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The following is an original work of fiction and has no basis in reality.

Do not read this story if:

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Perry and Jesse:  The Incredibly Romantic (and slightly kinky) Adventures of Two Boys In Love  

Part V  Truths and Lies

Chapter 6  Hode Ranch Part I

We drove through an uncharacteristically dense forest of tall pine trees--mostly spruce and cedar, broken up by an occasional grove of gnarled California Oak.  While it was still theoretically twilight, driving through those woods, it seemed like the blackest part of the night.  Every towering trunk and hanging branch seemed to exude sinister intentions.  At last, the trees started to thin out and our headlights illuminated a large number of cars strewn about a vast, grassy clearing.  The unpaved parking lot was lit only by the orangish pink glow of a single mercury vapor lamp standing on a leaning pole in about the middle of the sea of vehicles.  While it was hard to tell precisely how many cars were parked there, judging by the size of the clearing, I would have guessed that there were a hundred or more.  Beyond that was what had to be our destination--a very large, rectangular building with a sloping roof, only partially lit by a few incandescent bulbs strung around the lower eaves.  Gary parked near the edge of the clearing and far from the building.  He gave me a worried look.  "This has gotta be it," he noted unenthusiastically.

"Are you scared?"  I asked.

"Shit yeah!  Aren't you?"

I realized I wasn't feeling as frightened as I thought I might under the circumstances.  "I need to get Jesse outta there!"  

Gary nodded in silent agreement.  Then he furrowed his brow.  "Hey, maybe you should call your mom," he reminded me, "just to let her know you're okay."

"Oh man, that's right!" I said, pulling out my phone.   It was just after five thirty so I didn't think my mom would be home yet.  I punched number one on my speed dial.

"Hello...Perry?" she answered, sounding somewhat anxious.

"Hey mom, yeah it's me,"  I replied as calmly as I could.

"Is everything okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, of course, everything's okay," I said, glancing over at Gary.

"Where are you?" she asked.  "You should be at the restaurant by now."

"Well, actually..."  I realized that if we were in the restaurant, my mom would be able to hear some sort of restaurant type noises--people chatting, silverware clinking on plates, music playing in the background.  "Well, actually, we first stopped for gas and stuff.  Then there was a lot of traffic coming into Escondido.  But we just pulled into the parking lot.  I figured it'd be too noisy inside so I thought I'd call you now."

"Well I'm glad you did," she replied with audible relief.  "I was so worried about you, changing your plans so suddenly, going off with a stranger..."

"Gar--I mean George isn't a stranger.  He's Gene's brother.  He's totally cool.  A really super nice guy.  You'd love him, mom."

"Well, could I say hello?" she asked.

I hesitated and muted the line.  "My mom wants to say hello!" I told Gary.  "You have to pretend your George--George Rauch, and you're Gene's brother-- and you play football at the University of Miami!"

"Me?" Gary said.

"Please?!" I begged him.

I could see Gary didn't want to do it, and I took no pleasure in deceiving my mom like this, but I couldn't think of any other way.  "Here he is mom--just don't talk his ear off, 'kay?"

I quickly handed Gary the phone.  "Uh...yeah...Hey there, Mrs. T...Thompson," Gary said nervously.   "Yeah, your son's just a great kid.  Uh...Gene talks about him all the time....Yeah, really...It's no problem...Don't worry....I'll have him back before ten...Yeah...Okay...You too...Bye...!"  He quickly disconnected the line and handed the phone back to me.  He looked exhausted.

"Thanks, that was really cool of you," I said earnestly.

"Yeah, I really liked lying to your mom," he replied sarcastically.

His meaning was clear and I felt my ears burning with shame.  "I had to tell her something so she wouldn't be worried about me," I explained sheepishly.

"Actually, I met Georgie Rauch once," Gary noted.  "Of course he was hot stuff on the varsity football team, but he showed up at our games once in a while--I think he had a friend who played.  He came up and shook my hand--I was just a sophomore, but he congratulated me on a great game...Seemed like a really nice guy."

"He is--totally.  I met him with Gene--he's in my class--the day after Thanksgiving at the mall!"  I should probably have told Gary how George saved me from Theresa's brother and Arnie Hollister, but this was clearly not the time or the place.

We got out of the car and the sound of the doors slamming shut sounded strangely muffled in the eerie quiet of this large clearing in the woods.  It was definitely chilly out here, and I zipped up my St. Boniface hoodie, leaving my head uncovered.

"Got your cellphone?" he asked.


"So uh...what's the plan?" he asked nervously, as we tramped through the dry grass in near darkness, heading directly toward the building.

Even though Gary was here to support me, possibly even to pay me back for what he thought he had done--or almost done--to me, this was really on my shoulders.   This had all been my idea and I needed to come up with some answers.  The only problem was, I hadn't really thought about it beyond just getting here.  Still...

"I guess we'll stick to the story we told that guy," I offered uncertainly.  "I'm a blackbelt here to fight.  That'll get me in back, or where ever it is the fighters hang before they come out for the...the contests and stuff.  Then, all I need to do is spot Jesse and we can get the hell out of here!"

Gary didn't look at all confident in what we were doing, but he nodded his head in reluctant agreement.  Just as we got to the near edge of the parking lot, he stopped and turned to me.

"This could be really dangerous, Perry...Do you have any idea?" he asked, his rugged face drawn into a clear expression of open concern and fear.

