Friday, April 13, 2018

In the Lionwood

In the Lionwood
Bobby Derie

In the winter when bellies grow taut, none is sadder than the rabbit-eater, who may starve though their stomachs distend with hare-flesh. Long might a hunter stare at the brown hare, when the snow is on the ground, yet not waste arrow or spear. Yet when the spring comes, and the green grass breaks through, the trees bring forth new leaves, and the snow is only seen where the shadows of the trees shield it from the sun...then perhaps a hunter may stretch their legs and, secure in game, give chase after a coney. For a change in taste.

Hafdana chased the grandmother of all hares through the melting forest; the thing was as big as a greyhound, and bounded with astonishing speed between the evergreens, through thickets of wet bramble that two weeks before had been incased in ice, down little valleys and across narrow streams of meltwater. Whatever designs Hafdana had on the creature - whether for the stewpot or for its pelt - was lost in that glorious run, the little legs kicking up snow, and her long stride behind.

It was not until the brambles turned to golden wire, and small meadows of long thin grasses poked amid scraggly trees spaced wide apart like bent old men, and the grey stones piled up into mounds with gaping mouths that Hafdana realized she had entered the Lionwood.

There were wide paths through the Lionwood, which might once have been roads paved with stone; and the endless caves were thought by some to be too regular to be anything but some ancient city, weathered and swallowed by the advancing forest. Tales were told by granddams over the fire - of the lion that slew a god, and a cursed city whose people mated like animals, of an ancient law broken and a revenge claimed by strange felines - and perhaps these were of the Lionwood, and perhaps they were strange dreams brought by chewing the wrong roots to stave off hunger.

Yet Hafdana raced on. The hare was tiring, the pace told on its heaving flanks. The hunter herself loped with the long stride of the far-runner, keeping the prey in sight but not seeking to close, until it tired itself out.

Eyes watched her. Slit pupils in the tall green grass, the shadows of low-hanging branches and the dark mouths of caves. Tawny tuffs of fur marked the rough bark of the old trees, and the scars of claws. On, on into the Lionwood, and a great purr came up as Hafdana passed under those trees, a staccato cachinnation, and a hiss that had nothing of the reptile in it as she strode through the sun-dappled tall grass between the patches of shade.

Worst was the silence. When all the sound faded away, and all the eyes seemed to flee. Hafdana clutched her spear tight, for the great rabbit itself seemed to sense the stillness in the air, but just as it was to turn from its path, a vast golden paw came down.

The hare had been the size of  a greyhound, long body covered in brown fur. Yet the paw was as thick as the bole of an oak tree; each claw would have made a terrible curved sword for a woman of average height. Hafdana's stride broke, and she stumbled forward. Stared up through the leaves of the trees and caught sight of great slitted pupils in green eyes the size of pumpkins. If a cat had been built on the scale of an elephant, it might have looked like that. The paw pinned the great hare to the earth...and then rose, and the beast padded silently through the trees.

Hafdana stumbled forward toward the hare - it's neck carefully crushed - and wondered for how long the lord of the Lionwood had been following them in chase. She picked up the broken hare, slung it over her shoulders, and turned back along that lane. Cats, she knew, were wise - and knew better perhaps then women, not to rely too much on rabbit-flesh, when winter was not yet over.


Friday, April 6, 2018

The Central Mystery

The Central Mystery
Bobby Derie

We breathe the dead. All smell is particulate. When you catch that waft of putrescence in your nostrils, like spoiled ham and excrement, that's because pieces of the corpse are in the air, expanding outwards from the corpse.

Detective Keryes didn't seem to mind.

"Your problem, Jack, is that you think presentation matters. Truth, whether incised on an ancient tablet or captured in softcover and available at a reasonable price from Amazon, whether brought down from the mountain by a white-bearded prophet or shouted from the street corner by a wild-eyed homeless person that's wearing a three-day old adult truth."

The call had come in from the mail carrier. Took three days for them to notice the pile up of bills and packages. Peeked in through the windows and couldn't see anything for the smear of blood.

"My problem," Detective Bastard said, "is with the idea."

The body was in the living room, which opened off of a short foyer. A nice little stucco two-bedroom with Spanish tile on the roof, white tile on the floors instead of carpet. Not much space, but there were no doors until  you got to the bathroom and bedrooms, so it had the illusion of being bigger than it was.

ID on the mail was Irene Caldwell.

