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Lynn West did not devise her cruel scheme against John Ellis all at once. She spent many nights dreaming it into fruition. She knew Warren Oakes would shape himself into whatever form she desired, and for nearly a year she had been fashioning him into a vicious and jealous guard dog. He sometimes did not even realize why he struck a man in passing or spent an afternoon hunting one down just to break the poor fellow's nose, but he did it consistently and always with the rage of a blind romantic.
Lynn knew Warren's unrelenting passion would prove fatal if it was propelled with the proper force. It was only a matter of getting John Ellis between her crosshairs, or more specifically Warren's.
There were many ways Lynn could control a man. She was rich, well-connected, and beautiful. If she wanted something, no matter its price or rareness, her father would find it for her within a matter of days. She could not remember a time when her desires went unfulfilled.
She knew it would be too easy to motivate someone with money, or promises of fame or sex. It was more entertaining to twist their heart into a multitude of knots that could not be undone without satisfying her wishes in the process.
On one occasion, Lynn kissed Warren Oakes on the cheek just so he would tip Mrs. Ellis's fresh pies from her windowsill. He was caught almost immediately and whipped with a belt severely, but he never revealed her involvement, and for that she kissed him a second time.
Lynn did not dislike Mrs. Ellis. She had only met the woman twice and both times the elder woman seemed friendly enough. Mrs. Ellis was not particularly old, but to Lynn every female, excluding herself, fell into one of two categories: a young and immature girl, or an old and ugly spinster.
Mrs. Ellis was grouped in the latter, which could not have been further from the truth for she was, by all accounts, a beautiful and lively woman.
The reason Lynn made every effort to torment Mrs. Ellis had nothing to do with the poor and pleasant woman, but with her son, John Ellis.
John was a brute of a boy, though he did not look it. His strength was hidden within a thin frame and a set of wiry muscles. He kept to himself mostly and limited his brawling to the weekends which, to a casual observer, made him appear almost normal.
Lynn hated John Ellis in the same way that a flower might hate the sun for he was always beyond her reach, and she could not explain the vicious craving she felt for him. Her deep loathing began late one night while she waited for him in the alley behind the tavern where he brawled for money.
When he pushed through the door, tired and bloody, she whispered her sensual and sultry desires in his ear. He said nothing, barely acknowledging her as he walked home.
Unfortunately, young Lynn did not realize John's ear had been damaged in the fight, and he could not hear a word she said. Perhaps, if she had known, she would not have held such a vicious grudge, but her pride and vanity demanded a painful and public demonstration of his acknowledgement.
John had seen Lynn at school as he walked from class to class, but he never felt inclined to speak with her for he could not imagine her interests intersected with his.
He saw her at the tavern once, but he thought she had found her way there by mistake for she did not seem the type to converse with drunks and degenerates.
The only reason he remembered seeing her that night was because it was one of the few times he had lost a fight. He hoped to avoid her, fearing that she, like his siblings and friends, would mock his calamitous defeat.
Since she could not have John Ellis, Lynn often turned to Warren Oakes. He was clumsy and awkward in his attempts to please her, pawing at her thighs and fumbling with her bra like a child ripping open a present, but he lapped up every word she spoke and followed her instructions no matter how perverse or sadistic they may have sounded.
Lynn tolerated Warren's many flaws because she loved the attention he showered her with. Unfortunately, she did not love him. He was incapable of challenging her intellectually, and the ease with which she manipulated him quickly turned him into a tedious and tiring plaything.
When she commanded him to do something stupid or harmful, he fulfilled her wishes without hesitation or complaint. In many ways, he was worse than a trained dog.
His incessant servitude and chivalry, which was at first a source of twisted delight, quickly became a wearisome annoyance. Lynn had been thinking of ways to dispose of him when a sudden and sadistic thought crossed her mind. She would turn Warren loose on John Ellis.
Warren loved Lynn from the first instant she crossed his path. As she walked from the doorway of the classroom to her desk three rows from his, it was as if a bolt of lightning had struck his heart and remained trapped within his chest. He did not have the wits to express the electric surge pulsing within him, but it buzzed through his ribcage whenever he was in her presence.
