SURVIVING THE GAME EPISODE ONE: MONTAGUE’S MARCH MADNESS

by S.C. Denton

Chapter One: The Temptation

Not one team member who jogged onto the bus said hello to the new driver. Not that they had ever said boo to the old one, but he’d been a silent fixture who’d specialized in solemn stares and cold gazes. But he’d meant no harm; he had simply been a deeply introspective person. None of that mattered now. Now he was gone. And here was the new guy sans introductions. But that was okay because he had no damned intentions of making friends with these kids. His sole purpose in life was to get the cattle in the chutes and get them headed to their destination. He always followed the boss’s orders to the letter. Frick knew what was good for him.

Montague had a way of getting what he wanted, and he never took a refusal lightly. But this was a huge step up from the little favors Frick had done in the past. This was, essentially, kidnapping. Perhaps he’d even be an accomplice to murder. He didn’t want to think about that. These were just college kids for Christ’s sake. Not a one of them older than Frick’s son. Frick had no doubt that whatever Montague had in store for these fine young gentleman couldn’t be good. Frick was devastated that he’d have to deliver these basketball players into the spider’s lair, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that his wife and son would remain safe. At least for the time being.

Better than half the players had their heads buried in one electronic gadget or another. The rest were taking the time to catch up on some ZZZ’s. Frick let his eyes drift back toward the road. Safety really wasn’t an issue he was concerned with, but he didn’t want to remember much about this trip. The dismal blacktop and its siren song of the mayonnaise-and-the mustard was all he’d willingly commit to memory.

As he took an exit that would lead them nowhere near the arena, Frick scoffed at how little these children’s parents had taught them. One of the first rules of life is to always be aware of your surroundings. Obviously quite a few parents had missed that one in the handbook. Frick wasn’t sure if this made him sad or happy, he was merely making an observation.

* * *

The warehouse was in an old meatpacking district, and the door slid open as if triggered by invisible laser line. The teens had only just begun to groan and moan about the bus driver’s obvious miscalculation. Before the bus could come to a complete stop, Frick was opening the sliding door. He leapt from the bus, slapped the close button, and ran out of the warehouse, narrowly ducking beneath the garage door as it shuddered to a close.

“Hey! What the hell?!” said Aaron, the team’s captain.

Grumblings spread like a contagion. Silence soon set as the rows of arc sodium lights zonked out, not singly or sequentially, but in a calamity of sparks. A ballyhoo of phones chirped to life, providing only the slightest bit of illumination. A silhouetted figure made its way to the front of the bus.      

“The lights aren’t working,” said Lyle, the team’s co-captain.

“Try the dome,” Aaron said.

“Nothing.”

“One of you guys back there pop the emergency door, maybe that’ll do something,” Aaron said.

A shadowy figure approached and opened the door, but rather than provide more light it grew darker within. One might venture that the light from their cell phones had become more thoroughly dispersed, but it wasn’t like that. It was as if a black cloud had consumed the bus. And as quickly as he appeared, the man was gone.

Aaron tried the ignition. The twangy return evidence of a starter motor gone bad, not long ago. It was Aaron’s mission in life to guide this team to victory but they were getting nowhere fast as no shows for the Championship game. The thought had crossed Aaron’s mind that someone didn’t want them to win, but this seemed an extreme measure, well beyond rivaldom.

Aaron was determined to overcome any odds. His future was set, and no one (including a crazed fan), or whatever this was, was going to keep him from his destiny. He dialed his home number but only received an odd noise something like a dropped call. After seven cell phones mirrored his results, they conceded it as a lost cause. Someone was going to have to leave the bus. Someone must brave the penetrating darkness. When Aaron announced that the starters would go out not one person protested, but loyalty had nothing to do with that. These boys were scared.

Aaron, Lyle, and Carmichael were first off the bus. They huddled close together, attempting to make the most of their shared light. Brady and Jensen followed close behind. They moved about six feet before naturally falling into a geese-like formation. The boys had worked (and played) together so much it didn’t take them long to initiate hive mind. The farther they got from the bus, the harder it was to breathe. The air was mildew saturated, causing a silty layer of condensate to gather on their skin. Aaron was the first to make it to the roll up door. As if by telepathic signal, the boys spread out and hunted the wall for an automatic switch or manual chain. Carmichael found the switch box, but not even his incessant button pushing would bring it back to life. He leaned in close and took a whiff.

“It’s burnt,” Carmichael said, “we’re not getting out of here with this.”

“There’s no chain on either side… this door’s a waste of time,” Lyle said.

“Jesus, I just wish we had a little more light!” Aaron said.

That very second a flashlight beamed across the wall beside his head.

“Hey! What’re you boys doing down there?” the man on the mezzanine said.

“We’re looking for the way out,” Aaron said.

“How’d you get in here?”

“The short answer is: the door opened and our new bus driver drove in. Then he ditched us,” Aaron said

“Stay there, I’ll be right down,” the man said.

They watched as the light bounded up and down three flights of stairs, and then zigzagged through a maze of canvassed machinery. For a moment the light danced toward the ceiling. There was something odd hanging from the rafters; all the boys saw it but none could muster the courage to voice their suspicions. By the time the man reached them, each had concluded that his mind must’ve been playing tricks on him. There was no way in the world it could’ve been what they’d thought was there, hanging from the wires.

“Alright, give me the run down. Tell it to me like I’m an eight year old. How the hell did you boys get in here?” The man with the Mag-Lite blinded each boy as they spoke. Allowing them only quick glances at his green and brown uniform. Once they quieted he introduced himself as, ‘Security Guard Coleman,’ (though his real name was Montague). He insisted they come up and use the phone in the guard shack.

“We don’t all need to go,” Brady protested, “do we?”

“Well, whatever suits your group. But wouldn’t you boys feel better if you just stuck together?” Montague said.

“He’s right Brady. We don’t need to split up,” said Aaron.

“What about the others?” Brady said.

“We’ll come back as soon as we make the phone call,” Aaron said.

“Okay, fine, whatever; let’s go,” said Brady.

Montague led the way, guiding them through oddly shaped (draped) cylinders. Lyle banged on the side of one, feeling certain that whatever they were made of was something very sturdy. Just as they rounded the corner to go up the stairs they came to the single tank which remained uncovered. It towered above the rest. To cover it one would’ve required an overhead crane. The light reflected off its shiny surface gave them their first real look at the security guard. He was pretty much as they expected. Just another poor slob who had passed out-of-shape years ago, and was now well ensconced in obese-land. Boredom was probably the biggest factor there. Surely he had to walk the grounds occasionally, so you couldn’t completely blame lack of exercise.

The stairs were steep and each deck seemed so elusive one might venture them mirages or illusions perpetrated by a well versed magician. The boys stopped to rest a moment before taking on the third flight, only slightly shamed by the fact that an overweight security guard was going to beat them to the top. They told themselves that this was what he does. That the reason he’s not winded was because he traversed these steps daily. But somehow that still didn’t add up. If he’d spent so much time on the steps that they kept him in good shape, then his body should reflect that. Before they’d gone up they would’ve guessed that with a core like his they’d be carrying him by the second flight. The starters had that itch in their brain indicating knowledge bubbling just beneath the surface. They just couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was they knew.

Montague waited patiently at the top of the last flight of stairs. A man in as poor physical condition as himself should’ve had a ribbing comment, or two, for the boys. They were, after all, peak physical specimens. Truthfully, Montague couldn’t force them to come up. He’d have to let them come to it on their own. It was better that way. Show someone the path you want them to take, give them an option, and naturally tragedy results. Not that they weren’t destined for it anyhow, but he had to abide certain rules. They had to want what he had to offer.

They traveled approximately a hundred yards before the light of the guard shack spilled out onto the mezzanine. The shack was more like a crow’s nest, perched at the highest, most central point of the warehouse. Montague led them in without hesitation, and the sloppy decorum did wonders to ease their tension. Men appreciated–perhaps even placed more trust in–a man who lived sloppily. Beware the man who keeps his living area spotless. Unfortunately Montague, the demonesque thing that had stolen Coleman’s identity (by murdering and peeling the very flabby skin off his back) was well aware of this fact and had decorated accordingly.

There was just the right ratio of Ho-Ho wrappers to pork skin bags on the desk. The TV was tuned to a generic sitcom. And there was a porn magazine opened to a buxom blonde getting spread eagle for the photog. Montague scooped the magazine up quickly, feigning embarrassment.

“Phone’s on the wall boys. Damn thing’s finicky though. She’s like an ole stubborn mule. Only works when she wants to,” Montague chuckled ghoulishly.

Aaron’s dad answered on the first ring.

“Hello.”

“Dad?”

“Aaron?”

“Dad, I need–” Montague rubbed his forefinger and thumb together and the connection was severed.

“Aaron? Aaron?” his dad’s pleas went unheard.

“Dad?… Shit. You’re right; this thing’s a piece of crap.”

