Risque Business (WARNING: nudity)
This story contains scenes of nudity and references to same, which may cause uncontrollable squeeing and drooling. Reader discretion is advised.
One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four.
Criss Angel lay on the bench in his gym, exercising his biceps and shoulders. He raised and lowered the weights rhythimically, extending his arms, then drawing them to shoulder level, then raising them over his head, and back down to his chest, inhaling and exhaling with every cycle, thirty in all. His arm muscles tensed and flexed with the exertion. Next he would do ab crunches on the Nautilus, then strenghten his legs on the Stairmaster. It was a grueling regimen he performed every day, but it was the price he paid for his career. Two shows every night, a weekly television series, and live appearances whenever he had the time required him to be on top of his game. That meant daily workouts in the gym despite his personal distaste for it.
He was forty-two, but he still maintained a youthfulness that many mistook for thirty or so. His flesh was smooth and taut--not an milligram of flab could be seen. At an age when many men ballooned to pony-keg dimensions, his abdomen rippled with a six-pack hardness. His reflexes were as sharp as a cat's, a necessity for a magician for whom timing was everything. Some credited his build to his Greek heritage (which wasn't too far off, as the ancient Greeks had practically invented the concept of physical fitness, right up to founding the Olympic games), others to a good set of genes from his parents. A few jealous types claimed it was just plain dumb luck, but Criss knew that for every ounce of muscle he toned to perfection meant hours of lifting weights and running on the treadmill.
The gym in which he exercised had been provided for him by the Luxor Hotel and Resort as part of the package deal for producing his show, Believe. The Luxor had invested one hundred million dollars in his magnum opus, and the Board of Directors wanted their money's worth. If Criss became ill or, more likely, injured, that meant cancelling performances, which in turn meant lost revenue. The bottom line: A healthy star was money in the bank for the investors--the more shows he performed, the higher the profit margin.
Criss set the weights aside and rose from the bench. The biceps and shoulders toned, he next went to work on his abdominal muscles. He straddled a machine designed for this purpose, positioned his arms behind his head, and flexed his stomach muscles repeatedly--One. Two. One. Two. One. Two. Forty crunches in all. The tension he felt meant that it was working: no pain, no gain, as they said in professional bodybuilding. His heart pounded furiously, pumping oxygen-rich red blood cells into his muscles. Criss paced himself, breathing steadily to prevent dizziness. His abs were more for show than anything, presenting a tantilizing picture for the fans. Still, it did not do to neglect any part of his body; the entire machine must work in harmony to produce results.
Criss relaxed, breathing deeply. His tank top and biker shorts were soaked with sweat, and the bandana he wore to keep persperation from dripping into his eyes had turned a darker hue from the dampness of his brow. He longed for the cool refreshment of a shower, but he had his turn on the Stairmaster to get through. He rose slowly to keep the blood from rushing away from his head too quickly, then walked over to the machine and climbed on. He set the timer for twenty-five minutes and pumped his muscular legs up and down. The timed workout left him free to pursue his thoughts.
He reflected on his father, now thirteen years dead, a former Mr. Universe who had succumbed to stomach cancer at just sixty years of age, and even then he had survived three years beyond the expectations of his doctors. It seemed sadly ironic that a man who had stressed good health and exercise should be stricken with cancer as he had been. God, I hope I don't get cancer, he prayed. I got too much I want to do in this life.
He smiled at that last statement. It reminded him of what George Burns once said: "I can't die--I'm booked!" Then there was the old bromide printed on a coffee mug he saw once: "We're put on this earth to accomplish a number of things. I'm so far behind, I'll never die." Well, Criss figured he was right on schedule, but like the late veteran vaudeville actor, he was indeed booked solid. I'd have to live to be a hundred to do all the things I want to do, he figured. I mean, let's be reasonable here!
His mind shifted to the previous afternoon when he was taking a break after taping his show. There was a laptop computer on the desk in front of him, so, for a lark, he decided to check out the fanboards. The Loyal Written Arts forum was always good for diversion, so he logged onto it to see what kind of adventures the Loyals put him through lately. It always amused him how his devoted fans made him suffer more than his share of the thousand natural shocks that flesh was heir to: he'd been in car accidents time without number; he'd fallen almost to his death during demonstrations; he'd been deafened by an explosion; he'd been kidnapped and rendered unconscious; he'd been lynched by white supremacists; he'd even survived an earthquake (he admired that last story; the author had done an incredible amount of research on that one. The part about Costa going through Red Cross training was hilarous, and he was surprised to find out that Nevada really did have a portable hospital). The latest ones had him suffering the same cancer his father had, only to be redeemed by supernatural means; another had him suffering a rare heart disorder but he had been too stubborn to admit it. Hey, if I had something like that, I'd be in the hospital ASAP, he thought. Well, they could all rest easy. In spite of whatever fate befell him in writing, Criss Angel was as healthy as a horse.
The timer on the Starimaster bleeped. Criss drew a deep, satisfied smile and dismounted. A quick shower, and he could begin his day. He pulled off his Nikes, peeled off the soaking tank top and biker shorts, pulled off the bandana, and padded to the shower stall with only a white towel around his waist. There was no one present, but who knew who was lurking behind the corner waiting to take his picture while he was nude?
The warm water caressed his bare flesh like women's fingers. Criss soaped under his reeking armpits and the other disgraceful parts of his anatomy, scrubbing away the strain of his morning workout. Today he would be taping a live show before the Loyal, and he would have his body clean. He turned off the shower, toweled off, and headed back to the dressing cubicle to dress, again modestly covering his loins with the towel. He was not ashamed of his body; indeed, he had appeared naked twice on television, but the editors censored him around the hips in keeping with the FCC regulations. It's just that Criss had very little privacy in his public life, and he felt it was best to keep his "privates", well, private. He had to retain some mystery for the sake of his popularity; exposing too much would destroy the fantasy his fans had built around him.
Criss pulled on his CK briefs, then his fashionably ragged jeans, then his grey Affliction t-shirt, then his jock-socks, then his combat boots. Fully attired, he was ready to face the day--and his fans. How many of them would have wished to be with him in here, he thought with amusement, totally exposed in the flesh. He laughed at the memory of the Naked Jail Escape, when a roomful of female fans came within a hair's breadth of seeing him in all of his natural glory. Wouldn't it have been a treat for them if he had failed! Oh, well, better luck next time, ladies! he gloated. I can show you only so much of me, but who knows? You just might get lucky someday!
Meanwhile, in a small downtown gym somewhere in North Las Vegas, a group of amateur boxers were going through their daily training regimen. A couple of burly men sparred in the ring, while others shadowboxed, rehersing their feints and blows in the large mirror on the far wall. There was no conversation during the training period. The fighters focused solely on their drills in grim silence; banter was reserved only for the locker room.
One boxer in particular, George Strumpolis, pummelled away on the speed bag. The brown leather bulb was a blur from repeated punches, battering from its hook-and-eye like a hummingbird's wing. George was a muscular man, middle-aged, with salt-and-pepper hair he kept under a billed cap to prevent heat stroke from the Nevada sun. His features were thicker and heavier than that of his famous cousin, Christopher, know to the world as Criss Angel. Upon first glance one would think he was a truck driver or day laborer instead of a technician for his cousin's television show, MindFreak. He had been boxing for over a year now, training on his days off and during hiatus. He had built up considerable upper body strength not just from his daily hour in the gym, but from years of lifting heavy equipment for the show.
George had been working for Criss for a few years now, setting up props, assisting in "demonstrations", which was Criss' term for life-threatening stunts, and other technical duties. He made a good living at it, though the stress of watching his younger cousin lock himself in a car trunk and almost drown in a lake, get run over by a steamroller while lying on broken glass, and nearly get blown up in a collapsing hotel was nearly unbearable. Criss was a performer, an artist or so he claimed, but he was still family, and George didn't like the idea of a family member trying to kill himself in the name of art. But, it was his destiny, and George was there to make sure Criss got through his latest stunt in one piece--or pick up the pieces afterward.
Boxing was George's greatest pleasure in life. He had never gone professional, preferring the steady income of his position with MindFreak Productions to the fame and glamor of the pro circuit. Besides, the risk of serious injury would cut any professional career short. Amateur boxing was a good stress reliever; he enjoyed doing something for himself instead of catering to his cousin's outrageous whims. He was good at it, and he knew it: he knew the moves, he had the reflexes, and he had the stamina for it.
