was pulling a black trunk behind me. It was made out of heavygrade

plastic, rectangular in shape, and had a snap-down lid. Even though the

trunk had wheels, it was no easy feat maneuvering it across the ice and the snowcovered

gravel. We wore what I like to call fancy masks; Heather had known

where to purchase them. Johnny’s was blue with thin lines of gold winding

throughout. Mine was white with red slashes through it. They weren’t anything

special in my opinion. A mask was supposed to look like something—a famous

person or a creature of the night—but these were just different shaped plastic, held

on our faces by a silky ribbon that wrapped around the back of our heads. Heather

assured us this was what the upper class wore to parties such as this. If any of us

would know, it would be her.

     The doorman was none other than Boochie Anderson. He didn’t wear a

mask—none of Freddy’s crew did. Johnny’s tire-iron swing was apparent by his

bandaged nose. His eyes had black circles as well.

     “Just let me do the talking,” I whispered as we approached. “He might

recognize your voice. Remember don’t deviate from the plan.”

Johnny’s silence affirmed he understood.

     We pulled the money out of our suit coats—another provision of

Heather’s—the same coats we both wore to Homecoming.

The fat man patted us down, sweeping every inch of our suits. He made us

lift up our feet, one at time, to save himself from crouching down.

     “What’s with the trunk?” Boochie asked.

     “We’re going to buy some flowers,” I said.

     “We’ve got boxes for that,” Boochie responded.

     “No, I mean a lot of flowers. We didn’t want them to freeze on our way

back.”

     Boochie bent down, his knees cracking from his own weight, and his lungs

struggling to fill in their compressed position. Eventually he opened the lid and

examined it.

    “The Flower doesn’t usually allow things like this inside.” Boochie rubbed

the silver hoop that stuck from his chin. “Shouldn’t mind though if you’re buying.

Go ahead.”

II

      The arena was filled to capacity. The people lining the bleachers were

dressed in glittering dresses, suits, and black tuxes, and all wore masks. If I didn’t

know what was going on here, you could’ve convinced me easily that we were at a

fund-raiser for some big time politician. I knew a lot of people in Collingston. I

wondered how many I would know if they removed their masks. Maybe I didn’t

want to know.

      There was space for me, Johnny, and the trunk in the front row, more than

enough actually. Throughout the oval of the arena there were very few people

seated in the front row. Was it not a good view? I could see fine, the bleachers

started at the top of the wall. I noticed the reddish-pink dirt on the arena floor

again and something occurred to me. One of those thoughts you wished you could

unthink—maybe the dirt wasn’t spray painted at all, maybe people didn’t sit in the

front row in fear of what they might get on them. I turned around to see if the seats

behind us were taken. They were.

      The trumpets and drums of Barnam & Bailey’s were replaced with the loud

clatter of a death metal song—a tune I could not quite place—and on the arena

floor were several clowns, mimes, and sideshows. The mimes did their usual stuck

in a glass box routine, while the clowns juggled bowling pins. A man at the far

end blew fire from his mouth. Another ate swords. Toward our end a lady lay face

down on a wooden bed. A steel cable hung from the ceiling over her. At the end

of the cable was a metal rectangle full of large hooks. The man next her—the

assistant I suppose—inserted the hooks into her back one by one. Eventually the

cable rose, and her skin stretched thin, like taffy after you just tore a bite from it.

She dangled a good twenty feet in the air. At any moment, I thought her skin

would rip and send her crashing to the floor. Instead she just smiled, like she was

at a spa getting her back massaged. I could barely watch, not because of their

painted faces, or the fear that the fire guy would light himself, or the sword guy

would stick the blade too far down, or the thought of skin ripping. It was much

more primitive than that. It was the way they were dressed—or the lack of I

should say. They all wore pink leather, but not in the places it needed to be. The

men’s penises swung back and forth with movement in their routine, and the skinlady’s

breasts hung below her, balling up at the ends from the pull of gravity.

     “Freddy’s a sick fuck ain’t he?” Johnny said, stealing the thought right out

of my head. “It gets worse, believe me.”

     I scanned trough the crowd trying to see someone, trying to see Roman, but

there was only the endless sea of masks. Roman wore a black suit and plain black

mask, fitting attire for someone as modest as him. It reminded me of the geek

sitting in the lunchroom and how the color of life is often emitted from the inside,

not the outside.

     He’s taking care of the insurance, remember? A voice said in my head.

    Yeah but what the fuck is the insurance? Another voice asked back.

     My eyes stopped at the top row on the other side. The bleacher section

there was non-existent, giving way to some sort of platform, like the skybox of a

ball stadium. There were several people seated around a table laughing. I couldn’t

see their faces, but I was sure they were laughing. The man in the middle wore a

pink suit, sat with his legs elegantly crossed, and sipped from a straw that went

under his mask to a champagne glass. His mask was pink as well, in the shape of a

tulip. It was The Flower.

     One of his men tapped him on the shoulder and placed a microphone in his

hand. A second later the arena was dark and with it the chatter of those in

attendance. The spotlight showed on him.

    “Without further ado ladies and gentleman, welcome to Extravaganza!”

Freddy shouted.

     The crowd in the arena rose to its feet, standing and clapping in ovation.

    Welcome to hell. I thought.

    Johnny grabbed me under the arm and lifted me to my feet. I snapped out

of my trance and started to clap.

    The spotlight was turned on the floor now, exposing a platform. It had four

posts, and from them hung chains connecting in the center to several leather

straps. It was some sort of medieval swing. A man stood beside it, wearing a

mask and cape, his only other accessory a giant wand. And around him stood the

clowns and mimes. He pointed into the crowd and began to circle the stands with

the wand’s line of sight. The wand pointed up and down the aisles and rows

jumping from person to person as if it had a mind of its own. Finally it stopped. It

was pointing at me.

    Before the spotlight turned on, my stomach dropped. Two clowns made

their way to the arena wall and before I could run I realized they were coming for

the person next to me. She smelled pretty and the curves of her dress said the

same. The clowns grabbed her by the ankles and started to drag her down to the

arena floor.

    I wanted to help her, grab her arm so they couldn’t pull her down. But I just

sat there. I don’t know if it was because I was relieved it wasn’t me, or if I heard

Roman’s voice in my head telling me not to deviate from the plan.

    The woman kicked and screamed, but her effort was futile. The crowd

erupted in satisfaction. In the middle of the arena now the clowns pulled up a

black circular curtain around her. The magician tapped his wand twice and the

curtain fell. Her dress was gone. The woman covered her breasts with one arm

and her vagina with the other. The clowns grabbed her again, dragging her toward

the swing. Her flailing was minimal, because it was hard to fight and cover herself

at the same time, but at the platform she clung to the poles with each hand. Her

legs kicked at the clowns, but in the end she was strapped to the swing. Separate

fixtures hoisted her ankles up and apart. Her arms dangled to the side defenseless.

    The crowd cheered.

    The magician skipped up to the platform, his cape flapping behind him. He

held up the wand over his head. At that moment the lights brightened a little,

giving the arena the glow of a candlelight dinner. Dancers ran out, female and

male, naked except for their masks. Silk streamers flowed from their hands,

dancing behind them like flags in the wind. They ran and jumped to the hard

music, turning the harsh noise into a choreographed ballet, circling the woman in

the swing, and finally converging on her like the vultures they truly were.

The magician lowered the wand, and the dancers fell to the dirt floor, as if

to bow to its power. He turned it over in his hands with slow movements, and then

gazed at the woman in the swing with her legs spread like gates.

     The crowd screamed with glee.

     “I don’t think I can watch this,” I said.

     Johnny put a firm hand on my knee, thinking I was going to bolt. “Relax,

it’s not real.”

    “Whattaya mean?”

    “The woman I mean. She’s on the payroll. The Flower’s sister. Gets

raped every four months.”

    “Sister?” I didn’t know if I felt better or worse. It wasn’t a defenseless

woman anymore I guess. Even if it wasn’t rape, how could a man let his sister

participate, much less watch? “Sick fuck doesn’t do the man’s name justice. Not

even close.”

    “Tell me about it,” Johnny said back.

