January 23rd, 2018
I never was much good at tying bow-ties.
It wasn’t that I’d never had occasion to wear them growing up, far from it. It was merely… fiddly. And my dear mother, seeing me struggling, would inevitably hasten to tie my tie for me; wherever we were going, it was of vital importance that we be there on time, and we did not have time for adolescent fumbling. And once I had joined the Navy, I had no occasion to wear bow ties until I was able to order junior officers (usually attractive female ones) to help me with them.
But here I stood, called for the first time in nearly a decade to a “family dinner”. I knew full well that this would not be a casual affair; we had received a written invitation, which meant that there would be guests of honour. Fortunately, I knew ahead of time who the guest of honour was; my former employer, Lord Urquhart, with whom I got along splendidly.
The family Rolls Royce Phantom pulled up outside my Soho flat and honked once. I had been waiting at the door for nearly ten minutes in my tuxedo, but I waited an additional fifteen seconds before opening the door, waiting until I was strolling to the car to put on my Rolex. The driver opened the back-passenger door and I climbed in, sitting next to my father.
‘Mark,’ he said.
‘Father,’ I said, nodding. ‘Where’s Mother?’
‘She went ahead. Wanted to give us some privacy to talk.’
I managed to choke back the wry chuckle at the fact that “privacy” did not include our driver. ‘On what subject?’
‘The company for the evening,’ he said, ‘and one of the purposes of this dinner.’
‘The two are related?’ I asked innocuously, genuinely wondering what he meant. I knew about Urquhart; perhaps Father intended for me to return to his Lordship’s service?
‘Lord Urquhart will be attending,’ he said, ‘as will Vice Admiral Spencer.’
Oh, bloody hell. It was my former commanding officer, with whose daughter I had… enjoyed an inappropriate relationship, in an inappropriate place, at an inappropriate time.
Alright, alright, I fucked her brains out in his cabin during a party honoring my institution as first officer. Happy?
When I said nothing more, my father continued. ‘This is an opportunity for you, Mark, to rebuild bridges. Sir Peter is an old family friend, and one who I would like to be able to look in the eye. This is the first invitation of your uncle’s that he’s accepted in over a decade. So, for God’s sake, be on your best behaviour.’
‘I will if he does,’ I said, under my breath. My father looked as though he was going to bellow, but he seemed to think differently of it. Well, was I really being so unreasonable? Yes, it was thoroughly inappropriate, but I was an idiotic twenty-three year old who didn’t know any better… and it was twelve years ago! That he continued to hold such a grudge seemed ridiculous.
The rest of the two-hour drive passed in silence. I didn’t mind. It gave me time to think. After my rapid fall from grace in the Conservative Party, I had managed to recover, slowly moving my way up the ranks from the bottom of the pile, and eventually becoming Legislative Director for Economic Issues in the North. Not the sexiest title, but a lot sexier than “unemployed alcoholic ex-wrestler,” a title I had held for several years after the closure of the CWF in 2011. But it meant that I had a lot to think about, since I was sure (though I’d never say it) that the Tories were heading for a thumping defeat at the next election; someone needed to think about how we’d rally after Corbyn took Downing Street.
Eventually we pulled up at Uncle Charles and Aunt Patricia’s country house, and the driver opened first my father’s door, then mine. As I made to exit, my father grabbed my arm. ‘Mark,’ he said, with an air that indicated that he had been debating saying what he was about to say, ‘there is another reason that I… and Lord Urquhart… would like to bring the Admiral back into our fold. If all goes well, I shall explain it to you later. But I should like your help with it.’
October 24th, 2018
‘… and meanwhile, our efforts to extract the Moonchild have been met with… frustrations,’ said Vice Admiral Spencer at the front of the room. ‘Our man in Pierreia is making inroads with the population, but nobody he’s contacted appears to have any information that we do not already have.’
‘Very well,’ said Lord Urquhart, who sat at the end of the long table, opposite Spencer. I was standing behind my father and uncle; I was not yet a senior enough member of the Order to warrant a chair of my own. ‘Mr. Rishel,’ continued Urquhart, ‘how are our propaganda efforts?’
Jaiden Rishel, sitting towards Spencer’s end, rose. ‘Less than ideally successful,’ he said. ‘As you know, Mr. Carlton and I,’ he nodded at me, ‘have been attempting for some time to place a, um, pliable, world champion atop the Championship Wrestling Federation. We have been placing, perhaps, our bets on the wrong horse, though; Colton Mace was unable to defeat Mariella Jade Flair.’
‘For God’s sake,’ thundered an old man with a frankly magnificent mustache, ‘isn’t this a teenaged girl? What kind of man can’t take a teenage girl in a fight?’
‘The Moonchild, for one,’ I said under my breath.
