M. M. Wildwood graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an M.F.A. in Fiction in 2014, but since Starfleet doesn't exist yet and pterodactyl rider stopped being a viable occupation about 65 million years ago, M. M. settled in Seattle, where she drinks too much coffee while working on her first novel, Heartwood.
When the Gods are Fallen
The smell of the morgue hit Frankie hard. The disinfectants burned his nose after the long hours at the gym, where the smell of sweat and blood and dirt pervaded. As he walked toward Raja’s office at the back, the slap of his dress shoes against the sloped tile floor echoed in the dead air.
Frankie glanced sideways at the wall of metal drawers as he passed them. He knew The Lioness’s body was in one of them, but he didn’t know which one. This unnerved him, as if not being able to see her body made her death less real, even though he had witnessed it himself not even a week ago. Had he been younger, the crunch of The Lioness’s vertebra coming unstacked beneath the force of The Grizzly’s fist might have kept him up all week, but he’d seen too much over the decades, and so her death only lingered in his stomach, as a deep, familiar ache, and in the feeling that he’d cast his eyes across the gym one day and see her in the practice ring. He looked firmly away from the wall of metal drawers.
The door to Raja’s office was partially ajar. Frankie knocked on the frame. From the way Raja jumped at the noise, Frankie might as well have fired a handgun.
“You scared the fuckin’ shit outta me, man,” complained Raja when he realized that it was just Frankie. “Jesus, it took you long enough to get out here.”
“I was busy,” said Frankie. “I still am. So cut the niceties and tell me what was so important that I had to drive all the way out here.”
He had a gym to run and a stack of paperwork to wade through before the insurance company would even think about paying out.
“Sorry, man, I just—this shit’s gonna blow your fuckin’ mind.”
Despite his diction, Raja was the best coroner in the city, and it was that reason only that had summoned Frankie here at Raja’s bequest.
“Get to the point,” he told Raja.
Raja grabbed a piece of paper off his desk and shoved it in Frankie’s face. Frankie took the paper from Raja and glanced over it. It was a read-out from a series of blood tests.
“You see that?” asked Raja, pointing to a number. “That number isn’t normal. The Lioness’s potassium was too high. Weird high. So I ran some more tests. Did you know that she was taking beta-blockers?”
“That’s impossible. The Lioness was tested before her last match. If she hadn’t been clean, she wouldn’t have been allowed to compete.”
“Let me guess. Q told you the results?”
“You know that,” said Frankie. He frowned. “You think Q was dosing The Lioness?”
“Not just dosing.” Raja licked his lips and smoothed his short, black goatee down with one hand. His eyes darted nervously to the partially open door. “I think Q poisoned her.”
“Hyperkalemia—high potassium—can be a symptom of foxglove poisoning,” explained Raja. “Certain medications—beta-blockers, for instance—can make individuals more susceptible to foxglove poisoning. At the time of her death, The Lioness had foxglove in her system. Not enough to kill alone, but combined with the beta-blockers, it would have thrown her game off.”
Frankie folded the paper up and put it in the breast pocket of his suit.
“Does anyone else know about this?” he asked.
Raja shook his head.
“Good,” said Frankie. “Keep it that way.”
“Fuck, man. If the Federation finds out about this, it ain’t just Q’s ass on the line. It’s going to be ours, too.”
Frankie stared at Raja with his one good eye. His other eye, made of glass, stared straight ahead. The effect was disconcerting and occasionally made Frankie appear cross-eyed. Had he been a softer man, he might have been thought stupid.
Twenty years in the boxing business and eight in the drug business before that had given Frankie an edge not easily diminished. The retribution of the Federation officials if they found out that he had failed to report his full findings concerning The Lioness’s autopsy scared Raja, but their retribution, although endlessly creative and painful in Raja’s imagination, was still merely hypothetical.
Frankie was definitely not hypothetical.
Raja swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
Frankie sat in his office. He hadn’t moved an inch since coming straight from Raja’s. The gym had closed hours ago and even the janitor had gone home. He was so entrenched in his thoughts that he jerked when the door was thrown open and a canvas bag landed heavily on his desk. He caught his papers just before they were swept over the edge and looked up at Q.
