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Authors: Tristan Egolf

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BOOK: Kornwolf
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For his part, Aldo would continue to handle the gym's finances—monthly utilities, rent, taxes—the fund-raising end. But he wouldn't be working as Jack's assistant, or in any training capacity, again. The quasi-fraternal bond that existed between them had lost its mortar in Roddy.

Five years later, just three months back, coming home on the turnpike late one evening, Aldo, while riding his Harley, had merged from a service station ramp in the pouring rain to collide with an eighteen-wheeler. Instant.

Jack and Roddy had been reunited at the funeral, if only momentarily. On first appearance, it was obvious that Roddy had never gotten over falling out with his father. In fact, it was clear that he'd harbored hopes of reconciliation, one day, if possible.

Those hopes were dashed for eternity now. And the grieving of lost opportunities begun.

At some point during the ceremony, somebody, one of the elder Lowes, perhaps, reminded him—whether in consolation or out of some pending legal concern—that, according to documents, Jack was his godfather.

Which was about to take on a new meaning.

Within a week, Roddy had gathered his things from the floor of a squat in Horaceburg, rolled back over the Susquehanna, mournfully entered a houseful of Aldo's belongings—as designated by his will—found his box of gear in the attic, unpacked it and slunk back into the West Side …

Of course, Jack was happy to have him back. He too lived with grief over lost opportunities. But as to whether Roddy belonged in the ring, just yet—The Coach had his doubts. It wasn't that Roddy had lost his edge, physically, as anyone at 140 dumb enough to stand right in front of him would have discovered quickly. And his trademark lead right hook was still lethal … The problem, if problem there be, was psychological. Which is to say, by appearances: his head was on crooked and his heart wasn't in it.

In youth, his instincts had been superb. He had known when to jump on a staggered opponent. He had never taken shots without angling, at least, toward far more damaging counterpunches.

Jack could only assume then that, based on what he was seeing (dissociation), Roddy was dealing, in some way, with Aldo. But one could never be certain with Roddy. In fifteen years, The Coach still hadn't been able to figure out what propelled—or derailed
or arrested—his inner workings. Roddy's mind was truly confounding …

In the meantime, back on earth, he was taking entirely too many shots to the head. And that was no way to walk into a match. That was no mind frame to place in harm's way.

Such, above all, was The Coach's concern. As the young man's trainer and manager, he hadn't—and wouldn't have—taken a bout with a sleek young contender like Fido Jones. Not yet. Roddy, the bonehead, had blundered into it—enticed by Ronald “The Shark” Travers, a ruthless Atlantic City promoter and Jack Stumpf's absolute nemesis.

Travers's latest (and hottest) commodity, Fido “The Cobra” Jones, a current alphabet contender professionally, was facing a late hour cancellation. His scheduled opponent, a Baltimore journeyman, had sustained a fractured hand in training. During their scramble for a seminotable, however dependably safe replacement, Travers's people, having caught wind of Roddy's “return” from Jerry Blye (a longtime rival trainer of Jack's), had telephoned Roddy at home, on the sly—bypassing Jack, his official manager. Roddy, with only a four-round bout in the can since emerging from a sixty-month layoff, had taken the fight without so much as notifying Jack, to say nothing of seeking his approval. By the time this deal had been brought to The Coach's attention, it was already too late. He could've
killed
Roddy. Everyone, including and
especially
Roddy, knew Jack would never let him step into the ring without a West Side crew behind him. Through circumstances beyond his control, Jack now faced going back on a vow he had long ago sworn to uphold without variance: not to engage in dealings with The Shark—even if at the expense of his livelihood. Jack had witnessed, and suffered firsthand, what Travers could do to a fighter's career. Numerous photographs lining the walls of the West Side Gym were a constant reminder: by the double-end bag, Larry McKreetz, broke after seven title defenses—behind the ring, Demitrius Yarrow, jailed for direct assault of his trainer—then Eustace Kermon, officially a “suicide,” even though a letter had not been produced—all of them former
West Side fighters gone over to Travers on turning pro—and all overshadowed by the finest boxer Jack had produced in his years at the gym: as still on display in a gilded frame at the building's entrance, off to the right, and across the walls of the training room floor—photographs, signatures, newspaper articles—many beginning to yellow with age: Hernando Valdez, the “Stepford Cyclone,” the one-time lightweight champion of the world, last reported miserably friendless, broke, on parole & divorced in Maryland …