Jaiden continued. ‘I fear that Miss Flair is more formidable than perhaps you realize. If we could use the Starchild…’
‘Absolutely not!’ bellowed Urquhart. ‘He is required elsewhere, as well you know!’
‘Well, then I fear we’re out of options if you still want to go the route of controlling CWF,’ said Jaiden. ‘And I still think that it’s a good plan. The Institute used it to great effect. But if my father could-’
‘No,’ said Urquhart.
‘Then we may need to turn to a… different candidate,’ said Jaiden, his eyes moving slowly up the table. Oh, bloody hell. His eyes eventually, as I feared, settled on me.
‘Out of the question!’ said one man.
‘He’s hardly a suitable candidate,’ said another.
‘For anything,’ said Spencer icily.
Urquhart, meanwhile, looked thoughtful. ‘Tell us, Carlton, do you think you can take Flair?’
I contemplated for a moment. ‘No. I can’t.’
Guffaws and boos up and down the table. Spencer looked particularly satisfied. The man with the mustache said. ‘For God’s sake, are you a man or a mouse?’
‘A man, Weatherby,’ I said, no small amount of irritation in my voice.
‘And you can’t fight this girl?’
‘I can fight her,’ I said, ‘but she’ll win, and then we’d be in a right pickle. Her position as Champion will become stronger, and any attempt Mr. Rishel makes to hand-pick an opponent will become weaker.’
Again, more scoffing, but Urquhart this time actively hushed it. ‘Ladies, gentlemen, Mr. Carlton is no novice at this game. If he says that he cannot yet take Mariella Flair,’ Yet?‘then I believe him. We must, as we always have, wait for the optimal opportunity. Mark will be World Champion another day.’
January 23rd, 2018
I never, in my life, thought I would be happy to see Dan Highlander.
I had disliked the lunkhead ever since he married my cousin Caledonia… being caught in the crossfire as the Moonchild attempted to assassinate him did not help matters.
And yet here, tonight, I was happy to see him, if only so that something, anything, could get me out of the way of Sir Peter’s withering stare. Attempting to avoid eye contact both with him and his daughter, in a relatively small gathering, was difficult. Dan suggested that I drink a glass of an Australian cabernet my uncle’s sommelier had procured.
‘Shall we drink a toast?’ I said.
He thought for a moment. ‘Confusion to Sunset!’ he said.
‘I’ll drink to that,’ I said, clinking glasses. Ryan Sunset was, at the time, the owner of CWF. He and Dan had been at odds of late, which was a mild way of saying that Sunset’s then-lackey, Elisha, had thrown Dan off a Tower, breaking his back and landing him in a wheelchair in the process. As for me… well, I’d tried a few times to make inroads in CWF, even in a backstage capacity, but Sunset had frustrated me at every turn. I hadn’t been able to figure out why.
Dinner was called and we took our seats. Mercifully I was some distance away from both Sir Peter and Mary, his daughter. By design, I was sure. I was fortunate to be placed next to Lord Urquhart, with whom I had a scintillating conversation about Catalan independence. It was abruptly interrupted by his Lordship looking up like a bloodhound scenting a fox. ‘Milton?’ he asked Dan, at the other end of the table. ‘Murray Milton? I thought he was dead?’
They ended up rambling about some economist Dan disliked for some time. God, someone change the subject, I thought.
‘So Carlton,’ said Spencer, there apparently having been a lull. ‘I heard you and Highlander toasting confusion to “sunset”. Thought you were rather fond of the night-time!’
Oh, how I miss the rambling.
Next to me, I felt my father stiffen, and Caledonia looked positively furious. ‘They were talking,’ she said, ‘about Ryan Sunset, Dan’s employer… and a thoroughly unpleasant individual, if you’ll excuse my saying.’
‘How so?’ asked Spencer.
‘For starters,’ said Dan, ‘he’s the reason I’m in this chair. Him and his precious Moonchild.’
Now thatgot the attention of the people at the table. I saw Aunt Patricia attempt to say something, but Mary beat her to it. ‘What’s a Moonchild?’ she asked.
‘Long story,’ said Dan, ‘and I mean long, from what I understand it starts in the 60s.’
‘Before that,’ I heard my uncle say under his breath.
Dan continued. ‘Basically… you know the Spirit Science Research Institute?’
‘That kooky lot that John Mapother hangs out with?’ asked Mary.
‘The same,’ said Dan. I saw Caledonia emoting wildly, apparently trying to get Dan to stop talking. But he seemed oblivious. ‘So, they’ve taken control of the wrestling federation I used to work for, setting up a cadre of fighters based around this one bastard called Elisha, who they call the Moonchild. Never been able to work out why.’
‘But I thought that wrestling was all…’ Mary didn’t seem to want to finish the sentence.
