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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Punch-Drunk Bastards (excerpt)

This is a preview of my soon-to-be completed second novel, Punch-Drunk Bastards.  If you like it say so. If you love it, pass it on!






Prologue



Last night…


     The tapping of the smooth silver ballpoint pen against the notepad sounded very much like a metronome gone out of control.  Crumpled balls of paper littered the handsome wooden desk like a graveyard of bad ideas as the thinning notepad lay blank before him.  The paper’s watermark – a green-tinged lion’s head logo – stared mockingly at him, daring him to try again to write something poignant.  Or even just intelligent.  In fact, at this point, the lion would even have settled for something merely coherent.
     He reached for the tiny bottle of vodka – airplane-sized, from the mini-bar - that he had been sipping.  He upended it, emptying the last of the clear, caustic liquid down his throat.  He felt his face flush as the liquor burned a path into his stomach.  He closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of drifting off to drunkenness.
     When his mouth and throat cooled he reopened his eyes.  The lion still looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to begin this manifesto, this great work that would make her understand why.  He tentatively put the pen to paper and was trying to decide the letter’s opening line.
     To whom it may concern…
     He had barely formed the final “n” when he tore the page from its pad.  To whom it may concern, he thought.  How silly.
     He tossed the balled up sheet of paper to the side and started again, dating the top of the page.  He went over in his mind how letters were supposed to start, with Dear Someone, or Dearest Whomever.  He wrote: I don’t even know your name.
     He smiled as he finished writing that one line.  He cracked open the miniature bottle of premium vodka queued up next to him, sucked it down and added the empty to the paper graveyard.  He was drunker than he had been in a long time, but at least the words were flowing.
     My name is Michael Dane.  I’m your father.  A little Darth Vader-esque, he thought, but it worked.  If you’re reading this then I’m dead.  He paused a moment after he wrote that; the finality of those words made his stomach gurgle.  Doubt, nervousness and fear crept into his mind, all at once, and all for the first time since this whole thing started.  He wondered if this whole deal was such a good idea after all.
     Drunkenness helped him rediscover his resolve.  He had no choice after all.  He wrote: And of course you’re reading this, because I know I’m going to die.





Chapter One



     The lights in the locker room hummed and flickered above Michael Dane’s head as the last of the gauze was taped tightly to his hands.  He looked up and held his breath for a moment as he punched the palms of his hands, exhaling when the fluorescent rods snapped back on full strength, buzzing as if a fly were trapped inside.  Soon after, they flickered again, and something in his stomach danced to the rhythm of the lights.  When fully lit, the locker room was cream-colored brick from the ground up to about three feet, with drywall painted an off-white color– beige, or maybe eggshell- going up to the ceiling.  Michael sat on an elevated table in the center of the room, a small metal bowl with gauze, tape and scissors next to him.  The table was brown leather and heavily padded, like the one he saw in his doctor’s office.  The lights dimmed again, freezing Michael’s breath. He exhaled only when they came back on.
     “Why don’t they do something about that?” he said, testing the wrist support of the gauze.  “It’s annoying.”
     The pot-bellied black man putting the tape on Michael’s hands stood from the stool in front of the table.  “Perfect,” he said.  “Let’s get the gloves.”  He hustled over to the locker on the other side of the room and pulled out a pair of black boxing gloves with “DANE” printed on the wrists in gold block letters.
     Michael took another deep breath to try to stop the salsa dancing girls in his stomach as the gloves were slid onto his hands.  “This is it, Dutch,” he said to the fat man as the gloves were tied up.  “Showtime.”  He hopped off the table and began to loosen up, rolling his head from side to side, and finally shadowboxing his way toward the wall, bobbing, weaving, and striking his imaginary opponent.
     Dutch quickly glanced at the clock on the wall behind Dane.  “Easy, killer,” he said with a laugh.  “Don’t tire yourself out.  We still got at least 10 minutes.  Keep your shorts on.”  Michael laughed too and stopped shadowboxing.  The dancing in his stomach changed from salsa to a waltz.  Dutch tightened the laces on the gloves and glanced up at his fighter.  “God damn it,” he said.  “I can’t believe we’re finally here.  Main event, title fight.  It’s been a long time coming.”
“Relax,” Michael said.  “Everything’s going to be fine.”
     “Be nice to get out there and get it over with.  I’m too old for this stress.”
     Michael smiled quickly from the corner of his mouth.  “Stop worrying,” he said.  “You trained me, didn’t you?  Haven’t we been working to get right here, right now since I was like 12?  I’m ready, Dutch, don’t stress it.  I got a job to do.”  Dane flexed his hands through the tape and took a deep breath. Tension rippled through his arms as every muscle bulged and relaxed in succession. “You’re making me nervous.”
“You should be.  Nervous is good.  It keeps you focused, careful, and on your feet.”  Dutch wrapped duct tape around Michael’s gloves at the wrists.  “You ready?”
Michael nodded and bounced on the balls of his feet.  “Born ready,” he said as he led the way toward the ring, shadowboxing his way out the door.  Dutch rolled his eyes at the statement and followed his fighter out.

