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Fighter

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Craddock was waiting in the meeting room. “Marcus,” he said, acknowledging the identity of his new undercover man.

With a quiet nod in his direction, Marcus secured the last of his valuables in the lock box and handed it over the duty officer. She looked at him with a sympathetic smile, as if to say, “See the old you in a couple of years, or perhaps never again,” and left the room, closing the door behind her.

The paraphernalia for Marcus’s new life was wrapped in plastic, sterile and unsullied; spread out across the desk: keys to his car and flat, ID, phone, credit cards, money ... and gun.

The first thing Marcus lifted was the gun – a black Baby Eagle. It was cold; its heft solid on his palm. And it was strong, built to last; the perfect shooter.

“Can I take it out?”

“It’s all yours. Ballistics have it catalogued.”

Craddock was watching, waiting. The creases around his eyes were deeper than Marcus had ever seen them.

Marcus balanced the weapon in his hand, still deliberating its weight and feel.

He’d learned a lot from Craddock over the years and more so in recent months; he respected his knowledge. If this was the gun Craddock said Marcus, aka the Centurion, should have, then this was what he was packing, no questions asked.

This was the gun for him: for Marcus.

“What about clothes?”

“In the suitcase. There isn’t much, though. You’ll have to go shopping once you get down to Exeter. Remember, you’re Marcus Aquila now, and you need to dress like he does, drive like him, eat the food he eats, watch his favourite shows on the telly, twenty-four-seven.”

“I know, I know, and I’ve got to like him to live him, or I won’t be convincing.”

They were stalling. They’d discussed all this a hundred times or more. Now it was time to go and put theory into practice.

Craddock slid his hands across the table and closed one around the fist Marcus had around the gun. “It’s going to be hard, pretending to be someone else.” He rubbed his thumb over Marcus’s skin. Marcus tried to ignore it.

“I’m not really going to be pretending to be someone else. I’m going to be me in a different life, as if I’d taken a different fork in the road.”

“Some people might say that’s a dangerous way to look at it.”

“And if that’s all the danger I put myself in, I’d say I got lucky.”

Craddock sighed and stared in earnest. His eyes were desperately blue, even under the fluorescent strip light. “Don’t forget your old friend, Craddock, in your new life. I’ll be down there every few months for you.”

“I know.” His old friend: they’d once been more than that and the memory of it still stung. However, that was the past, and now a new chapter in his life beckoned.

Marcus stripped away the plastic and threw his new possessions into a holdall, before grabbing the suitcase and heading out of the office. As he drove out of the car park he saw the New Scotland Yard sign in his rear view mirror for a few fleeting seconds. Then it was gone.


 

Marcus checked the email again and put the address into his GPS. The venue was one he knew about but hadn’t been to before – in a secluded, converted warehouse heading west out of Exeter.

He’d found out eighteen months before, when he’d first got down here, selling girls and women as slaves into the sex industry was lucrative but only half the picture. With the men there was a booming and growing demand for slaves that could fight – in cages for an audience. Marcus’s job, to uncover the key traders, had mushroomed into an investigation into a far-reaching net that connected international slave-trading, to vice, merciless violence ... and murder.

Straightening his tie and smoothing out the front of the navy suit he’d bought especially for the occasion, Marcus took a slow walk up to the entrance. It was pitch black through the car park but there was a dim light over the door. The bouncer stood facing the inside, probably talking to someone. It was hard to tell when his shoulders filled the entire doorway.

Marcus coughed and tapped him on the shoulder. “I’m on the VIP list – Centurion.”

The man turned, looked at Marcus and smiled wide, without looking at his clipboard. “So it is! You remember me, right? Bad Boy.”

Indeed he did.

Marcus and Bad Boy had crossed paths several times during Marcus’s first few months of employ with the General, mostly at fight clubs where they worked the door or as bodyguards to the bigwigs. “How could I forget you?” Bad Boy was the archetypal, over-sized career thug. He and Marcus had got on well enough, despite their differences. Forgetting him would be like forgetting you’d seen the Grand Canyon. “Is this King Larry’s gig then?”

