Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 61
Stories
Bare-knuckle Magic
by Michael Ezell
Tomorrow Is Monday
by Jacob A. Boyd
Money in the Tortoise
by J.D. Moyer
Real Estate Listing
by Ari B. Goelman
IGMS Audio
Real Estate Listing
Read by Dave Thompson
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Bonus Material

Bare-knuckle Magic
    by Michael Ezell

Bare-knuckle Magic
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

It's always disheartening to find out someone wants to kill you. Especially when it's over a lousy thousand-dollar fight. Don't get me wrong; to me a grand was a lot of money. It represented half the rent. But to one of the dudes who watched the fights from a private table, a thousand dollars was a bottle of champagne. A cheap bottle.

I got the text about my impending murder while I was on break. Of course I wanted details, but the clocks at work are hexed to shut down cell phone reception at 10:15 sharp. Break's over, bozos, back to work.

Marked for homicide or not, I had bills to pay, so I sat at my Global InsureCo desk like a good lad and answered my line when it rang. I worked Customer Service, one of forty agents arrayed in four semi-circles of ten desks each. Global InsureCo being, well, global, had ten similar rooms on this floor alone. We were an army. A complaint-taking, antacid-chewing, bored-to-tears army.

Tobias Stentz, Customer Service Manager, sat on a dais that gave him a clear view of every workstation. Whenever I looked up, those odd, protuberant eyes of his always seemed to be locked on me. Most likely due to a spell. Management level employees were not allowed to use spells directly on subordinates, but they were allowed to use magic to increase their own personal work efficiency. A guy who wanted to make upper management might buy a spell crafted to let him keep his eyes on all the grubby worker bees at once.

My primary line lit up and I jabbed a finger at it. "Global InsureCo Customer Service, this is Eduardo, how may I help you?"

"You can suck my ass, Eduardo," said a woman's voice. She sounded old, a little raspy on the back end. I pictured my grandmother's evil pack-a-day twin.

"Uh, I beg your pardon?"

"You assholes refuse to pay for the damages to my house and I'm on a fixed pension. How the hell am I supposed to get my roof repaired?" the woman said.

"Ma'am, that doesn't sound like us at all. How long ago was your roof damaged? I admit, it does take a bit of time to receive the actual check."

"I'm not getting a check! Least, that's what you idiots tell me. It's been six months since the bitch down the street put a hex on a storm cloud drifting over my house and--"

"Ah, there's your problem," I said.

"My problem?"

"Our homeowner policies do not cover damages incurred through use of hexes, spells, incantations, or any other action that could be considered and defined as 'magical.'"

"You're telling me in today's world you don't believe in magic?" she said.
"Oh no, Ma'am. We believe it exists. We just don't insure against it," I said.

"Eduardo, you are a real piece of shit."

She hung up before I could mount a defense. I flipped over a piece of paper on my desk and put a tick mark under Piece of Shit. That made twenty-three for the year, taking the lead on my "List of Compliments." Dickhead ran a tight second with nineteen tick marks.

My phone alarm chimed and I shut down my workstation. I'd put in a request to leave two hours early for a doctor's appointment. On a Friday. Which raised Tobias Stentz's considerable eyebrows. Per company policy, Tobias couldn't use a spell on me to see if I really had a doctor's appointment. However, he could slide the written request under a Seer Glass. In this case it didn't matter. Since I had an appointment with my witchdoctor, the paper wouldn't show a lie.

I picked up my hat and shrugged into the jacket of my antique Brooks Brothers suit. All the other men in the office wore the popular style of pullover shirts with fake buttons down the front. No class, man, no class.

I glanced at Tobias and of course found him staring straight at me. He gave me a wink and nodded toward the door. Like he was my buddy and we were getting away with something. Ol' Eduardo "going to the doctor" on Friday afternoon.

I returned the wink so Tobias knew we were indeed old buddies, and then went to find out why someone wanted to kill me.

"It's over the Duplessis fight," Shaka said.

"No way," I said. "Is he still whining about that?"

I sat cross-legged inside a power circle of wheat flour and dried nightshade petals. Shaka lit some incense and opened a window. He knew the smoke messed with my allergies, especially in a tight space where it had nowhere to go. His "office" consisted of a twelve-by-twelve room with hardwood floors and one couch. It was part of a co-op constructed from shipping containers, housing mostly hipster artists, street magicians, sellers of magical talismans, that kinda thing. They were all in awe of Shaka. A real witchdoctor.

"Duplessis still claims you enchanted his jacket," Shaka said. His grin had white diamonds at the corners, on his canine teeth.

"That's me. Master Sorcerer of Customer Service," I said.

Shaka chuckled and it sounded like thunder just over the horizon. A giant chiseled from onyx, Shaka took up most of the floor space himself. I'd known him since we were both skinny little shits in grade school, so I knew his real name, Rodney Copeland. But if a man who can do black magic tells you he changed his name to Shaka, then that's damn well what you call him.

Shaka didn't go in for witchdoctor costumes and all that. He wore jeans and tee shirts most of the time. If casual clothes made any clients doubt him, he had the PhD in Sorcery and General Magicks from NYU nailed to the wall.

"Either way," Shaka said. "I heard some voodoo boys been looking for you. I let it be known I wouldn't appreciate any freelance spells being thrown at one of my clients."

"Wow. Thanks, man. You didn't have to do that," I said. My money was small to a shaman like Shaka.

"Boy, are you crazy? You would seriously say that to me?" Shaka said.

"Sorry, man. You know I don't like owing people."

"Get used to it. We all owe someone. See? No one pushes through for free. Now sit still and let me put some black magic on your narrow brown ass so you don't get killed tonight."

I closed my eyes with the slow, relaxed grin of a junkie. This part. Yeah, man.

I never went in for drugs, but the feeling of magic being cast about me had to be close. It cascaded through me and lit my neural receptors on fire. My head fell forward and I lost track of space and time.

Shaka thumped me on the forehead, jolting me out of wherever the hell I went. "Better wake up. Somebody's gonna take your head off," he said.

Careful not to break the power circle, I stood and arched my back until I got a satisfying crackle. My cheeks burned hot and I couldn't wait to get to the fight. I caught an odd look on Shaka's face.

"What?" I said.

"Nothing. Let's ride." He snapped his fingers and shimmering blue flames with no heat consumed the power circle around me. Time to go.

In addition to putting some black magic on my ass, Shaka was also my ride to the fight.

We cruised across town in his gas-powered midnight blue station wagon, ignoring the sharp looks from Greenies in their electrics. For reasons known only to him, Shaka preferred driving station wagons, from his very first car. He wouldn't even tell me, and I knew the name of the girl he lost his virginity to. You'd think it was for the extra space to carry magical shit around, but no, I'd never seen so much as a grocery bag in the back.

During the long ride, Duplessis and his stupid boxer's nose kept popping up in my mind. Known for his quick hands and brutal head butts, Duplessis traveled all the way up to the big city from Louisiana to make his mark.

I should have been an easy fight for him. It was only my fourth fight, and I had no aspirations to be a pro. I didn't have the money, the time, or the desire to put in the gym work for that. A little extra cash in my bank account every other weekend had me more than satisfied, so I stuck to the lower level fights where guys had less experience defending against grapplers. Everyone has to start with the small fights, so I sometimes found myself facing a pro looking to move up. Like Maxwell Duplessis.

Unfortunately for Duplessis, he was the heavier fighter that night. I got to choose what we wore for the match. I'd been into Brazilian jiu-jitsu since the third grade, so I chose short-sleeve jackets. He had a ward around his head for strikes, so I backpedaled from his quick hands for half the first round until I saw a gap in his defense. Then I grabbed his jacket, executed a leg-reaping throw, and caught him in a collar choke that put him to sleep.

It wasn't my fault the guy hadn't worked on his ground game. The way I looked at it, someone wanted to kill me over another fighter's laziness in training.

Shaka eased the station wagon into a sketchy section of abandoned docks overlooking polluted water with rainbow slicks riding the waves. For a bunch of empty warehouses and maintenance shacks, the joint had high dollar security. We showed ID to some serious boys with carbines strapped across their chests to get through a rolling wrought-iron gate.

