The PitJames Rollins
A blood-soaked arena and gladiators circling each other for the kill… a scene familiar from many books and movies, except that this isn’t Ancient Rome, and the battle-scarred warriors aren’t quite what you’d expect either. In fact, many things are different. The blood is the same, though. And the death. And the courage.
An amateur spelunker, a veterinarian, and a PADI-certified scuba enthusiast, James Rollins is a New York Times bestselling author of contemporary thrillers (many with strong fantastic elements) such as Subterranean, Excavation, Ice Hunt, Deep Fathom, and Amazonia, as well as a series of novels detailing the often world-saving adventures of the SIGMA Force, including Sandstorm, Map of Bones, Black Order, and The Judas Strain. His most recent books are a novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the novel The Last Oracle. He lives with his family in Sacramento, California, where he runs a veterinary practice.
The large dog hung from the bottom of the tire swing by his teeth. His back paws swung three feet off the ground. Overhead, the sun remained a red blister in an achingly blue sky. After so long, the muscles of the dog’s jaw had cramped to a tight knot. His tongue had turned to a salt-dried piece of leather, lolling out one side. Still, at the back of his throat, he tasted black oil and blood.
But he did not let go.
He knew better.
Two voices spoke behind him. The dog recognized the gravel of the yard trainer. But the second was someone new, squeaky and prone to sniffing between every other word.
“How long he be hangin’ there?” the stranger asked.
“No shit! That’s one badass motherfucker. But he’s not pure pit, is he?”
“Pit and boxer.”
“True nuff? You know, I got a Staffordshire bitch be ready for him next month. And let me tell you, she puts the mean back in bitch. Cut you in on the pups.”
“Stud fee’s a thousand.”
“Dollars? You cracked or what?”
“Fuck you. Last show, he brought down twelve motherfuckin’ Gs.”
“Twelve? You’re shittin’ me. For a dogfight?”
The trainer snorted. “And that’s after paying the house. He beat that champion out of Central. Should seen that Crip monster. All muscle and scars. Had twenty-two pounds on Brutus here. Pit ref almost shut down the fight at the weigh-in. Called my dog ring bait! But the bastard showed ‘em. And those odds paid off like a crazy motherfucker.”
Laughter. Raw. No warmth behind it.
The dog watched out of the corner of his eye. The trainer stood to the left, dressed in baggy jeans and a white T-shirt, showing arms decorated with ink, his head shaved to the scalp. The newcomer wore leather and carried a helmet under one arm. His eyes darted around.
“Let’s get out of the goddamn sun,” the stranger finally said. “Talk numbers. I got a kilo coming in at the end of the week.”
As they stepped away, something struck the dog’s flank. Hard. But he still didn’t let go. Not yet.
With the command, the dog finally undamped his jaws and dropped to the practice yard. His hind legs were numb, heavy with blood. But he turned to face the two men. Shoulders up, he squinted against the sun. The yard trainer stood with his wooden bat. The newcomer had his fists shoved into the pockets of his jacket and took a step back. The dog smelled the stranger’s fear, a bitter dampness, like weeds soaked in old urine.
The trainer showed no such fear. He held his bat with one hand and scowled his dissatisfaction. He reached down and unhooked the plate of iron that hung from the dog collar. The plate dropped to the hard-packed dirt.
“Twenty-pound weight,” the trainer told the stranger. “I’ll get him up to thirty before next week. Helps thicken the neck up.”
“Any thicker, and he won’t be able to turn his head.”
“Don’t want him to turn his head. That’ll cost me a mark in the ring.” The bat pointed toward the line of cages. A boot kicked toward the dog’s side. “Get your ass back into the kennel, Brutus.”
The dog curled a lip, but he swung away, thirsty and exhausted. The fenced runs lined the rear of the yard. The floors were unwashed cement. From the neighboring cages, heads lifted toward him as he approached, then lowered sullenly. At the entrance, he lifted his leg and marked his spot. He fought not to tremble on his numb back leg. He couldn’t show weakness.
