"You’re never going to get away with this!" Billy Gold yelled.
Yeah, he actually said that. Hollywood’s biggest action star and that’s the best he can rattle off when he gets kidnapped.
Well, not kidnapped, exactly. My team and I just hitched a ride, leaving his security detail safely tucked away. Gold would still get to his destination and we’d just use him as our ticket in.
One thing I’ve got to say, working as a fixer for ghosts, the gig’s never boring.
"My people, they’re going to get the FBI on this. And more than the FBI. I have friends. After I did Reprisal, I set up a fund for this kind of situation. I go missing or get killed, it pays to find you and your families. Not a dime for ransom though."
Sitting across from me in the Bell 206L4 helicopter, Gold showed some stones. Surrounded by armed men who’d already proven our willingness to commit violence on his security team, the actor hadn’t broken.
That would change.
"Captain," I said to the man sitting next to Gold, "Want to do the honors?"
Captain Matthias Quinn, formerly of the United States Marines, slipped out of his harness and stood above Gold. He reached down, unbuckling Gold’s belt. With a savage yank, he pulled it from the man’s pants.
"Oh Jesus," Gold said. "Oh Jesus. I’ll give you anything. I’ll give you anything you want."
"That right, Gold? Anything?"
The man nodded. "Anything."
"Bring back the dogs," Quinn said.
Gold blinked, confused.
I’ve got to admit that the former leatherhead had a flare for the dramatic. Then again, as a retired Ranger, I found most Marines to be showmen.
Of course, for Quinn, showmanship was part of the job. He and his merry men ran a very specialized rip-off crew, engaging in strong arm robberies against criminals. If they didn’t display efficient professionalism mixed with bravado, their targets were more inclined to fight back. Shock and awe wasn’t just for desert warfare.
"Wire him up," I ordered. Quinn held his hand out and the man seated from him handed him a belt. Thick and black, its buckle was a gaudy silver dog’s head. Quinn threaded it through Gold’s belt loops with rough efficiency.
"Do you know what that is?" I asked.
"You win these kind of buckles at the rodeo, like I did in Buck," Gold answered. Hell, he missed the symbolism of the buckle entirely. And did everything have to be a reference to some movie he made?
"You don’t have the boots to wear it honestly," I said, looking at his shoes. They cost five grand easy and shined like a mirror. "This is more than a fashion statement though. That buckle has 5 grams of C4 in it. Each of my men and I have a trigger to it. Do anything we don’t like, it cuts you in half."
"I… I don’t understand."
"We’re taking you to your party, Billy. You’re going to act natural. Just remember, if we get blown, so do you."
Gold swallowed a couple of times. "What… Why are you doing this?"
"We’re going to see a man about a dog."
"Drink up, counselor. We’re at a convention. This is a party!"
Of course, one might have honestly disputed the claim. Michael Campion and his guest sat in a spacious chamber but the closed doors and soundproofing kept any noise from entering or escaping. With the paperwork on the table, the men looked more like they were attending a business dinner rather than a party.
Campion pushed away from the table, drawing every inch of his six-foot, three-inch frame. The sudden explosion of movement startled the dog at his feet. It whimpered and flinched away.
Campion walked over to the door, pushing it open. Now the bass pulse of music and the babble of conversation flowed in.
"There you go. THIS IS A PARTY!" The tall man leaned his head back, blond hair flowing like a Viking prince.
Leland Crewes sipped his Manhattan. "A party for those who have paid to be here, Mr. Campion. I am here to make sure this event remains profitable and that things go smoothly for my firm’s client. And I have a splitting headache, so might we please close the doors?"
"You need something, Lee? We can get you anything you need."
Crewes slipped his glasses off, cleaning them with his tie. He pinched his nose before replacing them. "I do not enjoy alcohol or narcotics, Mr. Campion, though your offer is appreciated. Perhaps we can finish with the third quarter profit-and-loss? Given that you agreed to delay the beginning of the fights until Mr. Gold arrived – something I dare say our other guests may remember when purchasing tickets for the next event–we should put the time to good use."
"Lee, I spent thirty-six months in a federal prison. Eating good food, drinking good booze and getting some excellent tail, that’s time put to good use."
