~~~

Attendance at the fight pits in the northeastern corner of New Cleveland had been steadily on the rise over the last two weeks. Once known as Tidal Wave Bay from its former life at Geauga Lake Amusement Park, the fight pits had once been a large, concrete, bowl-shaped wave pool; a favorite attraction for the children who had enjoyed the park’s many water activities on hot summer days. Now, the massive artificial waves once responsible for the joyous sounds of children at play, were long gone. Instead of refreshing waters flowing into the pool, a nightly crimson bath of brutality had become the new attraction, promising to quench the thirst of those seeking to be entertained by watching a variety of one-on-one combat matches to the death.

An odd assortment of rotted and rusted bleachers that had been abandoned throughout the park, refurbished and put back in service, surrounded the rim of the concrete crater, affording the best view of the matches below. Only ‘gold coin’ patrons of New Cleveland could afford these seats, and this evening, the bleachers were packed with wild animal leftover from the apocalypse. From inebriated imbeciles to blood-hungry hounds, all were ablaze with anticipation as the chatter of excitement steadily rose among the crowd, all eagerly awaiting their front row participation in death—providing it wasn’t their own.

At the main entrance to the fight pits was a break between the bleachers where the wave pool was the shallowest. From here, a concrete ramp provided easy access into the pool for younger children who just wanted to get their feet wet. A tall gate now stood in front of this area, where admissions into the bleachers were handled.

Outside the gate, another crowd gathered. These were the less fortuitous patrons who still wanted to enjoy the fights, but lacking gold-coin privileges, they could only watch as the fighters introduced were paraded before the gates on their way down into the pool. The buzz of excitement was equally shared among this larger outdoor crowd who settled for proximity to the pits over a direct view of the fights. A collective of smaller outdoor parties merged with various vendors weaving in and out of the crowd offering a variety of alcoholic refreshments, illicit drugs, and advertised discounts to less-savory services in other parts of New Cleveland.

A tall woman wearing a black leather trench coat and black suede cowboy boots stepped casually, yet confidently, toward the oblivious outdoor crowd. Her long, straight black hair was tossed about in the breeze like venomous snakes across her white-painted face, partially concealing her bored expression.

As Briana approached the crowd, accompanied by an entourage of five heavily armed face-painted men who stood respectfully behind her, parties were momentarily halted as people looked up, saw the terrifying leader of New Cleveland’s security force, and then parted like the Red Sea, eyes down and submissive, allowing the Lunatics to reach the front gate.

She eye-balled various patrons in passing, amused at the frightened little sheep, as she took a long drag off her cigarette and then absently flicked it into the crowd.

After entering the gate, the outdoor crowd resumed their parties, sharing astonished whispers about the Lunatics, and especially Briana, who had rarely frequented the fight pits until recently.

But everyone knew why.

The fight pits had never seen the likes of what was happening over the past couple of weeks. Bodies came and bodies went. Names were introduced and forgotten so frequently that it was the norm. But no one had ever had a champion to root for… until now.

~~~

A six-foot tall man with dark messy hair and distant brown eyes leaned over exhaustedly, elbows resting against the knees of his torn jeans, his hands clasped together as if in prayer. He did this to keep them from shaking. The man was shirtless, exposing his bruised and scarred muscular upper body. His ankle was shackled with a thick chain attached to the wall behind him. All the fighters were bound just before the fights to keep them from having second thoughts and attempting to run before the show.

Tony Marcuchi could hear the murmur of the crowd outside the former bathroom/shower room converted into a staging area for the fighters before the matches. He stared down at the cracked linoleum floor, trying to clear his mind in order to survive another night. Since being sold in auction two weeks ago to the owner of the fight pits, Tony had already killed eight people. He closed his eyes and let out a heavy sigh, trying to cast out the bloody images of his victims, lying in their own blood, spattered across the concrete pool. The fights were always brutal, always merciless, but it was the battle with his heavily burdened conscience after each death match that threatened to finish him off each night.

His routine… his ritual… was always the same: Let the anger loose. Fight quick. Fight hard. Forget just as quickly. Repeat.

Tony had almost died in his first match. His opponent, a muscular man about his same build, with long hair, wearing some ridiculous bunny mask, had called himself The Red Rabbit. He’d charged at Tony wielding a fire-ax when Tony had showed hesitation to kill, earning him the disapproval of the crowd. The ax had just missed splitting his skull in two, right before Tony dodged it. From that moment on, there had been no reasoning with the crazed killer, and Tony could find no humanity in those eyes behind the mask. It was the man’s concealed face that helped him get through that first fight as Tony went into survival mode, letting loose his temper, and told himself he wasn’t fighting a man… but a monster.