    The disappearing wand was just the beginning. The lady’s unwilling spirit

subsided as the show progressed, her kicks and acts of defiance turning to an active

and welcomed role. Not only was the magician a major participant, but a dog was

brought out to enjoy himself. The clowns and dancers were next, male and female.

     I’d seen my fair share of deplorable acts of humanity over the Internet,

things that made you sick in the stomach and wheezy in the head, but this was

something different. Computer screens gave you a sense of safety, a feeling that

no matter what was being shown, somehow you were exempt from it, a distant

spectator caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, safe to return to reality with

a click of the mouse. Here though, there was no escaping. It sat in front of our

eyes unfolding like everyday life. Even with Freddy’s countless flower

decorations there was an underlying odor in the arena. It was foreign to my nose,

subtle but strong, not quite the foul stench of animal waste or decomposing body

parts. It lingered throughout and hung in the air like a fog over the arena. For the

first time in my life I smelled it first hand, the stagnant aroma of human evil.

     The first act of Freddy’s Extravaganza ended an hour after it started. The

crowd stood in ovation, not exactly cheering—it was more ominous than that—

their voices and clapping made a soft moan of perverted satisfaction. The dancers

and clowns bowed as if they just finished Macbeth. The lady in the swing seemed

lifeless, her appendages limp and body exhausted, and covered in a glistening

human foulness that I’d rather never remember.

     Johnny pulled on the shoulder of my suit coat, urging me to stand.

     Don’t deviate from the plan.

     Even that voice, whether if was Roman’s or my own, could not get me to

my feet. I sat, wishing my brain not to digest the events my eyes just saw.

The overhead lights slowly started their ascension to brightness and the

floor was cleared of its sex platform. The spotlight came back on the VIP section,

and Freddy stood in it. His posture was proud like the director of a Tony winning

     Broadway play.

    “Ladies and gentleman, this is our intermission. You now have fifteen

minutes to inspect the beasts that you would like to wager on and to choose any of

our plants from our exotic selection. The gentlemen by the curtains at the far end

will instruct you with directions. There is more champagne to drink. Drink and be

merry. Extravaganza will continue.”

    “You all right?” Johnny asked as we made our way under the pink curtain,

down the ramp to the basement.

    “Just a little shell-shocked,” I said. “Remember we’ve got to be the last

people to leave down here, so make it look like we’re combing over every dog

good.”

   “You seen the janitor yet?”

   “No. He’ll be down there though.”

   The ramp ended, and now there were two choices: right to the flower sales,

and left to the dog kennel. I pulled the trunk behind me, wishing we were really

going to buy flowers. We turned left though and made our way down the narrow

hallway. With each passing step, the whines and barks got louder, the smell of

urine stronger. We were traveling into the depths of hell.

    One of the Flower’s men stood at the entrance, his eyes fixed on the four-wheeled

trunk behind me.

    “We’re buying flowers after we pick out our winner,” I said.

    His uneasiness subsided and we entered without an interrogation.

The room was narrow and simple, dirt floors, no decorations. Another

guard stood at the far end of the room, eyeing the crowd. Forty kennels lined the

sides of the room, leaving a three-foot aisle for the spectators. The men and

women pointed, inspected, and sometimes laughed, writing their picks down on

note pads, like they were at the local pet shop choosing a puppy for the kid.

    But this was no pet store.

    My thought of hell was not far off the mark. I expected to see ravenous

dogs foaming at the mouth, rattling the doors of their cages in their anticipation for

blood. Instead the majority lay in their cages, most of them whimpering in fear.

Some barked of course, but not the ferocious siren of attack. They cried out for

help, soft uncertain dog voices that begged to be taken home, taken anywhere,

even by the cruel crowd that would eventually watch their demise.

     We passed the first two cages. The thoroughbred gladiators I’d imagined

were not there. The first dog looked like it got a hair cut from a drunken

shopkeeper, its fur blotchy and sporadic, torn out in places, cruel reminders of its

previous battles. The dog across from it had permanent gouges on its face, claw

marks from its last adversary.

      We continued to walk, and with each cage we passed, I prayed there would

be one dog that looked somewhat healthy, maybe even happy. It just got worse

though. Half-ears and mangled hides were everywhere; one dog was missing an

eye, others had torn paws and chewed necks, and many had flies pestering open

wounds. The saddest part about it was, these were the winners—champions from

past Extravaganzas—the losers were the ones that died in battle. These fights were

to the death, and you could see that knowledge in their eyes.

      Most had ribs that were visible, skin stretched tightly over the bones. No

telling how long the Flower had starved them, but it was his way of ensuring the

most violent fight—what his constituents paid to see. They would fight one on

one, in tournament format, until only one remained. The winner not only got to

live but also got to eat. The dogs knew. They all knew.

     We came to Apollo’s cage. He lay on the floor with his pink paws

covering his eyes, shivering from fear. As ugly as that goddamn white Pit Bull

was, it was a welcomed sight, seeing a dog as of yet free from Freddy’s violent

games. Johnny walked ahead of me and his leg passed his best friend’s cage. The

dog stood up and began to bark, crying for his master.

    “Just keep walking. I know it’s hard but keep walking,” a voice said beside

us.

     Roman had evidently taken care of what he called the insurance, and now

walked beside Johnny in his black-as-night attire. His mask was expressionless,

and I was glad I couldn’t see the sadness under it.

    “All right people. They’re taking bets upstairs now. You’ve got about two

minutes to pick a winner,” the doorman said.

    The crowd filtered out quickly. The three of us separated, pretending to

make our last-minute inspections. Roman walked with his hands behind his back.

Johnny kept looking back at Apollo. My hands were sweating.

     “Let’s go fellas,” the man at the far end of the room said and started to walk

toward us with his arms out.

     He swept us toward the door and the other doorman.

     “You gotta winner?” the doorman asked.

     “I think so,” Roman said, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket.

     Roman grabbed the man around the throat and stuffed white handkerchief

over the man’s nose and mouth. Johnny and I grabbed the other guy, wrestling

him to the floor. Fifteen seconds later Roman’s man was asleep. Johnny held a

hand over our man’s mouth, removing it only when Roman brought the poisoned

rag down to his face. I ran back down the aisle pulling the trunk to Apollo’s cage

and undid the latch.

     He licked my face as he jumped out.

     “Okay boy, it’s okay, you gotta be quiet now.”

     Apollo’s ears stood up and then lay flat on his head, as if he understood. A

second later he was in the trunk and the lid was down. Roman and Johnny peeked

around the doorway.

    “It’s clear let’s go,” Johnny said with his head still in the hallway.

     I didn’t move. All at once it was like every dog in the room had its eyes

fixed on me. Their soft begs and whines were not as bad as their faces—solemn

frowns of disappointment. I could hear them in my head. Just undo our latches

and we’ll do the rest.

     “What the fuck are you doing? Let’s go,” Johnny said.

     I could deal with human suffering, saw it everyday on the thousands of

news channels. After a while I had become desensitized to it, a part of me thinking

that people probably deserved most of what they got. But what had these animals

done? They didn’t benefit from the rational thought that humans used. They were

total victims in my estimation.

      Roman looked at me and then at the dogs. For the first time, without a

word, I knew we were thinking the same thing.

     “We’ve got to let these dogs out, Roman,” I said.

     “You’re nuts,” Johnny said. “If we let those dogs out Freddy’s men will

know something’s up. They’ll be runnin’ all over the place. We can’t risk it.

     We’ve got to go now! Don’t deviate from the plan, remember?”

I couldn’t see the synapses fire in Roman’s eyes, but behind that black

mask there was an apocalyptic battle going on between logic and emotion.

     “Johnny’s right. We’ve got to go,” Roman said.

     We walked up the ramp; passing two of the men Johnny called handlers.

They wore thick gloves on their hands, and carried small whips. One of them wore

a patch and the other was missing an ear. Apollo didn’t make a sound. I watched

Freddy as we walked the length of the grandstands and passed the sick appetites of

the crowd. It took us only thirty or so seconds to make our way from one end to

the other, and as we approached the exit, there was still no one coming to stop us.

No one listening to the little transmitters in their ears or running to tell the boss of

our theft. It would take the handlers a few minutes to notice one dog missing.

      “Ya all can’t come back if you leave,” Boochie said at the door.

     “We came for the flowers and the sex,” Roman said.

