The Stories of André Vathier
André Vathier is a French-Canadian writer. He is the co-author with
R. Paul Sardanas of We Are Connected by Invisible Links, a Doc Talos Mythos
Passover with the Goldens
March 31, 1934. Nation City.
It had almost been a year since the Crisis. Going back to fighting petty criminals with mechanical men seemed mundane, after almost losing everything. Now, Nation City had a new heroine, and with her, we felt invincible. She was still learning the ropes, but Siobhan and Flint were patient. She followed their lead. They tried to teach her that when a person had as much power as she did, they needed to be kind. Never escalate the situation. Violence will only attract more violence. Flint was still a pacifist by heart.
One night, she had hurled a car full of gangsters through a building. Luckily no one was seriously injured, and the damage to the building was minor. Flint made a point that day: Dorothy had to help the crew who was fixing the exterior.
Siobhan and Flint told a story that their young niece wanted to learn how to fix buildings. She couldn't help with the construction but she could provide water and home-cooked meals to the workers.
When they returned home, we were already busy with Passover preparations.
Dorothy had a frown on her face. She looked Flint in the eye.
“Why did you punish me like that, Flint?”
“Back in my world, we had men and women with powers like yours, and the threats they faced always grew and got worse. All I want to say is, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
“I get it. Um...what happened to them? I mean, the ones with powers like me.”
“I can’t recall all of them, but one guy in this great metropolis had his very own doomsday and he perished because of it.”
Siobhan saw the panic in Dorothy's eyes. “All we want is for you to use your powers responsibly,” she said. “If you can solve the threat we face with a minimum of violence, that's the better choice.”
She was still looking glum. Siobhan smiled at her.
“Dorry...if you find the afikomen, you'll get a surprise from Aunt Connie and Uncle Matthias.”
“I'm not a little kid, you know.”
“Humor them. They never celebrated Passover before. Also, I know what they got for you.” Siobhan
winked at her mother. Time travel is odd.
Ohman looked happier than I'd ever seen him. They all did. This was, after all, the first Passover they'd had in a long time. Flint and Siobhan had hit the ground running since arriving in the past, and they'd never stopped or slowed down. Ohman's life had ended when he lost Dorothy. But now, for all of them, life could start again.
Because it was my first Passover, I only vaguely knew what we were doing; I knew that Passover was the celebration of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but my knowledge stopped there. Not wanting to be selfish guests, Matthias and I both asked if we could contribute more than the simple cleaning we'd already done.
Siobhan tasked us to get a prize when Dory found the afikomen.
“What kind of prize?”
“Oh, usually when I was a kid I would get candy or a few dollars,” she said. “But it doesn't have to be that. Make it your own.” Matthias' eyes lit up.
“I got it covered.”
Since Ohman was the elder he would be the one to host the celebration.
“I won’t be long,” he said, stepping out of the room. “I just need to get into my kittel. I will be right back.” The family had decided to go all in.
That’s when Matthias poked my arm.
“This is as good a time as any. Here—for you.” He handed me a package wrapped in brown paper. It was about the size of a book.
“What is it?”
As I unwrapped it, it felt lighter than a book. It was a small painting of me. Matthias, beside being an accomplish fighter, was also an accomplished painter.
“Well, you haven't touched a single bottle in six months. All of us know how difficult it is. But you did it. If you keep going, I'll make another in six months. We're all proud of you.”
Damn it, I felt a lump in my throat. All I could manage to choke out was, “Thank you.”
Matthias gave me a big hug.
Ohman came back. Truth to be told I had no clue what a kittel was. Flint and Siobhan, in their infinite patience, had no qualms explaining it to us.
“It's a white robe worn on special occasion like this one,” Flint said. “I had one when I married Siobhan.”
Ohman instructed us to fill our cups halfway with wine. Dorry and myself had grape juice. However as a nice gesture Matthias refused the wine for the grape juice.
Ohman said the Kiddush first in Hebrew then in English.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ,
מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּֽפֶן.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ,
מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ
מִכׇּל עָם וְרוֹמְמָֽנוּ מִכׇּל לָשׁוֹן,
וַתִּֽתֶּן לָֽנוּ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, בְּאַהֲבָה
חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן, אֶת יוֹם
חַג הַמַּצּוֹת הַזֶּה,
מִקְרָא קֹֽדֶשׁ, זֵֽכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָֽיִם.
כִּי בָֽנוּ בָחַֽרְתָּ וְאוֹתָֽנוּ קִדַּֽשְׁתָּ
בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּֽנוּ.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ, מְקַדֵּשׁ
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, Our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has chosen us from among the peoples, exalting us by hallowing us with mitzvoth.