Ironically, Tony’s assigned weapon had been a crowbar, typically given to new fighters who were considered fodder to their heavily favored opponents.

After dodging the enraged fighter all around the pits, The Red Rabbit had landed a blow, slicing a piece out of Tony’s left leg. He’d cried out from the wound, but the pain had only fueled the tempest within him.

Tony had found an opening, slamming his crowbar into the man’s exposed rib cage. The Red Rabbit had fallen to his knees, crying out as ribs shattered and dropping the ax. Tony, only seeing red at that point, had brought the crowbar down on the masked fighter’s head with great force, releasing all his rage, and he crushed the man’s skull, splattering himself with bloody chunks of flesh. The Red Rabbit had gone limp and fallen over on his side, dead.

The crowd had gone crazy over the surprise upset, rising to their feet and applauding the gruesome death. From that day on, Tony had earned the name, Crusher, which his owner had capitalized on by expanding it to, Skull Crusher.

To date, no fighter had ever lasted more than three matches. Tony had survived eight, earning him the title of New Cleveland’s first ‘Champion’.

Tony had spent that first long night in agony of soul, his internal wounds much more devastating than the bruises, scrapes, or the deep gash to his leg. Given time to recover, he’d steeled himself for the matches ahead, consoling himself in that fact that he’d spill whatever blood was necessary to find his friends and get them safely out of this hellish town.

A rude, loud cough from across the shower room interrupted Tony’s moment of calm before the storm. He lifted his head and finally made eye contact with his ninth opponent.

A brute of a man almost twice Tony’s size, glared at him with hungry eyes and a shit-eating smile. He wore a long, braided beard with tattoos all over his face and bare muscular upper body that made him look like a tank. “You don’t look like much,” the man said in a deep voice. “All this fuss over the legendary Skull Crusher. Looks to me like you’re about to cry like a baby, trembling in your own piss and fear.”

Tony looked away. His face, an unreadable mask. “Go ahead and talk shit if it makes you feel better, but there’s nothing easy about killing a man.”

The bigger man scoffed, “Hah! Do I look like I’ll have trouble killing you today, maggot?”

“Size and strength aren’t enough,” Tony said. He looked at the man. “It takes a fire burning behind the eyes, a fire so damn hot it consumes everything good inside of you, all the emotions, the fear, the hesitation… until you can do the unspeakable.”

“What are you a poet or a fighter? You gonna kill me with words today?”

Tony laughed. “No. But I’m going to kill you anyway. Not that I want to… but I have to.”

The bigger man leaned forward threateningly and banged his large fists together. “You’re a fucking pussy! I’m gonna shove that crowbar up your dead ass when I’m finished and parade you around the pit like a damn trophy on a stick!”

Tony smiled at him. “Now that’s some real fucking poetry right there, big guy. Really leaves an image.”

This made the bigger man laugh. He leaned back and shook his head. “I like you Skull Crusher. You’re funny.”

“Funny enough to stop this bullshit and go get a beer instead?”

The bigger man laughed again. “Sorry. Sounds good. But you’re my payday.”

Tony nodded. “I get it. Kill the Champion and you’re set here in New Cleveland. That about cover it?”

“You know it,” the bigger man said. “What’s your name… your real one?”

Tony frowned and looked away. “No names. We fight… then no fucking names.”

The bigger man smiled and pointed. “Ah… see! You are weak! Funny, but weak. You think too much about all this blood on your hands. You stare at it and it makes you weak.”

Tony glared at him. “And what do you do? How do you live with yourself afterwards?”

The bigger man laughed again, as if Tony had told the greatest joke of all. He rubbed his big hands together and said, “Blood washes off.” He showed Tony his massive open palms. “Hands clean again. Easy-peasy.”

Tony shook his head. “That easy, huh? What… you’ve done this before, I take it?”

The bigger man waved a dismissive hand at him. “You’ve been out there… outside of New Cleveland… I can tell. You know what it’s like, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know how hard it is. You kill or get killed.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“You kill whoever you have to… take whatever you need… and then let those dead fuckers feed on the weak while you get away.”

Tony shifted in his seat, turning more toward the bigger man. “So, let me get this straight. While you were out there, you preyed on survivors, took their shit, and then left them behind for the dead to gnaw on?”

