Previously: The sisters fiiiinally find the symbol leading them to the gentleman with the moth orchid on his lapel, and it’s on the men’s room door of an ice cream parlor. Inside is a spiral staircase guarded by a devastatingly burly bouncer. So, Bat does what she does best. (Get the tar kicked out of her.)
— 13 —
The sisters step up into an ancient, dank locker room with wooden shelves and benches. Above a trough urinal is a row of photographs featuring thick-waisted men in striped swimming costumes. Swinging doors lead out to where the crowd is yelling.
“How much time we got?” Batya says.
“No idea,” Mina says.
A squeal of feedback, then a voice blares through a PA system:
“Gentlemen! Our next matchup is nigh! Place your bets! Find your seats! Settle your guts! Reach out for a flittering fragment of luck, of hope, of destiny! And then clench it in your beefy fists and don’t let go! For our two combatants have entered the arena and cannot wait to crush each other’s dreams for your entertainment!”
Bat lights up. “Now we’re talkin.”
She gingerly opens the double doors and peeps out. She can kind of make out a large, echoey space with a high ceiling, dark except for two huge spotlights pointing down into a rectangular pit, like a nighttime construction site. Then she notices the diving boards and realizes this is an old gymnasium and that’s an empty swimming pool and those are bleachers filled with het up men. The smell is a heady melange of whiskey, sweat, chlorine, and antiseptics.
She and Mina slink out toward the pool and see what’s being spotlit: two passed-out fellows on gurneys, each clad in sparkly gold underwear and plugged into rolling IV stands. If Bat had to choose the most unsettling thing she’d seen tonight, well, the deer demon would take the top spot, but this would be a close second.
A smaller spotlight flails around before finding the emcee standing atop the high dive, wearing a gold lamé suit. He whips the cable of his microphone to untangle it from his legs and says:
“Hark, brothers! Let me walk you through the final contest of the evening. Two pre-med students from Backwall College have donated—volunteered!—for thirty-five dollars! Each!—to be put under general anesthesia. And what have we hidden somewhere inside their bodies? Why, a single, perfect, natural pearl. Generously donated by the divers over at Camphouse Cove. The first surgeon to find his pearl—without doing any permanent damage to the patient, of course!—will claim the belt. As well as a gift certificate good for one fancy sundae from our friends downstairs at Clingingsmith’s.”
Mina whispers, “This is what men do when they get together?”
Bat now spies two doctors, decked out in scrubs and latex gloves, approaching the gurneys. One is a sourly distinguished elderly chap and the other is a younger buck, dark-browed and broodily seductive.
“In the deep end! The defending champeen, the medical maestro, the master retractor, a forceps to be reckoned with—do I even have to introduce him? I will anyway! The luminary, the giant, the titan, the legend—I can’t go on, he’s too acclaimed, I’ve said too many words and am now feeling faint due to reduced flow of oxygenated blood to my brain! He’s the man who’s kept Fort Hook alive for decades, pumping us full of cure-alls, stitching this to that, poking that in there, smacking the behind of every newborn as they glimpse that terrifying first light! You know him, you love him, you’d rather not have to see him! I give you…Doctor! ‘Doc!’ Victor! ‘Vic!’ Vickers! M! D!”
About half the crowd goes ape. The bleachers rumble. The old sawbones nods once, then raises his mask to his face.
“And in the shallow end! The challenger! The outsider! The interloper! Not my personal favorite! A gimcrack charlatan, practically an infant, a mouth-breathing novice with fat shaky baby hands unfit to wield scalpel or lancet! Who does he think he is, hanging his shingle here and threatening our unwell citizens with his newfangled quackery? This is not a rhetorical question! Where does he get the gumption? His very existence is a malignant pilonidal cyst upon the taut buttocks of our fair city! And yet, because we cannot have a competition without a competitor, even one as unworthy as this piece of shit, I am obligated to give you…the alleged! Doctor! Karl! Manz!”
The alluringly tormented young doctor frowns and folds his arms. The other half of the crowd bellows lustily.
“Very evenly split rivalry,” Bat murmurs, excited.
“Boys, let’s get to it,” the emcee says. “Incise!”
The audience hushes down and, for a moment, there’s nothing but held breath and the clinking of steel tools. Then, a tiny, horrible sound Bat wishes she didn’t recognize: skin being slit open.
“Where’s Moth Orchid?” Mina says.
Bat tries to make out any distinguishing characteristics among the spectators, but the spotlights and the fact that her eyes have been brutalized all night long means everything looks like a sparkling smear. “Can’t see dick.”
“I’ll go this way, you go that way,” Mina bosses. “Stay out of sight. Try not to look like a luscious dame.”
“I can’t help it.”
Bat pads from shadow to shadow. From the bottom of the pool comes the sound of—what is that, a bone saw? Now there’s some kind of moist suction. The crowd starts to cheer, but not in an all-in-good-fun way, more like a horde of marauding berserkers howling war cries. The noise makes Bat’s veins good and hot.
She’s about to sneak over to a diving board when there’s a loud clatter from the deep end. The emcee gets back on the mic.
“Something’s—some kind of irregularity here with Doc Vic, and—heavens, he’s collapsed! Folks, the ref is on the scene, checking the—there’s something wrong with—”
“Malfeasance!” a voice cries from the pool.
The emcee says, “I’m hearing something about malfeasance.”
“Vickers was poisoned by a blow dart!”
“Word on the street is poison via blow dart.”
“It came from the stands!”
“From the stands, you say. Can we get some light on the subject?”
A kachunk and the rafter lights come on. Bat recoils from the glare, then sees the rows of feverish men, all hollering, all wearing suits, a bland wash of salaryman tweed and navy.
One of them spots Bat. He points at her, shrieks, “No girls allowed!”
The men, ruddy with rye and delirium, all turn to look at her. And then proceed to lose their goddamn minds.
This has been Chapter 13 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: The Yowling Throng