Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting.
I approach Krupin out of pure desperation, having no idea if he’ll agree to what I’m offering.
I can see Sasha looking up at me from where she’s trapped under Stepanov’s arm. Her blue eyes are fixed on me with the most heart-rending expression imaginable. She trusts me. She’s counting on me.
I can’t let her down.
“May I speak with you in private?” I say to Krupin.
He stands up and joins me a few feet away.
“I’m surprised you dare show your face here after the stunt you pulled,” he says through gritted teeth.
“With all due respect, I never agreed to throw the fight,” I say.
“And I never agreed not to cut your throat,” he snarls.
“You could do that,” I say calmly. “But it wouldn’t profit you. I hope to offer a better deal.”
“Did you mention that deal to Yakov?” Krupin asks.
He says it casually enough, but his dark eyes search my face, looking for the slightest sign of guilt.
He knows his lieutenant is missing, but he doesn’t know where he’s gone.
I’m a suspect, of course. He knows Yakov came looking for me last night. But Yakov has more enemies than he has fancy suits. The Orthodox boxers are looking for revenge, not to mention the associates of the gangster Yakov killed, and whose body Sasha was forced to dispose of. There are enough sharks in the water that Krupin can’t be sure which one took a bite.
I keep my face as still as glass as I say, “I haven’t seen Yakov. But when I do, I can’t promise to be civil. Not after what he did to my trainer.”
“That was bad form,” Krupin agrees. “I had no quarrel with Meyer.”
“He’ll recover,” I say.
“Good,” Krupin nods. “What’s your offer, then?”
“A win-win scenario. I want you to bet on me for the fight.”
Krupin gives a scornful bark of a laugh.
“Not happening,” he says bluntly. “You’re a good fighter Snow, but you’re outmatched here.”
“Maybe so,” I say. “That’s why it’s a win-win for you. Bet on me, double or nothing for what you already owe Stepanov. If you win, you’ve made a profit, and you’ve put yourself in a dominant position as you close your deal with Stepanov. You don’t want to enter into a partnership with a cloud of failure over your head.”
Krupin narrows his eyes at me. He’s displeased with my tone, and how much I guessed about his business dealings.
“And what if you lose?” he says.
“If I lose, I’ll pay off the debt myself. I’ll come work for you, for as long as it takes.”
Krupin considers. He likes the idea of putting me under his thumb, after I rejected his offer of employment.
“And what do you want in return?” he snaps.
“You let Sasha go,” I say.
Now I’ve really surprised him. And Krupin is not a man who likes surprises. His face flushes, as he realizes what’s been going on under his nose.
“What is she to you?” he growls.
“Just a friend,” I lie. “Win or lose, I want you to forgive her debt. If I win, you’ll be more than compensated for what she owes you. If I lose, I’ll pay back every cent myself. But she walks away. Free and clear. No reprisals.”
Krupin is silent for a long time. I can see that he’s angry, and I’m horribly afraid that he’s going to take that anger out on Sasha. He knows we have a connection now. Worse, he probably suspects that she’s no longer as innocent as Stepanov believes.
On the other hand, I saw the spark of interest in his eyes when I mentioned that he could put one over on Stepanov. Krupin is a gambler at heart, and gamblers hate to lose. They don’t just want to get even—they’re compelled to get ahead.
“Fine,” Krupin says at last.
My shoulders sag with relief.
“Either way, Sasha goes free,” I repeat.
“You have my word,” Krupin says.
The oath of a Bratva means something. Usually, at least.
Krupin and I part ways. I head back to the makeshift locker room with the slightest sliver of hope in my heart.
There’s a way to save Sasha.
The only problem is the massive barricade standing in my way.
The moment I step foot inside, I see him.
He’s got a whole entourage of people around him—his trainer, his cutman, a couple of stablemates, and several of Stepanov’s goons.
I, on the other hand, only have Boom Boom, who looks distinctly uncomfortable being trapped in a room with these animals.
I wish Boom Boom wasn’t wearing his peach-colored Home Alone sweatshirt today. It doesn’t strike quite the note of intimidation I was hoping for.
The Beast turns around slowly as I enter. He fixes his eyes on me and smiles.
We’re not supposed to talk before the fight. But I get the feeling he doesn’t give a fuck about conventions.
