The warehouse I was in was derelict, must have been abandoned years ago in some financial crisis and never revived. It wasn’t uncommon in this eastern part of San Francisco; huge shipping companies had gone under with the nearby boom of technology. The whole block stood the way this building did-- with the feel of something forgotten.
Perfect to contain the chaos that was happening within.
The crowd, gathered both on temporary risers and around the railings of the upper-story balcony that looked down on the floor below, roared. Half of them screamed encouragement, half screamed in dismay. They were all agreed something major was about to happen. The tension in the air was like that charge before a thunderstorm; the hair on my arms stood up. People leaned forward, and away. Next to me, Quentin’s chest rose with breath that was not released. Below us all eyes were on the open space walled by chain-link fencing-- or, more accurately, the two men within the ring that it created. It wasn’t the first fight of the night, but from the look of things, it was going to be the last.
Both fighters were bloodied, their bare chests slick and shiny with sweat that shone in the hard light of the overhead fluorescents. There were no open windows, no chance to be seen. The sound of the crowd got larger as the space between the men got smaller. I felt my body respond to it at a raw, primal level. Adrenaline was bitter under my tongue, my palms hot and sticky, the roar of the people not just in the room but against my eardrums. My heart pounded in time to each step the men took toward each other. The only clear thing was how much they both hurt.
There would be no mercy here tonight-- and that lack was exactly what the crowd wanted.
“This is barbaric,” I hissed, the words just pressure against my teeth.
“This is the Ring,” Quentin said back, his voice low. “It won’t last much longer.”
That was obvious from the crowd. They knew what Quentin knew. What the fighters knew.
I didn’t know their names. They were statistics, horses to bet on. Their ages, weights, wins, were all chalked out on a large schedule board hanging on a wall. Information to make or lose money on, that was all. The names didn’t matter-- no first, no last. The fighters were only identified by numbers.
This was the last fight of the night, the fight that everyone had money on-- and the people surrounding me, they had money. Wealthy, well dressed men and women, suits and pearls and then others who gave them room but still pressed forward to see the fate of the men in the ring. The Mob, I was sure, and others whose fortunes were tied to theirs.
I wondered more about the fighters, if they had to think about where to put their feet on the floor so that they didn’t slip on the blood they’d split. The fact that the ring was cleaned between fights did little to keep it clear for long and the logical, police part of my brain wondered what kind of evidence stories that floor could tell. Cement was porous. It held its victims. I don’t think anyone in this place cared.
The men in the ring certainly didn’t.
A punch was thrown. It was tired, hurt and slow-- and the man left with any speed at all claimed the win. The punch was ducked and then returned; the larger man hit the floor with a yell and enough impact to shake the rafters.
Or that was how it felt to me.
Quentin was looking at the ring, pale beneath his dark skin. He had good reason; the fighter still standing was advancing to the prone figure that he’d put on the floor. I felt my throat tighten as he kneeled down and my hands curled into fists. The man, well-cut and wiry, non-descript aside from his dark hair and green shorts, took the head of his opponent, each hand on an ear.
The crowd held its breath and in the sudden silence I will swear that I heard the crack of the man’s neck from upstairs. Bile rose in my throat.
Everyone went crazy.
“And that’s what happens,” Quentin said, raising his voice to be heard from my side over the roar of the people around us. “The fighters that kill… those are the ones who make it big.”
Those are the ones who make it big.
How did I get here?
+ + +
It had been a month. For sex. Alcohol.
I felt like I was slowly dying.
It had been a month and I still saw Thomas when I closed my eyes. Nothing much had changed since the last time I saw him--drunk and beating on the guy who hit on him when I had broken things off. I’d been told he helped get me back to my house afterward but I didn’t remember. The last time I looked at Thomas’ face and was sober enough to remember, he was disappointed in me. That wasn’t the night I thought of when I pushed my hand into my pants, or woke up hard.
I hadn’t slept with anyone since Thomas. Maybe I thought I could even some karmic score, though that was stupid and I knew it. Thomas was gone--it was my doing. So instead of having him, I would wake up hard and turn my face into my pillow as I slid a hand down my pants.
