The Spectacle

Reece parked in front of the store, which read
Squadrito and Son's in rusty neon across the façade.
He'd bought the place after the old man died, but never bothered
to change the name. At least once a day, someone walked in, "You
Squadrito?"

"I look like a Squadrito?"

"No."

"There you go."

Reece raised the steel mesh and clipped his tie. The street was
empty. He disabled the alarms and tossed the bolts. A thin light
filtered through the clouds. Somewhere over the hill a siren went
off. There was a gunshot, and then the siren stopped.

The Canary limped to the counter around noon. "Looking good,
Nubian," he grinned. "Tip top."

Reece touched the band-aid above his eye. "You don't
see me limping, do you?"

The Canary laughed. Chest hairs poked through his thin sweater.
His brown eyes were hooded with scar tissue. "Not yet."

"You want something?" Reece asked. "Or you just
gonna stand there and restrict sales flow?"

The Canary looked around the empty store. "You offering me
a job? I already got a job." He threw a few lefts, a parody
of the old one-two.

"Go home, Emilio," Reece said. "Take a nap."

The Canary frowned. "You and me? We got a date tonight. ‘Course,
you want, we could call up Mr. Chen. There's still time to
back out."

Reece shook his head. "No, sir. That time has come and gone."

At midnight, the stands were full, a hundred Barcaloungers arrayed
above the stage. Reece danced in the ring, throwing jabs and combinations,
punishing the air until The Canary's handlers led him in.
There were cheers and a smattering of birdcalls. The Canary did
his usual dance, crepe-paper wings flapping as the crowd ate it
up. Bettors yelled "Straight Win, Canary!" (2-1) while
Mr. Chen scribbled the wagers and Abe Golem crammed cash into the
briefcase chained to his waist.

Buddy Vox grabbed the mike and began his announcement speech. His
immaculate tux shined. His golden age of radio voice boomed. Welcome,
Gentlemen, to the final bout of this evening's Spectacle.
As always, there is to be no stabbing. Souvenir knives are just
that. Souvenirs. Also, the pinching of Beverage Girls is forbidden
to those who have not paid this month's Fondling Dues. Ask
your nearest server how to get your account in good standing. This
is your last chance to wager. Why go home feeling under-bet? We
all know how that feels. Lousy, that's how. Also, why not
have a steak? Contact your nearest server and tell her "Buddy
Vox likes it nice and rare" and you'll get an extra
10% off. And once again, any stabbing will result in a lifetime
ban from The Spectacle. Other than that, let's have some fun!

The bell rang and The Canary charged with a combination of kicks
and elbows. Reece dodged him easily. The crowd screamed or groaned,
depending. Side bets, like Next Left To Land (3-1), Any Ankle Lock
(7-2), or First To Slip And Almost Fall, But Not Quite (35-1) got
heavy play. The Canary caught Reece with a few solid kicks, trying
to re-open the gash above his eyebrow. Reece targeted the kidneys.
They traded jabs up to the bell.

"Breathe," Nurse urged, squeezing a sponge over Reece's
head. She rubbed Reece's shoulders and Vaselined his ears,
while he pushed back, resting against her white blouse.

"Who's winning?"

"I call it even," Nurse said, adjusting her tiny skirt.
"So stop effin-around, hear?"

Ding.

The Canary fluttered over. Reece dropped his guard, baiting The
Canary into a wild uppercut, and snapped down an elbow-lock. The
Canary yowled with pain. Reece shoved him against the ropes and
tore off his left wing, sailing it into the crowd. A group of brokers
went crazy, holding up a ticket for Both Wings Torn (46-1) until
Mr. Chen explained that yes, that sure was a savvy bet, and
congratulations! Really. It's just that the fighter in question
is, as you can see, still Partially Winged.
The brokers bitched
and whined until Abe Golem loomed over.

"Pay attention!" Nurse yelled, as The Canary worked
free, trying a spinning backhand. Reece ducked, driving his heel
into the smaller man's kneecap, shattering it. The Canary
fell, tried to rise, stayed down.