We stood just outside the circle in the living room. Looked and smelled like blood. Strange symbols - Hebrew, maybe, and something else that looked like constellations, all straight lines and circles. There was a pool there, dark and sticky, a giant scab of old blood and dried shit. It had been a scorcher the last couple of days, over a hundred degrees, and the AC hadn't been running. When they tried to move the body, the skin of her back had peeled right off.

"You don't like truth?" Keryes wasn't smiling. One of the lab techs had a spatula and was making progress.

"Revelation," Bastard replied. "The idea that there's something ineffable. Doesn't matter how old or new the 'truth' is, you look at it in the light of day and it's stupid or silly. Because it's not about the information itself. It's about the process. The initiation. All those poor assholes that have to suffer through something, and at the end they get God, or aliens, or the Enlightenment or whatever...but that's it: you can't share it. You can't tell people about it. You try, and they don't get it. Because it's not in the words. It's something that can't be communicated." He looked around the room. Sparse furniture, no photos. "Cause of death yet?"

"They haven't got back with us yet. Best guess in the meantime is 'gutted from crotch to sternum.'"

"Right." Jack Bastard knelt down near the wall, looking at a pile of dust. Followed it up to an air grate. "It's not democratic."

Keryes followed his gaze, took out a small multitool from his pocket

"What's that?" he said, as he started to undo the screws.

"Revelation. That's part of what I don't like about it. Like Christianity, the inherent message is that everybody's saved. Jesus sacrificed us so God could forgive us of all the sins that...well, the whole weird recursion thing. But that was the kick with Christianity: everybody that wanted to be saved, done. Just accept Jesus. Don't even have to go to church, or read the Bible. Didn't have to earn it - just had to ask. But you see Christians, they still struggle with that. It's too easy. They feel they need to suffer for it. That they have to earn it."

"Sounds Libertarian." The grate popped out easy. There was a couple notebooks there. "Bingo. Think this will unravel the mystery?"

Detective Bastard grimaced, and looked down at the shadowy stain. The lab tech with the spatula had gone off to the corner to dry-heave.

"Not the big one," he said. "But maybe it'll help us solve a murder."


Monday, April 2, 2018

Sigrun and the Pig

Sigrun and the Pig
Bobby Derie

There was a country where every church bell cracked, and so the peals never rang out over the stony beach of the small bay, nor reached the little rocky islets off the coast, or up the steep hills. Even the village was still a half-wild place, where legends came to rest and farm for a while.

Sigrun came of age when her father died, his life sped out on a fishbone. She shed no tears, for the old man's doom had been foretold, and he'd ask for kippers every breakfast regardless. There was talk among the men and boys, for Sigrun was not ill-figured, and her farm was no small dowry - three cows, a pair of iron-shod goats, and many fat pigs - but the first wooer was too rough, and when she had paid the weregeld to his family, and his sad-eyed mother had laid down her curse, there were few others that wished to try their chances.

Now, the mother's curse was laid not on Sigrun, but on her pigs. Fever took the males, from the oldest boar to the youngest piglet, and never thereafter could Sigrun manage to keep one alive for more than a week. Yet in the spring a wily old boar would come sniffing around the forest, which came up just to the edge of the farm, and Sigrun would unlatch the gate to the pig pen. In time the porker would return from her honeymoon, and in some weeks there would be piglets, and all was fine for a while.

Yet on the second spring after the witch had laid her curse, the pig did not come back. Not after two days or five. On the sixth day, Sigrun put on her father's boots and walked out into the forest to find her.

You have never seen a wood such as that. It girdled the mountain Alflair, right up to the snow line, and no axe had touched those trees, not since the world began. Scrape the moss from the stones and the bones of the sea peaked out at  you, and the trees towered tall and broad, so that the forest floor was fallow and in darkness, 'cept for creeping mistletoe. Yet there were acorns there as large as a big man's hand, and for that reason the old boar would sniff and root, to fatten up for the winter.

Sigrun strode through the forest, her eyes watching for pig-sign on the ground. She did not call for the pig, for she knew there was no use for that, but walked far, until the stars came out above - though she could not see it, because of the eternal twilight of the forest - and round and round she walked until she came out at a troll farm.

There is no reason trolls cannot farm, though most seem disinclined to the work. This was as fair a farm as Sigrun might have expected for a troll: a broad swatch of field marked off by stones and a fence of stakes, and a house built for the size of a troll, great river-stones at its base and a sloping roof that touched the ground, so a goat might walk up it. And in the field was the boar and Sigrun's pig.

