At 9:45 pm, after packing boxes of sandwiches, the kitchen crew drove to the venue. Rat parked the van in front of a warehouse in the middle of a cul-de-sac above the river. The area was eerily quiet for a city at this time of night. However, long trains of parked vehicles lined both sides of the lane fronting the warehouse for more than two blocks past it in either direction. Carrying two heavy crates of sandwiches stacked atop one another, Sawyer quietly followed Rat Snatcher and the other two members of the kitchen crew, also carrying crates, around the building to the back where they slipped into a door that was ajar. They left it that way.
The small room was dark. Muffled cheering seeped through the wall. Rat opened the next door and a wave of sound crashed over them accompanied by the glare of floodlights. Sawyer ducked his face behind the crates he carried to give his eyes a chance to acclimate. He noticed that the smaller boy that had packed sandwiches with them did the same thing. His name was Lincoln, and he was part of the regular night shift.
There were not thousands of rowdy men crammed into the warehouse, but it seemed like it. The pit was in the middle, carved out of the warehouse floor and surrounded by chain link fencing. Two men shoulder to shoulder fought bare handed with no protective head, arm, or leg gear, but Sawyer recognized the moves. A small, dark skinned man was fighting a tall Nordic type. The little man aimed a rear T into the inguinal fold of the taller man. He bent in half. The little one grabbed him and rolled until he pinned him in a rolling knee bar. It was an impressive tactic.
Large dog cages lined one side of the warehouse. Inside each, sat a human fighter. Sawyer remembered an admonishment the morning cook, Hawg, had given Rat Snatcher when Rat was late arriving to work. He said, “You’ll find yourself in a cage.” Sawyer shuddered. Then he noticed the shackles on the fighters’ wrists and around their ankles. What kind of fighting was this?
Rat nudged his shoulder. “You’re not here to watch.” He led the crew around the crowd toward a booth on the far side of the main floor.
Sawyer followed behind them, eyeing the cages as they pushed through the crowd. As they approached the booth, Rat stopped, blocking them from moving forward.
Marchesi was spitting mad, gesticulating and yelling in the tattooed man’s face.
“Looks like Alles stepped over the line, again,” said Rat.
Sawyer cocked his head and stared at the tattooed man. “His name is Alice?” Suddenly he didn’t seem so scary.
“Alles, Alles,” said Lincoln, who had stopped right in front of Sawyer. “His full name is Allessandro.”
“Oh,” said Sawyer.
Marchesi shoved Allessandro. As Alles slunk away, Marchesi looked out over the crowd. When he saw the kitchen crew, he motioned for them to join him.
Sawyer paused next to Lincoln waiting for him to move forward. Rat muttered in Sawyer’s ear, “Here we go.”
Sawyer hunched his shoulder against the intrusion of Rat’s breath against his neck. Geezus.
Marchesi didn’t waste any time barking orders at them. He put Rat on security, teamed Sawyer and Lincoln as servers, and put the cook at the bar.
Sawyer was fine with it. Serving would be easy to do, and he could watch some of the fighting as he walked through the crowd. He grabbed a tray of plastic cups filled with a sweet smelling, bubbling, iced drink. All he had to do was offer libations. He didn’t have to take money or orders. Everyone was drinking whatever was in these cups. He remembered the advice Rat gave him before the shift started, “Keep your head down, don’t engage, don’t look into their eyes.” Round one went okay. By the time he circled the pit once, the cups were gone. He grabbed another filled tray. Half way around, Allessandro stepped in front of him.
“Stupido. You move too fast. No one can grab a cup off a moving target. Stay here a moment. Let them come to you.”
Sawyer stood. He stood for a while. He watched Lincoln flirt with the crowd. Lincoln looked at the patrons, caught their gazes and returned them with a smile. They took his cups. Should he follow Rat’s advice or Lincoln’s lead? No one was taking his cups. Lincoln’s second tray was already empty.
Allessandro jostled him again. “Why are you just standing around? You are supposed to be delivering drinks.” He shoved Sawyer sideways.
Sawyer’s sharp reflexes saved the cups from tipping as he struggled to counteract the motion of Allessandro’s aggression.
“Get moving,” Alles barked.
Sawyer moved away. He walked slowly, but his gut told him to follow Rat’s advice, so he didn’t look anyone in the eye, but he did quietly offer the tray. Slowly, the patrons responded, and his tray emptied.
Lincoln was at the booth waiting for the cook to fill another tray.
“You make this look easy,” Sawyer told him.
“Oh, thank you,” he said. He curtsied. “My first day was hard, too.”
“How long have you been working these events?”
“Almost three months. You’re lucky. Marchesi must think highly of you. Most of us start with grunt work.”
“Well, I did work the morning shift at the bar today.”