“Go on,” said Q, thrusting her lower jaw forward as she spoke, as if she had to tear her words out of the air. “Open it.”
Frankie unzipped the canvas bag. He knew what the contents would be before he saw them, of course. What he was unprepared for was the smell: the ink on the crisp, bank-issued bills was so strong that Frankie felt his balls tighten.
“Where would you even…” Realization struck Frankie, crumpling his stomach. “You bet against The—”
Q held one finger up against her lips, the barest hint of a smile edging onto her mouth. “Let’s just say, I’ve come into a sudden windfall.”
Frankie stared at Q. He’d thought, all this time, that it was only about revenge. But it was more than that. It was the damn game. It destroyed people, not just bones and bodies. It decimated that intangible part of a person that acted as a natural balance against humanity’s most self-centered desires; it took a person’s soul and wrung it out like a sopping bar rag.
“Is this… supposed to be some kind of bribe?” asked Frankie.
Q scoffed. “No. It’s the fee.”
“The… fee…” Q wanted to fight? “I’m not— you think I’m going to contract you?”
Q looked up at him, fixing her solid dark eyes on his face. “You’ve been practically begging me to fight since you first saw me at Rick’s.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Frankie.
“I’ll put it this way,” said Q. “If you don’t agree to contract me, I’ll go to the Federation and tell them that you told me to do it.”
She handed him a slip of paper. A betting ticket. He saw the name scrawled on it, recognized the scrawl because it was the same chicken-scratch signature resting at the bottom of The Lioness’s contract. Q had signed his name on the bet.
It was supposed to be a threat, but unlike Raja, Frankie was not afraid of The Federation. He’d lost everything there was to lose. Well, almost.
Most boxers picked out their names when they registered their contract with the Federation. Some, like The Viper, earned theirs the old-fashioned way: on the street. People had cursed each other with her name. They whispered it in the dark and they made up legends about her.
“They call her The Viper,” Alejandro had told Frankie a long time ago, “because she only strikes once. Then bam. You’re dead.”
Frankie had been nineteen at the time and dealing crack. He was high when he’d laughed at his cousin and said, “I ain’t afraid of that bitch.”
A week later, he had been walking home alone at three in the morning, feeling brave because of the shit in his blood or maybe because of the .45 Smith & Wesson tucked in his waistband, when next thing he knew, he was stretched flat on the concrete, a knife pressed up against his throat.
“You afraid now?” she’d whispered. The Viper’s voice knotted itself around his throat, choking his vocal chords.
“Fuck… you…” managed Frankie.
The Viper shoved the knife into his eye without hesitating. He’d screamed, clutching his face, as blood poured down his skin, slippery and slick.
“Fuck! Fuck you! You motherfucking little—” He’d started crying hysterically, the tears and snot mixing with the blood.
Through the mess and the blistering pain, Frankie saw the moonlight catch The Viper’s face as she rose above him. She smiled, her face a calm mask, and she watched him bleed. One side of her mouth lifted slightly, and her eyes were as cold as Hell.
He would never forget that smile. When even Frankie’s memory of being nine and seeing his father’s bullet-strewn body in the morgue faded to the soft blur of something that could have happened to someone else, that memory of The Viper never dimmed. It was as if, instead of losing his eye, it had simply become stuck on that single image, haunting him with no concern for whether he was asleep or awake.
Frankie didn’t hear that The Viper was even thinking about contracting until after she had signed with Lou. Frankie knew he should stay away from The Viper altogether for the sake of his one good eye, but he felt compelled to see her again. He’d quit the drug business the day The Viper had cut him. It had been a turning point for him, and he felt he owed her, in some strange way, for the turn his life had taken. He had a real job now, helping Rick out with his gym.
A boy who sometimes washed the floors on the weekends ran in, hollering about The Viper. It took a few minutes to calm down the boy enough to get the full story out of him: The Viper had signed a contract for five years. Frankie didn’t know what price she’d gotten, but it was probably record-breaking.