There were a lot more guns to see before we managed to get inside. Made me a little more nervous than the usual prefight jitters. Must have been some kind of big match on the main card. High rollers always came in for a name. Pros got banned for participating in warehouse fights, but retired Pros. . . They made my yearly salary at Global InsureCo just to show up, much less win the fight.

The "locker room" featured stainless steel tables, ceramic tiles with big floor drains, and smelled like fossilized cow shit and blood. They used to process incoming Australian beef before the business dwindled away like the dodos' gene pool. Not the best place for prefight morale boosting. Shaka and I had our own room, at least. My first fight had been in a gutted strip mall with three fighters crammed into a crumbling Gap changing room.

Two mismatched straight-back chairs that looked like they'd been stolen from the dining rooms of high-end homes were the only furniture in the room. Shaka and I sat facing each other and I held out my hands, palms down. He chanted and tapped my hands with a knot of cheesecloth containing a mixture of crushed ginger, shards of decayed granite, tulip petals picked under moonlight, and my own blood.

A relatively small spell in the hierarchy of magical shit, the ward protected my knuckles the same way heavy tape protects a boxer's knuckles. Every warehouse fighter used this type of ward. Promoters made it mandatory. It didn't damage the other guy; it just kept you from shattering your hands on his skull. The crowds seemed to love it. Maybe the illusion of a bareknuckle brawl took them back into some primeval place where we still ate our meat raw.

"Remember, don't strike with a striker. Stick to your fight," Shaka said.

"What am I, an idiot?"

"I'm currently using magic to keep your skull intact because you insist on fighting for money," Shaka said.

"Yeah, okay."

A rapid knock on the door signaled I was up next.

I did a quick set of twenty-three pushups. This finished Shaka's ward on my neck. The raw magic prickled the hair on my arms. The ward basically gave me the neck strength of a gorilla, which made me hard to knock out.

Shaka yanked open the door and led me down a long hallway to an open warehouse space decked out with real tables for high rollers. The rest of the crowd sat in bleachers instead of folding chairs, and I climbed into a standard boxing ring through real ropes and not cheap dog chain or worse. At my level, fighters got a hundred bucks to show, a grand for a win. Not really high roller entertainment, so there must have been a big card following the early fights.

For once, I outweighed my opponent, so he got to choose what we wore for the fight. He went for shorts and tank tops. A striker had a big advantage against me if I could only grab slippery skin to secure a takedown. I wasn't even sure why he'd let me have the slight advantage of the tank top, but I gladly accepted it.

The crowd murmured at the arrival of the second fighter. For a second, I wondered if I'd stumbled into a fight with a big name.

A stocky woman with short-cropped blonde hair climbed into the ring.

Ah shit. That explained the tank top, I guess.

The woman had a flattened nose and puffy scar tissue over both eyes. She wore compression shorts over her muscular legs. She looked like she took the warehouse fight circuit way more seriously than I did. Don't get me wrong, I tortured myself with cardio and jiu-jitsu training to make sure I finished in the money. This girl, on the other hand, looked like she enjoyed crushing faces with her knuckles.

Some people were put off by the fact that warehouse fights allowed co-ed competition. They mistakenly thought the women were at a disadvantage. I once watched a woman with a speed-enhancing spell on her punches beat a dude into a coma in one of these matches.

Shaka held out a toothpick and I put it in my mouth. I tasted honey mixed with herbs, the trigger for the spell on my vision. My opponent had a strength spell onboard. A lemon-yellow haze around her entire body. She also had a soft crimson glow around her neck. A ward against chokes. If I hadn't been such a low level fighter, I'd have sworn someone scouted me and set the woman's wards and hexes solely based on my strengths and weaknesses.

During the introductions she glared at me through her eyebrows, with her head tilted down like a charging bull. The announcer called her Barb the Beast. I believed him, too.

Shaka leaned close to my ear. "Do you see the strength spell?"

"Yeah, of course," I said.

"Take her down quickly if you can. The spell won't help her as much on the ground."

I had time to nod and then the referee waved us to the middle. An older gent with thick glasses, the dirty fighters loved him because he couldn't see past his nose.

"Okay," he said. "I want a good clean fight. No blows to the groin, no eye gouges, no stunning hexes. Go to your corners and come out fighting."

Barb the Beast touched fists with me and I felt a little zing run up my forearms. I walked back to my corner shaking away pins and needles. Shaka's keen eye spotted it.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"I don't know. We touched hands and I got a zinger up my arms," I said.

Ding went the bell.

Barb the Beast charged the center of the ring and I went out to meet her. I heard Shaka tell me to stay away from her, and something else. The last part got lost in the roar of the crowd when Barb hit me in the ribs with a left hook.

There is a limit to stacking spells. Do more than three, maybe four at a time and things start to go wonky. Luckily for me, Shaka had pushed it to four. In addition to my strong neck, knuckle ward, and juiced up vision to see opposing spells, he put some juju on my endurance. Probably the only thing that kept my right lung functioning. It felt like someone jammed a live wire into my ribs. I back-peddled and gasped for breath. Barb the Beast gave me an evil grin.

I circled to her left, which took me past my corner. Shaka cupped his hands and yelled at me. "Damn it, didn't you hear me? Stingers on her fists. Stay outside, work legs."

Stingers. Technically an attacking spell, and therefore illegal. On the other hand the organizers of warehouse fights didn't exactly provide complaint boxes.

Barb shuffled in and feinted with a jab, trying to get close enough to unload a big right. She didn't even have to hit me clean. A good shot to the arm would leave me defenseless on one side for a few minutes. More than enough time for her to dent my skull.

Zigzagging backward out of her range, I told myself to relax. Gauge my opponent. I noticed she didn't have the best striking form. She had a tendency to put her weight on her front foot and reach for me with those big haymakers.

She came forward again and I raised my fists high to get her brain thinking up.

Then I kicked her leading leg as hard as I could. The smack of my foot hitting her thigh made the crowd go Ooooh. Her hands dropped a bit, and I faked a jab at her nose. She yanked her guard back up, and I kicked her left thigh for the second time in as many seconds. She backpedaled away for once. Redness already marked the print of my foot on her quad muscle. It would be deep purple the next day.

We spent the last minute of the round circling each other, feinting with punches and kicks, not really landing anything. I wanted to stay away from the deadening sensation of her hexed punches, and she'd already started to favor her left leg. A few boos drifted down from the crowd and the VIPs at the tables looked bored. The menu promised blood and they wanted it served right quick.

Ding.

I retreated to my corner and sat on the stool. Shaka gave me a drink of water and put his hand over my eyes. I didn't know the words he chanted, but I felt the spell lifting away.

"Hey," I said.

"I don't like that you couldn't see the Stingers. It took some serious magic to hide them. I'm going to put pythons in your arms. Stay away from her punches, take her down and end this. I'm getting a bad vibration from the room," he said. He chanted under his breath and rubbed my arms with oil carrying a heavy floral smell.

I relaxed and glanced at Barb's corner. Her hexman had long, dirty dreadlocks and pale white skin. He wore a leather vest over his bare chest, showing off his ink. One of those guys who insisted on tattooing his body with magic references. Hipster warlock.

The referee gave us a ten second warning. Shaka took the stool and stepped between the ropes. "Look for the choke."

Barb's hexman ducked out of the ring and she bashed her fists together. I thought I saw a wisp of smoke drift up from her knuckles.

At the bell, she came out swinging for my head. Poor form, leaning over her center of gravity, wild looping punches missing my skull by millimeters. I bobbed and weaved like an old-school boxer and waited out the storm. Finally, she had to stop and catch her breath.

The instant I saw a gap in her barrage, I dove at her feet. My right hand caught her behind the left ankle, a clean pick. She went down hard on her ass and I propelled myself forward like a leaping frog.

I slammed into her chest and we rolled over and over, fighting for position. She tried to spin away from me, exposing her back in the process. I latched onto her neck and sunk my heels into the natural hooking spot where thighs meet torso. She thrashed like a giant marlin just pulled from the ocean and damn near threw me off. I managed to sink the choke in deep, but I felt the resistance of the spell around her neck. She stopped struggling and I thought I had it--

Her fist came back over her shoulder and caught me in the right eye. No power behind it whatsoever, but I screamed like someone poked me in the eye with a burning stick. A hive of bees had been kicked over inside my skull and I started to lose feeling in my legs.

Through the fog of pain, I heard Shaka scream one word. "Squeeeeze!"

