Full Contact Book 1
M. S. Kaye
“What if I told you I loved you?” Floyd the bartender asked as he rested his elbows on the ring-stained mahogany.
Celisse was standing across the bar from him. “You love sex, Floyd.”
“There’s a difference?” Floyd grinned.
Celisse rolled her eyes. She really didn’t know if there was a difference. “Blackberry—” she started.
“Whiskey,” Floyd finished. He stood straight and poured her usual shot. “Ogden said it’s on the house.”
“Fuck yeah. You must be making an impression.”
Celisse downed the shot. She didn’t particularly care about Ogden’s opinion, as long as she got to keep coming here.
The guy on the stool next to her spoke up. “You need liquid courage to be a ring girl?” His grin curled like a skunk’s tail.
“I just like the taste,” she said then thanked Floyd and walked away.
The blaring heavy metal music seemed even thicker to wade through than the crowd or the shadows. It bounced off the cement walls and floors and squirmed into the tight spaces around the people. The betting was now closed, and the anticipation of the crowd seemed to deepen the rumbling bass. It was too loud, but she knew she’d feel better in a few minutes.
A hand on her ass. She turned, ripping the guy’s hand away, and the heels of her palms slammed into his flabby chest. Though he was much bigger, he stepped back under the force of her strike.
“Bitch,” he sneered. The stench of beer wafted from him like the steady flow of fog, as if it wasn’t from his breath, more like something in his skin.
She held her stance, right foot behind her. The crowd stayed back. Some of them were simply watching, as if they already knew the outcome if the guy tried her patience any more, and some of them were grinning and nudging each other.
“Hey.” One of the bouncers pushed through the drunks and gamblers. “Back off.” He glanced at Celisse then back to beer-guy. “You don’t wanna fuck with her.” He stepped back, out of the guy’s reach then turned and escorted her through the rest of the crowd.
He let her through the door in the low cement wall surrounding the ring. The odor changed, less of beer and putrid breath, more the scent of decaying remnants of past beatings, mostly sweat and blood, along with the vomit of inexperienced fighters who should have never entered this ring in the first place. She stood in the corner and pulled her long curls into a ponytail then wrapped her hands. She could hide bruises under clothes, but she couldn’t cover beat-up knuckles with gloves all day in her office job.
She thought it was funny the guy at the bar thought she was a ring girl, one of those cheerleader rejects, too slutty for the respectable career of shaking pompoms. She was only wearing a tank top and loose jeans, not the spandex and spankies the ring girls always seemed to wear. Oh well. She decided to take it as a compliment and forget about it.
Her opponent entered the ring and stood in the opposite corner. Celisse had never seen her before. The woman was likely here from another city, looking for a better challenge.
Celisse looked over at her, caught her eye, and smiled. For some reason, that seemed to piss off her opponents. That was why she kept doing it.
The girl’s lip curled, and she came at her. Celisse liked this no-rules fighting. There was no bell ringing, telling her when she could start and when she had to stop. There were no points—only one way to win.
Celisse stepped out of her corner, slipped under the girl’s wide punch while making sure not to slip on the blood from the previous fight, landed an upset punch in her stomach then stood straight with a hook cracking across the girl’s jaw.
The girl stumbled back.
Celisse smiled at her again, and the girl lunged, hands wide like a grizzly bear. Good, she was angry—easy to handle. Celisse sidestepped, shot her hand through the gap in the girl’s defenses, reached to the back of her neck, and bent her over as Celisse slammed her forearm into the crook at the girl’s neck and shoulder. While she pinned the girl’s hand to her side, she rammed her knee into the girl’s gut. The girl made a sound like a garbled cough. Celisse pulled her knee back then slammed it into her opponent’s solar plexus. The girl made no sound, gaping at the floor with an open mouth like a choirboy singing Christmas hymns.
Then Celisse let her go. She didn’t want the fight to end yet.
They exchanged a few shots, and then the girl landed a solid punch to Celisse’s side. Pain radiated through each of her ribs then burrowed into her chest cavity. She managed to maintain her guard and posture and decided she shouldn’t play around anymore.
She dodged a few attacks then slipped past her guard and landed a fist against her mouth. Blood stained Celisse’s hand-wraps, and the warmth of it oozed down her forearm. All rage and consciousness smeared off the girl’s face, and Celisse saw she was actually quite pretty without the anger distorting her face like the crumpling of a dry leaf. The girl collapsed back, narrowly missing cracking her head against the low cement wall.
