The two men came out of the station rolling a covered object. They rolled it along the platform until they reached the middle of the train, then grunted as they lifted it up the steps, the sweat running down their bodies. One of its wheels fell off and bounced down the metal steps and a man coming up behind them picked it up and handed it to the man who was wearing a rumpled brown suit.
“Thanks,” said the man in the brown suit and he put the wheel in his side coat pocket.
Inside the car, the men pushed the covered object down the aisle. With one of its wheels off, it was lopsided and the man in the brown suit—his name was Kelly—had to keep his shoulder braced against it to keep it from toppling over. He breathed heavily and licked away tiny balls of sweat that kept forming over his upper lip.
When they reached the middle of the car, the man in the wrinkled blue suit pushed forward one of the seat backs so there were four seats, two facing two. Then the two men pushed the covered object between the seats and Kelly reached through a slit in the covering and felt around until he found the right button.
The covered object sat down heavily on a seat by the window.
“Oh, God, listen to’m squeak,” said Kelly.
The other man, Pole, shrugged and sat down with a sigh.
“What d’ya expect?” he asked.
Kelly was pulling off his suit coat. He dropped it down on the opposite seat and sat down beside the covered object.
“Well, we’ll get ’im some o’ that stuff soon’s we’re paid off,” he said, worriedly.
“If we can find some,” said Pole who was almost as thin as one. He sat slumped back against the hot seat watching Kelly mop at his sweaty cheeks.
“Why shouldn’t we?” asked Kelly, pushing the damp handkerchief down under his shirt collar.
“Because they don’t make it no more,” Pole said with the false patience of a man who has had to say the same thing too many times.
“Well, that’s crazy,” said Kelly. He pulled off his hat and patted at the bald spot in the center of his rust-colored hair. “There’s still plenty B-twos in the business.”
“Not many,” said Pole, bracing one foot upon the covered object.
“Don’t,” said Kelly.
Pole let his foot drop heavily and a curse fell slowly from his lips, Kelly ran the handkerchief around the lining of his hat. He started to put the hat on again, then changed his mind and dropped it on top of his coat.
“Christ, it’s hot,” he said.
“It’ll get hotter,” said Pole.
Across the aisle a man put his suitcase up on the rack, took off his suit coat and sat down, puffing. Kelly looked at him, then turned back.
“Ya think it’ll be hotter in Maynard, huh?” he asked.
Pole nodded. Kelly swallowed dryly.
“Wish we could have another o’ them beers,” he said.
Pole stared out the window at the heat waves rising from the concrete platform.
“I had three beers,” said Kelly, “and I’m just as thirsty as I was when I started.”
“Yeah,” said Pole.
“Might as well’ve not had a beer since Philly,” said Kelly.
Pole said, “Yeah.”
Kelly sat there staring at Pole a moment. Pole had dark hair and white skin and his hands were the hands of a man who should be bigger than Pole was. But the hands were as clever as they were big. Pole’s one o’ the best, Kelly thought, one o’ the best.
“Ya think he’ll be all right?” he asked.
Pole grunted and smiled for an instant without being amused.
“If he don’t get hit,” he said.
“No, no, I mean it,” said Kelly.
Pole’s dark, lifeless eyes left the station and shifted over to Kelly.
“So do I,” he said.
“Come on,” Kelly said.
“Steel,” said Pole, “ya know just as well as me. He’s shot t’hell.”
“That ain’t true,” said Kelly, shifting uncomfortably. “All he needs is a little work. A little overhaul ’n’ he’ll be good as new.”
“Yeah, a little three-four grand overhaul,” Pole said, “with parts they don’t make no more.” He looked out the window again.
“Oh … it ain’t as bad as that,” said Kelly. “Jesus, the way you talk you’d think he was ready for scrap.”
“Ain’t he?” Pole asked.
“No,” said Kelly angrily, “he ain’t.”
Pole shrugged and his long white fingers rose and fell in his lap.
“Just cause he’s a little old,” said Kelly.
“Old.” Pole grunted. “Ancient.”
“Oh…” Kelly took a deep breath of the hot air in the car and blew it out through his broad nose. He looked at the covered object like a father who was angry with his son’s faults but angrier with those who mentioned the faults of his son.
“Plenty o’ fight left in him,” he said.
Pole watched the people walking on the platform. He watched a porter pushing a wagon full of piled suitcases.
“Well … is he okay?” Kelly asked finally as if he hated to ask.
Pole looked over at him.
“I dunno, Steel,” he said. “He needs work. Ya know that. The trigger spring in his left arm’s been rewired so many damn times it’s almost shot. He’s got no protection on that side. The left side of his face’s all beat in, the eye lens is cracked. The leg cables is worn, they’re pulled slack, the tension’s gone to hell. Christ, even his gyro’s off.”
Pole looked out at the platform again with a disgusted hiss.
“Not to mention the oil paste he ain’t got in ’im,” he said.
“We’ll get ’im some,” Kelly said.
“Yeah, after the fight, after the fight!” Pole snapped. “What about before the fight? He’ll be creakin’ around that ring like a goddamn—steam shovel. It’ll be a miracle if he goes two rounds. They’ll prob’ly ride us outta town on a rail.”
Kelly swallowed. “I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said.
“The hell it ain’t, said Pole. “It’s worse. Wait’ll that crowd gets a load of ‘Battling’ Maxo from Philadelphia. Oh—Christ, they’ll blow a nut. We’ll be lucky if we get our five hundred bucks.”
“Well, the contract’s signed,” said Kelly firmly. “They can’t back out now. I got a copy right in the old pocket.” He leaned over and patted at his coat.
“That contract’s for Battling Maxo,” said Pole. “Not for this—steam shovel here.”