Eventually his curious need to thank The Viper overcame his sense of self-protection. The next day, before his shift, Frankie stopped by Lou’s gym. It had been three years since The Viper had stabbed him. A terrified boy was with her in the practice ring, trying to steady the bag as The Viper wailed on it. Sweat broke out on Frankie’s skin. A sharp ache started in his socket behind his glass eye.
He walked up to where she was boxing and touched the boy on the shoulder. The moment the boy realized that someone wanted to relieve him of his duty he fled. Frankie gripped the bag and nodded around the edge. He licked his lips, which were dry.
“Hey,” he tried.
The Viper didn’t respond. She just raised her fists and started hitting the bag again.
“You know, you could have gotten a better deal if you’d signed with my boss,” said Frankie.
“I was just trying to make conversation.”
The Viper quit punching.
“No one asked you to make conversation. And you don’t know shit about my deal, so don’t fucking pretend. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, so just fucking leave me alone.”
“Fine,” said Frankie.
He started to leave, when The Viper slugged him on the bicep so hard his arm went numb.
“Fuck!” he cried. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“I remember you,” said The Viper suddenly. “You’re the little pussy that cried when I cut up your face.”
“Like you wouldn’t have cried if someone stabbed you in the eye?”
Without a word, The Viper ripped off her gloves and pulled up the loose shirt hanging over her sports bra. On her stomach there were five twisted white marks the size of quarters.
“I didn’t,” she said.
Frankie breathed out, sharp and quick. His vision fractured; in his left eye, he saw The Viper smiling cruelly over his bleeding body, while in his right eye, he saw the woman before him now. She held her anger in her hands like it was an extension of that knife in that alley years ago. But Frankie knew anger wasn’t a weapon. If anything, it was a bellow, and the more it was worked, the quicker you burned up from inside out.
Frankie reached out and touched her hand. He didn’t hate The Viper. He couldn’t hate her. He hovered his fingertips over the smooth back of her fist. He didn’t breathe. The Viper looked at him, eyes digging into him with as much heat and pain as her knife four years before, but she didn’t push him away.
Frankie was at Ezekiel’s, the crappy, run-down little bar on the corner, when Lou came in. It’d been four months since he’d contracted The Viper. Lou slapped the bar with a fifty and told the bartender, “Keep them coming.”
“Tough day?” asked Frankie. He was surprised to see Lou at the bar at all, let alone in a hurry to get drunk. There was a big match in just a few days’ time, and if he’d been in Lou’s shoes, he would’ve been keeping a close eye on The Viper to make sure she didn’t over-train and wear herself out.
“Goddamn woman,” said Lou.
Frankie lifted his eyebrows; the skin around his false eye shifted, creating the illusion that Frankie was horrified by Lou’s slander, not merely interested.
“I can’t fucking believe it.” Lou covered his head with one gigantic hand and rubbed his temples with his fingers. “Of all the people to pull this kind of shit, her? That’s what I don’t get.”
By now Frankie was sure that Lou was talking about The Viper, but he had no idea what she had done to piss Lou off this bad. Had she tried to get out of her contract? Fighters couldn’t be forced to fight. But there were financial penalties; earnings had to be paid back in full, with twenty percent interest, and late fees totaled hundreds per month. Since most people were driven to fight because they were too broke to do anything else, the financial incentive to finish out their contracts was high.
“What did she do?” asked Lou.
“The goddamn bitch got knocked up.”
Within a month of her pregnancy hitting the tabloids, The Viper shocked the world again by announcing that she was engaged. Frankie had never heard The Viper talk about the man. He didn’t even know where they’d met, or when. He knew better than to ask The Viper about her pregnancy directly; they didn’t talk about things like that. They rarely talked about anything.
It wasn’t the fact that The Viper had gotten pregnant that had riled Lou up; it was the fact that she refused to get an abortion. The contract provided for this contingency, too; fighters were exempt from the ring for the duration of their pregnancy plus two weeks.