Six months in San Francisco and I was back to square one. I hadn’t exactly burned the biggest contract that I’d gotten since moving, but I might as well have and honestly, I wish I’d taken gasoline to that asshole Gregory and personally struck the match. I hadn’t, though. Instead I’d preserved my career and only marginally scraped the last of my dignity off of the floor when I’d torn his check up in front of his face.
I rolled down against the mattress and wrapped my fingers tight around my dick. The calluses on my palms from years on the force were rough and warm against sensitive skin and I groaned into the softness of my pillow, shifting my hips.
Sometimes I thought that even my hand and my thoughts of Thomas were more than I deserved… but then, the guilt never stopped me from doing it anyway.
I stayed flat on my stomach, my hand stuck between my body weight and the mattress, compressed enough to only be able to make small, stuttering jerks around the top of my cock. I thumbed the head and bucked my hips, biting cotton. Not numbing myself with alcohol was easier than abstinence; I’d always used sex as a segue, a connector to other people. I wasn’t a guy with as many friends as acquaintances and now, in a place that was still relatively new to me, I’d been stripped of all that. Now not only was I sober, but I was also alone. I can’t say that I hadn’t considered--in the darker moments of the last month--just moving back to New York and dealing with the real issue.
It was never a consideration that lasted very long.
I fucked myself into the tight, damp clamp of my hand, forcing the feeling, the sensations, using the cranking heat in my gut to drown out the thoughts in my head. Not that I’d last long as that rate--but it didn’t matter so much. I could ride the lethargy of the orgasm for a while, if I was lucky. My hips pumped and I thought of Thomas, pink-cheeked with arousal, lips parted and wet and long eyelashes making bruises against his skin with his eyes closed.
I thought of Thomas and how his legs felt climbing my hips.
Thomas, grabbing onto me as if he didn’t, he might drown.
My body stiffened abruptly, hips giving a rough spasm downward, outside of my control as I made strangled noises into my pillow. My free hand tangled into sheets, clenching, as my orgasm throbbed free. “Fuck.” The curse was a gasp, a painful inhale. I gulped for breath as the squeeze on my lungs eased and rolled over, panting, onto my back. I stared at the ceiling and the ceiling stared back. “Jesus christ.” I closed my eyes, heart thumping like a too-fast going against my eardrums. At first I didn’t even hear the knock at the door over the bass of my pulse; I don’t even know how long it went on before I recognized it for what it was. I opened my eyes, picked my head up. The voice that followed was clear enough-- even through the door.
“Come on, old man!”
Groaning, I grabbed my pillow and chucked it at the staircase (as if that mattered), and rolled back down onto my stomach again. It was probably the only reason I bothered getting up, since I’d rolled back into the wet spot. “Shit.” Another pound on the door and I raised my voice, “hold on, goddamnit! I’m coming!”
Wiping my stomach with the top sheet, I pulled my briefs up and grabbed jeans, thrown on the top of the dresser. I kicked the pillow out of the way as I headed down the stairs and across the floor to the front door. I unlocked it and stepped back, hopping into my pants.
“How come you never have pants on when I come over?” Quentin asked, letting himself in.
I zipped my fly. “Because you’re always interrupting me. Your timing stinks.” I moved into the kitchen, opened drawers looking for coffee filters. Quentin followed me. He’d been here a few times since approaching me in the alley a handful of weeks ago about the job he wanted me to do, but since then details hadn’t really been forthcoming. He just kind of… hung around. As for my part, I’d thought a lot about kicking him out each time, and then never did. It wasn’t that we were comfortable with each other, not really. More, I thought, was that I was pretty sure that he was just as lonely as I was.
I shoved a filter into the coffee pot and poured grounds in, then went to fill the pot.
“Timing on what?,” Quentin asked, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. “You getting out of bed before two? Are you a Dick or what?”
The switch on the pot clicked as I started it, leveling a glare at Quentin. He smiled too much. “I don’t have a job right now.”
“Funny you should say that.” He sat the water on the counter and leaned against it, crossing his arms. “There’s a fight scheduled for tonight. I just got the notice.”
The coffee was too slow for this. I pulled a hand over my face and turned to give Quentin my attention, which he clearly wanted. He had told me his secret two weeks ago. Actually, what he had said was, let’s take down the Mob. Quentin, I found out, was not lacking in ambition. That wasn’t even the problem; the problem was the reason he wanted to take down the Mob: he owed them a considerable amount of money.