“Ain’t no surviving if your weak,” the bigger man said. “If you can’t protect what’s yours from little-ole-me, then you got no business breathing in this new world.”

“And who do you consider ‘weak’?”

“Don’t matter. Men, women… children… they’re all the same now.”

“You and I need to stop talking,” Tony said.

The bigger man laughed. “Why? Cause I speak the truth?”

“No,” Tony said, turning away from the man. “Because I’m going to kill you today.”

“You said that already.”

Tony turned his fire upon the man. “Yeah… but now I want to kill you.”

~~~

Game Time.

Both fighters were escorted under heavy guard from the staging area toward the entrance of the fight pits and then down into the pool. It took less than a minute but by the time the fighters reached their respective places in the pits, the roar of the crowd was deafening.

Tony just stood there, arms hanging loose, eyes down, staring at the blood-splattered concrete bowl. He tried to collect his thoughts and focus over the obnoxious, blood-thirsty crowd. His owner, a little oriental man who wore a heavy fur coat, flashy sunglasses, and a large mustache that dominated his face, barked orders at his men who quickly dressed the big man in light, blood-stained armor that covered Tony’s shoulders, biceps, forearms and thighs. A large breastplate was fastened around his chest with a red spray-painted skull emblem.

On the other side of the pits, the bigger man soaked in the crowd, raising his massive arms up toward them to egg them on while his team attempted to dress him in his armor. The bigger man was greeted with fresh enthusiasm mixed with boos and obscenities that the bigger man used to fire himself up, shouting back at the crowd to either win their support or shut them up.

Tony ignored him, the crowd, and especially, Briana, who was sitting in the first row of the bleachers with her entourage, leaning back in the lap of another Lunatic, smoking a cigarette with her boots kicked up and resting on the rail. She seldom missed an opportunity to watch her favorite piece-of-ass fight. Since Tony was sold at auction to the owner of the fight pits, the Lunatic leader had made it her special mission in life to watch him suffer in these bloody events, taunting him from the bleachers while deliberately trying to distract him with obscene displays such as flashing her non-painted breasts at him from the seats in the heat of battle or allowing herself to be groped by her fellow Lunatics while Tony watched. Once, she’d shoved her hand down the front of her pants and masturbated through an entire match.

Tony closed his eyes and shut it all out. The sickening crowd, the disgusting leader of the Lunatics, the nauseating blood, and especially his conscience—the only enemy that mattered if he wanted to remain alive for one more night.

Let the anger loose. Fight quick. Fight hard. Forget just as quickly. Repeat.

He let the desperate mantra steal over his thoughts as he pushed all the fear, the repulsion, the doubts—everything—down deep within him, locking up who he truly was until after the dark deed was finished. His friends needed him alive to get them out of this hell. He would do whatever it took to see them safely out of New Cleveland… or die trying. He pictured their faces, each of them going through God-only-knew what, since being sold at auction. The helpless feeling of being unable to protect them, which had first hindered him from fighting, he now used it to fuel his temper, putting all his frustrations into each match, honing the feelings into a sharp weapon that he unleashed.

He thought about losing Gina to the madness. He thought about the betrayal of Alysa.

The fire within him increased.

You can’t protect them, Tony, he heard the Bad Man, Walter, mock in his mind.

He used it.

He thought of everyone who died in the compound after the Shadow Dead attack. He thought of Lydia in that dark basement from long ago. And he thought of the sad woman who had lost her family at that truck stop.

The fire within him increased.

He thought about sitting broken before a pile of burned bodies at an ancient Lunatic bonfire, unable to help any of Orosco’s people from suffering, which eventually drove them to this place, and he used it all…

Someone slapped him hard on the arm.

Tony opened his eyes.

The little oriental man, who called himself Nin Tendo, was staring up into his face. “You fight for me, yes?” the little man shouted above the crowd. “You fight good… You win me much money… I take care of you, yes?”

Tony’s face was stone. “Yes,” he said, absently.

Nin Tendo smiled up at him and then held up Tony’s weapon.

Tony grabbed the crowbar. The steel felt cold in his hand. His flesh was on fire.

“Very good! Very good! You put on show! We win big time, yes?”

“Yes,” Tony said, already dismissing the annoying little man. He looked up across the fight pits at his opponent.

The little man was gone.

From somewhere, someone had just announced the new fighter’s stage name. Tony never heard it.

The bigger man stepped forward, spinning toward the crowd, holding some kind of exaggerated sledge hammer. The crowd cheered him on.