By the end of the day, he had forgotten everything that existed prior to the moment he saw her and was forever and undeniably under her spell.
Late at night, when silence settled through the town, Warren stared at the stars from the roof of the tavern and dreamed of the life he would have with Lynn West. He imagined the three kids they would have, two boys and a girl, and the modest house he would build for her.
He thought about waking up beside her in the mornings and lying with her at night. He wrote poems for her too, though he did not have the courage to read them to her.
He knew he did not have all the qualities she desired, nor the money to sustain her needs, but he hoped that over time she might overlook those few short comings and love him the way he loved her.
Warren Oakes knew John Ellis, though they were by no means friends. If anything, they shared a common indifference and a passion for fighting.
Warren had brawled at the tavern several times, proving he had a knack for the sport. His fights had earned him a small fortune and an equally small reputation.
Though he had crushed the majority of his opponents, his victories were not a result of his skill, for he had none. He was a titan of a boy and towered over men twice his age. His chest was broad and his arms bulky like tree trunks.
Despite his intimidating figure, he was slow and clumsy. His breathing and footwork were embarrassingly horrible, and he was struck nearly five times for every blow he landed. When he did land a blow, it was devastating, and spectators often gambled on which round it would fall an opponent.
The crowd yearned to see Warren and John toe to toe, but John was far too light to be paired against Warren. Many speculated about which fighter would have the upper hand for John was perhaps the fastest and most vicious of them all.
John had been a brawler for as long as he could remember, which was neither his choice nor his desire. His four older brothers never relented in torturing him. During meals, they made him fight for scraps of food, and for fun, they attacked him while he slept or any time his guard faltered. As a result, he had developed an iron jaw and a quick fist.
Mrs. Ellis, though she cherished each of her children, had little influence to stop them from quarreling for she spent nearly all of her time waitressing at the tavern. Since her husband had abandoned the family three days after John was born, she had been desperate to find whatever work she could.
John began brawling at the tavern for three reasons: to see more of his distant mother, to pay off the debts of his absent father, and for the simple pleasure of dominating and destroying another person.
At first, he did not think to get paid for his violent tendencies, but when he saw the old and sluggish men fighting for a prize of cash, he knew he could pull his family back from the pit of bankruptcy.
His mind and fists were swift and vicious, and his feet were faster. In the ring, he commanded both arms with equal dexterity and could strike an opponent twenty times before they were able to take their first swing.
Spectators claimed John's skills and training were the cause of his victories, but the other fighters knew they were only a small part of his triumphs for they could see the hunger in his eyes. It was starved desire that motivated his training. And it was starved desire that kept him standing after a flurry of blows.
And though the other fighters could see the starved desire take hold of young John Ellis, they could not articulate the root of its origin. They knew, however, that if John Ellis persisted, he would surely become a champion.
Warren Oakes, despite his success and profits, quit brawling as soon as Lynn expressed her distaste for it. She had attended only a few of his matches and casually cheered for him when he glanced her direction.
Her distaste was not directed at the fighting, for she enjoyed a good and violent show of strength; her distaste was directed at John Ellis who had refused all of her advances.
She often wondered how John would fare against Warren in a fight, and late at night she imagined the two battling over her as if she was a trophy. After the battle, the victor would rise up, climb into her bed, and have his way with her.
Most of the time, it was John Ellis she imagined forcing himself upon her while Warren watched helplessly from a pool of his own blood.
Warren did not notice the way Lynn's eyes lingered on John Ellis, nor did he notice the way she fidgeted as he came near, for Warren had never developed the observational skills necessary for such subtle exchanges.
He was, at best, an average student, and his impulsiveness often superseded his better judgment which had led him into more than one misadventure. He did not care or wonder about the dark, disturbing path laid out before him for he knew, or at least hoped, Lynn West was waiting at its end.
Lynn knew how her soft touch, supple look, or slightly bare thigh could send Warren into a frenzy. She had used her exotic wiles to lure many men into similar situations she desired, but none were as complacent and pliable as young Warren Oakes.
He fulfilled her revenge schemes without realizing, returning to her teary eyed and confused for he could not explain his wild actions. Lynn was surprised how he always, and often quickly, returned to her. He never once suspected her of trickery.