"WINNER....Theeee Nuuuu-bian!" Buddy Vox warbled,
over a wash of boos and spilled paregoric.

In the locker room, The Canary lay on his side, blubbering quietly.
Doc Nob broke a hypodermic off in his thigh, manipulating the kneecap
for a while before declaring it medically pointless. "You
concur?" he asked Nurse, who shrugged. Doc Nob snapped his
Gladstone shut, barking into the intercom. An orderly with a mole
over his lip opened the door and pointed at Reece, "Him?"

"No, you idiot, not him."

The orderly dragged The Canary's stretcher into the alley.
Doc Nob closed and locked the door before dropping eight prescription
bottles, one at a time, onto Reece's lap.

"Your payment is two weeks late."

"I'm good for it," Reece said, stuffing the medicine
into his duffel, as Nurse watched from the corner, her arms crossed,
her sensible white shoes gleaming in the dirty room.

"What in heck is Buddy Vox doing in this poop hole?"
Buddy Vox yelled, sweeping through the saloon doors. "Didn't
all of Buddy Vox's teachers say Buddy Vox had the best voice
they'd ever heard? That he would go on to win competitions
and awards?"

No one answered. Vox gazed into his locker where ten identical
tuxedos hung. He lit a cigarette with the one that had been in his
mouth, and selected a new bowtie, yellow instead of red. He licked
his fingers and smoothed his eyebrows and smiled his smile, tiny
yellow teeth matched by his tiny nose and ears and eyes, all congregated
too tightly in the center of his face. Mr. Chen walked in, holding
up a check. Buddy Vox snatched it without breaking stride and disappeared.

"Nice fight," Mr. Chen said, sitting next to Reece,
chewing an un-lit cigarette. He was followed, as always, by Abe
Golem. Behind them, Nurse wiped down the massage tables and hung
up robes. The Canary's robe, with a slit in the back to accommodate
wings, went in the trash. Nurse caught Reece's eye. He looked
away.

Mr. Chen exhaled sharply. His heavily lidded eyes were drawn into
red slits. "Listen, it's too bad about The Canary, okay?
Really. But Jesus, the wings? The beak and the wings already? Ho-hum."

"Yeah," croaked Abe Golem, his voice like prying a
manhole cover. "Ho-hum."

"Also, on the bad news front?" Mr. Chen said, "I've
got some bad news."

Abe Golem nodded.

"The thing is? I can't use you again this month, Nubian.
That's the thing. That's it for you. This month."

Reece pawed at his duffel. "No sir. That don't work.
I got bills."

Mr. Chen frowned. His small hands were yellowed from nicotine,
his fingernails bitten raw. "Well, what I got is
a busload of Brazilians. Steaming north this minute. Actually, cannibals.
At least that's what they say. One of my scouts found them.
Way in the middle of the jungle. Guy almost didn't come back,
too busy scouting to notice he'd make a nice brisket."

"Brisket," said Abe Golem.

"Anyway, I figure I'll have them go at each other for
a while, learn the ropes. Who knows how long to cancel each other
out? A day? A month? Cannibals? Shit. Anyway, you're on hiatus,
Nubian. The crowd's getting bored with your routine. Blah,
blah, the ex-champ, blah, you know? It's like, So What (1-1)
at this point."

Abe Golem picked his teeth with a plastic drink stirrer. Mr. Chen
handed Reece four thousand dollars. "So here's your
cut. Say by August or so? Maybe I'll have something then.
I'll send Abe over to let you know."

Reece shook his head. "Not him. Not at the store."

Mr. Chen laughed in his quiet, reptilian way. "Okay, okay,
I'll send Vox. Just stay in shape, Champ. You know something?
A smart man's always ready when his time comes."

