Welcome to the first of a series of flash fiction shorts from American author Dan O’Shea.
Dan is a well-known US short story writer and regular contributor to Crime Factory, Needle Magazine and Shotgun Honey. PENANCE, his first novel, is a compelling conspiracy thriller, which tells the story of a rogue government sniper and the Chicago Detective, John Lynch, tasked with hunting him down. The further Lynch delves into the mean streets of his home city, the more embroiled he becomes in the underworld of political corruption at its heart, and the closer he gets to solving a decades-old mystery surrounding the night his father died. In John Lynch, we have a genuinely complex and exciting series character in the making. Penance is due to be published by Angry Robot Books in the UK on 2 May 2013 and on 30 April 2013 in the US.
The Bridgeport neighborhood, Chicago, 1917
Riley tried the jab again, the Hurley kid giving just that twitch of his head, slipping it, Riley’s glove skidding off the side of the kid’s face. Father Murphy might count it, so it might help if the fight came down to points, but Riley knew he wasn’t hurting the kid, wasn’t hurting him at all. And he knew it wasn’t gonna to come to points.
Because the kid was hurting him. Riley felt another hook dig into his ribs, low down on the left side, felt his wind starting to go.
Riley was a head taller than the kid, had the reach on him, had twenty fights under his belt in the ring, God knows how many more out in the streets, running with the Hibernians. Kid had none so far as he knew. So how was it the the bandy-legged little fuck kept slipping his punches, kept getting inside on him?
Riley feinted the jab this time, followed with a cross, but the kid ducked under it, stepped in, got his head up into Riley’s left armpit, drove Riley back against the ropes, put a left into Riley’s gut, then a right into his ribs again, same spot, then the right again, and again. How could the kid reload that fast, still get that much into it? With his arm pinned up by the kid’s head, there was nothing Riley could do to protect his left side. Riley tried to get his arm down, across the kid’s back, tried to bring his right arm over, going for the clinch. If he could tie Hurley up, Father Murphy would step in, break them up, get Riley some space. But the kid was dug into him like a tick, and his right hand kept smashing into Riley’s ribs like a sledgehammer.
Riley heard a crack, felt the burn, knew the kid had snapped one of his ribs. And the kid knew it too, going in harder, pounding the break, every blow like a knife into Riley’s lungs, his wind gone now, his gut tied up in spasms as he tried to breath. Riley knew the kid was going to put him down, and the kid hadn’t even hit him in the head, not once.
Couldn’t have that. Couldn’t have it looking like this little shite broke him down. Had to make it look like a lucky shot.
Riley got his right arm inside, pushed the kid back, the kid taking it, giving up a foot because it opened a channel right up the middle, the kid coming with the uppercut right to the bottom of Riley’s chin, Riley feeling the flash, thinking maybe this won’t be a dive after all, but going down either way, going down and taking the count. Because he was afraid that, if he got up, the kid might break something that wouldn’t heal.
Hurley and Father Murphy helped Riley out of the ring, Tommy Culligan and the other Hibernians crowding around to check on Riley. Tommy Culligan ran them, The Hibernian Athletic Club.
Fingers Donohue footed the Hibernian’s bills, paid the rent on the hall at 37th and Emerald, and picked up their tab at his pubs. Donohue ran the 11th ward – alderman, committeeman – and owned it as well. Real estate, saloons – the residents of Bridgeport owed him both their rent and their bar bills, so almost every cent that didn’t go to the church went into Donohue’s pockets.
Culligan’s father captained the precinct in Canaryville, the swampy south end of Bridgeport, just across Bubbly Creek from the stockyards. Hurley’s father captained the precinct around Nativity parish. That made them rivals for Donohue’s favor. And that, so far, had kept Hurley out of the Hibernians, the training ground for power in the 11th ward.
