photo of a dim, empty locker room

Excerpt: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot

“Come on, baby! Head kick! Kick to the head!”

Being a good fighter, it’s not anyone thing. Technique is a lot, of course. But size is, too, because reach lets you hit opponents while staying out of range, and weight lets you put more force into the blows. It’s just physics: Force equals mass times velocity. 

Kat threw her first hook, and I dropped low over my heels, letting her fist graze above my head. The men whistled and jeered.

Experience matters. That’s a close cousin to technique, but not the same thing, because experience also means a fighter who knows that bleeding stops, bruises heal, pair goes away. That lets you keep your head when things aren’t going your way. 

Kat dug a low left hook into my ribs. I couldn’t get out of the way in time and had to absorb it. It wasn’t a very hard blow. Good. If that was all she had, it wasn’t enough. 

A lot of people think anger helps. I tend to think that’s a myth. An angry fighter with no skills may throw more punches, but flailing blindly will get you knocked out fast. 

Confident now from landing a blow, Kat stayed in close, trying again to hammer my ribs. Mistake. I threw both my arms around her neck, taking advantage of her proximity. 

The other thing that doesn’t help as much as people think? Brains. You hear about “thinking fighters,” but those individuals are rare and very, very good. Maybe, for them, time seems to slow and they can anticipate, plan on the fly. I can’t; most of the guys I know can’t. The firstie who’d coached me and the rest of my company’s boxing team used to say, Learn as much as you can outside the ring, but when you’re in the ring, stop thinking. Let your muscles think for you, because your brain won’t do it fast enough. 

Still clinching Kat’s neck, I threw my right knee into her midsection and both heard and felt the way it punished her. She would have doubled over, except that I put my hands on her shoulders, shoved lightly to get her out at the end of my range, and threw my hardest straight right into her face. 

I’ve heard men, experienced fighters, say they’ll sometimes block body blows with their heads. I believe them, but I’ve never done it. Next time you see a picture of a human skull, notice the gap, the absence of bone, at the nose. It’s a fantastically vulnerable place to get hit. Something about it goes straight to your brain and rattles you to the core. It’s hard to recover from. 

Kat didn’t. She backed up, raised her arms against anther blow, and then waved me off. She’d decided to have a hundred-dollar night. 

After she was out of the cage, Jack’s brother, Mav, beckoned me to talk to him through the mesh of the cage. I went over. 

“Short fight,” he said. 

“Sorry.” But I wasn’t. 

“You want to go again?” he said. “I’ve got another girl who’s ready.” 

I wiped at a bit of hair that had come loose from my braids and fallen into my face. “Sure,” I said. 

____________________________

The Slaughterhouse had real locker rooms, left over from its days as a working meat-packing plant, but there was no water service anymore, so no showers. Cooling off, I checked out my reflection in the tarnished mirror.  It was after ten, probably just cool enough outside to justify changing from my shorts into the jeans I’d brought, and my simple white T-shirt and crimson hoodie. 

I was sitting on a bench lacing up my boots when I heard my cell phone buzzing. The number on the screen was Serena’s.

“Hey, ésa, where are you?” she asked. Then without waiting for an answer, “You shouldn’t be on the street, wherever you are. The cops are looking for you.”

That was fast, I thought, remembering last night’s truck robbery. Then, “Wait a minute, just me? Why not you?” 

“It’s not about last night,” Serena said. “A couple of people got killed, up in San Francisco.” 

“And?” 

“You’re the suspect.” 

“What? You’re kidding me, right?” 

“No, it’s on the news,” Serena said. 

“You mean, like, last year, when I lived up there?” 

“No, it was yesterday, they’re saying.” 

“Well, then it’s a mix-up,” I said. “It’s just somebody with the same name. My last name’s not uncommon, and my first was only the most popular-” 

“I know that, but it’s not just a name thing,” she insisted. “This is who they’re describing: Hailey Cain, twenty-four years old, blond hair, brown eyes, birthmark on the right cheekbone. And — Hailey, they’re saying that your thumbprint was on one of the used, what do you call ’em, casings.” 

That’s not possible.

I was silent so long that Serena said, “I know, Insula, I didn’t believe it, either. It was Diana who saw it on the news first and called me, and I said, ‘No way, that can’t be right.’ ” 

Then she said, “The other thing, the big thing, is that one of the two vics was a policeman. Prima, they think you’re a cop killer.”