Vampire Games (Chapter Twenty-two)

We were in his office, which had a view of most of the gym. Presently, two men were hoisting the heavy bag and repositioning it on the hook. They were using a stepladder and were sweating with effort.

Romero had yet to say anything. He was in his late thirties, extremely fit, and would have been good-looking if not for the fact that he seemed to have a permanent case of cauliflower ear. That was the condition many fighters got when the ear swelled up.

Ah, screw it, I decided. He was still damn good-looking, cauliflower ear and all.

He was leaning back in his office chair, lightly tapping the tips of his fingers together over his chest. The words on his tank top said: Marquez Gym – Elite Training.

"You gonna say something," I said, "or just sit there and look at me like I'm a freak."

"I'm sorry, se?orita," he said, literally shaking his head. "I'm trying to understand what happened out there."

"Sometimes, there are no easy answers."

"I suppose not," he said, then his eyes sort of glazed over a little. I think he was re-living the moment, especially as he began voicing his thoughts. "Good form, good stance, a good punch. A straight shot."

He rubbed his face and looked at me.

I smiled sweetly. "What can I say," I said. "A lucky shot."

"A helluva shot. Or punch. Jacky's been talking about you."

"Jacky exaggerates."

Romero shook his head. I think – think – his cauliflower ears might have wobbled a little. "Actually, no, se?orita. I would say Jacky is not known to exaggerate. If he says a boxer is damn good, the boxer is damn good."

"I'm not a boxer," I said.

Romero raised his eyebrows. "Maybe not, but you can punch."

"I'm not looking for a trainer," I said. "I'm here about your brother."

That snapped him out of whatever reverie he was in. "My brother?"

I nodded. "I'm looking for answers, Romero."

He didn't want to let go of what he'd just seen outside the office – in his own gym, no less – something that defied logic and common sense. He finally looked at me, and he finally showed me his real self. Maybe my little display had broken through his machismo and affected him on a deeper level. I didn't know. But there was a change in him. His walls were coming down and as he looked at me, simply staring at me with an intensity I'd only seen a few times in my life – and perhaps only from Kingsley's hauntingly amber eyes – Romero broke down.

And he broke down hard.

He covered his face with his hand and wept into it, shuddering, his shoulder muscles and triceps rippling. I watched the tears appear through his fingers and cascade down over his knuckles, and watched as his aura rippled with hues of blues and greens.

After a few minutes of this, he rubbed his face with the backs of his hands. "I'm not sure what came over me."

"It's natural," I said. "And perfectly okay."

"It's not natural for me." He wiped his eyes some more. "I miss him so much, Ms. Moon."

"I understand."

"He should not be dead." Romero shook his head, rubbed his arms. "Caesar rarely absorbed punishment. He was good. Damn good. He was the one handing out the beatings. And when he wasn't punching, he was ducking and weaving."

"Tell me about the fight."

"The fight was no different than the rest. Russell Baker's good, but not that good. He must have landed a lucky shot or two, enough to do damage. Hard to say."

"Is it your professional opinion that your brother was hit hard enough to be killed?"

"From what I saw? No. From what I know about boxing? Anything can happen."

"Who's allowed in the locker room before a fight?"

He shrugged. "I guess anyone the fighter allows."

"And who did your brother allow?"

"Myself, my older brother, Eduardo, his manager, his girlfriend, and his promoter."

"That's a lot of people."

"Not really. Mostly Caesar was with me and Eduardo, discussing strategy, last-minute thoughts, and trying to calm him down. He is always so excited before a fight."

"But you were Caesar's official trainer, correct?"

"Yes. But that didn't stop my other brothers from coming in and giving us their two cents worth."

He chuckled. I chuckled. I said, "Was there ever a problem having that many people in the locker room before a fight?"

"Rarely. Call it controlled mayhem."

"Tell me about the locker room on the night in question. Did anything happen that stands out? Anything unusual? Out of the norm?"

He was shaking his head and thinking hard, now running his fingers through his thick, black hair. I noticed some magazines near his computer keyboard. No, not magazines. Travel guides to the Bahamas. "No, sorry. Nothing that stands out."

"You said his girlfriend was in the locker room that night."

"Yes."

"What was his relationship like with his girlfriend?"

Romero shrugged. "Normal, I suppose."

"Define normal."

"They mostly got along."

"Mostly?"

He shrugged again. "They fought like anyone, I guess."

"They fight physically?"

Romero paused and cocked his head a little, giving me a better view of his cauliflower ear. I tried not to make a face. "I'm not sure what you're suggesting, Ms. Moon, but I can assure you that he did not have any altercations with his girlfriend before the fight. I was with him the entire time."

"Did your brother mention if he'd been fighting with his girlfriend earlier? Say at the hotel room?"

Romero looked away and shrugged. "He mentioned a small fight. Nothing big. But they had made up by the time of the fight."

"Prior to the Vegas fight, when was Caesar's last fight?"

Romero looked up, thinking. "Four months ago."

"So three months before his death?"

"Yes."

"How rigorous are his sparring sessions?"

"Rigorous?"

"Yes. Could he have suffered any punishment during practice?"

"We use headgear, Ms. Moon. We go light. Not too heavy. We break up anything that gets too physical."

"Is it your expert opinion that Caesar could not have suffered any real injury in his practices leading up to his last fight?"

"None."

"And he didn't have a history of brain trauma?"

"None. He was just a kid and a damn good fighter. Damn good. He could have been the best."

I nodded, and wondered why I was feeling like I wasn't getting the whole story. Romero was fighting back tears. Caesar was dead, and there was only one obvious lead. I said, "Can I have his girlfriend's information?"