They called it an athletic club, and they’d square off on the field with some of the others, Ragen’s Colts, the Aylwards, Our Flag. But really they were an army. Any niggers from the black belt to the east got the idea they could cross the tracks, set foot in Bridgeport, the Hibernians would show them home or leave their bodies on the tracks for the trains to grind into mush, not like the cops took much interest in another drunk nigger who decided to sleep it off on the rails. Any of the bohunks that were crowding in on the north or west tried to cross Halsted, the Hibernians would leave them broken in the streets so they could crawl back to the curb. And, come election day, it was the Hibernians would take the poll judges down to the local tap and buy their drinks until the voting was done and the counting had come out right, at least the judges that had sense. Them that didn’t would spend the day roped up somewhere and come home bloody, with eyes swelled too tight to see out of.
For any other lad in the 11th ward, so far as the Hibernians were concerned, if he was Irish he was in. Politics was a numbers game, an attrition business. But Tommy Culligan had made Dicky Hurley a special case, invoking the old rules, the rules their fathers had played by. If Hurley wanted in, he had to prove his worth. He had to beat one of their own.
He had to beat Riley.
So Hurley trained for months with his old man, who’d ruled the ring for years, the one that Father Murphy kept in the basement at Nativity, ruled it until the slaughter yards across Bubbly Creek had left his hands ruined and brittle. Like his father, Hurley was short, squat. Stumpy, powerful legs, massive shoulders and chest, but short arms. His father taught him how to slip a jab, how to eat one if he had to, but how to get inside, how to work the body, how to take a man’s wind, and then his will.
And Hurley had broken Riley’s – first his rib, then his wind, then his will.
“Brendan, I’m thinking I need a new man,” Culligan said, standing over Riley, his voice hinting that it was maybe a joke, but maybe not.
Hurley squeezed between them, standing toe to toe with the taller man. “I took your man, Culligan. So now I’m in.”
Culligan laughed. “Almost in boyo. I told you, The old rules. It’s like church. You gotta get baptized in. Noon tomorrow. Bubbly Creek.”
At which Culligan turned with a laugh and left, his disciples following, leaving their champion Riley sitting on the hard floor, his back to the wall, fighting to breathe.
“I’m sorry to have hurt you,” Hurley said.
“No sorry in it,” Riley answered. “It was a fair fight. You were the better man.”
“Still and all, I got no quarrel with you, just with Culligan. But I got a fire in me. Once it’s lit, it burns too hot.”
“So I noticed.”
“Never should have been. What Culligan’s doing, it’s not right.”
“Going to the old rules? No, it ain’t right. But this ain’t the town for right, and it sure as hell ain’t the neighborhood for it. You get what you take, and you keep what nobody can take from you. Besides which, Culligan is an ass. Bubbly Creek? Jesus.”
“Why do you fight for him?”
“A man’s gotta know his place and know his meal ticket. I got my fists and I got my loyalty, so I fight for who I’m told. The Hibernians is Donohue’s club. That makes Tommy Donohue’s man, so I fight the fights I’m told. I’m not the type to ever run nothing.”
“I am,” Hurley said.
Bubbly Creek drained from the slaughter yards to the river, more blood and animal guts than water, offal rotting and fermenting between its banks until, on a hot day, the water fizzed like a just-opened bottle of ginger beer.
It was a hot day.
Hurley stood on the bank, stripped down to his union suit, looking down into the fetid water.
“Baptized in, Hurley,” Cunningham said. “If you aren’t man enough for it, then you aren’t man enough for us.”
Hurley turned and faced the Hibernians.
“I’ll be taking the plunge boys, but I’ll ask each of you to remember that I’ll be the only one in your midst that ever done it. Culligan never done it, the rest of you never done it. The rest of you just walked in the door. So remember, it wasn’t me invoked the old rules, but when Culligan did, I didn’t make no excuse. That’s how I come in, through Brendan Riley’s fists through the city’s filth. While I’m taking my little bath, you be thinking on who among you is man enough to do the same.”
The Hurley turned and leapt into the foul channel, disappearing for a moment beneath a surface that didn’t part with a splash, but rather with sloppy ooze, then his head popped back above the surface, his feet scrambling on the diseased mud, awkwardly slogging his way to the bank.
