They caught him walking out the back door of the Amarillo Civic Center around two a.m. At six foot nine, a hair under three hundred and sixty pounds, he was the biggest in the Biz. But a single homerun whack to the back of his skull with their aluminum baseball bat was enough to lay the giant down.
Of course, what fun would it have been if they stopped there?
Motherfuckers hit him again, in the ribs.
A third time, across his bum knee, for shits and giggles . . .
. . . then everything went black for “Nefarious” Nick Bullman, a.k.a. THE WIDOWMAKER.
“Wake up, asshole.”
A high-pitched titter, like the mating call of some brain-damaged bird, followed by a second voice: “Time to pay the piper!”
“Shit, that smarts,” Nick groaned as he came to.
At least one of his ribs was broken, he knew right away – he could feel it scraping against something soft and vital inside of him with every breath he took. Back of his head throbbed like an eighteen-wheeler had rammed into it at full speed. Not to mention his left knee. Damn thing hadn't been the same since Handsome Harry Hardcore’s sloppy Figure Four at the Brawler Series last summer. Now it felt as if that same eighteen-wheeler had driven over it, reversed, did it a few more times to add insult to injury.
Once he was fully conscious, Nick went to rub at the back of his head. But he couldn’t move. His captors had cuffed his wrists together around some kind of heavy post, he realized. He looked down to see that his ankles were also bound, with some kind of thick rubber tubing.
The persons responsible for his predicament were fuzzy humanoid shapes at first, looming twenty or thirty feet from him. They watched Nick struggle and flex and curse their mommas for a minute before they stepped closer . . . .
Two men. About half his age, but a thousand times uglier. First thing Nick noticed: they wore matching referee shirts. Zebra-striped, zip-up, the Association’s blood-splatter logo over the left breast. Guy on the right, the taller of the two, sported maybe half as many teeth in his mouth as Nick had fingers and toes. Tufts of dirty blond hair stuck out from under his camouflage cap. On the T-shirt beneath his rumpled ref-wear, Nick recognized a smiling portrait of Rebel Yell, those Confederate Flag-wearing “rednecks” whose gimmick portrayed them as tag-team spokesmen for the Southern man (truth told, they were as good ole’ boy as two Polish brothers from upstate New York could be). The scumbag on the left had a few more teeth than his companion, but only one arm -- the other ended at his elbow in a pink, misshapen knob. A tangled mop of curly brown hair fell just past his shoulders. The shirt beneath One-Arm’s ref-wear advertised his idolization for the Association’s reigning Heavyweight Champ, Big Bubba Bad-Ass.
Nick sat in one corner of what looked like a homemade wrestling ring. The thick blackness beyond it suggested some kind of warehouse. Rust-colored splotches stained the mat beneath his feet (he wondered if these losers made a habit of emulating their heroes, sometimes taking the game too far). Even the smell was authentic: sweat, scabs, baby oil, and soggy spandex.
He was almost impressed. To suggest that the men before him were wrestling fans was like saying . . . well . . . like saying the matches were choreographed and it was all a big soap opera for dudes.
“Here's the deal, Mr. Widowmaker,” the guy in the Rebel Yell shirt began the festivities. He stood over Nick, arms crossed. “Or is it ‘Nefarious Nick Bullman?’ What should we call you? Maybe you wanna go by your old name, back when people liked you? What was it? Oh, yeah. ‘The Good Goliath’? You shoulda stuck with that.”
“Yeah,” echoed One-Arm. “You shoulda stuck with that.”
“But nooooo. You had to get too big for your britches, didn’t ya? Betrayed your buddies in the Alliance. I couldn’t believe it when you hit Joe Cobra with that steel chair. Helped Garth Hater take the one-two-three, left your buddies high n’ dry. After all you guys had been through!”
“With friends like you,” said One-Arm, “who needs fuckin’ enemies.”
“That was ten years ago.” Even as he said it, Nick wondered why he was explaining himself to these freaks. “Ratings had dropped. The Alliance angle was going nowhere. McDougal wanted to shake things up.”