And he had a right cross that would stop a truck. Criss had a punching bag game in his suite at the Luxor which digitally registered the force applied to the bag after one blow. To date, George held the highest score, seven-sixty or so, a hundred points more than his cousin. Sore loser that he was, Criss tried and tried to beat him, taking swing after swing on the bag but never quite getting past seven hundred. George couldn't wait to have another go on the machine; after a year's training, he could break eight hundred, he figured.
The trainer's whistle blew. George ended his pummelling with a final blow to the bag and walked over to where his trainer, a barrel-chested old Irishman named Seamus Linehan, a two-time Golden Gloves winner back in his day (though his day was so far back hardly anyone remembered it) who had converted an old garage in North Las Vegas into a boxing gym thirty years ago. His auburn hair had turned white with age, his face had been flattened by too many fists in both the ring and the pub, and he used his oak cane for more than just supporting himself after his last hip replacement. He was a surly old sod with a good set of lungs despite his lifelong habit of cigar smoking, and he wasn't afraid to use them.
"All right, ye mugs!" Seamus bellowed loudly enough to be heard across Lake Meade. "Ye've enough for t'day! But b'fore ye clear outta here, I've got an announcement! There's to be an amateur match in a month's time, in the Excalibur Arena! If ye want to qualify, ye gotta try out on Saturday noontime! Remember, bouts are won by points, not knockouts! The highest score after three rounds goes to the match! If ye want to fight, don't ye go slackin' yer trainin'!" He waved his cane toward the locker room. "Now, git yer arses out of here!"
Seamus hobbled away. George and his fellow boxers filed into the locker room to shower and change. Inside, the attendant, a chubby boy of about twenty or so with his face distorted by Down's syndrome, handed them fresh towels. His name was David Linehan, youngest son Seamus, the only person for whom the crusty old Irishman had a soft spot next to his late wife, Meghann. Despite his tenderness with his disabled son, Seamus never let himself take pity on the boy. He gave him a job as locker room attendant, to mop the floors, scrub the toilets, fold the towels, and clean the shower room. David carried out his duties satisfactorily and without question, seldom speaking but flashing a pudgy smile when someone tipped him a dollar.
George took the towel from David with thanks, stripped off his sweaty gym clothes, wrapped the towel around his hips and headed for the shower room, a large olive-green tiled cube twelve feet square, with six spigots jutting out of the wall like chrome thumbs. He turned on one of the spigots and braced his bare chest against the stinging spray. George didn't mind the lack of privacy; he was used to communal showers since his high-school days. Nor did he particulary care with whom he was showering; you'd seen one naked ass, he thought apathetically, you'd seen them all.
Next to him was a stocky black man named Tobias "Tobe" Lacie. Tobe was a genial type in regular life, but in the ring he was a formidable opponent. Fighters found out early in a bout that punching him was like hitting a brick wall. Tobe could send an opponent to the mat with just a single hammer blow to the face. He would have gone professional, but he had to support his family after his father died, a fact that George could appreciate.
"You tryin' out for the match?" Tobe asked George.
George remained aloof as he soaped himself. "Maybe," he replied noncommittally. "I gotta check my schedule, first."
Tobe smiled through crooked teeth. "How's your cousin doin'?" he asked. "Get himself into any more crazy-assed (bleep) for his show?"
"Not recently," George answered evenly. "We're still in the planning stages for Season Five. Besides, he's got his live show, so he's gotta stay alive for that."
Tobe nodded. "Seriously, man, what's it like working for that dude?"
George rinsed off and turned off the shower. "Lemme put it to you this way," he said, wrapping the towel around his waist, "After a day working with Criss, I come here to relax."
Tobe laughed out loud. George left the shower room, his light olive-complexioned skin glistening in the flourescent light. Poor dude, Tobe thought to himself, gotta do all that crazy-assed (bleep) for that crazy-assed magician cousin of his! Still, the money must be good if he's stuck with it all this time! Hell, I'd do that (bleep) myself for that kind of cash! But, hey, this is Vegas--you gotta expect wierd (bleep) around here! And Criss Angel is as (bleeping) wierd as they come!
"Hey, guys, what's up?" Criss greeted his crew as he walked into the production office. Murmurs of "Good morning" and "Hi" greeted him in return. The group consisted of Criss' two brothers, JD and Costa, his manager, Dave Baram, technical advisors Joaquin Ayela and the hypnotist Gerard. A couple of cameramen were present to record the meeting for future reference and maybe for a behind-the-scenes shot for an upcoming episode of MindFreak.
Criss flopped down on one of the overstuffed chairs in the office, ready to get down to business. These informal meetings worked best for him; when everyone was relaxed, creativity flowed more easily. Though there were times when the horseplay got out of hand or Criss became so frustrated he threw things around the room, the laid-back think-tank produced results better than in any formal executive board room. And formal was just not Criss' style.
"So, what've you guys been up to?" Criss asked.
Gerard smiled, holding up a copy of the morning paper. "We were just reading about your friend, the Amazing Johnathan," he said. "He made the news this morning."
Criss was naturally curious. "What'd he do?"
"Got his ass in trouble," Gerard replied. "Or rather, it was his ass that got him in trouble."
"Meaning he was arrested for indecent exposure last night," Gerard said, smiling.
Criss was astonished. "AJ got arrested for indecent exposure?" he repeated incredulously.
Gerard nodded, still smiling lewdly. "Yeah, it's true. Some guy in the audience was heckling him during his show at the Magic Club last night," he explained. "He got so mad he mooned him."
Criss' jaw dropped. "He mooned the guy?"
"Yep. Right there in front of the whole audience. Got so mad at the (bleep)wad he about-faced, dropped his pants, and...."
Criss doubled over laughing. "Oh, my Gaaahhhhd!" he roared. "That is so...oh, (bleep)!"
"He got busted right after his act," Gerard continued. "Cops came in and hauled his ass to jail."
"With his pants up, I hope," Criss quipped.
"Hey, would you wanna look at AJ's bare ass?"
Criss shuddered at such a horrid thought. "So, what's gonna happen to him, do you know?" he asked.
"Probably fine him or something," JD replied. "I doubt it's gonna lead to serious jail time. Paper says his shows at the Magic Club have been cancelled until furthur notice."
Criss shook his head in disbelief. "Man, even for AJ, this is a new low," he said. "I mean, he's done some pretty crude stuff in his day, but this!"
"Well, what can you expect from a guy who keeps flipping the bird during his act?" JD pointed out. "Personally, I don't know why you stay friends with that (bleeper)."
"Give me a week and I'll tell you," Criss retorted.
Gerard tossed the newspaper aside. "Well, on to other business," he said. "Got any ideas for Season Five?"
Criss looked around the room. "Where's George?" he asked.
"He'll be here," JD said. "He's gone to the training gym this morning."
"Training?" Dave Baram repeated. "What's he training for?"
"George's gotten into amateur boxing lately," JD explained. "Goes to this little gym downtown and works out there."
"Why can't he work out in your gym, Criss?" Dave asked. "It's closer, and probably better equipped."
"What George chooses to do on his own time is his business," Criss stated. "He's welcome to work out in my gym, but if he wants to go downtown, it's his perogative. Besides, he's got a personal trainer there; I can't train him to be a boxer."
As if on cue, George Strumpolis stepped into the room. "Hey, guys," he said genially, "sorry I'm late."
"Ah, the future heavyweight champion of the world has just arrived!" Joaquin announced with mock fanfare.
George was annoyed. "First of all, I'm not a heavyweight anything," he said. "I'm more like middleweight, and it's strictly amateur. I'm not going pro; I just do this because I enjoy it."
He drew Criss aside. "Oh, by the way, I need Saturday off if you don't mind," he said.
Criss shrugged. "Sure, no prob," he answered. "What's the deal?"
"The Excalibur is holding an amateur boxing match next month," George explained. "Tryouts are this Saturday, and I'd really like a shot at this. Whaddya say, huh?"
"Well, okay, George, if that's what you want," Criss told him. "Good luck, okay?"
George smiled and patted his cousin on the shoulder. "Thanks, Criss."
