“What’s that you’ve got there?” The social worker had gotten the call early that morning. She had been doing this for almost twenty years, and these calls still rattled her to her very core. She recently moved from California to Texas, somehow hoping that things wouldn’t be so dark there. She’d seen things that she had to suppress and they only came out now in her nightmares. Texas wasn’t any different; at least that’s what her first call of the day today was about to teach her. She sat on the dirty couch next to the little boy. If the cop who called her hadn’t told her he was a boy, she wouldn’t have been able to tell. He had his head bowed and tons of matted, dark hair hanging down over his face. It looked like his hair had been braided at one time, but they were dreads now. She wasn’t sure if that was intended or not. “Hey, the officer told me your name is Adan. I’m Trinity.” She held out her hand, close to where she knew he could see it under all that hair, but he remained focused on what he was holding in his lap. “Can I see this?” She touched it and suddenly the mute, still little boy became like a wild animal. He clutched the leather bundle to his chest and scooted back on the couch, peering out at her through an opening in his hair. Trinity gasped when she saw his face. She hadn’t meant to...but his skin was so dark, and so was his hair, yet staring out at her were the bluest pair of eyes she’d ever seen. “Adan...” she said, again.
“Adam!” The sound that came out of the small boy’s mouth startled her at first.
“I’m sorry, I thought it was Adan...”
His blue eyes cut toward the bedroom. The woman that had been there was gone. Trinity had watched them load the black bag that bore her body into the ambulance when she first got here. The first light of morning was just showing over the horizon then, but now the sun was climbing and Texas was waking up. She looked at the little boy sadly. Her compassion for human beings had drawn her to this job, but her empathy might well destroy her someday. “She called me that,” he said. “I don’t want to be called that anymore. My name is Adam. Adam Marshall.”
“Marshall?” she asked, confused.
The little boy slowly opened up his arms to reveal the vest that he was holding so tightly. It had a big, round patch on the back that said, “Southside Skulls, Boston Chapter.” He turned it over and Trinity saw what was stitched on the front of it. “Doc Marshall, Prez.” Well, maybe at least this poor little baby with eyes like sapphires wouldn’t spend the rest of his life alone...
* * *
Coyote sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the wall. He’d been staring at the same spot for fifteen minutes. The door to the bathroom opened and Colleen stepped out. Coyote shifted his focus and his eyes roamed his wife’s sexy body. “Is it bad that I’m horny again?” They had made love the night before—it had been passionate and heated—then again that morning when they woke up, but considering what day it was, it had been slower...sweeter. Colleen could always sense his moods and she always knew when he needed her.
She laughed at that and picked his tie up off the dresser. Standing in front of him, she draped it over his neck and moved his long, thick hair so she could slip it underneath. “We don’t have time.”
“Let’s not go,” he said, while she worked on the tie. He lifted his arms and put them on her hips. She had wide, sexy hips. He loved them.
Colleen smiled down at him softly and said, “If I thought you meant that, I’d stay right here with you. But I know you wouldn’t let them lay him to rest without you being there.”
Coyote sighed. “I fucking hate this. We’ve been to way too many funerals lately. I hate funerals. But this one...fuck, babe, this one is the worst.”
She stopped fooling with his tie and bent down so she could press her lips to his forehead. “I know, love. It’s always hard to say goodbye...but when it was so unexpected...”
Coyote chuckled and said, “I honestly believed he would live forever.”
Colleen sat next to him on the bed and took his hand. “He will,” she said. She ran her free hand down his back, over the patch on the kutte he was wearing with his button-down shirt and tie. “Because of this,” she said, and then she moved her hand around front and put it against his chest, over his heart. “And this,” she said. “Because of men like you, who will carry on his legacy. He’ll live forever, baby, and so will you.”
Coyote chuckled again, mostly to fight back the tears that were pressing hard, trying to get out. “I’ll never leave a legacy like he did.”