Sometimes Campion just didn’t understand the smaller man. No passion. All facts and figure. Didn’t even have a sense of humor.
When they’d first started working together, after Campion thought of this operation in that federal prison, he’d asked Lee why anyone would invest in the plan.
"My client does not like dogs."
Perfect delivery. But Lee just didn’t get it when Campion busted out in laughter. And he didn’t get why his failure to laugh made Campion double over.
The football player returned to the table. The dog cowered again and Campion poked it with his boot. "Damn dog," he muttered and picked up a walkie-talkie. "Bring another round of wings. And another pitcher for me and Lee. Hell, keep them coming. It looks like he needs them."
"Mr. Campion, if you do not wish to discuss financial issues, perhaps we should discuss the matter of Martin Hayes. We still do not know the source of his information."
The quarterback’s eyes narrowed and the smile vanished from his face. "The reporter got dealt with. His name never gets mentioned again. He is nothing."
Campion kicked the dog. It yelped and ran to the corner.
"He’s nothing."
Everyone else attending this shindig had come on a yacht, a booze cruise designed to let them socialize on the way to their destination. Only the Golden Boy of Hollywood insisted on coming in a chopper. Got to admit he had style.
I have no clue what kind of ship we landed on. Quinn might. Marines had more familiarity with ships than a simple ground pounder like me. I just knew things like port and starboard or that the floor’s the deck. Basics. Identifying actual classes of ships was beyond me.
With no cargo on its deck, the landing was easy.
"I can’t do this," Gold whispered. "I can’t. They’ll know. They’ll kill me."
I stood and crossed in front of Gold, opening the chopper door. "You’re an actor, Billy. Act."
I got out of the chopper first, followed by Billy and then the others.
A mountain with an Afro walked towards us. Before tonight, I didn’t know they made tuxes that huge. The threads didn’t hide his ink. A trio of similarly dressed, but smaller, men trailed him.
"Okay, boys, I’m Willy. You know the rules. No cell phones or tablets. No firearms. I’m gonna have to search y’all now. Any issues?"
I shook my head and held my arms out at shoulder level, cell phone in hand. Quick and professional hands moved down my sides, up the outside and insides of my legs.
Pro tip. Do not hire your cell mates for security. Their search technique is generally crap.
Satisfied with the search, Willy turned to Gold. "You got your ticket?"
He nodded. Maybe there was a tremor in his hand as he held it out, maybe not. The important thing was, it satisfied Willy because he walked us to a hatch leading below decks.
"You ever been in a ship like this?" Willy asked.
"Yeah. Stormfront. We shot on one of those cargo carriers, like the ones they take cars on," Gold answered. No tremor in his voice when he talked about his movie.
Hey, whatever it took.
Willy led us through a complicated series of twists and turns until we hit another hatch. He spun the dog on the hatch and opened it.
"Watch your heads," Willy warned. "And your first step."
Stepping through first, I could see why Willy issued his warning.
We entered a new world, something that looked like the bastard child of an old school English gentlemen’s club and an LA nightclub.
Animal heads decorated dark oak paneled walls, predators on one side staring at prey animals on the other. Along the back wall, a half dozen dogs’ heads were mounted over an ornately carved set of double doors.
Son of a bitch. Although I suppose that was the wrong choice of words.
Under those trophies, doors led into private chambers. Staff walked around in tuxedos, carrying trays of drinks and food to the chambers. And the quality of the booze and grub? Top notch, like you’d expect in a club catering to the Old World’s old money. More than anything that made this seem like a place out of time, though, was the fact no one stared at a phone or tablet. Electronics like that were strictly forbidden.
At the same time, there’s no way one of those old men’s sanctuaries would have Kanye pumping out or women in dresses that would make Kim blush. The wait staff looked like Willy and his boys, prison tats all around. And I guarantee you no gentlemen’s club sat in the belly of a freighter sitting about a dozen miles off the LA coast.
"Gotta admit, I’m impressed," Gold said. He reached over, taking a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. In his element, the actor relaxed.
Had to admit, I was impressed too. The man really did have chops. Now if he just remembered his lines…
"I get here too late to check out the fighters?" he asked Willy.
