by Eddy Webb
When Justin stopped breathing in the middle of the ring, I knew I was in trouble.
It was the main event: Justin Green against me for the ECPW Heavyweight title. We had been battling for months in bingo halls and school gymnasiums, at thirty bucks a match. Just when he’d get close to a win over me, I’d snatch it away from him with some dirty trick, and the crowd ate it up. Kids screamed at me and their parents threw popcorn while I slumped to the back trying to remember if I had gas in my car.
“Heel heat” we called it: the more the crowd hates the bad guy, the more they get behind the underdog, and the more they’ll pay to see the next match. I’m fantastic at getting people to hate me. That’s why I was billed as “Violent Victor Keyes” by Rainier Rousseau, the part-time announcer and full-time owner of East Coast Pro Wrestling. In fact, I’m so good at being hated, that last month, some old man in New Jersey hit me in the face with a crutch.
Justin laughed at that one, but then, he laughed at everything after he’d had a couple of pills. He was taking them after every show while we were on the road. I never used them, and I said so, but he said it was just to deal with the pain, just to make himself a little stronger, just to get an edge in the ring. “We’re contractors, Vic,” he told me once. “Ain’t no one gonna look out for us but us. Not the bookers, not the owners, nobody. You do what you gotta do.”
“Where’d you get them?” I asked.
He laughed again. “I like you, Vic. But not that much.”
That’s how it was for months. We worked well together, and we watched out for each other. But this was the blow off, the final match in the feud where I drop the belt to Justin. Yukiko, the booker (though she always told us to call her the “head writer”), decided that our match would be in a steel cage, pin or escape to win. It was a classic, something that played well both in Japan where she used to wrestle and here in the States. I was making Justin look good before I let him win. He’d earned it.
At the fifteen minute mark, Justin hit me with his signature finishing move, a DDT he called The Stoplight. My vision blurred when my face hit the mat. Justin rolled me over, and I barely managed to raise my shoulder before the referee slapped the mat the third time.
Justin turned away, playing to the crowd as they cheered him on and I got my head together. The ref came to check on me, and whispered in my ear, “Finish, pin, reverse for three.” He wanted me to nail Justin with my finisher, a powerbomb the announcers had been calling the “Violent Storm,” before he reversed the move and pinned me for the win.
I nodded, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, and ran across the ring. I grabbed Justin’s arm and whipped Justin into the ropes, his face smashing into the chain link fence around the edge of the ring. He grabbed his chest and staggered, and I picked him up by his waist and slammed him to the ground with the Violent Storm. The referee started counting.
That’s when I noticed Justin wasn’t breathing.
The ref’s hand started to come down for the third time. I pulled off of Justin, leering at the crowd. “I’m not done with him yet!” I yelled. I walked away, shoving the referee contemptuously. He knew the signal, and checked on Justin. After a second, he came back to me and started arguing, poking me in the chest before pointing to his own shirt to tell me that I need to respect his authority.
Oh no. That meant Justin was badly hurt. Now I had to go against the script and win the match.
I stormed past the referee and punched Justin in the face and neck, hoping that would bring him around. When it didn’t, I pulled him into his own move, The Stoplight, and nailed him to the mat. The ref quickly counted to three, and just like that I was still champion.
I got up and started talking trash, distracting the crowd while security ran down to the ring to get Justin out of there. When my music started to play and Rainier announced my win, I glanced over my shoulder, and saw them propping Justin up to make it look like he was just groggy. I snatched my belt from the referee and made my way through the curtain, hot dog wrappers and curses bouncing off my back.
All of the workers were crammed into the tiny locker room, either trying to rubberneck or pushing guys back to keep them from rubbernecking. I shoved my way through the crowd and found Justin. He was laid out on one of the benches in the locker room, where Yukiko was giving him CPR. I dropped the belt on the floor and stared at Justin. Outside I could hear Rainier thanking the crowd and shooing them out of the convention center.
Then it was quiet, and I kept staring at Justin as Yukiko’s arms got tired. An ambulance came, and I watched them wheel Justin out of the locker room. But I wasn’t seeing any of it. I kept thinking about all the pills Justin took, playing my responses over and over in my head as I stared at the empty bench.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked over to see Yukiko there. “You okay?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, looking down at the belt still on the floor. “I carried that hunk of gold for months, and it didn’t feel heavy until I saw Justin like that.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
I ignored her and kept staring at the belt.
“You should probably go out the back, though,” she continued. “There’s still some pissed-off true believers hanging around. They think you sent their favorite to the hospital. If they do see you, you’ll have to keep kayfabe.”
“Keep…?” I finally looked over at Yukiko. “You want me to stay in character out there? To take credit for this?”
She took her hand off my shoulder, carefully, like I might explode. She was right. “Maybe now’s not the time….”
“You’re right,” I said, grabbing the belt off the floor. “This isn’t the time. I don’t know how they did things in Japan, but we’re not doing this. I’m not going out there to brag about sending Justin to the hospital until I know what happened out there. I don’t give a damn about the storyline. If you don’t like it, take this damned belt right now.”
“It’s not up to me, Vic. Rainier says this is the most attention he’s gotten in months, and he wants to use it as momentum for the next few shows. And you’re brilliant at getting the crowd against you. This could be huge. Maybe even get you some attention for the major feds.”
I threw the belt on the bench. She rushed over and picked it up as I stomped out of the locker room to look for Rainier. I found him outside, standing on the delivery ramp, around the corner from the parking lot where the fans were probably still lurking to get a piece of me. Ray was smoking a cigarette, and arguing with a man in a track suit that I’d never seen before.