"Okay, let's get down to business here," Dave said, holding up the itinerary. "The Fantasy and Naked Jail Escape episodes pulled in the highest ratings in the series next to the Implosion episode, so anyway you can top those?"
"I'm an illusionist, not a male stripper," Criss insisted.
"Face it, Criss," Gerard said, "the fans want to see more of you than your magic. Every square inch of you, in fact."
"Been there, done that," Criss said. "I can't show any more skin than the FCC will allow, you know that. Even if I did...expose myself again, the editors are just gonna do what they did before in Fantasy and Naked Jail and...you know."
"Block your tackle?"
Everyone laughed at that bit of witticism. "Yeah, that's it," Criss said. "So, why bother? I'm here to perform illusions and escapes, not strip down to my after-shave just for ratings. AJ got his ass in trouble, literally, for mooning his audience. I'm not going to stoop to his level."
"First of all, AJ mooned a heckler, not his audience," Gerard pointed out. "That was impulsive. You stripped for your art in those two episodes--that's different."
"It was for Fantasy I stripped for my art," Criss argued. "In Naked Jail, those guys stripped me against my will, remember? They cut off my briefs with a pair of scissors in that cell, right in front of all those women! And to top it off, they locked all my clothes in another cell! That's art? It was more like a conspiracy!"
The crew laughed at the memory of a naked Criss Angel struggling to escape from his jail cell in two hours, just in time to fetch his clothes and preserve his dignity, to the disappointment of the twenty women assembled there. "Hey, you pulled it off, didn't you?" Gerard said.
"Just barely," Criss replied, "no pun intended."
Dave Baram cleared his throat. "Moving right along," he said, looking at the itinerary.
Suddenly, Criss was struck with a brilliant idea. "Hey, George!" he cried eagerly. "You're taking up amateur boxing! Maybe we can do an episode with sports theme!"
Everyone agreed unanimously. "A sports theme! Great!" JD cheered. Just so long as it doesn't involve you trying to kill yourself, Criss, he added mentally.
"Think you can get us access to your gym, George?" Criss asked. "I'd be great if we could tape the show there."
George was hesitant. "Well, I'll have to clear it with old man Linehan," he hedged. "He's a tough old (bleeper) with a bad temper, so I'm not going to promise you anything."
"What if we paid him?" Criss suggested.
George thought about it. "Well, if you paid him, he might consider it," he replied. "But don't quote me on that--he's still a stubborn old (bleeper)."
"Well, run it up the flagpole with him and see if he'll let us in," Criss said.
"What about your own gym?" JD suggested. "Why can't we use that?"
"We'll get a few shots of me working out," Criss said. "I'll even go topless for the female fans. How about that, Gerard?"
"Might work," Gerard said. Then, with a mischevious grin, added, "How about a shot of you taking a shower after your workout?"
Criss could see where this was going. "Forget it."
"I'm just saying--"
"Shower time is my time, okay, Gerard?" Criss stated. "I mean, what's the deal with nudity all of a sudden?"
"I'm just saying give the fans what they want."
"What they want is my magic, my illusions, my talent," Criss insisted. "Not my naked body."
"You haven't been reading the fanboards lately, have you, Criss?" Costa spoke up for the first time that morning.
Criss dismissed his brother's observation. "Look, we'll just stick with the sports theme for now, okay?" he said, exasperated with Gerard's lascivious attitude. "Write down your ideas and we'll discuss this next time. And no nude shots, got it?"
The crew nodded. Costa remained silent. Since when is Criss against nudity all of a sudden? he wondered. In the mood he's in, how am I going to ask for his help now?
"Hey, AJ, it's me, Criss!"
"Oh, hey, Criss," The Amazing Johnathan grumbled in his cell phone. "Whaddya want?"
"Oh, nothing, just calling to say hello," Criss replied casually. "I read about you in the paper this morning."
"Quite a stunt you pulled there last night," Criss went on. "Dropping trou and showing everybody your best side. Bet that went over well. I just hope you didn't pass gas while you were at it--you would have cleared the whole club."
"(Bleep) you, Criss!" AJ spat. "Who are you to criticize?"
"I'm not criticizing!"
"Yeah? Well, you went bareassed on TV--twice!"
"Yeah, but they didn't show my ass," Criss pointed out. "The censors blurred me around the hips, remember? No one saw a thing."
"Not that there was any 'thing' worth seeing," AJ retorted.
Criss chose to ignore the insult. "So, what are you going to do now?" he asked. "Your shows at the Magic Club got cancelled. Any plans?"
"Don't worry about me," AJ told him. "I'll be just fine."
"I never worried about you, AJ," Criss said. "Listen, I gotta get back to work. Enjoy your time off."
"Go (bleep) yourself, Criss!"
Criss laughed and hung up, savoring the schadenfreud of his rival's embarrassing situation. Barely a heartbeat later, his phone rang. Criss looked at the Caller ID message on the tiny LED screen: Costa, it read. He flipped it open. "Hey, Cos, what's up?" he said.
"Hey, Criss, how are you?" Costa said.
"Good. So, what's up?"
"Well, I need to ask you a favor."
"Sure, no problem. Whaddya need?"
"Well, I am assembling a portfolio of my photographs," Costa began," and I need some pictures of you."
"No big deal," Criss shrugged. "I got a ton of them--help yourself."
"It's not that simple, Criss," Costa told him. "I need some fresh pictures of you."
"You wanna set up a photo shoot?" Criss thought about it. "Well, my schedule's pretty tight right now, but I got Monday evening off. How about then?"
"Monday evening'll be fine," Costa agreed. "Just come over to my place and we'll go from there."
"Sounds good. What kind of photos did you have in mind, anyway? Publicity, portrait?"
Costa plunged, bracing himself for the worst. "Nude."
There was silence on the other end. "Criss?" Costa called out. "You still there?"
"You wanna do nude pictures of me?" Criss spoke incredulously.
"Look, it's not like I'm going to publish them," Costa protested. "It's just for my personal portfolio of art photos. Hardly anyone's gonna see them."
"But why me?"
"Because I'm having a helluva time getting models to pose nude for me, no matter how much I offer to pay them. I'm lucky to get the models I got right now. Besides, let's face it, you got the body for it."
"Well, gee, I'm flattered," Criss replied sarcastically.
"Now don't get snotty about it," Costa warned him. "You've posed partially nude before, remember? And those two shows we talked about at the meeting? You're not going prudish on me, are you? I mean, I thought you were comfortable with your body. Why are you ashamed of it all of a sudden?"
"I'm not ashamed of my body!" Criss protested. "In fact, I'm very comfortable inside my own skin, thank you very much. And to prove it, I'll come over Monday evening and pose for those pictures, and I'll show you who's ashamed of his own body."
"Looking forward to it, little brother," Costa said cheerfully. "See you later."
"Later." Criss flipped off his phone. I'm not a prude! he told himself. I'm quite proud of my body! I had the (bleeps) to strip for the Fantasy episode, didn't I? Costa wants to take pictures of me in the buff? Fine! I'll give him his money's worth, and more!
As time wore on, however, Criss began to get the uneasy feeling that somehow he had been conned. Had Costa played on his pride to get him to consent to the photo shoot? No, he thought, Costa wouldn't stoop so low. It was his own sense of superiority that led him into this arrangement. Well, the damage was done; no point in backing out now. Besides, it was for a private portfolio, not a centerfold spread for Playgirl. Costa had assured him that hardly anyone would see them, and Criss knew that his brother's word was as good as gold, so he didn't have to worry about a Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson-type scandal broadsiding his career. But who, he couldn't help but wonder, was "hardly anyone"?
George knocked on the dented metal door of Linehan's office. "Seamus?" he called out.
"Door's open." a gruff Irish brogue responded.
George entered the office. Linehan sat at his desk, going over the bills. "Hey, Seamus," he said, "can I talk to you for a minute?"
"A minute's all ye got," Linehan said bluntly. still poring over the bills.
"I came to ask a favor," George began.
"Not a brass penny!" Linehan snapped.
"I'm not asking for money," George said, "I'm asking for the use of your gym for my cousin's TV series."
Linehan looked up, curious. "Ye're what?"
"My cousin, Criss, wants to use your gym to tape an episode of his series, MindFreak," George explained. "We won't get in your way, and nothing's gonna get broken, I promise."
