EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.
CHAPTER 7: FIGHTS
It's fight night at the Olympic Auditorium. On Grand Avenue, a line of people snakes around between chains and metal posts waiting to buy tickets. Neighborhood entrepreneurs are selling food to the crowd, cooking onions, hot dogs, bacon, and peppers on metal trays secured on top of shopping carts. Inside the carts, nested under the metal sheets, propane burners flare blue and orange flames. Yellow-jacketed security guards do quick body searches on people who stand with their arms held straight out from the shoulder, looking like penitents in a religious ritual. They sweep the plastic wands over them and then wave them into the sanctuary. Security guards on bicycles circle among the cars in the lot. Gray uniformed traffic officers with white gloves direct the jam of cars trying to force their way into Grand Street. A white Hummer stretch makes its way through the traffic, starting to swing out to pull into the driveway. Traffic stopped on Grand waits for it to finish maneuvering.
Men frantically beckon in cars, taking money and pointing them on to the next man down the line. Cars pulled forward, reverse, move in little jerks as a brown-skinned, maybe Mexican or Iranian, waves forward, forward, you’ve got room, forward.
Ryan’s limousine pulled into the line of cars entering the lot and began slowly shuffling toward a spot.
Frank was out of the car, scanning the crowd, looking into the other cars around it. He noticed but didn’t look too closely at the three people sitting in a silver Cadillac CTS two rows back. Parked among the compacts in the lot the Cadillac looked big enough to show the flag for the US. He saw a man in his forties, an older woman, trying to look younger, probably in her sixties, and another person hidden by the driver.
When Frank turned away, the driver raised his forefinger like a gun, pointing at Frank’s back.
“Bang,” he said.
“Are we going to get out now?” A younger woman’s voice came from the back.
“Paul,” the older woman in the front seat spoke in an authoritative voice.
“Stop that Paul. Don’t attract attention.”
“I could blow Ryan’s man away. One shot. Bang! What kind of protection is that?”
“Well I’m getting out,” said the voice from the back. The car door opened and Gina Velasquez AKA Gina Rodriguez AKA Virginia Lopez, known on the streets as “Shy” because she wasn’t, stepped out. Black hair, brown eyes, Five-feet-seven, and one-twenty-five. She was wearing her little black dress and heels, from the gold chain around her neck hung a Kruggerand. She looked around the lot, her eyes hard and calculating for a moment and then softening. She took it all in: the guys dealing drugs over by the fence, the working girls with too much street in their walk, and the two little Black kids dressed in suits, who were selling bars of chocolate while their mother followed behind them, smiling and telling them to be polite. Gina was a neatly packed predator who’d been surviving in the City of Angels for twenty-seven years, minus the time in and out of the California Youth Authority and three years in the Women’s Correctional Facility at High Desert outside Las Vegas for vaulting the counter of a Vegas bank to empty the cash drawers while her friends dragged the manager to the get the real cash.
“I’m just having some fun, Pearl, Goddamn.”
Paul Browne removed the .38 Ruger Security Special with the short barrel from the seat beside him and put it under the front seat. He got out of the car and opened the door for Mrs. Marshall. Mrs. Marshall first came to the notice of the police in 1953 hustling johns in Atlantic City. The Los Angeles Police Department had first encountered her in 1956, when having just turned seventeen she stepped off the train in Los Angeles with a known gangster from Philadelphia. The gangster got run out of town. Mrs. Marshall stayed. After a few hard weeks rolling servicemen in Hollywood, she got her feet under her and started to rise in the world.
Paul Waugh was another story altogether. A smooth mountain of muscle with a drinker’s permanent flush, he was faster and smarter than he looked. It would be a mistake to get to close to him. Once he got you in his grip you were his. Quicker to anger than you expected, he was a man who knew how to hold and cherish a grudge. You had to look Paul Waugh in the eyes and see the hungry grizzly look there to understand him. He was the over-indulged, cruel son of Pearl Marshall’s little family. Pearl’s kickman, he kept the girls and johns in line, straightened out any kinks in the smooth operation of the business, and handled the dirty tasks that came along.
Frank sat in the open car door, facing outward, one carefully polished black shoe on the cracked asphalt. He took out his cell phone and tapped in a number.
“This is Frank. We're in the lot.”
“Right on time. I expected no less. Give it ten minutes and bring him in.”
“Babysitter?” Frank heard a woman’s voice ask.
“Yes. Frank Caldwell. I'm trying him out with Ryan.”
“He's just a job. I’m going to walk around. You want anything?”
“A Sprite,” said the voice. Phyllis, thought Frank. And then, “Sharon,” called out to someone.
”Seacole! Stop doing business and talk to me. We're here for some boxing,” said another voice.
“In a minute, Charles. I just have to take care of something.” Then, speaking to Frank, “I’ll meet you at the refreshment stand.”
Frank and Ryan headed toward the Olympic. Frank was leading and looking as professional as possible. His eyes were sweeping the area, checking everyone out. The girls were behind Frank, with the driver, Herb Johnson, strolling along at the rear. They entered the arena, into the big square hall, and walked into a wall of noise. The first fight was being announced.
The Olympic arena was small compared to the other sports venues in LA. Built specifically for fights, it was from an age when boxing was one of the biggest sports in the nation. At the center is a square, flat cement floor. The ring is built in the center of the floor. The space around it is filled with padded folding chairs. These are the good seats. Then three levels of seats rise in a square.
