“Ben. You sitting? I got the fight of your life on the hook.”
The telephone screen disrupted into horizontal lines and reestablished itself in black and white. Ben stumbled into the kitchen of his apartment and pushed the heap of used tabs and magazine sticks from the keyboard. He forced his gritty eyes open and maximized the call. Now, the perspiration on the mutant shoulder protruding from Frank’s neck was visible through the monitor’s streaks.
“What, that kiss-ass, Snake Arm?” Ben pressed his hands into his scalp to squeeze his hangover down the back of his neck and clear his head. His skin itched from last night’s tabs. “I put his throat under my spur in two rounds last month. That chickenshit called Clean Rules before I could finish him.” He slumped into the frayed office chair. “Listen, Frank. He want back at me, it gonna cost him, and I mean Mutant Rules. And, I don’t box anyone under five mill.” He grasped the back of the chair with the vestigial elbows sprouting from his shoulder blades to keep the cushion from tumbling to the floor.
“Snake Arm’s still on the bender he went on after your last fight. Forget him. We’re talking Clean.”
“Clean?” Ben rolled his chair closer to the table, sleep fleeing his body. He flipped up the volume. “Fuck, what do you mean, Clean?”
“I mean it. The big one.”
The implication lodged like a pit in his throat, blocking his breath, as Frank savored the surprise.
“Don’t fuck with me. Cleans don’t fight Swamp Frogs.” Frank was a good talker, slippery. Dealing with him was like trying to catch a school of catfish. “Why would Razor fight me?”
“Ben.” Frank shook his head, drawing the word out in mild rebuke as though Ben was a child. The screen hissed with snow, then cleared. “Ben, you’re the Angel of Death. You’re the champion. You’ve never once got a mark on your face. You’ve put every contender that ever met you in a pit under your spur.”
“Every Swamp Frog.”
“Where’s your self-respect? Ben! Cleans call us Swamp Frogs.”
“Fuck you.” He rubbed his hands over his face. He didn’t know another cockboxer who could boast a face with no scar. His flawless appearance made him the Angel of Death, along with the symmetrical elbows arching from his shoulder blades, tapering to long, delicate, and quite lethal fins. His trademark. “Keep talking, Frank. Lay it out, and be straight with me this time.”
Frank shrugged with his extra shoulder. Having only one superfluous limb gave him an ugly, half-breed kind of look. Word had it Frank’d had another shoulder removed by a back alley surgeon and was socking money away to finish the job, but Ben didn’t believe it. It was one thing to mask a mutation, another to try to erase it. There were scars and genetic tests and long jail terms. “What the hell do you want me to say? Razor’s world champion. You’re world champion. This’ll be the fight of the century. It’ll make cockboxing.”
Ben laughed, a single, derisive hoot.
“Clean-Mutant fights on broadbeam, Ben.” Frank’s voice was smooth as brandy. “Think about the money.”
The whirlpool of Frank’s persuasion tugged at him. “They’s already money all over the pits,” he argued. “Purse, beamwidth, gambling.”
“You think that’s money?” Frank sneered. “Cleans follow your fights. They know you’ll whip his ass. They want to see it.”
“So why Razor wanna fight with me?” Frank was good at talking without saying anything. “Ain’t for money.”
“You don’t know what kind of money we’re talking about. Besides, it’s getting embarrassing. He can’t hold his head up. Razor has got to box you.”
“Then he crazy.”
“No, he’s smart. And he’s got a good team of lawyers.”
“Yeah? And what do I got? A lying, double-crossing manager out for his own skin. Why should I trust you?”
“Because this is the only time you, or any Mutant, are ever going to get the chance to fight a Clean. You say ‘no’ and Razor tells the world you haven’t got the balls. He’s off the hook.”
“No one gonna let a Mutant cut a Clean.”
“Leave that to me. You’ve heard of Sam Korchinski. He’s got a pit with seating for two-hundred-eighty thousand, and exclusive simulcast rights for a billion viewers, world wide. Purse is two hundred million to the winner, hundred and fifty mill to you.”
Ben slumped back hard in the chair, the rollers bumping him up against the uneven floor boards. A hundred and fifty mill. Fuck. He could strap on his spurs for that.
“Thought that might get your attention.”
A new hover jet–red–convertible. A house, a yacht for all his friends, partying like they show in rag mags. Yeah, Peru, some place away from the crowds, away from Mutant ghettos. And clothes: jackets roomy enough for his back elbows, make him pass for Clean on the street. Him and Marci, out on the town–
“So I throw the fight.”