I slowly nodded.  I was apprehensive of course, but I didn't see any alternative.  We had come this far, and there was no point in turning around until we had seen this through.

"Look, why don't you just wait out here--have the car running so we can take off as soon as I get Jesse?" I asked.

Gary shook his head resolutely.  "No way, dude.  We'll deal with this together--it's the only way."

I gave him a shaky smile of gratitude and he patted my shoulder in affirmation.  As we got closer, I could see that the building was made out of unadorned corrugated metal.  There were no windows that I could see and only one regular sized door on this side of the building--the front of the long, rectangular edifice, and there didn't seem to be anyone around.  I was just wondering if we'd need another password to get in, when we were suddenly lit up by a painfully bright light.   It took me a few moments with all the spots dancing around in front of my eyes, but I eventually realized that the light was coming from the roof.  Unfortunately, it was too bright to see the exact source.

"What's your business here?" a gruff voice asked from directly behind us.

Gary and I both spun to see two very big men in long black coats standing between us and the parking lot.  Both had wool beanies on their heads and one had a ring through his lip.  They both looked like they might be in their mid to late twenties.  While they weren't brandishing any weapons, one of them had his hand in the front pocket of his long jacket and the threat seemed clear enough.

"Hey...hey, man--chill out!" Gary stammered nervously.

Instead of chilling out, the guy with the lip ring gave Gary a forceful shove.  My friend stumbled backwards towards the looming building.  I could now just barely make out some noise from within the walls, a sound that might be generated by a large group of people all crowded together...

"He asked you a question, mother fucker!" the other guy, with a bushy black mustache and long sideburns pointed out.

"I'm here to fight--in the...the cage fights!" I said, trying to make my voice sound lower and more confident but doing a lame job of it.

The two men looked at each other and I thought they were going to burst out laughing.  The guy with the bushy mustache pulled out a cellphone and punched a number.  He mumbled something rapidly in Spanish.

"They're clear," he told his buddy with what sounded like moderate astonishment.

"You're late," the lip ring guy stated with what sounded like moderate annoyance.

"Where do we...?"  I began.

The mustached man gestured towards the closed door just a dozen yards from where we were standing.

"Oh...okay...uh...thanks..."  I stammered.

Gary didn't say anything and I could see that he was really shaken by the guard's assault.

"You okay?" I asked.

He just nodded and kept his eyes focused on the door ahead.  Suddenly, the bright light disappeared.  When I looked back, the two guards had also vanished back into the night...Scary...

As we got closer to the entrance, it became clear that there was a sizable crowd inside, chattering away excitedly.  I couldn't make out any individual sentences or anything, but there were what sounded like instructions or notifications being announced over a p.a. system, and that voice rose somewhat above the general din.  I was about to knock when the door abruptly swung open.

Now the sound of the crowd really hit us for the first time and I realized there must be hundreds of people in there, each one trying to make himself heard over the cacophony of voices echoing hollowly in what was essentially a giant coffee can.

Another large man, dressed neatly in black leather, stood in the doorway.  He himself was black, with close cropped hair, and was as heavily built as the two guards, but even taller.  He had several large chains around his neck, ear rings dangled from both lobes and there was a shiny gold ring right through his nose.

"What?" he asked in a clearly annoyed voice, his eyes focusing on me the whole time.

Gary gestured at me dumbly, seemingly unable to speak out.

"I'm here to fight," I repeated again.  I was actually beginning to feel a little calmer now.  I sensed that we were going to get in, find Jesse and get out.  I'd be totally pissed at my beautiful angel for about five minutes, and then I'd go back to loving him as much or more than I ever did.

"Go 'round," he said, raising up a large, bejewelled hand and pointing with his thumb to the left side of the building.  I nodded and started to walk with Gary following right behind.

"Hey!" the tall man shouted in a deep resonant voice.

We froze in our tracks.

"That's for fighters only.  Spectators go through here.  Fifty bucks in cash."

Gary looked at me and although the fear was definitely still etched on his face, there was also clear concern for me.  He didn't want us to be split up.

"I'm his...his manager," Gary explained.

The man seemed skeptical and twisted his lips to one side and then the other as he decided what to do.  "Whatever," he finally muttered, waving us off and slamming the door in our faces.

We both breathed a sigh of relief.

"Man, this is fucked!" Gary mumbled as we headed around the other side.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, they're gonna peg you for one of these fuckin' cage fights and then what the fuck are we gonna do?" he asked with more than a hint of panic entering his voice.

"We're not going to stick around that long," I assured him.

"I know.  Just find Jesse and get out," he repeated skeptically.

The side of the building was really long, maybe the length of a football field.  There was a set of double doors in the middle, tall enough for a large truck to drive through, but they were clearly chained shut so we continued on around back, where the lighting was even dimmer than it was up front and the woods came within a half dozen yards.

We easily spotted the single, regular sized door on the back wall.  My ears, which had grown accustomed to the muffled din from inside, now discerned that it was quieter back here.  Apparently, there was more than one room inside and the majority of the people were up in front.   That was probably where the cage thingie was.

This time, I had to knock, and then knock again when nothing happened.  Gary looked jittery and impatient as we waited for some sort of response from inside.  There wasn't even a doorknob on the outside.  Just before I was about to knock for the third time, the door slowly opened.  We were greeted by yet another intimidating guard.  He was sitting at the entrance to a long, dimly lit corridor with what looked like small offices or cubicles along either side.