“Yeah. Nice place, innit?”

“Very smart. I’m looking forward to being in a suite – I can’t stand it when the blood gets over your clothes.” Marcus almost laughed, and almost meant it.

“You’ve really moved on and up, hob-knobbing with the likes of the General himself now. Knew you would though – tough, nice-looking, clever lad like you. Well, go on then. Take the first door on the left, up the stairs, all the way to the end of the corridor. When you get to the end Cindy will take care of you.”

Marcus took a deep breath of clean, crisp night air, as if it was going to be his last, and stepped past Bad Boy. “Thanks. Have a good night.”

“Oh, I will. We’ve got some new Russian girls on the poles tonight.”

Turning back, Marcus slapped Bad Boy on the back before heading through the door to the stairs. He didn’t bother to take a glance into the front bar with the dancers in it.

When he got to the end of the corridor, which seemed to go on forever, Marcus encountered Cindy, who was sitting on a stool filing her nails. She hopped off and said, “Which suite?”

“The General.”

She lead him past several closed doors until she got to 123. “In here, love.”

They were just about to go in when a voice behind called out, “Hold the door, Cind. Oi, Centurion, nice togs.”

“Centurion?” Cindy laughed.

“Work name,” Marcus apologised. “Not looking too bad yourself, Sly.”

This time Cindy snorted. “Oh, Barry, you’re fucking kidding me?”

“Shh. Work names only. Walls have ears and all that.” Barry, aka Sly, slid around Cindy and through the door. “Come on, I want to get something to eat before the big fights start. All that blood really puts you off your food.”

Cindy rolled her eyes and tottered away in her shiny black heels, back to her spot, ready for the next people that turned up. Marcus followed Sly into the suite with a heavy sigh.

Inside the room the lighting was low. There were club chairs and round tables on a carpeted floor, with a small bar on one side. Opposite the door they’d come in, overlooking the fight arena, the wall was floor to ceiling glass. It was no doubt one-way, to allow the VIP guests inside to see the action below without the Plebs outside being able to see in. They walked straight to the glass and looked down. The seats in the arena were filling up with all kinds of punters – mostly men but a few women. Book-makers surrounded the fighting cage at the centre of the room and were taking bets the old-fashioned way - with chalk boards and cash.

An old man with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth was mopping streaks of murky water over the floor of the cage while a younger and fitter, but equally scruffy-looking man was running a cloth over the metal posts and chain link fencing that made up the walls. The cage was at least fifteen feet high with barbed wire looped over the top. Over the centre of the cage, several chains hung from girders attached to the ceiling. With a shudder, Marcus remembered those from the last time he went to a fight night: in some fights weapons like knuckledusters and nunchuks were attached to the ends of the chains. The fights with weapons came later in the evening, once the crowd was warmed up to seeing all the more brutal violence.

“Drink?” Sly asked.

“Just a Coke. I’m driving,” Marcus said as lightly as he could manage. They were all driving; this place was miles from anywhere. And it went without saying - taxis were out of the question.

“This is your first time in a suite, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Bit nicer than down there, eh? That’s why I don’t usually bother.”

“You’re such a snob. No rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi for the likes of you.” Marcus knew he only half meant it without malice. There had been a running joke amongst Sly and the other Reapers that Marcus wasn’t going to be with them long; that he was destined for promotion. It turned out they were right.

“I don’t see you complaining about being up here.”

“Me? I’d come on a kill night whether I was down there or up here. But up here’s better, of course it is.” His tone softened. Marcus had already proved he wasn’t to be messed with and it was on his account Sly had been given the invitation up here in the first place. “How much cash you got? We should grab a runner and get our bets in before the odds slip.”

