Notes: Dimaggio--famous baseball player.

Artistic Growth by Scribe (Fannie Feazell)

The rules of Competition are not many, and are not complicated. No fire arms, no power tools. Two competitors enter the box--only one exits breathing.

Devon Hall was getting dressed for Competition. Dress could make the difference between glory and defeat, life and death. If a competitor went for flash instead of utility, they didn't last long.

Devon dressed from the skin up. No underwear, but he put on a goalie's cup. Mashed nuts had brought a quick end to many matches. Next heavy jeans. Some competitors spandex, and Devon usually used fought in running shorts for the ease of movement. Devon had studied his upcoming opponent, though, and he knew that he'd want something with a little more resistance. The jeans were thick, but had been washed till they were supple.

Next he sat down on the foot of the bed and laced on his steel toed shoes. Again his choice of footwear was out of the ordinary for most competitors. Most wore athletic shoes and some fought barefoot, but Devon had always worn the heavy, hard shoes. They were among his weapons. A good, solid kick to the head could crack a skull.

Finally Devon opened his bottem dresser drawer. It was empty save for one single garment, reposing in solitary splendor. Deven reached in and lifted it out carefully, unfolded it, and held it up. It wasn't anything special as far as style went. It had started out life as a simple black cotton T-shirt. The sleeves had been chopped off at the shoulder, leaving ragged edges. It was unadorned except for a two word phrase on the front and back in white, three-inch high block letters. THE CLUB.

It was hard to tell how old the shirt was, but it gave off the aura of being ancient--old, and evil. Because despite the care with which it had been stored, it wasn't clean and well cared for. It was filthy, the soft material stiffened under the armholes with dried sweat. The black color camoflaged a lot, and dried blood didn't show up easily, but it was covered with so many stains that there was no way to mistake them. Devon draped the shirt over his arm and ran his hands over it. There was a rip on the shoulder. Bicycle chain. That had been from DJ, the one who fought in a leather jacket and a pompador. The slit across the belly had been from Samurai. He'd used a short sword, and the odds had really been stacked against The Club in that match. He'd raked in a bundle on bets he'd made on himself. Devon loved this shirt. It was a part of him. Well, it was a part of a part of himself. When he wore the shirt he wasn't Devon Hall any more--he was The Club.

Devon stood up and pulled the shirt over his head. He could almost feel Devon Hall being wiped away as the fabric descended, pushing the quiet, unassuming public man out. When his head emerged he no longer looked pleasant, innocuous. His eyes were cold, his expression... No, there was a lack of expression, and his eyes were icy. It had taken almost a year to build The Club's persona, but Devon had been patient. He'd worked on the costumer, the look, the attitude. He'd decided that there'd be no trash talking before each Competition--The Club was all focussed, deadly silence. It took a little longer to develop crowd support than some of the flashier competitors, but it had come. Now The Club was one of the most feared competitors. They had broadcast a few of his fights on the Internet, and in of his bouts could attract the high rolling, jet setting adrenaline junkies.

The Club went out to the garage. Instead of the neat little Volvo, he went to the large, dusty 4x4 parked beside it. He opened the glove box and reached in, taking out a Palm Pilot. It had come in the mail the day before. He knew that t came with a program that would completely wipe it within a few hours. The only piece of data on it was the location of the Competition. All he'd known in advance was that it would be within a three hour drive.

He checked the address, then grunted in recognition. The waterfront. He'd been to a good number of Competitions down by the docks. The area was quiet at night and you could always find an empty warehouse. After Competition it would be torn down even more quickly, and the place would be left cleaner than it had been in years. Nothing short of a hazardous materials clean up crew could ever get a place completely clean of trace, especially not a place that got so many different kinds of DNA deposited all over the place (some of the spectators found the Competition... stimulating). Still, the Competition crew was good at their job, and there was enough money spread around at various levels of law and politics that anyone attending could be relatively sure that they were secure.

As he drove to the meeting place, The Club considered a few things. He was beginning to think that this persona might not have much milage left. He might have to take himself in another direction. But I don't need to think about that right now. I need to concentrate on my competitor. Damn, this is going to make me tonight!