Then his stage name was announced over a loud speaker. The crowd went bonkers, chanting, “Skull Crusher! Skull Crusher! Skull Crusher!”

Tony had already tuned it all out.

Last one, Marcuchi. There’s that, at least, he consoled himself. One more night… One more death… give them the show they’ve always wanted.

After two-weeks of suffering in the fight pits, if everything came together after tonight, they would all be out this hell-hole in a few days… or they would be dead.

Tony glared up into the bleachers. “I’ll give you your fucking show,” he hissed at the crowd. His eyes rested on the Lunatic leader.

Briana was staring at him, smoking her cigarette. She blew him a kiss.

Tony smiled at her like the devil.

Briana frowned.

A large bell resounded.

The bigger man shouted and charged across the fight pits.

Tony gripped the ends of the crowbar so fiercely his hands went white.

He was still smiling as he took one step forward to confront the bigger man, then remained still. The crowbar hung low to his side.

The Lunatic leader dropped her cigarette and then leaned forward in her seat, resting her chin on her gloved hands.

His opponent reached him and then swung the massive sledge hammer down toward his head.

At the last moment, Tony sidestepped to his left, letting the massive hammer strike the concrete.

With the bigger man thrown off-balance, Tony stepped in behind him, swung the crowbar into the side of the man’s knee cap, causing the bigger man to cry out as he stumbled awkwardly forward in pain, dropping the massive sledge hammer while trying to grip his knee. Tony raised his foot to the bigger man’s ass, pushed hard, causing the man to slam his face into the concrete wall. Tony quickly flipped the crowbar around in his hand, exposing the sharper end, and then jammed it upward into the back of the man’s head, at the base of his skull, as if he were putting down a zombie.

One shot to the brain and the match was over.

The bigger man collapsed… dead.

Game over, Tony thought, absently tossing the crowbar toward the center of the arena. He turned toward the crowd and spit into the pits. He started to remove his armor, tossing it aside to show that he was bored with the whole affair.

After the initial shock at how fast the match ended, the crowd roared their disapproval, cursing and shouting at their champion, and feeling ripped-off.

Briana looked disappointed as she let out a heavy sigh, shaking her head at Tony. She signaled to the other Lunatics with a circle hand gesture and they all started getting up to leave.

Tony kissed his hand and then made an exaggerated show of blowing it toward her.

“What you do?!” Nin Tendo looked outraged as he approached his fighter. His people followed behind, picking up Tony’s armor and crowbar.

Tony stopped the little man with a glare and a shake of his head. “Not today,” he cautioned.

The little man wisely reeled in his anger, took in the crowd, then said, “They won’t forgive this. You champion! They expect… more!”

“Next time,” Tony lied. “Tonight… I’ve had enough. This one was for me, understand?”

Nin put his hands along the sides of his ridiculous fur coat. He quickly considered the big man and all the profits he’d made over the last two weeks. He could have him executed immediately, but that would be like shooting a hole in his own wallet. He pointed at Tony and threatened, “Next time you win big! You put on show or I find new fighter, yes?”

Tony smiled at the little man. “Sure. Next time.”

Nin Tendo seemed satisfied. He turned toward his people and started screaming at them in another language to hurry up.

The angry crowd started to disperse, yelling obscenities at Tony and at each other, but wisely controlling themselves under the scrutinizing gaze of the Lunatics patrolling the area.

Nin Tendo signaled his team, including Tony, to start moving out of the pits.

Over at the entrance, someone started clapping slowly.

Tony looked up.

Briana stood there, leaning against the open gates, as the disappointed crowd slowly exited.

Nin halted his team and stepped up to meet the Lunatic leader.

“I’d like a word with your… champion,” she said, staring straight at Tony.

Nin looked like he wanted to protest, but wisely remained silent under the glare of Briana’s armed entourage. He nodded, then turned toward the rest of his crew, barking orders, leaving Tony temporarily alone.

Tony just stood there, arms folded across his chest.

Briana smiled at him, taking a long drag off her cigarette, and eyeballing him up and down.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Tony said mockingly.

“No… but I imagine you did,” she said, flicking her cigarette toward the exiting crowd. She got up off the gate and approached him with her hands resting on the holsters of her guns. She stopped three feet in front of him and gave Tony a puzzled look. “You know, I could have you killed for attempting to incite a public riot. If my people hadn’t already been watching this place, that’s what would’ve happened tonight after that shit-show.”

“Well,” Tony said with a weak smile, “It’s a good thing you were here, then… you know… to keep the fucking peace.”