     Thirty feet from the building, we began to run. Apollo maintained perfect

silence, as I dragged his carrier over the often-bumpy clumps of hard snow. The

black Escalade was parked exactly where we’d left it. Roman’s plan had gone off

without a hitch. We were home free.

     At the vehicle, two emotions collided within me. We’d escaped with our

lives—an extraordinary feat considering whom we were dealing with—but I could

still hear the awful sounds of those dogs begging for their freedom. I didn’t have

time to think about it too long because panic came over me at the sight of the

    Escalade.

    Door unlocked.

    Keys in the ignition.

    No Heather.

    Roman opened the back doors just to make sure she wasn’t lying on the

floorboard. He opened the front door and hit the button for the vehicle’s hatch, and

then looked back at Freddy’s arena.

   “Where the hell would she go?” Johnny asked.

   “That’s just it. She wouldn’t go anywhere,” I said back.

   “Take Apollo out of the trunk and put him in the back,” Roman said.

    “We gotta get out here, man,” Johnny said.

    “We’re not leaving Heather,” Roman said. “You wanted to free the dogs

Tony, here’s your chance.”

    “What happened to all that bullshit about not deviating from the

plan?” Johnny groaned.

     “The plan has been changed due to circumstances beyond our control,”

Roman said, starting back to the arena.

     Johnny put Apollo in the back, fighting a hurricane of kisses and licks. He

caught up to us just before the doorway. Roman stopped us as we were about to

enter.

     “You guys have the easy part. Get back down there and let those dogs out.

It’ll create some confusion that will maybe work to our advantage. When you’ve

freed them, get back to the Escalade and wait for Heather and me. Whatever you

do, don’t take your masks off. We don’t need Freddy on our backs for the rest of

eternity. Don’t hang around in the arena, I can take care of myself.”

     Roman entered the doorway without giving us a chance to respond. The

fight had already begun, cheers roared from the stands but you could still hear the

violent snarls from the floor of the arena.

     Boochie stuck his arm out, trying to halt Roman. “I told you assholes once

you leave that’s it.”

     Roman hit him with a quick jab to the throat, then pinched the fat man’s

Adam’s apple between his thumb and index finger. The tower of wobbling flesh

fell to his knees like a blow up doll that had just been deflated. He held his throat

with both hands and gasped harder than usual for air. Roman ripped the earpiece

out of Boochie’s ear and smashed his radio on the ground.

     “Go now,” Roman said to us. “You’ll have to hurry because I’ll be quick.”

The hump of Boochie’s stomach was nearly waist-high to Roman as he

knelt beside the choking henchman, whose eyes were wide with panic.

     “Don’t worry Boochie, you’re not going to die. I just bruised your

esophagus pretty good. Tell me where she’s at and you’ll have nothing more to

fear.”

      Spit splattered from the fat man’s lips as he tried to speak. “I don’t even

know who you’re talking about Jack.”

     Roman looked Boochie’s face over, studying it for a lie, and also showing

an interest in the metal hoops that pierced it. The liquidy growls could still be

heard in the arena even though the crowd was the loudest it had been all night.

Roman put all eight of his fingers in Boochie’s face rings and gripped them as tight

as he could.

    “Please don’t,” Boochie begged.

    “I won’t as long as you tell me the truth. First, who was patrolling the

parking lot tonight?”

    “Bobby, Bobby Dukes.”

    “Was he the only one?”

    “Probably.”

     Roman pulled just enough on the rings to raise Boochie’s skin.

     “I swear. I’m not positive. Bobby usually takes care of the lot. I don’t

know if someone went with him.”

    “He didn’t come out this entrance?”

    “No, he goes out the back.”

    “If he found someone hanging around in one of the vehicles, where would

he take them?”

     “Freddy’s office down by the armory.”

     Roman glanced around making sure nobody was coming and stopped his

eyes at the small podium Boochie had been sitting at. On it was a pack of large

heavy-duty zip ties. He grabbed them, first securing Boochie’s wrists, and then

using two on his enormous ankles.

      “If you want to keep your jewelry intact, I wouldn’t tip anybody off.”

      Boochie closed his eyes.

III

      “I’m going to ask you one more time what you were doing out there, and I

want the truth,” Bobby Dukes said.

      Heather’s wrists were pinned against the desk by Bobby as he leaned over

her. She could smell the grease in his hair and the smoke in his breath. She looked

him in the eyes. “I told you. My brother came to buy flowers, I was just waiting

for him.”

      Bobby smiled and lowered his face down to hers. At first she thought he

was going to kiss her; before it registered, his wet tongue made its way from her

temple down the side of her cheek and stopped at her ear.

     “You’re fuckin’ hot,” he whispered.

     “You’re not,” she said back, and kneed him as hard as she could in the

scrotum.

     Bobby’s grip lifted immediately and Heather ran for the door. Bobby

grabbed for the flowing blond hair that trailed behind her, and snapped her back to

him, his arm now wrapped tightly around her neck from behind.

    “I was going to just pound you good and get it over with it, but now I’m

going take my time so you feel every inch of it.”

     “Don’t you mean I’ll feel the inch?”

Bobby flung her around so she was facing him again and smiled. “Gotta

little sass on ya. I like that.”

     “I’d rethink hurting me. It’ll be the worst mistake you ever make.”

     “Baby, I forgot to tell ya, I’m a slow learner,” Bobby said as he raised his

fist.

     Then a knock at the door.

     The voice on the other side was muffled. “Dukes we need you out here,

there’s a problem.”

     “In a minute, I’m busy.”

     “Somebody’s trying to steal the gate money.”

Bobby walked to the door, unlocked, and opened it. “Who the fuck thinks

they can...”

     Roman’s hand stopped the rest of the sentence, clamped like a claw on

Bobby’s face, his palm pressing the nose up, and his middle and index fingers

pressing on the eyelids, forcing the thug backwards. In a second they were to the

desk. Roman tripped him, and the back of Bobby’s head bounced off the edge as

he dropped to the floor.

      Roman took Heather’s hand, keeping his attention on Bobby, and pulled

her behind his back. Bobby got to his feet, vision blurred from the fingers in his

eyes and the collision with the desk. He shook it off as if he had sustained similar

injuries in the past.

     “You got some balls,” Bobby said as he charged.

Bobby swung. Roman grabbed him close to the armpit, and used the man’s

momentum to send him to the right. The action carried Bobby backwards and he

hit the dry wall with his head, denting it. The entire shelf above and all of its

flowerpots crashed on top of him.

     “Are you all right?” Roman asked Heather.

     “Fine. I’m sorry Roman.”

     “It’s not your fault.”

     “I know you told me to drive off if anyone approached me, but I just

couldn’t leave you guys,” Heather said.

     “It’s in the past,” Roman said. “Right now, we have to work on getting out

of here. There are quite a few of Freddy’s guys hanging around the back entrance.

We have to go out the front.”

      Roman stood thinking for a moment, and then exited the office briskly,

leading Heather by the hand.

IV

      The two dogs doing battle in the middle of the arena floor were a bloodsoaked

growling mess. One of them, a brown and black Rottweiller, seemed to be

one bulging muscle, from his oversized head to the tip of his stub tail. The other

was a Pit Bull, twice the size of Apollo, and dusty brown in color. The massive

jaws of the dog gave credence to the talk about generations of selective breeding

for violence, done for just such an event as Extravaganza.

       Their teeth sank into each other’s necks repeatedly, and though it looked as

if the fight had been going on for quite some time, there seemed to be no end in

sight. Exhausted, the dogs would sometimes unlock from each other and back

away for oxygen. The handlers would let this go on momentarily and then the

whips were cracked, and the animals flew toward one another with bloody saliva

dripping from their teeth and death in their eyes.

      Heather followed closely behind Roman, down the walkway in front of the

grandstand on Freddy’s side, but stopped when she heard the cracking of the

whips. She was suddenly lost in another world, looking at the arena floor. As hard

as it was watch, it was just as difficult to turn away—a horrific display of how

human intervention could tweak the balance of nature and raise the dark side of

it—like the twisted song of an evil muse.

     Roman pulled on Heather’s hand, but her feet were in concrete. The stairs

that lead to the front hallway and the exit were only fifty feet away, but four of

Freddy’s men were climbing them. Roman looked up at Freddy. One of the

Flower’s henchmen was pointing at Heather and him. Freddy was shaking his

head calmly. At the far end—the staircase from which they had just come—more

of the troops were heading toward them.