“A few hundred. You’ll have to help me out – I never remember which fighters I’ve seen before.” The truth was, Marcus didn’t want to see the fights, let alone remember the faces of the men that were being forced to participate in them. These behind-closed-doors events made the cage fighting on the FightNetwork or Premier look like a cake-walk. Marcus loved a good, legitimate fighting competition, but watching these junkie machines tear each other to shreds made his flesh crawl and his fists tighten in frustration at the injustice and his inability to do anything about it... yet. He had to keep reminding himself when he came to these things and didn’t want to watch that ultimately the whole point of being here was to put a stop to slave-trading and slave-fighting. His goal was to have enough evidence for a sting by the end of the year. He didn’t know if he could take it much longer than that.

Marcus took a seat with his Coke while Sly poured a beer and perused the fight schedule. The suite quickly filled with a dozen dark suits and last of all, the General showed up. It had only taken Marcus six months to up ranks from Jack-of-all-trades-heavy to Reaper and he hadn’t seen much of the boss man since. He made sure he knew his movements, though, by keeping tight with some of the men he’d worked with at the beginning by sparring with them at the local boxing club. He’d developed quite a handy right hook, thanks to their coaching. A few of them were here and nodded in Marcus’s direction.

The General and his entourage sat down at the next table. One of his party, a curvy, dark-haired woman, the only woman in the room, perched on the arm of the General’s seat, took out her Blackberry and started tapping away.

Marcus noticed there was a spare programme on the table in front of him listing the schedule of the night’s fights. Attempting to look relaxed and involved, he scanned down the list of faceless names and stats. He was about to ask Sly for help when the woman from the General’s table came over. He could smell her perfume before he saw her and felt her red nails tapping him on the arm.

“The General will see you now. It’s Centurion, right?”

“Yes.”

The General was a short, wiry man in his fifties, wearing a burgundy pin-stripe suit and brown brogues. “Sit, sit. First fight’s in a few. Put any bets on yet?” His manner was as neatly clipped as his appearance.

“No. I was just looking down the list. Do you have any on tonight?”

“Yes. One’s a new one. He’s up first. Just trying him out, seeing whether he’s a keeper. Then later I’ve got Toby fighting. You should bet on him – he’s an animal. After that are the kill fights. Two tonight, I think.”

Marcus gulped and felt a hot rush of nausea sweep over him. He knew, of course, that this went on and that tonight’s main feature was the ‘deliberately scheduled’ kills. But he’d never seen one. The kill nights were invitation only and tickets were like gold dust. He’d been invited a couple of times before to the seats around the cage. But the mere thought of being that close and not being able to help the victims sickened him so much he’d made his excuses and not come. He hadn’t wanted to risk blowing his cover. He was supposed to be a hardened thug, after all; a rogue out of the armed services, well used to brutality and harbouring a disregard for the lives of the people he helped take into slavery.

Marcus leaned closer. “Sir. I know you’re busy, but I just wanted to say thank you, for moving me to New Blood. I won’t let you down.” He extended his hand and the General took it.

“No worries. I need someone intelligent who cleans up well handling importing the immigrants. I just need you out with my new recruits one more time. I’ve got two fellas down from Manchester who’ll be taking over your slot with Sly. Show them the ropes. After that, in a week or two, you’ll be with Twist.” He paused and leaned back off his chair. “Twist, get your arse over here.”

A tall man in a navy suit came over and took the spare seat on the other side of the General. He looked like he’d be more at home in a branch of Natwest handling insignificant financial transactions rather than facilitating the passage and entry of people illegally into the country.

“This is Centurion. He’s your new man. You need to get him situated and working before the shipment comes in from Thailand.” He turned to Marcus. “You’re going to be taking care of distribution after the cargo comes in. As I understand it, we have some girls for the titty bars in Soho but the bulk of the shipment is boys this time. Managed to score us some Thai boxers, didn’t we, Twist?” He looked proud of himself. Marcus despised him, prancing about like he had a legitimate, clean business, talking about human life as if it was nothing more than a commodity. Well, Marcus could see the blood on his hands and as soon as he’d relayed the evidence they needed, the Met and SOCA would have them all.

