April 15, 2012
“Y-yes, she stammered,” uncertain how he knew her or where she could run. Ebenezer, in Murdoch’s employ, had seen him with the Enemy. All was lost, surely.
Scrooge turned to De Nazarene and affected a sweeping bow. “M’Lord,” he intoned.
“Ebenezer,” De Nazarene acknowledged, seemingly unperturbed. “Are you enjoying your new position?”
“It has its benefits, M’ Lord. May we join the party?” Without waiting for an answer, he took a chair and gestured at a reluctant Marley to sit in the other. Then, as though that wasn’t enough cheek, he waved the waitress over and ordered tea for everyone.
“Does Moggi know that you’re here, darling?” Ebbie asked.
“Of course, how silly of me,” Ebbie chuckled. “I meant Murdoch, sweetheart. Is he aware that you’re in this neck of the woods?”
“I believe it was Abbadon himself who sent her,” De Nazarene interjected.
“Really?” Ebenezer raised an eyebrow quizzically. “How interesting. Perhaps we should have a chat.”
It was De Nazarene’s turn to arch his brow.
“I took this ‘position’,” the Victorian began bluntly, ” to prove that there is more to the realm of Good and Evil than just Heaven and Hell. Those of us neither purely wholesome nor malevolent have a place, as well. Now, before you warn me about my choice of friends, I know my employer well enough and have kept an eye” — here Marley stirred uncomfortably — “to see that his machinations don’t interfere with my plans. But you should know that just as I won’t brook any hindrances from the Prince of Lies, I’ll take none from Yourself.”
His eyes met De Nazarene’s and held them before continuing. “I am going to end your reign, sir.”
De Nazarene merely smiled, Marley let out a moan of despair, and Rebekah wondered how her situation could get any worse. From down the street, in the shadows, Vlad watched the goings-on impassively. He didn’t know too much about the woman, beyond the fact that Abbadon was using her to some end. Seeing De Nazarene in her company was problematic. He didn’t know his Master’s business with her, and, if he went to Abbadon with this information, it could as easily be taken for meddling as concern. Centuries of experience told him that it wasn’t worth risking Abbadon’s wrath to speak up. Ebbie’s presence concerned him most, however. He had followed the Victorian until he met up with his lackey, Marley, a few blocks away. The ghost had led them both here. The gaffer had done well for the club and, incredibly, had them on the brink of greatness. Was this betrayal, then, or something else?
As he tried to decide the best course of action, the entire party rose to leave. Ebbie, shook hands with De Nazarene, a grave countenance on his face, and left with the woman and the ghost in tow. The chairman of Club Paradiso watched them leave.
Vlad’s mind raced as he considered the possibilities, then abruptly stalled as he tried to arrive at an appropriate course of action. He knew that above all else, he desperately wanted to win the Championship. Somehow, he believed, it would be a rock to which he could cling through the rest of his miserable existence. Was Ebbie threatening that dream? And how to deal with the Nazarene? If there was one person he wished to come up against less than the Master…
As that thought ran through his head, the King of Kings turned his head in Vlad’s direction. A piercing gaze reached through the shadows, locking on the vampire. As Vlad considered fighting or fleeing, De Nazarene smiled benignly, turned and crossed the plaza into the offices of Club Paradiso.
Abbadon sat in the spacious Visitor’s Box, looking down onto the empty pitch at Heaven’s Gate, his anger plainly evident. Sammael and Anteus, both now surplus to Stygian’s requirements, stood behind him, dressed in matching suits, their existence reduced to ‘protecting’ a being who could wipe them from existence with a single, whimsical thought.
It still rankled Sammael that he had been supplanted by that disfigured little human and even more so that Dracul had sided against him. Anteus, for his part, was regretting accompanying his brother when he had gone to complain to the Master. Now, he too was off the team, his place taken by some gangly little whelp with multiple personality issues, on loan from Shakhtar Mordor. The piteous wretch constantly muttered about something quite dear to him, but more annoying was that Stygian fans appreciated that his ability to get behind unsuspecting defenders made him the perfect partner for Marley on the left flank. They had not missed Anteus one bit.
