Round Three, thirty-seven seconds on the clock. He came at me again, the hundredth time–thousandth? Infinite. Never ending. Sweat poured down my forehead, mingled with the cut over my left eye, stung like a killer bee on a rampage. I refused to let it blind me completely, forced my eye to stay open, blinking some but aware, the oncoming animal hazy. Hateful. Growling.
How many times had we fought, the Growler and I? How many? Awareness of my previous defeat at this hairy beast’s hands receded, tucked into a lead-lined compartment within what passed for my mind, the heavy vault-type door slammed shut, dial spun. My back was against the ropes, not a good place to be. I’d been leaning back hard, the picture of a defeated warrior, nose broken again, mouth breathing, breath coming in great rasping gulps. My legs were lead, feet stapled to the canvas, hands held low because I lacked the strength to keep them up in guard position. I was slowing, weakening, ready to be knocked out again. Again. Shut up! I screamed at myself, inside where all was thunder and chaos, not outside where others could see. At least one bone in my left hand was broken from hitting the Growler so hard. And yet he kept coming, still fast, still precise in his moves, tree trunk legs stumping forward, the certainty of victory vicious in the dark eyes beneath his beetled brow. With thirty-seven wins against just three losses, he remained uncaring whether his notorious kicks, heavy hooks, arm bar or naked rear choke did the job. On the canvas or on his feet, unstoppable, veteran, I.Q. of a carrot except in the octagon where his physical genius was legendary. Not a drop of sweat bothering his vision. No, not him. He was sweating right enough, but that shelf of a monobrow acted like a rain gutter, pouring salt laden pain off to the sides. At least half Neanderthal. All monster.
I was beaten. It was obvious to everyone.
Except me. My trainer knew nothing of my plan. He was a good coach, an excellent coach, but a secret once shared is no longer secret. And I had a secret, a final arrow fitted to my bow, a move I’d practiced away from prying eyes for ten thousand times after studying the films night after night, finding the pattern. The pattern no one else had ever spotted, the pattern I’d missed during our first fight, thinking his moves random, impossible to predict.
The Growler came at me again, going for the knockout, swinging for the fences–and then at the last split second, dropping low to go for the takedown. He never saw my counter move coming. My lunge away from the ropes on spring-powered legs was totally unexpected. War is the art of deception. It threw his timing off. My timing was perfect, a quasi-wheelback to compress the spring, the explosive reverse punch seemingly coming out of nowhere. I couldn’t hit him “straight down” on the back of the head. Illegal, that. Potentially lethal. Which meant I had to crouch and throw in the same motion, tag him at the start of his leg-dive when he was committed and moving but not yet there.
My right fist slammed into the side of his head with freight train force, two fast-moving vehicles colliding almost head-on. He was out before he hit the canvas, belly down, face cranked to the right from the force of my punch.
The arena was dead silent for a moment. Then exploded in applause. People were on their feet, yelling themselves hoarse.
I held position for a long moment, victorious in that overly dramatic movie stop-freeze way, exulting in my heart. Take that, you bastard!
When he didn’t get up, the applause died down. The exultation in my heart wicked away, replaced by horror. Dread. Realization.
I had gone my own way, telling no one my game plan, not even my coach, my best friend, my brother. As a result, I had just murdered a man in the octagon. Even before the doctors, three of them, had finished their examination, I knew the Growler was done. So was I. I would never fight again. Not for sport. Not for my ego. Not for a paycheck. I stood there, oblivious of my brother’s arm around my shoulders as he led me back to my corner and began to towel me dry. He said nothing, nor did I. There was nothing to say. I just stood there in shock, trembling like an aspen leaf disturbed by autumn wind.
Jane found me in the workout room, lifting weights in mindless repetition. She glanced at the clock–3:32 a.m.–and knew immediately. “The dream?” She asked quietly. I grunted and nodded, pushing up 380 bench press pounds without a spotter, letting them back down. Up. Down. Up.
She left without another word, returning a few minutes later in her own workout togs. I grinned, couldn’t help myself, as we stepped onto our matching treadmills. “I’ll take it easy on you this morning, buster,” she said. “Five miles, five percent grade, nothing fancy.”
“Taking it easy on the old man?” Inside joke. She had four years on me.
“Got to. If we’re going by miles, you’re about ninety-eight already. Go!”
The woman beat me by a full thirty-seven seconds and had the nerve to strut around looking barely winded. I was sucking wind down to my toes and sweating like a pig. Wait…do pigs sweat?
“What’s your excuse today, hotshot?”
“I was–(gasp!)–distracted by–(gasp!)–your raving beauty.”
She laughed and headed for the shower, putting a little extra wiggle in her walk as she went. Am I a lucky man or what?
