This time Bumps Murphy--or the guy who says he's Bumps Murphy, a character I created in my stories--he calls me while I'm at work. Hey, it's no great detective story--he already knew where I work--so I figure I'm due for another round of stalking...and then he'll kick my ass again. Frankly, I don't have the time for any of it right now, but I'm not about to make him mad again, not if I can help it.

"Just checkin up on ya, Doc," he says, "Been a while since you wrote a story."

"Things have been pretty busy"

"Drop by the gym on Friday."

I can't say anything at this point.

"Don't worry. You ain't fightin. I'm gonna give you somethin to write about. Remember that punkass calls himself Hot2duit? Well, I been scoutin him out. We're gonna go this Friday around eight."

I'm sweating...a lot. It has been pretty warm this week, but the air conditioning's been on full tilt. "OK, I'll be there."

"I'm gonna send a couple of my boys to pick you up. Parking lot outside your building, seven sharp."

"I could get there by myself. I'll be there, on time."

"I don't want too many cars here. See, Hot don't know we're gonna fight."

He hangs up. This call came on Tuesday (May 6th). Three days have never passed more slowly. I think about sending Hot2duit a personal mesage, but he doesn't have that in his profile. Besides, he thinks my stories about fighting Bumps are fiction, so I doubt he'd believe me even if I could warn him. I think about calling the police, but they wouldn't believe me either, not since I never filed charges against Bumps when he beat my ass...either time. In the end, Hot will have to choose to fight--at least that's how I'd played it when I fought Bumps. Who knows? The guy could be a better fighter than Bumps or me.

Friday, May 9th. 7 p.m.

They show up, right on time. It's the two guys who took the pics last time. One guy's about 5'6", maybe 135/140 pounds, deep olive skin, large dark eyes, full lips, jet black hair gelled into immobility, wife-beater tight to his chest and abs. The other guy's taller, maybe 5'9", 150-160 pounds, pale white skin lightly sunburned on the shoulders, blond hair cut short, thin lips pressed together in a slight scowl, deep-set green eyes, no shirt, spider web tattoo spreading from left shoulder to left pec. The shorter guy calls out, "You ready, Doc?"

I nod.

"Righteous effort last time, Doc. No hospital time. You didn't even see your doctor, am I right?"

"I was OK. A little stiff, but OK."

The taller guy's already headed back to their car (something red and rusted and unremarkable). His loose jeans reveal the waistband of white boxers. Another time, another place, I could and probably would play this differently. But the shorter guy's still talking. "You can call me Fly, Doc," he says, "and that's Spider." Big surprise. "I'm with your stories, man. You want, you can put me in one sometime, a'ight?" He walks backwards towards the car, punching the air in front of me with fairly quick jabs. "They call me Fly 'cause I tap away and get the points, win the round wit m'speed, yo." The punches come faster, his hands blur a bit. "Like pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop all night. Then BAM!" He throws a right hook that passes inches from my face. "They ain't ever ready fuh me. Never." He opens the door for me, rear passenger side. He keeps talking as he slips into the front and turns to face me. Spider's hands grip the steering wheel tight, the knuckles whiten. Fly goes on. "So you could maybe write one 'bout me, huh? Maybe put me up against a bigger guy, somebody like my man Spider here. We could maybe spar a little for real, and you could get how we fight, a'ight? We do spar, yeah, he only got fifteen, twenty pounds on me. We fight for real, I got a chance."

Spider backhands Fly with a heavy right that catches him on the side of his jaw. The impact bounces Fly's face off the headrest. His lip is bleeding a little. He asks, "Why you got to do that in front of the Doc, man?"

"Get out of the car, Fly." Spider gets out and walks around the rear of the car--the long way around. Fly watches, those large eyes widening with what looks like significant fear.

Fly calls out. "In the ring, Spider, with a ref. I'll spar any day, man. This ain't no ring. We got Bumps waitin."