Reece drove home carefully, the windows up and a tire-iron across
his lap. At night, gangs of toughs stood under the bridges, lean
and shadowy, with yellow eyes like ferrets. They lit fires and sang
doo-wop songs and endlessly re-folded their bandannas. On both sides
of the road, black smoke rose from greasy barrels. Magazines and
empty pocketbooks and children's shoes were strewn in the
dirt. Reece accelerated, careful not to run over anything sharp.

Alfre was still awake, on the couch watching television. It was
a show where a bald man smiled through his mustache, making women
feel better about being left or cheated on or just plain ugly. He
had a soothing voice that modified their complaints into Action
Sentences. Once he found your Action Sentence, it was like
having a road map to being better. He pronounced an Action
Sentence for the crying woman on stage: Leave your husband and
find someone different
.

"Hi, hon."

"Daddy?" Alfre asked.

"No, hon, it's me. Reece."

He kissed her cheek. She held his hand and stroked it. Reece was
working late the night Alfre'd swallowed the floor wax. He
raced her to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach. After
six months, she'd recovered enough for therapy. There were
Speech Classes (Pin cushion. Say it. Say it. Pin. Say
it. Cushion. Pin cushion. Good.), and Life Classes (Do we give out
our credit card number over the phone? No. Do we leave the toilet
without flushing? No. Do we swallow most of a bottle of floor wax?
Probably no.), and Coping Classes (Sometimes it's okay to
scream. Good. Great! Like an animal. Grrr. Fantastic! But
the scratching? No. Ouch. No.) Now Alfre mostly liked cookies
and ice cream and walks, and especially liked it when Reece read
to her. She was also dying. Complications of complications. Nob's
pills were just slowing things down.

"Reece?" Alfre asked, "Can I have a story?"

Over the television was a picture of Young Reece in a gold frame.
It was taken in Tokyo. His arms were raised, in the middle of the
ring, the night he beat Bulldog Pletches for the belt. It was like
two lives ago. Reece stared. The man in the picture stared back,
fit, delirious, barely a mark on him. He'd been way too much
for Pletches that night. The bulbs had flashed and reporters clamored
and Alfre sat in the front row, beautiful, serene, wearing the most
expensive dress in all of Japan.

"I only got one story, hon," he told her. "But
it's a good one."

"Okay," she said happily.

Reece picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. When her
bathrobe fell open, he forced himself not to look.

A bunch of teenagers stood by the portable radio shelf, interested
mostly in the Tag Monster boom-box, which came with a hidden
spray-can compartment behind the speakers. Reece kept an eye on
them while he swept the floor.

"The Gobbler is Twenty and O," Buddy Vox was saying,
leaning on a display case in a white tux. "Crazy Brazilian,
no one can beat him. Can't touch him. Too fast. And those
pointy teeth? Scary. Oh, man, fumble. Is Buddy Vox scared?
No way. But maybe. I have to admit. A little."

"Don't lean on the glass," Reece said, wiping
Vox's palm prints with his cuff. Vox stood straight. "Sorry.
Really. Thoughtless. Nice place you got here, Champ. Buddy Vox believes
in your small businessman, your family farmer. Do I say that because
I have a parent or grandparent who was one? An extended relation
who filled those shoes? No, I don't. Still, you have my support."

"You were saying? About the Brazilian?"

Buddy Vox nodded, his small eyes becoming smaller. "Oh, man,
do the crowds love this Gobbler? It's blood, blood, blood.
Not on my shoes. I'm careful. But everyone else's? Wow."
Vox looked down at his gleaming wingtips, just to make sure. "The
Gobbler's already gone through his entire tribe, plus El Borrocho
and The Sandman and even Mistah Ka-Ra-Tay. He bit a hole the size
of a grapefruit in Anarchy Punk's back. He sank his molars
into Lady Windex and she'll never fight again."

The teenagers left in a group, pants so far down their ankles they
wiped clean a path out the door. Reece went over to the radio shelf
and looked at the words Way Way Down with Multinational Corporationalism!
spray-painted across his merchandise.

"Oh, and Chiming Wind?" Vox continued. "You should
have seen him try that hippie spirit crap. The mentalism? The incense?
Did it work? No."