In Your love, Adonai our God, you have given us feasts of gladness, and seasons of joy; this Festival of Pesach, season of our freedom, a sacred occasion, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. For You have chosen us from all peoples and consecrated us to Your service, and given us the festivals, a time of gladness and joy.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who sanctifies Israel and the Festivals.
Following the lead of our host we sat down. Leaning left we drank.
Then it was the Urchatz. The washing of the hands. Washing our hands over the sink is acceptable—however, Ohman was feeling nostalgic, so he would perform Urchatz for everyone. He held a bowl with a silver washing cup.
“This washing cup, Dorry, used to belong to your grandfather.”
After he was done with Matthias it was my turn. He put the bowl down and took some water using the silver cup. I looked at Siobhan who was facing me. She wiggled her fingers of her right hand. I took it that it is tradition to wash the right hand before the left.
Karpas was next. The first meal was green vegetables. Celery and lettuce were on our plates. Ohman explained to us the green represented spring. Not wanting to mess up anything I waited to follow Siobhan lead. She dipped the lettuce in salt water before eating it. Dorothy told me the salt water represents tears.
After this was done, it was time for Yachatz.
Our host took the matzah and broke it in half. The bigger half was for the afikomen. Now it was my turn to play my part.
Not content with just hiding the afikomen, I wanted to perform some sleight of hand. It had been a long since I performed some magic tricks. I was suddenly brought back to the beginning of my stage magic career—the stage fright, the nervousness. When I was drinking a lot more, the alcohol would make the nervousness go away. But this was different. It was my first performance since I had quit drinking. I took a deep breath. I had practiced in front of a mirror and twice with Ohman. I took a deep breath and my hands stopped shaking.
“Dorothy, are you ready?”
She hesitated. “Yes, I’m ready.”
“Make sure you pay close attention. Now, you're thinking, surely I can’t take the afikomen away and hide it? Not when you are sitting this close to your father and me, right?”
The closer they are the more attentive they are the easier it is to fool them. People often focus on the wrong parts. I moved the afikomen and changed it from one hand to the next and then:
“It’s gone, Dorry!”
Her look of surprise and amazement was perfect. It had been a while since I felt joy and pride in my magical talents. She looked at my hands, trying to guess where I could have put it. To gloat a little I showed her both side of my hands and I blew on them. Even Flint, who's always the observant one, was fooled. The secret? I hid it in plain sight. The afikomen was hidden under the extra unused towel from the Urchatz.
“I know where it is!”
Dorothy turned to Siobhan.
“Where is it?”
“I won’t tell.”
I looked at her with a small smile.
“You cheated. I felt you probing my mind.”
It was now time for Dorothy to ask the Four Questions. I was moved as I listened to her father answer the Questions in Hebrew. It seemed that at this moment there was nothing but a father conveying lesson to his child. Everyone was paying attention.
I felt a twinge of sorrow. I missed my son greatly. But something I learned with these two—you cannot lose hope. I will see him again.
The second cup of wine was filled. For the three of us it was grape juice again. This time we dipped our finger and put ten drops of wine on our plate. A drop for each plague that hit Egypt. After the blessing we were allowed to drink it.
Then it was the washing of the hands again. That’s when Siobhan told us to open the folded piece of paper she had given us earlier. She had transliterated the blessings that we had to say for Rachtzah and Motzi. I was slightly jealous Matthias was better at saying the blessing in Hebrew than me.
Our host pronounced every word with such beauty and elegance, while I was butchering it. Oh, don’t worry, Dorothy—I saw you giggle.
After the bitter herbs and hillel sandwich, it was time for the main meal. I had helped earlier making the hard-boiled eggs along with the chopped liver. Matthias had saved us during the cooking. Siobhan was too busy connecting with Dorothy, and the fish burnt. Without missing a beat, Matthias ran out into the streets. He came back half an hour later with another fish. Passover wasn't ruined; it just started a little later.
Everything was excellent. As everyone ate a silence came over us. I think for the first time in a long time we all felt calm—we didn't have to look over our shoulders. It was perfect. Of course I had to break the moment, inject a little of the old excitement.
“So do you know where I hid the afikomen?”
“I think so,” Dorothy said.
“If you find it, Matthias and I will give you a surprise.”
Thus began fifteen minutes of frantic looking around. We teased her.
“Oh, it's getting warmer...”
She stopped moving and looked at the table more carefully.
“Papa, raise your hand.”
“Because I know where it is!”
“Are you sure?”
“Stop it! Raise your hand!” she giggled.
He raised his hand from the towels.