His bodyguard’s concerns were the furthest thoughts from the Master’s mind, however. What had begun as the most promising chance to upend Paradiso in an age had taken a turn for the worse somewhere along the way, and half-time of the final match of the season, the return leg of El Celestio saw Stygian, still with hope, but in desperate straits.
Matters had begun to unravel shortly after Rebekah had come to him, claiming that her mission to infiltrate and expose Paradiso was “more hopeless than Labour winning an election.”. He had exploded in fury at her whinging, making it clear that failure was not an option. She had fled in tears.
Before he could formulate an alternative plan if she proved truly incapable, Stygian inexplicably hit a rough patch. They actually lost to minnows Grimm 1812. He had been furious and called Scrooge onto the carpet. The Victorian had faced him down, said there was a trust issue in the squad and that it would take time to sort. Abbadon had already begun looking for a new manager when the two mooks now standing behind him had come crying about their lot in the team.
That explained the trust issue, he thought. Ebbie had evidently been too wise to cry about his minions getting out of line. The problem was solved quickly enough, bringing Gollum in as a replacement for Anteus and letting the hunchback take over on the other side. The resolution didn’t have the desired effect, however. Rather than victories, the loss was followed by two late draws against Albion and Asgard.
Then Wendi came to him after the third poor result, with the news that Dorian Gray had run up some gambling debts and was possibly throwing matches to get out from under.
Enraged, Abbadon got on the horn immediately and every one of his papers ran a pull-out insert of a gnarled, decrepit old man under the headline ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’. The following morning, Vlad came into the clubhouse early and observed an attendant sweeping up a sizable pile of dust from in front of Dorian’s locker. His nameplate was already in the waiting bin. He wouldn’t be coming back, after all.
Meanwhile, Paradiso had rolled right along and Stygian had gone from being top to six points down. Prospects had looked bleak to Murdoch for a time, and then Rebekah had burst into his office, cautiously excited. She announced that she might have an insider with dirt on Paradiso, waved a manila folder under his nose, but admitted that she wasn’t sure he was legitimate. He snatched the material from her hand and immediately sent Wendi to check it out.
In the morning, his dailies ran another cover, this one depicting David en flagrante delicto with a satyr and two nymphs. There was the expected hue and cry that Abbadon was up to his usual slander and libel, but this time he had proof. De Nazarene was forced to admit publicly that his Father’s Golden Boy had strayed again. Abbadon, delighted, still had a clipping of the quotation in his breast pocket.
“Club Paradiso regrets that attacking midfielder David has had to take a sabbatical due to personal issues. He will seek counseling and hopefully return to the club in the near future.” Paradiso subsequently struggled through their next two matches, but squeaked out wins in both cases.
Then, Rebekah’s source came back with another tip. This one was dynamite, but it had the potential to blow up in Stygian’s face. He called Ebenezer and the Gorgon into his office at the club. The conservative-minded Victorian had immediately wanted him to sit on the story, threatening to resign if he published it. The Gorgon had surprised them both by giving her permission to run with it, even offering a statement.
Abbadon had almost ripped the phone out of the wall, shouting into it to hold the presses. The morning editions were filled with revelations of the affair between Perseus and the Gorgon. The old axiom that opposites attract had never been proven truer. This time, every paper, including the Celestial Guardian, Heaven’s official news source, picked up the story immediately. The public lapped it up.
Abbadon was somewhat disappointed that the couple were celebrated rather than condemned. It had taken Perseus another three days to finally stop denying the rumours, even after Medusa had given ‘exclusive’ interviews to every publication and program which asked. Yet, there was no doubt the Greek was in love with his ancient enemy, even if he had difficulty coming to terms with the fact. Thus, his fans, and the public in general, forgave him. Sometimes, Abbadon reflected, he really hated this place.
Happily though, the paparazzi, constantly on the couple’s heels now that they had gone public, were apparently a distraction to the Paradiso hitman. While his popularity reached new heights, his form dipped to new lows, and his club, wholly impotent in attack with one of their best out and the other lost in a fog, stumbled to a defeat and a draw.