“You oughta be ashamed o’ yourself,” said Rebel Yell. His tongue raked across his rotten teeth as he spoke, and the sound was like a snake slithering across wet concrete. “Them guys was your best friends! Scotty Mojo, Freddy Face, even that wetback, El Diablo. They forgived you for that stunt you pulled on Joe, believed that horseshit about the Corporation brain-washin’ you. Remember when you was gonna give away Freddy’s fiancée? They was tyin’ the knot at Doomsday XVII, right before Diablo’s ‘Rage In the Cage’ match with Vesuvius. But you turned on your buddies, and you hit Miss Jessica with the ring-bell?”
One-Arm nodded, his single skinny limb flailing about as if to emphasize his buddy’s point. “What the hell’s wrong with you? Always kickin’ below the belt, cheatin’ to win. It ain’t right!”
“I’m on one of those hidden camera shows, right?” Nick no longer knew whether to scream with laughter, or fear for his life. This felt like a lame beginning to an even lamer storyline, something the Association’s writers had conjured up on the fly but they had neglected to tell him about it. Marks who believed the work was real? Thirty, forty years ago maybe. But wasn’t it common knowledge these days that the outcome of every match was predetermined, and even the promoters called what Nick Bullman did for a living “sports entertainment”?
These two morons didn’t get out much, apparently.
“You think you’re so smart,” said Rebel Yell. “But we got you! Waited on you after the main event, almost didn’t recognize ya without your demonistic makeup.”
“We got you,” One-Arm gloated.
Without warning, Rebel Yell reared back, slugged Nick in the mouth.
Nick hadn’t noticed the guy’s glove before now. It was one of those steel-lined SAP jobs. Often used by law enforcement, designed to inflict maximum damage.
His busted lip spewed blood down his chin. He spat out several teeth.
Still, he couldn't help but chuckle.
“Stupid marks. Don’t even deserve to wash my cup."
“Look,” said Rebel Yell, as if trying to reason with the wrestler before things really got out of hand, “When Black Samson killed you in that ‘Loser Leaves Life’ match at New Year's Evil IX, what’d you do?”
Nick decided to play along. Why not. There was nowhere else he needed to be. “I didn’t do anything, right? I was dead.”
“Big Bubba carried you backstage, told the crowd he was gonna do what was right since you used to be close. Said he was gonna talk Father Ivan Ruffstuff into givin’ you a proper Christian burial.”
“But then you sold your soul to the Devil, so you could live forever! And a week later, on Thursday Night Hardcore, how did you repay Big Bubba?”
“Don’t recall.” Nick sighed. “But I'm sure you'll refresh my memory.”
“You slammed him through the entrance ramp, you asshole! You teamed up with the guy who slit your throat, helped that nigger throw Bubba fifteen feet onto the concrete floor. You broke his back!”
When Rebel Yell was done, he looked like he might start crying.
Truth told, Nick had always liked Big Bubba -- this past 4th of July, in fact, their families had gotten together for a barbecue in Mr. Bad-Ass's (real name: Eric Aubrey) backyard, Nick pushing Aubrey’s giggling eleven-year-old on her swing-set for hours, harmlessly flirting with Mrs. Bubba as he was wont to do -- though things appeared quite the opposite inside the squared circle.
In the ring, their ongoing feud kept the fans screaming for blood. Usually the Widowmaker’s.
After all, Nefarious Nick Bullman was the Global Wrestling Association’s top heel. All that sacrilege, cartoonish crap about ’Maker being the SON OF ETERNAL DARKNESS -- it never failed to get the marks going good.
“Actually,” Nick said, “Eric had some vacation time to burn. Took Renee to the Bahamas for their tenth anniversary . . . ”
But he trailed off. Knew it was like trying to argue with a couple of ring-posts.
“Sure. We messed Big Bubba up good. Put his ass in ICU.”
“You’re evil, Mr. Widowmaker,” said Rebel Yell. “And you've bullied your way through the Global Wrestling Association long enough.”