My brain went on autopilot and I flexed my right arm hard and dropped my left hand behind her head. With the chancery locked, I blocked out the throbbing pain and squeezed. Like a python.

Mr. Dreadlocks was no match for Shaka's magic. The spell on my arms crushed her defensive ward inward against her neck. I felt Barb go limp beneath me. The old referee lifted one of her hands and dropped it. It flopped on the mat like a dead fish. Out cold.

He waved me off and I let go of the choke.

Now the tricky part. The rules said the winner had to be able to stand under their own power at the end of the fight. My legs had gone completely dead. I kept my knees locked and used my arms to lever myself into something like a bent-over yoga pose. I pushed off the canvas and wobbled. . . but stayed upright.

The bell dinged over and over and the crowd let out a cheer.

Mr. Dreadlocks slipped into the ring and ran at me. His right hand made a loose fist and I knew he had something in there. Whatever it was, it would be nasty. I barely had strength to stay upright. I would never avoid his hex--

An open hand twice the size of mine slapped the hexman on the chest and he flew backward. White dust fell from his hand. He bared his teeth like a wild animal, but he didn't jump back up. Magic or no magic, Shaka was a big dude. He glared down at the hexman.

"You bring the ash of stolen bones here? I can overlook the Stingers, but this is a foul thing. If I see your scraggly ass again, hippie magician, the ash will be made from your bones," Shaka said.

"Yeah, your bones," I said.

Probably would have been cooler if I hadn't started to fall over. Shaka caught me like a baby, which completely ruined whatever street cred a Customer Service rep has in the first place.

To enhance the whole experience, the elevator was out of order when I got home. I lived in my sister's place on the tenth floor. By the first landing, my thighs and hamstrings quivered and threatened to go on strike. Barb the Beast had turned me into a damn toddler. Shaka even drove me all the way home, rather than drop me at the bus stop. He was afraid I'd get mugged in my weakened state.

After taking forty-five minutes to climb nine more floors, I didn't disagree. I fumbled my chip against the door lock and staggered inside--and was immediately attacked.

By a five-year-old windmill of fury.

My nephew Joshua came to the dojo with me most evenings because my sister worked nights as a waitress uptown. Joshua loved to mimic the "joo-joo-zoo" techniques he saw me practice in my Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. After my fight with Barb-of-the-sparkly-fists, he had no trouble hitting a pretty clean double leg takedown on me. Damn. Taken down by a preschooler.

Suzi had a rare night off, so she had made dinner for them earlier. I smelled onions and roasted garlic, along with the light airiness of Suzi's homemade tortillas. She stood in the postage-stamp sized kitchen, rattling pots and pans in the sink with a fury only she could convey through dirty dishes.

Though we both got our height and lean build from our father, she inherited our mother's ability to arch an eyebrow in a way that made grown men confess their sins. She didn't have to say it. She knew by looking at me what I'd been doing. We'd had numerous loud conversations about me fighting on the side. Truthfully, we needed the extra cash, but Suzi hated what I did for it. "What do I tell Joshua if you get your head caved in some night?" was a question I never quite found an answer to.

From my position on the floor, I faced the arched eyebrow of doom and said, "You should see the other guy."

Suzi took a deep breath and opened her mouth. . . and shook her head, not in defeat, but in weariness. She went back to rattling pans in the sink.

"Tio, did you win?" Joshua said.

In answer, I dug the prize money from my pocket. "Give this to Mommy for the savings account."

Joshua took the wad of money with wide eyes and carried it into the kitchen. "Mommy, it's like a million dollars."

Man, sometimes I miss being able to see the world through a kid's eyes.

"Yeah, we wish," Suzi said. She knelt and dug around in the cabinet under the sink, removing a loose board behind the cleansers and trash bags. The money went inside a hidden coffee can with the rest of our "side" money. Her tips and my winnings. "I think your Tio nearly got his block taken off for about a thousand dollars," she said.

Sitting on the floor with Barb's punches still ringing in my skull, I got a little defensive. "Yeah? How much did you make in tips last night?"

Suzi's knees cracked like warning shots as she stood. She marched across the room and loomed over me, fists bunched against her hips. "It may not be much, but all I have to do is smile at the customers and get their orders right for those tips. No one is trying to K-I-L-L me."

"Hey, no one is trying to--" I glanced at Joshua. "Do that."

"Then why does your grade school friend have to use black magic to protect you? It's like you don't even care how I feel, or how important you are to Joshie, or--"

"Hey, can we do this later?" I said.

I already knew the argument by heart. We didn't really need to have it again, but I owed her, so I usually let her vent, no matter how many repeat episodes I had to endure.

Her ignorant husband Isaac got mixed up with people trafficking in black arts, selling hexed never-miss guns, cursed sticks that cut like blades. People in his line of business rarely see old age. Soon enough my sister became a single mother raising a little boy who would never know his father. I got it. I felt her heart. We even had our own familial skeleton in the closet. Our grandfather died when we were young, and our parents always acted ashamed whenever the topic came up. Rumors of black magic and ugly deals swirled around Gramps, but speaking to our parents about it had been strictly forbidden.

Even with all that baggage, all the warning signs, I couldn't stop. Something drove me, and Suzi knew what it was.

I watched my parents work themselves into early graves, plowing the same row their whole lives, the traces tight over their necks. They tried their best. They worked hard, scratching and clawing to keep up with the rent and the grocery money needed to raise two kids. All the while listening to all those whitebread cocksuckers from uptown talk about how lazy "those people" were in that neighborhood. Suzi got married and escaped. She thought. She chose poorly in the man category. So she wound up in a one-bedroom apartment with her no-good brother sleeping on her couch because we couldn't make it on our own. We were scratching and clawing for the rent and grocery money. . . You get the idea.

The day of Joshua's fourth birthday party, I formed The Plan.

The Plan involved me making enough money to get us into the suburbs and put the little guy in a decent school. Get a place where my sister wouldn't have to fight the cockroaches for possession of our meager pantry, in a neighborhood where it always smelled like fresh cut grass and kids drank cool water from the hose.

Suzi saw it in my eyes and relented, but she still gave me the Mom Eye until I had to look down at my rough hands. "What do you want me to do?" I said. "Something has to give. Something has to go our way."

"All we can do is keep working and moving forward," Suzi said. "You can't leapfrog all the hard stuff with magic. It only complicates things. Look at Isaac. Look at Pops. We need you. Me and Joshie."

She riffled my hair, which she hadn't done since I was twelve. "Now go get cleaned up. I'll warm something up for you."

I held out my hand. "Little help? My legs aren't working so good."

Immediately, the hard façade fell away and big sister feelings kicked in. Suzi knelt next to me and took my face in her hands. "What's wrong? How bad is it?"

"No, no. Nothing permanent. I'm just really weak. Took a lot out of me."

Her eyebrow did a slow curl upward.

"I promise. I'll be fine in the morning," I said.

She helped me stand and watched me wobble before I gained my balance. "I'm seriously considering smacking you upside the head," Suzi said.

Joshua ran over and took my hand, saving me a smacking for the moment.

"Tio, will you read to me tonight?"

"Of course," I said. "I'll read one of your mom's mushy looooove books."

"Ewwww," Joshua said.

"Hey, maybe if more boys would read romance novels they wouldn't grow up to be knuckle-draggers like Uncle Eduardo," Suzi said.

"Wha-- How dare you! Uncle Eduardo is awesome, huh Joshie?" I said.

"Yeah!" Joshua said.

And really, who can argue with a five-year-old?

No matter how good it felt, I hated to spend money on a massage. That's a bag of groceries right there, but Barb the Beast left my neck and back so stiff I couldn't look to the side without turning my whole body. The second Suzi saw me moving like a zombie she insisted I either get a massage or see a chiropractor. The massage was cheaper.

Don't get me wrong; I didn't exactly hit a luxury spa for the day like Daddy Warbucks. I went to one of the cheap parlors known more for the climax of the massage than anything else. The young Thai woman who led me into the room was only too happy to dig her elbows into my knotted back and neck muscles instead of giving some fat old dude a happy ending. After she brutalized my major muscle groups for a half hour or so, she hit a spot that caused a crackling chain reaction in my spine. It started at my tailbone and traveled all the way up to reverberate inside my skull. My entire body relaxed for the first time since Barb popped me in the ribs with her Stinger spell. I had slept maybe three hours the night before, tossing and turning on the pullout bed with my neck jolting me every time I made a poor decision. Like breathing.