Linehan swiveled around in his spindly office chair. "And what's in it fer me, might I ask?" he demanded.
"We're offering to pay you for the trouble," George told him.
A spark of interest glinted in the old man's eye. "How much?"
George shrugged. "Oh, I dunno. Five grand?"
"Make it ten."
"Seven," George countered.
"Eight. And that's me final offer."
George considered it. "Okay, eight it is."
For the first time since he'd been training in Linehan's gym, George actually saw Seamus smile. "Let me clear it with Criss and I'll get back to you," he said.
"Good," Linehan said, "now git yer arse outta me office. I got work to do."
George closed the metal door quietly behind him. Geez! That old (bleeper) knows how to drive a hard bargain! Must've done some serious horse trading back in Ireland or something.
"So, what'd Seamus say?" Criss asked George at the production meeting the next day.
"He'd said he'd do it," George replied, "for eight grand."
Criss was flabbergasted. "Eight grand!?"
"That's what he said, eight grand. He wanted ten at first, but I had to negotiate my ass off to get it down to eight. You said you were willing to pay him."
"Yeah, but eight thousand dollars for a two-day shoot? That's outrageous!"
"It's his gym, Criss," George reminded him. "He calls the shots. You wanna back out?"
"No, no," Criss said hastily. "It's still a good plan. If he wants eight thousand for it, then...what choice do we have? Like you said, it's his gym."
"Maybe he's got some heavy bills he needs to pay," Costa commented.
George remembered the pile of bills on Linehan's desk when he first broached the subject of using the gym for taping the show. Poor guy must really be in debt to ask for that much, he reasoned. No wonder he's such a crank!
"So when do we start taping?" Dave Baram asked.
"First thing tomorrow morning," Criss told him. "We go to my gym first, get a few shots there, then we go to Linehan's Gym."
"Anything special planned?"
Criss smiled mischeviously. "You'll see," he replied. "I don't want to spoil the surprise."
Later that day, while Criss was performing a matinee show, JD sorted through old photographs of his father to use for the upcoming Sports episode. There was one in particular he was looking for: an ad dating back to the late Fifties of John Sarantakos as Mr. Universe. The last he had seen of it was when Criss used it for his book MindFreak. Criss had sworn up and down that the original had been returned to him after publishing, but for the life of him JD could not find it anywhere. It had to be in that box somewhere, he thought.
In spite of his diligence, JD came across the occasional photo which made him pause and reflect, stirring emotions he had believed he'd overcome after eleven years: Dad and the family on Long Island Sound; Dad sitting with a youthful Chris on the hood of JD's car; Mom and Dad cuddling in the living room; Dad's last birthday party, posing with a long-haired Christopher; Mom and Dad's wedding portrait in black and white, now faded to shades of gray after fifty years. God, Mom looked beautiful back then, he thought.
A large worn Manila envelope lying on the bottom of the box caught JD's attention. Curious, he picked it up and opened it. Inside was a stack of John's Mr. Universe publicity photos, eight-by-ten glossies shot in black and white, their images still crisp after half a century. JD examined each picture one by one, hardly believing the Adonis in the tight black briefs who graced the film and paper he held in his hands had been his own father. Every shot highlighted a physique worthy of the Olympian gods themselves: rippling muscles, broad shoulders, tight, firm abdomen, arms strong enough to lift a horse. He must've worked out like a demon! JD thought. I've never seen Dad look so ripped!
He laid the glossies next to the snapshots of his father in later life, comparing the two. It saddened him deeply as he reflected upon the cruel irony that such a perfect specimen of humanity should have succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty. Sorrowfully, almost reverently, he slipped the glossies back into the worn envelope. He debated with himself whether to show these to Criss and Costa; he knew they had the right to see them, but feared they would only bring back sad memories of their father's passing. In the end, family won out over fear. He had to show them to his brothers; it was up to Criss to decide whether or not they were too personal to use on the show.
JD picked up the envelope and headed for Criss' office. I hope he's got a box of tissues in there, JD said to himself, because once he sees these, he's gonna need them.
The first few segments of the Sports episode went well enough. The camera crew taped Criss' morning workout in his personal gym. They taped him benchpressing, ab crunching and doing bicep curls with weights. They shot close-ups of his legs flexing on the Stairmaster and the treadmill for emphasis. They caught on tape tiny beads of sweat running down his face and muscular shoulders. Within an hour they had all the footage they needed; later, a voice-over of Criss explaining his exercise routine would be added during editing.
True to his promise to Gerard, Criss stripped to the waist for the taping. Clad only in navy blue Spandex bicycle shorts, he grunted and sweated through his fitness regimen, oblivious to the camera crew; he had given them explicit instructions not to disturb him during his workout because he had to stay focused, and they complied.
The illusion Criss performed for the workout segment was something he called the Bottomless Water Bottle. He took a seemingly ordinary plastic water bottle, drank his fill from it, then poured it over his head and body, then drank some more, then poured more into his hand. No matter how much he poured out, the bottle never emptied. There were no cutaway shots, no shifting of camera angles; it was all filmed in one take. At the end of the Bottomless Water Bottle illusion, Criss retired to the locker room, ordering the camera crew to mop up the water on the floor. That little self-centered act insured total privacy while he was showering and dressing.
One disgruntled member of the crew, however, vowed to take revenge. With the aid of a small hand-held camcorder, a cameraman named Kevin slipped into the locker room, crept up to the opaque-glass door of the single shower stall Criss was in, and taped his blurry silhouette as he showered, waiting paitently for just the right moment.
Criss turned off the water and casually emerged from the shower stall. His casualness disappeared when he saw Kevin aiming a camcorder right at his totally exposed naked body. For the merest moment, Criss froze in shock at this intrusion of privacy, then anger galvanized him into action.
"What the (bleep) are you doing?!" he demanded. "Get the (bleep) out of here!"
Kevin scrambled out of the locker room, fearing for his life while at the same time gloating over his small victory. His days as a cameraman for MindFreak were numbered, but at least he could claim he went out with a bang.
Right cross. Block. Left hook. Duck. Uppercut. Slip. Right cut. Jab.
George Strumpolis practiced his boxing moves in the giant mirror on the far wall of Linehan's Gym, under the watchful eye of Seamus Linehan himself. Stay focused, he told himself. Keep your arms up, your chin down, and your eyes on your opponent. Keep your stance no matter what, and above all, keep moving to avoid a blow.
Linehan observed George as he shadowboxed. The Greek shows good form, he thought, and he's got a wicked right arm. He just needs to learn how to use it properly. Punching a heavy bag is fine and good, but using it against a live opponent is another matter altogether.
The old man hobbled over to George and rapped his cane against his trainee's shins for attention. George halted in midfeint and looked at Linehan. He was not resentful of the interruption; it was all part of the training, he reasoned. If Seamus called for your attention, it was wise to give it to him.
"Ye've a good right arm, there, George," Linehan said grudgingly. "But ye need to work on ye're left. I know they say don't let yer right hand know what yer left hand is doin', but in boxing both right and left hands have t'work together." He pointed to the heavy punching bag hanging in the corner. "Go over to the bag and show me yer left hook."
George obeyed. He walked over to the five-foot oblong bag suspended from the ceiling by three heavy chains. He took his stance and delivered the hardest left hook he could, causing the bag to sway on its moorings. Linehan observed it iwth a critical eye. "Ye're delivery's good," he said, "but ye're telegraphing it to yer opponent by screwin' up yer arm before swinging! It's gotta come without notice, lad! Ye gotta feint wi' yer right to distract yer opponent so you can swing with yer left without his knowin' it! Boxin's not all hooks and jabs, y'know! Ye gotta use yer head as well as yer fists! Now, keep workin' on yer left!"
Linehan hobbled away to chew out another boxer who couldn't keep his stance. George shut out the old man's tirade and concentrated on his left hook. Don't screw up your arm, he reminded himself. Feint with your right before striking with your left. He swung his left arm, striking the heavy bag. It didn't go well; he was still screwing up for the punch. He tried again, faking with his right this time. Again, it didn't satisfy him. He went at it again. And again. And again. George was determined to strengthen his left hook so he could qualify for Saturday's tryouts for the Excalibur bout next month, no matter how many times he had to pummel that bag.