Sigrun came up to the door and clapped her hands, one, twice, thrice loudly.

The troll emerged. She was not unfair, for a troll; each breast alone was larger than Sigrun's head, and the tusks in her mouth were small by trollish standards. Her ox-tail was clean, and held above the ground. Sigrun wondered if there was much human blood in her.

"Good even, neighbor, and well met. I am Sigrun, of the farm on the other side of the forest."

"Hail and well met, neighbor. I am Orthumr, called Short-tooth. What brings you here?"

"My pig had gone out to chase her boar, and after five days I missed her and came to high her home. I see her yonder in your field."

"The boar is mine," Orthumr nodded. "Captured in the forest. If you let your pig out, that is your own business, but she came to my farm of her own will, following her boar. Why for do you let your pretty pig out?"

"A witch's curse. No male pork can long abide in my house, so I let her out for the piglets."

Orthumr shrugged. "I too had hoped for piglets. Perhaps I still am."

"Think you not to keep my pig from me, Orthumr Trollkin." Sigrun warned. "I have wrestled worse than you to get my just compensation at the law-courts."

The troll laughed. "Perhaps you have. Yet I bethought me of...another arrangement."

They haggled, into the night, and sealed the contract with mead. The pig would stay with Orthumr for half a year, and in the end of summer dam and female piglets would come back to Sigrun's farm, and the boar and male piglets were Orthumr's. A good arrangement. Yet as the dawn broke, and Sigrun came heavily to her feet.

"Keep faith, O Orthumr. I shall be cross, if you eat up all my little girls!"

"And if I do so, Sigrun, you shall keep your pretty little pig at home, and we shall neither of us have any piglets. No, this way is better." Her tail bounced with laughter. "Yet next time, perhaps, we shall wrestle, just for the sport of it."

"Next time," Sigrun promised, and went back through the girdling forest to her farm. But as to what happened to her on the way home, that is another tale.


Friday, March 23, 2018

When The Last of Innsmouth Is Dead

When the Last of Innsmouth is Dead
Bobby Derie

The camp had no name, only a letter and a number.

Sunlight spilled over the plain of flat white salt pans. Remnants of an ancient sea, long dried up. The guard escorted her out early, before the heat of the day. Through parallel lines of rusty barbed wire, to the small plot. A shovel had already been struck into the earth. The body laid beside it, wrapped in a biodegradable bag. Waiting.

This was their reward for cooperation and good behavior. She remembered the hunger strikes, the riots. The croaking sermons of the elders as they led the congregation in song. The bloody reprisals from the guards. Then, a relenting; an accommodation. It was the least they could do. Within limits.

She took the shovel and began to dig. The guard kept watch, well out of range, his weapon trained on her.

The night they had left Innsmouth had been fire and terror. She had only been about four years old, but she had the Look. The government men had herded her into the trucks with the others. From trucks to railroad cars. There had been jail cells, temporary prisons. Then the camp - the barbed wire had been shiny and new then, glinting in the desert sun.

Sometimes she thought back, to the last time she had been immersed in water. As natural to her as breathing. Never again. Even the showers were on a timer, since the elders had tried a trick of conserving it. They had planned to give the children a bath, a baptism. But that wasn't allowed.

She had seen how afraid they were of them, then. In those eyes, behind those guns.

Prison life had become almost all she'd known. There were fights. Arguments. Bullies, and those who couldn't control themselves. A segregation by genders - they didn't want any babies. Endless medical examinations. No privacy, inside or out. Her cousin Emmy had been the only other female, these last few years, and she had gone inside of herself. Lost in memories. Talking about wanting to taste brine again. It had been almost a blessing, when she bit off her own tongue. Then it was just herself.

She had seen the men dwindle too. Counted the graves, every time she was called on to dig one. Now, she figured, she must be the last. There would be no-one left to bury her.

Outside in the exercise yard, she noted there were fewer guards. Maintenance had let things lapse. As if with fresh eyes, she saw the general decay of the camp, now.

It took, until noon to dig the grave. Clouds scattered over the desert, to block the worst of the sunlight, and the air felt heavy. She mumbled what she remembered of the old prayers - the elders had been insistent that the children learn. Just in case.