When he caught her with another man, which happened more often than not, she would bat her eyelashes and silence him with a pouty smile.
Warren would leave immediately, and quite sadly, knowing that she was not his in any formal manner. He could only assume the naked men meant nothing to her, and were merely placeholders until he was worthy of her love.
John did not understand why Lynn West had asked him to repair some of the shingles on her roof for there were several more qualified men in town, but he could not refuse the money she offered him.
He borrowed some tools from a friend and drove across town to Lynn's house - more specifically, her parents' house. She led him inside, sensually swinging her hips in the hopes that he would notice her pleasant curves.
Sadly, he did not for he was too busy admiring the elaborate and expensive furnishings within the house. Lynn's family happened to be the second richest in town - a detail they flaunted whenever possible.
John attempted to calculate the value of the fixtures and furniture, but feared the number was greater than he could count.
He had never seen such extravagance and thought perhaps he would not get a second chance. He let his eyes linger on each object, dreaming of one day owning something of similar value.
When Lynn realized John would not succumb to her charms, she began to scream as loudly and fearfully as she was able. John froze, unaccustomed to such a hysterical display.
Like a wild dog being drawn to a wounded animal, Warren rushed through the adjacent doorway and, without hesitation, took a swing at John.
John avoided the overzealous hook and twisted around Warren.
Warren tumbled over the couch and hit the floor headfirst.
John was at a loss for words. He could not understand why Lynn and Warren were acting so erratic. He had never had much experience with women, nor with wealthy etiquette, and he could not tell if his uneducated behavior was the cause of her terror or if a phantom pain had taken hold of her sanity.
Before John could apologize for an action he was unaware of, Lynn screamed a second time, and tore the shirt from her chest.
Warren scrambled to his feet. He was neither quick nor agile, but he was strong and more than angry. He hefted a wooden chestnut bench into the air and flung it at John.
John sidestepped, pushing Lynn up against the wall. He could not find or explain the source of Warren's wrath, and in truth, had no interest in doing so. Instead, he hoped to escape through the backdoor unscathed, but before he could take three steps, Lynn's nails dug into his right arm.
He yanked his arm free, sending Lynn to the floor. She made a faint yelp which seemed to enrage Warren more.
John pivoted right and threw up his left arm as a shield.
Warren swung again, putting too much weight on his front foot. John ducked beneath Warren's cannon of an arm, jabbing Warren's left flank hard. Warren groaned and staggered sideways, knocking over an end table.
Lynn shouted something, but neither John nor Warren could make it out.
John stepped back around the coffee table, trying to keep something between himself and Warren. He kept his hands up and open in a sign of concession. He was direly confused, and hoping to avoid undue confrontation, but before he could speak of amnesty, Lynn grabbed a vase from the dining room table and threw it at John. It slipped past his head and shattered against the wall.
He glanced at her wide-eyed and slack jawed - more bewildered than bothered. The distraction was just long enough for Warren's slothful right hook to graze John's nose. There was the sharp snap of cartilage and a blur of blood trailing through the air as John toppled over a chair.
Almost immediately, he rolled to his feet and lunged at Warren. He jabbed him twice in the stomach, once across the jaw, and two more times in the ribcage.
Warren fell against the wall stunned.
John hit him one more time across the jaw.
In a daze, Warren slid into the bookshelf and remained there.
John's nose was most certainly broken. Two jagged tracks of blood led from his nostrils to an expanding stain on his shirt. He breathed awkwardly through his mouth.
He painfully hefted the bag of tools over his shoulder and walked toward the front entrance. He made no effort to look at Lynn.
She scrambled to her feet and ran after him. She yelled and screamed at him. She swung her fists against his back and the side of his head. He kept walking. She kicked at his legs and yanked at his arms. Finally, in a fit of desperation, she grabbed a shard of broken glass from the ground and thrust it across his back.
He staggered forward and twisted around.
She smirked and cut part of her own arm with the glass. She cut herself again and glanced at him threateningly.
He glowered and slapped the glass from her hand.
She was caught off guard by his speed and proximity.
Feeling vulnerable and aroused, she kissed him. He tried to pull back, but she quickly wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him harder.