"We're here for the cage fights!" Gary told him in plain English.

The man snorted, which I guessed was his version of a derisive laugh.  "That right?  Which one of youse is fightin'?" he asked.  "The dopey looking bag boy, or Beaver Cleaver?"

"That would be me!" I noted, modestly holding up my hand.

"I think you boys best turn around and go home, before you gets yourselfs some bloody noses--or worse!" the guard chuckled.

This wasn't going well..."I'm a blackbelt!" I told him in a moderately confident voice.

Now he was really laughing...Just then, a smaller figure came up from behind him, although it was hard to make him out in the scant light of the bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling.

"I'll take care of these guys," he said in a voice that definitely sounded young.  The guard stopped laughing long enough to let us in, slamming the door closed behind us.  He just sat there on a folding chair, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

The youngest man I had seen so far was dressed casually in a Nirvana T-shirt, faded jeans, and white skater sneaks.  He looked to be seventeen or eighteen, and had bleached blond hair that was cut very short.  His eye brows were definitely a dark brown, and he wore black framed glasses that rested on a sharp nose.  He had a moderate case of acne, long sideburns and a ring in one ear.  It was hard to tell his eye color in the dim light, but they looked almost grey.  He was clean shaven, but he did have a small scar at the top of his right cheek.  It was strange to see someone who looked so normal and...well...skinny.  It was obvious that this guy spent a lot more time on the internet than working out at the gym.

"Watsup, dudes?" he asked in a friendly voice, standing there in the middle of the narrow corridor.

"The guy in front said we should..."  Gary began to explain.

"You guys a team?" the young man asked, still blocking our way in.  "'Cause we're not doing that tonight."

"Well, actually..." Gary began nervously.

"I'm fighting--he's my manager," I explained quickly.

"Cool," he said with an easy going smile as he stepped aside for us to enter.  "Billy Zanterman," he said, giving us a little salute.  He seemed very cheerful and up beat compared to the grim figures we had run into so far.

It took me a few seconds to make out our surroundings in the dim light.  I noticed with some relief that it was quite a bit warmer in here, probably because the building was made of metal and easily warmed even by a mild December sun.  As the door closed behind us, it became clear that we were standing in a long corridor with doors along either side.  The light came from a few bare bulbs strung along the length of the narrow passageway.  The crowd noise was a little louder here, but still muffled.  The air smelled a little musty, as if there was no circulation.  At the end of the corridor was a set of simple metal stairs apparently leading to an upper floor.  The young man lead us into a nearby office.  It was very small and filled with filing cabinets.   Most of the space was taken up by a plain metal desk, which was dominated by a computer monitor that glowed blue under the dim and flickering fluorescent bulb overhead.  Gary and I barely had any place to stand as the guy took his seat and got down to business.

"I'll log you guys in and take your entrance fee.   Then you can go on to the security check," he explained matter of factly.    "Of course, you don't have to give me your real names or anything.  But you will need a clear ID to get through security, and if you're gonna place any bets," he said, opening a couple of windows on the glowing computer screen that cast a weird bluish glow on his face.  "Normally, no one under twenty one even gets in here--except me, of course," he noted sheepishly.

He rapidly typed some instructions on his keyboard and a form came up.  "So, you...uh...manager dude.  What's your call name?"

Gary looked at me, clueless.

"You now, what you want to go up on the board--for wagering and shit," he explained patiently.

"Van D--" Gary began.

Aragorn," I interrupted, remembering that Gary had reminded me of that brave and noble character from the Lord Of The Rings that day he had rescued--or tried to rescue--me from Goreski.

"Van Aragorn?" he asked confusedly.

"Just Aragorn," Gary chimed in quickly.

"Kewl," the young man acknowledged as he typed it into the proper slot in his program.

"And you?" he asked.

"Um..." my mind went blank.  Then I had an idea.  "Karate Kid," I stated.

He nodded and typed it in.  Something flashed on his screen.  "Sorry dude--that's already taken."

I felt a thrill of excitement course through my body.  It had to be Jesse.  Julio and Gus had dubbed my beautiful blond angel the Karate Kid after Jesse's scuffle at the mall with Jorge, Rooster, and Julio.

"Oh...uh...okay..." I stammered.  "Then...uh...uh...Ninja....of...Death," I suggested, wanting something that sounded appropriately menacing.

The young man chuckled.  "Dude!  You don't look like no Ninja of Death," he laughed.  "More like Ninja Of Cuteness!" he offered, and he didn't say it in a disdainful or mocking sort of way.  In fact, the smile on his face combined with a little wink seemed to indicate that he knew full well the implications of his facetious comment.  He started to type and then stopped.  "Hey, I got a cool name--How 'bout Iron Ninja?" he suggested.

"Yea...that's...that's cool," I stammered, still feeling weird that he had called me cute!

"Fine--Iron Ninja it is," the young man repeated as he typed it in.  "Height and weight?"

"Uh, five foot seven and a half and a hundred and twenty one pounds," I answered.  I wanted to boast that I had gained nearly three pounds since the beginning of school, but I realized this might not be the appropriate time.

"Brown hair," Billy noted, "and ...uh...What do you call that awesome color of your eyes?"


"Cool..."  he remarked quietly as he typed that in.  "So that'll be fifty dollars for your manager to get on the floor, and twenty for you to enter the fights," he said.