The sudden release of tension reminded my body how exhausted it was. I made a token effort to fight it, but the girl ran her thumbs up the back of my neck to the base of my skull and my eyes rolled up in my head like she just injected heroin straight into my brain stem. Once my eyelids shut, I couldn't really find a good reason to open them again. I dreamt psychedelic visions of Barb the Beast, her arms four feet long, dancing around a boxing ring on top of the Global InsureCo building with Shaka chasing after her. A young girl rode piggyback on him, slashing at Barb with a long silver sword.

I can't say how long I slept, but at some point the sharp smell of steel and gun oil perforated my dreams. Someone with a really cold, hard finger tapped my forehead and I managed to peel my eyes open.

It took me a few seconds to focus my vision and recognize the gaping black hole at the business end of a sawed-off shotgun about three inches from my nose.

"How do? Ya'll just stay put, okay?" the guy with the shotgun said. He seemed polite enough. From my position on the cheap plastic massage table, he looked very tall. Gaunt face and bad teeth. He wore a painfully clean powder blue Western style suit and his cowboy boots were spit-polished to a mirror shine.

"Mister Pierre would like a moment of your time," the gunman said.

I blinked a few times to refocus my eyes and brain. Mr. Pierre sat on the arm of the only chair in the room. My clothes lay neatly folded on the chair itself, just as I'd left them. Dressed in a pinstripe suit the color of a thundercloud, he swung his legs like a kid sitting on a high chair.

He looked to be about four feet tall, which reinforced the image of a child. Decades' worth of wrinkles carved into his face ruined the illusion. Icy green eyes sparkled from a living topographical map of crinkles and folds, with tiny burst veins marking rivers and streams.

"I commend you, sir. You defeated my boy Duplessis, and now my little swamp beast, Barbara. For a Customer Service phone jockey, you are a tough customer," Mr. Pierre said. He had a surprisingly deep voice. His accent made me think of antebellum mansions and creeping kudzu vines.

"Um. . . thanks," I said. The shotgun barrel still dangled over my forehead, so politeness seemed the way to go.

"The Duplessis fight cost me more than you can imagine," Mister Pierre said.

"It was a lousy thousand-dollar fight," I said.

"Thousand to you. I had a hundred grand on my boy to finish the fight in the first round."

"Oh. Well, still. . . I can't help it if he got beat."

"He says you enchanted his jacket, that's why you chose to wear them," the little man said. "He heard you chanting the spell when you hit the ground."

"That's crazy. One, I wear a mouthpiece when I fight. Not exactly conducive to chanting spells. Two, I don't know shit about magic, except where to buy it," I said.

"Sure, I know that." Mr. Pierre hopped off the chair and tapped a finger on the shotgun barrel hovering above my nose. "The money part doesn't bother me. I could drop that much on the sidewalk and not notice it. However, there were higher stakes afoot. I was getting my boy ready to fight a Smoker. And they will only fight a man who has not known defeat."

Ah shit.

Smokers are nasty things. Brimstone demons temporarily housed in flesh just for the purposes of entertaining someone. Big, big money and maybe not a little blood had to be doled out in the darkest of places. I couldn't imagine paying off a spell like that in my lifetime, no matter how many jobs I worked.

"If I could beat Duplessis, no way he had a chance against a Smoker," I said.

Mister Pierre smiled at me. "That's precisely what I was thinking. You're a good grappler, son. Did you know God Himself was a grappler?"

"Sunday School was never my thing," I said.

"In the book of Genesis, Jacob wrestles God to a standstill, and God blesses him and renames him 'Israel.'"

"Interesting," I said. (When you have a gun to your head.)

He pushed the shotgun barrel aside and retrieved something from his jacket pocket. A fine silver chain dangled in front of my eyes. It held a silver locket in the shape of a heart. Not the Valentine-crush one, but the one with all the veins and shit.

"There is a shaman in your fair city. He communes with the underworld like none I ever met. If I can bring him a fighter who can defeat a Smoker, I stand to receive great reward. The wager is a human soul against a hundred more years of life," Mr. Pierre said.

His beady eyes shined, as if he already had those years in hand. "Can you imagine? Another century to build upon the wealth I've already amassed. My children's children and generations after will want for nothing."

"You'd bet your soul on it?" I said.

"No, my boy." One doll-like hand opened the locket. "I'm wagering the soul of my fighter. This once contained a drop of blood from Monsieur Duplessis. And now it will hold a drop of yours."

Mr. Pierre pulled the shotgun back down to rest against my forehead. The gunman grinned with his scraggly teeth.

"I'm sure you'd love to help your sister and her darling boy by doing me this little favor. If you win, I'll make sure you have enough money move to the suburbs like a good middle class drone," Mister Pierre said. Tap, tap, tap went one manicured nail against the shotgun barrel.

"You said yes?" Shaka glared at me like I just told him I got his sister pregnant.

"It seemed like a good alternative to a twelve-gauge lobotomy," I said.

"Depends on your belief system."

We sat on the sprung couch in Shaka's claustrophobic office.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Whatever you imagine as an afterlife, it might have been better to go there than where your soul's gonna be if you lose that fight."

That made for an uncomfortable silence. I got up and paced around the sticky remains of a power circle drawn on the floor in chicken blood, leftover from the customer preceding me. I spotted some lilac and three white rose petals in a cup. "Looks like a youth spell, maybe? Somebody getting ready for a class reunion?"

"You officially hang out here too much," Shaka said.

I looked at my old friend across the power circle. "If I win, it's a lot of money. I can get Suzi and Josh outta here. Dude, you know I never ask for personals. . . But I need a favor here."

"You want me to help you fight a demon."

"No, I want you to make my shit smell like rosewater," I said.

"You can't afford that. We should stick to the fight."

Shaka dug through his personal library, a pirated segment of bus station lockers spilling over with scrolls, ledgers, and journals written by magicians long dead. The scroll he opened looked suspiciously like dried skin, but I didn't ask. The writer had used hooks of ink and smears of blood, sprinkled with glittering dots of who-knows-what to tell the story.

"What the hell is that?" I said.

"It's a tale of a human fighting a Smoker. It didn't end well for the human," Shaka said.

"Oh. . . awesome," I said.

My phone chirped, reminding me the rent still depended on my job, and I was going to be late. Shaka insisted on putting a couple of protective wards on me before he would let me leave. I offered him money and he smacked me upside the head.

The mystic protection Shaka laid on me did freaky things to my vision. Maybe he was trying to help me spot potential assassins or something. After I got to work and settled into my cubicle, I saw Tobias Stentz, Customer Service Manager, on his dais above us. For the first time, I didn't feel like his eyes were only on me. They jittered from side to side in his head, vibrating back and forth to let him see all of us simultaneously. It made me a little nauseous.

The moment I logged into my computer and pulled up my queue of pending calls, one of my lines flared red. Global InsureCo had spells on their phone system to monitor the mood of customers. Nowhere in the world has red ever symbolized a cheery mood. I punched the button.

"Global InsureCo Customer Service, this is Eduardo. How may I help you?"

"Eduardo Valenzuela?" A male voice, deep and gravelly. It sounded distant, through a steady hiss of interference. We never had reception issues at Global InsureCo. A giant satellite dish and a sacrificial altar on the roof made sure we didn't.

"Sir? I think we have a bad connection," I said.

"This fight is for your immortal soul, Eduardo. Do not take it lightly."

I shot a guilty glance at Tobias Stentz, Customer Service Manager. For the first time ever, Tobias's eyes were looking in another direction. Who the hell did I have on the phone?

I cupped a hand over my mouthpiece and whispered, "Listen, whoever you are, I'm at work and I need this job, so--"

"Humans will call your opponent forth from the pit. They name him Bazelroth. But the root of his heart contains the tortured soul of Achilles. Remember this." The hiss and pop on the line got so bad I thought I'd lost him.

"I don't get it," I said. "Who are you?"

"Someone who wagers on the struggles of man."

And then it all went away. No static, no pops, no words. My entire system went dark. My screen blinked and my computer slowly booted up again. The eyes of Tobias Stentz, Customer Service Manager were back on me, so I answered the next call out of reflexive habit. Tobias wouldn't exactly authorize me to take an early break because I thought I had a call from across the Great Void or whatever.