**********

One by one, people were funneled into the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.  The crowd grew steadily to capacity, and the people coming in late were hard pressed to make it to their seats.  It was only a few minutes before the main event was scheduled to start: the heavily-favored IBF Light-Heavyweight Champion Quin Cortez vs. the underdog, but well-regarded Michael Dane for 12 rounds.  The excitement was palpable as the crowd noise started to sound like boiling spaghetti.  Cortez, a lean, chiseled Dominican with a devastating right hook, had mowed down everything in his path to this point and his fights had been so short lately that his pay-per-view bouts were offered by the round.  Dane, on the other hand, was a veteran who insiders felt never quite reached his potential.  He usually finished fights with a powerful overhand right and was undefeated since his release from prison, but many felt had lost his best years while incarcerated for a gun violation.
The rest of the card had just been a warm-up for this, but the early comers and die-hards wouldn’t deny themselves an undercard fight, especially those who had paid for whole night.  The fights themselves were exciting enough.  One featured a couple of middleweights from Mexico no one had ever heard of that went eight rounds before one of them was dropped by a surprise right hook.  Another had a has-been from Miami, Florida fight a never-was from Vancouver, British Columbia.  That fight went the distance and ended in a draw; both fighters were bruised and bloody afterwards and the crowd showed its appreciation.  They were only filler though, appetizers for Dane vs. Cortez.  The past few weeks, Cortez and Dane sniped at each other in the press, and officials had to separate them at the previous night’s weigh-in was stopped just before fireworks really started.  The entire crowd was chomping at the bit for this to finally get underway. 
     A slender, dark-skinned man in a white suit– a three-piece he wore with a charcoal gray shirt and red tie and shiny white leather shoes- sat cross-legged in the front of one of the reserved luxury skyboxes, above the press boxes and high above the crowd with a lit cigar firmly cued between his first two fingers.  He checked his gleaming platinum watch impatiently as he took a deep drag on the cigar.  A thin, young usher, no more than 20 years old, walked past him, leading a pair of middle-aged white men to the seats behind him.  The kid seated the two men and came back to the well-dressed man.  “Sir,” he said, clearing his throat, “you can’t smoke that in here.”
     The well-dressed man exhaled thick gray smoke from his nose.  “Pardon me, son?” he said, fixing his lazy, but somehow intimidating stare on the usher.  “I didn’t catch that.”
     The usher’s hands fidgeted a bit.  “There’s no smoking in here,” he said, trying to sound firm, but instead cracking his voice.  “You’re going to have to put that out.”
     The well-dressed man reared back and let out a sound halfway between smoker’s hack and laughter.  “You can’t be serious,” he said, letting the cigar hang from the corner of his mouth.  He took another drag and blew out a ring of smoke.  “You do know who I am, right?”
     The usher nervously pointed to the NO SMOKING UNDER PENALTY OF LAW sign posted directly above them.  “I’m sorry,” he said, sheepishly.  “I really am going to have to ask you to put that out.”
     The well-dressed man turned his head and stared into the eyes of the usher as darted everywhere to avert the gaze.  The man sucked in a couple of quick puffs as he reached inside his coat pocket.  The usher flinched a bit and held his breath.  When the man pulled out a silvery, rectangular cigar case, the usher breathed a deep sigh of relief.
     The well-dressed man tapped the ash on the floor. W ith a low hiss, he extinguished the cigar against the case.  “Satisfied?” he said.
     “I’m sorry, Mr. Alexander,” the usher said.  “Just doing my job.”
     “You’re welcome,” the well-dressed man said under his breath as the usher scurried off.  Once the kid was out of sight, he pulled another cigar from the case.
     “Hope you have better control of your fighter than you do your event, Dante.”  The man in white looked around for the source of this statement and saw a Puerto Rican man in a black suit sitting behind him, smiling from ear to ear.  Dante reached into his jacket pocket for his lighter with his left hand, and flipped the Puerto Rican man off with his right.
     “Trust me, Castillo,” he said, lighting the cigar and taking a quick drag.  “Everything’s set.  Just remember your end of the deal.”
     Castillo smiled and leaned back in his seat.  “Don’t worry about that.  I’ll deliver when you deliver.”
     “Then shut the hell up,” Dante said, turning his attention toward the ring.  “It’s about to start.”