In his private studio, Costa was shooting pictures of his latest model, Sola, a slim California-blond woman of twenty-three (he checked her credentials carefully before he took one photo of her to confirm her age) who had no objections to posing nude. Indeed, she offered to pay him for the privilege--she wanted to use them for her modeling career, she said, hopefully to become of of Hugh Hefner's Girls Next Door. Costa had no objection, just so long as he retained the negatives and claimed copyright of them for his portfolio. Sola agreed and stripped down to her California tan.
Costa tried to keep the photos as "artistic" as possible, but Sola gave her poses a more seductive air than he wanted, despite his instructions to the contrary. This wasn't for Playboy, he kept reminding her, so would she please turn down the heat? Sola tried to co-operate, but her natural seductiveness kept getting in the way. It was all Costa could do to keep things professional between them.
Finally the session was over. "That's a wrap!" Costa announced. "You can get dressed now, Sola."
Sola wrapped herself in a thin cotton robe. "That was fun," she said brightly. "We should do it again sometime."
Costa wasn't really sure if he wanted to do it again sometime, at least not with Sola. "You'll have the pictures in about a week or so," he said. "Thanks for your time."
"Thank you for the opportunuty," Sola returned.
She went into a side room to dress. Costa heaved a huge sigh of relief. For the first time he began to wonder if this portfolio was worth the trouble. The naked human body was an ideal subject for photography, granted, but he didn't want to come across as a pornographer. He never claimed there was a fine line between art and smut, but there were gray patches blurring the differences between them. Art, like beauty, was in the eye of the beholder.
Costa checked his itnerary. Criss was his next model Monday evening, according to his schedule. At least he would be a bit more co-operative, or so he hoped. He had no qualms about seeing Criss in the nude; Costa had seen his little brother's bare behind since he was a month old. It was just that Criss was more used to giving orders than taking them; having his plans thwarted irritated him, no matter how sound the reason.
Well, Costa would just have to pull fraternal rank if he had to in order to get Criss to pose as he wanted. He wouln't stoop to playing the Mom card, but a gentle reminder of who was the older brother wouldn't hurt. Criss wasn't a tyrant, but every now and then he had to be put in his place where the family was concerned. It was his way to keep him humble, or at least grounded in reality. Criss may be the star of the show, but in the family circle he was still baby brother Christopher, and Costa was not going to let him forget that.
A boxy white truck led by a large black SUV pulled into the gravelly lot of Linehan's Gym around ten o'clock that morning. Criss looked out the tinted window of the SUV at the squat square building covered with gang graffiti on its cinderblock walls and wondered why his cousin George would come here to train to be a boxer.
Criss got out of the SUV and stood looking at the nondescript building that housed Linehan's Gym. Not very impressive, he thought. Looks more like my warehouse. Well, maybe inside will be better.
He waved to the two member cameramen to follow him (Kevin had been summarily discharged for his indiscreet taping of Criss in the shower, so only a couple remained for the rest of the shoot). He turned to his brother, JD. "You got the check ready?" he asked.
JD held up the cashier's check payable to Seamus Linehan for the amount of eight thousand dollars and no cents. Criss nodded approvingly, took the check and walked across the lot to the gym entrance. He halted and held up his hands. "Wait here," he said. "I gotta clear up some business before we start taping."
Criss walked through the metal door of the gym. The smell of canvas, damp towels and leather mingled with the rank stench of sweat hit him squarely in the face, almost knocking him back. "Ugh! My God in Heaven!" he choked. "How can George stand to work out in here?"
Gagging, he braved the foul atmosphere and made his way into the dimly lit gym. He could hear the sound of padded gloves striking leather, vinyl and human flesh. He saw two boxers, their faces concealed in padded helmets, sparring in the ring. But where was George? He looked around, but saw no sign of him anywhere. He looked again at the two fighters in the ring. Could George be one of them? he wondered.
Criss turned to see his cousin standing in a far corner next to a small office. "Oh, there you are, George," he said, relieved. "I've been looking all over for you."
"Did you bring the money?" George asked. "Linehan's been waiting for it all morning."
Criss held up the check. "Right here. Where's Linehan?"
George nodded toward the small office. "Watch yourself," he warned. "Linehan's a mean old (bleeper), and he's never heard of you, so don't expect a warm reception."
Criss went into the office and rapped on the door. We'll see just how warm he'll be when he gets the money, he thought.
"Door's open!" came the gruff voice from inside.
Criss entered. "Mr. Linehan?" he began cordially, "I'm Criss Angel, George's cousin. First of all, I'd like to thank you for letting us use your gym to tape our show, and--"
"Cut the blathering!" Linehan snapped at him. "Ye've got the money or not?"
"Oh, yeah," Criss replied. "Here you go. Eight thousand dollars, just as we agreed upon."
The old man's demeanor warmed a couple of degrees when he looked at the cashier's check. "Good," he said. "Ye kin film all ye want, but don't ye be gettin' in the way of the boxers--these mugs'll take ye down if ye go botherin' 'em. Me office is off limits, and don't ye go askin' me for an innerview--I got too much work to do around here! And stay out of the shower room! I don't want ye filmin' anyone's bare bums fer yer show! I run a respectable place here!"
"Got it," Criss said, taken aback at such a brusque manner.
Linehan waved him away. Criss beat a hasty retreat. George eyed him smugly as he emerged from the office. "Warned you," he said. "This guy doesn't give a damn if you're a celebrity or not--his gym, his rules."
"So I found out," Criss said.
"You ready to shoot?"
Criss nodded. "I'll get the crew. I just hope they don't pass out from the stink in here."
George smiled. "You'll get used to it," he assured him good-naturedly. "I did."
Criss dashed out of the gym to gulp a few lungfuls of fresh air before going back inside. Noting his distress, JD approached him. "How was it in there?" he asked.
"Did you bring a gas mask?" Criss asked, gasping. "I mean, it's rank in there! Whooooo!"
The two cameramen went into the gym to film Criss' entrance. "Suck it up, Criss," JD said, patting his youngest brother on the back. "You've survived worse than this. Remember, you wanted to tape the show here, so you gotta take the bad with the good."
Criss' breathing returned to normal. "Okay," he said, "I'm good. Let's go."
JD entered the gym first to set up the camera angles for Criss' entrance. Criss adjusted his portable microphone and took his last few breaths of fresh air before reentering the reeking atmosphere of Linehan's Gym. Memo to Linehan, he said to himself, upgrade ventilation.
The signal to enter came. "Good to go, Criss," came JD's voice over the tiny earbud headphone Criss wore.
Criss braced himself and entered the gym, valiently trying to overcome the smell. He faced the camera at the end of the corridor and bravely inhaled the air in the gym. "You heard of Brut?" he said with bravado into the camera. Suddenly he doubled over coughing and wheezing. "This is brutal!" he gagged.
"Aaannnd cut!" JD said. "Good one, Criss."
Criss shook his head. "The things I do for my art," he mused glumly.
JD saw Cousin George working out at the heavy bag in the corner of the gym. "Hey, there's George," he said to Criss. "Come on, let's go see him."
Criss and one of the cameramen walked up to George; the other remained behind to tape footage of the two boxers sparring in the ring. "Hey, George!" Criss called out. "How's it goin'?"
George stopped sharpening his left hook and turned to see his two cousins with a cameraman in tow. "Hey, guys," he panted.
"So, how's training coming along?" Criss asked.
George swept his brow with his forearm. "I'm gettin' there," he replied. "Still working on my left."
Criss noted how heavily George was perspiring, and he became concerned. "Can I get you a bottle of water or something?" he suggested. "You're sweating like a horse!"
George nodded wearily. "Bucket's over there," he said, pointing to a tin pail with a dipper in it.
JD and Criss eyed the water bucket with distaste. "You all got to drink out of that?" Criss said in disgust.
"Yeah, well," George said, shrugging his shoulders, "this place is pretty no-frills, you know. Linehan's on a tight budget."
"Yeah, but still," Criss protested, "you have to keep up with the health codes."
JD turned to Criss. "I'll go to the truck and see if I can find some bottled water," he said.
Criss nodded emphatically. "You do that!" he exclaimed. "That thing's probably swimming with germs!"
JD left to fetch the water. Criss turned to the other cameraman. "Get some footage of the other boxers for a while," he told him. "I wanna talk to George off the record for a while."