Gary looked at me awkwardly as I pulled out my wallet and handed the guy seventy dollars.  He counted it carefully and then quickly shoved it in a drawer.

"No receipts, you understand," he said a little sheepishly.  "So you got any special skills or anything?"  he asked me.

"I'm a blackbelt," I repeated, hoping that there'd be a martial arts section in there somewhere and I'd be able to spot Jesse quicker.

"Right..." he mumbled as he typed it in.  "Age?" he asked.

" wait!  Actually, it's my birthday!" I realized.  "I'm fourteen!"

"Congratulations!" the young man offered, giving me a little more scrutiny.  "Hey, my b-day's comin' up too, in like two days--I'll be legal, dude--well except for the drinkin' part...!"

"That's great," I said as enthusiastically as I could under the circumstances.

"It's your birthday?" Gary asked.

"That's why I was going out with Gene and George."  Gary just shook his head, a slightly bemused smile on his otherwise tense face.

"All right, we're all set here.  You need to go over to security now," the young man said, logging off his computer.

"Wait!" I said, before we left the privacy of the office.  "Did you see another kid here, like around my age, but with long blond hair and blue eyes?  He might've called himself the Karate Kid."

"A lot of kids checked in here tonight.  I didn't process all of 'em.  He a friend of yours?" Billy asked with idle curiosity.

"Yeah, actually, I'm looking for him and..."

Before I could say anything else, a cellphone rang and Billy pulled one out of the front pocket of his jeans.  "Yeah...uh it..."

"Please, could you just show me where the fighters are...?"

"No can do," the young man answered quickly, his expression much more serious than it had been before the phone call.  He opened the door for us to go out.  "They want you to check in upstairs first since the official sign up was  over almost an hour ago."

I wanted to press him for more information but Gary scowled at me, obviously worried that I was going to blow our cover by asking too many questions.  He was probably right, but at least this Billy Zanterman seemed a bit more approachable than anyone else we had run into so far.

"Are all the fighters in one room?" I asked.  He kept walking and led us back into the narrow corridor and then up the railess metal steps.

"Naw, they're kinda spread around.  Some are warming up.  Others are out on the floor watching, or waiting for their turn," he said.  "The fights all come up on the big board so it don't really matter where you are...unless you're in the can or somethin'," he giggled self consciously.  The stairs led to a single door at the top.  Billy knocked forcefully.

The door opened into a rather large room.  It was much nicer than anything we had seen downstairs.  It was carpeted and there was some downright elegant furniture as well as desks with workstations.  There was even a full bar along one wall complete with mirrored back, dangling glasses and rows of expensive looking liquor.  The most noticeable feature though was the glass wall--actually a series of large full length windows that looked down on what was obviously the arena itself.

The man who opened the door for us was about  six foot four, but very heavy set and broad shouldered.  He was Asian--maybe Korean-- with a glistening, clean shaven head, wide face, thin mustache and  goatee.  He was neatly dressed in a suit coat and a turtleneck sweater.  He had huge rings on nearly every one of his fat fingers.  I wondered if he was the one running all this.

" more fighter," Billy announced sheepishly.  He was obviously as intimidated by this powerful looking man as I was.

"The little one?" the man asked gruffly.

"The Iron Ninja,"  Billy said, slapping me hard on the back.

"And him?" he asked, gesturing with his bald head towards Gary.

"I'm...I'm his manager," Gary managed to stammer.

The Asian man snorted and led us inside.  Now I was able to get a better look at what the arena looked like.  It took up at least half of the whole building.  There was no ceiling other than the high slanted metal roof, which was supported by a lattice work of unadorned metal beams rigged with roving spot lights.  Additionally, there were large hanging lamps clearly illuminating the floor below.  There were bleachers around three sides, but not around the side this room was on.  The crowd I had heard from outside that sounded so large turned out to be only about a hundred and fifty people or so.  From what I could tell, the majority were high school aged, although there was a concentrated group of older, serious looking men, most wearing suits and ties or expensive looking leather jackets, some of them even smoking cigars.  They seemed to have the best seats up front with the younger folk sitting further back in the bleachers.   The spotlights were randomly coursing through the crowd and over the Cage, but moved too quickly for me to really make anyone out at first.  I spotted a small group of Hispanic looking girls, and I wondered if one of them was Gary's girlfriend--and Mario's sister--Theresa.  A chill went down my spine as I caught a glimpse of Fred Goreski with his fat head, short reddish blond hair and brown bomber jacket.  I didn't see Mario or Arnie, but no doubt they were around somewhere.  I looked at Gary to see if he recognized anybody, but he seemed more interested in the people in this room with us than those down in the arena.

The Cage itself was in the middle and not really that big.  It looked to be about twenty by twenty.  It's walls consisted of a thick metal frame with what looked like chain link fencing covering all four sides up to nearly twenty feet high.  The top was open and the view from here was great except for the end that directly faced us.  It seemed like we had just missed a fight, because one thickly built teen was being helped out of the cage by two guys propping him up.  I couldn't see any of their faces though, and I couldn't tell if this kid was the winner or loser.  One thing was for sure, he was barely able to make it out on his own.

