The joint stank of old sweat and broken dreams.
Hard work and bitter disappointment.
A stink that no amount of soap and water could ever completely wash away.
A stink that’d linger even when there’s nothing left of the place but dust and memories.
The jabs flew thick and fast. My opponent checked in at a weight class one up from me. He wore boxing gloves. I wore something more akin to what fighters wear in MMA bouts because I didn’t like the bulk of the others.
Left. Right. Left. Quick Left. Right.
Biceps the size of cantaloupes. Every part of him chiseled like Michelangelo had a hand in his creation. Any one of his power punches would have me drooling on the canvas before a ref reached “two” in a ten-count.
He came in low.
Short straight jab combinations aimed at my mid-section to wear me down.
Left. Right. Left. Left. Right.
I pulled my arms in tight to absorb the blows. Each one of them hurt like hell but I knew they were coming. He and I had danced this tango every week for more than a year now.
Guard down low. He’ll come up high. I prepared to dodge.
My opponent hopped back with surprise deftness for a man of his stature and shifted his weight into a right cross. His clean shaven head reflected the overhead light with waxy brilliance.
He always stepped in too hard for the throw, though, to allow for any control. For him. It was all about the speed and the violence of the punch. No finesse in this guy’s repertoire. I resisted the urge to glide under the attack, grab his back and unleash a flurry of knees to his gut and ribs.
‘This ain’t no place for Kung Fu shit. Go someplace else for that,’ the owner Alejandro once told me. ‘You box, or I throw you out on your ass. You get tossed and no place else is gonna take you. I’ll make it my life’s mission to make sure it happens.’
The message rang loud and clear.
Instead, I ducked under the blow and popped back up in a classic boxers stance, bouncing on the balls of my feet. I could have countered, but I waited. This was how we tangoed. He punched himself tired and I did my best to not get my face broken.
In time, I would dish out my own.
Baldy rocked his head from left to right. The muscles in his neck bulged like thick steel cables. When he did this, he also jiggled his hands ever so slightly; telegraphing what was to come next. His left mitt rolled over, bringing the underside of his wrist into view, and his forearm tensed.
I wove to my right to avoid it and leapt back like a cat afraid of its shadow. He pursued with more jabs.
Right. Left. Left. Right. Left.
His predictability made him no less dangerous. The guy had made it in the bigs for a while. However, too many head shots left his brain as bruised as a week old banana. Now he sparred with idiots like me who think they have IQ points to spare.
The sound system blared hard rock music because God forbid someone should try to beat the piss outta anyone else in some other genre. Several smart glass panels, streaming video from a thousand different channels, flashed in the corners of my periphery. Their sound turned off.
Left cross. Right hook. Bob and weave.
Why am I here? Two words: Nolan Kitterman.
He kicked the shit out of me and then he went to work on me. Toyed with me like some beagle too stupid to know it was a pit bull he’s in the yard with.
Back down to the body to tire my arms out. I dropped my guard again to take in the blows.
Since that day he left me to suffocate in an airlock that led out to the Martian surface, I’ve had tons of cases. Tons of cases that I’ve solved. Tons of cases to make me forget about the one that got away.
But it’s the one that got away, which always keeps us awake at night, right?. Makes you stand on the taffrail peering out into the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of that white devil and a chance at redemption. No way I was gonna get embarrassed like I did last time.
Right hook. Left block and counter. A solid hit to his massive, hairless pate.
Like a switch, my sparring partner’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared.
One hit and it became personal.
Whatever the reason that drove this guy in the first place to want to make a career out of beating people up formed itself into a perfectly wicked smile. The kinda smile every school yard bully can summon in an instance. The kinda smile that sends the smart ones to the other side of the street and the idiots who think they can stand-up to a grin like that to the emergency room. Rock-hard muscles drove the padded slabs of meat at the ends of his arms like the pistons of a redlined hotrod.
Left jab. Right. Left. Left. Right. Left. Right. Right. Unexpected left.
It grazed my chin and we both paused for a second in surprise. He came on again encouraged. I skipped around like the sky was falling.
Sparring with robots is not permitted by New London law. They either aren’t enough of a challenge or they’ll put a hole in your body where one shouldn’t be. The powers that be erred on the side of caution and made humans boxing robots illegal. Bald Bull, here, represented the closest thing I could get to the speed and power of an android like Nolan Kitterman.
Once a week for a year and change, I poured all my frustrations—all my anger—into these sessions. I was twice the fighter I’d been when Nolan bushwhacked me at the old Verne Bottling plant…and the salvage yard. Maybe the next time we met, I’d stand a chance.
I didn’t immediately notice the volume of the music cut in favor of the television’s; not until I heard those four words repeated a couple of times.
Mara Kitterman found dead.
My standard-issued protective headgear created a limited range of visibility. Nine times out of ten, I didn’t need to see anything more than the one thing trying to put me on the mat. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. The volume went up.
Metro Police have confirmed that Mara Kitterman has been found dead in her office.
I turned to watch the news feed at the exact moment Baldy let go another right cross. A power punch with his dominant hand flew unhindered toward my temple. Light exploded in my vision as the gray matter between my ears tried to process what the hell had just happened. My perspective shifted from the TV to my trainer, who stood next to the ring, then to the canvas and, finally, on to the coming abyss.
Mara Kitterman found dead echoed in the oblivion.
Faces swam into view and voices flowed around me with all the clarity of a conversation under water. I swooned forward. Something prevented me from reaching out to steady myself. I had the vague awareness of my hands being behind my back. A firm grip from another man stopped me from tumbling back down to the floor. I tugged my right arm and the left wrist followed. Finally, it dawned on me. Someone had handcuffed me and sat me in a folding chair.
A gentle slap to the face brought me around. When I opened my eyes, I found my trainer kneeling before me. A voice came from my left.
‘Is he all right? Should I call for a bus?’ Someone who wasn’t my trainer asked.
I knew that voice. A voice from my recent past.
The flash of a penlight blinded me. I recoiled.
‘Nah, he doesn’t need an ambulance. He’ll be fine,’ my trainer answered.
I tilted my head toward the direction of the other voice.
There stood Metro Police Department Detective John Ashdown.
‘We have some questions for him downtown,’ he continued.
I strained at the bracelets. The cold hard metal bit into my flesh.
‘What’s this all about?’ I mumbled.
Two uniformed officers hooked an arm each under mine and dragged me off the stool. Amazing how something as simple as being hauled up to your feet by the police will facilitate a return of the senses.
I looked at Ashdown with a clearing head and knew right away.
His body language.
It all meant one thing.
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Such a simple gesture but it nearly crushed me.
‘What the hell, Ash?’
‘Daniel Helmqvist, you are under arrest…’
‘Arrest?!? What the fu—‘
‘You are under arrest for the murder of Mara Kitterman.’
‘Murder?’ I choked out like every two-bit patsy in every cop film, story and anecdote since time immortal. So why not finish the cliche? ‘I didn’t kill anyone!’
‘You have the right to remain silent.’
And another stock phrase for good measure. ‘Come on Ash, you know me. I’m no killer!’
‘Anything you say or do can be used against you…’