Excerpt The Champion’s Secret

Art by Scott Carpenter

Chapter One

“Pretzel?” Lenny asked, offering the packet first to Captain Montiero, then to Will. They both declined. If Will wanted pretzels, well, he’d have to brush another one out of his hair soon enough. The audience in the rows behind tended to enthusiasm. “You’ll like this next bout, Mr. Garrett,” Lenny said. “These girls are always popular.”

Will Garrett didn’t think he’d enjoy the bout for the reason Lenny assumed, though he had enjoyed several of the arena fights so far. Team Spartacus—someone had to, and Lenny Sheridan had registered the name first—was the best team of gladiators on Deneb Prime. Will wouldn’t call himself the biggest fan of this so-called sport, since he suspected the fights of being rigged. But he understood the aesthetic appeal as pair after pair of beautiful and well-built men and women took to the arena.

Two women—hardly girls—came out for the bout. The first was a tall Amazonian goddess of a black woman, lean, strong, with her hair in long dreads, wearing a costume suitable for a day at the beach—sometime after the apocalypse.

“Reylene Queen!” The excitable announcer said as the crowd roared their support. “Regal, yet deadly. And fighting her greatest rival, here to carry the title of women’s champion off to Valhalla, Kára the Valkyrie!”

Wagner thundered from the speakers. A woman several inches shorter than Reylene, but much bulkier, emerged from the darkness surrounding the arena. Her thick, ice-blonde hair cascaded to her shoulders. She looked entirely capable of carrying a couple of fallen Viking warriors off to the afterlife, one under each arm. Her supporters in the crowd roared, and she lapped up their cheers while Reylene Queen scowled impatiently.

Captain Montiero leaned close to Will. “I still don’t get this,” she said. “It’s just like wrestling. Didn’t gladiators use weapons? They’re carrying weapons in the posters.” The poster outside the venue showed Kára the Valkyrie with a spear in one hand and a raven on her shoulder.

Will shrugged. “More mixed martial arts than wrestling. And in my professional opinion as a lawyer, I’d advise it would be illegal for them to use swords on each other.”

Montiero snorted. “Where’s the fun in that?”

The women fought, a bout that was all excellent martial arts form and technique on Queen’s side and down-and-dirty street brawling on the Valkyrie’s. Will supposed real Vikings hadn’t followed gentlemanly rules of combat either. The crowd loved it, and Lenny Sheridan at Will’s other side kept nudging him and telling him tidbits about the fighters.

“Queen’s an Olympic athlete,” he said, “Took gold at the last games but one. Judo.”

Lenny might as well have been trying to sell him the team. He’d have to wait a long time for a bid. These gladiators were worth more than Will would earn in his life—even if he did go home and join the family firm. Certainly more than if he continued working for what his parents considered that most contemptible of rewards—a salary.

The women’s bout ended with victory for the Valkyrie and promises of revenge from the Queen of the Apocalypse. Will applauded mechanically and did take a couple of pretzels when Lenny offered them again. He munched them moodily, almost ignoring the next bout, even though the men were damn fine—a golden-haired, creamy-skinned Englishman, fighting under the unlikely name of Sir Darien, and a dark, intense Arab, called only the Saracen.

“Here to fight anew blood feuds from over a thousand years ago,” the announcer said. “Sir” Darien had a St. George’s Cross painted on his pale back. It was all in horrible taste.

“These boys really know how to put on a show,” Lenny said.

Making sure the show went on was Will’s job for the next few months. He’d joined the Outer Spiral Trading Company’s legal department for one thing only—to defend his old friend and ex-lover Alyn Evans and keep him out of jail. But he’d had to sign up for a year’s contract to take the job, and he had several months to run on it.

The company was sponsoring a tour by Team Spartacus around the planets in the Deneb sector. The team would travel on a company ship and put on a show at each stop. But they needed a lawyer along to handle legal issues arising, gain appropriate permits, and so on. It meant learning the rules for each jurisdiction, in case he was called upon to argue out any objections in court. Fortunately he had the memory of an elephant. Since they had Will at a loose end and nobody knew quite what to do with him, he got the job.

He hated it already.

It was so utterly…beneath him.

Though at least it meant traveling around and seeing new planets, satisfying some of the wanderlust that had led him to join the military and become a JAG officer all those years ago.

The recreation of the Crusades finished with victory for the Saracen, and the announcer began to rouse the already excited crowd to a new frenzy. Captain Montiero was surreptitiously checking messages on her portable terminal, but even she looked up when the crowd roared for the first man to come out to fight the final bout of the night. A husky and gorgeous Viking of a guy. Maybe Kára the Valkyrie would come back and carry him to his dressing room if he lost.

“Kristof Kildhal,” Lenny told Will. “Former champion. Until Campbell really came into form.”

“Right,” Will said, taking a couple more pretzels. Each team had a champion—or rather, two, one man and one woman—who contested with those of the other teams to take the title of Champions of Champions. The people running the teams were trying to put together some kind of official league with proper rules. But the sport, while it might look old, was still young and developing. Would it develop into a genuine competitive sport or move toward the flashy entertainment side? Lenny Sheridan seemed to favor the latter.

“Here comes my champion,” Lenny said as some Scottish-sounding music came over the speakers. Will scowled. Bagpipe music should be a lonely skirl from faraway battlements on a still winter night, not blasted over a P.A. system at earsplitting volume. But the crowd’s roar almost drowned that racket out, as Jimmy Campbell appeared from darkness and artificial mist, striding into the arena as if over the heather.