“How do I know, I lie down with a razor at my neck, I ever get up again?”
“Clean Rules. Besides, this fight’ll be on broadbeam world wide.”
“Yeah? Well, he put me under the spur ten seconds, max. And listen, Frank. He don’t cut my face.”
“It’s already in the contract.”
“What make you think I gonna do it?” He leaned forward and gripped the monitor. “I take my life in my hands, cutting a Clean, and you know it.”
“Because, Ben, you’re going to make this sweet.” Frank’s voice was soft as cream. “The fight goes the full fifteen rounds. You cat-and-mouse him. You draw him in, reel him out. Dance around him.” The words wrapped Ben in the heat of the lights, the sweet tang of sweat and blood. “Everyone knows who’s in control. There’s no contract on that.”
A class pit. A Clean pit, room to move. Broadbeam.
“I’ll talk to Korchinski and Razor’s people.”
“Remember, my face stays clean.”
“I’ll look out for you. Don’t crap out on me, now.”
The door whooshed behind him and Ben shrunk the connection. “I ain’t said yes.” He doused the screen.
“What you doing?” Marci’s voice, full of suspicion.
The headache forced itself back into the rim of his skull, a dull throb. The fatigue of a four AM crash soaked back into his limbs. “What’d you hear, babe?”
Marci stood just inside the door, her eyes big and brown under querulous brows and a disarray of blonde hair. She held her robe closed over her swollen breasts and pregnant belly. The sole indication she was mutant was the pair of small flippers on each of her ankles. “More’n I wanted. You gonna get killed.”
“That two-bit cockboxer, Razor? Babe, you seen him fight. He got one powerful right heel, and he don’t even use his wrists and elbows, except in defense.” Ben pushed himself from the rickety chair and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Babe, you freezing. Come on back to bed.” He stroked her hair.
“You’re fucking with me, Ben.”
He wasn’t fucking with her.
She just didn’t understand. There was no way he could lose to the Clean. To any Clean.
He’d been in the pits since he was fourteen. Dirt pits, mostly, with steep-raked benches above and no way out but riding that golden rope and stirrup that rose with the winner shaking his fist into the smoky spotlight, pummeled by cheers and boos, eggs and cheap champagne geysers and the stink of beer and sweat, while money and tabs crossed the table and the big old-fashioned cameras hovered in to televise local for pirates to pipe onto the beam, broadbeam and narrowbeam. When the loser was scraped from the floor to be dumped in some wailing, but rich widow’s arms, you didn’t fool around with scoring ‘points’.
Not like the Cleans, with their broadbeam fights. Oh yeah, he’d seen them. Soft. Censors didn’t just cut to commercial for weak stomachs, but reached right down into the rule book for uninterrupted rounds. Clean Rules, they called it. ‘Winning’ by holding a spur to the jugular.
He toweled the sweat from the back of his neck after his VR sparring, and strapped on his practice spurs. “Hey, Tom.” He indicated the training pit. “Two rounds.”
Tom grinned up from the bench, stretching his muscles out. “Don’t know’f I can go that long with you. Rumor has it, you getting ready to fight Clean.”
Ben tightened his knee spurs. “Always rumors.” He lowered himself into the pit.
Tom took a swing at him with an elbow and danced out of the way. Ben ducked the rubber spur and swung with his foot, brushing Tom just above the knee.
“That be something, to see a Clean meet a Swamp Frog. Yeah!” He swiped at Ben’s forehead with a wrist. “You cut him, Ben. You cut his face. Show blood.”
“Hey, man, when you fight a Clean, they’s rules. Can’t just go around cutting his face. Got to make it elegant. A nick to the upper arm–” He demonstrated. “–a slice to the thigh. A mark on the back of the hand.”
“But you get him, man. And when you get him, you use a limb. You strap razors to your angel wings.”
Ben smiled. “Cleans don’t have limbs. Might call that an unfair fight.” He ducked and flipped a fin above his head to touch Tom’s upper thigh. “Besides, I be a fool to put my face on broadbeam as the Swamp Frog who cut a Clean. They get me after, like shooting catfish in a tank.”
“They couldn’t. You be too famous then.” Tom spun and nearly caught Ben’s knee with a soft spur. He pulled up at the pit wall with Ben’s elbow blade at his throat.
Ben relaxed and grinned. “Go again.”
“I mean it, man. You gotta do it.” Tom repositioned himself and waited for Ben to spring. “You been invited.”
“You not just you, Ben. You all of us. Every Mutant, fighter or not.”