There were a handful of superstars in Competition. If you lasted much more than a year without getting killed or burned out, you were a veteran. Tonight The Club was going up against the second most senior, and currently the only, female competitor. The most senior was The Grinder, and The Club was just as happy that he wasn't scheduled against him. Grinder was six-foot five of muscle, bone, and homicidal urges. He hadn't competed for several months, and the rumor was that he had gone underground to avoid police attention over a particularly bloody murder. Stupid, thought The Club. What's the point of killing someone when you aren't getting paid for it?

Tonight The Club was going up against Two-Blade Woman. The Woman had been competing regularly for six years. She'd begun as a skinny nineteen year old girl. But as she'd survived, she'd grown and gained in skill. He'd seen her fight at least a dozen times. He wasn't intimidated, but he WAS impressed. If he defeated her he'd be right at the top of the ladder in Competition, and he could write his own ticket.

There was a ten grand pot for each winner, but there were perks, too. One of the promoters told him is was like it had been with the gladiators back in Rome. Some of the spectators were willing to pay big to be with the winners. He knew one guy who competed under the name Pretty Boy who was given a Mercedes by a smitten admirer--male or female, it wasn't clear. Pretty Boy's career had ended when he'd caught a box cutter in the face. He'd won, but it sort of took the fight out of him. Club heard that Pretty Boy had sold the Mercedes to pay for plastic surgery.

That wasn't going to happen to him. He was going to get to the top, then compete for one year, no more. By then he should have enough to retire and live comfortably, even set up his own business. Especially if what he hoped was going to happen happened tonight. Another perk for the winners of the Competition, the winner inherited everything that the loser brought to the box. Sure, most of them didn't bring anything more than the clothes they stood up in and a weapon or two, but sometimes...

Two-Blade Woman was known for three things--the fighting style that gave her her Competition name, the pretty girls who escorted her to the box, and the expensive jewelry and furs she liked to drape herself in. It would ALL be Club's, including the girl. He liked the idea. It had happened once or twice before. He never kept them, of course, but they could be a lot of fun for a couple of weeks before he kicked them loose, usually with an extensive collection of fresh bruises.

The Club found the warehouse, and pulled up in front of the entrance. Almost before the SUV stopped moving a non-descript man exited and trotted out. No one parked their car at the location. They were taken somewhere secure. If you won, you picked it up. If you lost, it ended up... somewhere. The Club exited his vehicle and tossed his keys to the man. "Hang on a second." He walked to the back, opened the hatch and reached in for the weapon that had given him his name--a baseball bat.

The man lifted his chin at him. "That it? You goin' up against two blades with a Louisville slugger? Man, there are easier ways to commit suicide."

The Club gave him a flat look. "You're new." He moved with explosive speed, swinging the bat at the man's head. There wasn't time for the man to react. He saw it coming but was frozen, unable to move or scream. The bat stopped deat two inches from his face. Slowly The Club pulled it back, tapping the bat in his palm. "I do all right. Y'know, I've had some people ask me why I don't switch to one of those metal bats. They just don't feel right, y'know? But, they say, you wouldn't have to worry about it breaking. Wood breaks." He gave a shark-like smile. "I tell 'em that then you have a nice stake. It's worked a couple of times." He winked, and went inside.

Inside it was all as usual--chaos. The crowd stretched almost to the walls, but it was thicker near the center, and the entrance. The moment The Club entered he was surrounded by well wishers. Many of the competitors were greeted by slaps on the back, even hugs, but they didn't touch The Club. His menacing aura discouraged personal contact. The Club had decided when he entered Competition that he wasn't going to have a personal relationship with the spectators. His whole act was going to be that of the menacing outsider. He'd accomplished his aims.

The Club checked in with the organizers. There were three fights scheduled, and his was to be in the prestige slot--the final bout. Great. By then the crowd would be charged up. They would have reached their peak, but not begun the slide down into emotional and physical exhaustion.

He made his way to the center of the warehouse to see if there was anything he needed to consider. The Box seemed to have been erected as usual. It looked a lot like the steel cages used in the extreme wrestling matches. There was no padding on any of the edges, though. There were a few lengths of rope--various materials from rough hemp to nylon--festooning the sides at various levels. They were usually used to climb, but sometimes they became weapons, too. Strangulation wasn't all that unusual.

There was no equivalent of a VIP box. If you attended you stood, or you sat on the bleachers. There was a little more consideration for the competitors, though. There were a couple of comfortable love seat on each side of The Box except for the entrance side. The competitors who were scheduled to meet each other were strongly advised to sit on different sides of The Box. No one wanted the fight to break out before they were in The Box--that wasn't what the people paid to see.