Reece pulled down the radio, locked the case, and slapped a SOLD
OUT sticker across it. Chiming Wind had been a pretty good guy.
They'd had a couple of drinks once.

"It's looking hopeless. Like seriously. Mr. Chen sent
me to ask you back, Champ. Hell, they sent me to beg you
back."

"Numbers." Reece said.

Vox rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. "He's
offering triple fee for starters. Plus a cut of all Non-Bite wagers."

"Ten percent," Reece said.

Vox smiled and leaned on the counter, looking both ways. "I
am authorized to go up to twenty percent, so you got it. Up front.
Would I dicker with you, Champ? No. Would Mr. Chen be happy if he
knew I was spreading my legs like some loose ring girl? No. But
still. Here we are. At twenty percent."

"Where?" Reece asked.

"We're out at the Old Barn now. So much blood at the
Old School you couldn't mop it anymore. The orderlies were
threatening strike."

"When?"

"Friday," Vox said, lowering his voice to a whisper.
"But you watch yourself, Champ. I never announced anything
like this Gobbler. Money's money, sure, but I was you? I might
just retire."

Reece needed a little over $40,000 more for the Big Plan. He and
Alfre would fly back to Tokyo. He already had the tickets and a
down payment on an apartment. Top floor. A doorman with brushes
on his shoulders. Picture windows and a view and cable TV, every
channel in the world. Also, there was The Doctor. Akashimi. Did
experimental work, some kind of laser. Alfre's window was
closing.

"Tell Mr. Chen I'll be there," Reece said.

"You got it, Champ."

Buddy Vox ran a finger under his collar, sniffed it, and left. Reece
turned to the register to ring up a woman buying the Peggy Fleminator,
a vacuum you wore like skates, one on each foot. You flicked the
switch and glided around the house, sucking up all the dog hair
and lost buttons and clots of dust that made each waking moment
such a singular misery.

"Can't you hurry?" the woman asked, explosively
chewing gum.

"Yes, I can," Reece answered, shoving the Fleminator
into a large paper bag.

At dawn Reece strapped on ankle weights and ran through the woods
behind his apartment. He ran six miles and then doubled back by
the old high school, a group of buildings burned to the ground,
bare timbers and scorched brick. The bleachers were still intact,
though, and he ran up and down the steps, three at a time.

"What, you got a new trainer? Don't want me anymore?"

Nurse sat in the grass, on an old car seat that had burned to
the springs. Her hair was cropped close, blue mascara and little
white cap. Heavy breasts pulled sideways against her tight starched
outfit.

"I'm just runnin', okay? I need you to tell me
left, right, left?"

"You gonna fight this Gobbler, you do. And a whole lot besides."

Reece lay in the sand and started knocking off crunches. Nurse
tapped a rhythm, two-two-three, three-two-three with a
stick. After a while she said, "I told Mr. Chen I'm
done. No more corner-woman. No more cut-woman. No more Miss Two
Percent."

"Good," Reece grunted, touching elbows to knees. "About
time."

"Yeah, well, maybe it's about time you do the same."

Reece picked up the pace. His stomach burned. "Can't
(huff). You know why, I know why (grunt). So what're we even
talkin' about?"

Nurse yanked at weeds that poked through the skeleton of the seat.
She stuck one in her mouth, grimaced, then spit it out. "Yeah,
well. This little runt's bad news. I been watching. I been
watching him eat his way through guys like they were buttered toast."

Reece lay back and caught his breath. He rubbed his eyes, freeing
rings and spirals beneath the lids.

"An' even if you were still champ. Twenty-one and hungry?
Top of the world? I still don't know if that guy
beats this guy."

"Gonna have to," Reece said. "Too late to back
out now, even if I wanted."

Nurse nodded, then rubbed along her nylons, up to the lip of her
white skirt. "How's Alfre doin'?"

Reece hadn't been working late the night Alfre'd swallowed
the wax. He'd been training with Nurse. And then he'd
been with Nurse.