“Sorry boys. It’s the only phone for miles. I’m afraid there’s nothing much left in any of these buildings worth guarding,” Montague laughed. “Give it a few minutes and try again. I find sometimes that works.”

“Why won’t our cell phones work?” Lyle said.

“Ah, I’m not really sure. It’s something about there being too much microwaves in the air, or EMF. Something or other, I don’t know. They told me once but it was too scientific for me. I don’t carry mine no more. Sorta pointless to have it if you can’t use it,” Montague said. “By the way I just wanted to say I’m a big fan of you fellows’iz. I seen you on the tube a-bunch. Never thought I’d be sitting here talking to you though. I gotta ask: What happened to y’all in Game Three last year?”

“Just had an off day. Everyone’s entitled to one, right?” Aaron said.

“Oh yeah, everybody gets one. I lost something very valuable to me when you lost that game. Hey, what would you boys say if I told you I knew how you could never lose a game again?” Montague proffered.

“I’d say you’re crazy,” Lyle said.

“No, now, I’m serious. I know how it can be done. All it requires is a little faith on your part. And of course your permission,” Montague said.

“Try the phone again, Aaron. I’m ready to get out of here,” Lyle said.

Aaron dialed his home once more but received only a busy signal. He returned the phone to the cradle. “Listen guy, I don’t know what kinda craziness you’re into but we don’t want any part of it,” Aaron said.

“I guarantee you the wins. Starting with tonight’s game. And for the next two years you’ll never lose. All I want is to take a casting of your bodies–in uniform of course–and that’s it. I know it sounds nuts but I’m telling you, you let me do this one little thing and you’ll win every game for the next two years. What, do you think it’s a coincidence you’re here? That you’re the first team I’ve done this for?”

Montague opened his desk, and in the time it took his hand to reach in the drawer he’d turned a plain manila folder into a photo album. The pictures inside showed Montague as Coleman at various functions with the most dominant teams of the last twenty years. It was obvious Montague knew them on a personal level. Only Coleman hadn’t ever known any of them. He’d only just met Montague hours ago, and considering he was lying not so sunny-side-up dead in a drainage ditch, that hadn’t gone so well. 

“Those guys were great, but not one of those teams won every game,” Lyle said.

“That’s because they didn’t stick together. They never had the kind of camaraderie or drive you boys have. They were all too willing to play with other people, other teams, and were too self absorbed to view anything through the lens of what was best for their team. You guys are gonna be friends long after what you’ve done in your college careers ceases to matter, right?” Montague countered.

“Yeah, probably. But how do you know so much about us?” Brady said.

“You some kinda stalker?” said Carmichael.

“Not at all boys. But I won’t lie; I’ve had my eye on you fellas a long time. It’s just a matter of practicality really. I always keep an eye above my future investments.”

“How can a security guard afford to have any investments, especially ones that deal with sports?” Aaron said.

“Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I’m not really a security guard. I just like to pretend like I am. I own this building boys, so I figure that entitles me to do whatever I want within. I want you to truly think about what I’m offering here kiddos. I’m not the only one who stands to get rich offa this deal, ya know? Can you imagine knowing you’re going to win every game? The kind of money you’ll make just betting on yourselves alone is unfathomable. Much less what the college will be willing to do to keep you there,” Montague said.

“It all sounds too good to be true. And my momma always told me something sounds that way, it usually is,” Jensen replied.

“Wise woman, your mother. But this just so happens to be the one time she was wrong. You’ll be making me money. Why on Earth would I want to screw myself out of money? If you play this right we’ll all be rich. All I ask in return is to take your casting. An autograph of sorts.”

“Okay, alright, so you’re looking to make money off of us. But what the hell does that have to do with us doing, what’d you call it–castings?” Lyle said.

“The castings are just a quirky thing of mine. I like to have life size action figures of all the teams I’ve ever helped. They remain solely in my private collection and have never been seen by anyone but myself. Sort of like a single-member wax museum. Other than this one oddity I trust you’ll find everything else I ask to be strictly rational; on the up and up,” Montague said. “I’ll assign you each a personal trainer who’ll help you achieve your goals. You’ll all be privy to the cumulative knowledge of a kind of round-table of past winning coaches. Any one of which will be at your beck-‘n-call, day or night. If you’d like I’ll even get you each a legitimate financial advisor to help you decide where to invest all your money,” Montague said.

“Why, why in the hell would you do all that?” Aaron said.

“Because I believe in sure things, and in my experience the best way to insure a thing is to take a personal interest. It’s very simple. And what’s required of you isn’t much more than you already demand of yourselves. So, are you boys in or out?” Montague said.

“What, we don’t even get any time to think about it?” Lyle asked.

“That usually means parental and authority figure involvement, and to be honest with you some of my deals are in the gray area of the law. I don’t need anyone digging into me or my clients. I’m telling you you’re gonna be richer than your wildest dreams. Financially, familially, and even popularity-wise. Everyone is going to love you. And just to set your minds at ease, everything about you boys will be squeaky clean. I can’t very well make money off you if you’re in jail, now can I?” Montague said. “You have to make the decision now. The casting will take about fifteen minutes, and then you’ll be on your way. I’ll even give you a ride to the game. I’ve got a van out back that we should be able to cram everyone into. I promise you you’ll make the game in time, and you’ll win. If you don’t, feel free to call the cops and have them look into me. What do you have to lose?”

“Just give us a couple minutes,” Aaron said.
“Sure boys, fine,” Montague left the room. He stepped out of sight and adjusted the Coleman skin. The irritation was driving him mad. It was one thing to wear a skin, but to wear skin over skin was quite another. It itched like hell and he could feel the supernaturally sealed seam slowly unraveling. That often happened when the skin had been stretched to its limits by years of obsessively adding body fat. He fought the urge to tear the seam lose and reseal it. 

“Is this guy serious?” Brady said.

“Who cares, let’s just get out of here,” Carmichael said.

“Now wait a minute, aren’t you even the slightest bit interested?” Aaron asked.

“You aren’t buying into this stuff, are you A–?” Lyle said.

“What if he’s telling the truth?” Aaron said.

“What if he’s not?” Lyle said. Brady and Carmichael nodded.

“And, so what if he’s not. Then we lost fifteen minutes of our time and some guy’s got life size dolls or whatever the hell of us. But if he is…” Aaron said.

“Hmm… you have got a point,” Lyle said, “I mean we are just talking about dolls here. At the very least we can get a ride outta here if we go through with it.”

“You guys can do it. I’m not with it,” Brady said.

“You heard the guy. We’re a team. We stick together. We can’t do it with just a couple of us. It has to be all of us,” Lyle said.

“Well, why don’t we go get the others and see what they think?” Carmichael asked.

“He didn’t ask them. Besides, did you see any pics of the whole teams in that portfolio? It was just guys like us. The starters,” Aaron said.

“Fine, whatever you guys think,” Brady said.

“You’re out of your freaking minds. But I guess I’d do it if you all are going to. I’m not going first though,” Jensen said.

“That’s okay Jen. You can be last if you want. So, we’re all in agreement then? Yays all round?
“Yay.”

“Yay.”

“Yay.”

“Yay.”

“Yes,” Lyle said.

“Tell the guy to come back in,” Aaron said.

Jensen opened the door.
“So, you boys arrive at a decision?” Montague said.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Montague said.

“We’ll do it.”

“Now that’s what I like to hear. That’s team spirit. You boys are gonna go a long way. If you’ll just follow me we’ll get this show on the road.”

* * *

Traversing the mezzanine once more, the team squinted through the darkness, each member doing his best to locate the mold making machines. As they descended the same three flights of stairs they began to wonder if the guy hadn’t just been pulling their chain. Could it be possible they were just part of some elaborate prank? Like they were being punked. When the guard reached the bottom of the stairs he snapped his fingers and the lights came on all at once. The look on their faces prompted Montague to laugh maniacally.

“Sorry boys. That’s a nasty trick. The lights are on a motion sensor but they get pretty wonky sometimes, overheating and throwing sparks. They’re usually only out for a few minutes though. I guess maybe they’re gonna go out for good soon.”

Montague led them back through the canvassed structures. At the center of it all, a cluster of five cylindrical objects standing approximately eight feet tall. Montague removed the first four canvas coverings, two at a time, with a magician’s flourish. The last he merely slipped forward enough so that gravity drug it to the floor. The tanks resembled sarcophagi (or perhaps even iron maidens) but appeared much more sterile. Jutting out from the front of each stainless steel tank was a single hollow metal tube, which had a hinging mechanism that allowed travel up or down. Each tank had a conduit emerging from the top and running back to the monstrously proportioned source tank. The whole thing came off so sterile that only the most extreme hydrophobes and claustrophobics would fear the sight of them. None of the boys were really scared, yet. They were reserving judgment till after he opened the doors. Even so, no one volunteered to go first.

“So, whatta we gonna draw straws,” Lyle stated.

“Sounds good to me,” Aaron seconded.