     Whether someone had found Boochie zip-tied on the ground or Bobby

Dukes had managed to rise from the broken flowerpots and get to a radio, Roman

was not sure. It didn’t matter. The troops were coming and Roman’s once

flawless plan was now a worst-case scenario. Roman was suddenly glad he’d

taken time out for the insurance.

     “Heather.”

      Heather continued to stare at the awful sight on the arena floor.

     “Heather!”

     She snapped back to reality and looked at Roman and then at the lines of

     Freddy’s men closing in on both sides of them.

     “I want you to go up into the crowd, somewhere where Freddy’s guys

would have to climb over a lot of people to get to you.”

      “What about you?” Heather’s eyes were afraid.

      “I’ll be fine. I’m not going to let anything happen to either of us.”

Roman gave her a nudge, and Heather made her way up the bleachers

through the cheering crowd. She stopped somewhere in the middle. Freddy’s men

ignored her and continued toward Roman. Roman counted six on his left and

seven on his right. The crowd began to divert its attention to the scene on the

walkway. Soon there was no cheering at all from that side of the arena.

      Freddy got on the mic, still seated, this time with no spotlight. “Just a

slight problem ladies and gentlemen, it will be taken care of in a few seconds.”

     Roman stood his ground as the gap on both sides closed. He could hear

Ninja in the back of his head. We brought you thirteen of them today. Roman

looked down at the arena floor. To his surprise, the dogs had stopped fighting and

both they and their handlers were now staring back at him.

    “This will be quick,” The Flower said to himself and then took another sip

of champagne.

V

      The two men Roman chloroformed were not lying on the floor of the

kennel anymore. One of their friends had either dragged them off or the effects of

the chemical had worn off. Regardless, the room was empty except for me and

Johnny. The dog next to me was wagging his tail like he knew we were his only

chance for freedom.

     “I just thought of something,” Johnny started. “What if we let all these dogs

out and they attack us. They’re starved. Maybe they think we’re food.”

“Let’s let ’em out, one at a time. Once one takes off down the hallway,

we’ll let another go. That way we’re only dealing with one at a time,” I said.

     “Sounds like a plan.”

     We started at the far end of the room so we wouldn’t be boxed in if the

canines thought it was dinnertime. Johnny opened the first cage, but instead of

running for freedom, the dog backed up from the opening and growled.

     “Come on boy, let’s go,” Johnny said patting his leg.

     The dog barked ferociously.

     “We ain’t got all night, let’s go. You’re free,” Johnny said and then

whistled.

     The dog only got madder.

    “He thinks were one of those handlers,” I said. “Thinks he’s gotta go

fight.”

    “Whatta we do?” Johnny asked.

     Without responding I opened the cage across from the one we just opened.

Same response, the dog cowered, backing away from his cage door. The two dogs

looked at each other. I was sure they were going to charge each other and fight to

the death right there in the aisle way. I was wrong. The barking stopped

completely and both dogs put their ears up and tilted their heads to the side, as if to

say, “what the hell is going on?”

     “Let’s just open ‘em all up. They’ll eventually catch on,” I said.

Johnny went down one side and me the other. The reaction was the same

every time; the dogs retreated to the back of their cages. As I got to the last one I

looked back. None of the dogs were out. Johnny caught up to me on his side and

stood up. We stood for several minutes.

    “Just goes to show ya how afraid they are, how much they hate it,” I said.

    “We better get goin’,” Johnny said. “Hopefully the janitor’s got Heather

back to the car.

    “Let’s do it.”

VI

     Me and Johnny walked up toward the exit stairs. Johnny walked carefree

like he was taking a Sunday stroll, mimicking the thought in my own head—

almost home free. I stopped when I noticed how quiet the crowd was. And every

happy thought in my head disappeared as I saw the grandstands on the other side.

On the front walkway, Roman stood in the middle and Freddy’s men were five feet

away on both sides.

     I yanked on Johnny’s coat because he still hadn’t noticed. The Killer

stopped and gawked as well.

     “He said no matter what happened to get back to the SUV,” Johnny said.

     “We can’t leave him,” I said back. “Let’s just sit down and if Roman needs

us, we’ll be here.”

     “Are you fuckin’ nuts? If we get involved and they find out who I am,

they’ll kill me. They already tried once.”

     “We all risked our lives for that ugly ass dog of yours and now you want to

just leave him. Sit the fuck down.”

     Johnny sat close to the same spot we started the night in. “Apollo’s not

ugly.”

     I didn’t respond.

     To Roman’s right the first man in line chuckled nonchalantly as he

approached Roman, no doubt thinking the skinny janitor would be easy pickings.

That thought did not last long.

     Roman hit the man with the heel of his palm, driving the man’s chin

upward, and snapping the man’s head backward into the second man in line. A

chain reaction occurred, leveling the entire row like dominoes. It reminded me of

Karate competitions, where the guy would hit the top brick and the ten bricks

under it would break.

    The line of men to Roman’s left stopped their approach, momentarily in

shock. The first man swung, but Roman caught his arm and bent it the wrong way,

a painful maneuver that I’m sure Ed Pentoch could relate to. Roman let go and the

man fell off the walkway onto the arena floor.

     Roman took the second man’s kneecap out with a kick. He ducked twice

from swings of the third man, then gave him a quick elbow to the side of the

temple and a fist to the crotch. The third man wore a hood. Roman grabbed it,

pulling it over the man’s eyes and bringing his head down, then crushing a knee

into his face, all in one motion. The fourth man swung a hard roundhouse punch.

     Roman sidestepped it; the man’s forward momentum carried him off the walkway

and he landed on the dirt floor of the arena. The fifth man and the last man

charged at the same time. Roman bent down, doing a one-eighty with the first man

and flipping him in the air. As Roman came upright, he caught the hand coming

from the last man, bending the wrist backwards and using the man’s thumb as a

steering device. A second later the man’s arm was behind his back, his face

looking at the floor. Roman shoved him a few steps forward then let him fall facefirst

into the dirt below.

     Me and Johnny watched, trying to see all of Roman’s movements. If we

had popcorn, we could’ve been at a movie. Roman had cut through thirteen of

Freddy’s men in little over a minute. Seven of the men now lay in the dirt with the

dogs.

     “You oughta praise Jesus and Mary, he didn’t use any of these moves on

you,” I said to Johnny.

     Johnny didn’t respond.

     One of the men in the dirt clawed his way up the arena wall and tried to

grab Roman’s ankles. The man’s fingers were crushed with two quick stomps

from Roman’s heel.

     “Who does this guy think he is?” Freddy asked one of his soldiers.

     The once-excited crowd was now seated and silent, people on both sides

confused by the events in front of them. A couple of claps could be heard—the

uncertain applause of a few that thought they were seeing another act of

Extravaganza. The claps died when the rest of the crowd did not join in.

     Most of the men in the dirt began to stir again, stumbling to their feet and

brushing the dust and blood from their thick leather coats. The man whose arm

was inverted the wrong way and the man whose knee was dislocated continued to

wallow in the pink dirt.

    The dog handlers had their respective fighters leashed now. Both stood

with an eerie pride, something that gave them satisfaction in being a part of a

living creature’s destruction. Maybe it was the scars the handlers wore. One was a

burly type with a medium build, long scraggly hair, a beard to match, and black

leather patch over his right eye. The other was wiry, not big, but still his muscles

were defined. He wore a cut-off shirt, had a razor-shaved bald head and was

missing a left ear.

    The Rot and the Bull lunged hard toward the two injured men on the

ground, only to be yanked to a sudden stop by the thick chains around their necks.

Human blood must have been preferred over that of their own kind, especially in

the state of hunger they were in. Maybe the animals thought if they ate the men on

the floor they could avoid killing each other.

     The line of men Roman had leveled with one hit were back on their feet as

well, but this time their leader was feeling his chin instead of laughing. And when

one of the men started to approach Roman, the leader held him back.

Freddy’s men in the stands began to descend the bleachers toward the

walkway where Roman stood. Behind me and Johnny more troops left the stands,

exiting down the north stairwell to the hallway and eventually coming out on the

other side.