Spider pulls the door open. Fly tries to hold it closed, but Spider's too strong. The little guy tries to retreat towards the driver's side. Spider's long left grabs Fly's wife-beater and pulls him out of the car. By now, Fly's not saying much. Spider pushes him back against the car, against my door, and he holds him there with that long left arm. Fly seems helpless, almost defenseless--at least he doesn't try to fight. Spider punches him in the gut a couple of times, hard shots that I can hear through the window--I actually wonder if the glass might crack. Fly collapses a bit, but Spider keeps a tight hold on Fly's wife-beater. He punches Fly's face three times: a right hook to the mouth, a backhand blow to the nose, then a short shot high on the cheek. He lets go, and Fly slumps to the ground, holding his palms up and open in surrender. "Get in," Spider says, and then he walks around the front of the car to return to the driver's seat. Fly manages to pull himself in and buckles up just as Spider revs the engine and peels out of the parking lot.

"You busted my lip, man. Think you broke my nose, too. Why you got to do that?" Fly flips down the visor and checks his face in the mirror there. I can see the results of the beating: more blood from the lower lip, bloody but probably not broken nose, and the beginning of a welt below the left eye. Damage done quick. Fly's tight wife-beater has been stretched out, and it hangs loosely against Fly's chest. He whimpers, "Bumps ain't gonna like this."

Spider grunts, a dismissive sound. He keeps his focus on the traffic ahead of us. His hands have relaxed their grip, but the muscles of his long, lean arms twitch and flex as he guides the steering wheel. Twenty minutes later, we're at the gym. Spider parks the car in back, right next to Bumps' black convertable.

Bumps meets us at the door, sunglasses covering those fierce blue eyes and the ridge of bumps over the eyebrow. A white t-shirt hides the boxing glove tattoo on his left pec. But that sexy sneer of his is enough to reawaken the memory of the times I've visited this place. I don't feel safe, but it's not exactly scaring me. For the moment, though, Bumps is looking at Fly's face. "You boys been playin without me?"

Fly hasn't said a word for a while, and he's not saying anything now. Bumps gets in his face. "You shootin your yap again, Fly?" Fly hangs his head. Bumps turns to Spider. "Braggin on himself again? You did this?" Spider just smiles, and Bumps lets that sneer spread. "Good work. OK, boys, go get the cameras." They head towards the lockers. I'm alone with Bumps now, and my pulse races as he looks me over. "Relax, Doc. I ain't pissed with you. Not tonight. Ten minutes from now, Hot's comin in that door. Don't say nothin. Just watch and listen good." He comes in close to whisper in my ear, his chest against mine, the stubble of his beard against my cheek. "Be a good boy, Doc." Then I feel his tongue licking my neck. He lets one hand drift to my crotch for a moment, but then he walks away and leaves me cold.

Spider and Fly return, and I join them on a bench in the darker portion of the gym. Most of the lights are off, except for a few over that small ring and a couple close to the door. Bumps waits at the door, barely moving. After a few minutes, headlights sweep the front windows as a car enters the parking lot. Bumps waves, then he opens the door. In comes Hot.

First the good news: he's a couple of inches taller than Bumps, probably twenty pounds or more heavier, a solid football build with thick arms and full chest and a slight paunch at the belt. Now the bad news: this is a kid--can't be more than twenty. No way this guy has Bumps' experience. You can tell by the way he stands too straight, too open. He's wearing a muscle tank, one of those Undergear/International Male jobs with two thin strips of fabric in front joining into a single strip in back. Other than that, he's in great sweatshorts and sandals. He has no clue.

I don't get all of the details of their conversation, but the gist of it is Hot is here because he thinks the gym is for sale. Bumps makes some excuse for the lack of light, then he gestures towards the ring. Hot doesn't question any of it--he just climbs the steps and ducks through the ropes. He kicks off the sandals and starts playing at shadow-boxing. More bad news: he has no skills and no speed, at least none that I can see at this point.