Arms weary, she let the shovel fall. Turned to lift the bodybag. Webbed hands grasped under where the shoulders should be, hefted - it was like lifting a bag of rocks. She looked towards the guard - and any request she might have had for help died before she spoke it. So she looked up into the sky and sang.

The rain drops were warm and greasy. It was a sun shower, no more than a few minutes. Yet she loved the feel of it on her skin. The way it made the new turned earth smell wet and fresh. It gave her the strength to push the bag into the hole.

"This is all I can do for you," she said aloud. "That was is left of you may rest amid the bones of this ancient sea. You are among kin here..." she choked. "Hydra Mother. The world is harsh. The spawn of your loins do not all survive to that great change. May the seas wash over us and cover us, and with strange aeons..."

She heard the guard move behind her. The cycling of the bullet into the chamber.

"What will you do," she said, loud enough for him to hear. "When the last of Innsmouth is dead?"

Two shots rang out, in quick succession. The body fell into the open grave, on top of the other corpse.


Friday, March 16, 2018

The Soul of the Plot

The Soul of the Plot
Bobby Derie

"I need the plot of a comedy." Mallory said aloud, staring at her paper. The women next to her didn't even look up from her book as she answered: "A Nazi falls down the stairs and dies."

Mallory looked at the woman. A hoodie stamped with the university logo, pajama pants. The book was Gormenghast. "And the plot of a drama?" she said.

"The Nazi is old, in retirement. Hiding. The MOSSAD agent has been staking him out for weeks. She knew the names and faces of his victims at the camp. Had her grandparents' numbers tattooed on her arm. Not enough evidence to prosecute, no. No way to extradite, no trial, not for a geriatric old man. But a line of fine wire, just at ankle height, at the top of the stairs..." She looked up, to meet Mallory's eyes. "A Nazi falls down the stairs and dies. The last thing he sees is her, waiting for him at the bottom. Watching."

"...a thriller?"

"Someone knows. Watches. The grandson. He's never asked what the old man did, during the war. He prefers not to know. But he sees her, one day, watching the house, the old man on the porch. She asks the hard questions, when they are private, but she worms her way closer and closer into the house... The grandson suspects. He must. He wants to tell the grandfather, resolves to. Ah, yes...there is the struggle... which is stronger in the heart, the woman he just met, or his own blood..."

"Sounds like a romance."

"All good romances have in them the heart of tragedy. All true romances end in tears, not happily ever after. What the grandson fears, at the end, is to be left...not with the woman, not with his grandfather, but with nothing."

"And this MOSSAD agent? What does she get?"

"To see the sun rise, warm and high about the Mediterranean. To know it is done, and the circle is complete."

"Not much room for a sequel."

"You Americans," she put on a terrible accent. "Always so commercial."


Friday, March 9, 2018

Phantom Wings

Phantom Wings
Bobby Derie

Detective Jack Bastard was halfway to the bottle when something soft and stiff brushed his outstretched arm. Pale sunlight, through the city canyons, scattered by the grime of the bar's window made a halo 'bout that head. A stupid pick-up floated through his forebrain - had it hurt when she fell? Then he saw the scars on her fingers and hands, and reckoned it had hurt more when she clawed her way out of where she'd landed. In the background, the speakers started playing Rodney Crowell.

"Detective," her voice was always a breath on the wind to him. "Parenting troubles?"

He shook his head. "She's a good kid."

"Then perhaps the problem is not with her."

Annaya wore a warm rich brown leather coat today, which matched her skin so well they almost seemed to be of a piece, reaching all the way to her knees, where a pair of brown leather boots emerged. Her hair was shorn close to her scalp, some pattern carved there he could not read. Brown eyes laughed as she smiled at him, revealing teeth that had been filed to rough points. He dropped his gaze, back down to her hands. The nails had been torn out by the roots, leaving grey scarred pits where the nailbeds were. Normally, she wore something to cover them - a bit of jewelry, or a pair of gloves. Not today.

"Tell me a story," he asked. Something fluttered past his shoulder as she sat down opposite him.

"The boy ran ahead of the questing knight, down the forest paths. He counted neighbors by mile and by valley, the thin plumes of smoke rising from alternate mountains. It was a thin place - lightly settled, on the edge of things; all authorities were nominal there, both of God and man. Life was old there, and they had their own ways, little bothered by kings and princes.