“Ha! Found it!”
Matthias got up from his chair. “Just a moment, I need to get your surprise. It's in the other room. I won’t be long.”
“How did you do it Miss Bryce?”
“Make the matzah disappear like that.”
“It's simple. I used magic.”
She gave me a look, but before she could say anything, Matthias came back with the surprise. It was a painting of Dorothy, transformed into her other self. Behind her stood the Emerald City. It was done in a photorealistic style.
“Wow, Mr. Sjoman—it's beautiful! Thank you so much!”
“You are welcome.”
The rest of Ohman's blessing was full of emotion and grace. He had a way to pronounce every blessing with passion. It touched everyone.
This had been the best time I had with friends in such a long time.
Before we took our coats and go home, I gave everyone a warm hug. Without thinking or holding back, I told them how much I loved them.
Siobhan, without missing a beat: “We love you too, Connie.”
Feeling another lump in my throat, I knew it was my time to leave.
When I got home, I put the painting on the wall. My apartment was mostly empty, and since I had arrived there all those decades ago, I made it a point not to keep anything. My life was empty and I wanted my surroundings to reflect that. But now things were different. I set up the painting on one of my bedroom walls. This was a new day. And whatever came next...I could face it.
I slept like a baby that night.
A Puritan and a Gorilla Go Into a Bar
1931. Observation deck of the Empire State Building.
The tallest building in the world. Completed a few months back. I couldn't resist visiting the observation deck along with a blank canvas, brushes, and paint—I wanted to be among the first to paint the Big Apple from this height. After five hours of work I looked at my canvas satisfied. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I was packing my stuff when someone asked me in Swedish:
“My employer wants to know if the Gorilla of Gothenburg would be willing to sell this painting.”
I replied in English that it wasn't for sale.
I must admit it did surprise me. Not a lot of folks in the Big Apple knew my nickname. As I looked back, I saw the man who spoke it to me. He was the bodyguard of a short Japanese man.
“Hello Mitsunari. Fancy seeing you here.”
“I finally saw your painting skills with my own eyes, Matthias.”
Mitsunari was fluent in English, so we continued our conversation in that language for convenience. I know Japanese naming conventions arrange the family name first, but Mitsunari decided that when in Rome, do as the Roman do. So he always introduced himself with his first name. I think he told me his last name once but it always slips my mind.
This man loved one thing more than anything else: fighting. He loved everything about it. The techniques, the art, the training—he had not read a new book in over five years. Movies and theatre...forget it. That’s how much fighting meant to him. With the recent passing of his father he became heir to an immense fortune and influence back in Japan. Some say power corrupts—I don’t think so. Power reveals. When a man gains the power to do what he's always wanted, that's when you see his deepest desires. In the case of Mitsunari, he built himself a secretive mecca dedicated to fighting. A place where master, brawlers, and brutes from all over the world can participate in no holds barred fights. The goals were pure in their simplicity: to see who was the strongest. Who was the best. Which martial arts could reign supreme. The secretive aspect I have to admit is a stroke of genius—masters would not face any humiliation if their fight ended with defeat. The spectators in these arenas were a small group, mostly other powerful men who wanted a thrilling experience. Some were fighters who wanted to study other fighters. Most often the spectators were ordinary men and women who could keep their mouth shut. Their reward was seeing these grandiose displays of violence.
“I brought back spectacles you Europeans haven't seen since the fall of Rome, Matthias!” he once told me, back in the old country.
By the time Rome fell, gladiatorial matches had been in decline for almost a century, but I forgave him for that remark. I must admit that at the time I had little to no knowledge of Japanese history.
Before I moved to the United States, I participated in about dozen fights he organized—mostly against other bare-knuckle brawlers. The last fight I had was in 1926. My opponent was a karate master from Keio University. I lost the fight because at the time I only had anecdotal info on karate. I was defeated at the 18-minute mark. I should mention these fights are not like your usual boxing matches. There is no time limit. Matches last as long as necessary. Every attack is acceptable. The only rule was no weapons. There was no such thing as fighting dirty when everyone does it. What took me out was a precise philtrum strike—he used the second knuckle of his index finger to hit me under my nose. At the time it was the worst knockout I ever felt. When I got to my senses, my opponent bowed and said:
“どもありがとうございます.” Thank you very much.
I was touched by his respect he had for a fallen fighter.
“You know what, Mitsunari—for fifty dollars, the painting's yours.”
The bodyguard produced a two twenties and a ten.
“Well, it’s been nice to see you. Take care.”
I knew it was not chance that brought him here.