“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, but either you all go at the same time or the deal’s off. The delivery system for this particular mold casting device works on an all or none basis. It will only function properly if the tanks are filled at the same time. Otherwise it may distribute the wrong amounts,” Montague said.

“Fine, whatever. Let’s just get this over with. We’ve got a game to win,” Aaron said.

“You have my solemn promise you won’t miss your game. I’ve prearranged a little disruption which should postpone it for a spell.”

“Oh really, like what?” Brady asked.

“Does it matter?” Montague said.

“It does to us,” said Carmichael.

“Now children, do I need remind you I have money riding on this game? I wouldn’t do anything to harm anyone there, or to cause the game to be rescheduled,” Montague said. “In point of fact I don’t really know what’s being done. What I do know is that it will merely cause a delay, providing us with an ample measure of time. If we get about this quickly, without any more hesitation. Savvy?”

“Let’s get to it then,” Jensen said.

“Fine, fine. Step right up boys. A tisket, a tasket, enjoy your shiny new casket,” Montague said. The team shot him a dirty look. “Sorry boys, I guess that was in poor taste. No matter. I assure you this process is perfectly safe,” Montague said.

Lyle chose first. His desire to lead so great he always overcompensated. The others were seconds behind him yet they still managed to gasp at the same time. They hadn’t known what to expect, but they definitely weren’t prepared for this.

The two halves came open sort of like an erect coffin resting on the foot end. But that wasn’t what put the heebie jeebies on them. It was the generic likenesses formed inside. They were featureless blanks of basketball players. A complete sunken outline void of definition. A clean slate of a head, ears, face, arms and legs. Down to the unmarked uniform tank shirt, shorts, and shoes. The coffin-like containers were rather like a custom gun case. Each half containing the blank representation of the gun. Or rather in this case the front half and back half of a human subject.

Lyle toyed with the flexible metallic tubing that extended out of the mouth portion of the front of the steel sarcophagus.

“That’s so you can breathe while the mold is being formed. ‘Course you’ll have to breathe completely in-and-out through your mouth but it’s only for a few minutes, really,” Montague said.

“Jeepers creepers man! You didn’t tell us it was going to be like this,” Brady said.

“What’d you expect when I told you I’d want to make a casting mold of you?”

“Not this,” Lyle chimed in.

“Who would expect this?” Aaron said.

“I’ve never had anyone say it wasn’t worth it. It only seems scary because you don’t know what to expect,” Montague said.

“I can tell you this much, if we go through with this, and it turns out you were just messing with us, you can expect a trip to the emergency room,” Carmichael said.

“If you go through with this, and you don’t absolutely destroy the other team, then you know where to find me for your revenge. But I’m afraid there is one more little requirement, boys. Must’ve slipped my mind. I’ll need a small swatch of your hair, and your fingernail clippings. I know, I know, that sounds too crazy. I like for my life size figures to be perfect in every way. Throughout the years I’ve found you can never quite get the hair color, or fingernails right, unless you have a physical sample. In this instance pictures just won’t do; they distort the natural,” Montague claimed.

“Now you really must be kidding. You want our freaking hair and fingernails!?” Aaron yelled. “Whatta ya need, a sperm sample too? Man, what kinda sicko are you?”

“I’m no sicko. I’m just a perfectionist. Think about it like this. You’re gonna be the most renowned team to ever reign down on a college basketball court. Don’t you think I should strive for complete accuracy?” Montague said.

“Jeez! I guess. Just get on with it,” Lyle demanded.

Montague gathered hair swatches and nail clippings from each of them. Then he produced a large duffle bag and handed them all spidery thin cloth suits to put on.

“It’s so the excess mold doesn’t stick to you, or your clothing,” Montague said.

They put them on without complaint. The end result would’ve been hilarious to an onlooker. Five mummies standing all in a row; cloth so thin and tight it picked up even the most subtle nuance; yet it would provide all the barrier needed between their skin and the cast filler. The team of mummified basketball players climbed into the chambers. Montague checked that all clasps were tightly secured.

“You boys must be perfectly still in order for the molds to set properly. It’ll only take a few minutes. Just be certain you start using the mouth-breathers when the liquid reaches your chests. Got that?”

Mumbled affirmations all ’round. Montague took the plastic packets (he’d stored their nails in) out of his pocket. That very instant his whole demeanor changed. The way he stood, the way he moved. He’d grown increasingly agitated at having to wear the epidermic disguise. And he ripped the (uniformed) flabby-Coleman-skin so vehemently from his body it was as if the transformation were instantaneous. He lay the Coleman epidermis costume down nearby, for this was only a temporary reprieve.

Now there was only Montague. His hair shocked, stringy, mad scientisty.

His newly revealed attire could’ve been mistaken for a magician’s outfit to the untrained eye. But this was no novelty dime store kit, and he was no hack illusionist. His clothing was truly period, but remained mint, as if the tailor had sewn the last seam yesterday.

He dumped the intact fingernail clippings in front of the mold chamber doors. Each in its rightful place, in front of their owners. From his duffel bag he removed an extra wide roll of butcher’s paper and rolled it out in front of the chambers. The paper stretched the entire length in front of the five vessels.

He took to the air, but this was no levitation trick. Montague flew up and up till he reached the top of the largest cylinder tank in the room. He hovered there momentarily, carefully adjusting the flow as he opened the valve. He could’ve easily achieved the feat from the ground, but through trial and error he’d learned that when he took a more hands on approach his molds were far superior. One could use psychic energy from a great distance but making minute adjustments was still best left to the motor controls.

He flew over the pipe lines that fed from the mammoth tank down to the five cylinders, observing the flow of flesh-colored liquid in tiny round windows as he went. Everything was five-by-five. By the time he reached the backside of the first chamber the boys were nearly up to their rears in hot goo (not that it was hot enough to burn them). There was a small glass peek-a-boo panel on the back of the tanks which gave him a visual of their clothed left butt cheeks. Protruding out from this panel was a tiny syringe-like device. His timing was perfect and he jabbed the first needle forward. It happened so quickly, the needle so small, that it felt like less than a pin prick. With the ooze of the mold casting liquid reaching the needle stuck area immediately thereafter the boy had no time to discern any blood spillage. Montague continued this process down the line. The syringe and accompanying needle were so tiny they only removed a few drops; still it was more than enough.

Montague hovered momentarily before planting his feet back upon the ground.

Mere minutes elapsed and he was back in the air again. He’d heard their panicked breaths echoing within and knew it was very nearly time.

Atop each cylindrical chamber was a small, circular, sliding door and he opened them all as he went along, coming back to the first when he was done. It was almost time when he removed the hair packets from his vest pocket. He extracted three strands of the first boy’s hair out of the packet. Three would do. It was just the right number. Besides, he may need the rest if something went awry. Each boy reunited with his hair in turn, though they would not be taking it home. No, not that. Never that. These hairs would become a permanent fixture in the life size figures. As would the blood, and the nails. Once he’d completed his task he spun about in the air, dancing with an invisible partner, no doubt to some classical entendre that swirled about in what passed for his brain. If things like him could be said to still have one.

No one had been paying attention to the boys who’d been left on the bus, and Montague promised not to start caring now. But when he noticed their faces glued to the bus windows–taking in his solemn act of aerial grace–he decided it was time to silence them once and for all.

A billowy cloud of obsidian smoke arose seemingly from nowhere, filling the room. No lights out tomfoolery this time, and the fear plastered on the faces of the team of leftovers showed they might have appreciated the common courtesy. These guys were the has beens, and the never was’s. None of them would make it beyond college ball, and if they were granted a long life they would spend it eternally reminiscing about the good old days. Not that they were alone in that. They were worthless, pathetic, and Montague fought his shadow’s relentless plea to slaughter them. To his dismay, they wouldn’t meet their maker by him or his supernatural extension. But he rather enjoyed the look on their faces when his dark-cloud self seeped through the weather-strip sealed doorway. Shortly thereafter the entire bus (inside) was a milky swirl of ink. As if a giant squid had let loose all over them. Only the slightest movement could be discerned through the inky fog. Its reactions to their constant struggling did nothing to belie its sentient nature. Suddenly, without preempt, the whole cloud was pulled down and out of the bus. As if someone had instantly sucked an entire atmosphere out of the bus. The black particulate condensed down to one steady stream that flowed backward not into nothingness, but into the chest of Montague. He’d need to be whole for what was to come.

The boys on the bus go round-and-round, round and round, round and round… and they all sit face forward. Their blank expressions made them look like androids awaiting further orders. But they had only one order resounding in their neural pathways: Do nothing to interfere with your teammates, no matter what. The more they embraced the thought, the more the pleasure centers of their brains rewarded them. They’d lost the argument before they’d even had time to formulate the first contrary thought. The brain’s need to feed its pleasure center was just far too great. It was a shame he couldn’t just kill them now, but Montague’s ultimate goal was to make the big dance a memorable one.