"The word had gone up of the knight's coming before they ever saw him, as is the way of things. The dust of his passing was seen far-off along the road, and there were few thing that could portend. Then the questing-banner was seen, flying high upon the lance, and it was known that a knight had come to face Callambach, the Old Storm, the Wyrm of the Earth, who drew the poison from the wound of the world.

"The boy had never been to the vale of serpents, but he knew where it lay. All the people did, as the bird knows north and south, and the salmon knows its stream. The knight was worse than blind to such things, and in their own time would have a hard time to find that hidden desolation, but the boy knew there were men and women of the woods who would lead him fair in return for gold, for there was that honesty about even self-destruction among them.

"So he ran, though it was ten miles to travel two miles as the crow flies, around deep ravines and through wooded gullies, past the split rocks and down the Pagan Road, to where the serpents lay in every shadow of every rock, and the earth gave up its vapors. The boy risked his life to reach Callambach, and did not even know if the Old Storm would understand the speech of men - but he had to try.

"The neighbors marked the boy's passage. None of them followed. Yet none stood in his way. The wise ones battened down for what was to come. For the Old Storm rose out of the vale of poison, shook the mountain and wilted the valley, so for three days dead fish floated down every stream, and those who ate them fell ill and died. It was a bad storm, the worst in memory...and on the third day after it ended, and the knight was shelled from their armor, the boy's corpse floated down stream as well. Some say his grin was the rictus of a corpse, but his father declared it was the smile of satisifaction at a job well-done."

"Why?" the Bastard croaked.

"Because the boy was a conservationist. It was his nature. To protect, to preserve. As it is with you and I."

"But what do we protect?"

"Dangerous and stupid beasts, that dwell on the edge of extinction and fight those that try to help them. You know," she winked. "Humans."

Something brushed his cheek. He hadn't felt the tear roll down.

"Do they hurt?" He asked. "Your wings."

"Sometimes," she said, the great muscles in her shoulders hunching beneath her coat. "Yet it is only a phantom pain."


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Black Gloves

The Black Gloves
Bobby Derie

I wasn't damned 'til I'd killed my third man in the ring.

The first one, he came in hurt. His doctors should have known, his trainers should have known, he should have known himself. They say it was a fracture in the skull, didn't show until I damn near took his head off with a right hook. He dropped to the canvas and I was waiting for the count when I saw the piece of bone sticking out his scalp. Bad luck, that, but nobody really held it against me.

My second victim left the fight almost under his own power. Thought he had a concussion, a little punch drunk. Turns out one of those jabs to the heart had fractured a rib, sent a piece of bone into an artery. I actually went with him to the emergency room. Was standing next to his wife when the doctor pronounced time of death. The papers called me "Killer" after that, and I didn't like it. I hadn't set out to kill the guy. It was the nature of the sport. We all take our chances in the ring.

I wanted to go easy after that. Felt a little guilty. Two men dead, and I was the last to lay a glove on either of 'em. Still, I was never one to go for points. You lose your edge in this game if you don't give it all you've got, and every boxer that steps into the ring knows they've got a time limit before they age out.

My last fight was with a slugger. Golden boy, the kind of amateur that comes from nothing and has a bright future ahead of him, with only me in his path. Thought he was an iron man, could take all the punishment in the world. I should have stopped, before the last punch. Told myself that a lot of times. There was something in his eyes, not right going into that final round. The fight had told on both of us, neither was as fast as we were eight rounds ago, but I expected him to block or dodge when he stood there and took a hard left. Dead before he hit the canvas, they told me later, but I knew that as I watched him go down. Like someone turned out the lights, whole body gone slack from the head down.

I talked to the police. The boxing commission held an inquiry. It's the kind of thing that happens. His girlfriend was pregnant, and there was a lawsuit. Wrongful death. Maybe I could have won, but I didn't feel like going through that fight, so we settled and I paid her off. Of course, that made it look worse.

My agent, Finn, he laid it out straight for me.

"Killer, you're blackballed. Ain't nobody wants to fight you. The commission won't say anything official, but you got three deaths in as many fights. Looks bad, real bad, on them and the sport." He fidgeted. Finn was a fidgety little guy, never still. Had the nervous energy of a rat, and wide dark eyes beneath a pair of bushy white eyebrows. The kind of guy that knows every back room of every gym in the city, and seems to collect more favors than money. We'd gotten together in Armanio's Gym. I saw he'd been watching me, asked if I'd ever wanted to go pro. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Three lifetimes, as it turned out.