He pronounced it rasslin’. Naturally.
“You’re worse than Leviathan!” said One-Arm. “At least he’s a big dumb monster, can't help doin’ the things he does.”
Nick shook his head. This had to be some surreal steroid dream. But he hadn’t touched the juice for the better part of three decades.
“You dildos are crazier than my third wife. And trust me, that's pretty fuckin’ crazy.”
Rebel Yell reached into his ref shirt. Gripped something hidden between his pants and the small of his back, brought it out slowly.
The knife was one of those big mean sons-a-bitches with a serrated blade, spiked knuckle guard. Kinda piece made you feel like you should start bleeding somewhere tender just for looking at it. It reminded Nick of a weapon from some post-apocalyptic B-movie, something with leather-clad road warriors and mutants running amok.
“Hold him,” Rebel Yell told One-Arm.
One-Arm scrabbled like a spider atop the ring-post to which Nick was cuffed. He let loose with another birdlike giggle, as if he had waited his whole life for this moment.
A thick rope wrapped tight around Nick’s throat, pulling his head back against the turnbuckle. He fought for air, thrashed about in his chair, briefly wondered how One-Arm could overpower him so easily.
“You wanna reveal a man’s true colors, you gotta dig deep.” Rebel Yell leaned over Nick with the knife. “Get to the skull beneath the skin.”
He began to cut.
Nick Bullman didn’t start screaming until the blade had traveled in a complete circle, from above his left eyebrow down to his chin then up again. Like a grisly game of connect-the-dots.
Even then, his screams didn’t reach their fever pitch . . . until his tormentors began to peel his face from his skull.
Later. Impossible to tell how much later, as time – reality -- had become a nonsensical joke that was anything but funny.
A cacophony of wailing sirens, doors being kicked in, the staccato clicking of numerous gun-hammers.
“Drop the fucking knife, dirtbag!” someone shouted.
Another voice: “Step away from him! Both of you! Now!”
In the center of the chaos: the body of a sweat-soaked muscleman transformed from the neck up into a sunken-cheeked, bulging-eyed Halloween decoration.
“Took you long enough,” croaked the thing in the ring, to the boys in blue standing over it.
More stunned gasps from his saviors, a chorus of disbelief exhaled on breaths that stank of coffee and doughnuts.
Until he spoke, none of them had known he was alive. His massive chest rose and fell so slowly it barely moved at all.
And the blood . . . so much blood, everywhere they looked . . . .
One tall cop with a ‘70s-porn-flick moustache slipped on something as he stepped into the ring. He pirouetted gracelessly but caught himself just in time, gripping the top rope with one hand to regain his balance.
A self-conscious glance at his companions. Then he bent, lifted something pink and dripping from beneath his shiny black shoe.
“Holy Mother of God. Is this what I think i–”
He dropped it. It hit the canvas with a sick plop.
The policeman looked ready to lose his supper. All of them did.
The thing in the chair stared at the gory pile too. And when some helpful soul finally got around to uncuffing his hands, he reached for it. Wept for it. As if he could just slide it back into place and everything would be A-OK.
TWO YEARS LATER
He still dreams about what happened at least once a week, but more often than not he dreams of what transpired after it was over. The repercussions of that night he spent with two men he would always think of – despite having learned their real names in the days following his ordeal -- as “Rebel Yell” and “One-Arm.”
He dreams of what came later. After his tormentors were convicted and sent away. After the surgeons had done their best to fix him.
He dreams of all he has lost.
And strangely enough, he often wakes up smiling . . . .