“Maxo’s gonna do all right,” said Kelly as if he was trying hard to believe it. “He’s not as bad off as you say.”
“Against a B-seven?” Pole asked.
“It’s just a starter B-seven,” said Kelly. “It ain’t got the kinks out yet.”
Pole turned away.
“Battling Maxo,” he said. “One-round Maxo. The battling steam shovel.”
“Aw, shut the hell up!” Kelly snapped suddenly, getting redder. “You’re always knockin’ ’im down. Well, he’s been doin’ okay for twelve years now and he’ll keep on doin’ okay. So he needs some oil paste. And he needs a little work. So what? With five hundred bucks we can get him all the paste he needs. And a new trigger spring for his arm and—and new leg cables! And everything. Chris-sake.”
He fell back against the seat, chest shuddering with breath and rubbed at his cheeks with his wet handkerchief. He looked aside at Maxo. Abruptly, he reached over a hand and patted Maxo’s covered knee clumsily and the steel clanked hollowly under his touch.
“You’re doin’ all right,” said Kelly to his fighter.
* * *
The train was moving across a sun-baked prairie. All the windows were open but the wind that blew in was like blasts from an oven.
Kelly sat reading his paper, his shirt sticking wetly to his broad chest. Pole had taken his coat off too and was staring morosely out the window at the grass-tufted prairie that went as far as he could see. Maxo sat under his covering, his heavy steel frame rocking a little with the motion of the train.
Kelly put down his paper.
“Not even a word,” he said.
“What d’ya expect?” Pole asked. “They don’t cover Maynard.”
“Maxo ain’t just some clunk from Maynard,” said Kelly. “He was big time. Ya’d think they’d”—he shrugged—“remember him.”
“Why? For a coupla prelims in the Garden three years ago?” Pole asked.
“It wasn’t no three years, buddy,” said Kelly.
“It was in 1994,” said Pole, “and now it’s 1997. That’s three years where I come from.”
“It was late ’94,” said Kelly. “Right before Christmas. Don’t ya remember? Just before—Marge and me…”
Kelly didn’t finish. He stared down at the paper as if Marge’s picture were on it—the way she looked the day she left him.
“What’s the difference?” Pole asked. “They don’t remember them for Chrissake. With a coupla thousand o’ the damn things floatin’ around? How could they remember ’em? About the only ones who get space are the champeens and the new models.”
Pole looked at Maxo. “I hear Mawling’s puttin’ out a B-nine this year,” he said.
Kelly refocused his eyes. “Yeah?” he said uninterestedly.
“Hyper-triggers in both arms—and legs. All steeled aluminum. Triple gyro. Triple-twisted wiring. God, they’ll be beautiful.”
Kelly put down the paper.
“Think they’d remember him,” he muttered. “It wasn’t so long ago.”
His face relaxed in a smile of recollection.
“Boy, will I ever forget that night?” he said. “No one gives us a tumble. It was all Dimsy the Rock, Dimsy the Rock. Three t’one for Dimsy the Rock. Dimsy the Rock—fourth rankin’ light heavy. On his way t’the top.”
He chuckled deep in his chest. “And did we ever put him away,” he said. “Oooh.” He grunted with savage pleasure. “I can see that left cross now. Bang! Right in the chops. And old Dimsy the Rock hittin’ the canvas like a—like a rock, yeah, just like a rock!”
He laughed happily. “Boy, what a night, what a night,” he said. “Will I ever forget that night?”
Pole looked at Kelly with a somber face. Then he turned away and stared at the dusty sun-baked plain again.
“I wonder,” he muttered.
Kelly saw the man across the aisle looking again at the covered Maxo. He caught the man’s eye and smiled, then gestured with his head toward Maxo.
“That’s my fighter,” he said, loudly.
The man smiled politely, cupping a hand behind one ear.
“My fighter,” said Kelly. “Battling Maxo. Ever hear of ’im?”
The man stared at Kelly a moment before shaking his head.
Kelly smiled. “Yeah, he was almost light heavyweight champ once,” he told the man. The man nodded politely.
On an impulse, Kelly got up and stepped across the aisle. He reversed the seatback in front of the man and sat down facing him.
“Pretty damn hot,” he said.
The man smiled. “Yes. Yes it is,” he said.
“No new trains out here yet, huh?”
“No,” said the man. “Not yet.”
“Got all the new ones back in Philly,” said Kelly. “That’s where”—he gestured with his head—“my friend ’n I come from. And Maxo.”
Kelly stuck out his hand.
“The name’s Kelly,” he said. “Tim Kelly.”
The man looked surprised. His grip was loose.
“Maxwell,” he said.
When he drew back his hand he rubbed it unobtrusively on his pants leg.
“I used t’be called ‘Steel’ Kelly,” said Kelly. “Used t’be in the business m’self. Before the war o’ course. I was a light heavy.”
“Yeah. That’s right. Called me ‘Steel’ cause I never got knocked down once. Not once. I was even number nine in the ranks once. Yeah.”
“I see.” The man waited patiently.
“My fighter,” said Kelly, gesturing toward Maxo with his head again. “He’s a light heavy too. We’re fightin’ in Maynard t’night. You goin’ that far?”
“Uh—no,” said the man. “No, I’m—getting off at Hayes.”
“Oh.” Kelly nodded. “Too bad. Gonna be a good scrap.” He let out a heavy breath. “Yeah, he was—fourth in the ranks once. He’ll be back too. He—uh—knocked down Dimsy the Rock in late ’94. Maybe ya read about that.”
“I don’t believe…”
“Oh. Uh-huh.” Kelly nodded. “Well … it was in all the East Coast papers. You know. New York, Boston, Philly. Yeah it—got a hell of a spread. Biggest upset o’ the year.”