Lincoln cooed, “That ain’t grunt work, baby.” Then he leaned away to ogle Sawyer. “You are pretty. I can see why he’s given you this opportunity so quickly?”
“To earn money. These clients pay big. It’s better than being thrown on a corner. Smile and touch them while you’re serving. One of them will take the bait. Show him, or her, a good time and you can come away with twice the money you make in the kitchen or on any of the grunt jobs.”
Lincoln grabbed his tray and left the booth.
What bait would the clients take? His intuition screamed at him, “Keep your head down, don’t engage, don’t look them in the eye.” So, he followed it.
By the end of the second hour, Sawyer’s feet ached and his shoulders were losing strength. The trays themselves weren’t that heavy even loaded with drinks, but weaving in and out of the boisterous crowd and keeping them level so the drinks wouldn’t spill was harder than it looked.
Several of the fighters were on their second or third rounds, and it was easy to tell they were tiring. One of the best, the small man that he first admired when they arrived, was currently fighting his third bout. At least the man he was against was similar in size, but he was similar in experience as well. He stopped to watch. His opponent threw a roundhouse, but the wily man sprawled, and somehow, as he bounced back to his feet, he pushed backward, away from a second kick.
“You,” Allessandro yelled while simultaneously bumping Sawyer’s shoulder. The tray jumped in his hand and liquor sloshed. “You drop that boy, and I’ll have your hide.”
Sawyer sidestepped and Alles followed. Someone crowded Sawyer on the right. His muscles tightened on the tray, which shuddered in his hands. The ice in the drinks jumped. He looked up.
Rat stood next to him, staring at Allessandro. Alles put up his hands and said, “You deal with him.” Then he slunk into the crowd.
“Keep your head down, do your job,” said Rat. Then he too disappeared.
Sawyer finished this tour and returned to the booth to fill his tray. Marchesi counted money at the bar, lots of it. He looked up at Sawyer when he stepped into the booth. “Entry fees and wagers,” Marchesi said, holding a wad of bills.
Marchesi said, “Don’t let Alles get to you,” he said. “His panties are in a twist because I rode his ass over splitting your lip.”
“Uh…thank you?” said Sawyer, not sure if he should speak at all.
Marchesi chuckled. “I have plans for you. Can’t ruin that pretty picture.” He gathered the money and placed it into a locked box, which he then put under the bar. Then he poured cheap champagne with a chaser of Triple Sec into twenty red, plastic cups to fill another tray. “Off you go.”
The cups went fast. He was on his way back with five drinks on his tray when the crowd roared. Sawyer glanced down into the pit. A spectator raised his arms in celebration. The tray flew. A large man in a brown business suit took the brunt of the accident.
“Sorry. I am sorry,” said Sawyer, scrambling on his hands and knees to pick up the empty plastic cups that rolled around the big man’s feet.
The man reached for the towel Sawyer had over his shoulder and wiped his head and face. He halfheartedly scrubbed off his suit.
At that moment, someone grabbed the back of Sawyer’s shirt and hauled him off his knees. Rat.
Rat Snatcher said to the man in the brown suit, “I am so sorry for your inconvenience. Please, accept this in return.” He handed him a hundred dollar bill.
Then he hauled Sawyer to a dark corner and shoved him against the wall.
Sawyer didn’t need Rat to tell him he was now in a lot of trouble. Suddenly, the excitement of the fighting, the crowd cheering, and being free as his own man soured, overlaid with pungent odors of male sweat, tangy spit and vomit, coppery blood, and a moldy warehouse. He was aware of timid little girls and pretty boys cowering next to the jeering and betting male patrons. An inkling of why Marchesi wanted his face unharmed began to slither into his mind.
“Listen to me, and you listen good. If Alles had caught you after that little stunt,” said Rat, as he looked over his shoulder, “you would be sitting in one of those cages waiting to be slaughtered by one of those fighters. You would lose, but the organization would make a ton of money watching you die. Is that what you want?”
Sawyer shook his head, his knees gave out and he slid down the wall. Rat grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him back up.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. They’re not done for the night. Not by a long shot. The man in the brown suit is leaving. See him?”
Sawyer looked at the man heading for the door and nodded.
“Give me that tray and follow him outside. Once you get out, you run back to the Bar and Grill. You hide outside until you see me. Understood?”
Sawyer nodded, yes.
“I’m going to tell Marchesi you got picked up tonight. Next time you see him, you give him this.” Rat handed him a hundred-dollar bill. “Hand him all of it. If you’re hungry use this.” He handed Sawyer a ten. “Get out of here.”
Sawyer shoved the tray at him and ran after the man in the brown suit. As he passed the crowd, Lincoln gave him a ‘thumbs up.’