It took an entire day of angry curses spat into my earpiece to make my skin stop crawling. Five on the dot, I was out of my chair. I avoided my coworkers on the elevator and slouched down the stairs like a wayward shadow.

I sat in the last seat on the bus and tried to calm my mind. Deep forest-y thoughts and all that. But the voice wouldn't let me slip away. It kept pushing back into my thoughts like an annoying drunk at a party.

It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out I wasn't smart enough to figure things out on my own. I needed some magical advice. Or at least someone to make me feel better. There was only one person who did both. My finger trembled as I dialed Shaka's number. I told him about the mystery caller and heard hollow rattling on the other end of the line.

"What was that?" I said.

"Knuckles of a dead man. You need all the help you can get, son," Shaka said.

"So you're saying that call was a good thing."

"None of this is good," Shaka said. "Those on the other side who wager on the struggles of man don't think in terms of a single fight in a warehouse. They watch family trees, bloodlines, ancestor after ancestor, betting on the fortune or misfortune of generations."

"Somebody's betting on my family tree? Cool," I said.

"As my granny would say, 'Boy, your head is all skull.' Not cool. If someone is betting for you, then someone is betting against you as well, no?" Shaka said.

Before I could think of a witty comeback, I heard a familiar hiss and pop of static and the line went dead. In the next second, the interior bus lights sputtered, went brown, and then went out completely. The driver coasted to the curb and everyone groaned. Another outage. The new electric buses the city bought last year were for shit.

Everyone filed off while the driver used his sat-fone earpiece to call it in. There were curses and groans when he announced another bus would arrive in an hour to pick us up.

I was eleven blocks from home, in a neighborhood with not too many bars on the windows. Not the worst situation. I thought about running the distance to get in a little workout. My shiny lace-up shoes didn't really support that notion. Getting a cab was out of the question. The Budget said so. And The Budget was a big component of The Plan.

Time for a long walk.

By the time I got home, I had sweated through one of my classic Thom Brown shirts.

"Yuck," Joshua said when I entered the apartment.

"Agreed," I said.

While I showered, I went through the many possible excuses for not being able to babysit Joshua Saturday night. I settled for work. Stupid idea, of course. I'd worked at Global InsureCo long enough for Suzi to know they didn't pay overtime. For any reason. Hex, curse, or high water, no one worked extra hours at GIC.

This set off a savage whispered fight in my room while Joshua watched television a few feet from the door. I couldn't exactly tell my sister the real stakes of the fight. It was just another get-rich-quick scheme in her mind.

She jabbed an accusatory finger in my face and said, "You're just like Isaac and Gramps. You want a magical solution that lets us retire to Paradise. It ain't gonna happen!"

She got so mad I think she wanted to scream, so she left the apartment. My solution to those arguments had always been to exhaust myself at the jiu-jitsu studio and come back home after everyone fell asleep. Suzi liked to go to the dollar cinema four blocks from the apartment and sit through movies. Didn't matter what movie. The cleanup crew knew her and let her sit through as many showings as she wanted while she decompressed.

That left Joshua and me to a bachelor's night, which neither of us really minded. We heated mac-n-cheese in the tube and dumped it into two big bowls. I fried up a couple of pieces of black-market bacon (the real shit, not gov-bacon) and crumbled it into our mac. We watched an animated movie about rampaging dinosaurs outfitted with human brains by an evil scientist. One of them had a growling way of speaking that reminded me of Barb the Beast.

Joshua faded about halfway through, but he'd seen the brainy dinos probably ten times so I just let him doze. I watched him take long, easy breaths. The sleep of the innocent.

I turned off the movie and carried Joshua to bed. I can admit I got a little weepy holding him in my arms. I don't think I'd ever doubted myself more than I did right then. Was I taking the lazy way out with these warehouse fights? Should I get a second job and just kept on grinding like Mom and Dad?

It was warm in the apartment, so I laid Joshua on top of his covers. He settled into his pillow and opened his eyes just a crack.

"You gonna do joo-joo-zoo tomorrow?" he said.

I put my hand on his head and smoothed his hair. "Yeah, buddy. I'm gonna try, anyway."

He took my hand and held it against his chest as his eyes slipped closed. Standard routine whenever I put him to bed. He wanted me to stay until he fell asleep. Even though my sister was trying to get him to go to bed on his own, I always gave in. I sat there and listened to his breathing get slower and slower until his grip loosened. When I tried to slip my hand away, Joshua clamped down on it and his eyes opened wide. His gaze wasn't sleepy, but crystalline, sharp, in a disturbing way.

"Wanna hear my story from Sunday School?" he said. He and Suzi went to church every Sunday. I went mainly on Easter and Christmas. I mean, those are the biggies, so I figured that's where God likes to see a big home-team turnout.

My scalp tingled and my hands got cold and clammy. I really, really didn't want to hear the story for some reason. I got the feeling I already knew it. "You should close your eyes and go to sleep, buddy. Mom'll be home soon and you know how she is about bedtime."

Joshua went right on as if I hadn't spoken.

"Ms. Babbitt told us a man named Jacob wrestled God one time, and he did so good that God blessed him and named him Israel."

"Yeah. . . Yeah, I think I heard that story before," I said.

"She told us Jacob's name means 'heel catcher.' Isn't that funny?"

"Real funny. Now you go to sleep, buddy boy."

I kissed him on the forehead, and he was fast asleep by the time I pulled away. I sat on his bed for a long time, fighting a feeling of doom and depression. Somehow I'd brought a bunch of weird shit to my family's doorstep.

By the time Suzi came home, I was emotionally wrung out. I simply hugged her and held on until the stiffness and anger bled out of her body. At some point she realized I had tears running down my cheeks, and big sister mode kicked in. She held my face in her hands and smiled at me.

"You're not like Isaac or Gramps, okay? You're trying to help all of us, not just yourself. There's a big difference there," she said.

"I hope so," I said. "I hope so."

Saturday afternoon I rode the bus to Shaka's place to prep for the fight. He opened the door and the first thing I noticed were the deep lines around his eyes. He looked beat. He had a vertical gray stripe painted on his forehead. It looked like ash or maybe mud. I didn't want to ask about the crusty brownish-red stuff on his cheeks.

"Hey. What's with the face? You have bad-news-from-the-doctor face," I said.

"I'm afraid I have missed some very important things. Follow me," Shaka said.

He led me to a closet door. He opened it and my gut clenched. The white walls of the closet were spattered with bloody handprints and squiggly lines drawn with fingers. Once I looked at it long enough, the squiggles coalesced into something I recognized. A tree.

"Uh, where did all the blood come from?" I said.

"A girl I know. She's a virgin. Sells her blood to those who have need of it."

"Yech," I said.

"It's all very sanitary. Her sister is a nurse. She pulls the blood in vials, just like at the doctor's office," Shaka said.

I tasted the rich mineral-y smell on the back of my tongue. "Still, yech. So, a tree?"

"It's your blood tree, from your grandfather's branch. I had to commune with. . . some unsavory elements to get this."

The lines carved around his eyes became more significant. He'd been in the midst of some very strong and very dark magic. What must this have cost him? "Hey, dude, you shouldn't have done that."

"Boy, how you gonna say that to me? You're my friend. Always have been. That's the way it is. If you saw ten guys kicking my ass, would you jump in?" Shaka said.

"Of course I would. We'd get our asses handed to us, but yeah," I said.

"Exactly."

Someone knocked at the door and I flinched like a nervous cat.

"Do me a favor and answer it," Shaka said.

I opened the door to find a young girl, maybe twelve. She had blond pigtails and pale skin some people like to call "porcelain." She wore a burgundy sweater hanging loose off one shoulder, and a white pair of those girl-pants that stop at the calf. Old-school high top sneakers swallowed her skinny ankles.

"Uh. . . Can I help you, sweetheart?" I said.

"I look like your freakin' sweetheart?" the girl said. "Move it, kid, I don't have all day."

She pushed past me and stood in the center of the room. Her perfect button nose inhaled the rich air of the office. "Shaka, you bad boy. Do I smell virgin blood in the air?"

Shaka laughed and leaned down to give her a hug. "Purchased fairly, I assure you."

The girl gave me the critical eye. "Does he understand what's at stake?"