The noise from the crowd came back to Celisse. They were cheering.
While someone dragged her opponent away, she walked out of the ring and through the crowd—no one touched her this time. She always felt a little disappointed when the fight was over. Everything was simpler in the ring, black-and-white. Winning and losing only had to do with who was stronger and faster and who was conscious at the end. The real world wasn’t so easy. The world in the ring she could control.
“Where are you running off to so fast?” Ogden, the organizer of the fights and the betting, stood in front of the stairs that led up out of the dank basement space. “You never stick around and party, enjoy your victory.” His lopsided smile pushed his full cheeks out unevenly. Under his right cheek, his stubble fell over the tattoo of a daisy on his neck. That daisy always caught Celisse’s eye. She wanted to know why he had a tattoo like that. But she never asked.
“I have to get up early,” she said with a smile. She hoped he wasn’t angry for her almost starting a fight in the crowd. He made money off fights in the ring, not in the crowd, and had no tolerance for anything that interrupted the flow of money.
“Well, that’s a shame. Pretty girl like you could have lots of fun at a party like this.”
She glanced around at the bulk of the spectators who were on the main floor struggling to get a better view of the ring, or perhaps of the bikini-clad ring girl, now walking the edge of the low wall with a poster board of the spread for the next fight.
“Not with these heathens,” Ogden said. “I could introduce you to some high-power people. They’re interested in meeting a girl with your talents.”
“Your ring girls are more likely to satisfy them.”
He laughed. “That they do. That they do. No, these men want to meet you for your more exclusive talents, although I’m sure you would be fun in those other ways as well.”
“No, thanks.” She took a step to get around him.
He cut her off. “No offense. Just pointing out all of your charms.” He looked over at the betting station, a series of booths protected with bulletproof glass, and waved his hand. One of his assistants came trotting over and handed him something.
Ogden dismissed the assistant and held the small brown paper bag out to Celisse.
“What’s this?” she asked.
She had heard some of the fighters were paid shares of the gambling profits, but she had never actually seen money exchange hands. In the bag was a healthy stack of twenties.
“There’s more,” Ogden said, “for those who can control the outcomes.”
“Are you talking about throwing fights?”
“I would never dream of asking someone such as you to do something so…distasteful. The real money, you see, doesn’t come from the spread. It’s in the proposition bets—the length of the fight, the number of falls, how first blood is drawn…”
“So the money is with the fighter who can control the details.”
He smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “Oh, but we don’t have to deal with these details tonight. You need your rest. Go home and get some sleep.” He tucked one of her stray curls behind her ear—she managed not to pull away or hit him. Then he walked away, back toward his office next to the betting stations.
She walked up the stairs and out into the cold alley. While she headed through the darkness toward her car parked along the road on the next block, she wondered, or maybe worried, about what was going on. She knew Ogden was far from trustworthy. But then she also knew his main driving force was money, which really wasn’t any more sinister than the corporate world in which her father operated. Ogden didn’t push drugs on her, wasn’t trying to get her to prostitute herself, and didn’t want to sell her into human slavery. She had seen all that, and worse.
What the hell. If Ogden wanted her to control her matches, so what? She had done that tonight, hadn’t she? She hadn’t wanted the fight to end yet, so she prolonged it. She wanted more of a challenge, and that was exactly what she was being offered.
* * * *
The next morning, Celisse’s ribs hurt like hell. She hoped she could hide it from Bridgette and Lily. No good excuses came to mind for having bruised ribs—she was fairly certain none of them were broken. Instead of the stairs as usual, she took the elevator up to the office.
The maintenance man had his ladder set up right behind her desk. He was busy changing fluorescent bulbs.
She rested her hand on her desk and leaned so she could set her bag in her bottom drawer. She gripped the desk for support and used it to push herself upright.
“You okay?” Cullen was looking down at her from atop his ladder.
“Coffee, coffee.” Lily appeared from the break room holding three mugs. She set one on Bridgette’s empty desk and handed one to Celisse.
“Thanks,” Celisse said. “Bridgette isn’t here yet?” That was odd.
“Not yet,” Lily said. She looked up at Cullen and smiled. “You want some?”
“No, thank you.” He clicked one of the long bulbs into place.