Frankie didn’t know what The Viper’s fiancé thought about her pregnancy. He was a withdrawn man. Quiet. He wasn’t a thug, didn’t deal crack, didn’t own a gun or a gym. He didn’t even attend the matches. Frankie knew it was a fruitless exercise to try and guess at The Viper’s endgame, but she had wrapped her coils around him too tightly to stop now.
He didn’t allow himself to think of the possibility that the child was his.
When The Viper’s daughter, Q, turned four, Frankie took her to see her mother fight. Q’s father didn’t protest when Frankie showed up on his doorstep to pick Q up, even though Frankie didn’t think he had been expecting him. The Viper’s husband just let this strange man take his daughter away.
They took the train to the arena where The Viper was fighting. As the train sped through the city, Frankie stared out the dirty window. Q didn’t say anything.
The arena where The Viper was fighting was massive, the largest on the coast. The cheapest chairs were only five bucks a pop. Two men in suits met them at the door and escorted them to a reserved section.
After Lou had told Frankie about The Viper’s pregnancy, Frankie had quit his job at Rick’s and started working for Lou. He still worked for Lou, technically, but Lou’s mother had fallen ill and Frankie was managing the gym fully in Lou’s absence.
The benches in the reserved section were cold and hard, but the view was better and no one jostled them while flagging down the concessions boy. Giant screens lined the walls like paper, capturing the ring from every side. As Q’s mother stepped into the ring, the screens captured the first swish of yellow silk around her strong thighs.
The fight was quick. Eight minutes. The Viper knocked her opponent down and slammed her fists into her face like she was forging steel. The cameras caught it all in high-def, down to the flecks of blood that beaded her face like wet freckles. The corner of her lips lifted, exposing white teeth rimmed in red.
Frankie shivered. He’d seen fighters die in the ring before, but the concentration on The Viper’s face made his balls shrink. He glanced at Q. Her eyes were dark and flat as she took in the fight. He had taken Q to the match on The Viper’s orders, but as he gazed into Q’s undisturbed face, Frankie felt the hot breath of doubt curl around his neck.
“I’m worried about Q,” Frankie told The Viper. “I think maybe I shouldn’t take her to see you fight anymore.”
The Viper’s fingers were twisted around his neck, nails digging into the soft valleys between his vertebrae. She pressed her mouth against his body so hard she drew the blood up to the skin.
In retrospect, his timing could have been better.
The Viper’s grip tightened. “What are you implying?”
“Never mind,” said Frankie.
“No, tell me.”
Frankie knew she was going to hit him. He could already feel the blood spreading through his mouth. He knew it was going to hurt, too, but he knew it wasn’t going to hurt as much as being stabbed in the eye with a knife. He was no longer a scared boy, mistaking his ego for just cause to run his mouth like he was some kind of rapper. Something real was at stake. It didn’t matter if he was the child’s father or not; Frankie had developed a concern for Q. He wanted to submit to the woman with her murderous hand wrapped around his throat, out of desire for her as much as self-preservation, but he found he was unable to.
“She isn’t bothered by any of it,” said Frankie.
To his surprise, The Viper didn’t strike him. She released his neck, and stood up, pulling her discarded clothes on.
“I forgot that you’re so normal,” she spat.
Frankie didn’t try to stop her from leaving.
Contracting his own boxer was harder than Frankie had expected. The paperwork was the easy part. Waiting for it to be approved took three years. As he waited, he scraped together as much as he could, so he would be able to afford the sixty thousand for the contracting fee when the time came.
Frankie kept himself busy, but simultaneously ignoring The Viper and keeping one (distant) eye on her, was a task made all the harder by the fact that they ran in the same circle. The first time he heard someone call Q “her mother’s daughter,” Frankie felt regret flare up in his joints. He had never wanted to be a father, but he was feeling the years pile up like shovelfuls of dirt, and with it came the instinctual desire to leave a legacy of his own behind.
Everyone else expected The Viper to finish her contract and collect her money and take her husband and child and retire somewhere quiet. Frankie had learned a long time ago that The Viper was more liable to do the exact opposite of what everyone else expected.
And that’s exactly what The Viper did: before the blood even dried on her shorts after her final fight, she signed herself over for another five years.
