David Corbett is the author of The Art of Character (“a writer’s bible” – Elizabeth Brundage) and four novels, including Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book) and Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar). Just released, The Mercy of the Night is his fifth novel. David’s short fiction has been twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Narrative, Writer’s Digest, and other venues. For more, visit his website.
Excerpt from The Mercy of the Night
Thomas & Mercer
©David Corbett 2015
She had him unzipped and halfway out when the first rock hit the windshield.
Fireman Mike, true to his word, had picked her up downtown at nine. He hadn’t brought up Visalia, not yet, focused instead on agenda item number one, her face in his lap, but she wasn’t getting out of the car without talking the matter through. The thought of sticking around this town even one more week made her so depressed she could barely see.
The second rock hit while he was stuffing the bad boy back in his pants. This one left a nasty hole, spider-web fissures in the windshield.
Glancing up, she spotted the source of the trouble: four of them, hoodies and baggy pants, flipping off Fireman Mike, stacking hand signs, hoots and fuck-yous. They stood just beyond a raggy, six-foot hedge, fifteen yards away. Maybe they’d been hiding there, watching the whole time.
Another rock. Whistling miss.
He cinched his belt: “Look what they did to my goddamn windshield.”
So like him. My windshield. Car belonged to the city. But guys with size, everything was theirs.
“I bet you know these fucks,” he said.
Actually, she did. Two anyway.
Mo Pete Carson, hat kicked sideways, fat and scary, squint-eyed and dumb. Acne so thick your own face hurt when you looked at him.
Damarlo Melendez—D-Low they called him—skulky and sad, like a kicked dog, but catch his act now. Off the leash, howling.
The other two?
One was a cholo, all scraggly stache and banger tat and busting a sag on his Dickies. Sleek dude, like a razor, and that’s when the name came to her: Chepe Salgado.
The fourth guy was tall, coffee-colored, that’s all she could see, his face buried in shadow from the hood of his sweatshirt.
Misfit bunch, no gang ties binding them—if anything, they should’ve been at each other’s necks. Strange, really, their being together like this, no logic to it at all, nothing but the opportunity, fireman in his shiny red car, getting a wake-up knob job on a drizzly school day.
She’d told him, not so close to the corner, Christ, not so close to the school—but listen? Fireman Mike, Mighty Whitey—nobody runs him off. Watch and learn, boys and girls. Behold Goliath.
Verrazzo threw open the car door and bulled toward the circle of rock tossers.
“Which one of you shitbirds pitched the rock hit my windshield?” He reached out, went to yank the hood off Damarlo’s head but D-Lo ducked away. “Come on, you don’t have to think about it—who?”
God, he had a voice. Tough as they pretended to be, the boys shrank back a little, like the guy was a wall of heat. Mike Verrazzo—Sicilian, not Italian, he’d told her once. One more thing to swagger about.
More kids came drifting through the yards, across the train tracks, up from the corner, down from campus, a dozen or more mulling forward, another dozen behind them, swarming from between the sad little houses and collecting beneath the elms and live oaks and chinaberry trees arching over the one-block street—shuffling little homies with backpacks, pierced girls in cornrows cradling their books, black and brown and trailer trash—responding to tweets and texts to check it out, fireman getting blown in his car by guess who, or just drawn by the catcalls and the flow, the laughing bodies.
How, she thought, gnawing at her lip, am I gonna get outta here?
For the most part the crowd gathered on the backside of the fight. She still had the same fifteen yards between her and most of the onlookers. Go on, she thought, crack open the door, slink away, if not now, when?
Then something out there clicked, like a thrown switch. She saw it in Mo Pete’s eyes first, glowing with hate, then Chepe’s. Finally the gaunt one she didn’t recognize stepped forward and launched a haymaker from outer space.
Verrazzo, she thought, he called somebody a porch monkey, nacho nigger, fudge nudger. Something.
He took the punch like a drunk’s kiss, grabbed the kid’s wrist, bent it back, twisted. Kung Fu fireman. Like that could save him.
The gaunt kid howled, buckling, and the other three just stared.
Then another switch flipped.
The four newfound road dogs snapped to, rallied, jumped on Fireman Mike, circling fast, a blur of kicks, fists—
Wham to the lower back.
Thwack to the knees.
Pow to the back of the head.
Verrazzo gave back as good as he got, for a while anyway. Then one savage punch from Chepe, up under the rib cage—boom, like that, Fireman Mike keeled sideways, hobble-kneed. It left him wide open, and sad dog Damarlo wound up for a free kick to the jellies.