He stood and held out his hand. Nurse took it and rose. They stared
at one another, too close. Nurse grabbed the back of Reece's
head and pulled his mouth onto hers. He ran his hands up her sides,
leaving trails of sweat, and began to pull at her blouse before
stopping himself. He pushed her away, and they stood apart, breathing
hard. Reece had made a promise that night. The least of his penance.

"Fuck," he said.

"That's the idea, fool," Nurse said, angry.

A triple boom that sounded like grenades cascaded up the valley
from the highway. There was heavy machine gun fire, and then an
explosion that silenced it all. They ducked behind the bleachers
for cover.

"Let me ask you a question," Reece whispered.

"The answer is yes," she said.

"You know any good corners? Now that you told Mr. Chen you're
through? Anyone else you could maybe recommend to stand at my side
while I fight this Gobbler?"

Nurse half-smiled. She took his hand and held the swollen knuckles,
counting them one at a time.

"I might could scare someone up."

On Friday, the Old Barn was packed. Every seat was full, suits crammed
in the aisles and fire exits, four to a step, all of them screaming.
Reece punched the air while bettors lined up to put money on Immediately
Raked With Incisors, even at a prohibitive 2-5. Beverage Girls stepped
like flamingos, no space for their stiletto heels. Men pushed and
shoved in front of Doc Nob's Olde Tyme Injection Booth,
waiting to be pricked. Buddy Vox, in a pink cummerbund, reached
for the mic.

"And now, friends…in the Main Event…the Jewel
of The Amazon...The Prince Of Peridontia…The Little Stomach
That Could…Pound for Pound the Most Savage Fighter To Ever
Grace A Spectacle Ring…..THEEEE Gobbbbbbler!"

A prolonged roar shook the rafters as an orderly led The Gobbler
in on all fours, straining at the end of a steel chain, giggling
and spitting and swinging his head from side to side. Buddy Vox
held apart the ropes, but The Gobbler leapt over them and landed
in center of the ring. He let out a keening wail. The crowd went
crazy. Money flew. Mr. Chen snapped his pencil, trying to get down
all the bets. Calf Gnawed Like Hoagie (2-1) was getting a lot of
play, as well as Nubian Cries Like Little Bitch (3-1). The sole
non-bite wager in his favor, Reece noticed, was Nubian Pulls Off
Some Voodoo Miracle (100-1), which hadn't gotten a sniff.
So much for his twenty percent.

Buddy Vox finished an extra long announcement speech. There'd
been two stabbings at the last Spectacle and no one was happy about
it. Knife sales were temporarily halted. Please, No Stabbing.
Really. Are we kidding? No. Why does everyone think we're
kidding? We're not. So take a second to sheath yourself. Also,
go ahead and have a porterhouse. Tell your nearest server Buddy
Vox Likes It So, So Rare
for an extra 10% off. Other than that,
Let's have some fun!

The crowd noise was almost painful. Reece leaned against the ropes,
trying to concentrate. "Keep movin'," Nurse whispered
from behind, over and over. "Move, move, move." She
put her lips against his earlobe. Her breath was like iced lime.
"He's quick. Keep movin'. Get on your horse. Stand
still, you're done. Move."

The Gobbler clawed the canvas. He was tiny, maybe 5,'2",
one solid muscle, like a bar of soap. His skin was a glistening
teak, covered with tattoos and feathers. He had a stick through
his nose, hair plastered to his skull with orange mud, crouching
and spitting.

"You ready, Nubian?" Vox asked.

Reece nodded.

"You ready. Gobbler?"

The Gobbler grinned, like a piranha.

"To the victory the spoils!" Buddy Vox intoned, as
The Gobbler rushed into the center of the ring.

The day after the Pletches fight, Reece and Alfre walked down a
path lined with cherry blossoms, other couples milling around an
ornate wooden shrine. It was cool, a mild Pacific sun casting long
shadows over crushed gravel and elaborate shrubbery. There were
banners hung on wooden poles, simple drawings of tigers and bears,
austere symbols in black ink. Alfre asked an old man what they meant.
The man smiled broadly, with tea-stained teeth, and bowed.