“Let’s go down to my office—it's on the 34th floor. I recently bought a unit, one which is splendid for my day-to-day dealings. Also I think I have the perfect place to put your masterpiece.”
We went down the elevator to the 34th floor. Down the hall a man was putting up Japanese letters that I couldn't read on the window of his office door.
The office was very modern and American in style. The secretary greeted him in Japanese but he interrupted her.
“Marjorie dear—Ms. Esther—that’s a kind gesture, but please, I need to practise my English as often as possible.”
“Please inform me of Mr. Rennick's arrival.”
His desk was empty—it looked like those you see in advertisements. He entrusted the bodyguard to put the painting near some filing cabinet. It was the only decoration in the entire unit.
“Please sit down. Do you want coffee?”
“Yes please. Black, no sugar.”
“Ms. Esther, please get Mr. Sjoman a cup of coffee. Black, no sugar.”
She nodded and left the room.
I took one of the two leather seats in front of his desk. I remained silent—I wanted him to speak first.
“I have a match soon and I want to see the Gorilla of Gothenburg fight again. Before you say anything, my colleagues saw your exhibition matches last week.”
He pointed at his bodyguard who was standing near the filing cabinet. The man said something in Japanese to Mitsunari.
“What did he say?”
“He qualifies your matches as entertaining,but not on par with your full potential.”
“You know I’m always game to fight in your matches, Mitsunari. So who am I fighting this time?”
“He’s coming in soon. He had a meeting today with a business partner of his. He’s on the 86th floor right now as we speak. But what I want to know, Matthias, is would you be ready if the fight takes place next month? I know it’s on short notice, but your opponent is a very busy man.”
“You know I’m always ready. I never stop training. I love painting but a man can have many passions.”
These exhibition matches he was talking about were my way of keeping my sense sharp but I was itching for something more.
Ms. Esther came back with my coffee and informed Mitsunari that Mr. Rennick was here.
“Please bring him in!”
I put my cup of coffee down to greet the man.
Mr. Rennick spoke in what I assumed was fluent Japanese. He had a very deep voice. His facial expression reminded me of my mother when she was disappointed in me. His hair was pulled back using a large amount of pomade, which made it shiny.
“Mr. Rennick, this is Matthias Sjoman...the Gorilla of Gothenburg.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sjoman.”
“Likewise, Mr. Rennick.”
He stood a solid foot over me. His fists were the biggest I ever saw in my life. When he shook my hand his skin was unique; it was softish. He obviously salted his hands like an old school bare-knuckle fighter's. That told me I was going to fight him bare knuckles. His knuckles were swollen he had hardened those hands. His grip was powerful.
I felt jittery. It had been a while since I felt this excited before a fight.
“Mr. Rennick is the most sought-after engineer in the world. As I said, his time is limited, so—do you agree to fight him?”
“Yes, I agree.”
“And you Mr. Rennick?”
“I also agree.”
“Then it is settled. On July 7th a chauffeur of mine will pick you up and drive you to the fighting arena. You know secrecy is key. I know where you both live, so no need to tell me.”
Before he left Mr. Rennick made one comment.
“Mr. Sjoman, your moustache reminds me of John Sullivan’s.”
“You know I met him when I was a boy.”
“I’m a little bit jealous.”
Then he waved goodbye and left. I finished my coffee. Said I needed to go. As I was about to leave, I looked at the secretary.
“You can call me Marjorie.”
“Marjorie—as you know, Mr. Rennick is an accomplished boxer. And I'm gonna fight him soon.”
“I would be scared stiff, Mr. Sjoman. Aren’t you a little bit scared?”
“Should I be? Do you know something I don’t know?”
“My cousin Lea works for a colleague of his, and she told me that once he busted a solid oak door in one strike.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. Deep down I felt she was exaggerating.
Seeing my doubtfulness, she told me to go visit the maintenance office on the 76th floor.
“Ask for Micheal. Tell him that Ms. Esther from the 34th sent you to see the doors.”
That did pique my curiosity. When I did meet Michael from maintenance, he showed me a room full of broken doors. I saw it with my own eyes the destructive force of that man's fists.
After the meeting on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, I only had 26 days to prepare myself. You can’t do a lot in that short amount of time, so I just continued with my usual training regimen. I decided to eat four meals a day instead of my usual three. Ate more meat and vegetables. Chicken was on the menu most of the time. In the meantime Ms. Esther introduced me to her cousin Leanne; but Marjorie called her Lea. She was the prettiest woman I'd ever met. I wanted to see her and learn more about Mr. Rennick, to see if he had any tells I could use. How he threw his punches, and all of that.