Montague returned his attention to the mold chambers. They were just topping off, and he flew to the master cylinder to shut the flow of the casting liquid. He’d actually stolen the blend from a lab that had been perfecting a dipping process of regenerative skin for use with burn, or other deep tissue trauma victims. The skin was highly effective but took weeks and sometimes even months to do its work. With Montague’s supernatural influence it was knitting together in seconds flat.

The forms were finally dry enough that he could let the boys out. He was pleasantly surprised. For all their bitching and whining about going in the tanks, once in they had they kept their mouths shut. More than he could say for his past victims, er-uh, participants. The pictures he’d shown them were all real. Sans the Coleman meat-suit. He had helped many teams to victory, but with one slight difference: Nothing so important had ever been held in the balance. Those had merely been small jobs for demons barely on anyone’s radar, much less the big boss man’s.

As his thoughts drifted away Montague opened the first chamber door. The living skin separated perfectly. It’d be whole again soon enough. Lyle stepped out of the chamber.

“Jesus Christ! Man if I’d known,” Lyle exasperated.

“There-there now, it’s all over with,” Montague said, having remorsefully donned the Coleman meat suit in the interim.

“Just let my friends out you royal dick!” Lyle commanded.

“Happy to be of service sir,” Montague mocked. His own hundred year old flesh not yet begging for air, but with this fat sac surrounding him it wouldn’t be long.

Lyle was just peeling his cloth suit off as the rest of the boys emerged. They followed his lead. Not one of them took much note of the butcher’s paper underfoot, other than to mark its existence. Collectively they wanted to make a mess of things. Least the bastard would have to spend the night cleaning up. Yet, for as much as the suits had been uncomfortable, they were damned effective. Hardly any of the casting substance had been transferred onto the web-like cloth, much less enough that could go splat upon the floor. The heat had been a tare intolerable at first but it had cooled rapidly. What amazed them most was that, through it all they remained dry.

“So… where the hell’s our ride?” Lyle asked.

“You did promise that we’d make our game. And that we’d win it. As well as every game for the next two years, correct?” Aaron confirmed.

“Absolutely,” Montague said.
“Shake on it–” Aaron said.

“Sure,” Montague shook their hands and snapped his fingers, “your ride’s outside boys.”

“Just like that?” Carmichael asked.

“Why not?” Montague said.

“‘Cause you just snapped your damn fingers. Whatta we supposed to believe, that it just magically appeared outside?” Jensen rolled his eyes.

“Well, yes,” Montague said.

“Come on guys, let’s just get the hell out of here. I’ve had enough of this freak,” said Brady.

“I’ll be seeing you boys,” Montague added.

“Not a chance,” Lyle said.

“You’ll be thanking me soon enough,” Montague said.

“Whatever,” Aaron said, “let’s find the others and kick dust.”

The boys made their way back through the maze of machinery, and were dealt a tremendous bout of shock when they found their teammates had actually listened to them, and were still sitting on the bus. Aaron and Lyle boarded, and drew the others out. Immediately, they knew something wasn’t quite right. Had they been able to put their finger on what, they might have noticed that their teammates had so wordlessly disembarked. There had never been so clear a case of blind obedience. They had just done what they were told. No questions. It was weird but compared to what Aaron and Lyle had just been through it barely registered.

* * *

 

Chapter Two: The Ride

Brady was surprised to find the pole-mounted garage door opener now in working order. And when the top of the door rolled up, back, and over his head, he hunched down to see what was out there. The glance he shot back at his teammates was of utter dumbfoundment. Soon after, a mischievous smile emerged.

“We’re gonna be ridin’ in style tonight boys!” Brady said.

“Huh?” said Aaron, just before the door rolled up enough to see what awaited them, “Oh, oh, shoot, that thing is tight!”

Their chariot was a brand new Cadillac Escalade limousine chopped, dropped, and extended. It dwarfed the bus they rode in on, and shone like a diamond polished with angel wings. A one of a kind color few souls had ever set eyes upon. There was no name for it, only its inspiration: The glint of Satan’s eye. If Montague were to label it he would’ve called it Luciferous.

* * *

 

Chapter Three: Frick-a-Fly

Frick couldn’t believe it. One minute he’d been enjoying his pot roast in front of the tube (paying only the mildest attention to the Bonanza episodic on screen) and the next he was sitting behind the wheel of the Escalade. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Only just becoming aware that he was wearing a driver’s hat, and suit, and actually at the helm of a limousine. It was a good thing he hadn’t popped in while this thing was going down the road, he thought. He didn’t need three guesses to know who was behind his sudden appearance here. And found it only mildly shocking that he’d traveled instantaneously through space/time even though it was his first such experience. No, it was when those boys began pouring out from under that roll-up door that he almost crapped his pants. He’d had a gut feeling they were goners. Thus far, his gut had never been wrong.

While it was a major inconvenience being zapped out of one’s own home, in the middle of eating dinner, without any explanation, he had to admit he was glad to see those boys still alive. Maybe things weren’t as bad as he’d previously thought. As much as he would like to buy into that, deep down he knew it wasn’t true. Nobody walked away from Montague unscathed. He might not have asked for your John Hancock on the dotted line, to eternally will him your soul, but there were multitude other ways he’d beat you out of it. Placing a bet against Montague was like gambling against the house. He always won. Three years ago Frick had made one such bet and was destined to pay for it eternally. Or at least it seemed that way. Even if Montague had promised that his soul would remain untouched, it was already so tarnished that an admittance to those pearly gates was merely a pipe dream. No, Frick knew his own true consequence–he served now only as a means to save his family. Though it appeared as though he was merely biding his time, he still held onto the hope that he’d discover a means to dislodge Montague’s grasp. If not kill him. In the beginning he’d researched the occult, and Satanism, but not even a full day had passed and Montague already knew of his literary exploits. Montague’s one and only warning left Frick’s son paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors were clueless as to how Will had come by his injury. There were no signs of trauma or previous degeneration, but Frick knew. That was the last time he crossed Montague.

Frick had left the dividing window up, but he could still hear the boys as they inspected the on-board gadgets and comps. He watched as one of the kids (Lyle) hoisted up a decanter of Scotch and looked at it longingly.

Luminous amber waves shimmered out from the container.

Only the pure white LEDs were alight. The undiscovered party button would have turned the cabin into a funhouse of black light, and co-mingled Carnival colored madness. The audio/visual control system so integrated it boasted its own synchronized light show, allowing the LEDs to keep perfect time with the bass line. Sadly, the boys never uncovered the feature. Just one in a long line of never-to-be-had experiences.

Their excitement peaked on their final approach to the arena. They couldn’t believe they were actually here. Montague had at least kept that promise. And if he’d kept that one… well, that was something they’d worry about after the game. If they won then they could debate the possibilities.

They got out of the vehicle, tipped nonexistent hats to the driver, and began to stretch. When some of the elasticity returned (to their stagnant muscles) they jogged toward the entrance. The short run would necessarily serve as their pre-game warm-up. Just yards from the door they spied the police vehicles. Of course there were always cops at these events but never parked there. Yet, if it was an emergency then where were the blue lights? And why weren’t they evacuating people? Could it be related to the distraction Montague spoke of? Had they been more observant they might have noticed the line of animal control vehicles parked behind the police cars.

Friends, fans, and family members were gathered in the lobby. They tried to make out their coach in the sea of worried faces, but he was nowhere to be found. A few of the boys’ mothers ran over to them. Greeting them as if they had assumed they’d never see them again; as if they were simply children who had wandered out of their parents’ sight-line, perhaps in the mall.

“Oh thank you, thank you, Jesus… Where have you boys been?” Jensen’s mother interrogated, planting a smacker on Jensen’s forehead.

“Mom! You said you weren’t gonna do that after I went to college,” Jensen crowed.

“You’re my baby boy. What am I supposed to think when you show up an hour and a half late for such an important game? No one knew where you were. We couldn’t find you. They found your bus driver bound and gagged in the school men’s room,” Jen’s mom said.

“Some new guy took us on one heck of a detour,” said Jensen, “but it’s okay now, ’cause we made it. Is there still time? Or have they already called it?”

“Do what?” Jensen’s mother replied.

“The game… did they already count us as no shows?” Lyle asked.

“So, then you boys don’t know?” Jensen’s mother said.

“Know what?” asked Aaron

“About the pigs, and the chickens?” she said.

“What pigs; what chickens?” Brady said.

“Nobody’s been on the court boys. See for yourself. The farm animals have been playing their own game,” Jensen’s mother giggled.

The team struggled for purchase in the double doors that let into the arena. Somehow with all that had happened to them this was the most bizarre. There were dozens of pigs and chickens of varying sizes parading the floor. Twice as many animal control officers stalked the wildlife. Only when they realized the implications did the voluminous laughter infect the boys. The guffaws amongst the crowd had come on so violently, had maintained so frequent that their faces were unhealthy shades of red, blue, and purple. Rightly so, for it was the damndest thing anyone had ever seen. Someone greased those pigs to high heaven, riled the hens and roosters for a fight, and loosed them on the hardwood floor. The animal control officers were having one heck of a time coaxing either species into travel boxes.