In his dreams, it is that fateful day in late August. He’s visiting corporate headquarters in Wilmington, North Carolina for the first (and last) time since Doc Saldutti gave him the OK to return to work. He has already made his rounds, thanking everyone for their awkward welcome backs and good to see yas. Now his well-wishers have returned to their pencil-pushing, their keyboard-tapping, and Nick finds himself alone at last. He’s standing at the far end of the hall from the executive hustle and bustle, trying to figure out how to program this cell-phone his agent bought for him last Christmas but he’s never touched the damn thing before now. He doesn't know that, in the coming months, his loneliness will drown him in a sea of black depression. So he savors it. He welcomes this moment of introspection after spending all morning playing the role of circus freak surrounded by the gawking masses, folks who pretend to pity him while rejoicing inside: Poor bastard, sure glad that ain’t me.
Now he’s approached by Veronica Townsend, the administrative assistant with the horn-rimmed glasses and the perfect bronze legs that stretch into infinity. Nick closes the phone with a flick of his wrist, turns to her with a distracted frown. Of course, these days he always looks like he’s frowning.
When their eyes meet, Ronnie glances down at her clipboard, toward the elevator doors behind Nick, then at a framed poster on the wall to her left (Big Bubba Bad-Ass holding high his World Heavyweight Champion belt). Everywhere but at Captain Ugly in front of her.
“The boss wants to see you in his office.” There’s a hitch in her voice, as if she ate some bad fish for lunch.
Message relayed, she quickly makes her escape. The trail of expensive perfume she leaves in her wake tickles the Widowmaker’s nose.
Nick tosses the phone into a nearby wastebasket. Stomps down the hall to Mr. McDougal’s office.
His huge fist knocks three times on the boss’s door, rattling the fancy gold nameplate there: LANCE K. MCDOUGAL III, C.E.O.
And waits some more.
He’s preparing to knock again when the boss calls out: “Come in!”
Nick pushes the door open. Stoops to clear the threshold.
The first thing he notices: It’s an icebox in here. A.C.’s cranked to full-blast. The room smells like pine-scented Lysol. Wealth. Power.
The boss is on the phone. Arguing with somebody about how he owns the trademark to every name on the roster so you bet your ass he expects a cut, foreign and domestic from here to Timbuktu, if this piece-of-shit movie gets a green-light.
When McDougal finally hangs up the phone Nick wastes no time asking, “You wanted to see me, boss?”
“Nick Bullman.” The CEO’s teeth are impossibly white. A used car salesman’s grin on the face of a filthy rich entertainment mogul. “Take a seat. Please.”
Nick eases his six-foot-nine bulk into the chair opposite his employer’s mahogany desk. The vinyl cushion is as soft as a boulder beneath his ass. Nick has always wondered if guys like Lance McDougal intentionally stock their offices with furniture only slightly more comfortable than Inquisition-era instruments of torture. Just so there’s no mistake who has the best seat in the room.
Lance K. McDougal III is in his late forties, just five or six years younger than Nick, but being born with the proverbial silver spoon in your kisser tends to slow the aging process. He could pass for thirty-something if not for his hair – it is the color of needles, razorblades, objects that will slice you to pieces if you aren’t careful with them. The boss wears an immaculate navy blue suit, a tie the color of freshly-spilled blood. A pink handkerchief monogrammed with his initials peeks out of his breast pocket.
At barely 5’ 5”, McDougal is shorter than anyone who works in his building, but thanks to the power he wields as Chief Executive Officer of the Global Wrestling Association the man is no less imposing than the sixty-plus musclemen on his payroll. He inherited the company from his father in the early ‘nineties, after Lance K. McDougal, Jr. succumbed to a short battle with lung cancer. Those who knew the elder McDougal have claimed on more than one occasion that the old man would have been disappointed in the direction his son has taken the business, but of course none dare voice such conjecture in their diminutive employer’s presence. Lance K. McDougal, Jr. had been a devout Southern Baptist; under his thumb, the Association (then called the “Championship Wrestling League”) had produced nothing so controversial as to threaten its Saturday afternoon TV time slot. Now, Lance K. McDougal III has body-slammed “sports entertainment” into the new millennium, with flamboyant characters and titillating scenarios that barely squeak past Standards & Practices week after week.
“It’s good to see you, Nick,” McDougal says. “We were all worried sick for a while.”