“Yes sir. Last word I had from our bloke arranging the ship was thirty girls and about eighty men. Youngest sixteen all the way up to about twenty-five. Should be here in about six weeks.” He turned to Marcus. “I’ll call you at the end of the week. Give you a chance to wrap up with Sly.”

Marcus nodded in reply and did a quick tally – that had to be almost half a million in human cargo. It could cost up to ten thousand for a good fighter but the return could be five times that in a year, with fight fees and takings from the bookies. While they were talking shop, Marcus listened carefully; it was too risky to attempt recording anything.

“That’s it – first fight’s up. Off you go then, lads. Bonnie, get us a scotch.”

Marcus went back to the table where he’d been sitting with Sly and did his best to take in everything he saw and heard. He’d head for the toilets in a few minutes and tap some notes into his Blackberry. First thing’s first, though, Marcus had to place some bets.

Sly was busy scribbling over his programme. He looked up at Marcus with a gap-toothed grin. With a face like that it was hard to imagine him as brutal. He was doughy and annoyingly jovial most of the time. Except when he was beating the living daylights out of young men too drugged-up and confused to put up a fight. Marcus despised him, too.

“You want me to put a couple of bets on for you?”

“Sure. Thanks. Pick me out three good ones and put a pony on each.” Marcus took out his wallet and handed over four twenties. “Tip the runner the change. I’m off to the toilets.”

When he came back the first fight had started. They were introductory bouts, designed for the owners of the slaves to see how good their men were in the cage. The new slaves were given a few bouts like this. If they won, they fought in the later bouts in future meets. It could be lucrative for the owners – some of these fighters had been around for years and had got a following. Of course, once they were really messed up they were on the scrap heap, though a few were kept on by the bigger owners to train new fighters. The ones that weren’t so lucky got entered into the kill fights which were reserved for the end of the night, where their chances were fifty-fifty of leaving the cage alive.

Marcus needed a drink but he couldn’t risk dulling his senses.

There were ten fights, the first two beginner bouts. The slaves had to fight for fifteen minutes, three five-minute rounds. A knock-out was an automatic win, as was a bone-break. Otherwise it went on points. There was no such thing as a submission or anything as innocuous as a pin-down.

Marcus kept half an eye on the fights and the other on the machinations in the suite. All along this side of the arena were other suites, ten in all, each bought by the biggest slave traffickers or slave owners, all wanting to see a good return on their investments.

The hours dragged through the first seven fights.

There was a buffet and Marcus was almost sick just looking at it. He swallowed down half a burger and a few chips, the food moving thick and slow down his gullet as he watched noses smash and eyes swell; the floor on the cage getting bloodier and bloodier while the spectators on the seats got louder and louder.

It was the eighth fight and it was over in the second round. One of the men in the cage went down with a final blood-curdling scream. Marcus could see the bone on his upper arm poking through his skin.

“Cheer up – you won!” Sly punched his arm. Marcus rubbed the spot, aching for the man whose fighting days were in all likelihood over. What happened to him next was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t going to be a cushy retirement in sunny Spain, that much was obvious. If he was deemed worthless to his owner, chances were, he’d have one more chance in the cage and that would be his lot.

The excitement was short-lived for Sly and non-existent for Marcus.

There was a buzz in the arena as the referee took to the centre of the cage with his microphone to make an announcement - a change to the last fight. There was a temporary hush and then a loud cheer.

Marcus had missed it. “What’s going on?”

“The last fight: they’ve added a third person. A man called Esca. See on the board? Mike, AJ and now Esca. All bets are off.”

“What? Why?”

Sly and Marcus looked around, neither knowing the answer. The General was standing up, looking thrilled. Marcus got up and approached Bonnie. “Why have they added a third to the last –“

“Shh!” She held up her forefinger and tried to talk to someone on the phone.

