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.