"He's beginning to," Shaka said.

"You don't need to talk about me like I'm some dumbass kid who can't understand your big words," I said. The girl snorted and rolled her eyes. Sarcastic little shit. I got the feeling no one in her class liked her.

"This is my friend Andrea," Shaka said. "She, uh, knows about the kind of magic required to extend one's life beyond the natural span of humanity."

I reexamined Andrea and her nasty smirk. Her eyes. They revealed her. The irises were gold-flecked emeralds, but with a telltale white line of arcus senilis around the edges. I saw fault lines in the skin, little wrinkles here and there a young girl shouldn't have.

I said, "I've heard of people doing things to look younger, but nothing like. . ."

"I didn't want to look younger. I wanted to be younger. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn't smart enough to consider the details in the contract. Younger is exactly what I got," Andrea said.

"How long ago?" I said.

"Forty-eight years. It cost me the life of my husband. Blood sacrifice."

"Holy shit," I said.

"Meh. He was cheating on me with his receptionist, and on her with a waitress." She grabbed my chin and turned my head like someone buying a farm animal. "Understand what's really happening here. You're the male branch of a blood tree rooted in your grandfather's death during a black ritual. If your life ends in an act you knowingly commit, like a duel, suicide, or one of your Neanderthal fights, great power can be exchanged on the other side."

She reached into a pocket on the front of her sweater and produced a handful of fine red powder. I hadn't even noticed the sweater had a pocket. She cast the powder up into the air and her delicate wrists flexed while her fingers danced in a certain pattern. She muttered some grating words and the air in the room grew thick with magic. The cloud of powder whirled and coalesced into a tree like the one Shaka drew in blood. The last two branches fizzed and smoked like the 4th of July.

"The blood tree begins with your grandfather's death. He attempted to open a bad, bad door and attracted the sort of attention no human wants," Andrea said.

"My parents said he died of emphysema," I said.

The misery in Shaka's eyes looked fresh and bright. "I am led to believe he was driven to suicide by the demons he contacted. It opened your blood tree to influence from the other side."

I felt as if I'd become a statue of myself. Carved out of rock or wood, filled with emotional numbness, a complete lack of connection to feeling. Driven to suicide. Holy shit. Was I driven into these fights? Suzi was too strong, but I was looking for a way out, already in the mindset needed to push me there.

"In your case, we think there's another side at play. Your mystery caller," Andrea said.

"Someone wants me to win?" I said.

Shaka shook his head. "Don't ever think a power from the other side is being positive. It's more like. . . they want to see the other side lose. And that's not quite the same."

"So whoever this is makes a phone call? I could think of better ways to help," I said.

"I believe. . . they have already done just that," Shaka said. He glanced at Andrea.

"Spill it," Andrea said. "We don't have time for niceties."

I saw embarrassment in Shaka's eyes. He didn't quite meet my gaze.

"Maybe I should have told you," Shaka said. "I've always felt the difference when I use magic on you. It works for everyone, provided I do my job properly. With you. . . I believe the magic likes you better. In fact, at times I think it loves you. I feel stupid. I should have dug deeper, wondered why. I just saw it as a gift you had and left it alone."

Andrea produced a fat blunt from her voluminous sweater pocket and lit it.

"Should, uh. . . Should we be smoking out before the fight?" I said.

"You shouldn't," Andrea said. She took a long hit, held it for a moment, and exhaled a skull made of smoke. She flicked a finger and the skull piffed into nothingness.

"Pay close attention," she said. "When your grandfather killed himself, someone 'over there' won a bet. Shaka and I have peeked into some dark corners, and we both agree this entity is looking to do it again with you. However, even in the spiritual world, for every action there is an opposite reaction."

She toked again and blew another smoke object. A cross with a loop on top. The ankh. Ancient symbol of life. It slowly dissipated like any other cloud of smoke.

"Not an equal and opposite reaction, just opposite," Andrea said. "It makes for a fine game, see? Someone laid claim to the power of your death, and someone else decided to take the bet. This second entity gifted your blood the day you were born. Probably as more of a joke than anything else. Never believe anything over there really wants to help you."

"But. . . I work in Customer Service, man! What could my death possibly gain someone--or something--on the other side?" I said.

"You can't use the human definition of value. This is beyond human understanding. It might mean a shift in a certain plane of existence, or casting a larger shadow over a number of human souls, which translates to power and status. Or it could all be for a laugh. We're just toys to those on the other side. Now shut up for a second," Andrea said.

She jumped to her feet, her eyes narrowed to slits now that the sticky had taken hold. She slipped her hand into the never-ending pocket on her sweater and came out with a tiny silver dagger. The double edges of the blade were sharp as scalpels.

"This might be a little bloody," Andrea said.

"Uh. . . How much blood, and whose again?" I said.

"You know what an exorcist is?" Andrea said.

"Yeah, a priest who--"

"Eeehhhhh." Andrea buzzed me. "Wrong. An exorcist is any human who has the ability to evict demons from human hosts."

"Okay, so?" I said.

"We're gonna make you an exorcist," Andrea said. "And you can't make an exorcist without spilling a little blood."

The fact that her eyes were as shiny as her blade bothered me.

I think I gave up about a pint of blood. Hard to tell when it's being spilled into tiny hammered gold cups instead of a test tube. Even though I grew up in a world filled with magic, my eyes still didn't want to believe the portal Shaka and Andrea opened beneath my blood tree.

Nor did I want to believe the five gnarly little hands reaching out one by one and accepting my golden cups of blood. Shaka and Andrea went through a long invocation with glottal stops and sibilant rasps from some long dead language. They basically asked permission to make me an exorcist. Growls and laughter met their request, but ultimately permission for the spell was given. I got the feeling it wasn't a unanimous vote.

Great. My soul hung in the balance and I had to depend on a weak majority ballot.

The fight attracted high-end money and people who were deeply connected to the roots of magic running beneath the surface of our daily lives. The promoters snagged an indoor arena normally used for horse shows, with high bleachers and fences made of steel pipe to keep the beasts separate from the audience. In the clean, evenly raked dirt ring, there were tables with real linens and heavy crystal glasses for the highest of the high rollers. Given the crowd, a humdrum boxing ring simply wouldn't do. At the center of the show ring, clay and white sand had been packed into a hard oval rising about three feet above the dirt, not unlike a sumo dohyo.

A stable stall served as my locker room. It smelled like fresh hay and recently processed hay. That is to say horseshit. I sat on a wood bench made of raw unpainted planks put together by a carpenter who was clearly drunk.

No weight equalizers tonight. We'd both wear shorts and whatever magical armor we could muster. I heard Shaka and Andrea muttering outside the stall, arguing over which strategy would help me best in early rounds. Andrea said something I wish I hadn't overheard.

"Shaka, seriously, you think this is going past one round?"

They came in with somber faces. Masks of grief for the future dead. Shaka produced a vial and waved it under my nose. The sharp smell of lilac, then green grass, then a hard citrus biting into my nostrils, making my eyes water. Any weakness from the blood loss fled, and my legs pushed me upward of their own accord.

I felt powerful. Invincible Hero. Demon-beater.

"There's a lot of money on you dying in less than thirty seconds," Andrea said. "Let's try to disappoint those people."

Shaka gave Andrea a withering look. He mustered a smile for me. It was scarier than anything I'd seen so far. "We're up," he said.

They steered me through the stables, past a couple more "locker rooms" where fighters waited to do combat. I waded through a humid mélange of charmed ingredients being ground to powder, mixed in oils, or burned. My skin stippled at the feel of the magic flowing all around me. Even so, Suzi and Joshua kept pushing through my thoughts, clamoring for attention. I had to squash emotion down hard, pack it into the darkest recesses of my heart. I couldn't have anything besides my opponent on my mind.

Our footsteps echoed through an entry tunnel and we emerged into the muggy air of the main arena. Three empty stools waited for Shaka, Andrea, and me on my side of the raised sand platform. We followed a plastic runner laid over the dirt and took our position.

The crowd gave me some meager obligatory applause, but I saw several people holding hand-painted signs with curses scrawled in black, along with my name. Just not cool, no matter how you look at it. Poor sportsmanship, that's what it was.

Banners had been stretched across every wall to tell people what they were really waiting to see. White silk splashed with blood that formed constantly shifting letters. I recognized none of the languages.

