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Custody Battle

By Arley Sorg

Connie French was a slight woman. The glare coming through the large, frosted window behind her threatened to swallow her up. She sat in the worn wooden chair across from Jenson, arms folded across her chest and legs crossed.

Jenson rolled his neck to the left. Pops and creaking. The spike of pain that shot into his shoulder gave him pause. Too old for this bullshit, he thought, frowning. Luck would run out on him eventually.

Connie had lines around her eyes. Her black-dyed hair was cut into a severe, angled bob. Too much blush on her russet cheeks. In that, she reminded Jenson of his mother.

"Have you been married, Mr. Jenson?" she asked, tilting forward.

"Call me Sam," he said. "How many kids are we talking about?" He made a show of leaning back into his squeaking computer chair, then scratching through the tight curls of his close-cropped beard.

"Two." Her mouth tightened at the corners, neither smiling nor frowning but nearly both.

Jenson nodded. "You sure it will come to this?  Cases usually settle in arbitration. Court fees alone...Your ex that desperate?"

"On a good day, he's obstinate," she snapped. Her eyes fluttered, as if passing secrets in code. "He's dangerous." One hand made a bony fist and slammed Jenson's desk. She yanked her arm back, turning her face downward. Voice lowered, she went on. "He won't let this go. Even though he knows I'm better for—"

"Enough, okay?" Jenson raised both hands. "I don't get too involved with...people." He waved a hand. "Honestly, I don't care. Don't give me that look." Guilt made him drop his eyes. He lingered on her neck—she had a thick coat of base down to her collarbone. Hiding...

Then he saw the bruise around her wrist.

She tugged her sleeve over the bruise and straightened.

He stared at his hands. He had nothing to give to her. Softness and kindness were foreign languages. He only had his work. "You know what I do," he said, quieter than he'd meant to. "This is a paycheck. No offense." He looked up and waited for her to nod. "My sole job is to win." It was the best he could do.

"Okay," her blinks arrested into a steady, skeptical stare. "Can you promise me you'll win?"

"Never any guarantees. Partly, depends on who your ex hires—"

"Technically not 'ex' yet."

"—but I've got a good track record. Better than most. And I won't pull an Amendment Nine surrender just because things go wrong. I'm in to the end. Look..." Jenson rubbed his chin. "I'm sure you researched other gladiators. Most only charge half up front."

"Half is still a lot."

"It is. You pay me more so you can win." Jenson rolled his sleeves to his biceps, revealing the bulge of muscle. It often helped make the sale. He leaned his forearms onto the edge of the desk and flexed. "Don't want to lose your kids? Hire a fighter who can handle himself."

~

A month later, Jenson was sitting in the windowless Hotbox, waiting for the door to open.

Its design was too close for a gladiator of his height. He sucked for air, inhaling the rank smell of ancient cedar and decades of sweat. Dizziness slipped along the edge of his consciousness. Sweat trickled down his back and soaked the cloth between skin and armor. Light cut between some of the slats of wood, showing dust twirling in the tight space.

Spectators already shouted from the curved stalls beyond. Likely bets were placed. Jenson heard a few jeers. From inside, most voices blurred together. Both sides would have fans and detractors.

To the rhythm of his pulse, his life flooded his mind. Empty apartment, scarred body. Alienated parents and an incomplete college degree. The loneliness of nights spent trying to sleep, staring at walls and wishing to be anywhere else.

He'd only ever been good at fighting.

The door trembled for a moment. In a dulled stretch of nerves, he bit his lip, as always, wondering whom his opponent would be.

Jenson forced doubts from his thoughts. His off-hand cupped his eyes. He heard the door raise. Sunlight coated his skin. He kissed the cold, simple basket of his cutlass, came to his feet and stepped into the round, grassy Trial Courtyard, blinking behind his fingers. His heart thumped.

From his left, at the top of the amphitheater, came the hollow clap of the judge's gavel. Jenson peered straight ahead, trying to resolve his opponent in the brightness.