“What was your name again?” Lily asked.
“Cullen,” Celisse said.
He looked down at her.
She sipped at her coffee, with both of her cool hands on the warm mug.
Lily walked around the ladder so she could see him better. He clicked another bulb into place, and his T-shirt sleeve slid up a bit, revealing the tattoo of chains wrapping his bicep.
“So, what’s up with your tattoos?” Lily asked. One of the things Celisse most liked about having Lily around was that she asked the questions Celisse wanted to know the answers to but was hesitant to ask, perhaps remnants of the propriety her mother stuffed down her throat while she grew up.
Cullen remained focused on what he was doing. “I was bored.”
“Well, that’s not a very good answer.”
“It’s the only one you’re going to get.”
Celisse laughed a little. She had never seen anyone deny Lily anything she wanted. She was charming and energetic with an exotic beauty, inherited from her Filipino mother.
Cullen glanced at Celisse again.
She turned at the sound of the door opening from the common hallway. Bridgette walked in. “Good morning,” she said and set her purse on her desk.
Lily flirted with Cullen a little more, but Celisse didn’t pay attention. Bridgette’s eye was swollen, covered in caked-on makeup. Even with Bridgette’s medium-tone skin to help camouflage it, Celisse saw the discoloration, the way her pretty brown eyes that reminded Celisse of those Japanese cartoons seemed closed off, and not just from the swelling.
Paula came out of her office in the back, the only room in the small space with a window. “You’re late,” she said to Bridgette. “I need the revenue sheets by noon.”
“I’ll have it done,” Bridgette said.
Paula went back to her office and closed the door.
“She needs to get laid,” Lily said.
Bridgette forced a smile—Celisse saw the pain tweaking the corners of her mouth, like the odd angle of a broken limb. “So that’s the problem,” Bridgette said. “Maybe I can feel sorry for her now.”
Lily raised her eyebrows.
Bridgette laughed. “Maybe not.” She started sorting through papers on her desk.
Lily resumed flirting while Cullen finished and descended his ladder. Once he walked out into the hall, she said, “He’s way cute.”
“Too scruffy.” Bridgette’s nose didn’t scrunch up like it usually did when she used that tone.
“Who cares?” Lily asked. “He can be a little scruffy if he’s built like that.”
With another attempt at a smile, Bridgette stood. “I had too much coffee this morning. It goes right through me.” She walked out.
A few seconds later, Celisse followed her to the ladies’ room down the hall.
Just inside, Celisse stood in front of the door, blocking her path. “What happened?”
“Hm?” Bridgette continued washing her hands.
“What?” She looked up. “Oh, I ran into the door in the dark. Can you believe that?”
“No.” Since when was Bridgette clumsy? Lily, maybe, but not Bridgette. “Who did that to you? Daryl?”
Bridgette grabbed a couple paper towels from the dispenser. “I told you. I walked into a door.”
“Did it jump out at you while you were sprinting across your apartment?”
Bridgette hurled the balled-up paper towels into the trash. “Drop it.”
“No.” Celisse stayed positioned in front of the door.
Celisse had never liked Daryl, but she was pretty sure she hid it well. As soon as Bridgette and Daryl got together, Celisse started seeing the signs, but kept hoping she was seeing wrong. Bridgette stopped going with Celisse and Lily on their occasional nights out. The way she dressed changed to be more conservative, no more of that hint of cleavage she liked. And everything she said, every excuse she made, seemed to have something to do with Daryl.
And now they were living together.
Her best friend was slipping away from her.
“He’s not worth it,” Celisse said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Only a fist would cause damage like that.”
“Or a door. You’re not as smart as you think you are, Celisse.”
Celisse knew she wasn’t Einstein, but Harvard didn’t give law degrees to idiots. She took a breath and cooled her tone. “You’re my best friend.”“If you’re my friend,” Bridgette said, “then you should respect my privacy.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Fuck you.” Bridgette started toward the door, as if ready to walk over Celisse.
Celisse held her position. “Please.”
Bridgette kept moving. Celisse let her push past—she wasn’t about to restrain her by force, or show Bridgette she was able to restrain her.
Bridgette walked out.
Celisse followed her into the hall. “Hey,” she said to her back.
Bridgette turned to glare. “Leave. Me. Alone.”
“Do you remember that time we went to O’Malley’s?”
“What are you talking about?”
