A Short Excerpt from the novel in progress: Chapter One
There were exactly two ways to reach home. Eddie could use the alley that cut half the distance but risked an encounter in a closed space with no good way to dodge through, and no route for escape, or he could go down 42nd street, around on Market, and back up 38th. Every day since he’d been very young, he’d made his choice. It was like tossing warped, hateful dice with no winning combinations. If he got caught in the alley, a beating was certain. Everything in his pockets would be forfeit, and he’d probably be lucky to get by with a limp that would stick with him for a week. If he went the long way, he had a half-assed chance of avoiding confrontation, but he was in for a run. They’d spot him…no way to avoid that. They always did.
Tonight, he didn’t feel like running.
Eddie had been at the ballpark. The Dragons had played the Spartans, and he’d managed to sneak in and see most of the action. That was normal. He had a knack for finding the right moment, aiming himself like a bullet, or an arrow to the heart of a crowd. When all eyes were turned the wrong way, he passed. When those same eyes turned back, he appeared to be part of a family, or a school group—he never stood out. He was in the right place, at the right time.
In his pocket, he felt the bulge of the ball he’d caught—the home run in the bottom of the eighth inning that had won the game. If he took the alley, they would get it. There was no way to avoid them, and they would take everything he had. If he took the longer route? He thought about the small space on his dresser where he’d already imagined the ball resting, thought about the stand he planned on making for it. He had to get it home. They wouldn’t even understand. They’d throw it in a dumpster somewhere, never to be found.
But he was tired, and he was hungry, and he thought, maybe, if he was very lucky and very fast, he might just make it through. Sometimes things worked out. The baseball in his pocket was proof of that.
It was late in the year, and the streets grew dark early. Soon baseball would give way to football, the wind off the bay would have a hint of chill. There would be more rain, and the already gloomy streets of the city would grow gray with grime and sludge. The sun had nearly set, and long shadows stretched from lamp posts and the arched entrances of old brick buildings. He passed the open mouths of alleys, and once or twice he caught the glimmer of eyes, reflecting pinpricks of the day’s dying light. Cats, or homeless men, hungry and prowling.
There were plenty of things to look out for on the edge of The Barrio, a ten to twenty block area surrounding Santini Park, and bordered by the southernmost side of San Valencez. Eddie didn’t live in The Barrio, but he lived on the edge, and the gangs that walked those even darker streets leaked out around the edges, always looking for an opening they could expand into.
The alley that cut across from Market was dark, wider than most, and had become a regular hang-out for younger members of a gang known as Los Escorpiones, Latin street punks not quite ready for the full-time life of crime lived by their elders, but trying to make a name for themselves. They used the alley like a spider uses a web. Now and then one of the homeless wandered in, or a lost kid running away from whatever they called home. Neighborhood businessmen used the alley by day, taking in supplies at the rear entrances of Market Street shops. They kept their dumpsters in the alley, returned their bottles and recycled old boxes—but they never ventured into that dark pit by night.
Eddie neared the mouth of the alley and took a deep breath. It wasn’t too late to go around. It would only take him ten or fifteen minutes longer, but his mother would worry. His father might get angry. The thought of that overshadowed the thought of another beating, and even the thought of losing the ball. If he came home beaten and bruised, but on time, his father would probably say nothing. If he came home late…
He stopped just short of the alley and listened. He didn’t really expect to hear anything; Los Escorpiones’ method was stealth. They stood in the shadows, and they waited. You could stare into that alley for an hour, studying every nook and cranny, and be certain it was empty, but they were there. They were always there. The question was, did they already know that he was there, and either way, was he fast enough to get past them?
Except, the alley was not quiet. He heard voices and the scuffing of feet. He heard cursing and the unmistakable sound of heavy blows falling. Someone had entered the alley ahead of him—someone else was the target. If he played his cards just right, and if he was very fast, he might be able to use this to his advantage. If they were busy enough—distracted enough…
Eddie slipped around the corner into the alley, coming up short at the near end of the first dumpster in a long row of dumpsters. Something was happening near the other end of the alley. He’d expected to see a body on the ground, someone being pounded and kicked into submission. He has not expected to see a real fight. Apparently Los Escorpiones had not expected it either.
There were at least four of the dark, slender gang members slowly circling a taller boy. He wore a black t-shirt, had his hair cut oddly short—almost like a Marine or something—and he was not backing down. Eddie noticed with amazement that a fifth gang member was already down, slumped against the side wall of the alley.