Crouched on the field thirty yards from him was Constantine Shulman. The Shark, Jenson thought with a grimace. Constantine was a professional, seasoned. He had sculpted steel pieces covering his joints and groin, and hardened black leather on most of his body. One cheek was torn by a pale scar, and his blond hair was pulled into a stubby braid.

The judge clapped his gavel again. On Jenson's right, spectators in the elevated, tiered half-circle of seats fell silent. The presiding sheriff held up a bible and swore the gladiators in, while the stenographer at the front of the stalls recorded poses, postures and words for the record.

"Connie French," the judge spoke into his microphone. The sound crackled but evened out. "Do you swear that this gladiator, Samuel Jenson, represents your interests in the matter of the custody of your two children?"

In her booth at the front of the stalls, next to her lawyer, Connie stood, taking a moment to straighten her maroon blouse. She bent slightly and spoke into her microphone. Her brows pinched, and her eyes set on Jenson, dark sparks that promised retribution if he failed. "I do, your honor."

"Simon French," the judge went on, "Do you swear that this gladiator, Constantine Shulman, represents your interests in the matter of the custody of your children?"

Simon had close-set, blue eyes. With an impatient scowl, he nodded at his lawyer's whispers. When he stood, he was gangly and tall, in an oversized blue dress shirt and a black tie. He leaned on his fingers to speak through the microphone. His knuckles were pink, days into healing from tearing and bruises. "I do."

That's that. No turning back.

Jenson exhaled sharp breaths, trying to work the quaking from his guts. He'd seen the Shark fight. Seen him swing his long, curved blade and slice off limbs. Shulman didn't like to drag things out.

With one white-knuckled hand, Connie clutched the lacquered rail that ran the length of the stalls. Her other hand dabbed teary mascara streaks from her cheeks.

The judge uttered one word into his microphone: "Begin."

~

Jenson stumbled. He leaned against a stall's polished face. A few feet above his head, people craned over the railing to watch. Blood trailed from his ribs where the Shark had nicked him. Worse was the gash on his forehead, drizzling sticky wet down his face and obscuring his vision.

Constantine was on his knees in the middle of the grass patch. Jenson had gouged the inside of his sword arm. Red dripped off the Shark's fingers, his hand hung like a dead thing. He'd switched to his off-hand and was still a passable fighter.

Anyone's game, Jenson thought, swearing under his breath.

Plenty would give up, cite Amendment Nine and throw the case away before it was too late. Jenson swiped his sight clear. He remembered Connie that first day, shrunken into herself but burning through her eyes. He knew what that was like, to be alone with the world crashing in.

Jenson pushed off the wooden wall and set his stance. He made a hasty plan: feint right, spin left, exploit the Shark's weakness. Around them the crowd was riled, loud. The melee had gone long; they wanted a winner.

Constantine rose to his feet. He swayed, his chest working harder than it should. Jenson crushed the urge to rush him. The Shark was too good—taking risks could be fatal. He was halfway across the Courtyard; Jenson chanced a glance at his client.

Connie's eyes were wide, hopeful. She held a handkerchief over her mouth.

Jenson gave her a nod and a smirk, then turned back to his business. He planted his left foot. Flexed into a short leap right. The Shark closed, bellowing and taking long strides. Jenson crouched, spun.

A voice sizzled through the speakers. "Stop!"

Jenson stumbled to a halt, wrestling momentum. Constantine slowed his pace, then fell onto his knees again, huffing at the ground.

"Wait!" It was the ex, or soon to be ex, Simon. Only three people could stop the fight once it had begun: the judge and the two spouses. Catching his breath, Jenson glowered up at the Simon. For a heartbeat, he pictured the ex on his knees in the grass patch, one arm useless and ready for a killing blow.

The lawyer spoke into Simon's ear. The husband's eyes shifted from judge to his wife. "I invoke Article Twenty-three," he said, lips quirking at the corners. "The Code of Exclusionary Transfer."

Jenson's head spun. That's new. He braced for adjudication. He thought he'd heard all the little rules and tricks; surprises were never good in the Courtyard. In a word, the Shark could be on his feet again.