This was an important question. I needed a look around, see if I could find the dog I’d been hired to retrieve.
Quinn wanted time too. We had more friends coming, now that we were boots on the ground.
The huge man lifted a radio, talked into it for a couple minutes. Then he turned back to Gold. "It’s good."
Hell was made of gleaming steel.
The stairs down from the club were the same steel as those that lead to it. However, we couldn’t hear the clank of our steel on those steps over the dogs. Mostly they barked, what you’d expect from a dozen alphas being held in close captivity. But screams cut through the noise. No matter what species, pain and sorrow sounded the same.
"Why’re there ones hurt?" I asked. "They said they were holding off until we got here."
"Bait dogs," Willy explained. "Get the other ones excited, ready for the show."
Shit, we might be too late. I looked over to Quinn. He kept his face clam but I read the anger in his eyes. He’d worked with dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq. My employer suggested him for just that reason. He’d already hit several dog fights on the mainland, taking cash and the dogs. Even if my mission was blown, he’d go along with his.
As we passed a stainless steel tub with several dogs in it, Gold stopped.
"Why are you washing them?" Gold asked. Off script but the question interested me too. More than that, the man answering interested me.
The asshole in front of me didn’t look like the asshole I expected. Dog fighters were supposed to be trash. Mountain men with double lightning bolt ink and cups filled with dip spit. Ghetto rats with shaved heads, neck tattoos.
James Peterson looked like an accountant. No pencil neck but he was a couple inches shorter than me, more wiry than anything else. His crew cut looked service short and the black plastic glasses he wore didn’t look hipster cool on him.
Yeah, I could see this guy doing my taxes. He might not be wearing a suit but the jeans and t-shirt might as well have been dry-cleaned.
According to the briefing from my client, Peterson was a dogman, someone who raised and trained their dogs for fighting.
Right now, he bathed a red-nosed pit named Leo. Wet, it’s fur looked dark brown. Ears clipped to nothing, its stump of a tail twitching, vibrated with tension. The scars on its thick neck and chest pulsed, red blood as blood rose in his skin. He almost looked like cherry jello in an earthquake. Leo stared at us with golden eyes.
A foot away, soaking in the same bath, a gunmetal gray dog vibrated with the same energy as Leo. If their handlers hadn’t been there, they’d have gone at it.
"Cajun rules," Peterson said as he gently scrubbed. Leo licked his master’s face. "We rub ’em down. Make sure no one put poison in their fur or slick ’em down so they can’t get gripped on. Have ’em all smell the same. Get ’em ready for the show. It has to be fair."
Peterson dipping a rag in the water and then scrubbing the dog, the image of Christ washing the Apostles feet leaped into my mind.
"The show?" Gold asked. Then he wrote it down in a notebook.
"Hey now," Peterson said. "None of that."
"’salright, man. Boss says he’s doing research. Long as there’s no names, he’s legit."
"The shows are fights," Peterson said, not happy with being interviewed. "Leo here’s a grand champion, won five fights and no losses. He does well tonight, he retires. Steaks and studding for him." He finished his speech with pride.
"And if he loses?" The question slipped out before I could stop it.
The dogman cocked his head, probably not used to hired help like me talking. "Then it’s his time. It’s what he’s bred for."
"Any tips on betting?" Gold asked.
"Leo," Peterson said, not missing a beat.
"Cleaner than I expected here," I said. Growing up, I’d heard about dog and cock fights. They’d been in piss poor neighborhoods, abandoned warehouses or backyards. That sort of thing. They’d smelled like blood and shit, mixed with whatever trash had been building up before the fights.
The trainers’ area looked like a hospital, all stainless steel and plastic. An antiseptic odor hung in the air but it wasn’t covering up the blood I’d expect. If you didn’t look at the dogs, you might not know about their misery. Hell, even looking in their eyes, all you saw was loyalty.
I knew that look. Every time we’d headed into battle, I’d seen that loyalty in my squadmates’ eyes. Men willing to die and kill for the man standing next to them. These dogs would die for their owners and had no idea why.