"There's another option." He waggled his ears and twitched his nose. I always thought it made him look like a rabbit when he did that, but it was just one of his fidgety habits. His hands were busy filling his pipe with tobacco. "It's boxing, but it's not quite...regular rules."

"I'm not down for bum fights or bareknuckle stuff, Finn." I said.

"I know, Killer, I know. This is...more of a private league. The Black Gloves."

Figured I knew what he was talking about. Unlicensed matches. Underground boxing, the kind people could bet on. Blood matches, maybe. You hear about that stuff, but nobody with even a glimmer of sense wants in on that. It's not just getting tossed out of regular boxing circles, there were criminal penalties involved. A part of me had the sneaky suspicion that Finn had set me up. A "Killer" reputation would be good promotion for that kind of thing. I was about to tell him where he could stick it when I found out how wrong I was.

Finn put a pipe to his mouth and lit it with his fingers. I don't mean he struck a match or flicked a lighter, I mean he held his fingers close and a little flame burned there, just a spark and a thin trail of smoke curled up from the bowl. "There's some things we got to talk about, lad." Finn said, around his pipe. "There's more in this world than the Marquess of Queensbury. You've a talent, and I'd like to see you develop it. You've had a black run of luck, but there are those that traffic all their lives in it, like fishes in water. And if you've got the mettle, there's prizes to be won..."

The match was set for midnight, in a ring built in a basement beneath a basement. The room was small, and the lights somehow didn't penetrate far into the darkness to give a good look at the crowd. They were figures more comfortable in the shadows, and the eye tended to slide off them rather than focus. I got an image of tailored suits and dresses, but some of the outlines weren't quite human. A buffalo's head on top of a body like a linebacker, all decked out in a brand-new tuxedo, white tie and all. The dame at his elbow wore a sheer evening gown that showed a lot of cleavage, but the head of a cow, soft brown eyes that seemed to hold my own for a moment before moving on. Finn massaged my shoulders, strong hands kneading the muscles lightly to loosen them up.

"I slipped the charm into your left glove in the dressing room," he said. "That'll put you on keel with this guy. But don't get cocky. You'll have to think on your feet."

I didn't tell him I'd taken the charm out before we'd put the gloves on. Maybe it was stupid, but I didn't hold with using magic to win matches - whether it was in the rules or not. Hell, I never had so much as a rabbit's foot on me in the last three fights.

The referee was a five-foot tall salamander in a striped shirt. Pants were apparently optional, but I didn't let my gaze drift southward. "In this corner," the ref said with a touch of Brooklynese "at six feet and two hunnerd pounds, Mikael 'Bloodfang' Blomquist of Norway. And making his Black Gloves debut, "Killer" Tom Gilly of the United States of America, at six-one and a hunnerd and ninety-five." There was a rumble from the crowd, but we touched gloves and came back to our corners. Maybe it should have felt different, but so far it was just a regular match. Blomquist was a good match to me, not too spare and lanky, blond hair long and wild with a bit of a wild look in his pale blue eyes. I figured him for a rusher, and that suited me fine.

There was the bell.

The Scandinavian came out me like a shot, and ran straight into my left; he was a little taller, but my arms had a bit more reach. The hit put him off balance, and I brought my right up in a cross that brought a little color to those high cheeks. He came at me again, no real art, and I crouched and ducked and weaved away from him. He favored his right, and when he missed a swing I came in with my left, jabbing at his belly. We did that two, three times before our first three minutes was up. I walked back to my corner feeling pretty good. If this Bloodfang didn't show me more than that, I'd wear him down and take him apart. Finn must have known what I was thinking, because he pursed his lips and said. "Don't get cocky. His blood ain't up yet."

I figured Finn must know what he was talking about, so this time I came out swinging. Blomquist and I traded punches for a bit in the middle of the ring, neither giving an inch. He had a few pounds on me, and up close in a melee an inch of arm length didn't make much difference. Then I decided to try something. I left my right circle a little, and his eyes went for it like a dog for a bone, he brought his own left up...and the bolo punch caught him right in the nose. There wasn't a crunch of cartilage, but there was blood on my glove as he fell back a bit and I moved to follow up, but stopped when I saw what was happening.