It seemed like I had traded one Graves sibling client for another, and neither of them had the money to pay me.
“I know you think I’m right for this job because I helped your sister,” I said. I got a mug off the shelf, impatient. “But I don’t know how much I can actually help you.”
Quentin shrugged, a small gesture with his arms still crossed over his chest. “Actually, I looked you up. Did a little research. Lots of commendations you racked up. Head of the department after less than a decade-- then bounced before retirement. No family here that I could find so I figured it was personal. Mid-life crisis?”
“I’m good.” Quentin grinned. “So why’d you leave?”
“Got tired of smog.” I grunted and turned to the coffee pot to pour myself a cup. I didn’t much care what time it was. Since I’d stopping drinking, I’d started adding sugar; I scooped two spoons and dumped them into my drink. I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck.
He made a face and I took a sip of my coffee, hissing as I burned the roof of my mouth. “Listen. I don’t know what good I’m going to do for you. I already told you this.”
“I’m not asking you to actually fight.” Quentin shoved his hands into his pockets. It looked too easy, which meant it was defensive. He put his chin down and a pensive look on his face. He was a good-looking kid, dark-skinned and darker-eyed, with a hard, flat jaw. He dressed for his night job as an escort, so next to his tailored slacks and neck-open button-down, yesterday’s jeans made me look homeless. “I’m just-- you did try to help Antonina, and for nothing. I know you’re a good guy and I just haven’t had many of those on my side lately, you know?”
I wish I could have buried my face in my mug, or gone back to bed and called it a day. Good guy is not how I would have described any of my actions as of late. I didn’t feel like one of the good guys. “Commendations lie.”
Quentin raised his chin. “That wasn’t the research, just a gut instinct.”
“They lie, too.” I turned away from him, taking my coffee to the sofa so that he couldn’t see what his words meant or how much they hurt. I got myself together fast; he was following me. I sank into the couch and Quentin walked to the windows. I still hadn’t gotten blinds.
“Fine,” I said to his back. It wasn’t quite agreement to anything, just a way to break the ice that I’d created. “You don’t want me to fight-- you only want me to take down the Mob. Even if I had a full team behind me-- which, if you haven’t noticed, aren’t hiding under the stairs-- I couldn’t do that. It’s an impossible task. Entire squads take years pulling Mob strings loose enough just to get the little guys.”
“I need to get out. I don’t need you to take down the Mob, I just need you to help me.” He turned, backlit by the window’s soft light. I wondered if he’d intended the effect that it created.
“Aside from paying your debts, how do you propose I do that?” It was a question that Quentin hadn’t been prepared to answer, apparently. He was mute. “I’ll come to the fight tonight,” I said, sighing. “But I make no promises of anything. One thing that I can tell you honestly-- I didn’t move here to become a target for the Mob.” I took a drink and watched as Quentin began to pace. When he’d originally come to me there was nothing immediate I could have done since he was only notified when a fight happened the day of, so at the time I’d told him that I’d do whatever I could to help him. I had been trying to climb out of a personal hole, after how badly I’d ended things with Thomas, and any chance at even partial redemption was one too good to pass up. But now that I was here and staring at the reality of the situation…
I couldn’t actually take down the Mob. Impossible? It was ludicrous.
“My dad would be damn disappointed in me if he knew what I’d gotten us into,” Quention said, lips a tight line. If his eyes weren’t so cold I’d have thought he was playing me, but the emotion was easy to read. I’d indulged in enough of my own self-loathing of late to be able to read it on his face.
My coffee was set on the table and I stood. “Explain it to me again.” Moving to the small office-- or what passed as one, the space under the loft with a table for my laptop, a rolling cork board, and a file cabinet. I hadn’t had much reason to fill it out, considering that the majority of the cases that I’d taken in the half a year since coming to San Francisco had been cheating spouses and background checks. Didn’t need much for that. I rattled a drawer or two and found a half-used pad of paper and a pen before returning to the couch. Quentin was watching.
“Start from the beginning.”