"We’re not animals. We don’t like being in our shit more than anyone else," Peterson replied. "Bad for the dogs too. Less infection this way. Infection. That’s a shit way for one of these magnificent creatures to go. Go down in the show, that’s one thing. That’s honor. Let some damn bug take ’em down? No."
"Very professional attitude," I forced myself to say.
Peterson shook his head. He stood up from the tub and stepped closer to me. I kept still.
"It’s not a job. Not an investment. We’re breeding champions, warriors. This is what they’re meant to do. My father raised dogs and so did his father."
"Calm it down, Jimmy," Willy said. "Man don’t mean any disrespect. He didn’t think it was proper, he wouldn’t be here, right?"
The hell I did. I was a warrior. I’d volunteered to serve my country, fought in sand and bush. Then I’d gone into intelligence, learned new skills for a new environment. No one forced me. Anyone said warrior again, I’d lose it.
Before Peterson could say something, Willy moved us away. We spent forty-five minutes looking through the hold, talking to dogmen and looking over the dogs. Gold wrote a lot in his notebook but I didn’t see my target.
Willy’s radio squealed and he listened. "Time’s up, guys. Boss says he wants the show to start. Time to head back up."
There hadn’t been much time to look around at the others in the cocktail party when we’d come in. At that point, I’d been looking for the dog.
Ghost. Fitting name, since the ghost of her owner hired me.
Martin Hayes had been a sports reporter when he died but he started out his career doing investigative pieces. When Michael Campion got back into the NFL after doing time for his dog fighting ring, he hadn’t bought the reformed act and dug.
His digging led here, dog fights for the glitterati. Unfortunately, Hayes hadn’t been careful and Campion showed up to his house with a crew. As he beat the reporter to death, Campion promised him one thing. He wouldn’t just kill Hayes. He’d take his dog, a rescue pitbull, and have her torn to shreds.
For that reason alone, to save his beloved pet, Hayes stayed behind and found me. Now it looked like the mission might have been a failure. Below, there hadn’t been any excuse to get to the injured bait dogs.
Now I had nothing but time to look around at the couple of dozen super wealthy who wanted all the excitement of seeing animals tear at each other with the luxury of a casino on the strip. If my girlfriend were here, she’d probably recognize the models. But even as disconnected from pop culture as I might be, there was no way to miss a couple padres and the founder of a major social media company.
Hell, there was even the rock god my kid sister had worshipped in high school. I guess meat was only murder sometimes.
"If we did kidnappings, the guys and I would make a killing here," Quinn whispered.
"Could take trips in the chopper," I responded. Actually, as a backup plan, it might work. Pull Campion off the ship, work him over.
The Marine smiled but shook his head. "Not our thing. Don’t have the set up for it." But I still saw wheels turning.
Then the lights dimmed. The music stopped. A pair of spotlights focused onto the pit. Then the lights pulled up, dancing over the crowd. Finally they slowed, until they formed a single column focused on the double doors under the dogs’ heads.
The doors slowly swung open and a figure stepped into the light.
Michael Campion, followed by a man who made the accountant-looking dogman Peterson look like, well, Michael Campion.
More importantly, at his feet, wearing a vicious prong collar stood a cowering white dog.
Campion looked at his watch, an analog device instead of his wearable. He felt the affectation would be appreciated by the guests.
It was nearly an hour after the fights had been scheduled to start. In that time, Billy Gold should have seen the animals and made his picks. More importantly, the other guests had guzzled more of the liquor he supplied for free.
That was an investment. Johnny Walker judgment would drive the betting higher.
"Come on, Lee," Campion said. "We’re on."
The football player pushed the button for the automatic doors and they swung open. He swaggered into the blinding light, pulling on the length of chain he used as a leash. Ghost staggered after him.
According to the stylists Lee had hired, the white tuxedo he wore conveyed power. He didn’t know about that. It just looked damn good.
He walked to the edge of the pit, standing on an elevated platform that gave him the best view of the fighting ring. He looked straight ahead for a few moments, then to the left and right. Campion raised his arms, as if blessing the audience.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Campion said, "You stand here and you know victory. You know the fight to gain it and the fight to retain it. You know how the world will tear you down if given a chance.