The second cameraman nodded and went to tape a boxer at the speed bag. Criss turned back to his cousin. "Look, George," he said, "you're welcome to train in my gym if you want. I can set you up with whatever you need: punching bags, gloves, you name it. I got the weights and all the other equipment, and it's a helluva lot cleaner than this place. I mean, with all due respect to Linehan, this place is a dive, man!"
"I appreciate the offer, Criss," George said, "but Linehan's my official trainer, so it's his place or no place. I know it's a 'dive' as you call it, but it's the only training gym that's closest to me. It's not too bad once you get used to it, really. Besides, I got to get in shape for the tryouts on Saturday, and this is the only place for it."
He returned to working on his left hook. Criss drew a deep sigh and immediatly regretted it; he coughed the foul air of the gym out of his lungs. God! he thought. How can you stand it, George?The air in here will knock you out faster than Mike Tyson!
A loud whistle interrupted the boxers. "All right, ye mugs!" Linehan bellowed. "Change places!" He pointed his cane to the two boxers in the ring. "You two, out! Lacie, you and the Greek into the ring!"
"The Greek?" Criss inquired.
"Uh, he means me," George said. "He keeps forgetting my last name, so I'm either the Greek or just George."
George peeled the Velcro straps of his training gloves with his teeth and pulled them off. "My sparring gloves are over there, Criss," he said. "You wanna go get them for me?"
"Sure." Criss went to get the red vinyl gloves. They were smaller and lighter than he thought they would be. "Are you sure these are yours?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's them."
Criss bought the gloves over while George donned his padded boxer's helmet, a task made more difficult with his hands taped. Criss helped him with his gloves and walked over to him to the ring. George threaded himself between the ropes and took his place in the corner. Criss stood beside him, waiting for the sparring match to begin.
"Hey, Criss!" It was JD, carrying a six-pack of bottled water. "I got the water!" he announced. "It's not very cold, but--"
"It's okay," Criss said. "Just break me one for George over here."
JD pulled out a bottle from the shrinkwrap and handed it to Criss, who in turn handed it to George. "You'll have to open it and give it to me," he said. "I can't hold it with my gloves on."
Criss cracked open the plastic bottle and put it to George's lips. George chugged a few mouthfuls and withdrew, spraying the last of the water to the side. "Okay, I'm good," he said.
George's opponent, Tobe Lacie, had just climbed into the ring, his dark brown skin reflecting the flourescent lighting above like moonlight on water. The two combatants stood and faced each other in the ring. The referee, Linehan's eldest son Sean and champion amateur boxer in his own right, stood between them as he explained the rules: "Three minute rounds, three rounds in a bout. No hitting below the belt, no tripping, no kicking. If you need to call a time out, raise your right arm. Ready? Go!!"
Criss watched his cousin deliver punch after punch, deflect blow after blow his opponent gave him. Soon he was wildly enthusiastic, cheering on George as if he was fighting for the title. "C'mon, George!" he shouted. "Way to go! Yeeeeaaaahhhh!"
George faked a left hook, catching Tobe off guard, then he landed a powerful right cross on him. Tobe reeled from the blow. George came down with his left, hammering Tobe to the mat. The referee interceded, preventing George from finishing off his opponent.
"Back of the head, illegal move," the referee ruled. "That'll cost you three points."
George accepted the ruling grudgingly but without protest. Criss, however, slammed the heel of his hand against the post. "Damn!" he swore.
The opponents retreated to their corners. "You almost nailed him, George!" Criss cried. "What the hell happened?"
"The rules are different for amateur boxers, Criss," George explained. "We win by points, not knockouts. These aren't pros who make it their living. These are guys who have regular jobs, so they have to stay healthy and in one piece to support their families or whatever. If I kill a guy in the ring, I go to prison for manslaughter."
The referee signalled the beginning of Round Two. George and Tobe sparred around and around the ring, searching for the weak spots for where to strike while blocking and ducking each other's punches. Again, George landed a right to Tobe's chest, causing him to lose his balance, then another hook to the side to send him sprawling to the mat. Criss waited for the ref's call, but there was no interference from the official. Tobe struggled to his feet and came back swinging, catching George with a right cut to the head. George retaliated with his newly developed left hook to Tobe's chin. Suddenly the three-minute signal was given, and both men retreated to their corners.
"Good one, George!" Criss exclaimed. "I think you're gonna win this one! You're really kicking that guy's ass!"
"It's just a practice bout, okay?" George panted. "Gimme some more water, willya?"
Criss fed him another swig from the bottle, then mopped his cousin's head with a small white towel. The referee signalled Round Three. "Go get him, George!" Criss cheered encouragingly.
George rose and took his stance. Tobe took his stance as well. Then the final round began at the referee's signal. George led with his left, deflecting Tobe's right cut with his elbow. Tobe delivered a roundhouse to George's left temple, a fatal blow if not for the padded helmet he wore. It knocked George off balance, but he quickly regained it and returned with an uppercut to Tobe's exposed chin. Tobe swore through his mouthpiece and came at George, hammering away like a madman. It was all George could do to block and swerve away from Tobe's flying fists of fury. Through the punishment he received from his angry opponent, George found an opening just above the solar plexus, that part of the body containing the viscera and other vital organs and plowed his fist straight into it. Tobe's mouthpiece shot straight from his jaws from the force of it. He staggered away from George, gasping for air. Concerned for his friend and sparring partner, George signalled for a time out.
Tobe was assisted to his corner by the referee. George hovered over him, worried about the damage he had inflicted. "You okay, dude?" he asked anxiously.
Tobe nodded, still gasping for air. "I'm good," he panted. "I'm good. You just knocked the wind out of me, man!"
The shrill tweeting of Linehan's whistle meant the end of the practice bout. George didn't stick around to hear the official results; they didn't matter any more to him now. Instead, he climbed out of the ring and stood there, unsure of what to do now.
Criss went over to his grieved cousin. "You okay, man?" he asked softly.
"I'm good," George replied. "Just don't use that in the show, okay, Criss?"
"Sure, man," Criss said sympathetically. "I understand."
Later, while George and Tobe were showering and dressing for the street, Criss and his crew packed up the camera equipment in the white truck. "God!" Criss exclaimed. "It's good to be back out in the fresh air again!"
JD agreed. "Maybe with the eight thousand bucks you paid him, Old Man Linehan'll improve the ventilation in there."
"At least install a drinking fountain or something," Criss commented. "Ten guys drinking out of a tin pail? Forget about it!"
"Well, next time you want to do a sports theme for the show," JD said, "pick a fitness center or something. That dump should be condemned by the Board of Health!"
"That place would have to be redecorated before it could be condemned!" Criss joked.
"Hey!" a strange voice called out.
Criss and JD turned to see George and his sparring partner, Tobe Lacie, standing before them. "Whatchoo doin', dissin' Linehan like that?" Tobe demanded.
"We ain't 'dissing' anyone," Criss protested. "We just think that his gym could use some upgrading, that's all."
"Especially the ventilation," JD added. "The air in there could deplete the ozone."
"So, give him some money to do it!" Tobe retorted.
"We just paid him eight thousand dollars to let us tape our show in there!" Criss said.
"Eight thousand?" Tobe echoed in disbelief.
Criss nodded. "Yeah, that's right, eight thousand."
Tobe turned to George. "That right, man?" he asked.
George nodded. "Paid him just before they started taping," he said.
Tobe turned back and looked at the square cinderblock building with gang graffiti scrawled on the walls. "Gonna take more'n that to get this place in shape," he noted somberly.
"Hey, it's a start," George said optimistically.
"You don't know how deep in over his head Linehan is, do you?" Tobe said.
The cousins grew concerned. "That bad, huh?"
"Worse," Tobe grunted. "Place is mortgaged to the hilt. It's all Seamus can do to keep it running the way it is. Can't afford to make repairs, or much else. Building inspector's riding his ass to get it fixed up. Maybe eight grand'll help in some way, I dunno. It sure as hell ain't gonna solve all of his problems."
George remembered his negotiations with Linehan for the price of using the gym to tape Criss' show. "Maybe we should have taken him up for ten grand after all," he mused sadly.
"Well, Seamus ain't no quitter," Tobe said with building confidence. "He'll find a way. Now that he's got that eight grand, things'll be a little easier for him. And if our team wins the match at the Excalibur, it'll be a boost to the old man's ego."