One of the others lunged, but before he was able to bring the radio antenna in his hand down on the intruder’s head, the boy spun. The motion was fluid, so simple at its core that Eddie thought the boy was too slow, and so perfectly executed that the second gang member, whose blow as blocked easily, never saw the right cross that drove him to the ground. Before the others could react, their victim became the aggressor, dropping back a step, pivoting, and sending a crashing uppercut into another Escorpione’s jaw.
“Holy crap,” Eddie said softly.
The third gang member dropped, and that left it three on one. They were losing the battle, but the three Latinos were not beaten. Not yet. They spread out. Instead of circling, they formed a triangle, two standing almost shoulder to shoulder. Those two drove forward, ready to hold and grapple with their target, while the third fell back, waiting for his moment to strike.
There was no hesitation. As the two moved in, their target blurred. He side-stepped to the right, hooked the front-leg of the first gang member, and at the same time slammed his fist into the back of the boy’s head. The Escorpione stumbled, and when the blow struck it drove him face first to the floor of the alley. His partner, not backing down, swung a roundhouse toward the intruder’s head, but it struck air. The boy’s fist pounded home, driving all air from the gang member’s lungs, followed by another beautiful right cross to the jaw. It looked like, impossible as the odds had been, Los Escorpiones had met their match.
But there was one left, and with sickening certainty, Eddie saw he was moving too fast. While his partners had engaged their prey, he’d pulled a knife, and even as the others fell he slipped behind the newcomer. No amount of speed was going to stop that blade, and, without considering the consequences, Eddied acted.
His one dream in life was to play professional sports. He had begged, pleaded, and begged some more, but his father had no interest in sports, and saw no reason any boy of his should waste time on them. No matter that Eddie was gifted. No matter that he had not missed a basket in five years. No matter that he could throw a rock a hundred yards and hit a can cleanly … no matter, because no son of his father’s was going to be better than his old man at anything.
It was his secret. His ace-in-the-whole. The thing he intended to bank on when he finally graduated school and had the chance to bust out of the hole that was his family and his life.
It all seemed to come to a head, just at that moment. He drew the baseball from his pocket, cocked his arm, and threw.
It didn’t arch down the alley, it shot like a bullet. It struck the gang member directly in the back of the head and flattened him. The knife fell and clattered on the floor of the alley, and the boy, still bouncing on his toes, spun, startled.
They stood like that for a long moment, Eddie at one end of the alley, and this tall newcomer. Then, the boy leaned and picked up the ball, staring at it. Eddie hurried down the alley.
“We have to get out of here,” he said.
The boy didn’t move.
“You threw that?” he asked. “From all the way down there?”
Exasperated, Eddie nodded. “Yes. He was going to stab you. We can’t stay here. There will be more and we need to be gone. I’m late, and you…who are you?”
“Bobby,” the boy said. “Bobby O’brien. I’m new here…”
“No kidding,” Eddie said. “I’m Eddie—friends call me shooter. You think I could have my ball back?”
Bobby looked down, grinned, and then tossed the baseball to Eddie.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.”
They hurried out the far end of the alley together, and Eddie turned right toward home.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“We’re renting a room two blocks over,” Bobby said. “Me and my pop. Sort of had to leave the last place we lived.”
“You going to school here?”
Bobby nodded. “One more year, if I survive.”
“Don’t take the alley,” Eddie suggested. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe you will…Shooter,” Bobby said. “And thanks again.”
“Don’t mention it,” Eddie said. “I’m glad you were there. I didn’t want my ass beat, and I didn’t want to walk an extra half mile to get home. My dad would’ve been sore.”
“Yeah, mine too,” Bobby said.
Eddie turned then. He waved a last time, and tore off down 42nd toward home. When he glanced back, just as he hit the entrance to his apartment building, there was no sign of the taller boy. The street was dark, and very empty.
By the mouth of the alley, a dark shape peeled free of the darker shadows of a doorway. A young girl, dressed in black, stood very still, writing in a small notebook. She glanced down 42nd street toward Eddie’s house, scribbled something, and then turned toward The Barrio, tucking whatever she’d been writing into a fold her jacket.
As she moved she fell into an odd, sliding gait that drew her nearly flat against the wall as she passed, blurring her form. One moment she stood in the dim light of dusty streetlights, and the next, though she’d only moved a few yards, she simply—disappeared.