“The final round of fighters will be entering the stage in five minutes! Place your bets at the booth, grab a drink, and settle in. This should be the highlight of the night.”
Rosemary Sloan. Jason Sloan. Mulberry Street. Brookline.
I rolled my shoulders trying to relieve some of the tension, allowing the adrenaline to run its course. I had this in the bag. The impending fight isn’t what had me on edge tonight. It was the conversation that would be held afterwards. I cracked my neck as I adjusted the tape encasing my hands, feeling the eyes of my boss’s henchman staring me down. Dominik Black was an intimidating man. Not that he really scared me all that much. The things he could do did, though. He was a powerful man of persuasion and had an uncanny ability to sway just about anyone to do anything. Which was why I was in the position I was now in.
I ripped the roll of tape away from my bandages with my teeth, trying to appear normal. There would be nothing like his men reporting my strange behavior tonight. Black was fickle, to say the least. His mood shifted crazier than the weather most days, and I didn’t want to give him an easy target to take his anger out on.
It felt like it had been forever since my last fight. I needed an excuse to let out some pent-up aggression, not to mention, the money was always good. But what was the money worth when you never lost? I guess I forgot to appreciate the small things somewhere in my torn-up past. I reached up pulled my hair back into a strict ponytail, cursing when I slightly smeared the paint that covered half my face. Old habits die hard.
I started this gig at the ripe old age of sixteen. I guess fighting had turned into a major part of who I am, who I had to become. Nothing like childhood trauma to turn you into something less feeling, less human. Black had found me two years ago, fighting in the same ring I would be fighting in tonight. I was the best. At least, in this section of the Scorpion Underground. I was a robot back in the day. I fought strictly from my anger, used the money to put myself through high school. My foster parents didn’t really care about me or my foster siblings, only the paycheck that came with us. It was up to me to support them and bring food home so they could at least eat something. But fighting in this district was forbidden for underage kids, let alone women. But when I smeared my face with grey for the first time and showed them what I could do, they never questioned me again. Undefeated.
I snapped out of my thoughts when the announcer called out over the crowd, echoing through my tiny room. I stood, and stretched to warm up my sore body that protested against any movement. Bruises in various stages of healing peppered my skin, and the black ink of my tattoos stood out against the tan and blues of my arms.
“Entering the ring from the North corner, standing at six-foot-two, weighing in at one hundred and ninety pounds, we have Bones!” The announcer called, and music began blaring over the speakers. I rolled my eyes. This would be quick. I didn’t have time to play around, and really, I wasn’t in the mood. My opponent entered the ring and shuffled around, gaining momentum from the crowd’s cheers.
“Entering from the South corner, standing at five-foot-six, weighing in at one hundred and seventy-nine pounds, we have our defending champion, Smoke!” After his introduction, there was no cheesy music, nothing to associate me with this place. I wasn’t the type. I come here to fight, and make money, nothing more, nothing less. But the roar of the crowd couldn’t be mistaken. Not that they mattered. They only came here to see blood and violence.
I simply made way into my small corner of the ring, popping my mouth guard into place, and rolling my shoulders one last time. The man across from me sneered, and I rolled my eyes in response as I approached center ring. I extended one hand forward, as did my opponent, the referee joining our hands in a fucked-up union.
“Now, I want to see a clean match. You understand? Are you ready?” He tossed in Bones’ direction. He nodded. The ref then turned to me. “Are you ready?” I nodded. He stepped back two paces. “And fight!”
The beautiful circling began. I shifted my weight equally on the balls of my feet, leaning forward and backwards as I measured Bones up. He was definitely larger than me. If I didn’t know how to fight, he would most likely crush me into the mat. But I did know, and could see the evidence of a prior injury as he bounced forward. He didn’t put much weight on his left side. Probably a torn ACL back in the day.
In my assessment, the man lunged forward to swipe carefully in a right hook. Milliseconds to respond, my body took over forcing me to take a step back in a close dodge. Heavy hitters were easy. They spent more time in the ring trying to get one hit in, that they forget to conserve energy for when the right moment presents itself. The next few moments were spent dodging in and out of unconnected hits and jabs. Sweat dribbled down my face, and I could feel the start of burning in my eyes.