     The confidence I had in Roman was starting to fade as Freddy’s troops

began to regroup. It wasn’t going to be only thirteen of them this time. There

were more like forty and now they took him seriously. Bobby Dukes was at the

north staircase on the opposite side of the arena, digging into a large metallic box

from the armory. He placed a handgun in the grasp of every henchman that passed

him.

     “Where are those damn dogs at? I’m not waiting around and getting killed

over this,” Johnny said softly.

     “But you’ll let Roman get killed over it, huh? We’re here because of you if

your memory’s short. A leopard can never truly change his spots.”

Johnny stood up as if he were going to leave.

     “He wouldn’t leave you Johnny, and I can guarantee you you’re not on his

top ten list of favorite people.”

Johnny sat back down. “I knew I should’ve brought my damn gun.”

    “Yeah, a lot of good one gun’s going to do against forty.”

    “At least we’d have a chance.”

    “We still gotta chance as long as that guy is on his feet,” I said.

Roman jumped off the walkway onto the arena floor and walked to the

middle. The dog handlers immediately unleashed their warriors, cracking their

whips to send the dogs in Roman’s direction. And the dogs did run that way, but,

once at the janitor’s feet they stopped. Their jaws did not open at all, nor did their

teeth cut through Roman’s black dress pants. They only sniffed around the janitor,

and then, as if the same thought entered both dogs’ small brains, they focused on

     Freddy’s two men still agonizing in the dirt.

    The dogs took off in a dead sprint toward the injured men. The handlers

did their best to try to capture the beasts but the dogs were too quick. In a matter

of seconds each of the dogs were on each of the men, clamping their powerful jaws

around the helpless men’s necks. The handlers cracked their short whips on the

back of the dogs. But it was too late. The dogs were eating.

     The screams of the injured men lasted only seconds—the dogs tore though

their necks and vocal cords, smacking their gums together as they choked down the

human flesh. And even though the bodies in the dirt thrashed and convulsed, they

were closer to death than to life.

     While seeing two dogs mangle the life out of each other was considered

sport, seeing them tearing skin from humans was not. A collective gasp of horror

went through the crowd—some distorted version of the wave at a baseball game.

At least half of the crowd ran for the front exit.

    “Don’t leave. We’ll have this insurrection contained in moments. Don’t

leave. Extravaganza will resume. Please!” Freddy the Flower announced over his

microphone.

    But the pleas fell on deaf ears. Eighty percent of the crowd fled the

arena, a mass exodus that pushed and trampled the weaker of its members. Elegant

dresses were tore, masks fell off faces, and the precious betting slips flew though

the air like confetti, eventually littering every corner of the arena. Men and women

alike were pushed off the walkways and fell to the floor. They clawed and

scratched, trying to pull themselves back up, but each time the masses drove them

inadvertently to the dirt.

     The two dogs finished their feeding at the same time. They left what were

now only body parts and moved to the far end of the arena. They lay down, bellies

in the dirt like they were under a shade tree on a hot summer day.

     Now the handlers charged Roman, cracking their whips. He dodged the

first several snaps of the thin leather, but when he saw the space between him and

the wall diminishing, Roman moved in on the handler with the patch. The whip

caught Roman on the shoulder, but he managed to grab the hand that held it. He

twisted Patch’s wrist and the whip dropped to the ground. Next the one-eared man

snapped his whip toward Roman’s black mask. Roman sidestepped and instead

swung Patch into its path. The second whip wrapped around Patch’s neck and

stayed there like a lasso around the head of a calf.

     Roman knelt down and retrieved the first whip from the dirt. One Ear

waited, perfectly still, as Patch tried to unwind the leather from around his neck.

Before the man could get free, Roman snapped the whip he now held and its end

curled around the neck of One Ear. Immediately One Ear let go of the second

whip, still attached to Patch’s neck—and Roman snatched the handle out of midair.

     Now the janitor had both men, both held by the whips wound around their

necks, both trapped much like the dogs they had so many times beaten into fighting

each other had been.

     Holding the whips, Roman began turning in place, circling in small steps

the spot where he stood. The two handlers had no choice but to follow the motion.

The whips tightened as they ran, trying to keep up with Roman as he spun around

and around. Finally satisfied with the momentum built up, Roman let go of the

whips. Patch and One Ear went full-speed into the arena wall, crashing into it like

hockey players. The handlers did not bounce off the wall like the sportsmen on ice

though. Instead the wood barrier cracked and splintered as the built-up kinetic

energy displaced itself. The handlers lay right below me and Johnny’s feet. The

men did not get up.

     “Impressive,” Freddy whispered to himself, and then grabbed the mic

again. “Enough of this foolishness,” Freddy’s voice grated over the arena

speakers. “Unmask this little pest.”

     Freddy’s soldiers dropped one by one onto the pink dirt of the arena floor,

jumping from the walkways like paratroopers descending on the desert sand, each

with gun in hand. Some had smiles, smiles that were not friendly. Others were

like robots, following the simple commands of the motherboard.

     The crowd was sparse and uneven on both sides as Bobby Dukes scooped

Heather off her bleacher seat. She squirmed and fought but Bobby had his arm

around her neck. Her feet dragged down the aisle as he made his way. Bobby

stopped their descent at the other walkway, high enough that Roman could see

them both. He pressed his gun to Heather’s temple in plain view.

     Freddy’s wall of men marched on, rapidly approaching the slight black

figure backed against the wall below me and Johnny’s feet.

    “Whatta we do? Whatta we do?” I whispered to Roman.

    “I told ya I should’ve brought the fuckin’ gun, janitor,” Johnny added.

    “Just stay in your seats. Everything’s going to be all right,” Roman said.

    “I don’t know Roman...” I began.

    “Trust me. We’ve got insurance remember?”

    Somehow that statement did not make me feel better. What could the

insurance possibly be? Was the Collingston SWAT team going to descend from

the rafters? Was the world going to come to an end at this very minute? Was

Roman bulletproof? Did he have that much faith in his so-called insurance, to not

twitch at the sight of a gun pressed against the head of the person he loved the

most? Forty-some armed men stood before him. I doubted Roman more at that

moment than any other time. More than the time he took me fishing to prepare for

my Algebra test, and more than the time I saw Johnny’s thugs charge him in the

Hollow. I just sat there though, not because he told me to, but because I was

scared shitless and my brain came up with no other plan.

     “Let the girl go and we’ll be on our way. I don’t want any trouble,” Roman

shouted to the man in the grandstand across the arena.

    “Ha! You don’t want any trouble? Ruined my party is what you’ve done.

Trouble is all over you. It’s a little late for negotiations, wouldn’t you agree?”

Freddy said over the speakers.

     “I agree that you’re insane if you think this a party,” Roman said. “I swear

to you, if you don’t let us pass this will be the last night this building stands.”

    “Ha! I don’t know who you think you are with your neat little maneuvers

and such, but there are two kinds of stupid men in the world. One who barks

naked at the moon and one who does it my living room.”

    “Since you’re in the practice of using tired clichés let me give you another

one. If you’re going to journey down the path of revenge, you better build two

coffins, one for the person and one for yourself.”

    “Cute, very cute. What are you a philosopher?”

     Roman thought for several seconds. “No, I’m a janitor.”

     Freddy shook his head at the statement. “No one talks to The Flower this

way. Unmask the self-called janitor.”

    One of Freddy’s men reached for Roman’s mask only to have his arm

slapped away. Another man reached out and was sent flying into the arena wall.

He landed on top of Patch and One Ear. Yet another man swiped for the mask.

      Roman grabbed the man’s arm and flipped him 180 while still holding it. The

man’s shoulder popped in mid-rotation before he slammed to the dirt floor.

Roman let go of the man’s limp arm and put a heel to his nose for good measure.

Several of the soldiers turned their heads back toward Freddy’s side of the arena,

as if they were awaiting new orders.

    “Enough, enough, enough!” Freddy’s voice boomed through the speakers.

    “Shoot the silly bastard. We’ll unmask him when he’s good and cold.”

    The arms rose. The guns aimed. Heather screamed in the background.

Johnny scooted down the bleachers, removing himself from the path of the bullets.

With no other bright ideas popping into my head, I closed my eyes and prayed.