Twist came over. “I haven’t seen a three-man in over a year. And this Esca kid, I’ve seen him fight quite a few times. He used to be like a fucking ninja. He must have got fucked up good and proper.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Why else would they have stuck him in the kill fight? This kid’s been around for years. First time I saw him was ... yeah, about three years ago. Surprised he’s lasted this long actually. Shame though. You wait till you see him. Hopefully he’s still got some fight left.”

Bonnie was holding her hand over her phone, whispering to the General.

Marcus had so many questions. He knew he had to stick to the fight, to things that would be relevant. “So what happens in a three-man? Do we see two kills?”

“Maybe. Depends on how quick they are.”

Bonny handed the General her phone and Marcus watched him talking, grim-faced, to whoever was on the other end.

Most of the guests were filling up their glasses and taking their seats. When the General finished talking he handed the phone back to Bonnie and slumped in his seat. Loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “Could be over quick. I just spoke to Larry. The kid’s lost it – he tried to hang himself a few days ago.

With a heavy heart, Marcus went back to his seat. The next fight was a blur. There were baseball bats stuck in holders, one at each corner of the arena. It was easy enough for both fighters to grab one. After that it was over in minutes; the bigger of the two caught the smaller one across his forehead. Through the speakers on the wall Marcus could have sworn he heard a skull shatter over the groan and cheer of the crowd. His knees went first, crumpling beneath him, and as he hit the floor he got a second blow. His blood sprayed into the first row. The battered man on the floor jerked a couple of times then stilled. The referee gave a ten second count. When he didn’t move the referee went for the pulse while the crowd kept calling something like, “Finish him, finish him.” Only, he was already finished. Even from up here Marcus could see his brain and shattered skull. The referee called it with a sweep of his hand across his throat.

Marcus didn’t know what they did with the bodies. He did know there were ‘doctors’, most of them struck off the BMA register for malpractice, who fixed up the survivors. He’d managed to get the names of three back to the Met. Slowly, slowly Marcus and a couple of other undercover officers were building up a catalogue of people they would catch in one giant sting.

Marcus was finally about to relent and have a couple of shots of vodka in his Coke when the arena lights were dimmed. The cage had been cleaned up and for the first time this evening, they were going to use the chains. One chain, anyway. From the chain in the centre a knife dangled. It had a six-inch blade and was attached at the handle with the blade hanging downwards. It couldn’t be pulled down unless the person below was tall enough to reach past the blade all the way up to the handle, or they didn’t mind slicing open their own hand.

Marcus sickly realised that if two of fighters decided to team up, all it would take was for one to put the other on his shoulders and they’d have the weapon. Of course, there would be nothing to stop the man with the knife killing the man beneath him, but Marcus didn’t know enough of the men in the arena to know where their loyalties might lie. They all had different owners. They were all slaves and slaves didn’t get to go free. For all of them, in one way or another, their days were numbered.

When he’d first come into the business, Marcus was convinced these men would give up. Clearly some did. But after eighteen months, Marcus had seen enough to know many of the men, especially the ones they got from Reaping, had an iron-will to survive. Maybe they were drugged and brain-washed out of all reason, maybe they thought they’d escape, maybe they hung onto the hope they’d see it to a retirement and get to have a life beyond the cage. Whatever it was, Marcus had never seen a single cage fight where it didn’t look like the men in there were in it to win, whatever it took.

The bar was self-service. Marcus got up and quickly grabbed a bottle of Perrier and a glass, just as the three fighters were lead into the cage.

“Who’s who?”

Sly leaned in closer. “The black geezer is AJ, the taller, white one is Mike, and the little one is Esca.”

Marcus couldn’t believe his eyes. Esca was a boy – he looked eighteen at the most. He was no more than five-six or seven and probably weighed ten stone dripping wet. The other two men were six feet at least and built like brick shit-houses. AJ had a limp. The bone in his right leg was twisted. Mike looked in shape, but his eyes were vacant. He looked like he didn’t even know where he was.

