Crave Chapter One

South Boston, present day

"Hey! Wait a--Save that shit for the ring!" Isaac Rothe shoved the advertising flyer across the car hood, ready to slam the damn thing down again if he had to. "What's my picture doing on this?"

The fight promoter seemed more interested in the damage to his Mustang, so Isaac reached out and grabbed the guy by the front of the jacket. "I said, what's my face doing on here?"

"Relax, will ya--"

Isaac brought the two of them close as sandwich bread and got a whiff of the pot the SOB smoked. "I told you. No pictures of me. Ever ."

The promoter's hands lifted in the conversational equiv of a tap-out. "I'm sorry . . . I'm really . . . Look, you're my best fighter--you get me the crowds. You're like the star of my--"

Isaac curled his fist tighter to cut off the ego stroking. "No pictures. Or no fighting. We clear?"

The promoter swallowed hard and squeaked, "Yeah. Sorry."

Isaac released his hold and ignored the wheezing as he crumpled the image of his face into a litter ball. Looking around the abandoned warehouse's parking lot, he cursed himself. Stupid. Fucking stupid of him to have trusted the smarmy bastard.

The thing was, names were not all that important. Anybody could type up a Tom, Dick, or Harry on an ID card or a birth certificate or a passport. All you needed was the right typeface and a laminating machine that could do holograms. But your mug shot, your face, your puss, your piehole . . . unless you had the funds and the contacts to plastic-surgery your ass, that was the one true identifier you had.

And his had just gotten a workout at Kinko's. God only knew how many people had seen it.

Or who had zeroed in on his whereabouts.

"Look, I was just doing you a favor." The promoter smiled, flashing a gold grille. "The bigger the crowd, the more money you make--"

Isaac shoved his forefinger up the guy's stovepipe. "You need to shut the fuck up right now. And remember what I said."

"Yeah. Okay. Sure."

There were a number of all-rights, no-problems, and anything-you-likes that followed, but Isaac turned his back on the babble, babble.

All around, grown men were getting out of cars and shoving at each other like fifteen-year-olds, the bunch of juiced-up, armchair quarterbacks ready to peanut-gallery it up: The closest they were going to get to the octagon was standing on the outside of the chicken wire looking in.

The fact that Isaac was almost done with this underground MMA moneymaker was irrelevant. The people who were looking for him didn't need any help, and that happy little close-up along with the telephone number in the 617 area code was precisely the exposure he didn't need.

Last thing he needed was an operative or . . . God forbid, Matthias's second in command . . . showing up here.

Besides, it was just too fucking dumb of the promoter. Unregulated bare-knuckle fighting coupled with illegal gambling was not something you advertised, and anyway, given the size of the crowds that showed up, the audience clearly had enough mouth.

The guy in charge, however, was a greedy moron.

And the question was now, did Isaac fight or not? The flyers had just been made, according to the man who'd shown it to him . . . and as he mentally counted the money he'd salted away, he could sure as hell use the extra thousand or two he'd earn tonight.

He glanced around and knew he had to get in the octagon. Shit . . . once more to pad his wallet and then he was gone.

Just one last time.

Striding over to the warehouse's rear entrance, he ignored the Holy-shit's and the pointing and the That's-him's. The crowd had been watching him beat the shit out of random guys for the last month, and evidently this made him a hero in their eyes.

Which was a whacked value system, as far as he was concerned. He was about as far from hero as you could get.

The bouncers at the back door both stepped aside to let him pass and he nodded at them. This was the first fight at this particular "facility," but really, the locations were all the same. In and around Boston, there were plenty of abandoned walk-ups, warehouses, and whatevers where fifty guys who wished they were Chuck Liddell could watch half a dozen who were definitely not flap around in circles in a makeshift fighting cage. And that uninspiring math added up to why the promoter had repro'd Isaac's head. Unlike the other bare-knucklers, he knew what he was doing.

Although considering how much money the U.S. government had put into training him, he'd have to be a total tool not to crack skulls like eggs by now.

And weren't all those skills, as well as so many others, going to help him stay AWOL.

God willing, that was, he thought as he stepped into the building.

Tonight's poor-man's MGM Grand was about sixty thousand square feet of cold air anchored by a concrete floor and four walls' worth of dirty windows. The "octagon" was set up in the far corner, the eight-sided ring bolted in and surprisingly sturdy.

Then again, there were a lot of construction guys who were into this shit.

Isaac went past the pair of thick-necks who were handling the gambling and even they paid him respect, asking if he needed anything to drink or eat or whatever. Shaking his head, he went to the corner behind the ring and settled in, his back to the juncture of the walls. He was always the last to fight because he was the draw, but there was no telling when he'd be up. Most of the "fighters" didn't last long, but every once in a while you got a pair of stayers who pawed at each other like two old grizzlies until even he was ready to yell, Enough, already.