VII

San Diego

      Max Sheehan applied the last coat of stain to the baby crib he had been

working on for the last several days. This one was being shipped to Maine, to

someone’s happy home, to the land of pine trees and lobster. As he wiped the stain

on the bars of the crib, his mind wandered. He thought of his current set up. How

perfect the basement was. How he had gotten no struggle out of her this last time.

      The police knew nothing except she was missing and weren’t too concerned since

students were often missing during winter break. He had followed her for weeks,

scouting her every move and habit. She went to the library on Wednesdays. On

the far side of the quad, he’d parked his car next to where she walked. He’d

knocked her out with chloroform in a handkerchief and gotten her into the car with

no witnesses. The simplicity and perfection brought a smile to his face. It was all

he imagined but something was amiss. Was he getting tired of her? The thought

enraged him. All this planning and preparation was supposed to last him a good

while—longer than a week, even a couple of months he’d thought when he

planned.

      He could find another easily enough. Charlotte, the traveling saleswoman,

came every Thursday. She was tall and dark headed and proper. Hair in a bun and

glasses that made her look innocent. No. He would stick with the one in the

basement as long as he could.

     Max put the stain rag in paint thinner and cleaned up his station. He wasn’t

sure if he would go get ice cream, but he was sure he would visit the basement.

VIII

     Max opened the door but she was not on the floor as he expected. She was

on the bed spread eagle with her fingers running up her naked flesh. He stopped

his approach, startled. She moaned and breathed hard, lungs moving breasts up

and down. She raised her head and gazed with her best come-hither eyes. Max

started toward her slow and cautious. As he approached the bed she dropped down

to the floor on her knees and stayed there until her eyes were looking directly up at

his.

     “I want you in my mouth,” Mary said.

     Max’s eyes widened from surprise. The shock was overcome with

excitement and Max stepped closer to her.

    Max was already fully excited as he was every time he came to the

basement. She put her right hand on the back of his leg and felt the tenseness in

his hamstring. Her mouth went around him and she began.

    Relax you sick bastard, she thought.

    A couple of seconds later her hand felt his hamstring loosen. She

continued her work as she looked up and saw his eyes shut.

     You can do this. It’s your only chance.

    Without further hesitation she bit down as hard as she could and twisted her

head. It made a snapping sound like that of biting into the skin of an overcooked

polish sausage.

    Max screamed with pain.

    Mary pulled away and to her surprise the head of his penis was not in her

mouth. The only evidence of the act was the blood on her teeth and corners of her

mouth. She did not bite it completely off but the lower half of it dangled in a

mangled mess, attached only in a few places by the flesh her teeth had failed to

severe, and a couple of veins that remained somewhat in tact.

    Max fell to his knees trying to hold himself together with one hand. With

the other he took a half-assed swing at her but she moved in ample time. Mary

lifted the cover that hung from the bed onto the floor and carefully picked up the

makeshift knife she had made the night before. It was jagged glass from the mirror

she’d broken in the bathroom. The handle was toilet paper rapped around one end

of the glass and hardened with nail polish.

      Mary got to her feet with Max still on his knees. Tears rolled down her

cheeks. She breathed heavily and the glass knife shook in her hand. Max writhed

with pain, eyes closed, sounding much like a woman in the throes of labor. Mary

looked at the big vein in his neck, and drew back her weapon.

      After all he had done to her and all he had taken from her, she couldn’t cut

his throat. Her tears came down hard now, hard enough she couldn’t see. She

wiped them away and looked over at the two keys lying on the floor next to the

door. A voice popped in her head. Run Mary! Run!

     She kept the knife in hand and broke for the door. Two steps into her

escape Max grabbed her ankle tripping her to the ground. The jolt to her body

flung the glass knife hrough the air and it landed next to the keys and door. His

grip was tight. With her free leg she kicked Max’s face over and over until he let

go of her ankle. Thinking getting up would waste valuable time, Mary crawled for

the door. As she reached it she picked up the keys with one hand and the knife

with the other. On her feet now she inserted one of the keys but the lock would not

turn. She fumbled to the other key but before she could get it into the hole, Max’s

arm was around her neck. He was choking the life out of her. She gasped for air

but got nothing. Max wasn’t just trying to stop her from escaping now; he was

trying to end her all together. I haven’t come this far to die inches from freedom

she thought. Her face was turning blue. Her veins stood out from her forehead.

     The knife, Mary! Her father’s voice rang in her head.

     She shifted her weight slightly, swung her arm behind her, and jabbed the

jagged edge into Max’s side several times until he released his grip. On the final

stab the knife wedged in his side and did not come out. Max staggered from her,

lost his footing, and fell backwards to the floor. Mary put the correct key in the

lock and turned it. This time the door opened. She scampered up the stairs to the

next door, switched keys and opened it as well. She looked at nothing in the living

room and headed for the front door. It was not locked. Mary opened it and ran

down the street. She knew not where she was running, only from where. Her bare

feet smacked at a quick pace against the hot pavement. She didn’t care that she

was naked.

     Mary Baumbright was free.

IX

      Freddy’s men raised their weapons and aimed. There was a long almost

eternal silence.

     And then.

     Click.

     Click. Click. Click.

     Probably forty or so soft clicks, the last one being next to Heather’s head.

     Not a single bang.

     The soldiers looked at their guns in bewilderment. A thug in the front row

pressed the side of his gun, and the clip came out. He peered with one eye down

the black rectangular container. “There’s no bullets,” he said.

     “What the fuck?” Bobby said.

     The Flower stood up and dropped his champagne glass shattering it against

the green wooden floor.

Insurance.

      I finally got it. While me and Johnny were watching the show, Roman

broke into the armory and emptied every round of their guns.

      I jumped out of my seat. “Yes! Yes!” I yelled until realizing I was making

the only sound in the entire arena.

      “Kill him! Kill him!” Freddy screamed at his men. “Kill the janitor!”

      The black leather wall of Freddy’s men moved in on their final attack,

taking slow careful steps, an ominous wave of doom. Several of the troopers

dropped their weapons, but most held on—even a gun that had no bullets could

still bash in the side of one’s head.

     “Thirty-something to one. Even the Janitor’s gonna have his work cut out,”

Johnny said.

      Really it wasn’t thirty to one. It was more like five to one, six different

times. All thirty of The Flower’s troops couldn’t fight Roman at once. Sure they

had his back against the wall and marched at least four rows deep. But it just

wasn’t physically possible for all of them to take him at the same time; somebody

would always be waiting behind the guy in front of him.

      Roman leveled the first row, fighting several of them at the same time. It

was like he had eight arms, and often Roman would hit or kick them without even

looking. When one was eliminated, dropping to the dirt, another simply stepped

up and took his place. It reminded me of trying to close the annoying pop-up ads

on the Internet.

      Five minutes into it, Roman had fought off of every last one of them.

Freddy’s soldiers picked themselves out of the dirt—some quicker than others—

and slowly started to surround Roman in the middle of the arena. Roman was the

peaceful eye at the center of a hurricane. The circle moved in on its center and

Roman was now fighting ten or so men at a time. And although his chest moved

up and down for oxygen, Roman’s actions only quickened.

      What images did Roman see through those eyes of his? Did his brain

operate at such a high velocity that the arms and fists and legs and kicks that came

at him seemed to be in slow motion? Was time frozen for everyone except him?

Or did Roman just see numbers? Were the attacks and charges just a mathematical

formula? Did his brain have the counter offense instantaneously? Was Roman just

the solution on the other side of the equal sign? Was he simply balancing the

equation? I was sure it was all of those things and none of them—some special

gift that words could not give justice to describing.

       Three fists came at Roman. He sidestepped one, ducked one, and caught

the other, flipping its owner to the ground. Then a boot. Roman caught the leg

and swung it. The body on the other end knocked down several of its comrades,

like a bowling ball to pins. A bear hug came from behind at the same time a fist

came at him from the front. Roman jerked his head and the fist hit the bear-hugger

instead. Roman squatted slightly, flexed his shoulders forward and backed into the

bear-hugger, his arms reaching back to grab the man and lift him off his feet. Still

piggybacking the bear-hugger, the janitor charged the man in front of him and

head-butted his attackers’ skulls against each other. Even from the stands it

sounded like two billiard balls smashing together. An elbow to the temple of the

guy to his right. A right forearm block to avoid two o’clock. An open hand to the

nose of the guy in front. A duck for ten o’clock. A flat footed kick to the chest of

the one directly behind.