Fierce rivals were the Nuggets and the Bacons, but when it came to common enemies….

The boys finally spotted their coach mid-way up the bleachers, speaking to an official. He almost toppled when he glanced back over his shoulder and saw them. In heretofore unparalleled bounds, he made it down the bleacher steps in record time.

“Jeez-a-mighty where have you boys been?” Coach Erickson asked. “Your parents have been worried to death. And in case you hadn’t noticed I was just about to forfeit the game. The only reason the official held out this long is… well, I think you know why.”

“So, are we, are we still gonna get to play tonight?” Lyle asked.

“It’s what the people came to see. Though I have to admit, I doubt they stuck around out of fan loyalty boys. It’s been a freaking madhouse. Damned Animal Control running around here trying to rope and lasso pigs covered in lard. Would that be considered surreal, or avant-garde? Hell, I forget which. Don’t matter no-how. You boys are here. You never did tell me what the hell happened?” said Coach Erickson.

“Let’s just say some new guy took us on a long detour, but we’re back, and we’re ready to play Coach,” Aaron beamed.

“And play you will, just as soon as these fools get all this livestock rounded up. Course it’ll take ’em a bit to get the floor cleaned. Awful mess,” Coach Erickson reflected. “You boys get headed to your locker room and warm up some if you can.”

* * *

 

Chapter Four: The Big Dance

Montague held up his forefinger and middle together in a simple rise up gesture aimed at the butcher paper on the floor. Like a magic carpet it rose all at once, and floated about ten feet off the ground. There was not a single crease, flap or fold to be found hanging down. There they were, the tiny structural beginnings of his masterpieces. He went over to the first pile, gathered up the finger nails, and placed half in the hollow heel of the mold container on one side, and half on the other. He repeated the process down the line in the heels of every casting chamber. Having completed his task he returned to the midway point and began to compose his hands as if he were leading an orchestral symphony. The tune went unheard and unsung. Any melody there might have been lived only in his head. The lack of true auditory accompaniment didn’t keep the magic from putting on a stellar performance. And from those first unplayed notes the fingernails began to knit together.

At first it seemed they were content merely to form a large calcified tangling of knots, but soon it grew to softball-sized proportion. Crackling, twisting, breaking, and re-breaking all the while. The lunatic echo of a thousand broken twigs resounded throughout. Not all at once, but one by one the calcified knotty fingernail balls stopped growing, curling, and popping, and just hovered there. Oh, that isn’t quite true. They were a bundle of vibratory potential energy, but they wouldn’t make further changes until commanded.

The creation music in Montague’s head ceased, and he simply stood there, his hands down at his side. His eyeballs rolled up and into the back of his head, leaving nothing but the whites showing. The tiny arteries on his eyeballs began to plump-and-pulse rapidly. They were being filled by black licorice-colored liquid. Soon the ends burst and back-filled the eyes with pitchy blood. Like sea-devoured sand sculptures, the whites were soon washed away by the black tide.

Soon Montague honed in on them. He saw the team in the locker room. They were running through a series of stretches, chatting excitedly. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. He pulled his supernatural mind’s eye out of the locker room, passing through layers of concrete, wood, and finally bleachers. Had he emerged six inches to the right, or left, he would’ve pierced the outer layer (and then followed through to the inner workings) of the town’s two best candidates for liposuction. Propelling his mind’s eye upward he gained a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings. He was pleased. A packed house would witness his somber symphony.

The animal control officers still chased after a few stragglers. Montague gathered that he had approximately fifteen minutes left for his work. He compelled his mind’s eye out through the roof of the gymnasium, and its supersonic hurl returned it almost immediately back to him. The demon blood enveloping his eyes drained down and away in tears that were instantly absorbed. His eyes returned to their normal position, looking out from hazel pupils. He flung his hands about in the air, resuming his crescendo.

The knotty calcified balls began to levitate. Each assumed a holding pattern midway up the leg portion of the fleshy shell, where the knee would normally be found. The first ball began to crackle and spin in many different directions. It was like a skeletal Rubik’s cube gone mad. The out-jutting knots collapsed into one another, giving spatial preference toward the top or bottom, according to their location. The rest of the knot-balls followed suit. Soon they all had dual twisted knot protrusions; one up, one down. They remained stationary for a moment as Montague confirmed their accuracy. Then with his arms outstretched he compelled them downward. It looked as if he’d made a simple tug upon a set of imaginary teats, yet the knotty protrusions vigorously knitted their path on a downward spiral. The bottom knob-like protrusions instantly severed into two equal parts before twining their way down. For the first time it took on more than a superficial resemblance to human bone. It actually was leg bone. The ends knitted together, forming a large clump that soon grew to foot-sized proportion, forming the full shape only seconds after that. Montague liked what he saw and commanded the calcified balls to knit the rest of the skeleton.

Again they crackled, popped, and twisted. And when the two halves met each other in the hip area it was as if someone had set off an explosion. But this was nothing more than an audible impact, and the reunited knot-mass continued onward-and-upward forming the spine.

For a time the spine was more convoluted than a root system intent on killing its own mother tree. But as the rib cage knit, it untwisted like a stubborn wick. The unified mass separated in half again as it formed the rib cage. The same boom (not quite as deafening) erupted as they re-met at the top of the sternum, knit the collar bones and continued around to finish the spinal cord. As if already bloodthirsty the little nodules forming the arms crackle-popped and leapt out in a strangling motion. And last but not least, the skull knitted together beautifully. However, there was a spot left unfinished: the top of the skull. This skeleton was like a baby. Its soft spot remained open. But even that had its purpose.

Montague walked behind the first chamber and placed his hand on one of the syringes. Very carefully he manipulated the plunger, pushing more than half the minuscule sampling of blood into the empty skeleton. Instead of dripping to the floor the droplets held their position, hovering within the bony cage’s hip-hollow. Then Montague removed the syringe from the plastic tube insert and floated up to the top of the chamber. At the very uppermost, center portion of the chamber there was another plastic tube. He placed the syringe inside and evacuated what was left into the hollow of the skull. It too held its place, poised just inches below the soft spot hollow. The same steps were taken on the rest of the bony occupants in the chambers; and then he flew straight up and over them, resuming front and center position. Already, he’d grown tired of the same old melodies, and began to clap his hands and stomp his feet, dosy-doing as he went along. But it wasn’t until his dancing grew fierce, fiery, more akin to rain dancing, that he began to see results. The blood swirled every which way and miniature bolts of lightning sprang forth, each leaving an arterial vein or bundle of nerve endings in its wake. Soon the hemo-globular storm was a mop of endocrinal tissues.

Within the skulls the forecast wasn’t much different. When the ball of bloody tissue reached its critical mass the stringy endings shot out multi-directionally. The living guide-by-wire systems directed their fleshy missiles to the proper skeletal anchor points. Muscles began to knit, twist, and grow. Heart and lungs soon followed.

Montague reached into the rib cage and with his fingernail made a tiny–but deep–incision on the still heart’s surface. After a precursory glance around he opened his shirt’s lapel, revealing his considerably pale chest. At the center of his sternum was a metal chest-plate the size of a small Frisbee. Its luster long since vanished, the screw type well beyond antique. He held a hand over the screw heads, commanding them out one by one, as his other hand made the all important catches. With his free hand he pried against the plate; it gave way with a sickly suctiony sound. His heartbeat violated the silence. Not only was its rhythm irregular but it was a mass of incongruity, black as coal to boot. Very gingerly, with his fingernail he made a near microscopic slit in his own heart. And as if his finger were a brush dabbing at paint, he dobbed tiny rivulets of blood pumping from his heart into that of the skeletal beings.

When the hole was full he spat upon his finger, and wiped his bubbling saliva into the incision in the bone-being’s heart, it sizzled acidicly, reeked of ruined pork, yet immediately sealed and  began to beat. All down the line he gave of himself so that they might live; yet living wasn’t merely enough. The demon blood was their true bond. He reached out once more, massaging the air as if shampooing an imaginary client’s hair.

The tangle of nerves and neural pathways shot out to all corners of the skull. There at the center grew a small portion of brain. The area scientists have been wont to call the lizard brain. It was all the brain Montague wanted or needed, quite sufficient for his charge.

With a flick of his wrist the chamber doors slammed shut, seemingly throwing their own locking mechanisms. Montague took to the air, his flight path evident as he approached the mega tank again. His movement of the valve handle so fast, so slight, any being might have missed it. He counted off Mississippi’s (mentally), and slapped the handle back at nineteen. Having perfected his formula some time ago he knew precisely how much liquid skin was required to seal the deal.