Across the arena, two security men were standing at parade rest, their eyes roaming over the crowd. The younger man, Tony Greene, played with his expanding baton: holding it up and collapsing it into its short, thick handle and then releasing it to drop out to its full length. He noticed Ryan first.
“Joseph, see that white guy. Following the black guy in the suit.”
“Yeah,” said the second guard, a light-skinned black about six feet two who sometimes boxed as a light-heavyweight.
“That's Ryan. The musician fucked up those people down in Palm Springs.”
“Shit. He needs some security. He's gonna get away with that too.”
“He's got that money. See if you somebody in this town...” Tony was starting on of his commentaries on the state of LA.
“Any town, man.”
“You get away with it. Like a white man.” Then he saw someone more interesting in the crowd. “There's Gina. She’s a fine-looking woman. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed.”
Joseph thought, yeah like you’d have a chance of getting her into bed. “Wait here, Tony, I got to say hello.”
“You still after that, dream on.”
Joseph made his way to where Gina stood. He bulled his way through the crowd indifferent to peoples’ reaction. People moved out of his way not because the yellow security jacket. It was his “Don’t fuck with me” look that parted the crowd.
“Hello Miss Velasquez.” Joseph smiled with every bit of his body. “I haven’t seen you around here for a while.”
“How are you tonight, Joseph?”
“I’m fine. And how are you?”
“I’m fine, too.” Gina was standing very close to the security man, flirting with him.
“Yes. And how is Mrs. Marshall?”
Gina made a face.
“Like that, hunh? You should get away from her . . . you know?”
“What are you still doing here, Joseph, dealing with these . . . people?” Gina gestured toward the crowd around them.
“I’m going to get out of here.”
Nodding, he said, “I have ambition.”
“Ambition.” Gina paused, looking into him, weighing him and the situation. “What are you ambitious about?”
“I am going to do whatever it takes to get somewhere. I am not going to end up like these people here,” he said pointing toward the ring. “Living in fear, hopeless. You have to deal with fear like a winner, a champion: you eat it and keep going. There are tomato cans.” He pointed at the boxer entering the ring. “Like that dude. Just out there to get beat on. No hope of ever winning. And there are boxers and sluggers. See a slugger has heart and his fists. And he’ll take whatever you throw at him, and either he’ll beat you or you’ll beat him, but he won’t just give up.”
“And a boxer?”
“A boxer is an artist. Violence is a very special art form. Most people don’t appreciate it.” He smiled. “I am a boxer.”
Gina began to focus on what he was saying. She began to see something in him. She began thinking of her plan, the dream she had been working toward for all these years, and a role for him in it. Gina arrived at a decision and a commitment to act. She stopped flirting. She searched in her purse for a pen and something to write on.
“A boxer, now, is all skill. Boxing is the sweet science. Boxing is a test of your heart and your courage. Sluggers. They can have heart. And courage. But they don’t have skill. And they never know when they’ve been beaten. Or how. Now . . . Shit what is this?” His hand went up to the earplug that connected him to the radio.
“Where? Damn. Can’t you and . . . on my way. I said I am on my way. Drunks.”
Gina was writing quickly on a slip of paper, touching his hand, offering it to him. “Call me. I want to hear more about your ambition.”
Joseph stopped, stared at the piece of paper and then at Gina. He took it like a blessing from God.
“I will definitely do that.”
A fighter was coming down the aisle led by a TV cameraman and another man holding lights. The crowd was on its feet and yelling. The black tuxedoed announcer walked to the center of the ring and spoke into his mike: “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
Frank came alive. Three years earlier, he had fought his second ten rounder at the Olympic. The first and only time he had made it there. He had been doing the rounds fighting at clubs and in ballrooms. He’d fought a kid from the Coachella Valley who fought under the name Ray-Ray. It had been a battle. That fight convinced Frank that he could never make it in the ring. Standing there behind Ryan, scanning the crowd, half of Frank went through the fight with Ray-Ray. By the ninth round Frank and Ray-Ray struggled against arms, aching and heavy, legs dead barely responding. Still throwing and landing punches with this overwhelming feeling of hopelessness welling up in him. Trying to reach down and find something to make it to the bell and win. Frank fought on while his body slowly shut down. His lungs couldn’t find enough oxygen in the heavy, hot air of the ring. His legs became cement. And right then, Frank lost the fight. The judges called it a draw.
Now, at the Olympic, seated behind Ryan, Frank was so close he felt a part of the three man group in the corner. The fighter was sitting on a stool. The cut man knelt in close working on his face, sticking a Q-tip into the orange mass on the back of his hand, loading it up, pressing it into a cut. Then the cut man took the piece of iron that he kept in a bucket of ice and pressed it onto a swelling below the fighter’s left eye. A third man placed a dripping sponge on the fighter’s head and squeezed. Water poured down over the fighter’s torso. Frank could hear what the trainer was saying.
“You are losing this fight. Is that what you want? Is that what you want? We talked about this, didn’t we? Do you want this? Do want to win this fight? Do you want to win this fight?”
“I want to win!”
“Do you want to win? Are you a winner?
“I’m a winner. I want to win.”
“Can you do what you have to do? I don’t believe you want to win?”
”I want to win, Manny.”
“Are you going to show me you want to win?"
“Yes. I want to win!”
“Then why aren’t you doing what we said we were going to do? We had a plan. Now you’re going inside. I’ve told you, we won’t win if you go inside. Now set that jab. Use that jab. Keep your jab in his face. Keep your jab in his face. Jab!”
ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.