The Asian man led us closer to the windowed wall.  There was  a long, high backed, very ornate sofa situated so that it faced the windows with a clear view of the arena area.  The man leaned over the top of the sofa, and seemed to speak quietly with some one.  Then he gestured for us to go around front.  Even though my heart was pounding fiercely in my chest, the thought of rescuing Jesse from this horrible place somehow helped me to keep my fear under control.  I knew Gary was at least as scared as I was, and I was really impressed with the way he was hanging in there, going along with my crazy, and reckless scheme.

There was a small console in front of the sofa that looked a little like a music mixer's board.  I guessed that it probably controlled the views on the five television screens placed above the observation windows.  They showed various angles of the Cage or panned across other parts of the building in black and white clarity.  One looked nearly dark, and then I realized it was focused on the dimly lit parking lot.

It turned out there were three people sitting on the ornate sofa.  The one closest to us was a strikingly beautiful, dark haired young woman, maybe in her early twenties, dressed all in sleek black leather.  She had an indefinable ethnic look about her that was both mysterious and sexy.  She looked us both over carefully as we came around between the sofa and the glass wall.  In the middle was a small, thin man who looked Middle-eastern, with a dark but smooth complexion, a razor thin mustache, pointy beard, and a prominent, hawk-like nose.  He had a high forehead and thinning black and silver hair that was slicked back against the sides of his head and tied into a short pony tail.  He wore tinted wire framed glasses that made it hard to see his eyes clearly.  He was dressed in an expensive looking tan colored suit and necktie.  He had his thin and delicate looking hands folded neatly on his lap.  His head only moved slightly in our direction as we approached.  To his left was another Asian man, maybe in his mid-twenties.  Though he was sitting, I could tell from the way his legs were hunched up that he was very tall.  He had his straight, jet black hair pulled back and tightly bound in a small queue, exposing  a long and sallow, but clean shaven face.  He glanced at us briefly, and then turned his attention back to the activities in the arena below.

"What do we have here?" the Middle-eastern man declared, his slightly accented voice carrying a hint of annoyance as well as genuine curiosity.  "Registration is closed and the first contest is already over!"

Even as he spoke, an announcer came on, presumably over loudspeakers, but also piped into this control room.

"Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's second match is about to begin.  All bets are closed.  I repeat--all bets are closed!"

The small man pulled down a fader on his control panel and the announcer's voice nearly disappeared, although I could still hear it vaguely through the thick glass windows.  I squirmed under the intense scrutiny of the slender, raven haired woman nearest to me.  Her lipstick and her long finger nails were both colored a red so dark they looked nearly as black as her hair.

"He's a blackbelt.  He's called Iron Ninja!" Billy declared, sounding more confidant speaking to this man than he did talking to the heavy set Asian who had answered the door.  I noticed the larger man was now standing in front of the closed door, his hands clasped in front of him, as if to keep us from leaving without permission!

"Blackbelt?" the man mused.  He glanced briefly at the young man next to him, who nodded curtly and quickly rose to his feet.

He was definitely tall--maybe six foot five, wearing a black button down shirt with the collar open, tight black jeans and pointy toed boots.  Without warning, he took several long strides right towards me.  I felt all the blood leave my face as I realized he was going to clobber me.  I suddenly flashed on the way Jesse had blocked Morgan when the taller boy had lunged at him, hoping to goad my sweet angel into some sort of battle of vengeance.  My arms flew up and somehow deflected the Asian man's outstretched arms.  I was surprised at how hard his arms felt as we came into brief contact.  I immediately pulled back and took one of the defensive stands I had seen both Jesse and Tom take, one arm close to my body, the other guarding my face.  The Asian man couldn't hide his astonishment, although I doubted that I was hiding my equally startled reaction any better.  He eyed me keenly and tensed for another assault.  I knew there would be no way for me to surprise him a second time, but I also realized that if I cringed or flinched,  our cover would be blown and Gary and I'd be kicked back out into the chilly country night--and that was if we were very lucky.  I just stared at my opponent defiantly the way I imagined Jesse would.

"That will do, Miyashi, the Middle-eastern man said, quietly getting to his feet.  "We don't want to tire him out before his...engagements."   He was only my height, and probably didn't weigh much more than I did, but the silver streaks in his hair told me he was quite a bit older than anyone else in the room.  "Most impressive," he said to me with little emotion in his voice.  Then he turned to Gary.

"And you are...?"  he asked, extending a bejeweled hand.

"Uh...Aragorn," Gary said, his deep and resonant voice sounding small and weak .   He tentatively took the man's slender hand and shook it.

"Surely a first name would not be revealing too much?" the man asked with polite curiosity.

 "Its...uh...Gary..." he admitted hesitantly.

I glanced down at the arena floor and saw that the Cage was now occupied by two young men.  I remembered Jesse saying that the age bracket was from twelve to sixteen, and if that was true, then these two were definitely pushing the upper limit.  The crowd cheered as the Cage was officially locked.  I thought I recognized the man standing by the locked door, but he faded quickly into shadow.  The two young fighters, dressed simply in tank tops and sweatpants, started circling each other warily in the red circle in the middle of the Cage, while a man in a black and white striped shirt watched carefully from outside the chain link confines.

"I see.  And you?" he turned to me again, a lifeless smile on his narrow face.

"Huh?  " I asked, distracted by the contest below.  "Uh...Perry T..." I said, almost giving away my last name.

"Very good.  I have not seen you before, but then that is the case with so many tonight.  I do not make much money for this event.  It is more a way to seek future talent, if you know what I mean."