“Hey, what you mean? Get out of that cloud, I can’t understand a word you say.” He danced around his partner, dancing in to touch, dancing back.
“Make them Cleans show a little respect. You know what cleans do to us. Rape our women–”
“Wait. Slow down.” Ben stepped back to the pit wall, his shoulder elbows drooping, his hands at his sides. “Why’s it up to me to prove Mutants is just as good? I ain’t gone to school, I don’t talk good. I ain’t done nothing.”
Tom lowered his fists, looking him in the face. “Yeah, man. But you got the chance.”
“You signed it, didn’t you?”
Marcia stood, framed in the doorway of their bedroom, the dim light casting her face in shadow.
Ben leaned on the entry button, half his attention diverted to the pneumatics, wondering if the door was going to close on him as he wobbled in and out of the apartment. A cloud of confusion wafted around him, bringing Marcia’s frown in and out of focus.
“How many tabs did you have?”
“Just two, I swear.” He tried to remember the table in the corner of the bar, Frank’s red face, the papers, the pen, the tabs. “Okay, maybe three.”
“You’ll never get out of that pit alive.”
“What, you think I can’t hold off a Clean? Marcia–” He came forward, quite steadily, he thought, and put his arms around her.
“Let me see the contract.”
He pulled a copy from his jacket pocket. “You’ll see. It’s just a show. Entertainment. Big bucks.”
“Come on.” She led him into their bedroom and let him fight with his clothes as she sat on the rumpled bed to read. Thin curtains dulled the flickering neon lights outside the window.
“A hundred and fifty million, Marci. You know what we could do with that kind of money?” He dropped a shoe on the floor.
“Cockboxers die in the pit.”
“Marci, this is a Clean fight. Nobody gonna die.”
“Don’t mean he have to cut you fair. Ref can say you cheated, give Razor a free cut, hold you down. Don’t matter it’s murder. Cleans ain’t gonna stand for a Swamp Frog proving he’s better.” She read through the second page.
“It’s all in the contract. Small cuts, no more’n an inch. And I don’t take a cut to the face. I put that part in. No one cuts the Angel’s face. Then I lay down, he puts the spur on my neck and we walk away with a hundred and fifty million. I even wear my wing razors.”
“But you can’t use them. It be for you like fighting with one arm cut off.”
“Marci–” he soothed.
“And what about after? Broadbeam put you in everyone’s house. You like a fish in a bowl. You cut his face, they see it like it was in their lap. And out in the streets, after, in L.A., in London, in Tokyo, the Cleans saw you take blood, what do they do?”
Ben stopped pulling his shirt from his shoulder elbow.
“Roam the streets looking for Mutants, any kind of Mutant. Women. Kids. And they got to prove they better than you.”
Ben squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “Babe, you just like Tom.”
“Tom? I ain’t nothing like Tom.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “You just like Tom. You got to make this all bigger than it is. Listen, babe. I’m a cockboxer, for fuck sake, not a . . . a idol or something. I ain’t saving the world and I ain’t making no one kill no one. Now come here and let me nuzzle you good.”
“Rip up the contract.”
“It don’t matter. It just a copy.”
“Call Frank. Call it off. Don’t show up.”
“Babe, don’t talk nonsense. I can handle it.”
Marcia pulled away from him, tears springing to her eyes. “Frank don’t care if you get cut, or killed, or if riots happen in the streets, long as he make his money.”
He reached out to hold her to him. “So, what’s changed, girl? That the way it always was.”
“I need you to come back,” she whispered into his neck. “Come back and be a daddy to my baby.”
“Hey. Hush, now. I’m coming back, girl.”
Coming back with a trophy in my hand. Yeah.
Frank took him to the plane. Marcia wouldn’t come to Bangkok, said the doctor wouldn’t let her fly. Even at the boarding gate she told Ben to turn around, but there were newsmen and cameras and Frank had him smiling at this one and waving at that one, and when he turned around, all he could see was Marcia’s back as she slipped out through the crowd.
They arrived in Bangkok a week before the fight. Frank got him a trainer and a sparring partner and a first-class pit. There were media scrums every day, and Ben said everything Frank told him to.
The spectacle began hours before the fight. As Ben warmed up with his sparring partner and strapped his sharpened spurs to his ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, and for show only, his angel wings–everything taped solidly in place–the thrumming started. A throb like engines in the bowels of a freighter, the heartbeat of a hundred thousand hearts seeped through the building. Ben knew the rhythm. His own heart sped in response. He strode with his entourage through the tunnel and out to the platform beside the pit.