“I appreciate that,” says Nick.
“Look at you. The doctors . . . they tried their best. I will give them that.”
Nick fidgets in his chair. It creaks beneath his weight. He doesn’t dig the way McDougal sits there scrutinizing his ruined features, as if they are some abstract work of art on which the boss is thinking about dropping thirty or forty grand.
“I heard some clutz cop actually stepped on your face? Jesus.”
Nick stares down at his snakeskin boots.
“So how are you feeling? Ready to get back to work?”
“I am itching to get back in the ring. I miss it.”
“I’m sure the other guys are glad to have you back.”
“They seem to be.” Nick thinks it, but doesn’t say it aloud: Although none of them can stand to look at me, as if ugly is contagious and they’re afraid they’ll carry the disease home to their loved ones if they get too close.
The phone rings.
McDougal punches a button. “What is it, Klarissa?”
“Your wife’s on line one, sir,” the receptionist’s voice chirps over the speakerphone. “She says it’s impor –”
“Tell her to call back in ten,” McDougal cuts her off. “In the meantime, hold all my calls?”
“Will do, sir.”
“Will do, sir.”
McDougal hangs up. “Sorry about that. I’ve told the silly bitch a thousand times not to interrupt me when I’m meeting with the talent. Dumb blondes – what can you do?”
Nick offers no suggestion. Everyone in the Association knows McDougal has been cheating on his wife with his receptionist for the last few years. Apparently Klarissa’s skills in the bedroom (rumors abound that the boss harbors an affinity for diaper play, but you can’t believe everything you hear) make up for her intellectual shortcomings.
“Nick,” McDougal says, “I know you’re a fellow who prefers no bullshit. I’ll cut to the chase. Due to recent . . . developments . . . we’ve decided to rethink your role in the GWA. I’ve been talking with Creative while you were recuperating, and we agreed that it might be best to drop your current character entirely.”
“No more Widowmaker?” Nick’s already crooked features twist into something resembling a stunned expression. He had known a fresh push would be necessary once he was back to a hundred percent. Audiences are fickle, after all. But he did not see this coming.
“No more Widowmaker.” McDougal rests his elbows on his desk, steeples his fingers together. “And no more Nefarious Nick Bullman.”
“Let me get this straight. I flew all this way to find out you’re firing me?”
“Not so fast, big fella. I never said that.” The boss is loving this. He gets off on making his employees squirm. Probably fantasizes about it while he’s pumping away at Klarissa the Dumb Blond Receptionist.
McDougal rises now, paces from one side of his office to the other as he lays out his plan. Once or twice throughout his spiel, he pauses in front of the huge bay window that looks out over Wilmington, North Carolina, his hands clasped behind his back like a spoiled prince admiring his kingdom.
“We’ve created a brand new character for you,” he says. “I think it’s brilliant. Of course, I came up with it, so I am a tad biased. But our writers are on-board with this a hundred percent, and they’ve already begun brainstorming ideas for your first angle . . . . ”
“I’m all ears,” says Nick.
“Your name will be REVOLTO.” As he presents his idea for Nick’s new character, McDougal’s voice deepens, becomes gruffer with his enthusiasm as if he’s narrating a bad horror movie: “No one knows where the beast called Revolto comes from. His real name is unknown, if he ever had one to begin with. Perhaps he’s not even human! Some have speculated that he was sent up from the bowels of Hell by Lucifer himself to terrorize mankind. Revolto never speaks. He communicates in brainless grunts and growls. He is the most dreadful animal known to man, the epitome of ugly, a foul demon whose presence makes the mightiest of wrestlers quiver in their boots! His abominable features have caused those of lesser endurance to spontaneously regurgitate. No one has ever seen anything as vile, as monstrous, as repugnant as the thing that calls itself Revolto! I mean, this friggin’ guy makes the Elephant Man look like Brad Pitt. Known alternately as the Wretched One, the Most Repulsive Creature In Existence, he strikes terror in the hearts of all who dare lay eyes upon his sorry excuse for a face.”