Minutes later he commanded the doors open, curling his finger called his creations out into the light. Their steps tentative at first, but soon the bone-beings stood before him. Like good little soldiers they awaited his orders, blinking lids revealed eyeless sockets. The eyes were windows to the soul, and since these abominations were soulless Montague felt they should remain eyeless as well. Besides, eyes weren’t necessary to carry out his demands. They were equipped with the bodily knowledge of those who inspired their existence. For this matter it would suffice. Though Montague had come to despise humans so much, he admired their design. And if there’s one thing God did well, it was giving them perfectly imperfect skin. Staring at these beings whose skin was just a little too smooth–like human mannequins–gave Montague the wiggins. He nodded his head and the process was complete. On the surface they appeared totally normal, human. But what they were there hadn’t been a word invented for. Yet the closest Montague could come up with was Marionette. Meat Puppet still held his favour. Didn’t matter what you called them, they were going to do his bidding.

* * *

Lyle was using one of the benches to aid his stretching when the coach walked in. The others were occupied with various exercises. Only Lyle did it more for show than to actually prepare. Truth was he was as limber as he was ever going to get two minutes ago, but he still liked to keep up the charade.

“Just a couple more minutes boys. You all ready to go?” Coach Erickson tapped his clipboard on his hand.

“Yeah, we’re good Coach,” Lyle said.

Coach Erickson glanced over to Aaron, contented by the simple nod of Aaron’s head. Coach could hardly stand that Lyle sometimes. He was basically a good kid, but what a pest. Always trying to usurp the team-command hierarchy. Of course the Coach would never let his feelings be known (other than over pillow talk to his wife Debbie) but….

As Coach Erickson emerged from the locker room the last maintenance man cleared the floor. The last of several wax-less dry buffs just to be certain they’d gotten everything. When maintenance got the call they were certain they were going to be dealing with a truly nasty situation; but as it turned out there wasn’t anywhere near the amount of poo they’d expected. What had been overwhelming was picking up all the lost feathers that had run amuck. They were scattered all over the bleachers; on the floor; on and in the grates of exhaust fans, everywhere. But it wasn’t an impossible task. Montague’s inside man had seen to that. He’d even gone so far as to undercoat some of the chickens with a glue-like substance that would ensure they lost minimal feathers.

Bill, the announcer, gargled with a little salt water. He’d come down with a cold recently and the continuous dialogue made his throat dry. There had been no game, and until the animal farm madness–quite literally, zero activity–and he and his colleagues felt duty bound to entertain. Of course things got a hell of a lot more entertaining the moment the Nuggets and the Bacons took the floor. His partner (Ronnie) thought someone should kick them out a ball, just to see what would happen. On more than one occasion Ronnie had been accused of being a rather dim bulb. Nonetheless, it might have been funny, if they’d coated the ball in something alluring and tasty. But those animal control guys had a hard enough time trying to get the stubborn creatures rounded up. Anyway, some people were still interested in watching a basketball game.

Coach Erickson leaned over and spoke into Bill’s ear. Suddenly the lights dimmed, and a spotlight focused on the locker room entrance to the arena.

“And at long last, introducing the starting lineup for Bradson Stills University… Aaron Linkletter, Lyle Turner, Brady Stevenson, Carmichael Jenner, and last but not least Jensen Stills… Everybody give the boys a big round of applause!” announcer Bill said.

The Bradson Stills boys each took three shots and cycled around their half of the court. Their normal drills cut majorly short. Both teams agreed that the fans had been waiting long enough. Williams Todd University could have been nasty about this whole thing, but they weren’t. Good kids, well liked, highly respectable. BSU had never met more honorable opponents.

Aaron was beginning to feel a bit under the weather. It was one thing to go into a competition knowing you were going to win because the other team sucked. Or your team had mad skills. But to know you’d won before the competition ever started certainly took the fun out of it. But it was always possible that that Montague guy had just been jiving him. Then again, when they arrived, there was the ongoing civil war between the Nuggets and the Bacons. That was something you don’t see everyday. And it had to have been set up by Montague. He couldn’t deny that much. And if he had gone that far….

Aaron told himself that feeling great about the win wasn’t everything; getting the win was. After all, in life, winning was all that mattered. It was the lonesome losers who went on to lead miserable lives. That wasn’t the life for him, he intended to be somebody. To go all the way to the NBA.

* * *

It was almost time. Montague still had a few items to take care of, but it didn’t matter. There was no great urgency. Let the BSU and Williams Todd boys steer their meat sacks around yet a while longer. Montague’s creations stood at the ready.

“Soon my boys, soon.”

Montague gazed at the ceiling. There, tucked away in the rafters, was his previous accomplishment in passing the dark spark of his life-force. Like all creators his latest creation was somewhat improved . Alike in every way except in who they were modeled after, and the skin was better.

Psychicly, Montague commanded the wire attachments to release the five somewhat poorer skinned beings. Loosed, their mass defied gravity and simply held its place, arms and legs dangling below them. With a hand held high and fingers outstretched as if cupping an invisible ball, Montague called them down. Other than the occasional spasm, their bodies held slack as they drifted toward the floor. They truly resembled what they were: movable puppets; marionettes whose strings could be manipulated invisibly, mentally. The likenesses of the Williams Todd boys.

The WT marionette doubles bore down on a heading that would place them directly in front of the Bradson Stills University doubles. Their bodies stiffened but gave way to a landing no less agile than Peter Pan’s. Touching down, their demeanor changed. They went from solemn, unthinking/unfeeling things to one-track-minded creatures. Their entire demented force of will hell-bent on getting at the doubles from BSU. Quite natural when one considered who their human counterparts were.

The monstrosities faced each other, mumbling jumbled recognitionless sounds, which anguished to be words. Their blood-tarnished teeth chomped together, and as they growled pools of spittle gathered at their feet. Zombily, they swiped outstretched arms at each other. Montague maintained the invisible dividing line–for now. His devious smile surfaced. These were his hellish children, and he beamed pridefully, seeing them so eager for their task. Still they continued to bay at invisible leashes, compelled by their ferocious desire to tear each other limb from limb. Yet, it wasn’t enough. To turn them loose now would be gruesome, yes, grandiose, no. Though entirely unnecessary Montague spoke, ‘Hands to yourselves,’ and their hands collected at their sides, “now line up single file and follow me.” He led them through a bay door, adjacent the stairs to his office. The space wide open. Unencumbered. Beneath his crow’s nest office they came to a halt. Six feet beyond lay the edge of a giant canvas tarpaulin. Stretched out seemingly forever. But to be more precise: 54′ X 94′.

With an uprising twirl which mimicked spinning a top (if it were upside down), Montague commanded the tarp rise. As it did, it spun itself around forming a nice billow of folds, resembling a giant’s handkerchief. It held its shape till Montague commanded it to fold half over, and then half again. From there he floated it out another bay door, and it continued on until well out of view. For the moment he’d forgotten about his demonic toy soldiers. His pride at his duplication of the basketball court, however, did not supersede his duties as puppet master. But keeping his meat puppets in a holding pattern was so simple, it truly required no conscious effort. 

With an effortless leap, Montague stood a-top the grating in front of his office. He looked down on the hardwood floor he’d uncovered. All the lines were properly marked, but it was still missing something. He gave the lighting system a supernatural boost and finally it was on par with venue lighting. While that was certainly better it did little to complete the effect.

A minute passed before it dawned on him what it was. He’d spent so much time guaranteeing the floor’s one hundred percent accuracy he’d left out a very crucial detail. There were no goal posts. He broke off two equal lengths of galvanized guard rail, and flung them overhead as if they were javelins. Each found its mark as if they’d always known that was where they were supposed to be. Montague entreated their rising, and they ascended gradually at first, shifting amorphously as they grew and expanded. A backboard and rim became clearly discernible. Seconds later, the goal posts were fully grown. Their lack of nets, or incomprehensible bounce-off angles made no difference. Their duty: simply to serve as markers. His replica basketball court was finally complete. Montague beguiled his Frankenstein’s monsters to the court below, directing them to post up on opposite ends. Any in-fighting now might cause a serious disruption.

Once more his eyes showed their whites and were soon overcome by a sea of darkness. Again he performed his mind trick, sending his roving eye out into the atmosphere. Its speed far greater than that of sound. The supernatural eye could travel well beyond the speed of light, but it was necessary to stay significantly under that range to zone-in on a specific geographic target.

Within thirty seconds he was entering the roof of the gymnasium. Several people shifted uneasily in their seats, sensing the unseen intruder. They could detect the change, but had no bank of previous knowledge by which to base a wrongness-quotient-comparison.

Eerie feelings (big and small) are all too often ignored.

Two minutes had elapsed. The first quarter well on its way. The scoreboard had it as a tie game. Montague breathed it all in. The sights, the smells, the sounds. He fed off the fearful charge undulating throughout the room. Ultimate concentration was key. In order for him to have a hand in the outcome, he must become one with the ongoings. However, that alone would not suffice.

He transferred what he saw, breathing the actions into his unnatural children. The first, most simple task, was to link Lyle and his diabolic double. Since he was always pushing for the team leader position Montague posited his double was just as likely to seek the reins. That connection would instantly bond them and help Montague to better his synchronization of the game. And as Lyle ran down the arena court, his double ran down the replica court. Milliseconds later the eyeless version of Aaron did the same. Immediately thereafter the rest of their teammates joined in.