Over bacon and eggs, I told her what I’d figured out and why it was bothering me. “First time I’ve had the dream in nearly a year, hon. Seems to me it was triggered by the body slam I put on ol’ Dotus Grimes yesterday. I mean, taking him out of Cindy Bear’s path was kind of like kicking a fat puppy. Not hardly an even match. But the problem is…the contact felt good. I liked hitting him. And I’m not too sure what that says about me.”
“I know what it says to me.” She passed the toast and patted my hand, all in the same move. “It says if anyone tries to hurt the kids or me, you’ll rip ’em a new one. Big part of why I’m marrying you, you know. Had enough wimpy dudes in my life.”
Well. When she put it that way….
We would have shot right past the Loon Lake turnoff to Dad’s place. That was the plan. When we saw the sheriff’s SUV parked on the shoulder, that plan changed. I eased to a stop and rolled the window down. “Whazzup, Case?”
“Let’s go on down to the wide spot,” he said. “This’ll take a while.”
There used to be a gravel pile there, a mile and a half past Dad’s driveway, a perfect spot for horny teenagers to park, hidden from view. Some kids still used it, but their cars remained in plain sight now. Which meant the smarter youth did their smooching elsewhere. Any vehicle parked there at night these days was likely up to no good. Lots of drug deals. Law enforcement patrolled the area when time could be found. Nine times out of ten, checking out a parked vehicle after midnight resulted in an arrest of one sort or another.
During daylight hours, the space was seldom occupied. As a matter of courtesy, knowing Jane’s distaste for cop car interiors, Sheriff Casey Colton joined us in my truck’s cab, squeezing my main squeeze between us. Not really a tight squeeze, though. The seat was wide enough.
“Jane, did Brian bring you up to speed on my Halloween mask?”
“The Party Faces thing? Yes, he did.”
Casey knew I told Jane everything. He was just making sure he didn’t accidentally talk past her. “Good. Or…maybe not so good. I just got an email from my Sheriff buddy down in Louisiana. He thinks at least one of those masks may already be criminally active.”
“A local convenience store got hit. Not a chain. A mom and pop store. Night clerk was relieved of the till money, then shot and left for dead. But she survived, managed to speed dial 911 on her cell phone before passing out. Age twenty-five, single mom going to college online when she wasn’t working. Tough as nails, the Sheriff said, or she wouldn’t have made it. Thing is, she’s conscious and talking and has been able to provide a clue the security cameras didn’t pick up. Guy looked to be in his forties but when he was grabbing the till money–before he shot her–he stretched his arm out. That pulled his sleeve up and she noticed a tattoo on the inside of his wrist. Three red hearts, but not just any hearts. The design had them kind of jumbled, like they’d fallen over and crashed. Which is important because this woman says that’s the logo used by Fallen Hearts, a local band that’s pretty new and mostly appeals to teenagers.”
I got where he was going with this. “Not the sort of tattoo you’d expect to find on a forty-something guy.”
“Exactly. She also said the skin looked young. Not–these are her words, and I quote: Not like you’d find on an older puke, and believe me, I’ve known enough older pukes to tell.”
“Okay, bro. I can see why that interests you. But why was it urgent enough to get you out here early on a Saturday morning?”
“Yeah, about that.” Casey shifted in his seat, readjusting his equipment belt. Packing all the stuff he carried at his waist ought to count as a workout in itself. “My friend got curious, you might say. He put out feelers to every law enforcement contact he had, all across the country, and apparently that’s a lot of contact. He’s a sociable fellow. Anyway, one of those contacts is a sergeant in the Billings PD, and it turns out Billings may have run into one of these Party Faces crimes, too, though they didn’t know it until Louisiana called to give them a heads up. But they do have a case that fits, one where the eyewitness description of a perpetrator’s face didn’t match the rest of him.”
“So you’re saying….”
“I’m saying keep your eyes peeled and your Sheriff’s deputy creds handy, bro. Party Faces might never hit our small town, but then again it might. Keep an eye out for anybody who doesn’t seem right.”
Jane laughed, a short, sharp bark. “That’s about half the population, Case.”
“You know what I mean, hon. If a two-bit convenience store robber thinks these Party Faces are cool, imagine the orgasm they’d give a pedophile. You’ve got six kids ranging from twelve down to five years of age–and how you look this good after cranking out that many is one of God’s own miracles–but you get my point.”
We did. In spades. “Have you told Kate?” Jane’s babysitter could take care of herself and watched over her charges like Cindy Bear over her cubs, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be blindsided.
“Uh…thought I’d leave that up to you two.”
He would. Casey and Kate were old flames. They still struck sparks, just not the touchy-feely kind. “Sure. We’ll take care of it.”
“Good.” The relief in the sheriff’s voice was evident. “I’ll head on back to Dad’s, then. Fill him in.”
We had nothing to say to that. Old Carl Colton was set in his ways yet still had feelers out all over Buck County, Montana. No one outside of the family knew it, but it was our 87 year old father who’d tipped Case off about two of the three meth labs he’d busted in the last 18 months.