The boss sits again when he’s done. Leans back in his chair. His proud expression hints that he might have discovered a cure for cancer, or a plan to obliterate world hunger. His silver Rolex glistens in the afternoon sunlight shining through the window behind him.
Nick glares at the C.E.O., speechless.
“Revolto will make his first appearance in a hardcore brawl versus . . . the Widowmaker.”
Nick runs a hand over his graying buzzcut, where he once sported long raven locks. He still says nothing.
“How is this possible, you’re dying to ask? You’ll be working with someone disguised as your old character. Another wrestler the same size and build as you. The Redneck Gladiator should be perfect, don’t you think? We’ll throw a wig on John, give him your leather duster and the face-paint. Two minutes into the Main Event, you’ll interfere with this fake ‘Maker’s match. You’ll crush his opponent. Then you’ll turn your sights on ‘Maker. You will obliterate him. There will be blood. Buckets of it. The hard way, if necessary. That’s right, Nick, I’m giving you permission to work stiff, to shoot if that’s what it takes. I want the fans to feel every brutal, bone-shattering second of this beat-down. I want that goddamn ring to look like the floor of a slaughterhouse once the smoke has cleared. And when all is said and done, ‘the Widowmaker’ won’t make it out of this alive.
“We’ll haul him off in an ambulance at the end of the show, never to return. Right off the bat I’m thinking a feud with Man-Pretty is inevitable. That storyline will write itself -- the whole beauty-versus-beast, gorgeous-meets-grotesque dichotomy? In any event, Revolto will soon take ‘Maker’s place as the Association’s most hated monster heel. And by early next year I aim to put you back on top, where you belong . . . as our reigning Heavyweight Champ.”
When he is done, McDougal’s wide white grin grows wider than ever, if such a thing is possible.
“What do you think?”
“You can’t be serious,” says Nick.
McDougal blinks. Otherwise, he doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m not a man who cracks jokes, Nick. You know that. What those men did to you, it’s unfortunate. Personally, I hope they burn in the hottest part of Hell for it. But it happened. So we’re forced to improvise.”
When Nick doesn’t respond right away, McDougal adds, “Put it this way: the marks might be easy to fool most of the time, but they aren’t stupid. When the Widowmaker last appeared on television, his head didn’t look like six-week-old roadkill.”
Nick’s blood boils in his veins. “You son of a bitch.”
“You wanna get back on TV, surely you didn’t think a mask would suffice. Latino Thugg has dibs on that gimmick. And give me one good reason why I would want to cover up that face! You’re a promoter’s wet dream, Nick. What happened to you, it’s a blessing in disguise –”
“A blessing in disguise.” A sick chuckle slips out of Nick.
“You’ve lost your fucking mind.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You think I’d allow you to exploit me like that, you’ve got another thing coming.”
The boss’s condescending smile disappears. In its place is the glare of a man whose decisions are never disputed.
Calmly, coldly, he says, “You will do whatever I tell you to do. And you’ll like it.”
“Sit down,” McDougal commands.
“You’re under contract with the Association for the next six years. You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m not your carnival freak.”
“I’m not your carnival freak.”
“Is this about dignity?” McDougal’s cruel laughter is like a sword jabbed into the disfigured wrestler’s heart. “Please. Get that out of your head, man. Any dignity you ever had died the day your face was carved into something that looks like a bowl of mashed potatoes.”
“You piece of shit,” Nick growls.
“I understand you’re harboring a lot of anger over what happened to you. But don’t forget who you’re talking to.”
Sweat drips down the wrinkled roadmap of Nick’s scarred forehead, burns in his eyes.
“Do we understand one another?” McDougal asks him.
“We sure do.”
Nick leaps over the C.E.O.’s desk.
His hands wrap around the little man’s throat.
Lance K. McDougal III screams. It is a high-pitched, girlish sound.
Nick doesn’t let go until the three brutes from Security burst into the office and start touching him with their Tasers.
Even then, it takes a while.