I waited with Marjorie for her cousin—she finished working at around 5:30 PM. Her boss was some kind of big shot chemist. His office was in a penthouse near Wall Street. It wasn't long before I saw her coming my way; her blonde hair stood out.
The two cousins hugged each other.
“Lea, this is Matthias Sjoman.”
“How are you, Ms. Esther?”
“I'm well, thanks. Marjorie told me everything about your next fight. I''ll help you—but I want you to do two things for me in return.”
“My cousin told me you're a good boxer. I want you to teach me how to throw a good punch.”
“I can do that.”
“Also, I saw your painting in my cousin's office. It’s beautiful. Could you teach me how to paint?”
“Unlike a punch, that takes time. 22 days is not enough to become a painter.”
We both smiled.
“Do both of you have anything planned for tonight?”
They looked at each other. They had nothing on their agenda.
“If you want, we can go to my place and figure out how I can teach you. I’m cooking tonight. My treat.”
We took a taxi back to my apartment. I told them they could smoke in the living room, but not in the kitchen. I hate the idea of smoke and ashes near food. Before I left, I had marinated some chicken. The marinade was honey, soy sauce, pepper (it just came in season), garlic, and a tomato ketchup I made the day before. I find that tomatoes are always better in July. The chicken was served with a side of potatoes and carrots. You have to slow cook the chicken—the honey and slow cooking make it tender. That’s my favourite receipt when I have guests; it smells good and gets mouths watering. The slow-cooking creates some anticipation.
“Mr. Sjoman, this smells amazing. So as I was saying—when did you learn to paint?”
“Oh, when I was a kid my aunt was a painter. I would spend every weekend at her place. It was Mom’s way to keep me out of trouble.”
“Did it work?”
“Well...you don’t get a title like the Gorilla of Gothenburg for nothing.”
When dinner was served, they both ate in silence. That's when I know that I nailed it. When the food is that good, you don’t talk, you enjoy it.
After that, they insisted on doing the dishes with me. I started a pot of coffee. We needed to set up our meetings so I could teach Leanne how to paint and punch.
“Leanne, you can meet me on Tuesdays and Wednesday at 6:00 PM. I work for an advertisement firm on Madison Avenue. I’m a freelance painter.”
“What advertisement did you paint?”
“Oh, tons. Recently I painted the Craven 'A' cigarette girl.”
“The one with the red lips.”
They both laughed. Every single Craven “A” cigarette girl had red lips—that's why they stood out.
It was nice to have guests over. The Big Apple can feel lonely sometimes.
The next two weeks were uneventful. I spent Tuesdays and Wednesday nights with Leanne. The first hour was spent teaching her how to throw a punch. You need to put your hip into it. What makes a good punch is how much weight you put behind it. After the first week, she could throw a decent jab. Her cross punch using her rear hand needed practice. The hip movement can feel awkward. You don’t want to move your hip too much, or else you lose your footing.
For painting we started with acrylics. It’s cheaper and easier to clean. For today's lesson, I painted a beach blue sky and dark wine colour sea. I find painting a beach is perfect for beginners. You learn the brushwork, hues. I planned to teach her the rule of thirds the week after the fight. Right now she needed to paint a cohesive beach with a single focal point. She was getting the hang of it.
“Leanne, did you find out what type of fighter Mr. Rennick is?”
“I did! He’s a boxer, like you said, but he’s more of a rough fighter. His words, not mine. Also he told me he was a master Samba fighter.”
I chuckled. Samba was a Brazilian dance—Sambo is Soviet martial art. But that spelled trouble for me.
“You look nervous.”
I couldn't lie to her—we were starting to become good friends. I told her the truth.
“Sambo, unlike boxing or bare-knuckle fights, uses kicks, grappling and throws. That means if he grabs hold of me, I don’t really have any defences against it. The fight is next Tuesday, so it’s too late to learn a grappling counter. I guess I'll try to dodge him as much as I can, and not let him get close to me.”
“Does getting punch hurt?”
“Of course it does. Every punch hurts, you just learn to take it and react to it. Here, let me show you what I mean by reacting to it.”
I gave her some of my spare gloves and moved the furniture a little bit. I told her I'd give her a small jab, and all she had to do was block it, by putting both of her gloves in front of her face and countering it with a cross punch like she learned. She was excited and jittery.
“Okay, I will give you a jab in 3 – 2 – 1!”
I gave a small jab. Hard enough that when she blocked it with her gloves she would feel it. But not too hard—I didn't want to hurt her. She blocked it, but her hands moved back, and she almost hit herself.
Then I saw it in her eyes. Panic! It's a flight-or-fight response. I waited a few seconds.