Quentin sat on the small built-in shelf that ran along the length of the windowsill and took a quiet breath. “It started about a year ago.” He wrapped his knuckles around the lip of wood and leaned forward. “I was working for a tech company doing market research. Didn’t love it, but it was steady--until it wasn’t. I don’t have a degree, just knew someone who knew someone.” He shrugged. “Which meant that when the company dissolved I was left without a job and without all the money that I’d sunk into the company stock to boot.” His shoulders were tight, and Quentin looked across the room as he talked. “My mom had died the year before and my dad was in the hospital. The bills… we just didn’t have anything. We paid what we could, took credit out for the rest.”
He looked hurt, earnest-- but there was something there. A piece of information I was missing. It sat just out of my reach and eventually was buried under the sadness on Quentin’s face. I let it go.
“I took interviews for months, trying to beat out the guys with degrees and experience for the few jobs out there. And my company had folded-- didn’t look great on a resume.” Quentin shook his head, sat up straighter and crossed his arms over his chest. “Tony would sit there, half under the coffee table in the middle of the night after her shift, going over the bills. It was awful. All I could think was that I was letting my family down.” His shoulders tightened. I could imagine easily enough the responsibility he’d felt being left as the man of the house, older brother and father sick. It was a big burden for anyone, and Quentin was only twenty-six.
I hadn’t written down much. I was just listening, getting a first impression by watching Quentin speak-- something I’d learned from Mike early on.
Notes will lie, Dave, and you don’t want to be writing while you should have been paying attention.
“So I talked to a guy and I got a loan.” Quentin’s laugh had a hard edge to it. “It was easy; so easy you can’t even believe it. I met with a few guys at a restaurant, had dinner, and it was great. I’d walked in shitting my pants and walked out laughing, with a check for fifty-g in my pocket.” His tone was falsely bright, as if viewing the memory from the far side of it. “Part of me thought it was a joke-- right up until the moment I pushed it through the window at the bank and it cleared.” He flashed pale palms at me. “Piece of cake.”
Quentin slumped back, settling his shoulder blades against the window. “Told Tony I gambled to get the money. She was pissed but wasn’t stupid enough to turn it down-- we needed it too bad-- just made me swear never to do it again. Said I wouldn’t get that lucky twice.” He smiled, grim and thin. “It only took us six months to go through most of it.” The smile grew even leaner. “Rent. Past-due bills. Medications for dad. And then we were back to where we’d started.”
“Except you were in debt to the Mob.”
Quentin ran his hands over his close-cropped hair; his elbows touched briefly in front of his face as he grabbed his skull. Then he was standing and dropped his palms with a flat sound against his thighs. “And dad died.”
“Jesus.” The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it. “I’m sorry, Quentin.”
His lips thinned and he nodded. “Thanks. It felt… shit. I spent a week or two with my head in the sand. I’d got us in deep, and it felt like for no reason at all. I kept imaging the Mob coming after Tony because of me and it made me sick. So getting a job-- trying to get back the money-- was a little more pressing for me.”
Finally I just tossed the pad to the side and stuck the pen behind my ear, slumping back into the couch. “And you started escorting.” That got the first real smile Quentin had offered since starting the story. “It’s not exactly market research,” I added.
“It is, in a way.” He laughed. “I know my demographics. Like you-- when you opened your door that night, I knew I wasn’t getting laid.”
I snorted and folded my hands in my lap. “Did you.”
“Authoritative guys generally don’t want to fuck me.”
“I’m wondering if I should be insulted or charmed…”
Quentin raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to fuck me?” The bald question hung in the air between us and I considered him for a long moment. The nice wardrobe, the blunt speech, the too-fast smile.
Quentin winked. “Market research.”
“Not to say you’re not a good looking kid--”
“But you just called me a kid. I get it. Looks don’t always matter, man. Some people have types and it outweighs all the gymnastics you could ever do in the sack.”
I was amused. I think we both were. After the heavy turn the conversation had taken, we were taking advantage of the levity of the topic. “Am I your type? Because I don’t want to have to break your heart.”
“You?” Quentin choked and I had to swallowed a grin. “Please,” he said flipping a hand. “Too old. No offense, old man, but I don’t go for the daddies.” He laughed with me and shook his head. “You want me to finish? Or are you going to kick me out the door, seeing as how I’m not going to be able to pay you with my body?”
