It was standing room only.
Cheapest ticket price was fifty smackers. Double that for the raised circle of seats surrounding the cage. They’d come to see what was billed as the last time Irish Eyes would step into an arena anywhere. His light heavyweight opponent tonight was Charles ‘Hatchet Man’ Morrison who had sworn to tear him limb from limb. Morrison was not known for sticking to the rules – no head butting, eye gouging, biting, attacks to the groin or spine, throat strikes, elbow jabs, hair pulling, kidney strikes and a host of others. Morrison ignored most of these and had been banned for a long period. This was his comeback fight and he wanted Irish Eyes’s scalp etched on his belt.
The cage was thirty feet in diameter, fully padded, complying with Mixed Martial Arts rules. It was hot in the privately owned men’s club with two narrow gangways either side of the cage leading to changing rooms with opposite entrances into the ring.
Harry Chance stood quietly at the end of one corridor surrounded by a gang of hangers-on, fans and devotees.
“Thanks for this, Harry,” said Maxie Dixon, the stocky promoter who had his hand on Chance’s shoulder. “The punters have been crying out for the return of Irish Eyes.”
“I retired a year ago, Maxie,” said Chance. “There are some new kids around now, and I’ve got my looks to think about.”
“Morrison’s all noise and nonsense. You’re not worried about him, are you?”
“I’ve fought him before. He’s a dirty fighter.” Chance looked down at Dixon. “I’m doing this as favour to you. Don’t think you can talk me into making a comeback. It’s not going to happen.”
“I appreciate this. I really do.”
“I might ask you for a favour one day.”
“So ask. I can only refuse.” Dixon growled a low laugh then coughed heartily. “No, no, Harry. You know I’d do almost anything for you.”
Chance tapped his fists together encased in four ounce gloves. “Sure, I know.”
“Are the rumours true?” asked Dixon.
Dixon leaned in and spoke quietly so no one around could hear. “That you’ve salted away a king’s ransom, mate: all your ill-gotten gains.”
“I never discuss my business in public, you should know that. You never can tell who’s got their fat ears wagging.”
A fanfare suddenly blasted throughout the club as the MC began his pre-fight presentation.
Harry Chance could feel the excitement building within the crowd. There was a hum of expectation rising to boiling point. Irish Eyes was back for one night only.
Dixon tapped him on the shoulder and Harry Chance strode out into the arena to a swell of applause while on the other side of the cage the Hatchet Man met with a cacophony of booing.
The hall stank of cheap booze and burger fat and a hazy halo of smoke hovered under the ceiling. Chance remembered when he had been the light heavyweight king of the ring. He’d been unbeaten for two years and largely unscathed. He hadn’t got away completely injury free as his ribs and nose could testify. But the broken bones had mended and he only had a couple of small facial scars to show for his time at the top. He quit when he realised he was slowing down and there were faster, stronger and hungrier fighters coming up anxious to destroy him. Besides, mixed martial arts fighting wasn’t his main line of work despite the purses he’d won. No, that was something that certain members of the police force would dearly love to nail him for. He’d replaced fighting as a lucrative pastime since he’d discovered a far more cerebral pursuit.
The two fighters entered the cage. Chance stared at Morrison, heavier by more than a few pounds, hairy and tattooed like a graffiti artist’s worst nightmare. He was bouncing on his toes, snarling and snorting, his bald head gleaming under the spotlights.
The referee recited the rules and the warnings.
The fighters retired to the edge of the cage and the bell rang.
Morrison charged at Chance like a bull with testosterone overload. Chance feinted to his right, swivelled on one leg and danced away from Morrison then stepped in and delivered a vicious left hook that rocked his opponent’s head on his shoulders. Chance moved away.
Morrison charged again and this time Chance could not get out of the way quickly enough. He was driven back onto the cage with Morrison flailing and hooking. Chance locked his opponent’s arms and tried to avoid the illegal head butt. Morrison’s skull nudged Chance’s temple raising a bruise by his right eye.
“I’m gonna rip your fucking heart out, Irish,” Morrison mumbled through a mouthful of blood, “and bite your ears off.”
Chance twisted out of the sweaty embrace and delivered a stabbing two-knuckle strike deep into the pressure point on Morrison’s waist before the heavier man could move.
Morrison dropped to one knee as though electrocuted.
The bell rang but the noise of the crowd was so deafening it almost drowned out the sound.
Chance heard it, turned and walked away.
Morrison could only hear his blood boiling. His ears were buzzing with the tinnitus of hate.
He charged Chance and body checked him into the cage. Chance went down spreadeagled. Morrison charged again and lifted his heel screaming obscenities.
The referee stepped in and dragged Morrison away issuing a warning to the judges.
The crowd was baying for blood.
Chance stood up and stretched his back. He looked out of the cage at Dixon and grimaced.
The scheduled five-round bout had started at a furious pace, and Chance was already regretting agreeing to one more fight for old time’s sake. As he stood there balancing with the weight on his toes he knew for certain he was too old for this game. He had to end it quickly but hitting Morrison flush on the chin had just made him stagger.
The bell rang for the second round and both fighters traded punches early on until Chance shot in for a double-leg takedown that was defended by Morrison. The two men exchanged heavy punches but Chance was dancing away from his opponent and taking most of his shots on his arms.