"He don't speak English," Reece said.

"He doesn't have to," Alfre answered.

They watched the man shuffle away in wooden clogs. The sun began
to set. Two children played with paper birds, repeatedly folded,
that seemed to hover in the air. No one here knew what he'd
done to Pletches. No one here ever needed to. As if reading his
mind, Alfre said "I don't want you to fight. Ever again."

Reece took off the sunglasses, large and plastic, that hid the
swelling around his eyes. "Then I won't."

"You don't mean that?"

Reece inhaled her scent, coconut and linen and a trace of sweat.
She wore a kimono they'd bought at the Honshu market, tiny
clerks showing them how to wrap and tie. Reece lost his hands in
the folds. Alfre kissed his neck. At that moment he was ready to
say every single thing she ever wanted to hear.

The entire first round Reece ran, barely managing to dodge
The Gobbler, each pass a gnashing of teeth that caught only air,
loud and wet and savage, missing by inches. The Gobbler's
movements were electric, hopping, cartwheels and back flips, rushing
headlong, all the while those teeth grinding, chomp chomp chomp,
like something built to extract marrow.

For a year Reece and Alfre shared a tiny apartment, one room and
a kitchen. It didn't matter. His gloves and trophies and equipment
sat in the closet. She hung tapestries, creating walls, giving the
illusion of space. Reece drank wine for the first time in his life.
Alfre read poetry and danced to scratchy Nat Cole records. They
lay in bed, while candles burned, fitting seamlessly against one
another.

In the second round, The Gobbler began to find his range, quick
little nips, shooting Reece's guard, scampering under his
left, a series of bites and welts, all of them bleeding. The only
punches Reece managed to land fell on The Gobbler's back or
shoulders. He was too quick, somehow able to anticipate a blow and
contort his least vulnerable part in its path. Reece backpedaled,
giving up damage for breath, punching for space, not even trying
to land.

Two days after Reece found out Alfre was pregnant, he bought the
store. Squadrito had a son, Reece would have a son. Alfre got bigger
and needed help getting off the sofa. Reece cooked terrible dinners
and bought new inventory and outfitted the car with a baby seat,
top of the line. There was a test, just routine, then a complication,
which wasn't.

At the end of the third round, Mr. Chen came down to the ropes and
Abe Golem held him up by the ribcage until he and Reece were face
to face. "What in fuck're you doing, Nubian? I'm
taking a beating here. Twenty Percent Blood Loss (3-1) is paying
three to one! Gobbler Flosses With Ankle is 10-1 and has
already paid twice! You can't let this degenerate beat you!
I got no one left! He's gonna have to fight himself!"

"Fights himself and every bet wins," Abe Golem intoned,
forehead like a sheer cliff.

"Exactly!" Mr. Chen spat. "It's like you're
sleepwalking! Jab and stick, jab and stick! What did you train all
those years for, huh? Did that pussy Pletches beat himself?"

Abe Golem put Mr. Chen down and they shuffled off to take more
bets.

"Don't pay no attention to him," Nurse whispered,
rubbing Reece's shoulders. "Just fight your fight, you
got me? Keep movin'. Move. And make it count when
you land."

The doctor untied his mask and then tied on his doctor face, saying
sorry sorry sorry while Alfre laid under the sheet saying how how
how. Reece went across the across the street to a bar and had six
whiskeys before getting into a fight with a red-faced Pole, losing
badly, only half on purpose.