Will sat up straighter. Hello. Campbell was quite a piece of work. Talk about your poster boy. Tall, maybe 6’5”, handsome, muscular, like all his fellows. In the heavyweight class. He was black, or maybe mixed race, skin a few shades darker than mid-brown. Tattoos covered both arms in black and blue characters, intertwining and swirling up from below his wrists to his shoulders. He wore his hair cropped close. His costume comprised a kilt in a dark green-and-blue plaid, and a few strips of leather. He had a shoulder plaid too, but he dramatically tossed that aside as he made his entrance. The audience loved him. That was clear from their cheers, applause, and foot stamping. Lenny leaned in close to Will.

“Ex-military, like yourself. Used to be a Special Forces soldier.” Lenny leaned across Will, talking to him and the captain, who hastily shoved her terminal back in her pocket. “When this bout is over I’ll take you two backstage. Let you meet the team. You’ll want to meet the coach, I’m sure, Philly Arden.”

“What?” Will gasped. Had he misheard over the racket? “The Philly Arden?”

* * * *

The door to the arena closed behind James, shutting off the racket of the crowd hailing his latest victory. Tom, Lenny’s assistant and general team fixer, instantly appeared at his side.

“Mr. Sheridan wants you to do an on-camera before you change,” he said, scurrying to keep up with James’s longer strides. “Kris is just finishing his.”

Great, like the people of Deneb hadn’t already got a load of his nipples tonight.

“Okay, thanks, Tom. Have a physio meet me at my dressing room afterward, please.”

“I’ll do that.”

Tom hurried off to fix up whatever else people wanted him to fix. James strode on, acknowledging teammates and staff as he passed, ignoring most of what was said to him. God, all he wanted was a massage and a long, hot shower. James might have won, but Kristof had nearly wrenched his left arm out of his shoulder for him in the process. He found the local sports broadcaster’s camera and reporter and answered mostly inane questions about the fight with Kristof and the upcoming tour.

“Kildhal is making a strong challenge for the title of champion,” the reporter said. “Do you think by the time you return from tour he’ll be the one representing Team Spartacus in the Champion of Champions event?”

James could answer with the truth—Kris might, unless James upped his game and his fitness. But to admit that wouldn’t fit the image he and Lenny had so carefully built of the fierce warrior Jimmy Campbell.

“I’m champion, and I’ll still be champion next time ya see me, lass.”

“Are you looking forward to the tour?”

“Aye. It’ll be braw.” His Uncle Harry used to say “braw” a lot. James hadn’t—until he became “Jimmy Campbell,” highland warrior. He adjusted the shoulder tartan, which had started to slip. He was freezing. The reporter looked like she was going to ask him what the hell braw meant when Tom intervened and the interview ended. Maybe he could see the goose bumps sweeping James’s back from the draft in this passageway.

“Braw?” Tom asked as he scurried to keep up with James.

“Good, fine, pleasing,” James defined for him.

“Braw.” Tom smiled. Like he was adding the word to his database. He needn’t bother. James wasn’t likely to use it except in interviews. “The physio is waiting for you. And Lenny is coming backstage with some people.”

Probably a couple of girls who wanted to meet the gladiators. James nodded absently. If so, then some of his colleagues would be happy to entertain them. For himself, he needed that shower.

He didn’t get it right away. The physio was waiting, and James stripped quickly—with this costume there wasn’t much chance of stripping slowly—wrapped a towel around his waist, and lay facedown on the massage table while she gave him a rubdown and worked on his sore left shoulder. The clamor of postshow backstage activity filtered through the door, but James ignored it, letting the stress melt away under the strong hands working his muscles.

The noise level suddenly jumped as the door opened. Lenny came bounding in, accompanied not, as expected, by a couple of fans, but by a woman in an OSTC uniform with captain’s stripes and a nice-looking guy in a good suit. The irritation of being interrupted lessened as he looked that one over. Tall, rangy, shiny black hair, handsome. The man’s large hands caught James’s attention. Was he a new prospect? James didn’t recognize him. He’d be a middleweight, so not in James’s class. Shame, he’d enjoy a grapple with that one.

The handsome guy and the captain looked mildly embarrassed to be busting in on a dressing room, but Lenny displayed his usual obliviousness to such considerations.

“Jimmy, this is Captain Montiero. She’s in command of the ship for the tour, you know.”

James nodded to her. “Captain.” He held out his hand for a shake, which she seemed a bit flummoxed by, with him flat on his belly and almost naked, but she shook.

“And this is Mr. Garrett. He’s a company lawyer who’ll be on the tour too.”

James was mildly surprised by that. The suit said lawyer, but the big strong hand he shook said soldier. Oh well, there’d be time to figure out Garrett on the tour.

“Lenny, for fuck’s sake,” a woman’s voice came from the doorway. “Can the man get no peace?”

James smiled. Philly. Always looking out for her team. She marched in.

“How’s the shoulder?” she demanded of James, ignoring the others.

“Not bad,” he said. He’d dislocated it five times in his life in the service. It was a weakness, and he’d love to know how Kristof had found out about it. Probably one of the team physios had let something slip. Philly wouldn’t have mentioned it. Even if she was coach to the whole team, she never revealed their weaknesses to the other members. They had to figure those out themselves.

“Sergeant Arden,” Garrett said. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Just Philly, thanks,” she said, shaking his hand. Montiero shook too and was appropriately respectful, but not quite as awed-looking as Garrett. Was he ex-military?

As Lenny chuntered on, James saw no prospect of the group leaving. Whatever. He sat up, the physio done with him. Montiero and Philly were focused on Lenny, but James spotted Garrett checking him out as he moved.

They still didn’t get the hint when he stood up, wearing nothing but a towel. James thanked the physio and strolled to the tiny shower room. It had no door to close behind him. He didn’t care. His body felt like public property these days anyway. Let them get a load of his arse too. He tossed the towel aside. As he stepped into the shower cubicle he caught a glimpse in the mirror of a smile of great appreciation on Mr. Garrett’s face.


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