Bones was frustrated. It was plain on his face. I was too fast for him to catch me up. He pushed forward, slamming me into the ropes, his fist connected with my stomach and I winced as I heard the snapping of bone in my ears. The ref slung him off me, but here, there were no rules. Win or lose. I wiped my face against my forearm, and started again with the circling. Bones came forward again, and I slid right. Too rushed, he passed me up. I kicked my leg outwards, spinning on the ball of my foot, and landed a solid blow to his ribcage. Eye for an eye. I could feel his bones give way, causing him to collapse to the mat, clutching his side.
I backed off as the ref began the count. The higher the count got, the crazier the crowd cheered. I didn’t actually hear the ref get to ten, but when the crowd stood clapping and cheering, I knew I had won. In one round. It was too easy. The ref held my hand high for mere seconds before I pulled my arm away.
Bones’ coach entered the ring with a couple of men, cornering the man to check his wounds. I stood silently against my corner, leaned against the ropes for support and ignoring the fact that it was getting harder to breathe.
I gathered my water bottle and my towel, retreated back to the small locker room and pinched the bridge of my nose. The air in the Underground was different tonight. Heavier. Something was going to happen.
“Hey, you.” I looked up to see Sarge staring down at me.
“Yes, Mr. Clean?” I smirked. This man absolutely hated me.
“Boss wants you.”
As if today couldn’t possibly get any worse. I grabbed my duffle bag, knowing I wouldn’t be given enough time to shower and change. Black was an impatient man. No need to stir the beast.
“Sloan!” Dominik Black’s toothy smile grinned as soon as I entered his temporary office. “My favorite moneymaker!”
I dropped my bag at my feet and slouched into the chair directly across from his deck in a huff. “Is there any particular reason why I have been summoned, sir?”
“Do you have any idea how much money you have made me tonight? I’m about a million dollars richer.” He laughed like a kid in a candy store. “And as expected, here’s your slice.”
He reached over his desk to slide an envelope in my direction. I leaned forward and grabbed it, tossing into the opening of my bag.
“Anything else that I can do for you, sir?”
“Well, now that you ask.” He mused. “I have had you in my employment for the past two years, and I feel like I have done above and beyond for you and your needs. But now, I need something from you. My son, Giovanni, will be starting college at Dartmouth this semester, and as his part-time bodyguard, I am giving you a promotion to full-time. You will be expected to attend school next to Gio and keep him safe. Of course, his identity and yours will be classified. I have had my men rounding up fake records for you both.”
“I already have you both registered for the year. Your class schedule mirrors Giovanni’s, so it doesn’t appear suspicious. He wants to play football, of all things.” Black began to ramble to himself, but I still couldn’t make sense of what he was asking me to do.
“Sir, I can’t afford college, let alone an Ivy League school like Dartmouth.” The words poured out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Did I ask if you could afford it, Sloan?”
“No, sir, my mistake.”
“I will expect you to watch your tone in the future.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Now.” He folded his hands together. “As I was saying, I have your classes handled, as well as your living arrangements. It will appear as an administration hiccup, but you will be placed in the same boys’ dormitory as Giovanni, and I have you already signed up for the cheerleading team. Upon your arrival, you will receive a credit card for all your basic needs, including food, and a work cellphone. You may keep your personal phone, and the cellular you receive will be used only for business between you and I. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. Uhm, when do we leave?”
Black looked completely smug and satisfied, like an ugly rat. “One week from today.”
“You’re dismissed, Sloan. Go get cleaned up. You look like hell.” He smirked.
I snatched my bag and followed my escorts out into the parking lot. The mist of leftover rain sprayed my face, and it felt good against my too warm skin. There were too many thoughts swimming around inside my head, making it hard to focus on only one. I approached my street bike, attaching my bag to the back seat. Unlocking my helmet from the handlebars, I straddled the machine and turned the key. It hummed to life with a low growl.
Before I slid on my helmet, I looked up at the half-broken sign to the bar in disguise. It had been my home for nearly five years. There had been quite a bit of blood, sweat, and tears that had soaked into the floor here. Now, I would have to leave that all behind. Starting in a week, I would be a bodyguard in a skirt, but no longer a fighter.