Dan chuckled. ‘I know, sometimes I take a step back and wonder why a massive worldwide cult with decades of history, millions of followers and billions of dollars seems to pin a great many of their plans on deathmatches. And yet… there they go.’
‘So this Sunset fellow,’ said my father, ‘he’s in charge of this… Institute?’
‘As far as I can tell,’ said Dan. ‘It’s all very… convoluted. Apparently “Sunset” isn’t even his real name. It’s-’
‘Rutherford!’ said my aunt. ‘Would you be so kind as to check on the dessert?’
My uncle seemed rather annoyed. But he took his cues from his wife. ‘So Spencer,’ he said, ‘I was playing a hole down at Wentworth the other day, when this fellow shows up wearing the strangest hat…’
I was very confused. I gratefully accepted the refill of my glass of cabernet, wondering whether and when someone would explain all this to me. The rest of the meal passed with some of the people at the table in uncomfortable silence and the rest in raucous laughter. As Lady Urquhart placed her dessert spoon down, I saw Caledonia gripping the table, rising slightly from her seat. Interesting.
‘Well then,’ bellowed my father, ‘what say you, gentlemen? Into the smoking room for brandy?’
And so we strolled - well, everyone but Dan, who rolled - into the smoking room. I glanced backwards on my way in and saw Caledonia looking utterly irate, and my aunt bearing a thoroughly inscrutable expression.
October 24th, 2018
‘And now, this is really exciting,’ droned the American now at the top of the table, giving a Powerpoint presentation with an inordinate amount of data slides. ‘You see here that the case study on property-casualty insurance ownership structures can improve our aggregate profits in that sector by at leasttwelve point three-three… uh, recurring, of course - percent. Now, if you’ll turn your attention to…’
I had, at times, tried to imagine the most boring individual in the world. But clearly I had been unsuccessful; that individual stood before me, a thousand times more boring than I could have conceived of. A couple of other Americans looked genuinely interested, but most of the table was drifting off. I even caught Urquhart making surreptitious glances towards his crotch; I sincerely hoped that he was looking at his phone.
Speaking of phones… I felt mine vibrate. Looking around to see that no-one was watching me, I checked my message. Hm. From Jaiden. ‘Mark: we need to talk after Cummings winds up.’
‘What about?’ I responded.
After what felt like an hour and a half (but truthfully was probably only about twelve point three-three recurring minutes) the monodrone finally ended, and Urquhart called the meeting. I sauntered outside, finding Jaiden waiting for me on a leather-upholstered bench. He gestured for me to join him.
‘You know that we need to make some inroads in CWF,’ he said. ‘It was the center of the Institute’s propaganda machine, and it worked well for them. It will do the same for us.’
‘I was in on the original plan, Jaiden,’ I said, ‘as you know. It’s why I agreed to leave a perfectly good political career to do that stupid commentary show.’
‘Perfectly good?’ he scoffed. ‘You were - ’
‘I was Legislative Director for Economic Issues in the North!’ I said, realizing as I said it that it didn’t sound perfectly good at all.
Jaiden merely sniggered. ‘And you left it - for the good of the Order. Now, the Order has a new requirement of you.’
‘What?’ I said, dreading the answer. Jaiden merely grinned. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said, realizing his intention. ‘I told you, that’s the one condition I made about returning to CWF, I’m not - ’
‘Not what, Mark?’ he asked, grinning.
‘… you already booked it, didn’t you?’ I asked, groaning.
‘Entourage vs Danger Boiz, qualifying match for the Golden Crown Tag Team Tournament,’ he said. ‘Congratulations, Mark, you’re going to be a tag team champion again!’
‘I don’t wantto be a tag team champion! I finally have a chance of moving on to some dignity and you’re dumping me right back to 2010!’
‘Well, that’s not entirely true - you and Colton aren’t subservient to Jarvis King anymore.’
‘Then why are we still called the Entourage?’ I demanded.
‘Brand recognition!’ he said, that irritating grin still on his face. ‘You’re the hot young tag team, taking CWF by storm!’
‘We’re a couple of white guys in their mid-thirties, still using a fifteen-year-old rap song as our entrance music! It was mildly silly back then, now it’s completely ludicrous.’
Jaiden smirked. ‘Hee. Ludacris.’
‘Oh for God’s sake… and the Danger Boiz? Caledonia beat the stuffing out of Bert and Ernie for two solid months, doesn’t that buy us a… bye?’
‘I fail to see how that applies.’
‘She’s my cousin! You know… inheritance?’ I said.
‘As we say in my country, Mark,’ he said, getting up and patting me on the shoulder, ‘you’re SOL.’
‘Saythatinmycountrytoo…’ I muttered, under my breath.
So I was getting back in the CWF ring, under considerable protest.
Best get to it.