He scratched at his bald spot.
“He’s a B-two y’know but—that means he’s the second model Mawling put out,” he explained, seeing the look on the man’s face. “That was back in—let’s see—’90, I think it was. Yeah, ’90.”
He made a smacking sound with his lips. “Yeah, that was a good model,” he said. “The best. Maxo’s still goin’ strong.” He shrugged depreciatingly. “I don’t go for these new ones,” he said. “You know. The ones made o’ steeled aluminum with all the doo-dads.”
The man stared at Kelly blankly.
“Too— … flashy—flimsy. Nothin’…” Kelly bunched his big fist in front of his chest and made a face. “Nothin’ solid,” he said. “No. Mawling don’t make ’em like Maxo no more.”
“I see,” said the man.
“Yeah,” he said. “Used t’be in the game m’self. When there was enough men, o’ course. Before the bans.” He shook his head, then smiled quickly. “Well,” he said, “we’ll take this B-seven. Don’t even know what his name is,” he said, laughing.
His face sobered for an instant and he swallowed.
“We’ll take ’im,” he said.
Later on, when the man had gotten off the train, Kelly went back to his seat. He put his feet up on the opposite seat and, laying back his head, he covered his face with the newspaper.
“Get a little shut-eye,” he said.
Kelly sat slouched back, staring at the newspaper next to his eyes. He felt Maxo bumping against his side a little. He listened to the squeaking of Maxo’s joints. “Be all right,” he muttered to himself.
“What?” Pole asked.
Kelly swallowed. “I didn’t say anything,” he said.
* * *
When they got off the train at six o’clock that evening they pushed Maxo around the station and onto the sidewalk. Across the street from them a man sitting in his taxi called them.
“We got no taxi money,” said Pole.
“We can’t just push ’im through the streets,” Kelly said. “Besides, we don’t even know where Kruger Stadium is.”
“What are we supposed to eat with then?”
“We’ll be loaded after the fight,” said Kelly. “I’ll buy you a steak three inches thick.”
Sighing, Pole helped Kelly push the heavy Maxo across the street that was still so hot they could feel it through their shoes. Kelly started sweating right away and licking at his upper lip.
“God, how d’they live out here?” he asked.
When they were putting Maxo inside the cab the base wheel came out again and Pole, with a snarl, kicked it away.
“What’re ya doin’?” Kelly asked.
“Oh … sh—” Pole got into the taxi and slumped back against the warm leather of the seat while Kelly hurried over the soft tar pavement and picked up the wheel.
“Chris-sake,” Kelly muttered as he got in the cab. “What’s the—?”
“Where to, chief?” the driver asked.
“Kruger Stadium,” Kelly said.
“You’re there.” The cab driver pushed in the rotor button and the car glided away from the curb.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Kelly asked Pole in a low voice. “We wait more’n half a damn year t’get us a bout and you been nothin’ but bellyaches from the start.”
“Some bout,” said Pole. “Maynard, Kansas—the prizefightin’ center o’ the nation.”
“It’s a start, ain’t it?” Kelly said. “It’ll keep us in coffee ’n’ cakes a while, won’t it? It’ll put Maxo back in shape. And if we take it, it could lead to—”
Pole glanced over disgustedly.
“I don’t get you,” Kelly said quietly. “He’s our fighter. What’re ya writin’ ’im off for? Don’t ya want ’im t’win?”
“I’m a class-A mechanic, Steel,” Pole said in his falsely patient voice. “I’m not a day-dreamin’ kid. We got a piece o’ dead iron here, not a B-seven. It’s simple mechanics, Steel, that’s all. Maxo’ll be lucky if he comes out o’ that ring with his head still on.”
Kelly turned away angrily.
“It’s a starter B-seven,” he muttered. “Full o’ kinks. Full of ’em.”
“Sure, sure,” said Pole.
They sat silently a while looking out the window, Maxo between them, the broad steel shoulders bumping against theirs. Kelly stared at the building, his hands clenching and unclenching in his lap as if he was getting ready to go fifteen rounds.
“That a B-fighter ya got there?” the driver asked over his shoulder.
Kelly started and looked forward. He managed a smile.
“That’s right,” he said.
“Yeah. Battling Maxo. Maybe ya heard of ’im.”
“He was almost light heavyweight champ once,” said Kelly.
“Yes, sir. Ya heard o’ Dimsy the Rock, ain’t ya?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well, Dimsy the—”
Kelly stopped and glanced over at Pole who was shifting irritably on the seat.
“Dimsy the Rock was number three in the light heavy ranks. Right on his way t’the top they all said. Well, my boy put ’im away in the fourth round. Left-crossed ’im—bang! Almost put Dimsy through the ropes. It was beautiful.”
“That right?” asked the driver.
“Yes sir. You get a chance, stop by t’night at the stadium. You’ll see a good fight.”
“Have you seen this Maynard Flash?” Pole asked the driver suddenly.
“The Flash? You bet. Man, there’s a fighter on his way. Won seven straight. He’ll be up there soon, ya can bet ya life. Matter o’ fact he’s fightin’ t’night too. With some B-two heap from back East I hear.”
The driver snickered. “Flash’ll slaughter ’im,” he said.
Kelly stared at the back of the driver’s head, the skin tight across his cheek bones.
“Yeah?” he said, flatly.
The driver broke off suddenly and looked back. “Hey, you ain’t—” he started, then turned front again. “Hey, I didn’t know, mister,” he said. “I was only ribbin’.”
“Skip it,” Pole said. “You’re right.”
Kelly’s head snapped around and he glared at the sallow-face Pole.
“Shut up,” he said in a low voice.
He fell back against the seat and stared out the window, his face hard.
“I’m gonna get ’im some oil paste,” he said after they’d ridden a block.