Connie's lawyer was wagging his finger, face turning red. "This is an outrage! Mr. French is on losing ground and—"

"Family law has for decades maintained—" Simon's lawyer argued louder.

"Some mysterious, antiquated, outdated law," Connie's lawyer shot back, standing and raising his voice over his opponent.

Jenson eyed the Shark. Constantine wasn't huffing anymore. His gaze was steady, his curved blade resting across his thighs.Damn.

"Enough!" the judge shouted, banging his gavel. "Everyone sit down. We will adjourn for fifteen minutes. I will look up this...article...and give my ruling momentarily."

Chatter sloshed through the stalls. Constantine let out a sigh. "Think we're finishing this?"

Jenson shook his head. "Not if we don't have to." He squinted up at the husband. Simon was grinning and talking to his counsel, boys sharing a joke. Something about it made Jenson's stomach churn. "We might both walk away today."

~

Connie's hands shook so hard she dropped Jenson's sword. It clattered on the tiles of the sequester room and she jolted at the sound.

"It's okay, Connie," Jenson picked up the blade. "You can do this."

"Simon planned this from the start. He's obsessive," she said, voice strained. "This can't be real." She stared at the offered hilt as if it might poison her.

Jenson held his breath and looked at the tables and chairs they'd pushed against the wall. He spoke after a moment, unable to meet her eyes. "You can always concede. This...article allows for that."

Connie's voice broke. "You don't know what he'll do!"

Jenson brought his eyes to her neck, to the make-up covering her skin. "I get it," he whispered."

"You don't," she moaned. She turned, took three steps to the stacked chairs and gave them a hard kick. "He's volatile!  Unpredictable!"

"That's why you're leaving him, right?" Don't do this. Don't get involved.

Connie gripped her hair with both hands. She heaved at the air, until a sob broke through her resolve.

Jenson's legs felt like rubber. Damn it. "Look." He came up behind her, hovering his hand over her shoulder, unsure if he should touch her. He ached to give her something. "Just...walk. Let him take the kids. Get on with your life."

"My life?" Connie turned around. Her hair was a mess, her make-up was smeared. "This has never been about my life!" Her eyes flashed and she made fists.

Connie French closed her eyes. She drew in a long breath. And when she blew it back out, her sobbing stopped. "Whatever he's done to me," she said, lips curling in disgust, "he'll do worse to them."

"He's just..." this is madness. This is stupid. Jenson grasped for anything to calm her down. "He's just trying to scare you. Walk away...Appeal!"

Connie pressed her lips together and pried the sword from Jenson's fingers. "Do your job," she said and gave him a nod. "Show me how to use this thing."

~

They were given two days to train in the sequester rooms, chambers normally reserved for juries to discuss cases and cast votes. At night, they were put up in a cheap hotel. Both nights Jenson heard a knock on his client's room next door. He heard Simon's lawyer offering her the chance to back down, to give up the kids.

On the third morning, they were back in the Courtyard.

This time, Jenson had a seat right behind Connie's lawyer, in the stalls, looking down at the broad patch of grass. The sun was high above and the sky was a beautiful blue.

Clear day, he thought, frowning. Means the fight goes as scheduled.

He watched the judge walk to his bench. They all rose, and sat after the judge. He watched one of the sheriff's positions behind the coffin-like Hotbox. The sheriff tugged the door's rope taut, then yanked the panel up.

Connie came out. She propped a hand over her eyes, wincing. Her face was cleaned of make-up, and she was in sweat pants and a t-shirt. She had Jenson's cutlass.

Simon was a foot and a half taller. He was sweating through his red button-up shirt. "This is it for you, little girl," he called across the field, pointing Constantine's weapon at her.

The judge frowned and banged his gavel twice. "Quiet. Fighters do not speak in the ring, Mr. French, unless spoken to. Understand?"

With a wide smile, the ex nodded, staring Connie down.

Connie cast about, searching the stalls. She found Jenson. Her eyes showed terror, but she stuck up her chin and put a forced smirk on her face.