Chance was the quicker of the two and managed to skip out of Morrison’s path as he came in head first and swinging. Chance jabbed him away.
Chance was panting hard and sweating as the second round came to an end. The bout restarted at the bell and this time Chance deceived the lumbering Morrison with a Tai Chi thunder punch followed by a series of kicks to the waist that put the Hatchet Man down.
It was now or never for Chance. He knew he was running out of steam. He ran and jumped, following Morrison to the ground and methodically grappled and worked himself into mount position. Morrison spat in Chance’s face and attempted to bite his nose then tried a hip escape by sliding along the floor but Chance sucked in a deep breath, sprang into the air and landed with huge impact on Morrison’s chest winding him. Chance landed a series of meaningful punches to the head then locked up Morrison in an arm triangle, garrotting his opponent with his arms and digging two thumbs deep into a deadly pressure point behind his ears. Morrison struggled for breath, bucking and heaving but Chance increased the pressure praying it would be enough to end it. Morrison almost threw Chance off but with his arms and legs locked by the grapple he eventually succumbed to the choke. Chance was sorely tempted to keep the stranglehold going but the referee tapped him hard on the shoulder screaming into his ear above the roar of the crowd.
Chance rose to his feet, breathing heavily as the referee raised his arm in the air as a wave of weariness swept over him. He walked out of the ring and an attendant threw a dressing gown over his shoulders. He half listened to the cheering, chanting crowd as he began a slow shuffle towards the dressing rooms.
He looked up and saw a familiar face in the crowd. Tall, rangy with a flickering, supercilious smile, he was standing but not applauding. It was a face Chance did not particularly want to see.
As Chance reached him Detective Inspector Alan Richards stepped out and stood by his side. Chance stopped.
“Impressive, Harry,” said Richards. “Your fighting ability will come in very useful when I’ve put you behind bars.”
“Good to see you, too, DI Richards. Didn’t think this was your kind of sport. Thought you’d be more of billiards and meat pie man despite your promotion.”
Chance carried on walking and Richards fell into step with him as the slow moving group of well-wishers headed by Dixon approached the tunnel.
“I see you haven’t lost your sense of humour,” said Richards with a twitch of one shoulder. “You’re going to need to see the funny side of things. You haven’t been forgotten. Oh no, matey. You are still on my radar. One day, someone’s going to talk. Someone’s going to point the finger. Someday soon you’re going to make a mistake.”
“I hear you’ve taken up playing cards as a hobby,” Richards said. “Bridge, isn’t it?”
“Am I under surveillance?”
“Like I said, you’re still on my radar. I’m just waiting for you to slip up.”
“Only fighters and staff beyond this point,” yelled Dixon over the clamour staring fixedly at Richards.
“You must be mixing me up with someone else,” Chance told him. “You’ve spent too much time in the sewer mixing with lowlifes, thieves and murderers.” Chance leaned into towards him before he walked away. “It’s you who’s making the mistake, DI Richards. Have a pleasant evening.”
Chance couldn’t wait to pull the gloves off, strip and spend long minutes under the shower. He peered out through the steam at the peeling walls, scratched with the names of fighters past and present; the pale, dangling light with no shade, the lockers dented by so many frustrated fists and he felt nostalgic.
He touched his bruises, stroked his sore ribs and allowed the high-pressure water jet to ease his muscles. His whole body was one big ache. If he hadn’t known it before he knew it then. This had always been just a sideline, one that was well and truly over.
He turned the shower off and wrapped a towel around his waist. The door opened and Maxie Dixon came in.
“Good fight, Harry,” he growled handing Chance an envelope. “Your purse. You deserve every penny.”
Chance took the envelope. “I don’t need it, Maxie but I know some people who do. Thanks.”
“Oh, by the way,” said Dixon, “there’s a bloke outside wants to see you. Says it’s urgent. I don’t normally let the public down here but he knows some faces I know and he looks kosher. You want to see him?”
“Sure, show him in.”
Dixon opened the door and beckoned to someone outside. A large, square man entered. He was wearing a pair of sagging jeans with a tight belt holding up a beer paunch, and an unfashionable overcoat. Dixon left him alone with Chance.
“You wanted to see me?” said Chance, towelling his hair.
He answered in a rough, rural voice. “My name is Charlie, Charlie Morgan. I’ve got a message for you, Mr Chance.”
“Oh yes, who are you exactly?”
“Let’s say I’ve been a guest of Her Majesty for a couple of years. Wandsworth.”
“Okay. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
Morgan shuffled his feet. “No, nothing like that. I’m doing someone a favour is all.”
“All right. You say you’ve got a message for me.”
“Yeah, from Brogan.”
Harry Chance stopped rubbing his scalp and dropped the towel.
“The very same.”
“What’s the message?”
“He wants to see you, Mr Chance. Urgent, like.”
Chance was thoughtful for a moment. “Well, if Patrick Brogan says it’s urgent it must be.”
“Right, that’s it then. I’ve delivered the message so I’ll be on my way.” Morgan looked around the dingy changing room, sniffed then said. “You’ll need this.” He delved into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a piece of scrappy paper, handed it to Chance then turned and left without another word.
Chance sat deep in thought. “Patrick Brogan,” he muttered to himself. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He opened the folded note and saw visiting instructions, Brogan’s prisoner number and visitor order number.
“It’s been years. What do you want with me, Brogan?” he muttered to himself.