One thing you don't think of, when you look at a wolf, is their deep chests, and the lanky set of the limbs. I swear I heard the bones snap as that chest folded out; the welts I'd raised in the first round swiftly being covered with a shaggy crest of blond fur. It was the bones that seemed to move under the skin, stretching it tight and thin before they filled out with muscle...only the eyes stayed the same, blue and wild and pissed as hell.

Blood trickled from one black nostril on its muzzle, dark red like a dog's. He seemed to loom at least seven feet tall now, though the arms were thin and lanky, and the gloves seemed tight on his hands - or paws; I never found out which. The feet, though, were more like a wolf's, and he was up on his toes, black claws scraping the canvas. Thin black lips drew back to reveal a row of fangs, his mouthguard vanished like a virgin on prom night. Bloodfang growled, and the real fight began.

It wasn't like fighting a dog, and it wasn't like fighting a man. He had more reach now, and speed; I caught a few punches on my shoulders, turning away from the blows, trying to get my bearings, but he had me now and wouldn't let up. The wolf snarled and snapped, which put me on edge. It was a rough couple of minutes until the next bell, but I waited it out, backing up around the ring.

"You can't rope-a-dope a werewolf," Finn said, as I got to the corner. "He'll take you apart before you wear him down. You gotta give him the left. The charm'll put the hurt in him."

I heard him, and nodded, but the little square of parchment with the incantation in black and red ink was back in the locker room. I had to figure something else out.

My rush caught him by surprise, and I slipped inside his reach, pounded away at his body. He was a bit awkward on the block, the wolf-arms not good for it, but my knuckles hurt as they pushed against those ribs. The bastard was tougher than iron. Then when he tried a left hook, I got him in a clinch.

That turned out to be a mistake. Like trying to hug a rabid dog, those fangs about inches from my face. I could feel the wolf growl as a vibration through his chest. He broke the clinch with ease, and threw me halfway across the ring, right into the ropes - hell, I almost when over the ropes. Then he was on me again. I got the worst of that three minutes, unable to answer a single punch as he kept jabbing at my head, left and right, just out of reach. Blocking didn't seem to do any good, as the glove smashed into temple and chin and cheek, over and over, and against the ropes I didn't have anywhere to move.

Finn looked a bit worried as he mopped up the blood. I had cuts over both eyes. "I don't know what to tell you, Killer. You gotta put the hurt on 'im. This bastard ain't as hard as he looks, but you can't soak up punishment forever. You don't show me somethin' this round, I'm gonna have to throw in the towel." He hesitated a minute. "And Tom, I know I told you what the penalty was for that."
Yeah, he had. Venue rules. I hadn't laughed when I signed the contract. They made me do it in my own blood. I'd never given much thought to dying, and wouldn't mind dying in the ring. But there were fates worse than death, in the Black Gloves.

The fourth round started with me thinking about dogs, and I came out with a plan. Bloodfang was looking for the rush, but when I started to circle my right, he brought up his own right, waiting for a bolo punch that never came - I jabbed straight into that black snout, and his head snapped back and he howled.

Dogs have sensitive noses. Even a hard tap is painful. When I put all 195 pounds into it, I'm fit to make him a bulldog. He was taller than me, so I was punchin' up, but I had him off-guard now, aiming for his head. The spindly thin wolf-arms that weren't great for blocking body blows were even worse for covering his head; it was a bigger target now. I drove him back, right into the corner, feinting and jabbing around his guard, trying to catch him on the nose when I could. The fur of his chest was getting stained with blood, and he had started to yowl and snap at my fists, which drew a boo from the crowd. Then he tried to clinch with me, and I drove an uppercut into that long jaw that lifted the blond bastard right off his feet, and sent one white fang spinning off into the audience.

Bloodfang landed badly. His tongue lolled form his mouth, raw and bloody; his noise was a ruin, damn-near punched in, and his lips were raw and ragged where the teeth had bitten through them. I wasn't a pretty sight myself - I could already feel my left eye and cheek swell up, and there were dark welt on arms and shoulder where I'd fended off the wolf's punches. The salamander slithered over to him and counted the wolf out, and I won't say I wasn't glad of it when he raised my arm to a polite smatter of applause from the darkened crowd. Another round and I was like to have been dog food.

In the locker room, Finn bent over and picked the charm up off the floor. "Son of a bitch," he said. "No wonder you had so much trouble with that bum. Next time, I'm going to sew the damned thing into your glove."

Next time, I thought, through the ringing in my ears. Next time I'd let him.