Jenson's chest sunk.

He made himself smile at her and nod. He put his hands in his lap, so she wouldn't see them quake. When she looked away, he leaned closer to her lawyer. "What the hell good are you?  You've got to stop this!"

"If I could, Mr. Jenson." The lawyer shot a glance. His face was pale and his collar was dark with sweat. "She...won't listen." He turned back to the patch.

The presiding sheriff swore both parents in. "Do you..." the judge intoned, first with Simon, and then with Connie. She set her shoulders and barked her answer, her eyes cold and fixed on her husband.

The judge's jaw went slack. He stared, and the people in the stalls fell silent. Clouds skated noiselessly overhead. A breeze stuttered across the grass, making Connie's hair shift and Simon's tie flap.

"Ours being one of a few counties in the country that has yet to overturn this odious and obscure law..." the judge shook his head at his podium. "...I have no choice," he rasped. Through a heavy exhalation, he muttered, "Begin."

~

They spent minutes circling along the perimeter.

Watching, Jenson clung to the rail, teeth grinding. Usually this sort of stalling would elicit insults from spectators. No one spoke, no wagers were placed.

The husband moved in a half-crouch, the corner of his lips pulled up, tossing the blade from one hand to the other. He opened his mouth a few times, then clamped it shut.

Connie prowled across from him, maintaining distance, the way Jenson had shown her. He'd given her a score of tips. They repeated through his skull, each one louder than the next. He stared the words at her, hoping that by some miracle she would hear his advice.

She didn't stop with the sun behind her, or feint, or set her stance the way he'd told her. If she heard anything, she was ignoring him. Jenson's chest strained, trapping a shout.

More minutes passed.

Simon stop-started, gave a little feint, then a flourish. He finished by straightening and raising his off-hand, pretending from across the field that he caught her by the throat. He closed his fingers with a sneer.

Don't let him shake you! Jenson thought hard and leaned over the rail. "You have to end this!" he whispered at her lawyer.

Connie faltered across the lawn from Jenson. Her arms lowered. The sword point scraped the ground once...twice...and again. Her steps shortened.

The husband growled. He shifted three paces right and rushed at her side. Long steps ate the distance between them.

Connie yelped. She raised the cutlass to his swing. He bashed down at her and she fell to one knee. Her arms trembled. Simon slammed his blade down at her again, with more savagery than skill. He shouted wordlessly with each strike.

A wail stuck in Jenson's throat. I failed you.

On both knees, Connie's hands nearly lost their grip. The sword slipped from a strike, the tip dug into the ground. She tumbled sideways, out from the next swing. And dropped the cutlass.

Simon laughed. Perspiration coated his face, his skin looked plastic.

"This isn't fair," Jenson pleaded into her lawyer's ear. "Think of something!" He wanted to leap over the stalls into the pit. He wanted to take her place.

Even the Shark, seated behind Simon's lawyer, with his arm bandaged up and his blond hair gelled into a faux-hawk—his face had lost its color, and he gawped from behind clasped hands.

"Stay alive," Jenson mumbled at Connie, flexing his legs to jump.

Connie scrambled backwards like a desperate crab, banging against the judge's stand. Simon took exaggerated swings at her feet, making her dance. His eyes were lit with glee, his sneer had become a satisfied smile. Connie dove from a two-handed swing. With a yelp she was on her feet, running.

Simon chased her. The sword caught the sunlight, each chop sent a blinding sting into Jenson's eyes.

"Leave her alone," someone called out.

"Sadistic bastard," someone else yelled.

The judge struck his gavel and called for silence.

Simon panted after her. And reached her. His off-hand snatched the fabric of her shirt. He yanked her back. She fell onto her rump.

A noise rushed through the crowd, a strange hiss of sadness and anger. Jenson tensed. His legs tightened, eager to launch him at the ex.

Simon hoisted her up by the neck. He pulled back his sword, readied for a cleaving blow. Lifted to her toes, Connie slapped at his wrist, pried at his fingers.