Without realising it, Marcus found himself gripping the edge of his seat and hoping upon hope that perhaps Esca might stand a chance; that Esca might still have it in him that he wanted to live.

Esca stood in his corner, chin held high, stormy eyes staring out beneath an unruly mop of bronze hair. Marcus could see the angry graze and bruise around his neck – a reminder of his failed attempt to kill himself. Aside from that, there was nothing unkempt or lacking about him. He was slight but ripped: every ounce of him poised and looking like he was ready to fight.

“Has Esca killed anyone before?” Marcus asked Sly.

“You mean in a regular fight, by accident?”

It happened sometimes, that was no surprise to anyone.

Sly didn’t wait for Marcus to reply. “Dunno. He’s messed up a few fighters enough they were probably not coming back in.”

“He doesn’t look big enough.”

“That’s his advantage. Now shut the fuck up and watch – it’s about to start.”

The referee stood by the bell, ready to ring it: the one and only time he would. There were no rounds in these kill fights. The bout went on until one of the fighters didn’t.

The crowd fell silent.

The bell rang and Marcus flew up out of his seat to the glass, hands and face pressed close to get a better look. Everyone in the suite did the same, the people on the seats in the arena all jumped up and the noise pulsed through to the suite. Down on the floor it had to be deafening.

Judging by how far it was hanging above the heads of the two taller fighters, the knife was suspended eleven or twelve feet above the floor of the cage. It was unlikely any of the men had it in them to jump up and grab it.

But that didn’t stop Esca.

Before the other two had moved from their spots, Esca had sprung from his position in the corner opposite the suites and was scaling the side of the cage. In a few swift stretch-reaches he was high enough neither of the others could reach him. AJ was the first to reach Esca’s side of the cage and was grasping it with both hands, using his considerable weight to shake the cross link fencing that Esca was holding onto. Esca clung on, scanning the cage, his face creased into a vicious snarl.

Mike followed AJ, seemingly with no other strategy but to join in trying to shake Esca off the fence.

The General stood a few feet away from Marcus, close enough that he could hear everything he said. Marcus glanced over and the General caught his eye. He said to Marcus, eyes wide and virtually glowing with delight, “This is priceless. That kid’s got balls, I’ll give him that.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s going to fight. Think about it. He tried to commit suicide, or so we’re told, but now he’s going for the knife. He wants the last say in how he gets to die.” The General slapped his thigh. He was probably only as pleased as he was because Esca wasn’t one of his own. The General didn’t tolerate dissention – that was well known.

Marcus looked at Esca, holding onto the fence, legs curled up like a cat ready to pounce. He might not have a choice in how he got to live but he was going to do his best to make sure that he got to choose if and when he died. In that instant, Marcus knew that if Esca was killed he wouldn’t be able to stand it. He couldn’t look yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Sly grabbed Marcus’s arm. “Wily little fucker, isn’t he? Look!”

Esca crouched and leapt, just managing to reach one of the chains that dangled from the ceiling. Marcus could see people’s hands clamp over their mouths in shock then the screams and shouts came in another wave, “Esca, Esca!”

Esca was swinging from the chain, likely trying to swing to the chain in the middle to get the knife. He was picking up momentum when two women appeared from opposite wings in bikinis, each brandishing a spiked knuckleduster on her fist. They waved them around, so that not only the audience could see them, but also the fighters in the cage. If they threw them in now, Esca wouldn’t be able to get one before Mike and AJ. He would have no choice but to attempt to get the knife.

This had possibly been the plan, to initially make it look like Esca had a chance. The odds, however, were never about being fair, only about putting on a good show.

Sly groaned, “I hate it when that happens. Someone must have sponsored the weapons. It’s always over too quick when they do that. I expect the two big lugs will have at it while Esca hangs on. Either that or they’ll gang up and take him out together.”

At the moment Esca made a swing for the middle chain, the two women removed the knuckle dusters and threw them into the cage.