"Absotutely!" Gary responded confidently, trying to sound his part.  "We plan on making a big splash tonight."

"Yes, perhaps..." the man said.  "Oh forgive me.  Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Faisul Al-Jihuad...the third of that name in as many generations," he noted with some pride.  "This is my little enterprise," he said, gesturing vaguely towards the arena and the room around us.  "Normally, there are twice this number of spectators, but I thought it would be appropriate to allow the youth that are normally barred from these...ah..types of events to be able to attend.  I imagine the wagers will be somewhat meager, but I think the audience will be most effective at encouraging their peers to do their best.  Do you not agree?"

"Um...yeah.  I think it's great!  We've been waiting for something like this to come along for a while now,"  Gary said, getting a little more comfortable in his role.

We watched the proceedings for a moment and I was shocked to see one teen grab the other by the front of his shirt and fling him forcefully into the side of the Cage.

"Tell me, how exactly did you find out about our little...event?" the small man asked, apparently oblivious to the violence that was unfolding below.  "It wasn't exactly advertised in the newspapers..."

"Well..." Gary laughed, glancing nervously around the room, obviously not knowing what to say.

"Gus--I mean, we know Alejandro Gutierrez.  He told us about it," I replied quickly.

"Ah, Mr. Gutierrez.  He is one of our more promising young fighters.  He turns eighteen very soon I believe, and will participate in his first official contest shortly after the beginning of the year.  He has also proven to be a most effective scout.  I have the greatest confidence in his judgement."

He looked me over more closely.  "So, you are prepared for the brutality of the Cage?" he asked pointedly.

I again focused on the cage fight and saw that the two teens were now locked in some sort of wrestling type embrace.   "Well, sure--that's what we came for!"  I answered, hoping that I sounded somewhat convincing.

Mr. Al-Jihuad laughed drily.  "Such brashness!  It is good--very good!  Well, I wish you the best of luck."  He clapped his hands together in mock praise.  "But Mr....uh...Gary.  You should also be aware that I am involved in other...less violent pursuits as well.  Business ventures that your young protege would be well suited for.  He is an exceptionally handsome lad, is he not?"

I could see Gary's high boned cheeks turn a surprisingly rosy red.  "Well, I...uh...I guess I don't really notice things like that," he stammered uneasily.

"Hmmm...well, be that as it may.   Something to consider before something happens to this lovely face."  He raised his hand towards me and I did flinch, thinking that he was going to strike me.  But instead, he brushed my cheek with the pads of his fingers and I nearly jumped out of my skin as I felt some sort of coldness seep into my flesh from his touch.

Everyone in the room now turned there attention to the fight, which seemed to be reaching it's climax.  The slightly stockier teen seemed to have the upper hand as he again got his opponent up against the side of the Cage.  I couldn't help but gasp as the pinned teen lifted his knee, clearing connecting with his opponent's groin.  He took full advantage of the stockier teen's pain, and launched himself, flinging his whole body onto the other teen and knocking both of them to the floor.  I could now plainly see the twisted grimace of agony on the injured boy.  But the one on top didn't seem to care, because he grabbed his opponent by his short hair and began ramming his head forcefully against the unyielding floor of the fight area.  I felt myself sicken at the wanton, no holds barred violence.  I could see the referee frantically waving his arms from outside the Cage and I could also see that he was blowing a whistle even though we couldn't hear it.  Finally, the triumphant combatant got to his feet, kicking his fallen opponent vigorously to make sure he was really done for.

At this point, Al-Jihuad turned back to Gary.  "Zhen Woo will be honored to escort you down to the floor where there will be some standard papers to sign, assuring that you and your fighter get your appropriate share of the wagers and so forth and so on...That is assuming of course, that he is able to defeat his opponents tonight."

"Wait'll you see him in action!"  Gary blustered, patting me confidently on the shoulder.

"I look forward to it.  In the mean time, do enjoy yourself.  I will inform the bar that drinks are on the house for you."

"Awesome!   Thanks, Mr. Jihuad...I mean Al...I mean..."

"Enjoy yourself, Mr. Gary.  Young Perry has a few papers to sign and some routine security protocols to deal with.  We will send him to you when he is finished."

"Oh..."  Gary said, any facade of confidence melting away as he looked at me worriedly.  "I could stick around..."  he offered.

"No, no--not necessary, I assure you.  Just some standard procedures.  Nothing for you to worry about.  He will be in good hands here, and of course--we know that he is quite capable of taking care of himself--is that not so?" he asked me pointedly.

Actually, I was feeling  at least as scared as Gary was, and for the first time I wondered if I really had gotten us in over our heads.  It could have been so easy--all we had to do was go downstairs, find Jesse and burn rubber out of here.  Now we would be separated...

"I kinda feel like I should stay," Gary pressed.

The large Asian named Zhen Woo opened the door and stood aside, clearly waiting for Gary to join him.

I glanced down in time to see a couple of guys carrying the defeated and obviously dazed teen out of the Cage.  I looked nervously around the room, feeling panic start to overtake my rational mind.  But just then, Billy came up and nudged me playfully.  "You'll be fine," he assured me in a quiet voice.

I wasn't sure I entirely believed him, but I could see there was no other way out for the moment.  I'd just have to catch up with Gary as soon as I could.  Hopefully, he wouldn't take too much advantage of those free drinks.