He walks over to me, standing provocatively close.
“What were you talking to Krupin about?” he says.
I shrug. “What I’ll do with my winnings,” I say.
The Beast snorts.
“Maybe you can buy a casket,” he says, “with what you won before.”
I give an exaggerated sigh.
“Is that the best you’ve got?” I say. “Your shit-talk is amateur.”
The Beast takes a step closer, so there’s only an inch or two between us.
“How about this,” he says very quietly. “I know you were talking about that girl.”
The room seems to go silent, though I know that no one else can hear him. The air presses hard against my eardrums.
“Oh, yes,” the Beast says. “The little doctor. You love her, don’t you? I saw it. I saw the way you looked at her across the table. You want to save her, don’t you? That’s very . . . romantic. It’s too bad that fairytales aren’t real. This is Russia. The strong brutalize the weak. You’re weak, and so is she. I’m going to brutalize you. And then Stepanov is going to take your little doctor and—“
I lunge at him, intercepted by Boom Boom, who flings himself between us, knocking me sideways.
I throw Boom Boom off, but now the Beast is surrounded by all his friends as he laughs in my face.
The fight hasn’t even started, and I’ve already let my emotions get the best of me. Meyer would slap me if he were here.
This is what I feared. My feelings for Sasha really are making me weak and stupid. I don’t know if I could beat the Beast under the best of circumstances. And here I am, a shaking mess.
There’s no time to pull myself together. I can hear the MC warming up the crowd. The fight is about to start.
“Pathetic,” the Beast says to his crew.
“Come on,” Boom Boom says, grabbing my shoulder. “I’ve got to wrap your hands fast.”
The next few minutes seem to go by in a blur. One second, I’m sitting down and holding out my hands to Boom Boom, the next I’m walking out into the roar of the crowd.
Even though I’m first to emerge from the locker room, they’re already chanting “BEAST! BEAST! BEAST!” My head is throbbing to the rhythm of their shouts.
I walk toward the makeshift ring, which isn’t elevated. We’ll be fighting on bare floor, with metal walls around us instead of proper ropes.
When the Beast comes out of the locker room, the howl of the crowd is so loud that I can hardly breathe. The noise compresses my chest and deafens me. He raises his arms over his head and smiles, basking in the glow of his fame.
The Beast and I take our positions across from each other. The ref doesn’t bother to tell us the rules. We both know them, and probably won’t follow them.
The ref raises his hand between us then drops it, signaling the start of the fight. I can’t hear the bell ring at all.
The Beast circles me. I expect him to rush in, but he’s no fool. He’s just as careful as I am, though infinitely more confident.
He’s perceptive, too. He saw my feelings for Sasha sooner than anyone.
All my strengths are his. Maybe in greater measure.
He’s certainly bigger and stronger than me. I’ve never faced a fighter of his size. I’ve never faced anyone I couldn’t overpower.
I’ve never fought without Meyer, either. The loss of him in my corner is fucking with my head. If I make it through the first round, I need him to keep me focused, to remind me where I’m getting sloppy, to point out any weaknesses in my opponent’s defense that I’ve missed.
While I’m thinking this, faster than I can see it, let alone block it, the Beast whips out a jab that pops me right in the jaw.
Fucking hell it hurts. He hits like a sledgehammer. And this was just a test punch. It’s followed by several more blows in quick succession—so fast that I can barely get my hands up to block them. The last one slips through my defense, hitting me again in almost the exact same spot.
The Beast grins. He’s toying with me.
I firm up my stance and mount my own offensive.
The Beast uses a defense I haven’t seen him use before—the shoulder roll. He keeps his front arm low, draped across his midsection. When I throw a punch, he uses his shoulder to block it or roll along with it. It lets him counter back with either hand, since neither is used in blocking. Thus, when my right cross glances off his shoulder, he easily jabs back with his front fist, hitting me so hard in the right eye that I temporarily go blind on that side.
The Beast presses his advantage, driving me back against the metal barricades. They don’t have the same give as normal ropes. I grab the Beast in a clinch, and the barricade bends backward under our combined weight. The crowd, packed tight against the barricades, shoves us back into the center of the ring. The Beast stumbles, and I use the opportunity to hit him with a hard right cross.