Frankie was surprised when The Lioness approached him seeking a contract. He knew the business as well as anyone, but he was unproven. She manipulated these facts, wedging him into a corner. In the end, she negotiated a bargain that Frankie was careful to never discuss with his peers, who would have undoubtedly made some crude comments about his balls being located into The Lioness’s gym bag.
As a freshly-approved contract holder with his first fighter, The Lioness, Frankie was guaranteed a ticket to The Viper’s final match of her second contract. Without his new status, he would never have been able to get in. Ticket prices had tripled, then tripled again. The match had been sold out for five months. Those who couldn’t get into the arena watched the match unfold on streaming billboards and TVs and phones. They gathered in parking lots and bars.
Even the reserved section was packed with contract holders and fighters and family members. Frankie had come alone. On the far side of the section he spotted Q, also alone. Nine years old now, Q was starting to resemble her mother a little more, but her black eyes, which watched emotionlessly, were her own. Frankie looked away.
As The Viper climbed into the ring, Frankie studied her. He had seen photographs of her over the years, but none of them had captured her face the way the wall-sized screens did now.
She had suffered injuries. She had scars. The ridge over her right eye had been permanently smashed in a couple years back and had healed crooked. The damage did not stop her from captivating everyone’s gaze who looked at her, though. Her long hair was shorter, but the cut only accentuated the strong, hard line of her neck and the smooth, wound muscles of her shoulders.
Tension hummed in the air. If The Viper walked away from this match she would be the first person in the history of the Federation to finish two contracts without serious injury or death intervening.
The Shark sized up her opponent from across the ring. Her eyes, thin slices in her face, narrowed in on The Viper. When the bell rang, the two boxers moved in. They circled like beasts, each trying to sense fear, to analyze when and where to strike first to seize the upper hand.
An uneasy feeling grew in Frankie’s stomach. Everyone expected The Viper to win the fight. Everyone wanted her to win. As the fight progressed, Frankie’s unease colligated into something observable: for three rounds, The Viper didn’t raise her hands except in defense.
Between the third and fourth rounds, Lou got up in the ring and spoke hurriedly to The Viper. After Frankie and The Viper’s falling out, Frankie had left Lou’s gym to strike out on his own, forcing Lou to come out of his quasi-retirement. Time had not been kind to the other man. Frankie could see the sweat glistening on Lou’s brow; it was worse than The Viper’s. The Viper listened to Lou as she poured water on her face. Then she nodded and stood up. The referee checked to make sure both opponents were ready again, then rang the bell.
Immediately, the fight changed. The Shark had sensed The Viper’s weakness. She didn’t hesitate. The Shark feinted and when The Viper raised her arms hastily to defend herself, she struck. Pinned against the side of the ring, The Viper couldn’t move. Even if the Federation rules had allowed it, the referee wouldn’t have been able to stop The Shark. Beneath her fists, The Viper’s bones broke like boulders cracking. By the time the buzzer went off at the end of round four, The Viper was already dead.
Frankie went to check up on Q after the funeral, only to find the house that The Viper had lived in with her husband and Q stripped and empty. Frankie didn’t blame them for wanting to move, nor did he expect to see Q ever again. He stopped sleeping well, spending longer days at the gym, focusing all his energy on The Lioness’s career.
And then one day he stopped by Rick’s gym to meet with his old boss and there she was.
She had turned at the sound of her name, even if it was from unfamiliar lips. Frankie was struck by how much she looked like The Viper. Q could have been her clone, except for her dark eyes and her short hair, which was cropped close to her head, almost buzzed. Her face was the same, especially the set of her mouth.
“I didn’t know you were still in the game,” said Frankie.
“I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“I’m— I was— I knew your mother. Did Rick contract you?”
Confusion lifted from Q’s face. “No, I’m not a boxer. I patch people up.”
“People?” asked Frankie.
“Yeah,” said Q. She nodded at someone behind Frankie. “Like her.”