       Roman stood in the center of the arena with his hands on his knees as the

Flower’s men slowly emerged once again from their temporary graves. Like

everything Roman did, his fighting was meticulous. Even so it was difficult to

inflict mortal wounds to his enemies since he had to be so quick and fight so many

at once. I counted twenty-four thugs back on their feet.

      “We’ve gotta help him. He can’t last much longer,” I said.

      “What if they find out it’s me? I’ll have a bounty on my head,” The Killer

said.

      “If we don’t do something, you won’t have to worry about a bounty. We

gotta make it out here first,” I said back.

      There was still a traffic jam of people at the south exit. If the crowd hadn’t

been so panicked they could have all been gone by now. But fear was probably the

most irrational of emotions.

      Bobby Dukes still had Heather around the throat, standing on the opposite

walkway across the arena. The useless gun lay on the bleacher behind him. A

switchblade had replaced it, and now the point of the sharp steel pressed against

Heather’s neck.

      Freddy Flowers was still standing, and although he seemed to enjoy the

game unfolding before his eyes, there was a sense of uneasiness to his stance, and

an urgency that made him crave for the janitor to be brought to his knees.

Freddy’s soldiers’ third offensive started. Roman fought and fought well,

but his actions were slowing. Instead of decapacitating the aggressors with a

single blow, it was taking several now. The troops seemed to sense this, and their

energy level elevated like that of lions closing in on a wounded antelope. Roman

lost his footing a couple of times, rolling in the dirt, and dodging back and forth

between boots. You could see the eagerness in the thugs’ eyes, the anticipation of

victory tingling in their nerves. But each time Roman got knocked down to the

level of those evil feet, he somehow got back to vertical.

     “He’s not invincible after all,” Freddy whispered to himself and sat back

down in his chair.

     Bobby Dukes zip-tied Heather’s wrists to the rail on the walkway. She sat

down out of exhaustion. Her arms dangled awkwardly from the wrists, unable to

support themselves, and her right leg pinned her left underneath it. The kicking

and squirming drive for freedom had left her now. Who knew what atrocious

suggestions Bobby Dukes had whispered continuously in her ear while as she

watched the man she had come to love fight for both their lives? Heather strained

to hold her head up and peered through the damp bangs that covered her eyes.

Bobby pulled the hair on the back of her head, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. The

light from the rafters blinded her, and then his fist came down and everything went

black.

     Boochie Anderson now joined Dukes, and the two scurried back and forth

in front of the grandstands, grabbing anything that could be used as a weapon and

tossing them down to their warrior friends. There was something sinister about

everyday objects being used as weapons, something more violent and perverse

than guns and knives.

     At different times the soldiers would get knocked down, but they found that

pleasant surprises awaited them; Bobby’s and Boochie’s presents were met with

blood-smeared smiles and half-open hopeful eyes. They caught chains,

broomsticks, two-by-fours with nails sticking out, flowerpots, rope,

sledgehammers, and axes.

     I had seen momentum shifts plenty of times in baseball games. The right

fielder throws out the go-ahead run at the plate and then gets the game-winning hit

the very next inning. This was different. At the beginning Roman handled them

with relative ease, almost something out of a cartoon, but that energy had darkened

now, and the tide had turned to something much more in the realm of reality.

We’d come there to kidnap a dog and pulled it off with relative ease. Now

we were going to be lucky to escape with our lives. All reason was gone from my

head. I jumped the rail and sprinted across the blood-soaked dirt of the arena. I

ran out of sheer emotion. I ran to help my friend.

      I heard Johnny’s feet directly behind me. Even he finally realized the

consequences of standing by and doing nothing. “Dukes is mine,” I thought he

said.

       I tackled the back of the first soldier in view, driving his face into the dirt. I

punched the back of his neck repeatedly until his struggle to get up was gone.

Johnny grabbed the two by four that had been meant for one of Freddy’s men right

out of the air. The Killer swung the lethal lumber, taking out four or five of the

soldiers in a matter of seconds only to have a chain wrapped around his neck from

behind.

      Three of them had him on the ground, unmasked. They took turns

swinging at him.

      Bobby nudged Boochie and pointed at Johnny. “Some balls the kids got

comin’ back here huh?”

      “Is that what ya call it?” Boochie said and laughed.

      I felt a pot smash in pieces on the back of my head. And then I too was on

the ground.

     Roman was still on his feet taking on about ten of them. But he was tiring,

losing, getting hit often and seldom hitting back. I could finally see his face. The

mask was trampled in the dirt. The arena floor was scattered with bodies, some

moving, some not.

      I wasn’t meant to die like this. Eighteen years old fighting men twice my

age in some psycho’s warped circus. For the life of a dog nonetheless. Please

God. Please God.

     I don’t know if the man upstairs heard me or the dogs’ curiosity finally

over came their fear. But the canines stood uneasily in front of the curtain,

confused, watching the battle. Their tongues seemed to hang all the way to the dirt

and their eyes moved over the potential food in front of them.

      The hesitation did not last long. The hungry animals spread out over the

arena and went for the wounded men on the floor, savage piranhas swarming the

pink sea of dirt. In seconds every dog had his own body, his own plentiful meal.

Teeth gouged in, heads swung back and forth, flesh ripped. One of the dog’s

mouths covered a man’s nose, and when it lifted the nose was gone. Two dogs

played tug of war with each of a man’s arms. Several of the beasts pounced on

Patch and One Ear, taking their vengeance one bite at a time. Though their former

incarcerators’ bodies were still warm, revenge can be eaten at any temperature.

Freddy Flowers was on the mic again, cursing what he called God’s foul

beasts. His voice came through the speakers but sounding fainter, more like a

whisper. It was hard to translate the ranting. It was lost beneath the gurgling

screams of his own men.

        The dogs waited patiently as Roman sent his attackers to the dirt, like

students at obedience school. I imagine if Freddy’s men had had their choice, they

would have voted to fall straight to Hell instead of onto the arena floor. Many of

them were conscious through the entirety of the dining, and could only watch as

their flesh and blood tore away from their bones. The dogs stopped short of killing

some of them, leaving the once-proud soldiers to suffer, giving their souls time to

either repent or curse. Not one of them made it back to their feet.

      When all stomachs were full, our four-legged friends paced the arena

nervously, remembering what it was built for and looking for an exit. A couple of

laps was all it took. The corpses and body parts had made a pile against the west

wall, stacked up at least three feet atop of what remained of Patch and One Ear.

Now the dogs ran up the slick human staircase with relative ease, pouncing on the

flesh, and jumping to the walkway. They ran as a pack to the exit and to their

freedom.

       There were six of us left standing.

       Freddy was now down on the walkway, leaning over the railing. His pink

suit only made the anger in his face seem redder and his disarrayed hairs escaped

the once perfectly slicked-back ponytail. Boochie and Bobby stood next to him,

awaiting orders; Heather dangled beside them, almost conscious now. Me and

Johnny watched as Roman approached on the arena floor below.

      “Let her go and we’ll be on our way,” Roman said from his spot next to the

curtains.

       “Who are you?” Freddy said and laughed. “You’re just a kid. Ha! A

fucking kid. Let her go? I think not.”

      Roman plucked the torch from the ground next to the curtain. Without

hesitation he held it to the pink silk. The flames traveled over the material, igniting

the entire doorway as quickly as fire over gasoline. In seconds the entire north

wall was burning. Roman heaved the torch like a spear. It landed in the stands

behind The Flower. The vines and flowers that adorned both the rafters and the

grandstands began to wilt and smolder.

      “Not my beautiful children. This is not how it happens,” Freddy screamed.

Johnny jumped to the rail and I followed behind.

     “Dukes is mine,” Johnny said again.

      Unfortunately that left me with Boochie. As Johnny catapulted over the

railing and clotheslined Bobby to the walkway, the fat man caught me in mid-air.

My face smooshed into his flabby chest, his arms wrapped around me, squeezing

the air from my lungs; my legs hung limply over the arena floor.

