By Ben Maunder
It's funny what desperation will do to a person. The lengths we as a species will go to ensure our own survival. A starving man, left with no other option may choose to dine on the meat of another; a poor one may commit basest murder to claim even the most meagre of earnings.
I have seen desperation bring men to perform great evils, I have been one of those men more times than I dare to think. But these increasing acts of base defilement have been what kept me alive, there's no room for heroes in the Gates.
That's why I'm here, ankle deep in the filth of a ring, staring down with 250 pounds of pure dumb muscle, all the while fool's and criminals cry for blood around me. I wish I could claim I'm fighting for a noble cause. That people are depending on me to win, but the truth of the matter is much simpler, I need a drink and his blood'll pay my tab.
Adrenaline pumps through my veins, heavy humid air fills my lungs and the announcers dulcet tones beat at my eardrums.
“Tonight Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a treat for you!” He's a small man, plump, never missed a meal in his life. “Two of the most brutal combatants to ever grace our dank little hole stand ready for your amusement!” A single sausage like finger jabs in my direction, the crowd roars with delight as a spotlight rounds to me. “To my right stands one Mr. Thomas! Ready to bathe himself in battle once more for your enjoyment!” More screams of rampant blood-lust fill the air. Overfed hands wrap about my wrist and raise it into the sky, another volley of roars. Damn animals.
“And to my left stands his competitor, all the way from Snowy Siberia, Mr. Kriznev!” The Russian lumbers from the shadows, a guttural noise emanates from the mass of broken teeth one would call a mouth. Beady, bloodshot eyes dart across me, snapping about as a thin line of drool works its way to the earth. A lovely sight.
“So, with our modern gladiators introduced. I feel no need to delay the festivities any longer!” The announcer trots past me, a knowing wink passed in my direction, a snide comment hidden under laboured breath. I offer a sneer in response.
“Place your bets!” A snap of steel as the gate closes, the resounding din of iron on copper as the bell rings. My foe springs forward like a starving wolf, hands bared as claws, gleeful mania in his eyes. This is where Harvard gets you these days.
I throw myself to the side, narrowly avoiding a raking blow and he stumbles forward. His reactions are slower than expected, must be a tweaker. That's an advantage. I push off from the cage, greedy fingers worm through the chain link and scrape at my bare flesh as I move. The Russian catches his balance, rounding on me as I plant a boot into his exposed stomach; his maniac grin tells me he didn't feel it. A curse passes my lips as he grips my leg and pulls.
The world careens as a solid backhand finds my face; the screams of the crowd are blotted out by snapping cartilage. I reel back, vision blurred and unable to stop the charge that barrels me to the filth encrusted floor. A furious blur delivers a blow to my ribs, more bone cracks, fortunately the pain killers flowing through me dulls the pain to an angry ache. Then sight returns, I see his leering features inches from mine as he reaches for my neck. I bring my forehead to his nose in response, my turn to break something.
Blood spurts across my forehead and into my vision, he shouts out in pain and shifts his weight. Teeth gritting I push through the pain and tear him from my chest, pushing him to the filthy earth and wrenching myself to my feet. Red fills my right eye, my left is bludgeoned shut, and I can only hope it isn't ruptured. Around me well dressed animals scream and snort in derision, wads of paper change hands as bets rise and fall. A low, fury filled groan snaps my attention back, the Russian took the blow worse than expected, he squirms across the floor, blood and mud mingling about him. Best not to let him up, give him another shot. It's not the most entertaining way to win, but these clowns can rot before I start caring about that.
My fingers wrap into matted hair and I yank him to his feet, rounding my fist into his face, focusing as much force as I can muster into the crater he once claimed as a nose. More blood, now red is all I see.
A wild blow flies from his right, I take hold of his furled fist mid swing, twisting, bringing my own into his elbow. Crunch.
I push him back down, peeling his forearm back with me; I hear the bone snap back upon itself.
“Merc..!” His cry is cut short as I wrap my arm about his neck. Thick pulsating muscles resist me, his pulse matches mine. I squeeze.