I groaned as a loud buzzing filled my head.
Make it stop.
Realization hit me slowly as I flung out my hand, causing my alarm clock to fall to the floor. The buzzing had stopped and all was right with the world. Not exactly, but a girl could dream. My eyes were hooded as I tried to open them, but they only protested. The sweet release of sleep could wait, not that I really wanted to.
I groaned again as I sat up, cradling my middle, ribs still sore. Once my breathing evened, I forced myself to stand, grabbing for the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on my nightstand and taking a swig. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, standing and forcing my body to let me stretch. I absolutely hate mornings.
I trudged out of my bedroom and hopped onto the tiny kitchen island in the middle of the tiniest apartment ever to be lived in. I didn’t have much. I didn’t need much. A bed, booze, and a minimal amount of food could keep me satisfied. I reached for a tiny bottle of aspirin to my side and winced as my ribs screamed their displeasure. I noticed the overdue bills that had been slid underneath my front door and sighed. At least they wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
I jumped when a loud banging interrupted my thoughts and my eyes shot up. I descended my perch and approached my door cautiously.
“Who is it?”
There was too long of a pause. “It’s Aiden. Open up!”
The tension died down as I swung my door open, my face blank. “What are you doing here?”
“I need a reason to stop by and see you, baby?” His attempt to sound charming didn’t stir any butterflies like it should have.
“I suppose not.” I stepped aside, motioning for him to enter.
He stopped just inside the door and looked straight down at my duffle bags.
“You going somewhere?”
I scanned my hallway before closing my door and turned to see him looking at me with what could have been sadness.
“College.” I stated matter-of-factly.
“You don’t have any interest in college.”
“I don’t?” I crossed my arms. “I’m not really sure you would know me well enough to know my interests.”
“Well, I would like to think that I do.”
Aiden closed the small distance between us and wrapped one arm around my waist. His lips came down to crush mine. It wasn’t really a sweet kiss; it was more of a mind-numbing kind. There was no spark. No passion. Just the clashing of his lips moving in time with mine. His taste was familiar, but did nothing to kindle a fire.
I didn’t realize, but I hadn’t noticed that I had yet to close my eyes. It was slightly irritating the way he noisily breathed out of his nose, and that same breath brushed against my cheek. Normal people didn’t kiss this way.
Be normal, Jaylyn.
I allowed my eyes to close and try to seem like I was enjoying myself. The distant sound of his buckle being unlatched went unnoticed. The way his soft hands felt against my bare hips went unnoticed. His lips left mine, but I kept my eyes closed.
He turned my body to carelessly bend over the counter, using the new position to grind against my backside, his fingers trailing down my back and hooking into the waist of my shorts. He slowly removed them, and I let him, the cold air of my apartment causing goosebumps to rise over my skin.
Aiden cooed his affections in my ear, but they went unheard and unanswered. I never really thought I could do normal, be normal. But, I sure as hell could pretend. The ghost behind me grunted as he entered my body, but I was already gone, three steps ahead. I thought about all the things I would have to deal with by the end of the day. Maybe a change of scenery wouldn’t be so bad.
“I love you so much, Jaylyn.” Aiden whispered in my ear as he finished, but it felt like nails on a chalkboard.
I made quick work of redressing myself, just as he finished buttoning his jeans back into place.
“You don’t make it easy; you know that?” He sighed.
“Make what easy?” I asked.
“I never asked you to love me.” My tone was clipped. My phone beeped just then. I picked it up and Sarge’s number flashed across the screen. “You should go.”
“What?” Aiden tried to reach out to me.
“You should go.” I repeated. “I’m leaving for college, Aiden. I can’t carry you around forever. So, you should go. Find a nice girl and settle down.”
“I don’t want other girls, Jay.” He looked wounded. “I want you.”
“I’m not available. I’m not sure I ever was.” I opened the front door and stared hard at him. “Just go. Whatever this was. It’s over.”
He practically stomped outside, but turned. Before he could get a word in, I slammed the door shut.