Ramirez went down in the second. A couple times. He’s standing now, on the ropes, uncertain of his footing, but he’s standing. The referee calls it anyway. TKO.
The room erupts, four thousand people on their feet, spilling drinks and tossing fight cards, shouting and calling for blood.
I grab Maria’s hand and make a break for the exit.
Outside the casino, I light a cigarette mid-stride and start, quick, toward the St. James stairs. I can hear Maria behind me, the crowd swelling behind her.
“Val,” she says. “Slow down. What the hell’s going on?”
I can hear the staccato of her heels against the boardwalk. She’s practically jogging to keep up.
I ease up, just enough to let her know I heard, but I’m still moving. Her steps are staggered by vodka and vanity, morse code against the salt-stained wood. She’s sending me a message, a broken S.O.S.
I’m halfway to the stairs when she finally catches up. I feel her next to me, her hand warm against mine. I can’t keep myself from slowing.
“Val,” she says.
“Maria…” I say.
“Valentino!” says someone else.
I toss what’s left of the cigarette, grab Maria’s arm, and start sprinting.
“God damn it,” she says. She’s furious, stumbling, but she’s running. Right now, that’s good enough.
We fly down the stairs, off the boardwalk and onto St. James. I turn sharp, barrel through the door of some dive bar and collide with a table.
“Jesus, Val,” says Maria. She’s on one bare foot, removing her shoe from the other.
“The back,” I say, nodding toward the kitchen door.
I can hear the fat man behind the bar shouting.
Maria throws her heels in his face.
We’re eight blocks from the bar, in the parking deck beneath some boarded-up motel. I’m bent at the waist, elbows on the hood of my car, sucking wind and seeing stars. I haven’t had to move like that in years.
“We gotta go, Maria,” I say, my chest heaving, eyes still swimming. “And then you’re not gonna want to be around me, not for a while.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Things – the fight – didn’t go the way they were supposed to. The way I said they would. And now I gotta get outta here.”
I hit the keychain, unlock the doors.
“We gotta get outta here.”
“What did you do, Val?”
It’s not a question. It’s anger, accusation. She knows me too damn well.
“I fucked up, Maria. Took money from the wrong guys, told them to put it on an even worse fighter.”
There’s footsteps, echoing against the buildings across the street. Voices.
“Who is that?” she asks.
“No one you want to know,” I answer.
I hit the button for the trunk, hear the thunk as it opens. I walk to Maria and take her hands in mine.
“I will never understand why a woman like you is wasting her time with me,” I say.
I kiss her hard. Then I give her the keys.
“You know what kind of shit is about to go down. I don’t want you here for it. You need to run.”
“Go. You have to.”
I go to the trunk, lift the door all the way. I stand, holding it with both hands, and take a deep breath.
“Maria,” I say, “I love you. When you’re around I’m a better person, smarter. I don’t do the kind of shit that gets me into situations like this. All I want is to be with you, a million miles from here, tonight nothing be a terrible memory.”
I grab the tire iron and step back.
“But I’ve got to get through this before I can forget it.”
Maria’s standing next to me.
She reaches into the trunk and returns with an aluminum baseball bat.
“I love you, too, Val,” she says, resting the bat on her shoulder, “but I wish like fuck I didn’t.”
Shadows spill down the street, crawling across the opening of the parking deck. We can hear the voices distinctly now. They’re not happy.
“I wish you didn’t either.”
I can’t keep myself from smiling.