The Club took a seat beside Buzz, giving him a nod. Buzz had been named for his haircut, but he constantly bitched about not being allowed to bring in a chainsaw. They exchanged nods, but Buzz was focusing on the loveseat across The Box. Buzz's competitor, a slender black man with a goatee who went by Jim Dandy was, returning his hard stare. Sitting beside Jim Dandy was a stocky Oriental man wearing what looked like a modified Sumo diaper, and a Rising Sun headband. He competed under the name Kamikazi. Well, thought The Club, I guess there aren't many of us who are too original in our choice of stage names. I'll have to see if I can't get a little more creative. To the left the loveseat had only one occupent, a narrow, intense man named Pick, who liked to fight with an icepick. Common opinion was that he wasn't going to last long. His weapon of choice was too limited. It wasn't much for slashing, so it was hard to give wounds that could weaken your opponent through blood loss.

The seat next to Pick was unoccupied. Two-Blade Woman hadn't shown yet, and the first round would be starting soon. The Club wondered if she was backing down? He doubted it. There might be some who'd accept a match with The Club, then decide they'd bitten off more than they could chew. But anyone who crapped out on a set match was banned from Competition, so if you forfeited, you retired. And though The Club had a healthy self-esteem, he didn't for a moment believe that his opponent would have been intimidated into stepping back. Two-Blade Woman was a fierce and fearless competitor.

There was a wave of raised voices from the entrance, and he looked over. She was making her entrance. There were two women sauntering toward The Box. The petite blonde in the short red dress was very nice. The Club wouldn't mind having her for a time. But his interest was focused on the other one--the brunette in the enveloping sable fur cape. It had a high collar and reached to the floor. All that was visible was her face above the collar, and her hands holding the front together. The Club was happy to see that cape. He'd be able to get a good price for it later.

Two-Blade Woman didn't ascribe to The Club's way of dealing with her fans. She nodded and smiled graciously to all of them, pausing to shake a hand here and there, or speak a couple of words. She settled next to Pick, earning a smile even from him. Her companion stood beside the seat, opened her shoulder purse and held a bottle of water to Two-Blade Woman's lips. That was nice. Maybe he'd keep the girl for awhile.

Two-Blade Woman glanced over and saw The Club watching her. She smiled, eyes amused, and opened the cape. She was dressed in a black leather, sleeveless cat suit. The blackness was relieved only by the multitude of necklaces, bracelets, and rings. There were diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, some of them looking as big as his thumbnail. This was another part of her persona. Before she went into The Box she'd strip them off in a leisurly manner, depositing them in her companion's purse.

She sat back, one hand settling casually on her waist, just above one of the two large, wicked hunting knives she had strapped at her hips. They weren't the biggest ones out there. She'd said that if she wanted something for show she'd choose a machete--what she wanted was effectiveness. And oh, they were effective in her hands. The fans said that she was the most deadly female on record, with more kills than the infamous Aileen Wuornos--and she'd used a gun.

She's refining her look, thought The Club. She used to keep her hair short. Which was sensible--you didn't want to give a competitor a convenient handle. Now Two-Blade Woman had let her hair grow, at least long enough to be gathered into a tight bun at the base of her neck. That could work, The Club thought. It wouldn't be easy to grab.

The first match came up. Buzz went up against Jim Dandy. It wasn't a long fight. Three minutes and Jim was hanging from one of the loops of nylon rope while Buzz pounded him in the face and gut with blow after blow. Finally the slender man just hung there, twitching. Buzz stepped back and waited. Finally Buzz cursed, took him down, and finished strangling him. The other competitor had to be dead, not just on the way. The Club heard that in one of the first bouts the winner had just walked out, assuming victory, but the guys going in to clean up had found a pulse and shallow respiration. The loser had been left lying in the cage for two days. Finally the winner, very pissed off, had been called back to finish the job.

Kamikazi and Pick's bout lasted longer, and the crowd was really getting worked up. The Club was a little surprised that both of the men did so well. Kamikazi was using some sort of modified martial art, and he knocked Pick down countless times, but he could never quite follow through with a killing blow. Pick was wearing him down, setting his pick in his opponent's arms and legs over and over. Then, when Kamikazi was slowed down, he went for the body blows. Finally he got Kamikazi pinned, and slipped the pick into the man's ear. He rode his convulsions out till the man finally stopped twitching. He got a huge round of applause. The body was dragged out, the blood was swabbed up, the floor dried--and it was time.