Marcus heard someone from the suite shouting, “Go on, my son!”

After that it was chaos everywhere.

Esca frantically dangled from the chain by one arm while he endeavoured to untangle the knife with the other, while Mike and AJ scrambled to secure the knuckledusters that were bouncing and rolling across the floor. Even with a limp, AJ was faster than Mike, and with a lumbering roll he grabbed the weapon nearest the pair of them and was scrabbling to his feet. On the opposite side of the cage was the other weapon. Mike looked around for a moment, as if he was unable to focus on it. In the split second he hesitated, Esca freed the knife and was swinging the chain towards the same end of the cage as the dropped knuckleduster. With a flying leap, as Mike loped to the end of the cage, Esca was making his landing, not on the floor, but on Mike’s back.

Mike yelled and his arms flailed as he fell to the floor.

Marcus watched, his heart in his throat, as Esca swiped the blade across Mike’s throat.

Simultaneously, the crowd roared, “KILL!”

But there was no blood.

It took Marcus a moment to realise. It was a trick. “The knife was blunt!”

“Fuck me. That’s it then. Bye, bye Esca.” Marcus could have punched Sly for thinking it, let alone saying it. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second and opened them, determined to keep looking.

AJ had stopped in his tracks, but not Esca and not Mike.

Esca clung to Mike’s neck while Mike crawled and bucked, trying to throw Esca from his back.

AJ was hobbling towards them, knuckleduster held high. Esca and Mike were an arm’s reach from the weapon on the floor. It was anyone’s guess who would get it first. If AJ decided he would grab for it then he was guaranteed to win; he could pick off either one of his opponents. Esca and Mike were closer, though.

Next, Mike spread his palms and planted them on the ground, looking like he was going to make a last attempt to throw Esca off. In the moment he paused, Esca lifted the knife, high above his head, and plunged it in - straight into the side of Mike’s neck. There was a still silence, maybe only in Marcus’s head, before the blood oozed thickly from Mike’s throat, trickling then gushing down his neck and onto the floor.

Meanwhile, Esca had barely paused for a heartbeat before he’d clambered forward to reach the other knuckleduster. AJ reached them and was halted for a split second by Mike thrashing around on the floor. As he spun over, fell and his head and arms hit the floor, his eyes rolled up in his head – the last movement Marcus saw from his dying body.

The distraction was all Esca needed to reach the knuckleduster, picking it up and slipping it over his fist in one slick movement, as AJ reached him, swiping and swinging the spikes and catching Esca across his left arm. There was no mark at first, though Esca winced, and Marcus dared to hope that AJ had missed. A second later two fine stripes of red bloomed from his forearm.

Esca hardly gave it another glance.

Esca side-stepped AJ, looking preternaturally calm as he nimbly ran to the corner of the cage, keeping his back to the chain link. AJ turned, breathing hard.

“Is it over? Or does one of them have to kill the other?” Marcus tried not to sound frantic. Sweat was prickling at the back of his neck and he could feel his shirt clinging to his back. He wanted to wipe a napkin over his forehead but the last thing he wanted to do was look traumatised by what he was seeing.

Too late.

The General stepped closer, pushing aside the man that Marcus hadn’t even noticed standing next to him. “That boy’s got you a bit hot under the collar, hasn’t he?”

Marcus didn’t know what to say. He steeled himself in an attempt to sound composed. “What will happen to him, if he lives?”

“Oh, he’s going to live. That black fella don’t stand a chance now.”

Marcus looked down into the cage. Esca was standing his ground. His back was to the suites and it was only from his stance that Marcus could tell he was poised to fight, to keep going. He was waiting for AJ to make a move.

The crowd was chanting, “Kill, kill, kill, kill.”

The General spoke, looking down at the arena alongside Marcus. “In answer to your question: if he were one of mine, he’d get a swift bullet in the back of the head as soon as I got his scrawny arse out of here. He’s insulted his owner and if he has his way he’ll only try and kill himself again as soon as he gets the chance. It doesn’t do to let a slave have the last word, if you want to keep the rest of them in line.”