Montague maneuvered the Williams Todd doubles out of the way, as the BSU marionettes barreled down the faux basketball court. The monstrous fiends passed, dribbled, and shot an invisible ball at a net-less galvanized rim. Their arcs rang true.

Next Montague’s minds eye sought out Eric Thunder; WT’s Native American point guard. He had been the most difficult to coerce into the mold chambers, thus he would be equally difficult to psychically dominate. But once his link was established the others would fall in line– they hung on his every word. Perhaps they felt he contained the wisdom of his forefathers. Montague knew the truth. Eric’s tribe had fully assimilated into American culture. No longer cared about, held to, and in many cases did not even know much about the old ways.

Eric’s will was strong, but Montague’s was beyond compare. However, it had taken him longer than the entire other team to sync Eric with his undead–yet alive–representation. Like good little dominoes the others soon toppled.

Half the blackness that covered Montague’s eyes bled away, and was reabsorbed by his face. The remaining licorice-colored blood formed a vertical line right down the middle of his pupil. He was truly split between realities. Now that he had the game fully synched there was no need to fully commit to the proceedings. His demonic-skin-Johnnys would play out the game, mimicking every movement the BSU and Williams Todd boys made. Montague still had work to do.

He took the traditional route back down the stairs. Once he reached the bottom he clucked his tongue twice as if signaling a horse. Instantly, the Segway peeled around the corner. Flying to his destination would drain too much power, and he rather enjoyed the irony of this means of travel. In many ways it was much like the storied broomsticks witches were said to have used. While–in the strictest sense–he wasn’t a witch, he had many ancestors who were. The craft lived in his blood, and was at his beck-‘n-call. There wasn’t a Wiccan alive, or dead, could best ‘im. But he hadn’t always been so powerful. There was a time when he was merely human. Yet, that was better than a thousand years ago and the only remnant of that body was his cold beating heart. His current digs were well over a hundred years old, and even he had to admit the chassis was getting pretty worn around the edges. He wondered if perhaps the time had come to take another. Powerful or not he could only restrain the body’s natural law of aging for so long. He was no born again Vampire. He’d earned his demon blood. Like most demons, a body, regardless how infallible, was a necessity when piloting Earth’s realm. Montague shook his head, realizing his current line of thinking was far too distracting. He must focus on the task at hand. On the surface it might seem trivial, but he knew what was at stake.

As he patrolled the aisles of crates, hunting down his special delivery, he surprised himself by how quickly he had adapted to operating the Segway. He used it much in the manner anyone would. Maintaining the link now wasn’t quite so easy, so he crept along at whatever pace the little battery operated beastie could muster. It was one of three, thrown in when he purchased the building. The old staff used them to get around in the interconnected warehouses.

Approaching the trunks, he simply stepped off the Segway. It continued on a bit before he willed it turn around, demanding it halt in front of the trunks. The ancient trunks (decorated with incomprehensible symbols) sat upon wheel-affixed platforms; they rolled out into the aisle when Montague laid hand upon them. He lined them up one after the other, behind the Segway. With more time he could have found something to harness them to the Segway, but he was already cutting it close.

He hopped on the one-man vehicle and pulled away, the trunks trailing out behind as if towed by rope or chain; the only braid a mental one. His black art bypassed the Segway’s power source, and boosted the wheel’s rpm’s to account for the load. Had he not been linked to all his boys, demonic and otherwise, and their Divine comedic game, he would have sent out his mental drone, and easily called his trunks back to him. He knew it might be possible, even with all he had going on, but told himself this was actually the lesser of two goods. A laugh wanted to rumble up, but he silenced it. Any idiot could belt out maniacally. Why waste the energy? A loss of focus on the part of his kith and kin, plus obsessive pretentiousness, was the number one reason the good guy always got away. Montague halted his Seg-steed, gave it a pat on its digital head, and dismounted. He stood between the trunks, placed both hands on their lids, and sent them rolling around each side of him. Montague strolled along, his body crouched like a mechanic rolling two tires, hands barely touching the surface. Standing beside his mock court, his pupils were again completely consumed by blackness. His all-seeing eye no longer running on autopilot. With his energy being temporarily diverted from the ongoing game, the zombie-like doubles froze in place, as if stuck in time.

His mind’s eye dove through the real basketball court’s floor, penetrating through layer after layer of wood, concrete, and various utility conduits. Finally it locked in on the desired conduit, and traced it back to the bank of electrical panels. All the gray metal doors swung open simultaneously. The psychic drone scanned the labels up and down. Buzzing down the markings on the sixth panel, it halted halfway down the first column. There it was, the light circuit for Gym A. It threw the breaker-switch, and scurried like a scalded dog back up through the flooring, arriving just as the room went dim, then gave way to full dark. The air of panic in the crowd made Montague’s flesh goose, and he had to redouble his focus. With much effort he pushed his supernatural abilities near the very precipice of his power. A swirling crimson wormhole opened up just in front of him. Black tangential thunderbolts shot out from the core as he shoved the trunks through the dimensional gateway.

The wormhole appeared in the gymnasium but was nearly transparent–a mere ghost of itself. The trunks screeched on out, and came to rest near the half court line. The ratio of light escaping the vortex so faint the audience barely registered what they were seeing. Some held up keychain lights but they did nothing to illuminate the situation. A maintenance crew was working their way down to the basement. But the service elevator was rather outdated and known for taking its time.

Meanwhile Montague’s doubles resumed their lockstep actions. They shuffled around the faux court, a mirror of the two teams’ disgust. As soon as Montague reestablished full link to the boys, the hellish gateway drew to a close. Montague mentally guided his BSU and WT doubles toward his own half court line, and they set about their one true mission. They weren’t just going to throw this game; they were going to massacre it.

The BSU and WT neuro-puppets stood at the ready, observing the translucent rectangular boundaries. Markers that, to oversimplify it, showed them where the trunks were located on the actual court.

The trunks were filled with miscellaneous weapons from all periods of history. And as the occult-borne basketball player doubles reached into the trunks, so did the real boys. A Williams Todd double was the first to remove something, in a motion which seemed to go on forever. At the very same time, on the real court, Eric Thunder let go of his inhibitions, and selected a scythe–a function of the cooperative spell Montague’d placed on the trunks eons ago. Normally, Montague trusted his link to the puppets, and theirs to the real life avatars they were made to represent. But this time there was no room for error. Using one of these meat puppets to force a player to miss a shot, or to foul, was one thing. But when it came to killing another being, Montague found that far too often the human subject failed. Maybe they couldn’t fight his will enough to do something so drastic as kill themselves. Or to verbalize a real warning to the intended contract, but they were just disobedient enough so that the mark knew something was askew. 

Eric was too mystified to realize the laws of physics had clearly been violated, when he withdrew the scythe to actual size. If the room weren’t mostly devoid of light, one might’ve been capable of noting the glint in his eye. A look that would have made it an easy assumption that he was the Grim Reaper.

On his side of the half court line, Aaron withdrew a large broadsword.

Lyle desperately searched for something bigger, but settled upon a Civil War era saber. He stepped away from the trunk, and swung it about, yet he felt no real kinship with the actual fighting method of the soldiers of that period. Lyle fancied himself a pirate, and his swashbuckling was made doubly ridiculous as the dark mirror of himself reflected his every move.

Jensen held his MAC-11 up but once he stepped away from the box he could no longer see it to admire. They were entranced by the weaponry. Never before had they felt so absolutely powerful. Nor had they ever felt such a lust to let blood.

Rounding out the WT boy’s selections was Tommy Bradshaw, and when he plucked his purty the boxes mysteriously disappeared. They had served their purpose and were no longer necessary.

Excited chatter neared uproarious, as the clock ticked passed two minutes the audience had spent in complete darkness. The gym was a-buzz with radio traffic as security tried to light a fire under maintenance. For the moment things were relatively calm.

Without warning–or warming–the lights came on all at once, the audience clapped thunderously. But their revelry was short lived. Thousands of lumens revealed what had gone previously unseen. The teams stood, divided by the half court line, their High Noon stares lacerating the boundary betwixt them.

Eric Thunder approached the center circle as if preparing for the tossup. On the opposing side Aaron took a step forward, but Lyle shoved him away with the back of his forearm. It was his time, his moment to shine.

From multiple angles, security guards stalked the court. The first guard attempted to cross the line just behind the goal’s backboard, but was flung backward into the crowd, on the bleachers. The thus-far unseen wall of flames lit up, flowing ever upward like a hellfire waterfall screensaver on reverse flow. But it wasn’t the traditional fiery representation of brimstone flavor, but rather a deep blue-green transitioning to an almost white flame. The guard who lay amongst the crowd suffered a category of burn not registered by degree–unless you wanted to count thermonuclear. His skin bubbled, melted, and instantaneously evaporated in a putrid cloud of smoke. His bones petrified. Witnesses were torn between staring at the smoldering carcass, barfing, and glaring in anticipation of what foul atrocity might happen next.