As the junior combatant, The Club went in first. He could barely get through the barred door without squeezing. He went to his designated corner and waited, tapping his bat on the floor. Two-Blade Woman accepted another sip of water from her companion, reaching up to gently pat the girl on the cheek. Her hands were one of the few things that gave a hint to her real nature. Instead of the pampered, long, painted nails you might expect to go with the fur and jewels, her nails were cut ruthlessly short, and unadorned.

She stood up, letting the cape slide off her shoulders in one of her patented moves, and came toward The Box in a strut that wouldn't have looked out of place on a catwalk. The crowd noise started to ramp up. She entered The Box. As the door was closed and locked, she did a turn, then drew both her knives. She flipped them several times in her hands, making them flash like the blades of a fan. She ended up with the hafts clasped firmly, and thrust her arms over her head. The crowd went wild.

Two-Blade Woman went to her corner and leaned back in it casually, crossing her feet at the ankles. Her eyes were fixed on The Club, and there was a faint smile on her face. She slowly tapped the back of her blades against the bars behind her. The faint clink set The Club's teeth on edge, just as he knew she meant it to.

There was no introduction, no announcement. If you didn't know what was going on, you didn't belong there. A bell clanged, and The Club charged with a roar, bat hoisted up over his shoulder. His body English said that he intended to smash down, but when he reached her he instead swung as if he were trying to hit a home run. He'd been expecting her to try to side-step the telegraphed blow, and the strike he actually made would have caught her solidly. Instead she crouched so suddenly it looked as if a panel had dropped out from under her, getting under the swipe. Then her right hand flashed out, and he screamed in pain as she sank a knife into his thigh, and twisted it.

Then before he could recover she threw herself to the side, rolling and coming up in a crouch, knives ready. "You're going to have to do better than that, Dimaggio."

I'm going to have to disarm her, or I'm not going to make it. Instead of aiming for her head (he might have managed a killing shot, but she was a damn agile moving target) he consentrated on her arms and legs. Cripple her, and disarm her--that was the ticket. But oh, it wasn't easy. She was fast, and she was tricky. He caught her left hand and knocked that knife flying, then hurried over and kicked it through the bars. That almost killed him. If he had moved a split second later the knife that caught him in the shoulder, cutting him to the bone, would have landed across the back of his neck. The blow was so strong that it might have chopped through to the spinal cord.

That slowed him down, but he managed to break one of her legs below the knee with a low blow. Still, limping and down to one knife, she more than held him off. But then... oh, then! He knocked her down. Before she could get up again he stepped on her hand and ground down till she let go of the knife. The whole time she was cursing and clawing at him. He had to drop the bat in order to keep her from latching on to his crotch and squeezing till he hit his knees.

When her fingers loosened he took his weight off and quickly kicked the second blade out of The Box. Two-Blade Woman was unarmed. He heard a scream from the audience that wasn't crowd excitement. Two-Blade Woman's little friend had grabbed one of the knifes and was trying to get close enough to The Box to toss it in. Several bouncers had grabbed her. Once a weapon left The Box, it wasn't allowed back in. The Club turned back to his opponent, considering how he'd kill Two-Blade Woman. She deserved to go out some way special.

She'd staggered to her feet, holding her injured wrist. If she had survived this bout she would have taken a couple of months to heal. That wasn't going to be an issue.

"I'll give you a choice," said The Club. "How do you want it? Do you want me to knock you out quick, or do you want me to draw it out so that you can live a little longer?"

Her bun had been coming loose during the competition, and her hair was hanging in her eyes. She reached up shakily with her uninjured hand, shoving it out of her eyes, raking it all the way back. Her voice was low. "I prefer to live."

Her arm whipped forward. The Club felt a hot pain across his throat, and a sudden stream of liquid down the front of his shirt. The bat fell from his hands as he reached up, clutching at the bubbling slit in his throat. He looked at Two-Blade Woman in shock. Her elbow was cocked, the pearl handled straight razor held open and ready. His strength was fading fast, but he was so shocked that he didn't even think to try to attack. He wheezed, "But... but two knives... You're Two-Blade Woman." As the crowd went into a frenzy, she shrugged. "Hey, baby, I'm an artist. If you're an artist and you don't change, you die." She smiled. "Next time will be the first fight of Three-Blade Woman."

The End