Even as far away as she was—bunkered inside the car, safe behind the windshield glass—she winced at the impact.
Verrazzo closed up like a knife, dropping to the asphalt.
D-Lo jigged and pranced, arms high: score!
The onlookers circled in tight now, screaming, egging the fighters on: Light him up! Make him pay! Fuck him good! Boys mostly, but a few girls too. Other girls stood in tight little knots, rolling their eyes, playing too good for all this, like it was some new clip on YouTube, not a ratpacked man right there.
I should honk the horn, she thought, get out there, do something. They’re gonna kill him.
A lone guy drifted past the car from behind. Hoodie like the others but wrong style jeans and worn too high. Work boots, not kicks. How old, she couldn’t tell. A slouch in his walk, ambling quick to where Verrazzo lay curled up on the ground.
The loner dropped to one knee, untucked his hands from the sweatshirt pouch. The rest wasn’t real clear, the guy blocking her view with his back. Maybe he grabbed Mike’s collar and shook, maybe he got in a few good licks, she couldn’t tell. Either way, the crowd went nuts, hoots and cackles and cheers.
If you’re gonna leave, she thought, do it now. Too stupid from shock to move.
The stranger got back to his feet, tottering a little. His whole body shuddered, like a current running through him had shorted out.
Mo Pete stood there, staring at Verrazzo, like a hole had opened up in the street, ready to swallow them all. Whatever he saw, it scared him so bad he turned around fast, pushed past Chepe and started to run.
All eyes turned toward Mo Pete then, the chunky big man pushing past anyone in his way and damn near losing his hat as he fled. After that, it rippled through the crowd, like a pulse—mutters and curses, finally screams—bodies scattered, pinwheeling every which way, down the tunnel of oaks and elms and chinaberry trees, back between the shabby houses, pushing through gaps in the fences or scrambling over, making for the railroad tracks and beyond—hoodrats and cholos and hangers-on, even girls in heels. Some, still, were laughing.
Verrazzo began thrashing on the ground, grabbing his neck with one hand, the other flailing around like he was drowning.
Get out of the goddamn car, she told herself, help him, finally reaching for the handle and yanking—the door was locked.
The loner stepped back from Verrazzo as the big man kept pitching back and forth in the street, then the guy pivoted, stuffed his hands back in his sweatshirt pouch and lurched back the way he’d come.
Through the spider-web cracks in the windshield, his eyes locked with Jacqi’s.
For a second she recognized the emptiness, the savage lonely punk nada. Then it came to her. The other night, at the hotel, the stranger who showed up at the end of the fight, drifting out of the shadows—this guy?
With that, her own switch clicked.
The cool gold hummingbird quivered at her breastbone, she was shaking, but she finally managed to unlock the car door, got out, stood up, shouted. “What the fuck you do?” Her voice sounding strange and small and far off. “Answer me, asshole—what the fuck did you do?”
The guy glanced once her direction—the face still not clicking into recognition, long and bag-eyed and older than the rest of him, bony and thin-lipped—and for a second he hesitated and she thought to herself: Yeah, come on, finish it. But instead he just shuddered again, some invisible hand grabbing him by the neck, and he tucked himself down and kept moving.
It was raining now, a wind-driven mist, that metal smell.
Jacqi ran, knelt down in the damp street and pushed her hair back, turned Verrazzo toward her slow—he’d stopped thrashing around and now lay utterly still except for a kind of feverish trembling.
His eyes hovered in their sockets, pale and lifeless, like sick fish. His skin had turned a waxy blue-gray and a curdle of blood flecked his teeth as his whitish lips pursed around an absent breath. A deep florid bruise marbled his throat, like some awful birthmark.
She started digging through pockets for his cell. “You’re strong,” she said, “strongest fucker I know, hang tough, come on.” She found the phone, thumbed in 911. Dispatch came on, a woman. “Somebody here got jumped, Goldenrod, the cul-de-sac up from the Pay-N-Go on—”
The telltale beep in a blizzard of hiss. “Your name, please.”
“He’s Mike Verrazzo, fireman, you know who I mean. He’s hurt bad.”
“I need your name, miss—”
Jacqi thumbed off, dropping the phone like she’d been scalded. It clattered against the damp pavement.
“They’ll be here soon.” She took his hand, the thick palm heavy with callouses, icy, damp. “Can’t stick around, Mike.”
His grip clenched, not hard. A tic. Then he launched into one last seizure—locking up, shaking so hard he inched across the blacktop like death was rousting him out of a deep sleep. The sleep called his life.