“Hmm,” she said, “we’ll see. Now stand up and let me do your tie.” Colleen was his biggest fan. Coyote had never been overly confident. His childhood was shit and his early adult years hadn’t been much better. Meeting Doc Marshall had changed his life in so many ways. Who would have thought that falling in love with the man’s wife would have pushed him into the greatest opportunity of his life? Doc banished him to California and for a hot minute, Coyote thought that was it for him. But somewhere he found the resolve he needed to get things started out there...and somehow, things had taken off like one of the wildfires that burn every year in the foothills above the valley that he now called home. He’d met Colleen, and they’d had a son. His son was grown now...and he was a fine young man. Coyote had made so many mistakes along the way, though. He had secrets, even from his wife, that ate away at him daily. He made decisions that ended lives. He walked around in his kutte that said “Coyote, Prez, Westside Skulls” on it, like he owned it. But sometimes deep down in his gut, he felt like he was still faking it. “There,” Colleen said, finally getting the tie all tied up. Coyote pushed the knot up and had to take a deep breath to fill his lungs. He hated wearing the fucking things, but if anyone ever commanded enough respect to deserve one worn at his funeral...it was the man he was going to say goodbye to today.
“Alright,” he said, reluctantly, “I guess we should do this.” They walked out of the room and down the stairs hand in hand. The ranch had changed a lot over the years, but it always did Coyote’s heart good to see the pictures on the wall of the great room when he reached the landing. They had been added to, but none had ever been deleted. He knew there was a lot of talk about taking Hawk’s picture down. The Skulls had been searching for him for three years, but so far, not a trace. One could only hope that the man who betrayed his best friend, and the man they all loved and respected, was dead in a ditch somewhere south of the border.
Coyote’s eyes landed on the very first photograph in line on the wall. It was in black and white, but if you looked closely enough, you could still see that his eyes were unlike anyone else’s.
“Hey, Coyote.” Coyote turned toward the voice and had to quickly correct himself. Doc Marshall’s eyes were looking at him, but not from Doc’s face.
“Dax, I’m sorry I missed you last night, we got in late. You remember Colleen?” Dax Marshall was almost the spitting image of his father...but Coyote could see Dallas there, especially in his smile. His heart still ached when he thought about her. He’d never stopped loving her. He felt guilty about that for a lot of years. But one thing he had learned was that there were different kinds of love, and different levels of it. His love for Dallas had been on a level all its own.
“Of course,” Dax said, taking Colleen’s hand first. “Thank you for coming.” He shook Coyote’s hand then and Coyote, not caring what anyone thought, pulled the boy in for a hug. He knew that an almost twenty-two-year-old Dax would object to being called a boy. But Coyote could vividly remember the day he drove his mother to the hospital to give birth to him. It seemed like only yesterday. Dax stiffened slightly, but he hugged Coyote back. Coyote let him go and said:
“I’m sorry. This is just...surreal, I guess.”
Dax nodded. “Yeah, it is for all of us. The SUVs are outside and ready to go, if y’all want to catch a ride. Otherwise, you can ride out with those of us who are riding.” Coyote looked at the mass of bodies behind Dax. He doubted that a single man who had ridden with the one they were going to bury would dare step into an SUV on a day like today. He looked at Colleen and with her powers of perception, she smiled and said:
“I’ll ride in one of the SUVs and see you there.”
Coyote smiled and kissed her cheek. He looked back up at Dax as she left and said, “You have no idea how much I loved him.”
Dax smiled and said, “You loved him enough that although you wanted his old lady, you never did anything about that. He banished you to the middle of nowhere and you loved him so much that you built an empire...in his name. You loved him so much that you drove my mother to the hospital the day she gave birth to me. I think if I shook this building and all the men who loved and were loyal to my father fell out...you would be on top.”
One of the tears Coyote had been holding back slid out of his eye and began to roll slowly down his cheek. He brought his hand up to wipe it away and he said, “Fuck, Dax...what are we going to do without him?”
Dax looked around the room again, letting his eyes linger on the photos on the wall, and said, “He’ll always be there for men like you and me, Coyote. Any time we want to give up, or we want to settle, he’ll be there, mentally kicking our ass. Anytime I think I’ve just had it...that I’m done…I picture his face when I was five years old and he made me slide down a water slide. I was terrified, but to this day I can’t remember a better feeling than facing that fear and watching the pride on his face as I did. That’s what Doc Marshall was all about. Fears exist...we have to face them, if not for ourselves, then for him and all he did for us. We better get going.”