The hate that Marcus felt for these people boiled and flamed inside him. He flicked another glance down at Esca, circling the cage, and made a decision right there and then that this was one slave he wasn’t going to let die. It sent a strange wave of calm through him as the decision became irrevocable and final.

“What if I wanted him?”

“What would you want with him?” the General scowled. “You can’t fight him again, and the minute your back’s turned he’s going to top himself.”

“I don’t want a fighter. And I can keep him alive – if I want to.”

The General barked out a laugh loud enough to turn heads. “I don’t believe it. For a while, me and the lads thought your dick didn’t work.” He looked at Marcus and Marcus held his ground, looking right back. “You’re fucking serious, aren’t you?”

Marcus shrugged. “Absolutely.” He’d let them think what the hell they liked, if it meant Esca got to live.

“Bonnie, get on the blower and call Larry. I need to talk to him.”

In the space of a minute, the bell rang in the arena and the fight was stopped.

There were jeers from the crowd. Plastic cups were hurled at the cage and at the bouncers as AJ and Esca were taken from the cage and through opposite doors at the sides of the arena.

Looking thoroughly smug, the General handed the phone back to Bonnie and said to Marcus, “He’s all yours.”

“How? ... How much?”

“Think of it as a bonus.”

“Really? I mean, thank you.”

“Now, as a caveat to that, if he escapes and I get to hear about it, you’re both dead.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Marcus’s insides were churning up a storm as he feigned his casual response.

“Yeah, well I like you, son, so to make sure that doesn’t happen I’m sending Curly down to fit him up with a collar and some handcuffs. He should already have a tracker. Make sure you get your half from his minders.”

Marcus tried to swallow. His throat was too dry.

The General continued, “I’d go now, if I were you, before his owner changes his mind. Drive your car around to the back and Curly will meet you there.”

On shaky legs, Marcus turned and headed out of the suite, before he had a chance to think about what he’d done.

Around the back of the building, on the steps of an open fire exit, Curly and another minder were waiting with Esca who was slumped against the minder’s side. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and the long shorts he’d had on in the cage.

Marcus pulled up at the bottom of the steps, jumped out of the car and bounded up to the three men. “What’s happened to him?”

The minder replied, “Doc gave him something to keep him docile for the night, so you can get him home and try him out.”

Marcus bit his tongue and pulled his lips tight. Then he noticed Esca’s feet.

“Where are his trainers?”

“Buggered if I know. But you’ll want this.” The minder took a small, black device out of his pocket. It looked like a phone, though Marcus knew it at once as the GPS tracker. He put it in his pocket and stepped closer.

“Where’s his chip?”

“Back of his neck.”

Esca was in no state to walk. His eyes had fallen closed and his legs were buckling under his weight. Marcus slipped his arm under Esca’s shoulders, leaned down and hooked the other under his knees, lifting him out of the minder’s grasp.

The fear had turned to anger and he bit out at the minder, “Put the bag on the front seat. Curly, can you get the door for me?”

As Marcus tucked Esca on his side, across the back seat, Curly said, “The electric collar is in the bag, just in case you have to take him out anywhere. The range is about ten feet before the shock kicks in.”

Marcus stood up straight and glared at Curly. “Hopefully, I won’t be needing it. Thank the General for me, though, eh?” Marcus sneered and pushed past Curly to the driver door.

Curly nodded, but said nothing in reply. However, as he turned and walked away Marcus was sure he heard him mutter, “Fucking pervert.”

Marcus was reeling. What had he just let himself in for?

He looked over his shoulder onto the back seat, where Esca was now fast asleep, curled on his side, looking as peaceful as if he’d dropped off there by himself.

Marcus drove off with a skid of his tyres on the gravel.

Not five miles from the fight club he pulled over into a lay-by and threw up on the side of the road.