The bell rang. The Gobbler leapt out of his corner like a Doberman,
sinking his teeth into Reece's arm. Reece threw a right, a
frustrated haymaker. The Gobbler bit a chunk from his wrist before
scurrying away. Reece screamed with rage and dropped all pretense
of technique. He charged, forcing The Gobbler into a corner and
threw a straight right. It caught The Gobbler flush in the teeth.
It was a better punch than he ever hit Pletches with. It was a better
punch than he ever hit anyone with. Reece's knuckles
ached inside their wraps. The Gobbler woozed back a step and Reece
paused, thinking he would go down. The crowd fell silent. The Gobbler,
dazed, grabbed the ropes with one hand and reached into his mouth
with the other. For a comical second he rooted around, eventually
pulling out a tiny razor tooth. He held it up, whimpering, while
it gleamed like a diamond under the lights.

Nurse whistled.

Mr. Chen and Abe Golem stopped collecting bets.

Reece cocked his left.

And then The Gobbler went Completely Insane.

"Oh, my god," moaned a skinny analyst in the front
row, while the Gobbler screamed and frothed and showered the crowd
with spit. He pulled out his nose-stick, tossed it over his shoulder,
and charged. It was a jabbering, bug-eyed attack. Reece countered
without thought. They met, in the air, like a pair of rams. The
analyst continued to jump up and down. He'd put ten grand
on Completely Insane (63-1), and wanted to collect. Mr. Chen tried
to explain how insanity was a relative concept and wondered
if the gentleman was indeed a trained psychoanalyst and therefore
capable of making such a determination? No? What is insane, really,
anyhow? Are not our great artists and philosophers still wrestling
with that question? And so, unfortunately, your bet is No Good.

The analyst argued. Abe Golem loomed, but the analyst didn't
back down. The entire section came to his defense. The bet was good.
It had to be paid. A chant began. Mr. Chen saw what was coming and
changed his verdict. Fine. Everything is fine. Really.
He tried to open the briefcase, but Abe Golem fumbled with the lock,
and by then it was too late. A riot began. Someone in gabardine
stabbed Doc Nob. Mr. Chen disappeared behind a lofted chair. Abe
Golem grabbed a suit by the collarbone and swung him like a 3-iron,
trying to clear a path toward his boss.

In the ring, The Gobbler slunk down on all fours. Reece backed
away, warding him off with a series of kicks.

"What we doin', Nurse?"

No answer.

"Nurse? What's goin' on?"

Reece looked back, but Nurse was no longer in his corner. The
stool was knocked over and someone was wearing the spit bucket on
his head. The Gobbler crept forward. Reece tried to gauge the odds
of making the same side door Buddy Vox had just slipped through.
A path opened, for a split second, where a section of crowd had
their backs turned. They were pushing toward a trio of Beverage
Girls who were making a brave stand, shoes in either hand, razor
heels swung in wide arcs, carving suit. Reece saw himself vaulting
the ropes, grabbing Nurse by her starched collar, and sprinting
into the gap. It was a long-shot. He pivoted, flexed, took a step,
and slipped in his own blood. Damn. He got up, on one knee,
and slipped again. The gap closed. The Beverage Girls disappeared
under a wave of French cuffs. The Gobbler sprang, landing squarely
on Reece's back. A rib cracked. The crowd roared, a vibration
welling through the canvas and into Reece's chest. From the
top row, the thin, reedy voice of an internet entrepreneur requested
help. Reece, pinned, thought about Alfre. She would be at home,
on the couch. If he had an Action Sentence for her now, it would
be: Next time marry a winner.

Sirens wailed. A fire started, smoke billowing toward the rafters.
The sprinkler system went off, a deluge of rusty water, like rain
in the Amazon. Nurse was lying in the aisle, on her side, staring
at nothing. The Gobbler, giggling, dug in. Reece tried to reach
back and get a grip, but his gloves were wet and the thumb was useless.
Arcs of pain, like camera flashes, exploded in his head. The Ring
Girls were a blur and Abe Golem's shoes were a blur. Someone
screamed, and then someone else joined in, hitting the same desperate
note. Rain gently pattered. Smoke settled in the corners. Reece
pressed his cheek against the canvas, inhaling the smell of rubber
and sweat, while The Gobbler ate parts of him he couldn't
afford to lose.

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