Coyote nodded. He followed Dax and the crowd of bikers out the door of the Skulls clubhouse. They all stood on ceremony as Dax climbed on the back of Doc’s Harley for one last ride. After the memorial service, it would be retired to the meeting room and another part of Doc Marshall would live forever, in infamy.
Sweat, and the smoke of dozens of cigarettes and just as many joints, hung like a sticky fog in the air as Coyote was led down the empty stone hallway toward the room where the fight would take place. His fights were always in a different warehouse and he was picked up at his dumpy little apartment in the Bronx and driven to wherever it would take place by one of Slinko’s men. Sometimes the drive took hours and sometimes only minutes. Coyote was always disoriented when he got wherever they were going, no matter how long it took, thanks to the blindfold they handed to him to put on each time before they left his driveway. You might think, instead of common thugs, that they were the fucking CIA.
Not that he really felt like he had any right to throw stones. Coyote had worked for Slinko now for almost a year. He was one of Slinko’s fighters, a lost kid he “found” on the streets, moved into a crappy apartment, and took ownership of. Coyote and the other fighters might as well have been machines for all Slinko cared. They ate what Slinko’s guys told them to eat. They worked out three hours a day at a gym that took over an hour to get to and back from each day...and come Saturday night, they fought...and they’d better fucking win. Coyote didn’t have any family, and Slinko made sure that all of his fighters stayed way too busy, tired, and isolated to have friends. All that mattered to Slinko in the end was that they won. He had invested a ton of money in them...or so he liked to say when he showed up with a “lecture”...or more like a threat…on a Saturday night. He expected a return for his investment and he only got that if they beat some other guy to a bloody pulp. Coyote had been the star of dozens of Slinko’s fights, and he hadn’t lost yet. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he did. Slinko never came right out and told him. But he wasn’t stupid. He could see that the men who lost their fights never showed back up for another. If Coyote worked for anyone but Slinko he might just think they’d been fired...once they healed, of course. But the truth he knew in his soul was that winning was saving his life.
Still, that wasn’t why he won. Coyote’s “life” consisted of Slinko’s orders and Slinko’s fights. He didn’t have family, he hadn’t been with a woman since he left California almost two years before...and as far as he knew, he had nothing to look forward to. Every so often he would have a dream, mostly at night while he was asleep and the ugliness around him was invisible. He would dream that he was a “real” fighter. He dreamed that he trained in a real gym with a real trainer and come Saturday night, his pick of music was played overhead while he bounced on his toes down the long hallway that would lead to thousands of adoring fans and the brightly lit, well-padded cage in the center of it all.
There was no cage where Coyote fought...just a circle made of bricks. He stood on cement in the center of that circle with his opponent, while the bloodthirsty onlookers made bets on who would still be standing when it was all over. At least the surface encouraged him to stay on his feet. His head had hit the floor so many times that he wasn’t sure his brain could take another concussion. He learned how to fall and he learned how to deal with the pain. It was his life...for what it was worth.
Slinko did pay them when they won...a little. The apartment he so “kindly” allowed Coyote to use had been completely unfurnished. He used his winnings to buy some furniture, dishes, and his most valuable possession...a console television set. It wasn’t one of those newfangled color TVs and there was no antenna on the building...so the picture was fuzzy most of the time and it only got two channels. But the voices of people that weren’t yelling at him…to hit someone, hurt someone, draw blood, or kick ass...soothed his aching soul. He watched things like The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver and tried to imagine how different his life may have been if he’d been raised by Mike and Carol Brady, or Ward and June Cleaver...instead of his parents, God rest their souls.