**********

In the hallway leading to the ring, Michael Dane bounced on the balls of his feet, pounding his gloves together as Dutch paced in front of the closed door. An official from the Athletics Commission inspected Michael’s gloves for anything illegal.  When he was satisfied, he signed the duct tape and waved them through.
     Security guards in bright yellow blazers opened the door from the inside of the arena and motioned them in.  Blinding white spotlights shone directly on the chiseled light-skinned black man with the shaved head and his portly, broad-shouldered, darker trainer.  The roar of the crowd and the thumping bass line of Busta Rhymes’ “We Could Take It Outside” poured through the open door as if being sucked out by a vacuum.  Dutch put his hands on Michael’s shoulders and pushed him out.
     “It’s showtime,” he said again as he walked behind his protégé.
     Michael stalked toward the ring, close to the fans, as always, so they could touch him.  He rolled his neck from side to side as he approached the ring.  Flash bulbs and spotlights blinded him momentarily and every time his eyes adjusted, another would go off.  Dutch walked behind him, keeping his hands on Michael’s shoulders as they made their way through the crowd.  They looked up at the giant video screen suspended above the ring and saw their high-definition reflection, 20 times life size.  Michael climbed the ring steps at his corner, stepped between the ropes and raised a fist in the air.  After Dutch took off his robe, Michael climbed the ropes in the corner, rubbed the panther’s paw tattoo on his chest and pointed out to the crowd.