Warren, having the fortitude of an elephant, had recovered quickly from John's punches. He had been watching Lynn's crazed attack with pride up to the moment she began to eagerly kiss John Ellis. It was as if the lightning buzzing in his chest jolted up through his throat and into his brain. He became painfully aware of his leading role in her scheme and minor role in her heart.
He lifted the bookshelf off the ground and lobbed it at John and Lynn. It hit them both in the side. John was flung to the ground, his ribs bruised and possibly broken.
Lynn, however, being shorter and slightly to one side, was thrust against the hutch and pinned there.
Suddenly, and immediately regretful, Warren ran to Lynn and yanked the bookshelf from her mangled body. Books tumbled to the floor.
She had been thrown through the glass of the hutch, and he could hear the groaning whisper of her voice. He pulled her free and gently laid her on the floor. She appeared to be mere moments from her demise.
A fragment of wood was lodged in her throat causing blood to stream down her neck and chest. She gurgled curses at Warren. If she could have lifted her limbs, she would have struck him viciously.
When the lightning left his heart, his courage had left with it. He looked at Lynn as if she was a neighbor's cat he had accidentally trampled with his horse. He stood and ran from the house, too terrified to cry.
Lynn coughed up more blood and glared at the back of his head as he dashed from her side. Her anger kept her painfully conscious while her pride kept her from gazing at John Ellis who she would not have been able to see anyway.
John had limped to the nearest telephone and called the paramedics. He was familiar with the number having called it numerous times at the tavern. He rode with her to the hospital, neither touching her nor speaking of the events that took place that afternoon for he had no explanation for them.
Lynn remained in the diligent care of the physicians for nearly three weeks, recovering almost completely. If the splinter of wood had pierced her throat by the tiniest degree of difference in either direction, she most certainly would have bled to death the instant she was laid on the floor. Instead, she would regain almost all of her previous qualities.
There were, however, two afflictions that could not be remedied by her father's money or the doctors' medicine. A small 'v' shaped scar had formed near the center of Lynn's neck. It was noticeable, but easily hidden with a scarf or a buttoned collar. It troubled her only a little, and only when she saw it reflected in a mirror.
The second, and more troublesome affliction, was the damage done to her vocal cords. She could only speak in gravelly whispers, and only for brief moments for her throat was easily agitated. The nurses continually had to explain the permanence of Lynn's condition to her father despite the money he offered them.
The three weeks of recovery and solitude offered Lynn enough time to patch together a lie that both promoted her innocents and shadowed her violent schemes. She had to write the lie on paper since speaking it was too difficult.
John was bedridden for nearly a month - or more accurately, couchridden. Since there were only three beds in the house, each one occupied by two of his five siblings, John's recovery was slow and incomplete.
There was not enough money in the family coffer to properly realign his nose. The best he could afford was the hard squeeze of his brother's fist and the tap of a small hammer. He was able to breathe, but his nose was, at best, flat and crooked.
The damage to his ribcage was as he had guessed. Two ribs were broken, one was cracked, and his entire right side was black and blue. His right arm was relatively unharmed, but the pain made it impossible to move.
When he was able to walk, he returned to the tavern, but only and despondently as a spectator. He hoped to find work there washing dishes or cleaning bathroom stalls or any position that might help his family survive his misfortune.
As he crossed the threshold, he was startled by an immediate wave of cheers and whistles. Every man and woman in the tavern made an effort to shake his hand or pat his shoulder. They proclaimed him a hero and raised their glasses in his honor.
He could not explain their behavior - not until his saw Lynn West and her father standing at the edge of the bar. Before he could turn and run, Lynn embraced him and kissed his cheek. She declared her unyielding love and devotion for him. Her voice was hoarse and quiet.
Her father lifted his arms like a conductor leading an orchestra and enlightened the crowd for the eleventh or twelfth time how Warren Oakes had tried to steal his daughter's innocence, but luckily the brave and valiant John Ellis was passing by and heard his daughter's cries. He went on to describe the epic battle between John and Warren. It was as if two ancient gods had come to blows that left craters and chasms in the ground.