Bumps holds up a pair of gloves with velcro closures. "Try these," he says, "You don't get the right feel without gloves." He tosses them to Hot, and the guy drops both of them--final bit of bad news: slow reflexes. Bumps gets in the ring and helps Hot glove up. Hot doesn't see the extra pair of gloves in the far corner. He tries shadow-boxing with the gloves, a bit more serious about it now, but with the same sad results. Bumps watches him, moves with him a little, compliments his form. In a minute, Hot's ready to stop, but Bumps says, "You should make contact with something. Let's see. Too dark for the heavy bag. Not sure where they left the training mitts. You know what?" I can feel it coming. "Why don't we spar a little?"

The kid stops short. "You and me?" He's got reason to question: Bumps is twice Hot's age and almost looks it.

"Yeah. I can take care of myself. Lots of bar fights, y'know?" Bumps turns his back to Hot, takes off his sunglasses, peels the t-shirt off, and gloves up. This is our cue--Spider taps my shoulder and then motions for me to follow as we approach Hot from behind.

"You ready?" Hot asks, leaning forward slightly and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Maybe the kid knows something after all.

"You must be hot to do it." Bumps says as he turns around.

Hot stops bouncing. He does the same inventory I did--the eyes, the bumps, the boxing glove tattoo.

"That's right, bitch. I told ya to be careful about sayin somebody should get his ass kicked."

Hot looks down. Yeah, the tape's in place, same as it was for me. If Hot just backs off, maybe gets the gloves off and gets out the door, maybe...

But Bumps has one more card to play. "So you gonna go home to your mama, or are you gettin your ass kicked?"

Hot makes his choice: he bangs his gloves together and starts moving in. Bumps calls out to me, "Keep your eyes open, Doc. I wanna read all about this one." This is an obvious tactic, like telling your opponent his shoelaces are untied, but the kid actually stops and looks towards me. Fly's already laughing.

I don't have time to warn the guy, because Bumps rushes across the ring and lands a hard left hook just as Hot turns back to the fight. Hot goes back on his heels, and his arms drop a bit. Bumps throws more hooks, no pauses between them--right, left, right, left, right--until Hot's in a corner. He's overwhelmed by the flurry and doesn't look like he can get clear, but he manages to raise his guard and block some of the onslaught. To his credit, Hot's got a thick neck, so he seems able to absorb more punishment than I could, but he'll have to do something soon. Bumps tries to punch through the guard, still headhunting, mostly with hooks and the occasional uppercut. In the midst of the assault, Bumps pauses and takes a step back. Hot opens his guard, but not much. It's enough. Bumps rockets a straight right to Hot's chin. Hot's head snaps back, and the sweat flies out in a wide spray. The big guy drops to his knees. Bumps goes to the opposite side of the line and waits. Spider and Fly snap a few pics.

Hot tries to shake off the cobwebs and get clear. The ring's so small, and he's close to the line. Bumps is coiled to strike if Hot crosses the line. They're both sucking in deep breaths. At least Hot takes his time. Finally, he leans back and pulls himself up with the ropes, just enough to steady himself and avoid toeing the line before he's ready. Then, with one last shake of his head, he raises his guard and heads towards Bumps.

No distractions this time, no surprise. They fight on Bumps' side of the line, the side opposite me, so I move to a mid-point position. Bumps throws powershots to the head again, but it's not working this time, at least not as well. They land, but with less damage. Hot leans in, using his extra weight as leverage. Bumps tries to get punching room, but they're too close for the big bombs to go through. Hot starts the bodywork: hard, heavy shots to Bumps' ribs and abs, the punches landing with loud thumps. He manages to lift Bumps off his feet a couple of times. Hot launches uppercuts high to the solar plexus and chest. Bumps has to get out of there or he'll have broken ribs or a cracked sternum. He slips a heavy, slow right and moves past Hot, out into the center of the ring.