Her jaw was chattering—the adrenaline does that.
I gave a warm smile and put my hands and started to remove my gloves.
“You forgot to counter with a cross.”
“Oops!” She giggled.
“The chattering teeth will stop soon. You felt it? The flight-or-fight, the panic, the jarring sense of confusion at the idea of another human being striking you.”
She took a deep breath and asked, “Is it always like that?”
“Every time. You learn to get over it. And you learn to counter-attack or dodge it.”
“You're getting into fights to see who's the strongest.”
“Ha! I agree, it is stupid.”
“Why do you do it then?”
“I don’t know...”
I helped her remove the gloves. That’s when she told she would be watching the match. She asked Mitsunari if she could see it. He told her that she would be more than welcome since she was the friend of the Gorilla of Gothenburg.
July 7th. Basement of a New York bar.
The valet picked me up at around 4:00 PM. The location was familiar to me. It was an Irish pub owned by a Dutch man. It was known for its secret bare-knuckle fights. The crowd, if you can call it that, was a small group of twenty people. To access the basement we had to enter using a trapdoor behind the bar; surprisingly enough, it wasn't damp or stuffy. A series of secret tubes that were used to sneak some contraband alcohol allowed a lot of airflow. The fight would start at around 7:00 PM, the peak hour for the pub. The customers' music and general noise of the floor above would cover any noise we could make downstairs. In the middle of the basement was a boxing ring. On the right side there was a door. The owner tapped on my shoulder.
“That’s your locker room—you can get yourself ready. The hand wraps and gloves are in the corner.”
“Thank you, but I brought my own.”
I assumed that Mr. Rennick was getting ready in the locker room on the opposite side.
The fight was in three hours, so I began my shadow boxing routine.
Before I knew it, it was five minutes before the fight. It had been a long time since I felt those pre-fight jitters—my chest was shaking from the excitement. I heard a knock; it was the owner again.
“Mr. Sjoman, are you ready?”
I walked into the ring. There were about thirty spectators; Mitsunari was surrounded by his bodyguards. Near the bodyguards was a man in a three-piece suit. He wore a golden mask that looked like the gas-masks of the soldiers of the Great War. His hair was dark bronze. He wore purple gloves with three yellow stripes. I'd seen those gloves before—they belonged to a man who was bad news. Next to him was a woman who wore a black coat with a beret. She was whispering something to the man with the golden mask.
The mask was not uncommon. Some of the spectators wore masks to hide their identity. This was the world of underground fighting after all—it wasn't illegal per se, but it did thread a gray line. Leanne was sitting in the front row. She gave me a warm smile but I noticed she was shaking a little. She must have been nervous; she did look out of place among these people.
The announcer spoke loud enough to make himself heard, but not so loud as to attract the attention of the customers upstairs. I doubt they would have heard a thing. Their music was loud enough.
“In the right-hand corner—at 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighing 170 lbs—with a professional boxing record of 27 wins 8 losses and 10 wins 2 losses within this organization—ladies and gentlemen, give a warm welcome to the Gorilla of Gothenburg...Matthias Sjoman!”
Due to the secretive nature of the fight only a light clap was given. But that was enough I heard a faint “You can beat him!” from Leanne. This filled me with joy.
“In the left-hand corner...standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighing 247 lbs, with a record of 8 wins 0 losses within this organization...ladies and gentlemen...John Rennick!”
His right fist destroyed the locker room door. The door, knocked off its hinges, lay at his feet. An impressive feat of strength. But that show of force revealed his tell. He was right-handed and his normally puritanical face gave a small grin. The man never smiled unless he knew he was about to hit something.
In the boxing ring the announcer also filled the role of the referee. He was the one who told us the rules.
“Beside weapons, anything is allowed. The fight lasts as long as it needs to. At any time, you can throw the towel. Understood?”
We both nodded.
“Go to your corners.”
As I walked back, I removed my white tank top. I was only wearing shorts now. Knowing he was an expert in sambo meant the fewer articles of clothing for him to grab, the better. I was also barefoot. In the locker room I made a last-minute decision: I wouldn't use my gloves or hand wraps. If he ever caught me, I would need every finger available.
I turned back and he was standing there: a giant of man. His fist clenched.
“Ready – set – go!”
We both walked forward with confidence. I raised both my fist up. Something I learned over the years fighting you never ever underestimate anyone. When I thought I was close enough to him, I used a full-crouch position. Since his reach was greater than mine, I needed him to get close. Since I was ambidextrous, it didn't matter which hand was my jab or my cross.