      Johnny and Bobby exchanged several blows. Both were ballroom

brawlers, and they stood like boxers before the bell. Johnny got a few good licks

in only to have a switchblade drawn on him.

Freddy backed away from the entire scuffle.

      “This is going to be more fun than that wood chipper anyway. I’m gonna

gut you like a pig,” Bobby said as he waved the blade in front of Johnny. He

jabbed it at The Killer but his arm was caught in mid-strike.

       Roman stopped the attack, clapping his hands on Bobby’s wrist.

Immediately Dukes dropped the weapon. Roman still had hold of the wrist and

turned it back to the forearm. There were several cracking sounds.

Johnny unleashed a series of punches on Dukes, bringing him to his knees

and eventually to his back.

       Roman picked up the knife, cut Heather’s bonds in one quick slice, and

caught her before one blond hair hit the walkway. Gently, Roman propped her

against the first row of bleachers. Heather’s eyes were already turning black from

the earlier punch that knocked her senseless.

      I could feel the heat all around me and hear the crackle of Freddy’s arena as

it burned. Smoke filled the air, eclipsing any light from the gymnasium bulbs

above. I could see Freddy pacing on the walkway and brushing back the tight hair

against his scalp. Everything was getting black in my vision. I was close to

passing out, but for some reason all I could think about was what shade of purple

my face was. At any second I thought my head was going to pop like a zit.

Boochie dropped me and I fell to the arena floor. As my head hit the dirt, I

squinted through the smoke. Roman had gone underneath the fat man’s legs from

behind and grabbed a handful of Boochie’s family jewels.

       Roman twisted one way and then the opposite. Boochie inhaled a large

gasp like Roman had just hit the release valve on some pressurized mechanism.

The fat man stayed on his feet though, and with no other strategy popping into that

sweaty tattooed melon of his, he simply fell backwards landing on Roman and

crushing him against the walkway.

      Beneath him Roman wiggled his fingers like the slow tentacles of a bug

underneath a shoe. Heather got to her feet and stomped on Boochie’s stomach. It

was no good; the pounding only displaced the wave of fat that was his belly. You

can’t hurt jello.

     With his right arm, Boochie swiped her to the side. Heather was no more

than a paper-thin pest to him. He made no effort to get up, seemingly satisfied

with his current fighting tactic. I got out of the dirt and from under the railing

reached up and grabbed Boochie’s ankles. His heel smashed me square in the nose

and I was back in the dirt again.

      Roman gave up trying to contract his diaphragm underneath the weight. He

held his breath and somehow wiggled his hands out from behind the fat man’s

shoulders. Heather kicked the jelly belly again several times, only to get flung

against the bleachers by Boochie’s arm. Her attack was productive though, giving

Roman enough room to free both arms from under the shifting weight on top of

him.

      Now his fingers searched the fat man’s face, the blind phalanges trying to

read silver Braille. Roman searched until all of his members on both hands were

safely wrapped like meat hooks around the silver hoops on the fat man’s face.

Boochie shook his head trying to free himself, but with one pull Roman stretched

the skin and ripped out every last ring.

      Boochie let out a cry far worse than any wounded animal. His right

eyebrow hung loose over his eye, the space between his nostrils was absent, and

blood began to seep through the pin-sized holes in his cheeks. Boochie rolled off

to the side, a red mess.

       The Killer and Dukes continued to exchange blows, their punches glowing

orange from the reflected flames. Johnny’s left eye was almost completely swollen

shut and he covered the ribs on the same side.

       Freddy Flowers stood twenty feet above them on the bleachers, scanning

the arena for something that would help his man. Physical involvement was out of

the question—fighting was something that was beneath the silk suits and propriety

of a man such as him, even under dire circumstances like these. Finally, his eye

caught the flaming flowerpots that ran up the aisleway of the bleachers. He

grabbed them by the handle and swung them through the air at Johnny—his

beautiful creatures would not die in vain after all.

      Roman got to his feet still gasping for air and started toward Freddy,

passing the gladiators on the walkway like they weren’t even there, and dodging

the flaming pots from the bleachers. The fireballs moved slowly and were no

match for Roman’s quick ducks and side steps.

     Freddy backed up the stairs of the bleachers, grabbing his bombs from each

side of the aisle of every row he passed. Roman walked up as well, moving his

body only slightly as the flaming pots passed him.

     One of the firebombs missed Roman but continued down to the walkway

and hit Johnny. Hot red ashes sparked as the pot hit The Killer’s back and smoke

bellowed from his suit coat. An instant later Johnny’s backside was ablaze. He

took a couple of steps like he was thinking of running. (Stop, drop, and roll, was

always miles from thought when you needed it most.)

     I ran down the length of the arena wall, stopped at Johnny’s ankles, and

grasping from below pulled with all my strength. His head hit the walkway face

first, something I was sure he would forgive me for if I saved his life. I pulled him

under the railing and let him fall to the dirt. I began to push him over. The Killer

caught on and started to roll himself, with the words of that old grade school

anthem playing in his head I imagine. When the flames were safely out Johnny

shed the smoldering coat.

     Freddy only had two rows left before reaching the top—four more fire

pots. Roman continued his slow pace; keeping enough distance so he could react

to the flaming projectiles. Bobby Dukes began to walk up behind Roman, stopped

out of exhaustion, and pulled out a cigarette and lighter despite the thick blackness

that hung in the arena.

      Roman ducked the last of Freddy’s flaming plants and grabbed The Flower

by his neck.

      Bobby Dukes was not so lucky.

      As he flicked the silver lighter with no success, the pot hit Bobby in the

head, igniting his hair like a candlewick. I could hear the grease sizzle as it

flamed. Bobby calmly walked over to the rail, straddled it, and then dropped to the

floor below as if the hot flames only consumed the grease and not the roots of his

hair. He bent over with confidence and rubbed his head in the dirt, and then threw

dirt with his hands, and then rolled. None of it worked. Panicked now, Dukes ran

for what was left of the exit screaming, the flames growing to the ceiling with each

stride. He climbed up the arena wall, his entire head burning, took two steps on the

walkway and fell back to the dirt as one giant flame.

      The building crackled like the embers in a campfire, snapping and seeming

to sway under its own weight. Johnny the Killer ran for the exit with what was left

of his coat covering his face. I covered my face as well as the smoke was

unbearable and the heat about fried my eyes.

      Roman stood at the top, still holding The Flower’s throat.

     “Who are you?” Freddy asked.

     Roman stepped close to him, nose to nose. “I’m nobody. I’m a ghost.

     And like a ghost I’m going to disappear. But if I ever come across you or one of

your thugs ever again, I’ll haunt you to the depths of hell.”

     “I’m a businessman,” The Flower responded. “A smart businessman. I’m

sure our paths will never cross again. In fact I’m positive.”

     Roman let go and ran down the bleachers, skipping every other one. He

jetted down the walkway to where I had Heather on her feet. Roman scooped her

up and carried her to the exit. I followed them, turning back one more time in

amazement, and watched Freddy Flowers exit by the opposite staircase.

      The frozen tundra was welcome terrain and the bitter cold felt like a spring

breeze. Roman carried Heather over the crunchy snow with relative ease. His

skinny arms were like oaks. On the ground next to the exit lay Boochie Anderson,

patting snow on his newly acquired wounds. Twenty or so others occupied the

snow-covered lot of Extravaganza. Those lucky enough not to become dog chow

sat in the snow, tending to their wounds. Several of the soldiers and the

entertainers who had exited with the fans stood around watching like students at a

bonfire as their circus warmed the icy January sky.

      Several looked at us as we headed towards the Escalade, but looked away

when they saw Roman. It was amazing how much respect could be gained in such

a short time, even with the lowest of humanity.

      Roman put Heather in the front passenger seat. I sat in the back next to

      Johnny, who was laughing as Apollo bombarded him with licks.

      “Nice of you to make sure we got out,” I said to Johnny.

     “What? I saw he had it under control. I couldn’t fuckin’ breathe man.”

     As the Escalade rolled down the two-lane road there was no conversation,

only passing fire trucks and police. Roman occasionally glanced at his sleeping

beauty in the next seat. My skin was still warm and from the rear view mirror, I

could see in the distance the orange and yellow glow of The Flower’s

Extravaganza turning the night sky into the brightness of mid-afternoon.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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