“Swell,” said Pole. “We’ll eat the tools.”
“Go to hell,” said Kelly.
* * *
The cab pulled up in front of the brick-fronted stadium and they lifted Maxo out onto the sidewalk. While Pole tilted him, Kelly squatted down and slid the base wheel back into its slot. Then Kelly paid the driver the exact fare and they started pushing Maxo toward the alley.
“Look,” said Kelly, nodding toward the poster board in front of the stadium. The third fight listed was
“Big deal,” said Pole.
Kelly’s smile disappeared. He started to say something, then pressed his lips together. He shook his head irritably and big drops of his sweat fell to the sidewalk.
Maxo creaked as they pushed him down the alley and carried him up the steps to the door. The base wheel fell out again and bounced down the cement steps. Neither one of them said anything.
It was hotter inside. The air didn’t move.
“Refreshing like a closet,” Pole said.
“Get the wheel,” Kelly said and started down the narrow hallway leaving Pole with Maxo. Pole leaned Maxo against the wall and turned for the door.
Kelly came to a half-glassed office door and knocked.
“Yeah,” said a voice inside. Kelly went in, taking off his hat.
The fat bald man looked up from his desk. His skull glistened with sweat.
“I’m Battling Maxo’s owner,” said Kelly, smiling. He extended his big hand but the man ignored it.
“Was wonderin’ if you’d make it,” said the man whose name was Mr. Waddow. “Your fighter in decent shape?”
“The best,” said Kelly cheerfully. “The best. My mechanic—he’s class-A—just took ’im apart and put ’im together again before we left Philly.”
The man looked unconvinced.
“He’s in good shape,” said Kelly.
“You’re lucky t’get a bout with a B-two,” said Mr. Waddow. “We ain’t used nothin’ less than B-fours for more than two years now. The fighter we was after got stuck in a car wreck though and got ruined.”
Kelly nodded. “Well, ya got nothin’ t’worry about,” he said. “My fighter’s in top shape. He’s the one knocked down Dimsy the Rock in Madison Square year or so ago.”
“I want a good fight,” said the fat man.
“You’ll get a good fight,” Kelly said, feeling a tight pain in his stomach muscles. “Maxo’s in good shape. You’ll see. He’s in top shape.”
“I just want a good fight.”
Kelly stared at the fat man a moment. Then he said, “You got a ready room we can use? The mechanic ’n’ me’d like t’get something t’eat.”
“Third door down the hall on the right side,” said Mr. Waddow. “Your bout’s at eight thirty.”
Kelly nodded. “Okay.”
“Be there,” said Mr. Waddow turning back to his work.
“Uh … what about—?” Kelly started.
“You get ya money after ya deliver a fight,” Mr. Waddow cut him off.
Kelly’s smile faltered.
“Okay,” he said. “See ya then.”
When Mr. Waddow didn’t answer, he turned for the door.
“Don’t slam the door,” Mr. Waddow said. Kelly didn’t.
“Come on,” he said to Pole when he was in the hall again. They pushed Maxo down to the ready room and put him inside it.
“What about checkin’ ’im over?” Kelly said.
“What about my gut?” snapped Pole. “I ain’t eaten in six hours.”
Kelly blew out a heavy breath. “All right, let’s go then,” he said.
They put Maxo in a corner of the room.
“We should be able t’lock him in,” Kelly said.
“Why? Ya think somebody’s gonna steal ’im?”
“He’s valuable,” said Kelly.
“Sure, he’s a priceless antique,” said Pole.
Kelly closed the door three times before the latch caught. He turned away from it, shaking his head worriedly. As they started down the hall he looked at his wrist and saw for the fiftieth time the white band where his pawned watch had been.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Six twenty-five,” said Pole.
“We’ll have t’make it fast,” Kelly said. “I want ya t’check ’im over good before the fight.”
“What for?” asked Pole.
“Did ya hear me?” Kelly said angrily.
“Sure, sure,” Pole said.
“He’s gonna take that son-of-a-bitch B-seven,” Kelly said, barely opening his lips.
“Sure he is,” said Pole. “With his teeth.”
“Hurry up,” Kelly said, ignoring him. “We ain’t got all night. Did ya get the wheel?”
Pole handed it to him.
* * *
“Some town,” Kelly said disgustedly as they came back in the side door of the stadium.
“I told ya they wouldn’t have any oil paste here,” Pole said. “Why should they? B-twos are dead. Maxo’s probably the only one in a thousand miles.”
Kelly walked quickly down the hall, opened the door of the ready room and went in. He crossed over to Maxo and pulled off the covering.
“Get to it,” he said. “There ain’t much time.”
Blowing out a slow, tired breath, Pole took off his wrinkled blue coat and tossed it over the bench standing against the wall. He dragged a small table over to where Maxo was, then rolled up his sleeves. Kelly took off his hat and coat and watched while Pole worked loose the nut that held the tool cavity door shut. He stood with his big hands on his hips while Pole drew out the tools one by one and laid them down on the table.
“Rust,” Pole muttered. He rubbed a finger around the inside of the cavity and held it up, copper colored rust flaking off the tip.
“Come on,” Kelly said, irritably. He sat down on the bench and watched as Pole pried off the sectional plates on Maxo’s chest. His eyes ran up over Maxo’s leonine head. If I didn’t see them coils, he thought once more, I’d swear he was real. Only the mechanics in a B-fight could tell it wasn’t real men in there. Sometimes people were actually fooled and sent in letters complaining that real men were being used. Even from ringside the flesh tones looked human. Mawling had a special patent on that.
Kelly’s face relaxed as he smiled fondly at Maxo.
“Good boy,” he murmured. Pole didn’t hear. Kelly watched the sure-handed mechanic probe with his electric pick, examining connections and potency centers.
