The food, as always, was excellent in the arena lounge. The conversation was not quite up to the same standards with Adam and Earl. There were a lot of tasteless jokes about Wichita, some less than scintillating stories by Earl about the girls he had gone out with recently, mostly fictitious.
Adam was excited because Valeri Karparov had been sent down by his major league club for conditioning before returning after a serious injury in the previous year’s playoffs. The talk at the table bounced from Wichita, to dream girls, to great young hockey players, and Dante was believing he wouldn’t be able to get a word in, let alone explain about purgatory or encourage his friends to help promote recruitment.
Dante could barely say, “I wasn’t really in Wichita, I was in purgatory,” when the first buzzer rang and Adam rushed out to the stands to watch the warmup.
“Can’t wait to get a look at Karparov; see if the old speed is back,” he called back as he went through the gateway to get to his seat.
The game was exciting, and Karparov was even better than Adam expected. He set up two goals and eventually scored the winner. On the way to the bar, that was all Adam and Earl could talk about. They relived the game right down to Karparov’s minutest movements as he flew past the defense and faked the goalie, sending him to his stick side and flipping the puck over his outstretched arm and into the net. This was Dante’s wedge, “Hey, you know how important good defense is. I’m looking for good defenders. You guys interested?”
“What are you talking about, man? You know I haven’t learned to skate backwards, and Earl can’t stop on skates,” said Adam, “I suppose while you were away you learned to play at a professional level and are about to be drafted.”
“No, really, I’m looking for people interested in learning to fight. You’ll learn to use blades, but not on your feet.”
Moments later, inside the bar, Dante was explaining to Adam and Earl all about purgatory, the coming invasion, and the need for warriors. A couple of failed attempts to turn the discussion into a comedy routine quickly faded and before long, the two friends were listening in silence, their jaws dropping. Their friend was too serious and they couldn’t help but believe him. They might feel differently in the morning, but for now it made a strange kind of sense.
Before they knew it they were writing down locations of portals and Adam was using his media awareness to plan out an ad campaign to have interested potential recruits make their way to purgatory. “Social media is the way to go,” Adam gave a knowing grin, “We put the info out there and those it resonates with will be through those portals as soon as they figure out they could be real.”
The whole concept was too wild for Earl. He began singing Highway to Hell, and he sang it loud. And he sang it repeatedly. To be honest, he didn’t sing the entire song, just kept repeating the familiar chorus. It annoyed Dante and Adam who Earl’s behaviors well, but it really annoyed a couple of rough looking guys sitting at the table next to them. These were clearly men who didn’t take kindly to annoyances.
Adam had offered his advice, and Dante could tell he was very interested in joining his friend in the mysterious domain. Earl was still doing the mind numbing chorus of Highway to Hell. Dante was sure Earl with his raucous musical styling was signifying his plan to commit as well. The two at the next table were, themselves, on the highway to hell. One of them turned to Earl, “Hey bud,” he snarled, “You want to give it a rest?”
If Earl had heard him, he may have stopped, or at least tried. Sometimes he could get pretty deep into a rut. Instead of toning down, he got even louder. The one who had spoken stood up to face Earl, fists clenched, “I said to give it a rest, Buddy.”
Earl, in a moment of stubborn resistance, faced the complainer and repeated the musical phrase one more time. “Asshole,” shouted the complainer, and he took a swing. Earl danced back, just slightly out of reach, and Dante jumped to his feet. Patting Earl on the shoulder, Dante asked him to stop then facing the complainer said, “OK, man, cool down. My friend is a bit overwrought; I’ll calm him down.”
“Damn right he’ll calm down, but I’m gonna do it not you,” the guy beside the complainer stood up, raised two huge fists, and stepped towards Earl and Dante. This was a big guy, and his friend who had made the original complaint stepped forward alongside him, his fists raised, too. Dante immediately realized they were not merely upset with Earl’s annoying song, but were, in truth, spoiling for a fight. He would not let this happen. The big guy jabbed at Dante while the other took a second swing at Earl. Dante saw both punches coming, pushed Earl out of the way, twisted sideways inside the big guy’s jab and ducked under the other’s swing. In a flash, he was between the two and snapped out his elbows at a carefully determined angle to catch each of the attackers at a pressure point on the side of each head.
The two crumpled back into their seats, unconscious. It was done so swiftly and with a minimum of contact that even someone watching would think the two would be assailants had decided to quietly back down. Of course, in a moment, their heads would loll to one side or other and they would either tumble to the floor or be on their feet looking for vengeance. “Let’s get out of here,” cried Dante to his two friends. Throwing a couple of twenties on the table, he quickly directed them toward the door.
Outside, they were across the parking lot and nearly to Adam’s car when they heard a voice behind them. “Hey, guys, wait up. I gotta talk to you.”
They ignored him as Adam fumbled in his pocket for the key. The delay was enough to let the person calling get to them. Dante braced himself for action, but the man raised his hand, “Hey, take it easy, I just want to talk to you,” looking at Dante intensely he asked, “Where you in the service, one of the black ops groups? The way you took those two guys out, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Dante sized up the stranger. This guy was fit. “Man, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I learned a lot of techniques in MARSOC, but nothing like that,” the stranger added.
“You want to learn this stuff? It’s all hand to hand, no guns, bombs, or rocket launcher, just your hands swords, daggers, maces, spears,” said Dante.
“Sounds challenging, but why no guns?”
“Don’t work where we fight,” Dante smiled, “If you’re interested?”
“Hey, sounds cool, and if I can learn that move you used, I’m in.”
Dante asked Adam, who had now gotten the car open, for a piece of paper. He took a pen from his pocket and wrote something down on the paper and handed it to the guy. “Go there tomorrow,” he said, “walk into the alley and keep walking till you reach the training grounds.”
Waving the paper at Dante, the guy smiled, “You bet, buddy, I’ll be there.”
“We’ll see you then,” said Dante.
“What?” Said Earl who hadn’t really followed much of the conversation over the evening.