Even now, after seven long years, the taste of it hung in Jack's mouth like poison. Scarcely an hour went by when he didn't, in some way or other, mourn Hernando. “The Cyclone” was still the best fighter he had ever turned out. And, on mornings like these, it was evident. Hernando had always been right on time. Hernando had always weighed out on schedule. Hernando had systematically disassembled opponents without hesitation … In matters of punctuality, discipline, focus, drive and finishing instincts, the early Hernando—the one who was pictured all over the gym—was sorely missed. Yet, his image was also a constant reminder that, in this profession, certain defeats—or “plummets from grace”—were guaranteed. If Hernando could go down, anyone could. The fighters on hand were at similar risk …

Like him, the juniors assembled for sparring today had come from “broken” homes. Calvin's father was serving forty to life in prison for murder one. Holy War Jackson's mother dealt crack; five of his seven brothers were in prison. Franklin Pendle had been on the streets or in juvenile halls since the age of five. All of these young men had been in trouble, at one point or other, throughout their lives. The only thing Jack could do for them, one and all, was nurture their self-esteem. Which, in turn—providing initiative—might grow into respect for others.

And that brought matters right back to Roddy.

Sighing, Jack looked at his watch. It was 12:35.

The kid was unbelievable.

“Hey, Coach!” called Holy War, breaking the silence. He nodded through his head-guard. “You mind if we warm up?”

Shaking his head with exasperation, Jack waved: “Go on!”

He turned and plodded across the floor to his unlit office.

Once inside, he placed a call to Roddy, just for the hell of it. Ringing …

(—Fido Jones was a powerful puncher. Regardless of all else that might've been said of him—yes, he'd been brought along nicely, protected and sheltered, somewhat—he still packed a wallop. And his footwork was good. He was highly elusive. Without a doubt, he knew how to move … Roddy, years back, might have taken him into the later rounds by making a brawl of it—cutting off the ring, then pinning him into the corner with alternating hooks and uppercuts. However, right now, from what Jack had witnessed in training, such needed aggression was lacking. If Roddy didn't hop on the ball, as in yesterday, the fight would be over inside of four rounds.)

He dropped the receiver back in its cradle. One more ring and that message would've picked up—Roddy's laconic, gurgling drawl: “
I'm not home now. Leave a message, y'all
.” Click.

Beside him, the answering machine was blinking. Jack hadn't bothered to check it before. There were three new messages. Hitting the button, he played the first. It was Stepford Electric, announcing a forthcoming shut-off date. The second was Thurston Bach, a lawyer, in reference to overdue property taxes. The third, it got better, was someone—a stranger—demanding his “boy's” ten-dollar deposit … No word from Roddy among them. And every one pending.

Jack felt sorry for wondering.

He leaned slowly back, his chair creaking under him, and buried his face in his hands with a sigh.

This wasn't the first time that, suddenly, from out of the grind, he'd missed Aldo for practical reasons. Aldo had always kept track of this mess, leaving Jack to coach. That had been their dynamic.

Which isn't to say that Jack couldn't have made the transition for lack of common sense. The problem was: Aldo had kept all his figures in longhand—his phone numbers, addresses, contacts. And Jack, for the life of him, couldn't make sense of them. He couldn't decipher the penmanship.

His own proactive intuition, i.e., personally calling around, had amounted to less than he liked to admit. He had never been good with soliciting funds. Coaching itself wasn't paying the bills—especially not with absent fighters. And he couldn't rely on most of his juniors for monthly dues. They couldn't afford them. That was the reason this place was needed: without it, these kids would have been on the streets. The only thing standing between, say, Franklin and a juvenile home was the West Side Gym—the only community youth center left in the downtown area that was open year-round. And, for all of the millions in public taxes funding the local prison system, The Coach couldn't raise enough money to pay his electric bill.