“Is he all right?” he asked, without thinking.
“Sure, he’s great,” Pole said. He plucked out a tiny steel-caged tube. “If this doesn’t blow out,” he said.
“Why should it?”
“It’s sub-par,” Pole said jadedly. “I told ya that after the last fight eight months ago.”
Kelly swallowed. “We’ll get ’im a new one after this bout,” he said.
“Seventy-five bucks,” muttered Pole as if he were watching the money fly away on green wings.
“It’ll hold,” Kelly said, more to himself than to Pole.
Pole shrugged. He put back the tube and pressed in the row of buttons on the main autonomic board. Maxo stirred.
“Take it easy on the left arm,” said Kelly. “Save it.”
“If it don’t work here, it won’t work out there,” said Pole.
He jabbed at a button and Maxo’s left arm began moving with little, circling motions. Pole pushed over the safety-block switch that would keep Maxo from counterpunching and stepped back. He threw a right at Maxo’s chin and the robot’s arm jumped up with a hitching motion to cover his face. Maxo’s left eye flickered like a ruby catching the sun.
“If that eye cell goes…” Pole said.
“It won’t,” said Kelly tensely. He watched Pole throw another punch at the left side of Maxo’s head. He saw the tiny ripple of the flexo-covered cheek, then the arm jerked up again. It squeaked.
“That’s enough,” he said. “It works. Try the rest of ’im.”
“He’s gonna get more than two punches throwed at his head,” Pole said.
“His arm’s all right,” Kelly said. “Try something else I said.”
Pole reached inside Maxo and activated the leg cable centers. Maxo began shifting around. He lifted his left leg and shook off the base wheel automatically. Then he was standing lightly on his black-shoed feet, feeling at the floor like a cured cripple testing for stance.
Pole reached forward and jabbed in the FULL button, then jumped back as Maxo’s eye beams centered on him and the robot moved forward, broad shoulders rocking slowly, arms up defensively.
“Christ,” Pole muttered, “they’ll hear ’im squeakin’ in the back row.”
Kelly grimaced, teeth set. He watched Pole throw another right and Maxo’s arm lurch raggedly. His throat moved with a convulsive swallow and he seemed to have trouble breathing the close air in the little room.
Pole shifted around the floor quickly, side to side. Maxo followed lumberingly, changing direction with visibly jerking motions.
“Oh, he’s beautiful,” Pole said, stopping. “Just beautiful.” Maxo came up, arms still raised, and Pole jabbed in under them, pushing the OFF button. Maxo stopped.
“Look, we’ll have t’put ’im on defense, Steel,” Pole said. “That’s all there is to it. He’ll get chopped t’pieces if we have ’im movin’ in.”
Kelly cleared his throat. “No,” he said.
“Oh for—will ya use ya head?” snapped Pole. “He’s a B-two f’Chrissake. He’s gonna get slaughtered anyway. Let’s save the pieces.”
“They want ’im on the offense,” said Kelly. “It’s in the contract.”
Pole turned away with a hiss.
“What’s the use?” he muttered.
“Test ’im some more.”
“What for? He’s as good as he’ll ever be.”
“Will ya do what I say!” Kelly shouted, all the tension exploding out of him.
Pole turned back and jabbed in a button. Maxo’s left arm shot out. There was a snapping noise inside it and it fell against Maxo’s side with a dead clank.
Kelly started up, his face stricken. “Jesus, what did ya do!” he cried. He ran over to where Pole was pushing the button again. Maxo’s arm didn’t move.
“I told ya not t’fool with that arm!” Kelly yelled. “What the hell’s the matter with ya!” His voice cracked in the middle of the sentence.
Pole didn’t answer. He picked up his pry and began working off the left shoulder plate.
“So help me God, if you broke that arm…” Kelly warned in a low, shaking voice.
“If I broke it!” Pole snapped. “Listen, you dumb mick! This heap has been runnin’ on borrowed time for three years now! Don’t talk t’me about breakages!”
Kelly clenched his teeth, his eyes small and deadly.
“Open it up,” he said.
“Son-of-a—” Pole muttered as he got the plate off. “You find another goddamn mechanic that coulda kep’ this steam shovel together any better these last years. You just find one.”
Kelly didn’t answer. He stood rigidly, watching while Pole put down the curved plate and looked inside.
When Pole touched it, the trigger spring broke in half and part of it jumped across the room.
Kelly stared at the shoulder pit with horrified eyes.
“Oh, Christ,” he said in a shaking voice. “Oh, Christ.”
Pole started to say something, then stopped. He looked at the ashen-faced Kelly without moving.
Kelly’s eyes moved to Pole.
“Fix it,” he said, hoarsely.
Pole swallowed. “Steel, I—”
“I can’t! That spring’s been fixin’ t’break for—”
“You broke it! Now fix it!” Kelly clamped rigid fingers on Pole’s arm. Pole jerked back.
“Let go of me!” he said.
“What’s the matter with you!” Kelly cried. “Are you crazy? He’s got t’be fixed. He’s got t’be!”
“Steel, he needs a new spring.”
“Well, get it!”
“They don’t have ’em here, Steel,” Pole said. “I told ya. And if they did have ’em, we ain’t got the sixteen-fifty t’get one.”
“Oh—Oh, Jesus,” said Kelly. His hand fell away and he stumbled to the other side of the room. He sank down on the bench and stared without blinking at the tall motionless Maxo.
He sat there a long time, just staring, while Pole stood watching him, the pry still in his hand. He saw Kelly’s broad chest rise and fall with spasmodic movements. Kelly’s face was a blank.
“If he don’t watch ’em,” muttered Kelly, finally.