Remember!  Damn it...Responses raced through Jenson's mind. His gut clenched. Don't die...

As if she'd heard Jenson's thoughts, Connie lashed out at Simon's face. Her fingers raked over his cheeks, across his eye.

Simon spun, grasping at his cheek, crying out and stumbling.

"Yes!" Jenson shouted, clapping. "That's it!"

Connie stumbled. She spun and tottered, gasping. She fell onto all fours next to Jenson's cutlass.

"You bitch!" Simon screamed, gripping his weapon with both hands. He squinted one eye shut and took halting steps toward her. He held the sword like a baseball bat. "I'll end you!"

"Silence!" the judge smacked his gavel. "Last warning, Mr. French!"

"Go to hell!" Simon shouted back, side-stepping toward the judge's bench. When he stopped, his lanky body blocked Jenson's view of Connie. He sprinted at her, howling and swinging for the fences.

The judge hammered his gavel, cursing. Jenson climbed past the lawyer and clambered over the rail, landing in the grass. Sheriffs moved in his periphery, guns coming out.

"Contempt!" the judge called, standing and pointing. "Mr. Jenson!"

Jenson raced up behind Simon. Simon had swung and his arms hung at his side, as if he admired his home run. Jenson grabbed the man's sweat soaked shoulders and pulled him back.

Simon slipped down, out of Jenson's fingers, onto his back at Jenson's feet. The cutlass was stuck in his gut. It stood up like a flagpole. Simon's face was stiff, his good eye moved to glare at Jenson.

Connie was heaving, on her knees, hands still raised from releasing the hilt. Her fingers were splashed with Simon's blood. She blinked through moisture dripping from her brow. "Did I do it?" Tears welled in her eyes. "Did I save my children?"

~

Connie came to visit Jenson in holding. They spoke using old telephone receivers from either side of a plexiglass screen.

"You look good in orange," Connie offered with a tight smile.

"You didn't have to visit," Jenson said, propping up an elbow and resting his eyes in his palm. "It can't be easy."

"I couldn't have done it without you. Hey. You saved me!"

He looked up and studied her. "I just did my job," he shrugged. "You should, um, get counseling or something. Killing a man..."

"I talked to the judge. Afterwards." With one arm she hugged herself. "You did more than your job," she blinked at him. "He told me you didn't have to train me. That it was an option in the Article."

"You would have been fine without me."

"My children are safe, thanks to you." She spread a hand against the plexiglass. "I won't ever forget that."

"Don't you dare." He licked his lips and put his hand over hers. "You faced a monster and risked your life. This is your win, Connie. I was just a cheerleader. You saved your kids."

Connie's lower lip trembled. She pulled her face into a smile, her eyes wet. "You get out in a few days, right?" She waited for Jenson to nod. "Come for dinner. We can...."

"I can't," he shook his head. "I don't..."

"Get involved with people." Her smile wilted.

"You don't want a gladiator in your house. A killer for hire."

"Bet you were an actual human being, once." Her eyes warmed and a smirk perked up her face.

Heat spread through Jenson's chest.

"Samuel Jenson," she banged a fist against the counter like a gavel, "you are in contempt. Your punishment is friends. You are sentenced to dinner!" She waited for him to laugh, then she laughed as well. "It's food. Don't be scared. Besides, paying for the training wasn't in our contract. Your fees are too high—it's the best I can do!"

For as long as he could remember, Jenson had been fighting. Mouth empty of words, he struggled with the coiling in his gut.

"Meet the kids. Get so stuffed you fall asleep on the couch!"

Jenson shook his head. "You're in charge," he simpered. It was the best he could do. Beyond his sword, he didn't know what he could offer. But he'd follow her example. He'd stand up to what scared him. "You cook, I'll do dishes."

"Deal!" she said.

As he watched her leave, he lingered in his chair, wanting to hold onto the feeling inside him for as long as he could.

About the Author

Arley grew up in England, Hawaii and Colorado. He lives in Oakland, and can be found at local coffee shops. Approach with caution or a cappuccino. 

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