“And that huge drunk guy started hitting on Lily?”
Celisse moved slowly forward. “And then he grabbed her arm, and she couldn’t pull away. You stood up and demanded that he back off, with no regard for your chances of success. You were hell-bent on defending her no matter what. Because she’s your friend. That was all you needed to know to propel you into action. I gained so much respect for you that night.”
Bridgette’s glare started to slip.
“You’re my friend,” Celisse said. “I’ll do anything to defend you—even if you don’t want it, even if you scream at me to leave you alone.”
Bridgette said nothing.
Celisse was just in front of her now. Her voice was gentle, like the patter of rain. “He hit you. Didn’t he?”
A long pause.
Bridgette’s expression twisted, and tears welled in her eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll help you figure it out.”
Celisse wrapped her arms around Bridgette, and she deflated. She sobbed against Celisse’s hair. Celisse held onto her and rubbed her hand slowly up and down her back.
“What happened?” Celisse murmured.
“He…he got so mad. I didn’t understand.”
“Why was he mad?”
“I don’t know.” Her body shook. “He started ranting. He said I don’t respect him.”
“You said he was angry when that guy at the grocery store flirted with you. Did something like that happen again?”
“He hasn’t been the same since then. I’m starting to think he…he only wanted me because he thought I’d be easy to keep.”
“Easy to control,” Celisse said. “He doesn’t know you very well.”
Bridgette held tighter. Celisse had the feeling it was partially to hold onto her support and partially to hold onto her high opinion. She knew Bridgette well enough to know she was torturing herself with thoughts of how stupid she had been and hating herself for needing support. Celisse squeezed her to let her know she wasn’t about to turn away. Bridgette was the first person in Celisse’s life who had pulled this kind of loyalty, respect, out of her. She loved her for that.
Movement down the hall caught Celisse’s eye. Cullen picked up his toolbox from the floor next to where he had been kneeling, apparently to fix a ding in the wall. He glanced at her, made eye contact then turned to walk away, around the corner.
Bridgette continued to sob. Celisse had never seen her cry like this before.
Bridgette took a shaking breath.
“I can tell Paula you’re sick and I have to take you home,” Celisse said.
She stood straight. “I…” She swallowed hard. “I don’t want to go home.”
Celisse wiped her tears gently with her fingers. “You can stay with me.”
“I don’t want to bring you into this.”
As Celisse looked at her, she realized—all her attitude wasn’t to keep Celisse away. It was to keep her safe. Sometimes it upset Celisse that there was so much Bridgette didn’t know about her, but she couldn’t tell her. It might scare Bridgette or change who Celisse was in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter what you want. You’re my best friend. I’m involved.”
“Would you let me go through something like this alone?” Celisse asked.
Bridgette shook her head.
Celisse took her hand and led her back to the ladies’ room. “I’ll help you clean up.”
Celisse offered again to get her out of work the rest of the day, but Bridgette said she wanted to stay, that the normalcy felt nice. Of course, Paula complained about how long they were in the ladies’ room, but they were used to her. At lunch, Bridgette told Lily what had happened. Lily looked ready to jump out of her chair and go beat the crap out of Daryl. Celisse prepared herself to stop her—Lily didn’t get mad often, but when she did, it was fiery.
Lily managed to stay in her chair.
Five o’clock neared, and Celisse texted Bridgette not to worry about clothes or whatever. They could stop at the store and get anything she needed. Daryl had used her car today, which was why she’d almost been late. He wouldn’t get up early enough to drop her at work. She had to take a cab. So, she was going to drive home with Celisse. And then they would figure out what to do about Daryl.
Paula sent Lily to the bank to make a deposit and told her she could go straight home afterward since it was so late. Lily offered to come over to Celisse’s place later, but Bridgette told her to go to class—Lily took college classes in the evenings. Paula left right after Lily, and at about half past five, after Bridgette finished what she was working on, she and Celisse walked down the stairs together. Most of the rest of the building had already emptied by the time they walked out into the parking lot.
Celisse tugged her jacket a little tighter. Autumn was coming on strong this year. The wind pulled through her hair and rumpled her oversize curls.
“Grocery store?” Celisse asked. “Walmart? Where do you want to go?”
“Bridgette,” a male voice yelled from a few yards away. “Why in the hell didn’t you tell me you’d be late?”
They turned to see Daryl walking toward them.