Those millions, truth be told, rarely trickled down to the fighters who bled in the ring. The best of the best made money, but like boxers, MMA fighters climbed a high, hard mountain to reach the pinnacle of success.
Beverly Hills Fight Camp felt miles away from that pinnacle at the moment. The gym was empty except for a lone fighter, himself a mountain of a man now compressed down to the size of a small hill, hunched over a thick training pad, smashing it with elbow strikes repeatedly, then checking his balance, then returning to pound the pad. Picture frames hung on the walls bearing photographs of former and current champions who had trained at the fight camp. He felt their eyes judging him and finding him wanting. His name was Mark Kendall, and seven years ago he had been the Extreme Fight heavyweight champion of the world. Only for three months before he lost the title, true, but he’d been there, and he was determined to get there again.
Mark pounded the pad. Fight magazines had asked him why he was making a comeback.
“You’re getting older,” they said, which was as unfair as it was true. No man should be “older” at thirty-six, but fighting was a young man’s sport.
“The game’s grown past you,” others implied. Equally unfair and equally true. He’d earned the heavyweight belt back in the days when size, strength, and some college wrestling were enough to make a champion. The game had become tougher, with fighters cross-training and become adept with their hands, their feet, and their groundwork as well. He admitted that, but it didn’t faze him. Those skills weren’t secrets. They were out there for anyone to possess, if he put in the work. And Mark Kendall was a hard worker.
“Why would anyone so battered and beaten choose to go back into it?” everyone asked.
That one was easy, Mark thought. There was no choice involved. There were the medical bills piling up, the doctors always saying there were more tests to be done, and there was that three-year-old’s face looking up at him asking him to make it all better. There were all those things, but there was no choice.
Mark Kendall hit the pad again.
“Why were you causing trouble, Bauer?” the broken-nosed guard said as they led Jack, handcuffed, back to his cell.
“Bored,” Jack quipped. “So when those three gangbangers walked into the shower with all their clothes on for no reason, I jumped them.”
The broken-nosed guard’s laugh was a wheeze, like a car engine failing to turn over. “They say that shiv’s yours. You pulled it outta your ass, huh?”
“That’s what I do with everything,” Jack replied. The guard wheezed again.
They reached his cell. The guard opened the barred door and he stepped inside. Knowing the routine, Jack waited for the cell door to close, then stuck his cuffed hands backward through the rectangular opening on the bars. The guard freed his hands.
“Serious,” the guard said, glancing around and dropping his voice a little. “You know those boys are—”
“You watch yourself.” He nodded and walked away, keys jangling down the hall.
“MS–13? What about them?”
Jack’s cellmate sat up on his bunk, a suddenly worried expression on his face. His skin was light brown under his jumpsuit, and he wore a pencil-thin mustache that he’d managed to keep neatly trimmed even in jail.
“What’s this about MS?” he asked again.
“A couple of their guys jumped me in the shower,” Jack said simply, and sat down on his bunk. With both of them sitting on the edge of their bunks, their knees were scant inches apart, and they could walk the depth of their cell from door to back wall in four short steps.
His cellmate, whose name was Emil Ramirez, blinked. “Three? And you, you’re—”
“I’m good,” Bauer said, lying back on his bunk.
“You gotta watch your back. You mess with them, maybe?”
Jack shrugged. The MS stood for Mara Salvatruchas and the 13 was a number associated with California gangs. The gang was started by immigrant Salvadorans in the streets of Los Angeles, and had grown into one of the most dangerous gangs in the country. Bauer had had one or two run-ins with them, mostly by accident. He’d be surprised if they remembered him, and he certainly hadn’t done enough to trigger some jailhouse vendetta.
He tilted his head to study Ramirez, who was still staring at him with a look of deep concern. But Jack knew it wasn’t empathy. Ramirez was afraid for himself.
“You know about MS–13, too,” he stated. “Have you worked with them? Is that why you’re in here?”
Ramirez hesitated, as though he hadn’t heard Jack at first. Then he shifted his eyes and his trance was broken. “Me? No! I didn’t grow up in the barrio. I wouldn’t mess with those guys. But I know a guy who does. He used to be one of them. Now they work for him sometimes.”
He stopped, clipping off the end of his last sentence and focusing on Jack. He was clearly afraid that he had just said too much, but Jack didn’t show much interest. “What are you in for?” he asked.
Ramirez had been tight-lipped since Jack had moved into the cell a couple of weeks earlier, and Jack hadn’t pushed it. Asking people for information was often the surest way of making them shut up.
“Embezzlement,” Ramirez said. “I’m an accountant.”
“No way,” Jack said. “You wouldn’t be in this place. Not a Federal facility for an embezzlement charge.”
Ramirez grinned boyishly. “Well, embezzlement is how it started,” he admitted. “But the guy caught me. We got into a fight, and then”—he winked—“this big glass trophy I got as an award, it fell off the shelf and landed on his head.”
“I hate when that happens,” Jack said dryly.
“And you? Why here?”
Jack shrugged. “A big glass trophy might have fallen on my guy’s head, too, except I shot him first.”
Ramirez laughed, impressed with Jack’s bravado. “Me, I hope the charges don’t stick, but the DA says the trophy fell on him nine times. They say that’s not possible.”
“I never took physics,” Jack replied, sounding bored with the conversation.
“Still, I gotta say it’s lucky. Even if that charge sticks, it’s lucky. They could get me on worse.”
More boredom. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Ramirez leaned in, determined to impress Jack. “The guys I work for, they got something going. It’s. well, it’s pretty big shit.”
Jack sat up. “If you say so. What is it?”
“Uh-uh,” the other man said, smoothing his already smooth mustache into place. He leaned back coyly, the very picture of a tease who was satisfied now that he’d captured Jack’s interest. “I’m not telling. But you’ll hear about it soon enough. This time tomorrow, you’ll know exactly what it is.”
2. THE FOLLOWING TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 9 P.M. AND 10 P.M. PACIFIC STANDARD TIME
The thin gang member was named Oscar Cisneros, and he was annoyed at losing his shiv. It took a long time to grind down the toothbrush to make a good weapon like that, and he hadn’t even stabbed one person with it. He would have liked to stick it in that blondie, partly because he was getting paid to do it, and partly because he just didn’t like white boys. Now, of course, he was determined to get blondie because the pendejo had broken Ricky’s jaw and smashed in Pedro’s teeth with his knee.