It stings him, I can see that. He’s not invincible. But he quickly shakes it off, coming at me hard with barely a break.
He drives me back against the barricades again. This time when I put him in the clinch, he takes the opportunity to hit me with an illegal kidney punch. The pain shoots up and down my back, like an ice pick buried in the flesh. I can’t help howling around my mouth guard. The Beast pulls out of the clinch, swinging a sharp right hook at my head. I duck and it glances off my skull, knocking me back.
The bell rings, marking the end of the first round.
I’ve only landed one clean punch. He’ll win on points alone if this keeps up.
Boom Boom looks more than a little worried. He presses a bag of crushed ice against my back, where the Beast hit me in the kidney. The cold is a blessed relief.
“You’re doing good,” he says.
“Boom Boom,” I groan, “you’re a fucking awful liar.”
“I know,” he says. “My mom caught me every time.”
I haven’t allowed myself to look over at Sasha. I know where she’s sitting—next to that snake Stepanov. But if I look at her, I won’t be able to control myself. My need to win this fight for her is already so desperate and overpowering that it’s overwhelming my mind. I can’t think about anything else.
I need to be one hundred percent sharp, more than ever before in my life. I can’t overpower the Beast. I can only outsmart him. It’s my only hope.
All too soon, the bell rings, forcing me back into the ring.
This time, the Beast isn’t cautious. He thinks he knows what I’ve got, and it isn’t much. He pursues me relentlessly, hitting me again and again and again.
These are no half-shots that I can shrug off. His fists feel like solid steel crashing into me. He hits me with a hook to the ribs that seems to cave them in, so they lose their elasticity like sprung guitar strings. Now each breath sends a stabbing pain down my right side. He hits me so hard in the nose that blood pours back into my throat and I have to spit out a mouthful onto the bare floor, creating a slick spot that I’ve got to dance around, or risk my feet sliding out from under me.
Worst of all, he hits me above the left eye, re-opening the cut that had almost healed. The blood mixes with sweat and stings my eyes, obscuring my vision all the further.
It’s not completely one-sided, however. I watch the Beast, looking for patterns. And sure enough, while he’s a clever and inventive fighter, he’s not immune to repetition. When I find a template in his movements, I exploit it to land a hit of my own.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take the Beast long to realize this. He baits me, pretending that he intends to do a jab and a left hook again, but this time, he fakes the hook, then elbows me in the face instead.
He knocks me right down to the ground. Then he does something so outrageous that for a moment he actually loses the approval of the crowd: he hits me with a rabbit punch. It’s an extremely illegal and potentially lethal punch to the back of the head. They call it that because that’s how hunters kill rabbits after they’ve been caught.
The punch slams my face down into the bare concrete.
It feels like my head explodes. My vision goes dark. The next thing I know, I hear the ref counting, “Six! Seven! Eight!”
I stagger to my feet, my head feeling as swollen and unsteady as a balloon.
If the fight had continued, the Beast would have knocked me out then and there. I’m literally saved by the bell as the second round ends.
Boom Boom is raging as I retreat to his corner.
“Fucking outrageous!” he shouts toward the Beast’s entourage.
Boom Boom presses an enswell against the swollen knot on my forehead where my face hit the concrete.
If you’ve never known the exquisite pain of a hard metal compress applied to the most painful place on your body, then you can count yourself lucky in any other misfortune.
It’s agony, pure and simple. I would cry if my eyes weren’t already swelling shut.
“You’ve got to stop,” Boom Boom says to me. “You’re gonna end up like the Rabbi.”
I push his hand away and turn so he’s forced to look at me. I take out my mouth guard so he’ll hear every word.
“Listen to me very carefully,” I say. “You don’t stop this fight until I’m dead.”
“Snow—“ he says.
“PROMISE ME!” I grab his shirt and pull him close. “Give me your word right now.”
“I . . . I promise,” Boom Boom says.
The bell rings for the third round.
It’s an awful sound.
The Beast is already standing with his gloves up, looking barely winded. He has a small cut on one cheek, whereas I know I must be a battered, bloody mess.
He advances on me, smiling slightly.
I spit out another mouthful of blood and walk to meet him.