He’d learned that on the first day.
“Git in there already!”
He was booted from behind as he entered the cage. The only shade came from a scrap of tin nailed over the back half of the run. The fence door clanged shut behind him.
He lumbered across the filthy space to his water dish, lowered his head, and drank.
Voices drifted away as the two headed toward the house. One question hung in the air. “How’d that monster get the name Brutus?”
The dog ignored them. That memory was a shard of yellowed bone buried deep. Over the past two winters, he’d tried to grind it away. But it had remained lodged, a truth that couldn’t be forgotten.
He hadn’t always been named Brutus.
* * *
“C’mere, Benny! That’s a good boy!”
It was one of those days that flowed like warm milk, so sweet, so comforting, filling every hollow place with joy. The black pup bounded across the green and endless lawn. Even from across the yard, he smelled the piece of hot dog in the hand hidden behind the skinny boy’s back. Behind him, a brick house climbed above a porch encased in vines and purple flowers. Bees buzzed, and frogs croaked a chorus with the approach of twilight.
“Sit! Benny, sit!”
The pup slid to a stop on the dewy grass and dropped to his haunches. He quivered all over. He wanted the hot dog. He wanted to lick the salt off those fingers. He wanted a scratch behind the ear. He wanted this day to never end.
“There’s a good boy.”
The hand came around, and fingers opened. The pup stuffed his cold nose into the palm, snapped up the piece of meat, then shoved closer. He waggled his whole hindquarters and wormed tighter to the boy.
Limbs tangled, and they both fell to the grass.
Laughter rang out like sunshine.
“Watch out! Here comes Junebug!” the boy’s mother called from the porch. She rocked in a swing as she watched the boy and pup wrestle. Her voice was kind, her touch soft, her manner calm.
Much like the pup’s own mother.
Benny remembered how his mother used to groom his forehead, nuzzle his ear, how she kept them all safe, all ten of them, tangled in a pile of paws, tails, and mewling complaints. Though even that memory was fading. He could hardly picture her face any longer, only the warmth of her brown eyes as she’d gazed down at them as they fed, fighting for a teat. And he’d had to fight, being the smallest of his brothers and sisters. But he’d never had to fight alone.
“Juneeeee!” the boy squealed.
A new weight leaped into the fray on the lawn. It was Benny’s sister, Junebug. She yipped and barked and tugged on anything loose: shirtsleeve, pant leg, wagging tail. The last was her specialty. She’d pulled many of her fellow brothers and sisters off a teat by their tails, so Benny could have his turn.
Now those same sharp teeth clamped onto the tip of Benny’s tail and tugged hard. He squealed and leaped straight up — not so much in pain, but in good-hearted play. The three of them rolled and rolled across the yard, until the boy collapsed on his back in surrender, leaving the brother and sister free to lick his face from either side.
“That’s enough, Jason!” their new mother called from the porch.
“Oh, Mom…” The boy pushed up on
one elbow, flanked by the two pups.
The pair stared across the boy’s chest, tails wagging, tongues hanging, panting. His sister’s eyes shone at him in that frozen moment of time, full of laughter, mischief, and delight. It was like looking at himself.
It was why they’d been picked together.
“Two peas in a pod, those two,” the old man had said as he knelt over the litter and lifted brother and sister toward the visitors. “Boy’s right ear is a blaze of white. Girl’s left ear is the same. Mirror images. Make quite a pair, don’t you think? Hate to separate them.”
And in the end, he didn’t have to. Brother and sister were taken to their new home together.
“Can’t I play a little longer?” the boy called to the porch.
“No argument, young man. Your father will be home in a bit. So get cleaned up for dinner.”
The boy stood up. Benny read the excitement in his sister’s eyes. It matched his own. They’d not understood anything except for the mother’s last word.