Time becomes fragmented when you lose consciousness. Memories shatter and become a puzzle you can't piece back together. I remember the blood, the pain, the feeling of his pulse increasing and raised voices bellowing at me. Then it all vanishes, a snapping blow to my skull robs me of my lucidity.
Now I can feel myself moving, not of my own volition, grime and filth pass through my hair and I feel the cold granite floor on the flesh of my head. Shadowed figures surround me as I move, blurring into one another as their cacophonous wailing becomes so much white noise. Yet one voice stands out amongst them, one I recognize, a friend.
“Haynes, we need you as soon as possible. He's fucked up, pissed off the wrong...” Darkness reclaims me, that viscous and uncaring abyss. It's cold.
I feel water on my face, leaking across my lips and mixing into my blood stained beard, I try to drink but my jaw refuses to move. Broken. I can feel bone grind on bone; it would be agony if not for the painkillers.
“Hang in there Elliott...” I'm trying. Darkness returns. Embracing me as a brother, a long lost friend, there's little I can do to reject it. I can only wait.
There are more sounds, echoing through the fog. Glasses meeting one another in celebration. The dulcet tone of a ringing bell. The howling masses calling for more blood. The forced joy of prostitutes, mixed with the sickening grunts of their clientèle. All forming together, creating the hollow song of the Pits. Southgate’s own little slice of hell.
Light. Glaring and harsh. The world tears back into focus and the first thing I see are headlights. I'm leaning against a wall, soaked to the bone by heavy, biting rain. Blood, mine or the Russians pools by my hand, washing away into the drains.
“We are taking him with us.” Three men stand in the rain; one is small, frail, clutching a glowing phone in defiant grip. The others tower over him, veritable giants in comparison. I can't make out any faces; the only light here is the car to their backs.
“Why? Who the hell are you?” I recognize the voice, Michael, my manager. He must have dragged me out of the ring, into the rain... why?
“Roach wants to see him.” Roach? Name rings a bell, don't know why. Either way, I need to move, get away. I grope in the shadows, grasping for something to hold to, brick, stone. Voices rise, Mike is arguing, fighting, I pull myself to my feet, barely able to sustain my own weight.
“The Gregory’s got their cut!” I glance over; he seems so small compared to them. “Why do they want Elliott? Do they want more? Tell me!” One nods at the other, the over-sized shadows of his arms reach out and encapsulate Mike, wrapping about him like the chains. I try to shout out but only manage a gurgled mess, my shattered jaw showing its worth.
“Why don't you just stay there with Petar for a moment, easier that way.” It begins to advance, ploughing through the rain towards me. Fight or flight, fight, always fight, you lose when you show your back. I steady myself on the wall, aching bones screaming at me to drop, to let what will happen, happen. A torch bursts into life, robbing me of a moment’s sight.
“You, come with me. Quickly now, I forgot my umbrella.” I spit a garbled curse through the ruins of my mouth. Slapping away his encroaching hand as he reaches for me, the minute reserves of energy I hold failing quickly. I feel myself slipping even now. The moment I buy myself is wasted as he simply returns the blow, straight to my gut.
Air flees my body and I double over, any other day I could have stopped that. What's wrong with me? What did they hit me with in the ring? Another strike to my back fells me, discarding me into the rainwater. A stabbing pain awaits me as a broken bottle cushions my fall, tearing into the meat of my arm. A foot rests on my back.
“Damn junkies. They always make it harder than it needs to be.” I can hear Mike shouting out; I can hear the clicking of a gun. I can tell that the bullet isn't for me. Mike has kids, a wife, people who would miss him.
“Get up Mr. Thomas, time to go.” I'm hoisted up, fat, well fed hands grip into the ragged jacket on my skin. Even through the rain I smell the stench of expensive cologne, the lingering odor of cigar smoke. The cool metal barrel presses against my side and his torch shows Mike on his knees, a shining iron to the base of his skull.
“You have an appointment with your betters.”
A single hand to my back, a push.
The shard of glass in hand bites into my fingers, freeing droplets of blood to run about it. The reek of copper and opulence fills my nostrils.
I see red.
The glass sings through the cool night air.
A man screams.
A gun fires.