Medusa, on the other hand, had never played better. It was disgusting to see her so happy, especially when Khali went all maternal, organising her shower. Worse, the bloody Guardian scooped Abbadon to news of the couple’s nuptials. Still, he was willing to take the good with the bad, now that Stygian were just a point back with the game at Heaven’s Gate set to decide the title. Forty-five minutes into the match, however, it was all coming apart and he was ready to explode.
David, the randy bastard, had made a surprise return for the derby final, announcing in a pre-match interview (with another network) that he would be the best man at his attack partner’s wedding and that he couldn’t wait for the bachelor party.
Then the pair had come out and scored a goal apiece in the opening ten minutes, making Khali look like she had all six of her hands tied behind her back. Medusa had been yellow carded after Perseus’ goal and was lucky not to be sent off when she clattered into him on two other occasions along the edge of the box. She was all flustered, her confidence missing and timing completely off. One could only assume that she was still in the match because the official was a romantic at heart.
Abbadon wasn’t sympathetic to pre-wedding jitters, however. Luckily, Stygian regrouped and pushed their opponents hard for the remainder of the half. They hadn’t been able to peg one back, though. It was taking every ounce of his legendary patience not to go down to the changing room and lay into the squad. If Paradiso held on to take the title, heads would roll and the wedding would be going ahead without the blushing bride! He swore as blasphemous an oath as he ever had at the thought of another defeat.
A moment later, he got to his feet. Who was he kidding about legendary patience? Wendi, standing near the back of the suite, running her delicate fingers through a nervous Rebekah’s fiery strands, shook her head. Stifling the will to scream, he sat back down. Ebbie had bloody well better have a handle on things.
The pall in the Stygian clubhouse was, as one would expect, deathly. The players were all slumped in front of their lockers, with heads variously bowed, held in hands, or thrown back against the wall with eyes shut tight. The gaffer was locked in his office, the dimmest of lights visible through the drawn blinds.
Abruptly, Marley’s sat up attentively, and then faded from view. There was a momentary murmur from behind the closed office door, then it creaked open. No one came through, but Marley materialised back in his place, looked towards Vlad and melodramatically raised a pointing finger in the direction of the open door. Vlad rolled his eyes at the theatrics, and getting to his feet, walked into the inner sanctum. Just to make a point, he telepathically closed the door behind him. Surprisingly, it prompted a short wave of laughter on the other side.
Ebenezer smiled and gestured to a chair.
Vlad shook his head. “I’ll stand, if it’s all the same.”
“Up to you,” Ebbie shrugged noncommittally. “I haven’t had much to say to you since I arrived. At first, I wasn’t sure that words would accomplish anything. Then I realised that it wasn’t necessary. We’ve been on the same page from the beginning. Even when you followed us that night.”
That surprised Vlad. “You spotted me?”
“Neither hide nor hair, but Marley told me afterwards.”
“I just want to win,” Vlad explained, “as much on my own terms as possible.”
“Same here,” the Victorian replied, “but it’s you that’s going to have to carry this team over the final hurdle, mate. It’s your team, after all. You’re the one from this place. Not me. Not Cy. No-one else. The other Hellions look to you, as do the outsiders. The reaction to that little trick with the door proves that.”
Vlad shook his head. “What do you want me to do?”
“Just lead them. It’ll be enough — or it won’t.”
Vlad nodded again. “Any changes?”
“Should there be?”
“No, she’ll do the job and pick up the pieces after.”
Ebbie nodded in turn, then got up and extended his hand over the desk. Vlad took it. Amazing where you found friends. He turned and, operating manually, opened the door and went outside. He only spared a glance for the Gorgon. Her look was pleading but determined.
“Any more foolish notions about chivalry in your head?”
She flushed deeply and murmured, “No, Vlad.”
“Good. If he’s worth it, he’ll be there afterwards. Let’s go restore the balance.”
He waited for her to rise and then went out into the tunnel with her half a step behind. The others quietly slipped in behind, grim intent etched on their faces.