“Go ahead. But I promise if you call me old man one more time, I’ll give you the most platonic spanking of your life.”
I liked Quentin’s laugh. It was gracious and heavy; real. He shook his head and wiped a hand over his face, dark eyes searching the corners of the room as if they’d tell him where he’d left off. “Yeah.” His hands settled in his lap. “So. I’ve been escorting for a few months. I can’t say I love it, but I get free shit and I get paid, so it’s better than where I was and I remember thinking, well, shit, I’ll just pay back the loan a little at a time.” He shook his head. “Found out it isn’t that easy to pay back the Mob. You see, apparently-- there comes a time when they want their money back, and they want it in lump.” The small bit of laughter we’d shared had already left his face. “When I hit that point and didn’t have the money, I didn’t have many options. And I got signed up for the fight club. They bet on me and I win and everyone is happy. And if I happen to die…” He shook his head. The fact that he considered such a thing a possibility hung in the air. “At least Tony’s in the clear.”
“Your sister still thinks that you’re letting your clients beat you up.” I didn’t like continuing the story with Antonina, or leaving her in the dark. “She deserves the truth. Especially if it’s that serious.”
“You’ve said that before,” Quentin said, his voice low. “And I still don’t agree. Do you really think that it would cause her less worry to know that I’m in debt to, and fighting for, the Mob?” He shook his head. “I need an out. I can’t keep fighting like this, my luck can’t keep up.” His lips thinned and his voice dropped. “I’m not going to be able to keep ahead of it forever, you know? Even if the Mob would let me.”
That last bit, that part-- that was the part of the story that I absolutely believed. I’m not sure how Quentin really got the money from the Mob; normal people did not just schedule dinners with crime families. But I believed he’d gotten it somehow and now he was scared because he couldn’t pay it back and his luck in any kind of fight club was clearly always going to be temporary at best. That much was true and knowing that, I couldn’t tell him no. Going after the Mob was a fool’s errand and I wondered if I’d regret it. I sure as hell hoped not, but I couldn’t just leave Quentin to deal with this alone.
“I’ll try my best to help.”
The lines didn’t ease off of Quentin’s face, but his shoulders slid down away from his ears and his fingers relaxed the pressure they were putting on the shelf below him. “Thank you.” He breathed the words out, as if he’d been holding them in the entire time, just waiting for me to say no instead.
I leaned forward, putting my forearms to my knees. He wasn’t giving me all the details, but now wasn’t the time to press it. He was in trouble; that much I was sure about.
And if I had to be honest, fool’s errand or not, it was a little exciting to be back on a real job.
“I can’t promise anything,” I said, looking up at him. “But I’ll try my best.”
+ + +
My hands were wrapped tightly around the railing, looking down into the Ring. The fighter who’d lost lay limp near the fence, his head a little too far to the right. “He’s still breathing,” I said. Quentin stepped closer to me to speak over the yells of the winners and the losers and the bookies.
“Not for long. He’s not going to get help, not here.”
Christ; thinking of the implications made me feel sick. The man’s neck was probably broken-- without medical help he’d die a slow and unpleasant death as his lungs stopped breathing without the brain to tell them what to do. It would be like drowning. He had to know what was happening to him. “It’s barbaric.” It was the second time I’d said it but it had lost none of it’s truth. I’d seen a lot of terrible things in my life and this was still pretty high on the list.
Quentin glanced to either side, more to make a point than to look for anything. “They love it. It pays. That guy,” he pointed to the winner in the Ring, pumping his fists and yelling, “he just made a whole lot of money by winning the way he did. That’s what they want.” He looked at me, his eyes flat. “He won’t win his next match, though. That fight was a last ditch effort. It was too slow. They’ll stack the fight, put him up against someone bigger next time.” The cool way Quentin said it made the hairs on my arms stand up and it must have shown on my face because Quentin gave a soft shake of his head. “It’s not personal.”
His knuckles were pale as he gripped the railing in front of him, looking down into the Ring and the man left in it to slowly die to the cheers of the crowd.
“Sometimes getting our lives back means killing, and sometimes it means dying.”