The cycle continued.

A figure loomed into the doorway, disrupting the sunlight that spilled across the floor. Jack, from his desk in the dark, looked up. It was Jarret Yoder.

Of course it was.

Even in adolescence, Yoder's knack for timing had been uncanny. Then, as now—only twenty years later, as a juvenile attorney—he appeared on cue. Jack could assume that his oldest friend had come by to make a donation—his routine check at the first of the month. He'd been pledging the same amount for years.

“What's new, Yul?” Straightening up in his seat, Jack was able to muster a grin. “You know the best thing about short people?”—(someone had told him this joke the week before)—“They're the last to get wet when it rains.”

Quietly, Yoder stepped into the room, unsmiling.

The Coach looked him over. “
Ba-dump?

No laughter.

Shit
, thought Jack. He slumped in his chair. Yoder's expression was tentative, humorless. Something was wrong. Which was also a knack of his: bearing bad tidings. The “Harbinger,” Jack called him—either responding in deed for the better, with financial contributions, as such, or appearing with some kind of bombshell announcement to complicate further existing disorder. This
was apparently one such occasion. One of their juniors was probably in trouble …

“All right, then …” Jack finally broke down: “What happened?”—braced for the drop hatch to yawn beneath him.

Jarret stared at him, seeming to gauge his response with a shade of uneasy reluctance.

Jack didn't like it one bit. “What's wrong?”

After another uncomfortable silence, Yoder broke out of it, shaking his head. “Man,” he groaned in resignation. “I was afraid you were going to say that.” He exhaled forcefully. “I don't believe this.”

He dropped a newspaper onto the desktop.

Slowly, Jack turned it over, expecting the worst, as the possibilities flared (limited only by Jarret's ambiguous cool and The Coach's imagination). He spread the copy out in front of him. Stepford's
Plea
.

He regarded the lead.

At once, even fording the jolt of adrenaline, he thought about Scarlet and Broken Rubber. The two of them, yukking it up out there. Only
they
could have done this, the snickering bastards. Probably testing a new computer.

But
why?

And
no
: they wouldn't have dared.

It was too much to process.

This couldn't be happening.

What did this paper say? What was this newspaper? Oh, yes—
The Plea
, that's right. The daily … Or maybe a mockup, a counterfeit copy, as part of a grander practical joke …

Any moment now, Scarlet would show in a Little Red Riding Hood suit, with tassels.

According to the text, no hoaxes or frat pranks had ever come out of the game reserve.

According to the article, lab results cleared the photo of having been treated or modified.

According to the story, the photograph's exposure date coincided
with recent reports of a wild dog, a “rabid stray from the hills,” on the loose in Lamepeter Township.

According to the paper, other complaints had been lodged regarding a “nocturnal prowler” whose commonest going description varied from “gross” to “one of them toxic avengers.”

And
man
, the writer was something else …

According to an
Owen Brynmor
, listed as a freelance investigative reporter: “
Sightings concur with an area legend which holds, in spite of Warden Kratz, that a nuclear defect stalks the hills of Blue Ball, Intercourse, Laycock and Bird-in-Hand
.”

Jack got up and wiped his brow. He felt nauseous. His heart was pounding violently.

“Feeling all right?” asked Yoder.

The Coach appeared more incensed than offended. “Come on now.”

Jarret shrugged. “Then how's the family?”

Dismissing the question, Jack lifted the paper. “First things first—who the hell
wrote
this?”

Just then, a figure appeared at the door. It was Roddy. Along with a pasty-faced white boy.

“Hey.” Roddy spoke with evident caution. “I wanted to get my friend here a membership. This is—”

Jack waved him off with a snarl. “You're late, Mr. Lowe. This is no way to start …”

What might have amounted to dragging his fighter over the coals only moments before had fizzled for Jack into muted bewilderment. Then: “Get changed!” he blurted. “Move it!”

“Yes,” droned Roddy. “I just want my friend here to—”

BOOK: Kornwolf
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