He came closer and closer, his fists at his side. I saw his grin; he raised his left arm back, ready to give me his infamous door-busting punch. Not missing a beat, I changed my footing. Putting my left foot farther in front of my right foot, I slipped outside his left fist. He almost hit me straight in the face. His right arm wasn't raised in a defensive position. I gave a right hook on his right cheek as hard as I could.
I never pulled my punches. When I was a teenager, I pulled my punches once and that was the end of me. The bully recovered and hit me back breaking my nose. My clogged left nostril is a daily reminder of that mistake. My right hook connected it felt like I hit a brick wrapped around in leather. His left knee touched the ground. I heard him cry out: “Holy cow!”
Then, in this semi-crouching position, he extended both his arms towards me, his hands reaching for my waist. I gave him an uppercut under his chin. I felt his jaw close. My attack did nothing to him. He grabbed my waist and lifted me up like I was a kid—he squeezed so hard the air escaped from my lungs, and that’s when he did his supplex throw. Up was down and down was up during that single second. It wasn’t until my face hit the floor that I regained my spatial awareness. I was stunned. That’s when I started to feel them. The little ants that crawl from the bottom of my soles and climb their way up. The giant almost knocked me up cold. I turned myself on my back he stood over me his arm folded. He was a kind man he wanted to make sure I was still conscious before making his next move. The referee interfered.
“Mr. Rennick, Mr. Sjoman is not out of commission and he has not thrown in the towel yet. The fight is still going!”
His hesitation gave me enough time to recover. I waited for him to get closer I was playing possum. He grabbed me by the shoulder and lifted me up. Exactly what I needed to take his Sambo out of the equation. I grabbed his two index finger and broke them. With a grunt, he dropped me immediately, but not without giving a knee in my midsection. I stepped aside that knee knocked the wind out of me. I was gasping for air.
As I recovered, my opponent did something that must have been quite painful. He set his broken index fingers as to make fists again. That’s exactly what I wanted. I knew I could never counterattack his sambo. But I might be able to out-box him.
The next twenty or so punches we exchanged would decide who the winner was. I was getting tired. I was still uneasy on my feet. That supplex throw took more out of me than I anticipated. I looked at the spectators and I saw Leanne Esther’s worried look.
“You can win this, Matthias!”
I looked at my opponent again; he took an uneasy orthodox stance. His fists were shaking a little. I can win this!
His left arm threw something unexpected—a bolo punch! Unlike an uppercut, whose fist comes in at 6 o' clock, this one comes in an arc that comes from 4 o' clock . I pulled away and countered with a jab that hit his nose and broke it. He started bleeding. Not losing a second I sent uppercut in his ribs. He grunted, and retorted by giving me solid right hook. He aimed my face. I blocked it.
This one would bring him down. This cross to the face would knock him out. Then he changed the rules—this was no longer a boxing match. He kicked my left knee and I dropped on the floor. As I my knee hit the floor, he punched me. I felt my head rock back before I hit the floor. I could no longer feel my legs—the ants came back but they were everywhere, and I couldn't get up. That’s when he put me in a sitting position. I had no strength to attack him. I felt his huge arm around my neck. It was over—he put in a rear naked choke. I felt him squeezing and I started to see stars. I wanted to throw in the towel, but I had no voice or strength left to let the referee know.
Just before I passed out I heard Mitsunari's voice:
“Stop! We have a winner. John Rennick is the winner.”
I heard clapping.
I was still on the floor but now I could breathe again. Leanne got into the ring—she took her handkerchiefs and wiped away my sweat and blood from my face. By my left eye was shut. That last hit really did it.
“Matthias, are you OK ? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes, I can. Did I lose any teeth?”
I could see her look around in the ring. Then she told me to open my mouth. It was painful but I managed to open it.
“Everything is where it should be.”
“Can you help me get up? That kick he gave me hurt my leg. I don’t think I can walk on it.”
She put my right arm around her neck and tried to lift me. That’s when the man with the golden mask and purple gloves offered Leanne help. He picked me up quite easily and they both took me to the locker room. The golden masked man's blonde lady friend was already in the locker room. She held some towels, water, and ice. When I was cleaned and had towel-wrapped ice on my knee and face, only then did the woman speak.
“We shouldn't be here, Flint. He—John Rennick—might recognize you and tell your—tell his employer about it.”
“I doubt it. His employer isn't here right now, and this isn't something he would condone. Rennick won’t tell a soul.”
I didn't like the secretive tone they were using.
“Thank you, both of you—but I'm sure Leanne can handle the rest.”
“Mr. Sjoman, my name is Flint Golden, and this is my wife Siobhan Golden. We're from Nation City.”
“You came a long way, then.”