"Yeah, I'm cool,"  I said, standing in a relaxed posture, stuffing my hands into the pockets of my hoodie.  I clutched my cellphone like a security blanket.  At least I could call Gary if things started to go...bad.

"Oh...kay then," Gary said, obvious unhappy about this unexpected turn of events, but like myself, seeing no other alternative.  "See ya soon?  Don't...uh...daudle," he said.

Well, that would have sounded kinda funny under different circumstances, but right now, it just showed how nervous he was about leaving me here alone.  I just shrugged and gave him the cockiest look I could manage.  Hey, I was fourteen years old now.  I could take care of myself, thank you very much!

I watched Gary and Zhen Woo go out and close the door.

"He seems like a sincere and intelligent young man, but I am wondering if he is really everything a boy like you would want in a personal manager," Al-Jihuad mused out loud.

"Gary's been great," I assured him.

"As you say," Al-Jihuad shrugged.

"Got those papers ready!" Billy called.  He was standing at one of the workstations, watching some documents come out of the laser printer.

"Ah, Billy, Billy.  Most efficient.  What would I do without you?" Al-Jihuad said, and there was actually some hint of emotion in his voice.

He gestured for me to follow him to Billy's station.  "You see, Billy is a computer genius.  He is the one who really makes all this possible."

"Aw, Mr. J...It's not that big of a deal," Billy said with obvious false modesty.

"No, no, no.  It's true, it's true," Al-Jihuad smiled.  "Billy is the one who keeps...ah...certain parties let's say, from...interfering with our events.  He makes sure the information is listed on certain websites monitored by those who are interested in disrupting our competitions.  He does it in such a way that the notices look very...ah...clandestine, shall we say?  But in actuality, these notices are...How you do you say it...?"

"Bogus!" Billy finished proudly.  "Yeah, they look real--so and so location, such and such a date, all very hush-hush and legit looking.  Throws the cops completely off!"

Al-Jihuad made a coughing noise deep in his throat.

"Oh, uh...sorry Mr. J.," he apologized.

Al-Jihuad waved a hand carelessly at Billy.  "No matter.  We are all friends here...Or at least...We all have common interests--no?" he asked me.

"Sure, sounds good to me," I replied.

"Of course, the real notices go out through completely different websites and emails and shit.  A lot of word of mouth," Billy explained immodestly.  "I make sure nothing suspicious shows up in any government databases...The people who need to know find out, and the rest...well, let's just say there's an awful lot of cops ready to bear down on an abandoned warehouse north of Valley Center tonight," he laughed smugly.

"Well done, Billy, well done," Al-Jihuad commended him.

"So, you got a student ID on you?"  Billy asked.

I nodded, reluctantly pulling out my wallet.  I handed him my St. Boniface ID.  I cringed at the photo.  I looked like some poor deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming SUV!

Billy checked it out and handed it back.  "You just need to sign your real name here and here," Billy said, pointing to lines asking for a signature.  I saw that my fighter tag--Iron Ninja--had already been printed onto the document at various points.

There were four pages all together of very dense legal terminology.  I wished my mom was here to figure this stuff out for me.  It seemed mostly to do with Golden Ranch Enterprises--which I guessed was Mr. Al-Jihuad's company for owning this property and running these contests, absolving itself of any responsibilities for any injuries I might sustain.  Then it went on about various rights and obligations between the two parties.  I did see something about winners collecting five percent of the gross betting pool!

"This is all very straight forward stuff," Al-Jihuad assured me, handing me a fancy looking gold pen with silver or platinum rings and trimmings.  The man obviously had money.  It was impossible not to notice the huge diamond ring on his left hand.  "Lawyers...Can we not live with them...Can we not live without them!"  He and Billy had a good laugh about that one and then silence filled the room.

I hated the idea of having to put my real name on a paper for something that was so clearly illegal.  But I also realized I needed to sign this stuff or just give up, and there was no way I was going to do that.  I was going to get Jesse out of this insane asylum before anyone got hurt and that was all there was to it.  I also knew that, even if Jesse managed to get through a few of these contests relatively unscathed, he would feel terrible about anybody he had to hurt in the process.  The last thing he needed was to take on any more guilt or bad feelings.  He had plenty of those already.  I signed at the indicated places and handed Mr. Al-Jihuad back his pen.

"Keep it, keep it, Mister..."  he read my signature, "...Thompson," he urged.

What  would a fourteen year old kid do with a real gold pen?  "That's okay.  I got pens at home," I said, politely handing it back to him.

Al-Jihuad shrugged and laughed.  "He has pens at home--of course!  Hahaha"

"All right, then," Billy said, a pleasant smile on his face.  "That takes care of the paperwork.  We need a quick photo for our records--totally private--eyes only, I promise,"  he assured me.  "Just stand there," he noted, picking up a small digital camera.  What would my mom say if she ever found out what I was doing?  I couldn't imagine any of this getting back to her or anyone I knew, so I just stood there impassively, waiting for the flash to go off.

"You take a great snapshot!"  Billy noted enthusiastically as it came up on his computer screen.  To me, it looked like I had already been stuffed and mounted.  "That's about it then," the computer expert noted cheerfully.  "I guess Mr. Woo needs to pat you they do at the airport --hidden weapons and shit like that--and then you'll be good to go."

I glanced towards the door, certain that Zhen Woo had left with Gary, but there he was, standing stiffly at his post again, hands folded in front, watching us all with a neutral expression on his wide face.  It was as if he had never left.