Frankie glanced over his shoulder. The boxer that Q had nodded to was warming up in the ring. Frankie recognized her instantly, even though he had only seen her fight once. The Rat was the lightest boxer in the Federation. She was relatively new, having only been contracted seven months before. Frankie knew she wouldn’t last long. She probably wouldn’t even make it through her next fight. She just didn’t have the strength that the bigger boxers did.
“You’re wasting your time fixing her up,” Frankie told Q. “If you want, I’ll contract you. I only have one boxer currently, The Lioness. She’s good. A lot better than The Rat.”
From the ring, Frankie heard The Rat call to Q. “Is that guy bothering you, babycakes?”
“I’m fine,” Q reassured her. In a quieter voice, she told Frankie, “Look. I’m not signing a contract. With you or anyone else. Period. I don’t care who my mother was.”
“Sure,” said Frankie. He pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Q. “In case you change your mind.”
He hesitated then. He could tell how Q felt about The Rat. He wanted to tell Q not to get attached. That The Rat wouldn’t make it. But then he shook his head and said, “Nice seeing you,” and headed for Rick’s office.
A year passed before Frankie got the notice: The Lioness’s next match would be against The Rat. Frankie closed his eyes. He could visualize the fight. The Lioness, dressed in gold, would draw the fight out and toy with The Rat for a round or two, maybe even three. If The Rat was dumb enough to underestimate The Lioness, she might think she had a chance. But eventually The Lioness would grow bored or angry. Then she’d flip like a switch. The Rat, being a mediocre boxer, would probably try to clinch and wrap her arms around The Lioness to break her momentum. Already tired, the novice move would exhaust The Rat, and seal the outcome.
When the referee ordered them to punch out, The Lioness’s lips curled. She raised her fists and a second later her left hook crashed into The Rat’s face. Frankie heard her spine snap. As The Rat fell, Frankie looked at Q. She was standing on the sidelines, clutching a bloody towel. When her mother had died ten years ago, Q hadn’t even cried. Like it wasn’t her mother who had just been killed, but some washed-up boxer on television. Now, as she watched The Rat die, the only indication that Q even knew her was the way she gripped the towel so hard that her skin seemed to thin out, exposing the hard ridges of her knuckles.
When Q showed up at Frankie’s gym a week after the fight, Frankie was surprised, but pleased. He had heard rumors that Rick was getting out, that he just didn’t have the dough to back a new boxer.
“It’s going to take me a little time to free up the money to register your contract,” Frankie told Q, “but I’m good for it.”
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea,” said Q. “I’m not here for a contract.”
Frankie leaned back in his office chair. “If it’s patching work you’re after, I don’t have an opening at the moment.”
“I don’t care. I’ll start anywhere. You’re looking for a janitor, right?”
Frankie sat up. “You can’t be serious.”
Q looked at him evenly, her dark eyes steady.
“God, kid, if your mom could see you now. It’s true, though. The weekend boy quit. If you’re willing to scrub down the gym for peanuts, the job’s yours.” He sighed and ran a hand over the stubble on his scalp. “You absolutely sure you don’t want to contract?”
“I’m sure,” said Q.
“Alright. But if you change your mind, you know where my office is.”
They stood up and shook hands. Before he had even let her hand go, a sudden commotion erupted outside of his office.
Frankie made it to the railing just in time to see The Lioness release the body of Frankie’s patcher. He crumpled like a rag doll, neck snapped cleanly, like The Lioness was just cracking her knuckles.
“I told him to stop harassing her. The paperwork—” Frankie sighed, then turned to Q who was crowding the railing next to him. “How do you feel about a pay raise?”
Frankie thought Q would crack eventually. That she would give up her stubborn act and ask him to contract her. Frankie had seen plenty of people seduced by the game. People who had sworn up and down that it was the devil’s sport, that it should be banned, that it was wrong to sanction killing, even if it was trussed up with rules and lights and celebrities. In his experience these people were among those who experienced the greatest rush when the blood flecked their faces as the boxers in the ring fought.
While he waited for Q to crack, he had to admit that she was good at her job. She cleaned and stitched and bandaged. She pushed and shoved and tugged until bones popped back into vacated joints. She rearranged the sweat and sinew beneath skin to make people whole again.