               Chapter Two



Twelve weeks earlier…

     Michael looked over at the Dante Alexander’s massive, ursine bodyguard and pondered how he got himself into this situation.  He was supposed to be training, in anticipation of a title fight.  Now he was riding in a dimly lit 4-by-6 elevator that smelled like piss and creaked as the ancient cable pulley inched the little box upwards.  Instead of being surrounded by trainers, he was in the company of Jason Boone, a well-dressed 6’6”, 350 pound black bear of a man, and the black bean burrito Boone kept belching up through this interminable ride.
     “I got Boone doing something for me in the projects by Long Island City,” Michael remembered Dante saying in his office earlier that day.  “I need you to go with him.  I normally wouldn’t ask you, but I got no one else.”
     Michael chuckled to himself.  Dante never actually asked.  “What for, though?” Michael had replied.  “Boone’s a big boy, I’m sure he can handle himself.”
     Dante smiled.  “This is true.  It couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of hands though, right?”
     Michael was relieved when the grimy and cramped little elevator finally opened at the 12th floor.  He wasn’t sure that it ever actually would, and there was barely enough room in there for him, Boone and Boone’s burrito halitosis.  Boone walked out and Michael followed, letting out a deeply held breath.
“And of course, you’ll be very well compensated for your time,” Dante had said.  Michael remembered the smile Dante was wearing: friendly on the surface, menacing about half a layer underneath.  It was like a neighbor’s dog about to warn you he was done playing.  “Do you trust me?”
     “On this? Not really.”
     Dante laughed.  “I appreciate your honesty.”
     “I don’t want to hurt anyone, Dante.  I’m done with that part of my life.”
     “Michael,” Dante said, “you’re a prize fighter.  You train yourself night and day in the art of hurting people.  You get paid a lot of money to hurt people.  It’s not that big of a deal.  Plus, how do you think we can afford your training?”
     Michael closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  “So what exactly are we doing?”
     “Hey, wake up,” Boone said as now they stood in front of Apartment 12C.  “You ready?”  Michael nodded, and Boone knocked on the door.  After a few moments of silence, Boone knocked again.
     “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Michael heard faintly from inside the apartment, followed immediately by some shuffling, either of people or items.  A tall, skinny black man pulled the door open as much as the security chain allowed and peeked out.  His hair was matted as if it hadn’t been combed in weeks, and an acrid smell seeped from his pores and assaulted Michael’s nose.  He nervously looked to his left and saw Boone.  “Who are you?”
     “Dante sent me,” he said.  “Are you Ray-Ray?”
     Ray-Ray looked to the right side of the door and saw Michael.  “Who’s this?”
     Michael glanced quickly at Boone, who took off his sunglasses and put them in his jacket pocket.  “Extra pair of hands,” Boone said.

                       ****************

     Apartment 12C was strangely barren.  The four people passed out on and around the couch in the living room space served as most of the dwelling’s furniture. The one dim lamp in the center of the room, and the dull blue static haze coming from the TV made up most of the room’s lighting.  Ray-Ray had led them to a small round dining table set up by the window in that poorly lit living room.  On the table was a Bunsen burner, the kind Michael used in chemistry class before he dropped out of high school, and a small spoon that looked like it used to be silver.  Most of the spoon’s handle still was.  About two-thirds of the spoon started going black, and the business end of it was rust-brown, scarred with flakes and heat blisters.  Michael felt his heart implode; this is a dope deal!
     “I ain’t expect Dante to send someone so soon,” Ray-Ray said, nervously scratching his neck.  He shifted his weight uneasily from side to side and his eyes darted around the room.  “I’d have cleaned up a bit, or something.”
Boone raised his hand and Ray-Ray’s blithering stopped.  “You got the money?” Boone asked.
Ray-Ray scampered across the apartment to the kitchen and reached under the sink.  He pulled out a faded red coffee can, reached in and pulled out an envelope.  He scurried back to the living room space and handed it to Boone.  “All there,” Ray-Ray said.  “Down to the last dollar.”
“I hope so,” Boone said, removing a hefty stack of hundred-dollar bills from the envelope and peeling them off one by one.  “I’d hate to be you if it wasn’t.”
“Whoa man, what are you doing?  You’re gonna count that right in front of me?  That’s fucked up.  Don’t you trust me?”
Boone shot him an icy glare, and once again Ray-Ray was silenced.  “Of course not, Ray-Ray.  But if it’s all here, what difference does that make?”  Boone counted for what seemed like an hour on the first pass, then counted the stack twice more before getting up quickly and grabbing Ray-Ray’s throat in one fluid motion.  “Where’s the rest, Ray?”
Oh hell, Michael thought.