"I am thinking..." Mr. Al-Jihuad said, scrutinizing me carefully, "that perhaps it would be best to take our Iron Ninja in the back room--for additional security screenings."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but going into a 'back room' didn't sound like a good thing.

Apparently, Billy felt the same way, as his youthful face took on a look of wide eyed concern.  "But Mr. J....Are you sure...?" he asked, surprised and more than a little disturbed by this suggestion.  "I honestly don't think that..."

Mr. Al-Jihuad held his hand up to cut off Billy's blathering.  "I do believe that you know the procedures, do you not, Billy?" he asked.

The young man's mouth fell open but no words came out.  His face took on a look of total confusion.  His eyes, a light grey green through the lenses of his glasses, darted back and forth between me and his boss, over and over again.

"Really..?" he asked in disbelief.

Mr. Al-Jihuad smiled in an almost fatherly way.  "Of course, Zhen Woo will accompany you--to make sure both parties' interests are preserved."

Billy nodded in open-mouthed silence.  Now he looked at me and there was something else there beside concern.  His eyes seemed to rove from the top of my head, to my eyes, and slowly down my torso.  As his eyes dropped to where he was clearly staring at the front of my pants, he quickly averted his gaze.

"Is this not something you can handle, Billy?" Mr. Al-Jihuad asked.  "Should I have Miyashi do it instead?  He is quite proficient and..."

"No, no!" Billy protested rather vehemently.  "I can do it.  Shit, I can do it," he said, as if convincing himself of what he was saying.

"What...what's going on?" I stammered, no longer concerned about putting up a brave front.  I suddenly imagined that Zhen Woo had taken Gary downstairs only to be led out back by a couple of those huge thugs we had run into earlier in the evening.  Maybe Gary was getting the shit beat out of him even while we were standing here.  And now, they wanted to take me into this 'back room...'  What good would we be as a rescue party if we were both beaten to a bloody pulp?  Maybe that's why Mr. Al-Jihuad had so freely talked about his business and how Billy had managed to deceive the police by hacking into their computer systems--he planned on killing both of us anyway!

"Hey, hey, little dude," Billy crooned soothingly.  "Don't freak out.  It's no big deal.   I mean, if you're gutsy enough to enter a cage fight..."

Actually, I wasn't gutsy enough to enter a cage fight and I was about ready to admit it too!

"Where's Gary?" I asked, trying mightily to keep the panic I was feeling from entering my voice.

"He is downstairs with the others.  The next fight is about to begin," the Middle-eastern man explained nonchalantly.  Seeing my skeptical look, he shrugged and gestured for me to follow him.

He led me to one of the large windows and we both scanned the crowd.

"I thought he was placed with the VIP's," Al-Jihuad noted.

"There he is!" I said, catching sight of Gary and his shaggy black hair, shouldering his way through a crowd of high schoolers.

"It seems as if he is looking for someone..."  Al-Jihuad observed

"Oh yeah, his girlfriend is supposed to be here...with her brother," I replied quickly.

The small man laughed drily.  "I see.  Teenagers--always with the hormones--eh?"

I just shrugged.

"So are you satisfied that your friend is safe and unhindered?" he asked.

I nodded and waved when I saw him looking up towards us.  I was perplexed when he didn't respond.  It should have been easy for him to spot me standing by this huge window waving my arm in the air.

"It is a one way glass of course.  He cannot see you," Al-Jihuad informed me.

"When are we starting?" the raven haired woman moaned impatiently.

"In a moment, my precious, in a moment," Al-Jihuad assured her with one of his icy smiles.  "Go, Billy.  Do a thorough job.  There should be plenty of time.  His contest will have to be added to the end of the first round, no?"

"Uh...yeah, I guess," Billy said, the look on his face and the strange quiver in his voice indicating that he still wasn't feeling that good about whatever was going to happen next.  And that sure didn't do much to instill any confidence in me...

"Zhen Woo.  Would you be so kind as to join Billy and young Mr. Thompson in the back?"  Al-Jihuad asked politely.

I actually saw the large Asian's eyebrow rise slightly--the most extreme reaction I had seen on his face since we got here.

"Okay, Perry, let's go.  It's just over here," Billy said, gesturing to a single unmarked door at the back of the room.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Mr. Al-Jihuad asked.

"Huh?" Billy asked, freezing guiltily, as if he had been caught doing something he knew full well he shouldn't be doing.  He slowly turned around to face his boss.

"Form 56A, yes?" he smiled coldly.

"Oh...uh...yeah," Billy muttered embarrassedly.  He went back to his workstation and began typing something in.  The laser printer immediately spat out several sheets of paper.  Billy took them and put them on a clipboard.

As Zhen Woo came towards this end of the room, I wondered if I could make a run for it.  With a little luck, I could slip by the big man.  I was a pretty fast runner even though I didn't like track.

"There is nothing to fear, young man," Mr. Al-Jihuad said in a coldly unreassuring tone.  He approached me and placed a slender hand on my shoulder.  He squeezed it tightly and held his hand there for a rather long time before letting go.

Billy now had his paperwork and Zhen Woo was already holding the door open to the next room.  I knew I had no choice but to cooperate.  At least I knew that Gary was okay, and hopefully he would find Jesse.  I smiled inwardly thinking that the evening might still end with my beautiful blond angel rescuing me--again!

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