"Isn't there any prize money offered?" Criss asked.
"Not for an amateur bout," George answered, shaking his head. "It's strictly exhibition, publicity for the Excalibur Hotel. You win a medal, that's it."
"Not much of an ego boost," Criss noted glumly.
George shrugged. "Better than nothing."
"Anything we can do to help?" Criss asked. "Anything at all?"
"You already paid 'im eight grand," Tobe said. "That's more than anyone ever did."
"I could give him more."
George shook his head. "Linehan's too proud to ask for a handout," he said. "He says he doesn't take charity from anyone. He either earns the money or wins it."
"Maybe the publicity from the show will boost membership," JD suggested.
Tobe smiled. "Yeah! There you go!"
"It'll be months before this airs, JD," Criss reminded him. "By then, it'll be too late."
"Well," JD replied, still hoping, "anything can happen before then."
"Only if you believe in miracles, man," Tobe said. "Other than that, we're up (bleep) creek."
Back in the editing room, Criss and his film editor reviewed the "rushes" or segments of tape for the Sports episode they had taken so far, commenting and debating on what to use when.
"Okay, that's a good shot right there," Criss said, pointing to a bird's eye scene of himself benchpressing. "We can use that at the beginning. And that one right here, the one of me doing curls--that's a good one. We can fit that in as well."
"How about this one?" the editor asked, pointing to a shot of Criss' sweaty bare shoulders.
"Hmmmm, nah," Criss replied disapprovingly. "I want everyone to see the whole of me, not just the parts."
"How about this shot of you on the treadmill?"
Criss thought about it. "Well, the leg part can stay in for a bit, but focus more on the upper half," he said. "I'm going to be doing some narrating while I'm at it."
"Okay," the editor agreed. "How about these ab crunches? You look like you're really straining there."
"Let them see me strain," Criss insisted. "No pain, no gain. It'll show I'm really working out and not faking it."
"Why would anyone think you're faking it?"
Criss ignored the question. "Next rush."
Linehan's Gym came into view. There was a close-up of Criss in the corridor: (Inhales deeply) "You've heard of Brut?" (coughing and choking) "This is brutal!"
"Oh, that's classic, Criss!" the editor laughed. "Real classic."
The tape played on. "Good shots of the ring, there," the editor commented. "Hey, there's George!"
Criss and the editor watched George punch the heavy bag with his left. "I thought you said he had a good right hook." the editor said, puzzled.
"So?" Criss shrugged. "Now he's working on his left. You gotta box with two hands, you know."
The tape ended abruptly. "Didn't get much in there, did you?"
"Hey, it was only the first day," Criss reminded him. "Besides, that place would make you gag, it stinks so bad in there. We had to get out before we passed out."
The editor smiled. "Sweaty socks? Damp towels? Armpits?"
Criss nodded. "Among other things."
"Okay, let's see what's next."
They watched the monitor closely for the next segment. Suddenly, Criss exploded in outrage. "What the (bleep)?" he roared.
The editor was stunned at first, then embarrassed, then amused. It seemed that former cameraman Kevin had slipped his indiscreet little video of Criss emerging from the shower into the rushes for the show. "Oh, my God," he murmured.
"Who the (bleep) put that in there?"
The editor protested his innocence. "Criss, I swear, I--"
"Get it out of there! NOW!!"
The editor hit the Delete button, erasing the incriminating evidence from the rushes. "Okay, okay," he said placatingly. "It's gone, see?"
Criss' anger simmered down. "Good," he said, regaining his self-control. "I'm so going to kill that (bleeper) when I find him."
"Well, you said you wanted everyone to see the whole of you," the editor reminded him.
Criss shot his editor a dirty look in reply.
Three PM rolled around, and with it came the mail for MindFreak Productions. All fan mail was swiftly transferred to another office to be answered by a team of secretaries hired for just that purpose, while business correspondence was routed to their respective departments: Accounting, Merchandising, Legal, and Production among others. Criss' personal mail, such as cell phone bills, credit card statements and other mundane affairs, were delivered to his private mailbox in his office.
Criss arrived at the production office after going over the rushes with his editor, still sour over the nude scene that has been slipped in without his knowledge. He grabbed his mail for the day and retreated into the sanctity of his office, the scowl on his face giving notice to the staff that he was not to be disturbed.
Cell phone bill; AmEx statement; VISA statement; ad from some wireless network promising to reduce his long-distance plan by thirty percent that he sent sailing into the wastebasket; a postcard from Rose Medical Center--
Rose Medical Center? What the hell do they want? Criss wondered as he flipped over the paperboard card. On the back was a preprinted message with the date and blanks filled in:
Dear Mr. Criss Angel.
Just a reminder that your annual physical is on: Monday, **/**/20**
at: 9:30am X pm__
Please bring a photo ID and insurance card with you on the day of your appointment. We advise you to arrive at least fifteen minutes early to fill out the necessary forms. We look forward to seeing you soon!
The Staff at Rose Medical Center.
To his chagrin, Criss recalled that he had made the appointment for that coming Monday morning, one of his few days off. There was no getting out of it; the annual physical was part of the contract he had made with the Luxor. All medical expenses were covered by the hotel management, including doctor's visits, prescriptions, dental work, and any injuries he suffered doing his demonstrations. Oh, great, he groaned inwardly, I gotta spend my day off in some doctor's office, reading old magazines in the waiting room until it's my turn in the examining room, then go through all those (bleeping) tests they give me every year that don't show anything!
What was worse was that he had promised Costa he would pose nude for him for his portfolio that evening. After what he saw in the editing room earlier that day, he wasn't sure if he wanted to go through with it, but he reminded himself that a promise was a promise, especially when it came to family. I gotta strip for the doctors and nurses in the morning, then I gotta strip for Costa in the evening, he said to himself. I'm going to be (bleeping) naked practically all (bleeping) day! I am so not looking forward to Monday!
MindFreak Productions returned to Linehan's Gym the next morning for the second day of taping. Seamus received Criss and his crew a bit more cordially this time; the eight thousand dollars seemed to have softened the crusty old man somewhat. The rules, however, were the same: no disturbing the fighters, no disturbing him in his office, no entering the shower room. "The tryouts for the Excalibur match're tomorrow," he remined them. "Every man-Jack of these mugs'll be focusin' their energies on makin' it in, so don't ye go interferin' wi' 'em!"
"Got it," Criss agreed.
Linehan hobbled away to his office. Criss scanned around to find George. The stench of sweat and damp had not abated one bit since yesterday, but he and his crew did their level best to acclimate themselves to the reeking atmosphere.
"Did you bring the bottled water, JD?" Criss asked his brother.
"There's a twenty-four pack in the truck," JD told him. "I shoulda bought some filter masks."
"Maybe some Febreze as well?" Criss half-jokingly suggested.
JD shook his head. "It'd take a thirty-gallon drum of that stuff to make this place smell better," he commented.
"More, I'd say," Criss added.
JD nodded, chuckling a little. "See George somewhere around here?" he asked Criss.
Criss scanned the gym. Two boxers sparring in the ring, one tanned and limber, the other black and stocky (Tobe Lacie, perhaps? thought Criss). A blond Teutonic type hammering away on the speed bag. A chubby young man with pudgy features that he recognized as Down's syndrome slowly circling the room, picking up discarded towels and placing them in a wicker basket. Another boxer skipping rope with such rapidity the rope itself blurred into invisibility. Suddenly he spotted George by the large mirror on the far wall, shadowboxing. "Hey! There he is!" Criss said, pointing to the mirror.
"Maybe we shouldn't bother him right now," JD suggested. "Remember what Linehan said about the match tryouts tomorrow?"
"Hey! C'mon!" Criss cajoled. "He's our cousin! He won't mind!"
Before JD could stop him, his impetuous youngest brother strode toward the mirror where his cousin was practicing his moves. "Hey, George!" he called out, "what's up?"
George was jolted out of his stance. He glared irritably at Criss. "Oh, geez, Criss!" he snapped. "You made me lose my concentration!"
Criss was taken aback. "Oh, gee, sorry, George," he apologized. "I-I didn't mean to--"
George waved a heavily gloved hand. "Never mind," he grunted. "Just let me finish my session here, and I'll get back to you."