Kelly looked up, his mouth set in a straight, hard line. “If he don’t watch, it’ll work,” he said.
“What’re ya talkin’ about?”
Kelly stood up and started unbuttoning his shirt.
Pole stopped dead, his mouth falling open. “Are you crazy?” he asked.
Kelly kept unbuttoning his shirt. He pulled it off and tossed it on the bench.
“Steel, you’re out o’ your mind!” Pole said. “You can’t do that!”
Kelly didn’t say anything.
“But you’ll—Steel, you’re crazy!”
“We deliver a fight or we don’t get paid,” Kelly said.
“But—Jesus, you’ll get killed!”
Kelly pulled off his undershirt. His chest was beefy, there was red hair swirled around it. “Have to shave this off,” he said.
“Steel, come on,” Pole said. “You—”
His eyes widened as Kelly sat down on the bench and started unlacing his shoes.
“They’ll never let ya,” Pole said. “You can’t make ’em think you’re a—” He stopped and took a jerky step forward. “Steel, fuh Chrissake!”
Kelly looked up at Pole with dead eyes.
“You’ll help me,” he said.
“Nobody knows what Maxo looks like,” Kelly said. “And only Waddow saw me. If he don’t watch the bouts we’ll be all right.”
“They won’t know,” Kelly said. “The B’s bleed and bruise too.”
“Steel, come on,” Pole said shakily. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. He sat down hurriedly beside the broad-shouldered Irishman.
“Look,” he said. “I got a sister back East—in Maryland. If I wire ’er, she’ll send us the dough t’get back.”
Kelly got up and unbuckled his belt.
“Steel, I know a guy in Philly with a B-five, wants t’sell cheap,” Pole said desperately. “We could scurry up the cash and—Steel, fuh Chrissake, you’ll get killed! It’s a B-seven! Don’t ya understand? A B-seven! You’ll be mangled!”
Kelly was working the dark trunks over Maxo’s hips.
“I won’t let ya do it, Steel,” Pole said. “I’ll go to—”
He broke off with a sucked-in gasp as Kelly whirled and moved over quickly to haul him to his feet. Kelly’s grip was like the jaws of a trap and there was nothing left of him in his eyes.
“You’ll help me,” Kelly said in a low, trembling voice. “You’ll help me or I’ll beat ya brains out on the wall.”
“You’ll get killed,” Pole murmured.
“Then I will,” said Kelly.
* * *
Mr. Waddow came out of his office as Pole was walking the covered Kelly toward the ring.
“Come on, come on,” Mr. Waddow said. “They’re waitin’ on ya.”
Pole nodded jerkily and guided Kelly down the hall.
“Where’s the owner?” Mr. Waddow called after them.
Pole swallowed quickly. “In the audience,” he said.
Mr. Waddow grunted and, as they walked on, Pole heard the door to the office close. Breath emptied from him.
“I should’ve told ’im,” he muttered.
“I’d o’ killed ya,” Kelly said, his voice muffled under the covering.
Crowd sounds leaked back into the hall now as they turned a corner. Under the canvas covering, Kelly felt a drop of sweat trickle down his temple.
“Listen,” he said, “you’ll have t’towel me off between rounds.”
“Between what rounds?” Pole asked tensely. “You won’t even last one.”
“You think you’re just up against some tough fighter?” Pole asked. “You’re up against a machine! Don’t ya—”
“I said shut up.”
“Oh … you dumb—” Pole swallowed. “If I towel ya off, they’ll know,” he said.
“They ain’t seen a B-two in years,” Kelly broke in. “If anyone asks, tell ’em it’s an oil leak.”
“Sure,” said Pole disgustedly. He bit his lips. “Steel, ya’ll never get away with it.”
The last part of his sentence was drowned out as, suddenly, they were among the crowd, walking down the sloping aisle toward the ring. Kelly held his knees locked and walked a little stiffly. He drew in a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. He’d have to breathe in small gasps and exhalations through his nose while he was in the ring. The people couldn’t see his chest moving or they’d know.
The heat burdened in around him like a hanging weight. It was like walking along the sloping floor of an ocean of heat and sound. He heard voices drifting past him as he moved.
“Ya’ll take ’im home in a box!”
“Well, if it ain’t Rattlin’ Maxo!”
And the inevitable, “Scrap iron!”
Kelly swallowed dryly, feeling a tight drawing sensation in his loins. Thirsty, he thought. The momentary vision of the bar across from the Kansas City train station crossed his mind. The dim-lit booth, the cool fan breeze on the back of his neck, the icy, sweat-beaded bottle chilling his palm. He swallowed again. He hadn’t allowed himself one drink in the last hour. The less he drank the less he’d sweat, he knew.
He felt Pole’s hand slide in through the opening in the back of the covering, felt the mechanic’s hand grab his arm and check him.
“Ring steps,” Pole said out of a corner of his mouth.
Kelly edged his right foot forward until the shoe tip touched the riser of the bottom step. Then he lifted his foot to the step and started up.
At the top, Pole’s fingers tightened around his arm again.
“Ropes,” Pole said, guardedly.
It was hard getting through the ropes with the covering on. Kelly almost fell and hoots and catcalls came at him like spears out of the din. Kelly felt the canvas give slightly under his feet and then Pole pushed the stool against the back of his legs and he sat down a little too jerkily.
“Hey, get that derrick out o’ here!” shouted a man in the second row. Laughter and hoots. “Scrap iron!” yelled some people.
Then Pole drew off the covering and put it down on the ring apron.
Kelly sat there staring at the Maynard Flash.
The B-seven was motionless, its gloved hands hanging across its legs. There was imitation blond hair, crew cut, growing out of its skull pores. Its face was that of an impassive Adonis. The simulation of muscle curve on its body and limbs was almost perfect. For a moment Kelly almost thought that years had been peeled away and he was in the business again, facing a young contender. He swallowed carefully. Pole crouched beside him, pretending to fiddle with an arm plate.