               ****************

“Mm-hmm,” Boone said calmly into his cell phone as he held the lower half of Ray-Ray’s face in his death grip.  Ray-Ray’s scream was muffled by the huge leather-gloved paw that covered his mouth, and Boone lifted the phone away from his face.  “Shh,” he said to Ray-Ray.
Michael’s eyes jumped wide and his mouth dropped.  This situation took a hard left turn into uncomfortable territory, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it. “Yo, Boone, let him down,” he said.  “What the fuck are—“
     “Shut up,” Boone said, calmly, lifting the phone from his face for a split second before returning to his conversation.  “Mm-hmm.  Okay.  Got it.  Thanks.”  He closed his cell phone and got right into Ray-Ray’s face.  “Well, Ray,” he said, tightening his grip, “today may be your lucky day.”  He let Ray-Ray go and put his sunglasses back on.  “As you can imagine, Dante’s not very happy about the money being light.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Ray-Ray whimpered as he gasped for breath and massaged his jaw.  “I didn’t know it wasn’t all there.  I wouldn’t do that to Dante.  I swear, I didn’t know.”
Boone put his hands up to concede the protest.  “Of course you didn’t,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his bland manner.  “Honest mistake.  We understand that, don’t we, Mike?” 
Michael nodded nervously.  “You’re only human,” he said.  It could have happened to anyone.”   
“Yeah,” Ray-Ray said.  “Everyone makes mistakes. I’m sorry.”
Boone smiled.  “Exactly.  Dante knows you’re sorry, and he’ll even forgive you, provided you have something he needs.”  “Anything,” Ray-Ray instantly replied.  “If he needs it and I got it, it’s his, no problem.”    
“That’s the kind of cooperation I like to see, Ray.”  Boone cleared his throat before continuing.  “You have anything to drink in here?”  Ray-Ray hastily filled a plastic cup with water and handed it to Boone, who downed it in one gulp.  “He needs information, Ray,” he continued.  “Where’s the rest of the money?” 
“It was supposed to be there,” Ray-Ray said.  “We sold some to some Jamaicans and we were supposed to collect from them yesterday.  I-I mean, you know how Jamaicans can be flaky with this shit.  I sent those dudes to collect.”  He pointed over to the four men passed out in the living room.  “I don’t know what happened.”
Boone laughed for a second and unbuttoned his suit jacket.  “You know, I told Dante the same thing on the phone just now.  You heard me tell him that you sold it and were waiting for the payout.  I did my best to defend you.  He seems to be convinced otherwise.”  Boone reached into his jacket and swatted Ray-Ray in the face with the barrel of his gold-plated 9mm, knocking him to the ground.  “He also said you were into him about fifty grand.  Don’t be stupid, Ray.  Where is it?”
     “I don’t fuckin’ know!” Ray-Ray said.  His eyes widened and he started to sweat.
     Michael was frozen in place as Boone pointed the gun at Ray-Ray.  “Either you’re lying or you’re an idiot,” Boone said.  “In any case, if you don’t cough up the money, the drugs, or the Jamaicans, you’re useless to Dante.”  He clicked off the safety catch.  “And useless means dead.”
     “Yo, for real, I don’t know!”  Ray-Ray said.  He was breathing heavily now, and tears started to leak from his tightly closed eyes.  “I swear to God, I don’t know nothin’ about what happened!”
     Boone pulled the slide back and took a step away.  “Well, Ray,” he said with a heavy sigh, “that sounds a whole lot like a problem.”
     Finally forcing himself to make a move, Michael slid between Boone and Ray-Ray and shoved Boone back.  “Yo, man,” Michael said, “is you crazy?”
Boone peeked out at the end of his own gun and smiled coolly at Michael.  “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”                                            
Michael looked down at Ray-Ray, on the ground with his eyes shut tight, then at the killer end of Boone’s gold plated nine.  His heartbeat grew louder as he felt it crawl up his throat.  He tried his best to ignore the flight part of the fight or flight response.
Then again, he thought, fighting probably ain’t the best idea, either.
“Get out of the way, Michael,” Boone said calmly.
“What are you doing, man?” Michael asked, voice quavering.  “Are you out of your mind?”
Boone smiled.  “You’re asking me?  You’re the one standing between the gun and the junkie.”
Michael shook his head and took a step toward Boone.  “Come on, big man, you know this ain’t right.  He don’t got what you want.  Put the gun down.”
Boone reached into his jacket with his free hand and produced another gold plated nine, pointing it at Michael.  “Step aside,” he said, though Michael could barely hear him over the sound of his heartbeat pulsing through his ears.  “Please.  I don’t want to kill you.”  
Michael’s body tensed and his fingers went numb.  “Yo, what the fuck are you doing?”
Please,” Boone said, louder and more assertive, cutting Michael off.  “Move.”  Michael hesitantly stepped to his left and the barrel of Boone’s gun followed him.  “Now, as I was saying, Ray-Ray, I need to know where the Jamaicans are.”
Ray-Ray’s eyes were wide and glassy.  He took, short shallow breaths as his eyes darted back and forth between Boone and Michael.
“Ray, wake up,” Boone said.  “I asked you a question.  Jamaicans.  Where are they?”
“I don’t know, man,” Ray-Ray whined.  “I swear.”
Boone turned the second gun on the crying addict on the ground and Michael let out an audible sigh of relief, despite himself.  He caught himself saying, “Oh thank God,” involuntarily as his body relaxed. 
“That’s not the answer I needed to hear, Ray.”
“It’s the fucking truth, I swear to fucking God.  I haven’t seen or heard from them.  I thought they was dead or got popped by the fives.”
“Come on, Ray, stop fucking with me.  If you don’t have my money, my dope, or the information I need, why are we letting you live?”  He flipped off the safety catch on the other gun and used his free fingers to pull the slide back.  “You’re useless.”    “I’ll get it!”
Boone paused.  Michael was again frozen in place, and for a moment, the only sound in the room was Ray-Ray’s panicked whimpering.  “I’ll get it,” he said again.  “Tell Dante I’ll get it.”
“Get what Ray?” Boone said.  “What are you getting?” “Information.  On how to find those motherfuckers.  They have Dante’s money.  I’ll get it. J-just please, don’t kill me.”  Ray-Ray’s words turned into barely comprehensible sobs.  “Just please don’t kill me, please, please don’t kill me.”
Boone’s finger hovered over the trigger for a couple of moments before he flipped the safety catches of both guns back on.  Ray-Ray let out a sigh of relief and a stream of urine in his pants as Boone put the guns back in his shoulder holsters.  Boone looked over at the still shell-shocked Michael and nodded.  He extended his hand to Ray-Ray and helped him to his feet.  Ray-Ray shivered as Boone adjusted the man’s tank top and mussed his matted hair.  “Well, damn brother,” he said in a calm whisper, “that’s all you had to say.”