"You understand the thrill of battle and what we are about to see here tonight. There are those who would not understand why we want to see fighters at their pinnacle putting their all against other dogs that will stop at nothing to win."
Campion took a step forward, pointing at the mounted heads above him. "When the cops were coming for me, I had a choice. Let them take my champions, kill them. Or worse, break them. Make them house dogs. They were champions. They died champions and I honor them here. They look down on the fights, on the next generation of champions.
"Now let’s get ready to see–"
"What the hell’s with that house dog?"
Campion turned to see who interrupted him while Lee contacted security. The spotlight pinned the offender.
Billy Gold? That was a punch in the gut.
I thought he was my friend.
Again, the actor delivered his line perfectly. He hadn’t been happy when I whispered the instructions to him but damn if he didn’t take stage management well. Pity Hollywood if directors got the word of how focused an actor could be by the threat of being blown in half.
"This is a special part of the show," Campion yelled. "I got dissed and promised the asshole behind it I’d turn his dog out in the fights. She’s bait."
"So you’re saying I dropped fifty grand on this for a house dog?" Gold said.
Even in the shadows, I could see security moving towards our position. Good.
Quinn already had his team in position. Now it was just a matter of timing.
Willy rested a massive hand on my shoulder. "Might want to get your boss under control."
I shrugged. "He pays the checks, not the other way around."
"He’s getting 86’ed, yo," Willy warned. "Let’s do this quiet."
I nodded, like I understood his point. "My job’s just keeping him in one piece."
Willy nodded, letting me go and stepping away.
Again, here’s where the man’s inexperience with actual protection showed. Just like earlier, if he’d done a proper frisk, he’d have found the Glock 36 I carried in the small of my back. Or if he’d been watching for when I transferred it from there to my waistband.
"Hey, Billy, sounds like this might not be your night. Why don’t you go rest and let these people see the warriors they came to watch. Two go into the ring, one comes out."
There was a cheer from the crowd.
Shit. Campion said warriors.
I drew. Maybe Willy saw or maybe he didn’t. Either way, he hadn’t even moved a hand to draw when I double tapped him.
The man mountain fell.
My shots served as a signal for Quinn’s team. The reports from their weapons boomed in the small chamber. Campion’s security team planned on dealing with spoiled drunks, not a coordinated assault.
It was over in ninety seconds. The crowd didn’t even have time to panic. They just stood there, in silence.
"Lights!" I shouted.
Whoever was running the technical side of things figured out which way to jump on this little mutiny.
I kept my weapon aimed at Campion. "You’re not getting away with this," he promised. "My men will come."
"Shhh," I said. "Listen."
Another thing about using amateurs. They don’t know anything about repelling a boarding party. The rest of Quinn’s team sure as hell knew how to board a boat.
The faint pop of automatic fire echoed. "Our friends are here and the ship’s ours," I told Campion.
"Come," I ordered. "And drop the chain."
Eyes smoldering, he hesitated.
"I can kneecap you. See how much use the league has for you then."
After a variety of futures played out in his head, Campion walked down from his platform. Ghost followed behind him, her tail tucked between her legs.
"Ghost, come."
At the mention of her name, the dog moved forward. When she got next to me, I ordered Billy to get the collar off her. He was more than happy to obey. Ghost came over, sniffing my hand. She stayed tight next to me.
Quinn’s team had the staff and guests on their knees and worked on collecting cash and jewelry.
I looked at Campion, considering my next move.
"You know, folks here came for a fight, Campion."
"Yeah?" he sneered but didn’t take his eyes off my piece. "Lose the gun."
I shook my head. "I didn’t come here to fight. But I think they deserve what they paid for. How ’bout you get into the ring down there?"
"Fuck you," Campion replied with a sneer.
"Kneecaps," I reminded him.
I turned to Billy Gold. "Go down there with him," I ordered.
"Wh… what? I’ve done everything you said."
"And you’ll do this. Just think of it as research."
The athlete and actor got into the ring. "The hell is this supposed to be?" Campion demanded.
"A fight. Two go in, one comes out."
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Hell Ship by Fred Tribuzzo
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