Razor stood at the opposite edge, flashing his spurs in the blinding lights, conducting the boom of voices that pressed on them from the enormous cavern above.
Ben dropped his hood and cape and the roar wavered for a moment in a gasp of horror, then redoubled, a bass rumble.
Cameras floated in like scavenger fish. The referee on the crane seat spoke into a microphone, his words resounding around the arena, as inarticulate as the crowd. Ben didn’t need to hear the words. He had been here, done this, many times before.
As contender, he set his foot in the stirrup first, allowing the rope to lower him into the pit, extending his blade-tipped wings and waving his spurs at the crowd to multiply their derision. He stepped onto the sprung wooden floor of the pit, feet apart and arms akimbo, and watched as the rope lowered Razor to his place. Their eyes met, and the Razor nodded. Ben flexed his arms, back, legs, watching Razor do the same, listening for the sound that would change the world.
Adrenaline pumped into Ben’s arms, legs. He felt good, in his natural element.
Razor proved to be everything Ben expected: muscled and quick, alert and skilled. Unlike matches Ben had seen on narrowbeam, Razor did not over-use his powerful right ankle. He mixed moves with his wrists and elbows, shoulders and knees.
Still, there was an over-quickness, a deeper breathing, a stiffness to his movements. And in these close quarters, a telltale musk in the Razor’s sweat.
Ben smiled. He knew opponents with fear.
In the second and third rounds, Ben’s rhythm deepened, became more natural, his breathing good. The tide of sound from above receded in his ears. He enjoyed the sparring, not cutting too much or too often, and holding back from letting himself get cut. Too much blood loss early on led to fatigue, and Ben was in for the full fifteen rounds. Marci was waiting.
In the next rounds, the Razor sharpened, finding his own rhythm, losing a little of his fear. He pressed harder, finding ways to come from behind, tempting Ben to use his wings. A couple of times, Ben had to pull himself back from an illegal move, and once he felt the sting of a razor on his shoulder. Not much, a scratch to clot almost instantly, but a reminder. Toward the end of the sixth round, Razor did a quick, double slice, to nick Ben’s hand and his knee. The crowd erupted in frenzy and the Razor pushed in deeper, panting with the effort, only to be sliced and sent to his corner as the bell rang. First real blood.
The lights poured heat into the pit. After eight rounds, they left the arena to allow the advertisers and bartenders to make money and the reporters to discuss every cut. Ben was rubbed and covered like a racehorse and hustled to the prep room.
“Half way to a hundred and fifty million.” Ben wiped at trickle of blood from his bicep. “I feel good. Heart, lungs, doing good.”
“The crowd is ugly.” Frank paced toward the door and back again, looking over his shoulder. Waves of sound beat through the walls. Bass chords of some rock hit pumped the audience.
“You okay? You don’t look so good. You sweatin’ more than me.” Ben leaned in front of his manager, uneasy. “Hey. Frank.”
“You got us covered. You said you got us covered. We gonna get out of here, tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry.”
The boy pulled the towel from the massage table. “Rub, sir?”
Ben ignored the boy. “Frank. You getting us out of here?”
“Yeah.” Frank went back to the door and put his hand on the button, then changed his mind and came back. “But, Ben, you’ve got to let him cut you a few times. The janitors hardly had to clean the floor. Two-hundred-eighty thousand is a lot of angry people. You know, police can’t be expected to control that many if they are really feeling cheated.”
“Ain’t no cheat. They getting a good show.” Ben turned to watch Frank’s pacing. “They getting blood, they getting a high class fight, lots of what you call finesse. I’m keeping to the rules, keeping my end of the contract.” The hairs on the back of his neck tingled, and he held out a hand to stop Frank. “How about you? That limo you got, it armored, right? It big and heavy?”
“You’re doing good. Doing good, right by the rules.” Frank rubbed his face. “I’ve got to go check my bets.”
The boy turned ashen. “But we’ll be safe in this room, won’t we?”
Frank returned to the door, listening to the thump of a hundred thousand boots above them. The call came for the second half.
“Come on, Ben. Get it over.”
The boy turned and threw his gear into a bag.
The Razor had a different look when he came down for the second half. He jumped the bell, pressing hard, and Ben let him make a couple of superficial cuts. He took a few wounds to his shoulders and outer thighs, even one small scratch on his belly, before sending the boxer back with a streaming cut to the lower neck. It didn’t matter to the crowd. The music boomed and they chanted in one voice, no words filtering down through the murk.