There were no refs and things got stopped only when there was a heaving, red faced, walleyed idiot who was flat on his back with the winning urban warrior Weeblewobbling next to him on sweaty feet. You could go for anything, liver and family jewels included, and dirty tricks were encouraged. The one restriction was that you had to fight with whatever the good Lord gave you at birth: You couldn't bring brass knuckles, chains, knives, sand, or any of that crap inside the wire.

When the first match got rolling, Isaac panned the faces in the crowd instead of what was doing in the ring. He was searching for the out-of-place, for the eyes that were on him, for the face he knew from the past five years instead of the five weeks since he'd been gone.

Man, he knew he shouldn't have used his real name. When he'd gone for the fake ID, he should have chosen another. Sure, the social security wasn't his own, but the name . . .

It had seemed important, however. A way to piss on the territory he was in, mark this fresh start as his own.

And maybe it had been a little bit of a taunt. A come-and-find-me-if-you-dare.

Now, though, he was kicking himself. Principles and scruples and all that ideology bullshit were not nearly as valuable as a viable heartbeat.

And he thought the promoter was a schmuck?

About forty-five minutes later, Kinko's number one customer got up on the chicken wire and cupped his hands to yell over the crowd. The promoter was trying to be all Dana White, but Vanna was more like it in Isaac's opinion.

"And now for our main attraction . . ."

While the mob on the floor went wild, Isaac took off his sweatshirt and hung it on the outside of the octagon. He always fought in a muscle shirt, loose track pants, and the requisite bare feet--but then again, that was his whole wardrobe. As he went in through the octagon's gate, he kept his back to the corner of the warehouse and waited calmly to see what tonight's entr?e was going to be.

Ah, yes. Another Mr. Tough Guy with delusions of the glandular variety: The instant the opponent ducked in, he started bouncing around like he had a pogo stick for a colon, and he capped off his pregame show by ripping his T-shirt in half and punching himself in the face.

Fucker kept it up and Isaac wasn't going to have to do anything but blow on him to put his ass on the ground.

At the sound of the air horn, Isaac stepped forward, raising his fists to chest level, but keeping them tight to his torso. For a good minute or so, he let his opponent show off and throw air punches that snapped out with all the aim of a blind guy with a garden hose.

Piece of cake.

Except as the crowd pressed in, Isaac thought about how many copies a Xerox machine could make in sixty seconds and decided to get serious. Snapping out a left jab, he nailed the guy in the sternum, temporarily freezing the heart that beat behind that bone. Follow-up was a right hook that caught Pogo under the chin, clapping the man's teeth together and knocking his head back on his spine.

Cue the tap-dancing: Mr. Tough Guy went Ginger Rogers and twinkle-toed it backward into the chicken wire. While the roar from the kibitzers filled the open space and echoed around, Isaac closed in and worked the poor bastard out so that he was Pogo no mo', nothing but a staggering drunk whose head was spinning too fast to organize his body. And just when it looked as if there was a whole lot of dead faint coming on, Isaac backed off and let the man recover his breath.

To get an extra grand, he had to make sure they lasted more than three minutes.

Walking around, he counted in his head to five. Then he came back at--

The knife swung in a fat circle and sliced across Isaac's forehead, catching him just at the hairline. Blood streamed out and effectively clouded his vision--the kind of thing he would have called strategic if the guy had had a clue what he was doing. Given the way those punches went, however, it was obviously just a lucky strike.

As the crowd booed, Isaac flipped into business mode. An idiot with a blade was almost as dangerous as somebody who actually knew what he was doing with one, and he wasn't about to get a nip and tuck from this motherfucker.

"How'd that feel?" his opponent hollered. Actually, it came out more like, "Hof thath fill?" given his fat lip.

Last three words the guy said in the ring.

As Isaac spun a kick into the air, his own blood splashed the crowd and the impact blasted the weapon from the guy's grip. Then it was a case of one, two . . . three punches to the head and all that swagger went down harder than a side of beef at a packing plant--

Which was precisely when the fine men and women of the Boston Police Department swarmed into the warehouse.

Instant. Chaos.

And, of course, Isaac was locked into the octagon.

Jumping over his dead-fished opponent, he clawed up the six-foot-high side of the ring and vaulted over the top. As he landed on both feet, he froze.

Everybody was in full scramble except for one man who stood just off to the side, his familiar face and tattooed neck speckled with Isaac's blood.

Matthias's second in command was still tall and built and deadly . . . and the fucker was smiling like he'd found the golden egg on Easter morning.

Oh, shit, Isaac thought. Speak of the devil. . . .

"You're under arrest." The cop's hi-how're-ya came from behind him, and less than a heartbeat later, he was in cuffs. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a . . ."

Isaac spared the officer a glance and then searched out the other soldier. But XOps' number two was gone as if he'd never been.

Son of a bitch. His old boss knew where he was now.

Which meant the fact that a Boston PD unit was all over his ass was the least of his problems.

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