It didn’t matter what he imagined, however. He knew what his reality was. Tonight, Slinko had met him in a small room in the back of the warehouse, and he’d told him that the opponent he was about to go up against would be his toughest yet. Slinko was being extra nice. He told Coyote that he had put him instead of one of the other guys up against Viper because he was the “best” and Slinko knew he could do this. He told him that he’d get a big bonus if he won this one...enough to buy a color television and a new antenna. At the end of Slinko’s long spiel, he had told Coyote to be sure and let him know if he didn’t think he was up to winning tonight. He had a lot of money riding on the fight, and if need be, Coyote could be “replaced.” Coyote knew what that meant. In his mind, anyway, it meant that he would be on his way to that seat in hell he was sure the devil had reserved for him, and Slinko’s life would go on...sans a few hundred thousand dollars, and down another fighter.
“I got this,” was all Coyote had said. Now as he walked toward the circle and got a glimpse of “Viper,” death almost sounded more inviting. He took his place on the other side of the circle and quickly, without pulling his head all the way up, he took stock of who was in the room. Coyote was not an educated man, by any means. But he wasn’t stupid, either. He did have one ace in the hole, just in case an opportunity to use it ever presented itself. Coyote had an almost photographic memory. He remembered every face he ever saw, and if there was a name to be put to it, he would remember that as well. These illegal fights that took place in the midst of an empty warehouse in the center of nowhere and under the cover of night were not a poor man’s paradise. Only rich men came here to play. These men were important men in the community. They were doctors and lawyers, cops and politicians. Most of them were married with children...but it was rare that the woman draped over their arm wore a wedding ring or went by the name of “Mommy.”
For those who came alone, Slinko offered a second service...just as lucrative for him as the first one. Slinko didn’t just pimp out fighters. He had a collection of women “robots” as well. Some of them looked way too young to Coyote...but he was barely in a position to speak up for himself, much less anyone else. But he watched and listened, and somewhere deep down inside he hoped that someday he’d have cause to use all that knowledge he’d gained. Slinko offered him a “girl” once as a bonus for winning a fight. Coyote turned down the offer, cursing himself the whole time. He’d only been with one woman in his life, and that was some older woman who gave him a ride on his way out East. He didn’t know what to do with a girl his own age, and he was scared to death that she’d tell Slinko if he did it wrong.
This night wasn’t much different than any other as far as Coyote could tell. The warehouse was packed, and noisy. Coyote was fighting in the second match of the night. The first one had been quick. Coyote wasn’t allowed to watch the other fights; he only knew when they were over and how they went, if the winner came back to the fighter’s room...or the loser hadn’t shown up before they came to call him out. He focused his attention back across the circle on his opponent, Viper. Viper looked like the kind of guy that grown men would cross the street to keep from passing. His neck, chest, and arms were covered in black and white and faded green tattoos that looked like they might have been carefully crafted in prison. Coyote was six-foot-two and this guy had to be at least two inches taller than that. Coyote was told by the “trainer”…the guy who escorted the fighters in and...if they could walk...out of the circle, that he weighed in at three-fifty pounds. He was wearing shorts and nothing else, and as far as Coyote could tell by looking at him, none of the three-fifty was fat. He was bouncing up and down on the balls of his bare feet and nothing was moving. He had scars on his face, a lot of them, and his nose looked like it had been broken more than once. The swastika tattooed on his bare scalp drew the picture together. Coyote knew how to fight, and he was good at it. He did it to survive, but it didn’t normally give him joy. He focused on the swastika now, however, and thought about looking at it on the ground when he took this racist son of a bitch to the floor, and it did feel good.
When the buzzer rang he tried to block out the cheers and jeers echoing off the walls and ceiling around him, and he focused on the giant in front of him. There were no referees, no real rules...the people just wanted to see a fight, preferably a long one, with lots of blood. With both eyes on Viper, waiting for him to make the first move, Coyote cracked his knuckles and his neck and cautiously moved forward until he was close enough to Viper that the other man took a swing. Viper swung hard, but Coyote dodged it, coming up with an uppercut to the other man’s chin. Viper barely flinched, but as soon as Coyote was upright, the man threw another punch...this time his right fist connected with the side of Coyote’s head. His fist felt like steel, and it hurt like a motherfucker, but Coyote didn’t go down. He shook off the ringing in his ears quickly enough to dodge the next blow and this time threw a punch at Viper’s ribs. He hit hard and fast and he heard something snap and Viper wince. He almost hoped that he’d cracked one and punctured a lung, so the fight could be over. No such luck, though. Viper managed to keep moving while he fought through the pain and caught his breath, and then he lunged toward Coyote and started throwing punches one right after the other. Coyote bobbed and weaved and managed to dodge a few of them...but it was a relentless barrage of left, right, left, right, head, shoulders, ribs, head...Viper was trying to wear him down...and doing a pretty good job of it so far.