Criss muttered another apology and turned to leave. As bad luck would have it, he turned in the direction of a glaring Seamus Linehan. "I told ye not t'go disturbin' me fighters!" he barked, aiming the business end of his cane in Criss' chest area. "Move yer arse or I'll toss it outta here!"
Criss guided the cane away from himself. "Watch it, man," he said nervously, "you can poke someone's eye out with that thing."
Linehan lowered his weapon of choice and hobbled toward George. He got his attention by tapping him on the shins with his cane. "Yer sparrin' partner fer the day called in," he informed George. "His wife's havin' a baby, so he can't make it. Ye'll have to cancel yer practice match if'n ye can't find a replacement." With that, he hobbled away again, totally ignoring Criss standing there.
George was crestfallen. "Damn!" he spat. "The tryouts are tomorrow, and I need the practice. Everyone's already paired up--who the hell am I gonna spar with now?"
"I'll spar with you, George," Criss offered helpfully.
George looked up. "You?"
Criss nodded. "Hey, I'm not afraid, and besides, I took martial arts, remember?"
"Martial arts and boxing are two different things, Criss."
"Look, you want to make it to the tryouts tomorrow or not?"
"Well, yeah, but--"
"So, I'm your man!"
George sighed. "Lemme clear it with Seamus, okay?"
Criss agreed. "Wait here," George said, and walked over to Linehan's office. Criss could hear murmurs between George and Seamus behind the dented metal door, then the old man emerged from his office, hobbling faster than Criss had ever seen him. Linehan eyed him carefully. "So, ye wanna spar wi' yer cousin the Greek here, d'ye, boyo?" he said warily.
"I do," Criss replied.
"Git into a pair of trunks and show me what ye got," Linehan ordered.
Criss turned to George. "Trunks?"
"He means boxer's shorts," George explained. "C'mon, I got an extra pair in my locker."
Criss followed his cousin to the locker room, which stank even worse of sweat and dirty clothes. George opened his locker and pulled out a pair of blue EverLast briefs. He tossed them to Criss. "You can change in there," he said, pointing to a booth adjacent to the row of lockers. "You'll have to do it in your stockinged feet, though; I ain't got a spare pair of shoes for you."
Criss stepped into the changing booth with some trepedition--God only knew what he'd find in there, he thought. Mercifully, there were no dead bodies or anything, so he pulled off his bling, his t-shirt, his ragged jeans, and his CK underwear (he wanted to keep them clean for after the sparring match). He then siezed the blue shorts and covered his nudity as hastily as he could. He tightened the drawstrings around his waist (they were a little too big for him, but they weren't too bad), and emerged from the booth. "Well?" he said, shrugging. "How do I look?"
"Like Criss Angel in a pair of boxer's trunks," George deadpanned. He handed him a pair of boxing gloves. "C'mon, let's go."
Criss pulled on the gloves as he followed George out of the locker room. The cameramen aimed their lenses squarely upon the two cousins. JD leaned over to George. "Go easy on him," he murmured. "He's got a live show to do tonight."
Linehan came hobbling up to the cousins. "You!" he barked at Criss. "Over here!"
Criss stepped forward. Linehan appraised his body, naked save for the blue shorts blooming around his hips. The old man raised and squeezed his biceps, thumped his chest, rapped his back with his cane, and lifted his legs with the professional air of a horse trader. Criss was bewildered, almost offended, by this brusque examination; it was as if he was some sort of livestock up for sale or something.
"Ye'll do," Linehan pronounced, satisfied. "Git yer arse into the ring after this bout."
Criss stood there, bemused. George laid a gloved hand on his cousin's shoulder. "Don't take it personally, Criss," he said. "He did the same thing to me, too. It's all part of the game."
The whistle blew, signalling the shift change. "We're up," George said. "Let's go."
Criss climbed into the ring. A padded helmet was shoved onto his head, and he was guided to his corner. He watched as George performed warm-ups: stretching, squatting, rolling his arms. Thinking he should do the same, he followed suit, imitating his more experience cousin's every move. "I'm gonna die," he murmured to himself. "I'm gonna get killed."
He spotted one of the cameramen taping him. He lowered himself to lens range and mouthed the word Help, but it was too late. The referee was signalling the beginning of the practice bout. Criss stood up and faced his cousin, now his opponent, across the mat. They tapped gloves according to custom, and waited for the signal to begin.
"Three minutes to a round, three rounds to a bout," Sean Linehan instructed. "No hitting below the belt, no kicking, no tripping. If you need to call a time out, raise your right hand. Ready? Go!"
Criss had seen George take a swing on the punching bag machine in his suite, but he never dreamed he himself would be on the receiving end of his cousin's infamous right hook. He spent the better part of the first round dodging and ducking the blows that came his way, barely getting one hit into the chest. My God! Criss thought in amazement. This guy's a machine!
Mercifully, Round One ended. Criss staggered to his corner, reeling from the punishment he had just received. George was just getting his second wind when the referee signalled the end. Not so easy, is it, little cousin? he sneered mentally.
JD stood behind Criss in his corner. "You gonna give up now?" he asked.
Criss wheeled around. "Hell, no!" he gasped. "You know me--I ain't no quitter!"
"No, you're just a stubborn (bleeper) who hates losing," JD retorted.
"Damn straight I am!"
Round Two began. Criss took his stance, better prepared this time. He fired a right to George's face, but was deflected by an elbow block. George came at him with a left to the side of the head, knocking him off balance. Angry now, Criss came back swinging, and it was George who had to block and duck the blows, only he had more practice than his impulsive cousin. He bided his time, waiting for Criss to wear himself out, then with a right to the jaw sent him sprawling onto the mat. Criss struggled to his feet, his head spinning.
"You okay, Criss?" George asked.
Criss nodded, exhausted but unwilling to give up. "C'mon," he panted. "It's not over yet."
He staggered to his feet, wavering as he took his stance. He swung at George with the last of his strength, only to fall flat on his face when his cousin stepped aside. "I think he's had enough, George," JD called out.
George and the ref helped Criss up onto his feet. "C'mon, Criss," the former said. "You've had enough for today."
JD led Criss out of the ring. "You'd better take him home, JD," George said. "His clothes are in the locker room."
Criss left the gym feeling disgraced. "How the hell did I let him beat me like that?" he kept asking himself on the way back to the Luxor. "I had years of martial arts training, and I'm just as fit as he is. How the hell did I let him beat me like that?"
"Criss, stop beating yourself up like that, okay?" JD told him firmly. "You're not going to be good at everything you do. You can't win them all. George is just better trained at being a boxer, that's all. Let it go and get some rest for tonight's show, okay?"
Criss sighed. He knew his brother was right. Still, the defeat stung him more deeply than any punch George threw at him. He had always hated losing at anything he tried, whether it was magic, music, martial arts, or any other competition. His competitive spirit had driven him to success in life, but it made defeat that much harder to swallow.
You won this one, George, he said to himself. But I swear to God I'm gonna go for a rematch!
Back at the production office at the Luxor Hotel, Criss' manager, Dave Baram, was going over some paperwork when the chief of hotel security walked in. A sense of foreboding came over Baram--whenever the hotel's top cop showed up, bad news was sure to follow.
"Hey, Macaffey," Baram greeted him with forced joviality. "What can I do for you?"
Macaffey slapped down a flyer. "Be on the lookout for this guy, willya?" he said bluntly. "He's been causing trouble all over Vegas."
"So, who is he?" Baram asked. "A mugger? A serial killer?"
"He's a flasher."
Baram laughed in surprise. "A flasher! You gotta be kidding me!"'
The grim expression on Macaffey's face told him he was not kidding. "Read the flyer," he ordered, "and if you or your staff see him, call us."
He turned on his heel and strode out of the office. Baram read the flyer. A middle-aged man, about five-eleven, dark hair, moustache, bulbous nose, wearing a long raincoat with nothing underneath it had been reported allegedly exposing himself in public around the metropolitan area, mostly targeting older women. If spotted, please report the suspect to the police or hotel security.
Baram tossed the flyer aside. He had more important things to do than worry about some loser who liked showing off his tackle to little old ladies. Let the police handle this one, he thought. That sorry (bleeper) needs to get a life! Hope they find him before he gets his ass kicked by some lady's husband or something. Still, if he does, it's no skin off my nose. He deserves whatever comes his way.
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