How quickly the first goal came — and then the equaliser — mattered little. That the winner came at the death was only suitable irony for a side from Hell. That Medusa made her future husband look the fool more than once was barely more significant, or that she held him in her arms to comfort him afterwards. That the vampire’s bending, twisting free kick from thirty metres, around the Paradiso wall and into the upper ninety sent a legion of traveling support into raptures was immaterial. That the Stygian Eleven lived the full forty-five minutes — and the excruciatingly long five added on — for each other and no one else was the thing.
They stood on the podium in Heaven’s Gate with quiet pride, basking in a standing ovation from supporters on both sides. They had played that well. Vlad was the last to accept his medal, just behind Smeagol, who looked at his with an eye askance, tested it with his teeth, smiled with glee, and wailed, “Preciooussssss!”
After the medals were presented, the cheering abruptly stopped, thunder rumbled and darkness threatened. Abbadon stood on the stage now, awaiting the Celestial League Trophy. It was handed over, not without trepidation. Smiling hideously from ear to ear, he hoisted it above his head. The banks of lights snapped out and the boos rained down from all side. The Stygian support was drowned out by the wave of disapproval for their Chairman.
In disbelief, he shouted, “I have won! What more do you want? Come to me!”
The derision only intensified. He looked to the squad. They had stepped down from the podium. Only Vlad still faced him and when their eyes locked, the vampire shook his head and turned his back also. Abbadon screamed in fury and fire sprang up on all sides.
Just as quickly, however, it was snuffed out and Abbadon was no longer alone on the dais.
“Calm yourself, cousin,” De Nazarene advised.
“You? You have been beaten! Do you come to grovel?”
Jesus laughed. “No, cousin. Only to shake your hand in congratulations and to thank you.”
“Yes, thank you. It was past time that my players learnt some humility. I was at a loss as to just how to teach them until you sent me Rebekah. I am sincerely grateful.”
Jesus clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head.
“Sent you Rebekah?”
“Yes, cousin,” came the answer, and, at his nod, Rebekah gratefully slipped away from Wendi and came to De Nazarene’s side, albeit not without a look of fear for her former employer. De Nazarene put a comforting arm around her.
“You needn’t be afraid, child.”
“She had best be afraid!” Abbadon roared. “She broke her contract with me and I am due compensation. You will hand the traitorous bitch over to me!” The Devil raised his hand in anger.
“I will not, cousin,” Jesus answered, repelling his relative’s anger with the mildest of waves.
“You know the rules as well as I. She looked into her heart and acknowledged the truth of matters.”
“The truth of matters?” sneered the Prince of Lies. “What care I for that? She entered into a binding contract with me of her own free will. She invited me in.”
“Yes, Cousin, that is true. She did,” Jesus remained placid.
“Then give her to me!” Abbadon raged.
“No, cousin. As I said, you know the rules, and they apply to each of us equally. She acknowledged the truth of matters and invited me in, as well.”
Abbadon roared in frustration, then, his quicksilver mood changing again, suddenly laughed.
“Take her then,” he chuckled. There are six billion more where she came from who are less concerned about the truth of the matter, so long as someone other than themselves is made to pay. They are so easily led astray, Cousin. Besides, she must go back to live among them. Let us see if they accept her repentance. Let us watch as they forgive her. Let us see if she still invites you in when they don’t.”
Abbadon hoisted the trophy one last time, and disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
Rebekah Brooks uncovered her eyes and blinked in the glare of repeated flashes. She looked around, trying to comprehend the gallery of photographers and the panel of MPs staring down at her with murder in their eyes. Something wasn’t right. A hand was placed on top of hers, and she turned to see her attorney, concern etched on his face. Just beyond him, Rupert Murdoch gave her a smile. A fleeting thought evaded her grasp. It seemed urgent, but then it was gone.
Shaking her head, she turned to face the panel. A man was glaring at her impatiently. She read the nameplate in front of him.
“I’m sorry, Mr Collins, can you repeat the question?”
Winning Ugly, Chapter IV by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in Man And Ball Digital Magazine, in two parts, shortly after the News Of The World scandal reached its peak. Recently, further investigation has brought the issue back into the news, and, with El Clasico on tap next weekend, we thought it would be the perfect time to republish the story, with a few small changes, and divided into four smaller, more reader-friendly segments.)