Separated now, and both of them hurt, they pause with their guards up. Bumps has the better psyche--those blue eyes burn. Hot's not finished, but he's bleeding a little from the lower lip. In the dim light, I can see reddened flesh across Bumps' gut and the beginnings of a substantial bruise on his left side. They're both breathing heavy, and they're both covered in sweat.

As if on cue, they both move in, but Bumps has a different strategy now. He's working his jab and using the ring as best he can. Against somebody who could match his speed--against somebody better than Hot--it wouldn't work, but Hot's pretty slow. If Hot blocks a jab, Bumps hits him with a shot to that slightly soft gut. If Hot dodges, Bumps follows the jab with a power shot to the head. If Hot eats the jab, there's another punch right behind it. Not that Hot's not landing anything--I'd put the ratio at four hits by Bumps to every one that Hot lands. But what Hot lands lands hard, and most of it attacks that weakened left side. In the middle of an exchange, Bumps' right glove ends up caught under Hot's left armpit, and Hot clamps his left arm in tight to keep Bumps trapped. Then he bombs Bumps' gut again, five unanswered shots that leave Bumps gasping for air. Bumps moves to his left to cut the distance and break free, but that doesn't work. He sweeps his right leg behind Hot's right leg, and they tumble to the canvas. Bumps is lucky--he lands on top. I think Hot twisted something when he fell, or maybe the move surprised him, because he doesn't move to recover. Bumps moves quick into a schoolboy pin, his knees pinning Hot's arms.

"You're gonna kick my ass? YOU?" Bumps whomps Hot with a hard right.

But Hot isn't out. Not yet. "Somebody should."

Wrong thing to say. Bumps punches straight down with a right, smashing the kid's nose. "It ain't gonna be you, bitch. You're gonna be my punchin bag. Just like the Doc here was." He hits Hot with a left that turns his face towards me. It's the first time Hot really gets a chance to see me.

"Doc?" He says, "C'mon, Doc. Help me out."

Bumps glares at me, challenging me, eyes fierce and bright, the sneer revealing teeth. I shake my head no. I don't want to watch, but I know I have to.

"What makes you think he's gonna do anything to help a punkass like you, huh?" Bumps smacks Hot with a right, and the sound of the blow thunders through the gym. "Callin' me out?" WHOMP! "Bet you think next time." WHOMP! "You gotta learn." WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP! Bumps isn't talking anymore, and Hot's head flops from side to side. At first, Hot struggles, trying to escape from the pin, but the punches take the fight out of him pretty fast. The bombs rain down, over and over. How long is Bumps going to keep this up? How long can Hot take it? How long did Bumps beat me the first time? The second time? The smack of leather against flesh keeps ringing in my ears, even as I'm writing this now I can feel the memory of punches to my face. After what seems far too long, Bumps stops. The silence is worse. Hot isn't moving. Spider and Fly get ready to snap more pics.

"Wait," Bumps says. He gets off Hot, puts his ear to the kid's chest and listens. I can't tell, but I don't see Hot breathing. "Fly, you know that breathing thing, right?" Fly nods, then rushes into the ring to give Hot artificial respiration.

Bumps struggles to his feet, the pain in his side no longer hidden by bravado. He comes towards me. I'm frozen. "Write it up, Doc. We'll get him to Mercy General. You just write it up good. You don't wanna piss me off."

Spider drives me back to my car. I check my watch--eleven o'clock. I start to get out, but Spider grabs my wrist and holds me back. He looks me straight in the eyes for the first time since I met him. He says, "I'll be in touch." Then he lets me go. I get out and watch him drive away.

Time for a reality check.

To start with, I don't know who Bumps really is. First he says he's Bumps, then he lets me think he's Billy, the character from another story. I've said it before--this is a lot of coincidence or the man's a little psycho. But I already knew that.

The question now is--was that really hot2duit, or was this just another one of Bumps' headgames?