Culligan picked up a long stick, reached out, and poked Hurley hard in the chest, Hurley losing his footing and sinking back into the mire. Again he struggled to the surface, again he slogged toward the bank, again Culligan pushed him back, and again. Hurley’s breath coming hard now, the effort of fighting both Culligan and the mud taking its toll. Hurley tried to grab hold of the stick, but his hands were slick with filth and could find no purchase.
Culligan threw his head back, laughing, some of the others laughing too, but not all, and some of the laughing being of an uneasy kind.
Culligan stepped closer to the bank, pushing Hurley deeper into the channel until Hurley’s feet slipped over the edge into the cut in the middle where the creek ran deep. Hurley sank into the cut, only his hand showing, trying to grab the stick as Culligan pulled it away, laughing. Still laughing as the Hibernians watched that hand, watched for Hurley to reappear, the hand rising a little higher as Hurley tried to scramble up the edge of the cut, his head showing for just a second, one ragged gasp of breath, then his feet giving way, and he disappeared back into the deep water, the hand again waving, desperately now, over the bloody surface.
Riley jumped from the bank and slogged out to the edge of the cut, grabbing the hand. For a moment it seemed that Riley, too, would be pulled into the deeper water, but then he reached out with his other hand, his left hand, and pulled, howling as his muscles tightened against his broken rib, but he pulled Hurley from the cut, helped him to the shore, some of the other Hibernians reaching down now to help the two up the bank to land.
Hurley sat on the ground a long moment catching his breath, then he picked up his shirt and used it to wipe the filth from his face, to wipe what he could off his body.
“I guess you’re in, then,” Culligan said, his voice flat.
Hurley stood, closed on Culligan.
“In by the old rules,” Hurley said. “So I claim my right by them.”
“You got what right I say you got and none other.”
“The old rules say the man is chief who can hold his place. The old rules say that any man can challenge. I come in under the old rules, so I claim my right by them.”
Culligan laughed, but this time no one laughed with him.
“It’s what the old rules say, Tommy,” Riley added. “You wanted him brought in the hard way, you live with what you done.”
Culligan laughed again. “I’m heading back to the shack, boys, and the bar is open. Them that like can come help celebrate our new member, but this is my club. It’s Donohue’s club, and I’ll be listening to no more lectures on rules, not from any of you.”
Culligan turned to leave, but Hurley stepped forward, grabbed his shoulder, turned him.
“You think Donohue wants some punk for a chief, somebody who runs from a fight like a nigger? I’m taking your club, boy. So put up your fists, and I’ll take some blood with it, and you’ll still be in, or you can walk away and you’re out.”
Culligan’s jaw clenched and unclenched, then he looked at the circle of faces around him.
“Who’s with me and who’s with him? And you better think careful on that choice.” Culligan asked.
No one moved.
“I’m with our rightful chief,” Riley said. “Just as soon as I see who that’d be. Any man sees it my way, come stand with me.”
Again no one moved. But then Paddy Sligo, one of the oldest members, one who knew the old rules, walked to Riley. Then Mike Shea, then Bob Harrigan. Then a few more. Then the rest.
“So it’s like that, is it?” Culligan said. “I’ll be off to see Fingers then, and I’ll be naming names.”
“Be sure to get mine right,” Hurley said. “Richard Xavier Hurley. And give Donohue a message for me.”
Hurley planted his feet and twisted his hips, driving a short, hard right into the middle of Culligan’s gut, the taller man’s breath whooshing out as he started to double over. Hurley grabbed his head by both ears, snapping it down while he brought his knee up hard into Culligan’s face, crushing his nose. Culligan dropped to the ground, curled on his side, blood streaming from his ruined nose, retching. Hurley dragged his bare feet across Culligan’s face, first one, then the other, wiping some of the filth from the creek onto his cheek.
“Tell Donohue some of us remember the old rules.”
Dan is a great talent, and has written brilliant short story collection. You can even hear him reading some of them (http://danielboshea.wordpress.com/).