John was so swayed by the telling of the story, it took him several moments to realize it was a fiction. Before he could protest its accuracy, Lynn pinched his bruised side and yanked him back into his chair. He groaned and fell against her side which the crowd perceived as a sign of his fondness for her.
Rumors soon spread of their wedding engagement and star-crossed romance.
John did not dislike the idea of wedding Lynn West. When her insanity did not frighten him, he found her company pleasant enough. And though the mutilation of her vocal chords did little to obscure her stubborn desires, the money her father used to pay off the Ellis family debt left John with a sense of gratitude which he easily and eagerly confused as love.
He could not decide when exactly he had fallen in love with her, but he had. He became, to her surprise and delight, more committed to her than any other man, even and especially Warren Oakes, the depraved fugitive.
Having access to the West fortune and associations, John made no effort to continue fighting or training. His soul had been opened to the elite and wondrous world of privilege and love - two sensations he was experiencing for the first time.
After abandoning Lynn's bloodstained body, Warren ran home, packed a small suitcase of his belongs and left town. He borrowed some money from his mother, without her knowledge, and traveled as far as it would take him. Then he walked.
He ate very little out of guilt and slept even less. The thought that he had murdered his one true love had hardened his heart and weighed his soul. His arms and legs felt shackled to an invisible and increasingly heavy stone which he imagined was dragging forever and inevitably behind him.
Pain and poverty caused him to sleep in ditches and alleys, which made it difficult for the bounty hunters to find him. Lynn's father had set aside a small fortune as reward for the capture and return of Warren Oakes.
It took three and a half months for the bounty hunters to find and return him. He was in a disheveled state, half-starved and smelling of manure.
The townsfolk shouted curses at him and threw small rocks and rotten fruit at him. Their abuse he gladly accepted and begged for.
In his zealous self-loathing, he did not notice that the hunters brought him to the tavern instead of the jail. All at once, he found himself standing in the ring, stripped of his belongs.
The crowd chanted for blood, and cheered for John Ellis to take it.
John had no interest in fighting. He did not even want to visit the tavern, but Lynn's father had persuaded him only moments before. The crowd pushed him closer and closer to the ring until he had little choice but to enter and commence with the brawl.
His wounds had not yet healed and his lavish relationship with Lynn West had left him sluggish and soft. It did not matter, however, for Warren made no attempt to defend himself. The fists slammed against his stomach and jaw.
He did not fall, nor did he cower for he relished the pain of every blow. He deliberately thrust his chin into the apex of every swing.
John quickly found himself short of breath and sore. His right arm wavered, and he tucked it against his chest.
The crowd jeered for more, but John did not have any viciousness left in him. He was tired and bored. He turned to exit the ring where Lynn West was waiting for him.
Warren froze as if a ghost had seized his heart and squeezed. A million tiny jolts erupted from his chest and stung every muscle in his body. He swung John Ellis around and punched him squarely in the nose.
John crumpled to the ground like a wet sheet from a laundry line.
The crowd went silent.
Nervously, the referee entered the ring and kneeled over John Ellis.
He was dead.
Men removed their hats and women turned away in shock, all of them except Lynn West who stared intently at Warren Oakes - her Champion of the Ring.
The courts could not prosecute Warren Oakes for, as the crowd could attest, he was acting defensively in a sporting brawl, and mere minutes after the fight Lynn West had withdrawn her accusation against him.
Legally the town had no means to imprison him, but out of shame, they could not stand the sight of him so they put torches to his mother's house, destroyed every record of his existence, and swore never to speak his name.
For days he wandered the streets, but no kitchen would feed him and no family would shelter him, not even his own.
Then one day he simply vanished.
Some believed he had drowned in the river and was carried out to sea. Others claimed he had hung himself from the large oak tree on the outskirts of town, though no corpse had been found or reported. Others, few in number, thought he had had been carried to the depths of hell by the vengeful spirit of John Ellis.
None of the gossipers considered the possibility that he had walked out of town of his own volition, which was the truth. In any case, his happenings became perverse and whispered news a day later when Lynn West and nearly half of her father's money vanished abruptly.
Mr. West spent the remainder of his fortune attempting to find his missing daughter, but he failed in every attempt, leaving this life a poor and dispirited man.