                 ****************

Boone drove along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the way back, just above the 35 mile-per-hour speed limit.  It was almost 10:00 p.m., and the highway was about as empty as you could expect in New York on a Wednesday night.  Boone drove straight and just fast enough to not slow up traffic.  He turned on the smooth jazz station and drummed his fingers on the wheel, humming along to the wordless tune that came in over the radio, seemingly oblivious to the chaos that had just transpired.
Michael sat in the front passenger seat.  He hadn’t spoken a word since Boone drew a gun on him, but his heartbeat was returning to normal, finally.  He took a deep breath and gazed over at Boone, who appeared content – or, rather, as content as Boone ever appeared.  He didn’t look like someone who had two men at gunpoint 20 minutes earlier.
Michael didn’t realize he was staring until Boone cleared his throat and said, “I hope you don’t think I’m cute.”    Michael was jolted out of his daze.  “What?”
“It’s a miracle, you can speak,” Boone said dryly.  “I thought you went mute on me.”
Michael rolled his eyes and looked out the passenger window.  “Yeah.  I’m fine.  I’m all right, considering, you know, you had a gun pointed at me.”
“Come on, now,” Boone said, stifling a laugh.  “What that was back there was a classic case of ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It worked perfectly.” 
“You pulled.  A gun.  On me.”
“Nothing personal, dog.  Don’t be mad.”
“Nothing personal?  I thought you were gonna shoot me!”   Boone thought about it a moment.  “For a second, I was.”   Michael’s heart stopped for a beat and his eyes gaped.
“Oh relax,” Boone said.  “Stop being such a bitch, will you?  It’s not like I’d have killed you.  I’d probably have gotten you in the arm or something.  A flesh wound.  I know you got the big fight coming up.  You did the smart thing though, and got out of the way.  You let the bad cop do his job.”  Michael hissed through his teeth.  “You’re fucking crazy, you know that?”   
“Like I said, it was nothing personal.  It’s just business.”








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