That familiar taste in my mouth.
Mine, for once.
Another ham-sized fist headed my way, and I took it on the chin–literally. The uppercut made my teeth clack together and pushed me back into the spectators. They helpfully shoved me forward, and someone sacrificed a half-empty can of Bud Light by flinging it at the back of my head.
Beer mingled with the thousands of other scents scattered around me: blood from a dozen or so other fighters, dirt, pine trees, cigarettes, weed, vehicle exhaust. I breathed in and then forced the air out quickly through my nostrils. Sometimes it helped me adjust faster to a strong smell. The last thing I wanted tonight was a headache.
I wiped away the blood with the back of a taped hand. The cut lip had already healed–a hyperactive healing ability is the major perk of being a werewolf–and the last punch hadn’t loosened any teeth. I didn’t think they could be loosened, actually, but I was willing to let the guy try.
My opponent, a stocky guy a few inches taller than me, had backed away to give me a few seconds to catch my breath. Very chivalrous of him. Now he came at me again, swinging another clumsy haymaker. I had plenty of time to dodge it. I had time to count the freckles on his knuckles. I had time to decide that I wanted to be hit again.
My head whipped to the right. Had my lycanthropic teeth not been firmly seated in my jaws, the half-drunk, half-stoned fight club fans surrounding us in a loose circle would have seen a couple of molars arc out into the October night.
As it was, I staggered to the right, ready to fall down and take whatever happened after that. If the last fight I had watched was any indication, there would be a few kicks to my gut and face before the guy in the Houston Texans tee halfheartedly pulled the victor away.
But my legs betrayed me by keeping me upright. Figured, the one night I wanted to get my ass kicked.
The stocky guy backed up a couple of steps. I guess he had counted on that putting me on the ground. He looked to his left, to a goateed dude in a Corona ball cap–a friend, I guess–who shouted, “Get that pig bitch, Gator!”
Gator, good lord.
Two months ago, I had shown up here by invitation, thinking it would be hard to find a man willing to beat up a woman who wasn’t his girlfriend or wife, but it had been surprisingly easy. At first, I thought it was simply misogyny, but then, and Gator’s buddy had just confirmed it, I began to suspect it was because they knew I was a cop, even though I had been promised that my secret would be kept . . . well, secret.
Gator, good lord.
I was not getting stomped by a guy named Gator, no matter how much I thought I deserved it.
He charged me, spurred on by Corona cap; I side-stepped him easily and planted the sole of my size 10 Nike on the seat of his pants. The crowd roared when he hit the hard-packed dirt.
Gator scrambled to his feet, spitting obscenities. I closed the gap between us and when he spun around to face me, I slugged him in the jaw. He did a neat little half-spin and then went to his knees for a second before toppling forward.
The crowd sighed. Corona cap pushed his way through and went to his friend. “Gator, hey, wake up. Gator. Fuck, I think his jaw’s busted. Gator.”
A hand clapped me on the shoulder. A man’s voice, twangy, stinking of beer and cigarettes, said, “Hey, come on. He’s done.”
I let him guide me away from the crowd, which had grown disorganized, some of them watching Gator being rolled on his back, others passing around joints and beers, all of them sneaking glares at me.
The fights took place in the woods off of an old logging road; you turned from Highway 356 down a narrow dirt road marked as Harden Cemetery Road, even though the cemetery had vanished during the 1930s, and endured a half-mile or so of bumps and ruts until you reached all the other cars and trucks who had arrived before you. Then you found the old logging road, which after decades of disuse was a barely visible trail winding through the pines, and swatted mosquitoes and avoided spider webs until the trees cleared and there you were. Surrender ten bucks and B.Y.O.B.
The Sawyer County Sheriff’s Office knew about the fights. We were just glad they weren’t fighting dogs, and we were hoping they would kill each other and free some space in the jails.
We reached the edge of the clearing, and I shrugged off his hand. “Bobby, damn it, they know I’m a cop. What the hell? I thought we had a deal.”
Bobby Leger shrugged, leaned against a pine, and started plucking the bark off of it. “I didn’t say nothing. You arrested somebody who recognized you, I guess.”
“You don’t have to come back out here.”
I rubbed my forehead.
“Nobody wants to fight you no more, anyhow. You always break something. Lemme see your hands.”
“You taped them yourself, Bobby.”
“Just wanna make sure you don’t have broken knuckles.”
“Sure, right, yeah.” I started unwrapping the blood-soaked tape. “If nobody wants to fight me, who was that guy, then?”
“Gator? Some coon-ass mook from Lake Charles. His cousin vouched for him.”
I laughed. ” ‘Mook’?”
“What? I been watching The Sopranos.”
I stuffed the tape in the front pocket of my jogging pants. “Whatever. I’m leaving. Have a great night.”
“You like getting hit, huh?”
“Have a great night.” I skirted the clearing, keeping close to the trees, senses alert for an ambush, something that hadn’t happened yet but might. Another fight was starting up. Two women this time.
I neared the head of the logging trail. Two men stood in the middle of it; one was fat, the other was thin. The fat guy wore a black T-shirt that almost, but not quite, covered his gut, which bulged out over the waistband of his sagging blue jeans. He looked familiar, and I slowed, lifted my head, sniffed.
Something bad wafted from the thin man, who wore all black–black jeans, black long-sleeved shirt–
wait, no, he wore black slacks and a black sweater . . .
no, it was a T-shirt, like the fat guy . . .
I stopped, dizzy, my stomach lurching. My inability to discern exactly what he wore would bother me later. What bothered me right then was his scent. It was horrible.
Not that he reeked, he actually smelled like vanilla, but it was the feeling I got when I smelled him that was horrible. The feeling was every bad thing I had ever done–and lately, I had done a lot of bad things–combined with every bad thing I had ever seen or heard about, a giant ball of shitty memories and shittier emotions. The stuff I pushed down deep and brought out only when I wanted to wallow in self-pity and alcohol. Or when I wanted some half-wit redneck dipshit to punch me.
I dropped to my knees, the pine needle-littered ground quite soft, before bending forward and throwing up.
I spat my mouth clear and looked up, dreading seeing the thin man again, but wanting to be certain that he wasn’t coming for me.
He was gone. Just the fat man. Whose scent was very familiar.
I got to my feet. My hands were shaking. My heart was beating too fast. My stomach felt greasy and ready to eject again at any moment.
The fat guy had his phone out, staring at its screen. Bobby had rigged up strands of white Christmas lights in the trees overhead, powering them with a generator from his pawn shop. It lit up the clearing good enough for me to see that the thin man was truly, really gone.
I grimaced. He had to have gone down the logging trail. The same way I was going. The only way to go, unless I wanted to bumble and curse my way through the pines and dense vegetation, the sticker bushes and poison ivy and poison oak and all that.
It would actually be worth it if I didn’t have to feel all that shit again–
Wait. His scent was gone, completely gone, scrubbed from the air like he had never been there. That was impossible.
But there it was. Or wasn’t, actually.
Screw it. I got moving, walked past his familiar friend, and hurried down the trail. I didn’t want to meet that creepy skinny fuck in the dark. If that happened, I would scream, and that was not a very werewolf thing to do.