He had gone back for some papers he had forgotten in his office when he saw them. The Lioness had Q pushed up against a locker, one hand around her throat, the other stretched out, palm down and spread wide, on the metal behind them. He stared at them through the cracked locker room door. As he watched, he saw The Lioness kiss Q roughly. Frankie turned away, closing his eyes as the weight of that night in that alley came over. It had been a long time since the vision of The Viper in the moonlight had haunted him, but it came back to him in an instant. Frankie breathed in, the stench of bleach rising from the floors steadying him. Frankie quietly climbed the stairs to his office and grabbed the file on his desk before sneaking back out.
The next day, Q came into his office and dropped a packet on his desk.
“The drug test results,” she explained. “No surprises. The Lioness is clean.”
Before she could leave, Frankie pointed at the chair on the other side of the desk. “Sit.”
“I’d prefer to stand,” said Q.
Frankie looked at the surface of his oak desk, searching for the correct words. “Are you… I mean, is everything… alright?”
“I’m fine,” said Q, crossing her arms. “Can I go?”
Exhaling, Frankie leaned back in his chair. “Sure.”
After Q left, Frankie wondered what he was going to do. While Frankie didn’t care what The Lioness and Q did on their own time, he needed The Lioness to keep her head clear. In a month she was going up against The Grizzly, and while The Lioness had crushed all her opponents so far, Frankie thought that she was getting a little careless lately. The Grizzly was not someone The Lioness could afford to toy with while fighting. She was fairly new to the game, but had come on stronger than any boxer in years. People were comparing her to The Viper. In the three matches she had had so far, she had crushed every opponent in the first round. The bets, although illegal among the contract holders, were already piling up against The Lioness.
Q, for her part, was as inscrutable as her mother had been. He was glad he couldn’t reach inside her mind and see what she was thinking; he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make his way through the dark tangle that called Q’s skull home. As for the paternal instinct guiltily welling like quicksand in his stomach, he couldn’t do anything about that, except make peace with it, he supposed. He wasn’t the kid’s father in any way that actually counted.
The Lioness made it all the way to round three. Then The Grizzly got lucky, or maybe it was The Lioness who had been lucky all along, barely escaping every move The Grizzly made. The Grizzly’s scarred knuckles crashed into The Lioness’s jaw, cracking her cheekbone. The Lioness staggered back on the canvas, the arches of her feet lifting off the ring as her six-foot-three frame fell.
The screens caught the moment, blowing it up so that everyone in the arena could see it. But Frankie didn’t look at the screens. His eyes were focused on Q’s blank face. She wore a mask of cold neutrality, emotionless as a coroner’s camera. If she felt anything as she assessed the damage, her body betrayed none of it, not even to Frankie.
Frankie knew that The Lioness was finished before her shoulders slammed into the ground. Her body bounced once, twice, before skidding to a stop, skin fighting friction, flesh torn up, ripped away from muscle-wrapped bone.
The Lioness’s body came to a rest less than three feet in front of Frankie. Dark blood ran down her broad shoulders. As Frankie stared at The Lioness’s still eyes, the deafening silence that had settled over the audience broke and everyone began screaming at once.
Q was still staring at him, the bag of money gaping open-mouthed on the desk between them. She could be bluffing. But the edge around Q’s mouth was the same edge The Viper had worn during all her fights.
Maybe he could talk her out of it, thought Frankie. Maybe they could split the profit from the bet and go their separate ways. He could finally retire. And Q could shape up. Maybe even get into medical school if she wanted. She had a real talent. She could meet a nice girl and settle down.
Even as he extended his hand to shake Q’s, Frankie knew that it was the most hopeless sort of wish, the kind that would do more than never come true; it would eat at him with the acidity that only regret was capable of, until the part of Frankie that hated the sport and what it was capable of rendering people into, metastasized.
That was when he’d really die. Not thirty years from now, when his shriveled body lay in a cot in the hospice wing of a hospital. No, thought Frankie as he extended his hand to shake Q’s, he was dead the moment Q’s hand clutched his.