I didn’t care. I walked up to the two of them and launched into a tirade. “What the hell, Ray? Someone got hurt at your event, and you’re already booking the next one with Yukiko?” My fists clenched at my side, trembled.
The owner waved without looking at me. “Later, Vic,” he said. His French-Canadian accent always got worse after hours of trying to sound American on the mic. “I’m in the middle of a business meeting.”
“I don’t care. We need to talk about what happened out there with Justin.”
“Exactly my concern,” the man in the track suit sneered.
His accent said “Russian,” and his finger tattoos said “Mob money manager.” I met a few guys like him when I spent some time upstate for armed robbery. A buddy of mine tried to rob a convenience store, and put the gun in my hands before he started beating the owner. The cops arrived, and just like that, I was an accessory. I’ve tried hard to keep that kind of trouble out of my life ever since.
I ignored the Russian, focusing on Rainier. “Ray, this is a huge problem. I’m not just going to—”
Rainier pointed at me, dropping ash all over his shirt. “I don’t think you realize how big of a problem it really is.”
I looked at the Russian. “I think I’m starting to.”
The Russian shrugged. “I will leave you to your business,” he said. “Just remember, if any of this comes back on us, it will be more than our money we come looking for.”
He turned and walked off. I debated going after him, but decided against it.
Rainier was still whining. “Look, just drop it, Vic.”
“One of your workers is hurt, Ray. I was working with him when it happened. I’m involved.”
“Not hurt.” He took another drag on his cigarette.
I waited for an answer, and when I didn’t get one, my brain shut off. The only word I could choke out was “Dead?”
I swayed and leaned against the rough concrete wall. “He can’t be dead. He can’t. I was just....”
“The police are on their way.”
That snapped me back. “What are you going to tell them?”
He shrugged. “What can I tell them? You were locked in a steel cage with him when he died. You and the referee are literally the only suspects.”
“Suspects?” The gears in my brain finally started turning. “It was a drug overdose.”
“Maybe it was, but the cops are going to want to know where those drugs came from, and the ECPW can’t handle that exposure or expense. We’re barely keeping above water as it is. This was a…” He waved his hands in the air. “…a personal matter.”
I blinked. Something wasn’t adding up. “We were at your show. We work for you. And you know as much as I do that no one can keep a secret in the back. You had to know about the drugs.”
“You’re contractors, Vic. If one of my contractors turns out to be a violent ex-con, I have to cooperate with the police in their investigation.”
I suddenly realized I had raised my fist. Ray noticed it, too, and took a step back, putting his hands up. “You don’t want to do this. You’ll just make things worse.”
“You son of a bitch,” I snarled. “You were going to have me go out there and claim credit for Justin’s death.”
“Only if everything was cleared up! He told me that it would keep the police off my back.” He tried to take another drag from the cigarette in his trembling hands.
I took the cigarette out from between his fingers. “The Russian.”
Rainier frowned. “Yeah. The Russian. I’m in deep, and they don’t want their drug operation coming back on them, you know? It’s not just a little jail time with those guys, and....”
I stopped listening. His shirt was in my hands, his eyes right in front of mine, wide as saucers. “The Russians sold Justin the drugs?”
“Yeah. He said it was just a little something to give him an edge, you know? I wasn’t happy about it, but he made his own decisions. He’s a grown man.”
“Was.” I let him go, and he dropped to the concrete. “He was a grown man. Now he’s dead, and you’re ready to let me take the fall to save your ass.”
Rainier was trembling now. He must have seen something in my face that he didn’t like. If it was half as ugly as how I felt inside, I didn’t blame him. “Look, Vic. Don’t even worry about the booking right now. Just explain your side to the cops when they get here. Leave me and the Russians out of your story, and maybe you’ll only do a few months. You keep your mouth shut, you get back out, and you come see me. I’ll have you back at the top in no time.”
I walked away. He kept calling my name, but I didn’t listen to him. I couldn’t let this go. I wasn’t going to cover this up. Justin may have been an ass, but he was my friend, and you watch out for each other in the ring. So I’m going to find that Russian. I’m going to explain to him what he did to Justin. And then I’m going to keep beating him until the cops find me and pull me off of him. The Russian and all his friends who sold him this poison are going to hate me.
And I’m fantastic at getting people to hate me.
"Violent" Victor Keyes
High Concept: ECPW Heavyweight Champion of the World
Trouble: Ex-Con Wanted For a Crime He Didn’t Commit. Yet.
Fantastic At Getting People To Hate Me
I Did Time In Prison
I Watch Out For My Friends
Great (+4) Provoke
Good (+3) Athletics, Fight
Fair (+2) Empathy, Physique, Will
Average (+1) Deceive, Drive, Notice, Rapport
High Concept: “Head Writer”/Booker For The ECPW
Trouble: Cares Too Much For The Talent
The Crowd’s Always Watching
Used To Be All-Japan Women’s Champion
I Can’t Play Favorites
Great (+4) Rapport
Good (+3) Empathy, Lore
Fair (+2) Athletics, Notice, Will
Average (+1) Contacts, Deceive, Investigate, Physique
High Concept: ECPW Owner and Ring Announcer
Trouble: About To Be In Even Deeper With The Russian Mob
The Show Must Go On
I’m A Businessman
Great (+4) Contacts
Good (+3) Deceive, Provoke
Fair (+2) Contacts, Notice, Physique
Average (+1) Drive, Empathy, Rapport, Resources