Usually a fight slows down as it progresses through the round, but the Beast and I are throwing punches faster and faster. He backs me up once more. However, this time he doesn’t see one of the patches of blood on the floor. His foot slips out from under him. He goes down on one knee.
With all my remaining speed and strength, I hit him hard across the jaw. His head jerks to the side, and he actually looks rattled.
In a moment he’s back on his feet.
He’s not quite as steady, though. And I think I’ve discovered a weakness.
Meyer used to make us spar out in the parking lot, no matter how icy it was outside. He said it was like the old days, when the boxers fought on frozen lakes. He said it was important to learn to keep your footing on a slick surface.
Sure enough, as I deliberately lead the Beast over the patches of my own blood, he slips again. I jump up to land a corkscrew punch, thrown overhand to the top of his eye. It’s an arching motion with a twist at the end, designed to open a cut on your opponent’s face. Sure enough, I split his right eyebrow, which begins to bleed in a highly satisfying manner.
This infuriates him. He launches his most relentless onslaught yet, hitting me over and over as he drives me back into the corner.
In a normal ring I might try a rope-a-dope to tire him out, like Muhammad Ali did against Joe Frazier during the Thrilla in Manilla. But that’s impossible against the metal barricades. The Beast drives me into the metal, then hits me so hard that I feel like I’m falling back, back, back, into black tar.
It sucks me down. I try to fight against it, but it’s too hard to swim up to the surface. Distantly, I can hear the ref counting once more: “Two! Three! Four!”
Ali said that fighting Frazier was the closest he ever felt to death.
I understand now what he meant.
I would almost welcome death, because it would be preferable to the pain I’m feeling. And far better than the prospect of failing Sasha.
Like a flame in the dark, her face burns against the blackness behind my eyelids.
My whole life has been as cold and bleak as an arctic tundra. Sasha is spring. She’s the sun shining down on me, waking up the grass and the earth inside me.
The only language I knew was violence. She makes me hear laughter, music, rainfall.
She makes me feel things I didn’t even believe in.
Love. Friendship. Compassion.
“Five! Six! Seven!”
I snuffle, choking on my own blood. I really might be dying.
My life flashes before my eyes. But instead of seeing everything that happened to me before, I see a vision of my future.
Like a film strip played at exponential speed, I see everything that could happen, if only I could will it into existence.
I see Sasha walking through Times Square, looking up in wonder at the huge illuminated signs. I see us walking up the stairs to a bright, clean apartment, one that we share together. I see her coming home from work, hair pulled up in a ponytail, wearing proper scrubs, smiling as she tells me about her day. I see me bringing her flowers, kissing her, tickling her as she lays in my bed on a lazy Sunday morning. I see her dolled up in a sparkling dress, cheering me on from the crowd as I face off against an opponent in a proper ring, in a legitimate match, that’s anywhere but this fucking abattoir.
I see all those things, and like the jolt of lightning to Frankenstein’s monster, it reanimates my body. I jerk to my feet before the ref can finish his count.
Now I do look out into the crowd, and I see Sasha, her wide blue eyes looking up at me as tears stream down her face. She’s not crying for herself. She’s crying for me, because she’s scared. But she has nothing to be afraid of. I’ve seen the future. It will happen, just like she told me it would.
The Beast steps toward me, planning to finish me off.
He’s tired, I see that now. He’s trying to hide it, but I know the truth. He’s fighting for himself, nobody else. And his own ego is a weak motivator.
He swings at me. I slip the punch, his fist passing by my nose. I’ve been favoring my left side, trying to avoid the pain in the ribs. That pain is gone now. It doesn’t exist. I propel that left fist like a fucking rocket into the Beast’s jaw. I hit him again and again, left, right, left, right.
I’m driving him back, into the largest pool of blood of all.
As his heel lifts for one more step back, I wait for it to come down on the blood. Then I crouch and drive upward with all my might, into an uppercut like none I’ve ever known.
The Beast’s feet slip out from under him and he falls back. He doesn’t get his hands down in time. The back of his skull crashes against solid cement. He lays still, insensible to the ref’s count.
I don’t even have to look at him. I know he’s not getting up.
I feel like I’m standing on the deck of a ship. The floor is rolling back and forth beneath me. But I stay on my feet until the ref raises my arm in victory.