Bolting from the boy’s side, the pair of pups raced toward the porch. Though smaller, Benny made up for his size with blazing speed. He shot across the yard toward the promise of a full dinner bowl and maybe a biscuit to chew afterwards. Oh, if only—
— then a familiar tug on his tail. The surprise attack from behind tripped his feet. He sprawled nose-first into the grass and slid with his limbs splayed out.
His sister bounded past him and up the steps.
Benny scrabbled his legs under him and followed. Though outsmarted as usual by his bigger sister, it didn’t matter. His tail wagged and wagged.
He hoped these days would never end.
* * *
“Shouldn’t we pull his ass out of there?”
Brutus paddled in the middle of the pool. His back legs churned the water, toes splayed out. His front legs fought to keep his snout above the water. His collar, a weighted steel chain, sought to drag him to the cement bottom. Braided cords of rope trapped him in the middle of the concrete swimming pool. His heart thundered in his throat. Each breath heaved with desperate sprays of water.
“Yo, man! You gonna drown ‘im!”
“A little water won’t kill him. He got a fight in two days. A big-ass show. I got a lot riding on it.”
Paddling and wheeling his legs, water burned his eyes. His vision darkened at the edges. Still he saw the pit trainer off to the side, in trunks, no shirt. On his bare chest was inked two dogs snarling at each other. Two other men held the chains, keeping him from reaching the edge of the pool.
Bone-tired and cold, his back end began to slip deeper. He fought, but his head bobbed under. He took a gulp into his lungs. Choking, he kicked and got his nose above water again. He gagged his lungs clear. A bit of bile followed, oiling the water around his lips. Foam frothed from his nostrils.
“He done in, man. Pull ‘im out.”
“Let’s see what he’s got,” the trainer said. “Bitch been in there longer than he ever done.”
For another stretch of painful eternity, Brutus fought the pull of the chain and the waterlogged weight of his own body. His head sank with every fourth paddle. He breathed in as much stinging water as he did air. He had gone deaf to anything but his own hammering heart. His vision had shrunk to a blinding pinpoint. Then finally, he could no longer fight to the surface. More water flowed into his lungs. He sank — into the depths and into darkness.
But there was no peace.
The dark still terrified him.
* * *
The summer storm rattled the shutters and boomed with great claps that sounded like the end of all things. Spats of rain struck the windows, and flashes of lightning split the night sky.
Benny hid under the bed with his sister. He shivered against her side. She crouched, ears up, nose out. Each rumble was echoed in her chest as she growled back at the threatening noise. Benny leaked some of his terror, soaking the carpet under him. He was not so brave as his big sister.
…boom, boom, boom…
Brightness shattered across the room, casting away all shadows.
Benny whined and his sister barked.
A face appeared from atop the bed and leaned down to stare at them. The boy, his head upside down, lifted a finger to his lips. “Shh, Junie, you’ll wake Dad.”
But his sister would have none of that. She barked and barked, trying to scare off what lurked in the storm. The boy rolled off his bed and sprawled on the floor. Arms reached and scooped them both toward him. Benny went willingly.
“Eww…you’re all wet.”
Junie squirmed loose then ran around the room, barking, tail straight back, ears pricked high.
“Sheesh,” the boy said, trying to catch her while cradling Benny.
A door banged open out in the hall. Footsteps echoed. The bedroom door swung open. Large bare legs like tree trunks entered. “Jason, son, I got to get up early.”
“Sorry, Dad. The storm’s got them spooked.”
A long heavy sighed followed. The large man caught Junie and swung her up in his arms. She slathered his face with her tongue, tail beating against his arms. Still, she growled all the time as the sky rumbled back at them.
“They’re going to have to get used to these storms,” the man said. “These thunder-bumpers will be with us all summer.”
“I’ll take them downstairs. We can sleep on the sofa on the back porch. If they’re with me…maybe that’ll help ‘em get used to it.”
Junie was passed to the boy.
“All right, son. But bring an extra blanket.”
A large hand clapped on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re taking good care of them. I’m proud of you. They’re really getting huge.”