“Steel, don’t,” he muttered again.
Kelly didn’t answer. He felt a desperate desire to suck in a lungful of air and bellow his chest. He drew in small patches of air through his nose and let them trickle out. He kept staring at the Maynard Flash, thinking of the array of instant-reaction centers inside that smooth arch of chest. The drawing sensation reached his stomach. It was like a cold hand pulling in at strands of muscle and ligament.
A red-faced man in a white suit climbed into the ring and reached up for the microphone which was swinging down to him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “the opening bout of the evening. A ten-round light heavyweight bout. From Philadelphia, the B-two, Battling Maxo.”
The crowd booed and hissed. They threw up paper airplanes and shouted “Scrap iron!”
“His opponent, our own B-seven, the Maynard Flash!”
Cheers and wild clapping. The Flash’s mechanic touched a button under the left armpit and the B-seven jumped up and held his arms over his head in the victory gesture. The crowd laughed happily.
“Jesus,” Pole muttered, “I never saw that. Must be a new gimmick.”
Kelly blinked to relieve his eyes.
“Three more bouts to follow,” said the red-faced man and then the microphone drew up and he left the ring. There was no referee. B-fighters never clinched—their machinery rejected it—and there was no knock-down count. A felled B-fighter stayed down. The new B-nine, it was claimed by the Mawling publicity staff, would be able to get up, which would make for livelier and longer bouts.
Pole pretended to check over Kelly.
“Steel, it’s your last chance,” he begged.
“Get out,” said Kelly without moving his lips.
Pole looked at Kelly’s immobile eyes a moment, then sucked in a ragged breath and straightened up.
“Stay away from him,” he warned as he started through the ropes.
Across the ring, the Flash was standing in its corner, hitting its gloves together as if it were a real young fighter anxious to get the fight started. Kelly stood up and Pole drew the stool away. Kelly stood watching the B-seven, seeing how its eye centers were zeroing in on him. There was a cold sinking in his stomach.
The bell rang.
The B-seven moved out smoothly from its corner with a mechanical glide, its arms raised in the traditional way, gloved hands wavering in tiny circles in front of it. It moved quickly toward Kelly who edged out of his corner automatically, his mind feeling, abruptly, frozen. He felt his own hands rise as if someone else had lifted them and his legs were like dead wood under him. He kept his gaze on the bright unmoving eyes of the Maynard Flash.
They came together. The B-seven’s left flicked out and Kelly blocked it, feeling the rock-hard fist of the Flash even through his glove. The fist moved out again. Kelly drew back his head and felt a warm breeze across his mouth. His own left shot out and banged against the Flash’s nose. It was like hitting a door knob. Pain flared in Kelly’s arm and his jaw muscles went hard as he struggled to keep his face blank.
The B-seven feinted with a left and Kelly knocked it aside. He couldn’t stop the right that blurred in after it and grazed his left temple. He jerked his head away and the B-seven threw a left that hit him over the ear. Kelly lurched back, throwing out a left that the B-seven brushed aside. Kelly caught his footing and hit the Flash’s jaw solidly with a right uppercut. He felt a jolt of pain run up his arm. The Flash’s head didn’t budge. He shot out a left that hit Kelly on the right shoulder.
Kelly back-pedaled instinctively. Then he heard someone yell, “Get ’im a bicycle!” and he remembered what Mr. Waddow had said. He moved in again, his lips aching they were pressed together so tightly.
A left caught him under the heart and he felt the impact shudder through his frame. Pain stabbed at his heart. He threw a spasmodic left which banged against the B-seven’s nose again. There was only pain. Kelly stepped back and staggered as a hard right caught him high on the chest. He started to move back. The B-seven hit him on the chest again. Kelly lost his balance and stepped back quickly to catch equilibrium. The crowd booed. The B-seven moved in without making a single mechanical sound.
Kelly regained his balance and stopped. He threw a hard right that missed. The momentum of his blow threw him off center and the Flash’s left drove hard against his upper right arm. The arm went numb. Even as Kelly was sucking in a teeth-clenched gasp the B-seven shot in a hard right under his guard that slammed into Kelly’s spongy stomach. Kelly felt the breath go out of him. His right slapped ineffectively across the Flash’s right cheek. The Flash’s eyes glinted.
As the B-seven moved in again, Kelly side-stepped and, for a moment, the radial eye centers lost him. Kelly moved out of range dizzily, pulling air in through his nostrils.
“Get that heap out o’ there!” some man screamed.
“Scrap iron, scrap iron!”
Breath shook in Kelly’s throat. He swallowed quickly and started forward just as the Flash picked him up again. Taking a chance, he sucked in breath through his mouth hoping that his movements would keep the people from seeing. Then he was up to the B-seven. He stepped in close, hoping to out-time electrical impulse, and threw a hard right at the Flash’s body.
The B-seven’s left shot up and Kelly’s blow was deflected by the iron wrist. Kelly’s left was thrown off too and then the Flash’s left shot in and drove the breath out of Kelly again. Kelly’s left barely hit the Flash’s rock-hard chest. He staggered back, the B-seven following. He kept jabbing but the B-seven kept deflecting the blows and counterjabbing with almost the same piston-like motion. Kelly’s head kept snapping back. He fell back more and saw the right coming straight at him. He couldn’t stop it.
The blow drove in like a steel battering-ram. Spears of pain shot behind Kelly’s eyes and through his head. A black cloud seemed to flood across the ring. His muffled cry was drowned out by the screaming crowd as he toppled back, his nose and mouth trickling bright blood that looked as good as the dye they used in the B-fighters.