The point was made, and not one other person dared cross that line. These chips were going to fall where they may. The situation had grown well out of hand. It was a job for the police, or SWAT, or even better yet the Goll-damned Army.

The crowd gasped as a bi-pedal demon appeared in a referee’s uniform. Its legs had that same broken-back hinge look of the aliens from that movie The Arrival. Huge thorny horns riddled its body. Perhaps the hellish spawn of a pin cushion and a briar patch. Despite two soulless insectile eyes, it had nothing even resembling a face. Around its neck hung a whistle. A gaping hole appeared as razor sharp needle points (that served as toothy fangs) ate their way through the abdomen of its ref shirt. Its three fingered claw reached up and broke the whistle string in one fluid motion. The thorny demon placed the whistle in its needly mouth, and a basketball appeared between its talons. It blew the whistle, tossed the ball up into the air, and vanished.

Lyle leapt higher than he had in all his life and captured the ball in his vise-like grip. His calvary sword shifted ever so slightly as gravity reasserted. With his free hand on the hilt he shined Eric Thunder on, smiling smugly. His confidence soon fell flaccid, pouring out through his toes as–just inches from the ground–he caught sight of the incoming blade.

Eric swung the reaper, cleanly severing Lyle’s spine, sending his head spiraling to the other end of the court, where it splatted against the glass backboard, dropped unfettered through the hoop and patriotic net, and went thunk upon the floor, like a semi-frozen watermelon. A surge of celebratory rage engorged Eric’s veins, but his victory dance was short-lived.

Aaron wielded his broadsword, swinging it back and up, high over his head, but Eric quickly angled the reaper scythe up to accommodate for the blow. Yet, poor Eric was stunned by the lack of reverberation in the scythe handle, as the broadsword’s blade slashed into his other side, bullying its way through his abdomen, and spine, but catching ever so slightly on his right side bottom rib. The sword halved the reaping utensil as it exited, and the scythe disappeared before it hit the hardwood.

* * *

Back at the faux court Eric’s living voodoo doll collapsed and came unglued. Its body hissed and sizzled, soon holding no more substance than a vat of hot bacon fat. It drained down through the miniscule cracks between the planks of the fake court.

* * *

Jensen ran forward, releasing a hail of submachine-gun-fire, putting two of the WT boys on permanent leave. The echo from the last MAC-11 cartridge clinked out, and all was quiet. The audience was riveted, seemingly literally to their seats.

Blake Pendleton had managed to mostly conceal his WWI weapon of choice. And as he backpedaled, removing his jersey, he motioned for his sole surviving teammate to evacuate the area. He had a rocket in his pocket, and damn well planned to use it. He grabbed that olive-drab stovepipe (just below the reflector disk) snaked the tube up out of his shorts, took a knee, placed that beast on his shoulder, and fired. His shot was true, and like dynamited bowling pins, pieces of Aaron, Jensen, and Brady flew asunder. The meaty bits sent searing-smoke-signals toward the ceiling, being vaporized by the flaming barrier. The audience was breathless and simply wheezed, puffed, and panted.

Just as Carmichael should’ve been looking for an escape hatch, a multitude of sirens penetrated the gymnasium. The true authorities were finally there. In a matter of seconds it would all be over. But Carm’ was immune to all that now. Those sounds emanated from a bygone era–a lost world. In the here and now his fury was growing, and he welcomed death. As he ran toward it his future could be no bleaker. But that was okay. If he died on this day, he would die with honor.

Carmichael had become VENGEANCE.

And those WT interlopers would pay blood-for-blood. They’d murdered his teammates, and slaughtered his only real friends in one fell swoop.

His sneakers screeched as he stopped suddenly, his toes just touching the WT side of the half-court line.

Blake Pendleton was down on his knee again, taking aim. Blake reached inside his waistband and–from the void–produced another rocket propelled grenade. He held mightily still as he passed it over his shoulder to Ryerson Long.

Carmichael ripped off his jersey top, squealed off the line, and ran at them full steam–a black protrusion in his waistband jostled up and down with each foot stomp. He was nearly halfway there when Blake fired the RPG. It swung just inches wide of its target, and exploded upon impacting the fire barrier wall.

Carmichael mirrored Blake’s own move as they both reached for their waistbands. (As did their dark reflections on Montague’s mock court). Carmichael won the quick draw, and swiftly flung a throwing knife in Blake’s direction. It missed its mark whizzing just by Blake’s ear, but fortune shined on Carm’ as it sank deep into Ryerson’s chest. Blake tried to pass the RPG over his shoulder to his buddy. Ryerson clawed at the knife, stumbled back, and fell over his own tangled feet.

Carmichael snatched another blade from the black leather sheath, stopped dead in his tracks, and released. It veered higher than intended, but buried deep within Blake’s forehead. A singular rivulet of blood ran down between Blake’s eyes. The first drop formed, and dropped from the tip of his nose, his expression shifted to puzzlement as his nerve endings fired their last translation.

Montague disconnected from the proceedings, and the fire wall went up in a ring of rectangular sulfurous smoke. Awestruck by the chaos that had transpired, the audience remained seated.

Unaware of the tragic cooking of Dale the security guard, three police officers rushed the court. The bead of their weapons clearly drawn on Carmichael’s chest. Two cops approached, and tackled Carmichael from behind, fluidly disarming and cuffing him. As they hauled Carm’ up his mother and father sprang from their seats. Instinct finally compelled them to protect the fruit of their loins, but their higher brain functions argued that that couldn’t be their son. For a few moments they were in a herky-jerky kind of stalemate. Carmichael’s mother’s wail broke the audience’s voluntary vow of silence. Other distraught mothers soon followed. Then the crowd poured upon the court as if a dike had burst.

Montague would rather have enjoyed the ensuing lunacy, but he was completely, psychically, drained. In need of some serious R&R, and fast. He made his way back toward the stairs, licorice colored bloodlets streaming down, being reabsorbed. Back in his crow’s nest office Montague stumbled over to his couch. He could recharge here a while, but the process of recovery had only just begun. His demon mind raced, replaying every aspect of all that had gone before. He wasn’t immune to doubt, but the proof was in the pudding. God’s side had taken a fantastic beating. Better still, the teams had all but destroyed themselves. The tie game would forever stand. Unlike Montague the schools couldn’t count the basketed head. Though an asterisk would be placed beside the score to indicate that an emergency arose and the game could not be played to a satisfactory end.

* * *

 

Chapter Five: The Heavenly Wager

The Devil slid up out of his chair, only vaguely aware of the 360 degree wall-screen dimming out of existence. He was a more polite guest than one might expect, and cleaned up his gluttony of snacky things which littered the floating table. He drained nearly an entire wine pitcher (his third) before placing it on a hovering service cart which floated around. He burped obnoxiously, and God gave him a stern look.

“What? Waste not, want not… isn’t that what they say?”

“It has also been said, ‘Thou shall not tempt the Lord’… but you closed your heart and mind to me so long ago.”

“Then why do you continue to try?” the Devil replied

“I’m God. If I give up on you, then my word is meaningless.”

“I see. Well, being a man of your word, I do believe you owe me something.”

“They’re there. Check for yourself. One thousand souls. Yours to do with as you please. Though I don’t approve of your cheating, a bet is a bet. And if God is a welsher, then who is an honorable man?”

“You’re a stand up guy G–. I’ve always said that,” the Devil posited.

“We both know you don’t believe. Not since you’ve become this thing, have you spoken one kind word about me.”

“Well, I guess that’s true. But I do thank you for your business. And I do truly hope to see you soon,” the Devil laughed riotously and disappeared.

“Perhaps sooner than you think,” God said, and dimmed Heaven’s lights, and ordered Peter to commit all souls to a holding pattern, whilst he was away. It had occurred only a handful of times, but the sign now read NO VACANCY. God was going to his special spot. The one point in all of existence where he could be of quiet mind. His birthplace. Just the other side of all existence. The nexus point of space/time. He had data streams of existential matter to review.

A tweak here, a change there

. Existing completely independent of space/time he held all the cards. The multiverses were his stage, we his puppets. If he didn’t like the way we danced, he could always go back and change the tune.

* * *

EPILOGUE

Frick Receives his Message: ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

…………….

“Yes God. I understand,” Frick replied.

* * *

Carmichael stared vacantly out the window. Hair disheveled, his robe hung loose about his shoulders. Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. Doctor Bleauhill’s recommended daily dosage barely allowed Carm’ to cogitate. When he was lucid enough to speak, nothing came but the ramblings of a mad man. Only his mother still visited. An overly large white dove flew up and landed on the window stoop. It tapped a little ditty on the glass pane. Carmichael undid the latch. It began to chirp and coo, building its chatter to an unnatural level, akin to speaking in tongues. One of the orderlies walked by and paused for a second in Carmichael’s doorway. Carmichael said, “Yes, my Lord, I will.” The orderly shook his head and walked off.

Tune In Next Time For Surviving the Game: What Happens In Vegas….

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