But Razor kept up the pressure. Sure, his handlers had told him to be more aggressive, but this was more than coaching strategy. The fighter looked into Ben’s eyes more, worked from his centre more, smiled more. What was different?
Ben put it together.
The musk of fear. It was gone.
Razor must have got some information. What? Who from?
The bell rang for round ten. Razor crouched, gaudy blue and green silks sticking to his groin, muscles gleaming, dark hair tousled.
What? This fight was going to be thrown, that was a given. Why would Razor work any harder than he had to? Some other double cross. A lot of people were in for high stakes, a lot of money was changing hands. But that was taken care of in the contract. Someone was willing to ditch the contract. . . lose out on the money to be made. . . for what? What had changed since the beginning of the fight? Who was dealing between rounds?
“Mute rules! Mute rules!” The words of the chant filtered through to his thoughts. Mute rules? That made no sense.
The bell rang for the twelfth time, and Razor pressed him, pressed him, blowing hard but still pushing. The powerful right ankle came at him again and again, followed by quick combinations and that right ankle again. Ben was pushed back, taken blind side, cut when he didn’t intend to take a cut. The pit became slippery as a dirt pit never did. Razor moved as though he intended to win on his own talent.
The thirteenth round ended. Ben went to his corner, winded and bleeding. Sweat stung a dozen unstaunched cuts. Razor slouched on his stool, leaning back on the wall in his corner, breathing hard and holding a pad to his rib. He poured water on the side of his face and looked at Ben through half-closed eyes.
“Mute rules! Mute rules!”
Mute rules– Fuck!
The bell rang.
The Cleans didn’t want the Mutant to rule. They wanted Mutant Rules. Ben crouched in the ready stance at the centre, watching Razor approach.
He locked eyes with the Clean. He knew.
“So. Figure it out, yet, Swamp Frog?”
What, Mutant Rules? It was absurd for Razor to agree to that. He would lose.
“Fifty seconds, Loser.” They circled one another as if at opposite ends of a long tunnel that had no room for contracts and crowds and rules.
Razor forced him into a side wall and nicked his shin. Ben pushed him back, fought like he was in a dirt pit. Razor gave as good as he got.
Round fifteen. The rhythm of the chant enveloped the pit.
Mutant rules. One way or another, the crowd was determined to have blood. Real blood. His blood.
Could they get away with Mutant rules on the broadbeam? Maybe. If the Clean won.
Razor swung a leg high. Ben took a cut above his elbow that he hadn’t intended to take, close to a tendon. Not good.
Ben only had to look at Razor to know he intended to win on Mutant Rules. He and his lawyers had renegotiated. Without Ben.
Renegotiated with Frank.
The Clean swung wide with his left wrist and Ben gave him a slash to a rib. He thought of Marcia and the baby. Peru. Marcia would never see Peru. Fuck this.
“What, the Swamp Frog scared?”
With an effort, he lunged and sliced Razor deep across the chest so the blood streamed down his abdomen. “We got a contract.”
The Razor’s cheeks bloomed with surprise and hot rage, and a grunt belched from his clenched teeth. Ben had seen unreasoned fury in his opponents’ eyes before. In the long milliseconds between breaths, he waited. There was no contract. Frank was probably half-way to the airport with a sack of money. His face wasn’t on broadbeam.
The Razor charged, both arms forward, razors aimed for Ben’s throat and face.
Ben would not die in the street beneath the heels of a mob. He would not die barricaded in a hole in the ground.
Ben swept at Razor’s ankle and missed, tripping him, and the boxer stumbled forward, one elbow spur slicing deep into Ben’s cheek.
His beautiful face that Marci loved to touch. He tasted his own blood.
No one cut the Angel’s face. No one.
Power exploded in his chest, and Ben launched himself forward, an ankle spur severing Razor’s calf muscle. His left hand reached out and cradled the Clean’s head, holding it in place, the eyes glassy now with pain, a relaxed, dumbfounded expression on his slack face. Ben dipped with his shoulder, allowing his right angel wing to reach forward.
Mutant Rules? The crowd could have Mutant Rules. He would not die in this pit under a cockboxer’s spur. He drew his angel razor deep across the Clean’s throat.
He dropped the dead weight and turned to look up into the blinding lights and the ref’s horrified face and the cameras backing off. Silence reverberated around him, before the explosion of sound that would surely follow, and he grabbed the rope and bared his chest to the multitude. Marcia, at least, would be rich, and his son would never box.
And if the mob tore him to pieces as the golden rope raised him from the pit, then let the broadbeam watch.