The rope checked his fall, pressing in rough and hard against his back. He swayed there, right arm hanging limp, left arm raised defensively. He blinked his eyes instinctively, trying to focus them. I’m a robot, he thought, a robot.
The Flash stepped in and drove a violent right into Kelly’s chest, a left to his stomach. Kelly doubled over, gagging. A right slammed off his skull like a hammer blow, driving him back against the ropes again. The crowd screamed.
Kelly saw the blurred outline of the Maynard Flash. He felt another blow smash into his chest like a club. With a sob he threw a wild left that the B-seven brushed off. Another sharp blow landed on Kelly’s shoulder. He lifted his right and managed to deflect the worst of a left thrown at his jaw. Another right concaved his stomach. He doubled over. A hammering right drove him back on the ropes. He felt hot salty blood in his mouth and the roar of the crowd seemed to swallow him. Stay up!—he screamed at himself. Stay up goddamn you! The ring wavered before him like dark water.
With a desperate surge of energy, he threw a right as hard as he could at the tall beautiful figure in front of him. Something cracked in his wrist and hand and a wave of searing pain shot up his arm. His throat-locked cry went unheard. His arm fell, his left went down and the crowd shrieked and howled for the Flash to finish it.
There was only inches between them now. The B-seven rained in blows that didn’t miss. Kelly lurched and staggered under the impact of them. His head snapped from side to side. Blood ran across his face in scarlet ribbons His arm hung like a dead branch at his side. He kept getting slammed back against the ropes, bouncing forward and getting slammed back again. He couldn’t see any more. He could only hear the screaming of the crowd and the endless swishing and thudding of the B-seven’s gloves. Stay up, he thought. I have to stay up. He drew in his head and hunched his shoulders to protect himself.
He was like that seven seconds before the bell when a clubbing right on the side of his head sent him crashing to the canvas.
He lay there gasping for breath. Suddenly, he started to get up, then, equally as suddenly, realized that he couldn’t. He fell forward again and lay on his stomach on the warm canvas, his head throbbing with pain. He could hear the booing and hissing of the dissatisfied crowd.
When Pole finally managed to get him up and slip the cover over his head the crowd was jeering so loudly that Kelly couldn’t hear Pole’s voice. He felt the mechanic’s big hand inside the covering, guiding him, but he fell down climbing through the ropes and almost fell again on the steps. His legs were like rubber tubes. Stay up. His brain still murmured the words.
In the ready room he collapsed. Pole tried to get him up on the bench but he couldn’t. Finally, he bunched up his blue coat under Kelly’s head and, kneeling, he started patting with his handkerchief at the trickles of blood.
“You dumb bastard,” he kept muttering in a thin, shaking voice. “You dumb bastard.”
Kelly lifted his hand and brushed away Pole’s hand.
“Go—get the—money,” he gasped hoarsely.
“The money!” gasped Kelly through his teeth.
“Now!” Kelly’s voice was barely intelligible.
Pole straightened up and stood looking down at Kelly a moment. Then he turned and went out.
Kelly lay there drawing in breath and exhaling it with wheezing sounds. He couldn’t move his right hand and he knew it was broken. He felt the blood trickling from his nose and mouth. His body throbbed with pain.
After a few moments he struggled up on his left elbow and turned his head, pain crackling along his neck muscles. When he saw that Maxo was all right he put his head down again. A smile twisted up one corner of his lips.
When Pole came back, Kelly lifted his head painfully. Pole came over and knelt down. He started patting at the blood again.
“Ya get it?” Kelly asked in a crusty whisper.
Pole blew out a slow breath.
Pole swallowed. “Half of it,” he said.
Kelly stared up at him blankly, his mouth fallen open. His eyes didn’t believe it.
“He said he wouldn’t pay five C’s for a one rounder.”
“What d’ya mean?” Kelly’s voice cracked. He tried to get up and put down his right hand. With a strangled cry he fell back, his face white. His head thrashed on the coat pillow, his eyes shut tightly.
“No,” he moaned. “No. No. No. No. No.”
Pole was looking at his hand and wrist. “Jesus God,” he whispered.
Kelly’s eyes opened and he stared up dizzily at the mechanic.
“He can’t—he can’t do that,” he gasped.
Pole licked his dry lips.
“Steel, there—ain’t a thing we can do. He’s got a bunch o’ toughs in the office with ’im. I can’t…” He lowered his head. “And if—you was t’go there he’d know what ya done. And—he might even take back the two and a half.”
Kelly lay on his back, staring up at the naked bulb without blinking. His chest labored and shuddered with breath.
“No,” he murmured. “No.”
He lay there for a long time without talking. Pole got some water and cleaned off his face and gave him a drink. He opened up his small suitcase and patched up Kelly’s face. He put Kelly’s right arm in a sling.
Fifteen minutes later Kelly spoke.
“Well go back by bus,” he said.
“What?” Pole asked.
“We’ll go by bus,” Kelly said slowly. “That’ll only cost, oh, fifty-sixty bucks.” He swallowed and shifted on his back. “That’ll leave almost two C’s. We can get ’im a—a new trigger spring and a—eye lens and—” He blinked his eyes and held them shut a moment as the room started fading again.
“And oil paste,” he said then. “Loads of it. He’ll be—good as new again.”
Kelly looked up at Pole. “Then we’ll be all set up,” he said. “Maxo’ll be in good shape again. And we can get us some decent bouts.” He swallowed and breathed laboriously. “That’s all he needs is a little work. New spring, a new eye lens. That’ll shape ’im up. We’ll show those bastards what a B-two can do. Old Maxo’ll show ’em. Right?”
Pole looked down at the big Irishman and sighed.
“Right, Steel,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Matheson, Inc.