She laughed. “You know, I like you, Tony. I always have.” She started pacing around the big man like a vulture. “I know you hate this shit. Just say the word and I’ll get you out of the pits.”

Tony knew where this was headed. “I’ve long suspected you had something to do with me getting here to begin with.”

“Clever man,” she said, still circling. “Yeah… I might have made a few suggestions to potential buyers before auction. Nothing illegal about that. Besides, if I hadn’t, who knows what might have happened to you. Some of those Murder Shop assholes would have a field day selling your big ass for flesh parts.”

“So, this was your way of looking out for me?”

Briana laughed. “I was tempted to break a few rules and keep you for myself.”

Tony scoffed. “There’s a lot I don’t understand about this madhouse you all call a town, but I have learned a thing or two about auctions. Mainly, that it’s a big-time conflict of interest for Candyman or any of his staff to participate in the auctions. I suspect that even you wouldn’t dare break that rule.”

“Yes, yes. That would be a bit… naughty… for even me. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t pull a few strings and have that little weasel-of-a-man who owns you lease you out to me on occasion. I might be able to get your nights in the pits reduced to twice a week while I have you fight in my arena.” She stopped directly in front of him, closing the distance enough to make Tony uncomfortable. She ran a finger down his sweaty chest. “And I assure you, you’ll be fighting just as hard… but for a much more pleasurable outcome.”

Tony couldn’t hold back his disgust any longer. “The pits might be a shit-hole, but I can think of worse holes to get stuck inside of. With all due respect, I think I’d rather fuck Nin.”

Briana laughed and stepped back, shaking her head. “Your loss, you big stupid asshole,” she said. She turned her back on him and casually walked back toward the gate. “I could’ve made your time here, however short it certainly is, much more enjoyable.”

Tony had clearly struck a nerve. “Thank you for that,” he said.

The Lunatic leader turned. “For what?”

Tony smiled. “It’s good to know that not everything in this fucked-up place can be bought and sold. A man can still reject a woman straight out… and it hurts just like it’s supposed to.”

Briana’s painted face did very little to hide her anger.

The other Lunatics shifted uncomfortably.

Tony held her fiery gaze with the same intensity he reserved for every challenger he’d faced in the pits, refusing to back down an inch.

Finally, the Lunatic leader smiled and said, “It’s good seeing you again, Tony. But if you pull another stunt like you did tonight… I’ll have your balls ripped off in the pits for the after-show and hanging on these gates as a reminder to everyone what happens when the ‘bought and sold’ doesn’t give exactly what’s expected. Are we clear?”

Tony frowned. “Crystal.”

By ‘stunt’, he wasn’t sure if she’d meant ending the fight abruptly or shutting down her advances so explicitly. Either way, he knew she meant every word she said.

The Lunatic leader, appearing bored with the whole conversation, signaled her men, then started exiting the fight pits without another word.

Tony closed his eyes and prepared himself for the hard part. You’re playing with fire, Marcuchi. Be very careful how you tread, or that bitch will take out her frustrations on everyone you care about.

“Briana,” he called out, using her real name very deliberately, very gently, and very foolishly.

The Lunatic leader stopped in her tracks.

The other Lunatics turned, looking like they were about to raise their weapons and fire.

And now, a light kiss on the wound, he thought. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What I just said… that was a very mean-spirited thing for me to say… even to you.”

He knew the risks in getting the Lunatic leader upset. But as long as she kept coming back here to watch him fight, believing he could keep playing ‘hard to get’, then that meant she wasn’t watching the others as closely as she should.

The Lunatic leader never turned. She simply nodded, then signaled her men to resume.

After they exited the fight pits, Tony finally relaxed a little.

“Why you say that?”

Tony turned, startled by the little man who had come back over. “Come again?”

“Why you say, ‘you rather fuck Nin’? Haven’t I been good to you, yes?”

Tony looked confused. “No… I wasn’t talking about screwing you over. What I meant was-”

“She right. You stupid man,” Nin said with a wink. He started laughing at his own joke. “We go now, before crazy woman comes back for your balls. No balls… no fight worth shit, yes?”

Tony finally caught on and laughed. “Right. No balls… no fight worth shit.”

They exited the fight pits with Tony praying that the topic of his male genitalia, attached or otherwise, wasn’t brought up again any time soon.

~~~

Next Episode 50-2

Previous Episode 49-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-1: Amusement” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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