The boy struggled with the two squirming pups and laughed. “I know!”
A few moments later, all three of them were buried in a nest of blankets atop a musty sofa. Benny smelled mice spoor and bird droppings, brought alive by the wind and dampness. Still, with all of them together, it was the best bed he’d ever slept in. Even the storm had quieted, though a heavy rain continued to pelt from the dark moonless skies. It beat against the shingled roof of the porch.
Just as Benny finally calmed enough to let his eyelids droop closed, his sister sprang to her feet, growling again, hackles up. She slithered out from under the blankets without disturbing the boy. Benny had no choice but to follow.
What is it?…
Benny’s ears were now up and swiveling. From the top step of the porch, he stared out into the storm-swept yard. Tree limbs waved. Rain chased across the lawn in rippling sheets.
Then Benny heard it, too.
A rattle of the side gate. A few furtive whispers.
Someone was out there!
His sister shot from the porch. Without thinking, Benny ran after her. They raced toward the gate.
Whispers turned into words. “Quiet, asshole. Let me see if the dogs are back there!”
Benny saw the gate swing open. Two shadowy shapes stepped forward. Benny slowed — then caught the smell of meat, bloody and raw.
“What’d I tell ya?”
A tiny light bloomed in the darkness, spearing his sister. Junie slowed enough for Benny to catch up to her. One of the strangers dropped to a knee and held out an open palm. The rich, meaty smell swelled.
“You want it, don’t cha? C’mon, you little bitches.”
Junie snuck closer, more on her belly, tail twitching in tentative welcome.
Benny sniffed and sniffed, nose up. The tantalizing odor drew him along behind his sister.
Once near the gate, the two dark shapes leaped on them. Something heavy dropped over Benny and wrapped tightly around him. He tried to cry out, but fingers clamped over his muzzle and trapped his scream to a muffled whine. He heard the same from his sister.
He was hauled up and carried away.
“Nothing like a stormy night to pick up
bait. No one ever suspects. Always blame the thunder. Thinks it scared the little shits into running off.”
“How much we gonna make?”
“Fifty a head easy.”
Thunder clapped again, marking the end of Benny’s old life.
* * *
Brutus entered the ring. The dog kept his head lowered, shoulders high, ears pulled flat against his skull. His hackles already bristled. It still hurt to breathe deeply, but the dog hid the pain. Buried in his lungs, a dull fire burned from the pool water, flaring with each breath. Cautiously, he took in all the scents around him.
The sand of the ring was still being raked clean of the blood from the prior fight. Still, the fresh spoor filled the old warehouse, along with the taint of grease and oil, the chalk of cement, and the bite of urine, sweat, and feces from both dog and man.
The fights had been going on from sunset until well into the night.
But no one had left.
Not until this match was over.
The dog had heard his name called over and over: “Brutus…man, look at the cojones on that monstruo… he a little-ass bastard, but I saw Brutus take on a dog twice his size…tore his throat clean open…”
As Brutus had waited in his pen, people trailed past, many dragging children, to stare at him. Fingers pointed, flashes snapped, blinding him, earning low growls. Finally, the handler had chased them all off with his bat.
“Move on! This ain’t no free show. If you like him so goddamned much, go place a fucking bet!”
Now as Brutus passed through the gate in the ring’s three-foot-tall wooden fence, shouts and whistles greeted him from the stands, along with raucous laughter and angry outbursts. The noise set Brutus’s heart pounding. His claws dug into the sand, his muscles tensed.
They were the first to enter the ring.
Beyond the crowd spread a sea of cages and fenced-in pens. Large shadowy shapes stirred and paced.
There was little barking.
The dogs knew to save their strength for the ring.
“You’d better not lose,” the pit handler mumbled, and tugged on the chain hooked to the dog’s studded collar. Bright lights shone down into the pit. It reflected off the handler’s shaved head, revealing the ink on his arms, black and red, like bloody bruises.