"Bazelroth," Andrea said, as if reading my mind. "The thing's name."

On the other side, I saw a formation of thirteen witchdoctors, six men and seven women, sitting on the dirt floor beside the ring. Hands on shoulders connected them into a single physical being. They wore matching deep blue robes with the hoods thrown back. As one, they rocked back and forth, chanting a power spell for their fighter.

To the left of the witchdoctors, Mr. Pierre sat on a scaled down golden throne. No shit, a real throne. Arrogant sawed-off son of a bitch. His boy who put the shotgun to my head stood behind the throne. The fight promoters didn't allow guns, no matter how powerful you might be in the outside world. My leg muscles twitched with the sudden desire to go pelting across the ring and launch a front kick into that asshole's sternum. He'd probably fold like wet cardboard. Mr. Pierre must have read it in my eyes. He waggled a finger and moved it to touch the silver heart locket he wore around his neck.

A low thrumming, felt more than heard, rumbled in the darkness of the other entry tunnel. The thrumming grew and grew as something approached. It felt and sounded like a thousand Taiko drummers striking together in rhythm with Hell's heart.

The air in the arena took on a thick, powerful feel. Imagine humidity without the moisture, the air somehow clinging close to your body, pressing, pressing. . .

My opponent appeared to a wild roar from the crowd. Servants flanked him, men and women stripped to the waist, thirteen in front, and thirteen behind. Blood ran down their torsos from ceremonial slashes across their chests.

Gi-gundous. That was the first thing I thought. Dude stood at least six-eight, with muscle stacked on muscle. Awesome. They found a 'roid freak willing to rent his body to a demon. I wondered what kind of payment would make that worth it.

No matter how big and strong the human host, the demon inside was still too powerful to truly be contained. The fighter's eyes had gone completely white, and smoke leaked from his pores, which gave rise to the nickname "Smokers."

Shaka leaned in close to me while everyone else watched Bazelroth enter the ring. "During a possession, a body is a vessel, same as a clay pot that holds sacrificial organs. You now have the power to exorcise this demon, if you can break his vessel."

"Break his vessel? That guy is a freaking human brick wall," I said.

Bazelroth's escorts surrounded him. They wiped their palms across their bleeding chests and lovingly stroked the blood into the host's smoking skin. The blood dried instantly into dark slashes reminiscent of combat camouflage paint.

The referee, a slight Japanese man dressed only in loose white cotton pants, stepped into the sand ring. He had no hair on his body. No eyebrows, lashes, not a wisp of chest hair, nothing. His bare upper body told a horror story of blades and hot irons used to scarify his skin with curses and spells. The slit pupils of his eyes gave me the shivers. I don't do snakes. Nope.

Shaka pulled my loose gray hoodie over my head and Andrea clapped her hands over mine, activating the ward over my knuckles. I saw her age in her eyes for the first time. I had to remember she was someone's great-grandmother.

"Don't give up. Remember who you are. You belong here; it doesn't," Andrea said.

I nodded and she broke a capsule under my nose. Lavender and pine rushed into my head, sharp, burning, almost painful. As I watched my opponent enter the ring, every movement now looked odd. He moved like a stuttering old film from the days of steam and coal. It took me a few seconds to realize I was seeing his muscles bunch just before he moved. A fraction of a second to prepare for a punch. I'd take it.

The introductions were a muffled underwater murmur to me. None of it mattered. The names, the rules, the cheers of the bloodthirsty. I stood across from a smoking demon that wanted to harvest my soul. Made me miss Barb the Beast.

At the bell, the Smoker charged across the sand and I skipped to one side to avoid him. Actually, I almost leaped out of the ring. Andrea amped up my reflexes so much, I had trouble controlling them. Bazelroth stalked me across the packed sand, swinging for my head. Between my reflexes and juiced up vision, he didn't come within a foot of landing a shot. I would've closed for a throw or takedown, but I didn't know his strength level. He could simply crush me against his chest if I missed.

I got comfortable with my twitchiness and skipped inside for a devastating uppercut to the liver. It had all the effect of punching an elephant in the ass. Bazelroth smiled at me and smoke curled from his lips. His right shoulder muscles rippled in my magicked vision and I slid away before he even took the shot. His white eyes narrowed and he held his punch. Being the first time I ever fought a demon, I can't really fault myself for not recognizing the danger there. Andrea warned me not to think of supernatural things in human terms. Even with his skin pouring grey smoke, I still thought of my opponent as a man.

Big mistake. A magical being knew how to use the tools of magic better than any mortal.

Muscles in his right leg bunched into lethal coils and I moved to avoid the kick--

Straight into a short left hand he had loaded and waiting. A thunderclap went off inside my skull. Tears ran from my eyes and the cheering crowd swam like a cartoon effect for a dream sequence. My vision became a black box with fuzzy edges. A massive fist appeared through the darkness and I heard an audible crack inside my head. Not a thing you really want to experience. I hoped it was only a bone in my face and not my skull.

I groped blindly and clenched with him, even though I feared his crushing strength. The heat coming off his skin felt like touching a hot sidewalk in the summer. We grappled for position, my training barely holding off his raw strength. He managed to get my shoulders turned and slid behind me. A massive arm locked around my neck and I knew he had me.

In a way, it's a lucky thing demons love pain and suffering above even the taking of life. Bazelroth held the choke just tight enough to make me struggle. He whispered in my ear with a voice like wind through a graveyard.

"I have been promised Acuzena as my prize. Her blood will be sweet."

The son of a bitch said my sister's full name. She started going by Suzi as a kid because she felt like it made her fit in more.

Rage sparked in my mind like wasps made of white light. I clamped down on his choking arm, stepped back and through with my right foot, and went down to my right knee. Strong, but not a grappler, Bazelroth wasn't ready for the counter move. He rolled over my head and I spilled him onto the sand like a smoking fish pulled from the river.

A really, really angry fish with a thirst for my blood.

He leapt to his feet and came at me with a roar that shook the arena. I basically covered my head and used my juiced reflexes to stay alive. Still, he landed bone-cracking blows to my body amid his relentless flurry of wild punches. The ring was only so big and he'd learned to cut me off.

It didn't matter if they called him Bazelroth or Achilles. He was about to kill me.

Achilles.

My head went clear. Like, translucent. I felt as if everyone could see through my skin, the grinning skull beneath, and straight into my brain. That's how obvious the idea seemed to me. I heard Joshua's voice in my head. "She told us Jacob's name means 'heel catcher.'"

I staggered to one side, my legs full of drunken wobbles and zero strength. I went down to my knees, but it changed nothing. Not in warehouse fights. My enemy was allowed to kick me in the head, and he lined up to do it. Penalty kick for the win. The fizzy magic around my eyes caught the ripple in the leg muscles; the foot started to lift, fully committing to the kick. . .

I dove at his plant leg and caught him on one foot with a lot of energy headed upward. I hooked a hand behind his heel and drove my shoulder into his knee. His leg straightened and his ass popped right down on the sand. If my soul and my sister's life hadn't been on the line, I probably would've laughed at the look on the meathead's face.

Achilles might not have known jiu-jitsu, but the ancient Greeks perfected pankration centuries before the world heard of mixed martial arts fighting. He saw the heel hook coming and almost got his foot out of my grasp. I slid in under his leg and managed to lock the front of his foot through the pit of my arm. I locked my grip tight across his shin and shoved my right foot in his belly to keep his leg straightened.

The demon raged inside its borrowed skin. Redness flared around the eyes, traveled down across his chest. Worse than any sunburn I'd ever seen.

He raised a mighty fist and I prayed to stay awake through the pain. The fist crashed down with horrible force and fractured my right femur. I screamed and he screamed with me. Pain and rage.

I pushed against his belly with my left leg instead and wished to be anywhere but right there with coarse sand abrading my skin and my right thigh sending lightning bolts through the top of my skull. I arched my back hard until the top of my head touched the ground and I saw Shaka upside down. It made it really hard for my brain to process his words, until I realized I didn't need to be right side up to hear properly.

"Squeeeeze, you big dummy!" Shaka said.

I put whatever I had left, which wasn't much, into the pressure on the captured foot. Achilles raised his damn mighty fist again, ready to hurtle down like an extinction level event and shatter my femur into bone dust.

POP.