“Yes. Mr. Sjoman, we would like you to join us in our fight against organized crime in our City. I believe your skills could be put to great use.”
“I think you missed the part where I got my butt kicked by John Rennick.”
“The fact that you held your own against him is remarkable. Very few men can. But we want to use your knowledge of art forgery. Your Aunt Karin taught you well—you of all people know about the unique relationship between the art world and the criminal one.”
“Look, Mr. Golden—can we talk about this another time? My head is still spinning from that fight.”
“We will see you next week.”
I asked Leanne to give the Goldens my business card that was in my wallet. They left shortly after.
Leanne took me back home that night.
* * *
A week later my body was still recovering from that fight. It had been a long time since I took a beating like that. Leanne spent every night with me. She took some vacation time to make sure I was taking good care of myself.
“Matthias...can I ask you a question?”
“What do you know about the crime world and art?”
“Oh…I won’t lie to you. My aunt, Karin Sjoman, the one who taught me how to paint well…she forged paintings for some criminal group back in Stockholm. We weren’t rich and she was very talented. She made sure her brother, my father, had enough money to get by. Then she taught me how to paint, and I was her partner in crime. I was 11 years old when she got arrested. Since I was a kid, the police decided not to arrest me. At the time we were doing Dancing Children by Lorens Pasch den yngre. If you open the wardrobe in my bedroom, you will find it’s there. Do you want to see it?”
“No. I don’t want to see it.”
“Anyway, since I hung around bad people I learned how to defend myself, and I became a prize fighter. The Gorilla of Gothenburg. I fought in secret arenas for a while. Arenas like the one you saw last week. Then I moved to America.”
There was an awkward silence. The world I was part of was a frightening place. I saw it in her eyes. She felt betrayed. I knew this would be the last time I would see her
“Oh, look at the time, Matthias! I gotta go.”
Before she left, someone knocked. Leanne looked into the peephole.
“Matthias, it's the Goldens. Do I let them in?”
“Yes, let them in.”
Leanne opened the door.
“Hello, Mr. Sjoman, hello Ms. Esther. How are we today?”
“I am well, thank you, but I’m afraid I need to go. Goodbye Matthias.”
She left in a hurry.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sjoman. If it's a bad time we can always come by again.”
“No, it’s fine. Please sit down.”
The man in the golden mask was taller than I remembered. Instead of the fancy suit, he wore khaki pants with a safari vest. Both he and his companion wore Star of David pendants around their necks.
“Mr. Sjoman, how are you today? Physically, I mean?”
“Sore, but getting better. What can I do for you?”
“I won't waste any of your time. We want you to work for us. We are assembling a collective of uniquely skilled individuals who can prevent crises. We've made good progress fighting the root cause of organized crime in Nation City. Your fighting skills will be useful, but what we want is your knowledge of art forgery. With your knowledge, we could spot and remove fake pieces of art. These are used for money laundering.”
I stared—or tried to stare—into the eyes behind that mask.
“Who are you? Really?”
“My name is Flint Golden, and my wife Siobhan and I come from the future. It took a lot of effort to reach you. Here—let my wife show you.”
His wife reached for my hand. When our hands touched I saw it: the future! It was the future of 1999!
Lord—I can't believe what they sacrificed to go back in time.
“So,” Flint said. “Will you join us?”
1933. Nation City.
It's been a year and a half since I joined the Goldens, and true to their word, we've made a difference in Nation City.
My proudest achievement so far was the seminars I gave to members of the police force on how to spot fake art. Sure, we did fight criminals with methods I was used to, but it was nice to know that we were using our brains as much as our brawn.
Back at our headquarters, Flint had a new mission for us.
“Matthias, I want you to go to that magic show tonight with Siobhan.”
He gave me a pair of tickets. The magician performing was Connie Bryce. Bryce was a known fixture in Nation City—she played at a lot of different venues, big and small.
The show itself was entertaining. Some of Bryce's tricks I had seen others performed. However, the most impressive one she did was her own version of the Indian rope trick. Some people claimed this act was lost to time, but she did it in front of us. She didn't call it the Indian rope trick, since that would have attracted too much attention—instead, she called it the Arizonian lasso.
After everyone left, me and Siobhan went backstage.
“Ms. Bryce—can we take a moment of your time?”
“I'm not taking any students. And no, I will not reveal my tricks to you, no matter what you pay me.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing like that. Ms. Bryce, my employer, Flint Golden, thinks that your unique skills can help him in his fight against crime. Also, we've heard you've done a bit of writing?”
“Yes. Stories. Just trash, for the pulps.”
Siobhan grinned. “Flint's a fan.”