Coyote’s body was screaming in pain. Viper was in close, using Coyote’s face like a speed bag. He couldn’t hear anything and it was getting hard to see thanks to the blood and sweat in his eyes. He had never wanted to go down so early in a fight before, but this guy was a killer, and if he was going to die anyway, he wondered if he shouldn’t just get it over with. About that time he either saw Slinko or imagined he did, out of the corner of his eye, and the idea of Viper winning wasn’t half as repugnant as the idea of Slinko getting to finish him off if Viper didn’t. Viper wasn’t good with his feet, but Coyote hadn’t been able to get his arms up past the other man’s bulk and he was pushed to the edge of the circle already. So, with all the strength he could muster, he spun his aching body around, lifted his leg, and let his foot connect with Viper’s neck. The big guy stumbled a few feet back. He didn’t fall, but it gave Coyote the room he needed to attack. He didn’t know where the burst of energy came from, but it propelled him forward and he began to pound every part of Viper’s rigid body that he could reach until he heard the sound of the buzzer, calling an end to the first round.
During the small break, the men were allowed to use a wet towel and a dry one to wipe the blood off their faces and bodies and get a drink of water. If anything was bleeding too profusely, one of the “trainers” would try and patch it up, to get them through the next round. Apparently, none of Coyote’s injuries qualified. He mopped the sweat and blood off his face and chest, drank the thermos of cold water, and while he waited for the next buzzer, once again, he soaked up the faces in the crowd.
Without any other fanfare, the buzzer sounded again and Coyote and Viper met in the middle. Viper didn’t waste any time, landing a right jab smack on Coyote’s nose. The pain radiated up through his sinuses and into his ears. It pissed him off...not at Viper, but at himself. Getting hit dead in the face like that was a rookie mistake. But the beating he had already taken made his reflexes slow and his judgment cloudy. That’s why, when he saw Viper rearing back to kick him...he made a fatal mistake. Coyote let his reflexes take over from his good sense, and he turned about ten degrees to the left and ducked his head. Viper’s right foot didn’t hit the target it was looking for. Instead, it sunk into the small of Coyote’s back, right over the top of one of his kidneys. Coyote heard himself scream, right before they turned out all the lights.
* * *
The next thing Coyote remembered was waking up with a pounding headache. Or maybe he wasn’t awake. He felt like he was floating, and then he realized he was suffocating. His head was pounding because his body had no oxygen...he couldn’t breathe. He opened his mouth and only when he sucked in air and got water instead, did he realize that he was drowning.
His body went into survival mode and his arms began to flail, looking for something to grab onto. The water was freezing but the cold at least made him too numb to concentrate on the pain. He needed to take a breath...if he didn’t, his lungs were going to explode. He opened his eyes as much as he could. It was dark, and dirty. He was probably in the Hudson River and if that was the case, fighting was a moot point, but he didn’t know how to not fight...he’d been doing it his entire life. Something kept drawing him toward the bottom of his dark, watery grave, but he fought toward the surface until one of his hands felt the cool air of the night. He sank again, but fought his way up, and then again, and the third time out just as he started his decent...probably for the final time…he felt a big, strong, cold hand clamp down around one of his wrists and then his body being hauled up out of the water, just as if he were no heavier than air.
Coughing, sputtering, choking, and trying to remember how to breathe, he looked up into a pair of eyes so blue that they shone in the night like a cat. Coyote said the first thing that came to his mind...
“Close,” the man sporting the blue eyes said with a laugh. “Damned close.”