Something let go inside the ankle and I felt slack in the foot. I torqued as hard as I could and heard an even meatier KA-POP.

The Smoker howled, and immediately gray smoke began to boil from his pores. The released heat burned the inside of my arm and my side, but I held on as if my soul depended on it. And then something weird happened. Weird-er, okay? A chill hit me, like I'd left my coat open and stepped outside into a cold winter night.

As if someone made a choice in a video game, my mouth popped open and I started talking. I never meant to say it; hell, I didn't recognize my own voice. The words came out like a rasp file dragged across my tongue. "Bazelroth, return. You are defeated."

I met the tortured gaze of Bazelroth, Achilles, whichever of its many captured souls it chose to use. It looked. . . fearful. I'd only thought of the consequences for my loss. I hadn't really considered whether the other dude might have to pay a price if he lost.

Bazelroth looked like he seriously wanted to un-Friend me, and maybe coil my intestines up in his fist. Unfortunately for him, his time was up. He threw back the head of his host body and roared into the warehouse, the echoes coming back as a thousand screeching voices. Pure black smoke billowed from his mouth, smokestack lightning winking here and there in the inky clouds. The muscular body seized all at once, every muscle firing, the back arching until only heels and head touched the sand.

Like a furious tornado gathering over a trailer park, the smoke expanded into a giant funnel spinning above the nearest spectators. Men and women wearing evening finery cowered under their tables. The funnel of smoke spun faster and faster, wild sparks shooting out to burn holes through fancy table clothes.

And then the funnel dove. Straight back at the ring, drawn inexorably to the place that doomed it. The smoke slammed into the surface of the ring and folded and folded until only an oily smudge remained on the sand. The charmed granules slowly erased even that.

Dazed, I looked at Shaka with what I'm sure was my idiot face. "Is that it? Did I win?"

Shaka laughed. A deep whisky-barrel chuckle that made me feel better than any magic spell ever could. Even Andrea beamed a bright smile. It died a quick death, but I will testify under oath to its brief existence.

I forced myself up on my left leg and the bell rang, making my victory official. A burning sensation made me examine myself. I almost passed out when I saw the large translucent blisters on my arm and side. Dizziness hit me and my stomach felt slick and greasy. It took me a second to realize the sand moved under my feet. Little waves, lapping at my ankles.

Ah shit, a hex.

Mr. Pierre's lead hex man, the ugly bastard with dreadlocks, had a palm on the sand. Still linked to the group by touch, he used their collective power to roll some nasty shit through the ring and into my feet.

Unfortunately for those dudes, I had some friends who I was just beginning to realize were very powerful indeed.

Shaka shouted something more akin to a battle cry than a word. In the same instant, Andrea's slim hand came out of her mysterious sweater pocket and she tossed a handful of kids' jacks into the air. Except a jacks set for kids isn't usually made of yellow bone. The jacks arced over my head and I felt ill intent bleeding off them.

Shaka uttered an oath under his breath and clapped his big mitts together, arms locked straight. A shockwave went out over the sand. Once it passed me, it crackled with energy and exploded, driving sand and Andrea's bone-jacks into the faces of the enemy witchdoctors.

Mr. Dreadlocks screamed in agony, one eye ruined for sure. Several of the others suffered similar fates, but not all of them had been knocked out of the game. Six of them stood and began to chant a spell--

"Please stop."

Silence throughout the house. Just like that. Two mellow words hardly spoken above a conversational tone.

A man whose skin had the gray pallor of boiled chicken stood up from a table on Mr. Pierre's side of the ring. His long black hair reflected the lights like he'd had it chromed. He wore a beige kaftan belted at the waist with a simple hank of black cord.

"Good evening, I hope everyone is enjoying the entertainment so far. I represent our gracious host, so do let me know if there is something I can do to enhance your night."

No takers. In fact, even in a crowd of powerful players and hexed up bodyguards, most people avoided his gaze.

The dude strolled through Mr. Pierre's witchdoctors as if he didn't see them. They parted around him, not like water, but like fish afraid of something in the water. His long gait took him to Mr. Pierre in a few smooth strides. Without comment, he reached down and took the silver heart locket. The chain just fell away, with no effort from the gray man. "Our host will of course wish to speak with you."

Mr. Pierre appeared even smaller, as if he had figured out a way to shrink away to nothing in his little boy's suit tailored for an old man.

The gray man turned to the ring once more, as if Mr. Pierre had ceased to exist. And maybe he had. With more of those long, smooth strides, the gray man moved into the ring. Leaving no footprints in the sand behind him, he came to me and held out the silver locket on one open palm. "I believe this is yours."

"Oh. . . Thanks," I said. I picked up the locket and a spike of adrenaline hit my system. He saw my sudden intake of breath and leaned in close. He smelled like lemons and clove cigarettes.

"The magic does love you, doesn't it?" he said. He poked one of the blisters on my side with a manicured fingertip and clear gack ran down my side. It didn't feel any better. I don't think he meant it to.

He glanced over my shoulder at Andrea. "Ms. Danville, I do hope you and your friend can appreciate our host's dislike for displays of--"

"Bite my shiny ass, Elliot," Andrea said. "You could've stopped those assholes easy enough. You just like to watch."

The gray man and Andrea had a short stare-down, but he couldn't stop his colorless lips from turning up at the corners. "You know me so well. Congratulations. Your fighter did a splendid job. I daresay he had some wonderful assistance."

With that, he left the ring and went back to his table. Conversations bled back into the room like capillaries refilling after a shock to the system. Shaka came to me and I read his face easily enough.

"Do I look that bad?" I said.

Shaka shook his head and tried to look reassuring. "Noooo."

"Worse than you think," Andrea said.

I leaned against Shaka with my good side. "This sand has some kinda spell on it to swallow up blood and stuff between fights, right?"

"Most likely," he said.

"Ima give it a try." I leaned down and puked between my feet.

Even with Shaka and Andrea's magical help, it took me months to recover. A cracked orbital socket, broken ribs, a fractured femur, and third-degree burns will do that. Though the bones healed fine, the scar tissue from the burns would never truly be gone. A burn from a demon hooks into the spirit even stronger than the flesh. At least Suzi didn't have to worry about me fighting anymore. The scarring limited my range of motion too much.

A couple of months into my recovery, Global InsureCo sent me a nice letter informing me I had run out of sick leave and my services were no longer needed. You'd think they'd use email for things like that, but the Calligraphers Union had tough negotiators.

Deals with dark magic never seem to work out the way they should. Money is a temporary thing. It goes faster than it comes, more often than not. We got enough from the fight to get a house in the suburbs, but burned through over half of it getting me back on my feet again. At least we had realistic money in the savings account. That represented hope. A chance.

I just had to develop patience. Suzi was right. I couldn't magically hop over the hard work, the grind. So I got yet another job answering phones for yet another conglomo-something-or-other. Suzi kept waiting tables, and we moved forward as best we could, swimming against the current. Joshua kept us going. On the rare days Suzi and I were off at the same time, we'd all go window-shopping at the hardware store, staring in at the lawn mowers and patio furniture, and then Suzi and I would take Joshua to a park twenty blocks away. We'd watch him play on real grass and talk about "someday." We all have a someday, I guess. It took nearly getting my soul ripped out to realize you have to value the right-now just as much, if not more. Because your someday isn't guaranteed.

One evening I shuffled off the bus after work to find a skinny young dude in board shorts and sandals waiting outside my building. He came right toward me, like we had a meeting scheduled. "Hi! Mr. Valenzuela?"

"Yeah. . . Eduardo is fine. Who are you?"

"My name is Alfonse. I, uh. . . I just started fighting not long ago. I heard you were the best, so I wondered if you would train me."

He had a lean, muscular physique and a certain drive in his eyes. He also had a wad of cash in his hand. "I can pay. And I work hard, you'll see. People heard about you, man. Beating the Smoker and all. I know lots of dudes who wanna train with you."

"I had some serious help, man," I said.

"Yeah, but you beat people who had serious help, too. That's what I want."

On second glance, the wad of cash looked pretty big. We reached an agreement and I found myself with something I never thought I'd have. A student. A paying student. Two more like him and I could stop handling miserable complaints in a glass tower fifty blocks from home.

For the first time in months, my sleep was visited by dreams of fresh cut grass and cool water from the hose.


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