The big man could feel the sweat on his hands inside his boxing gloves. He was alone in the small locker room waiting for his trainer to fetch him for the fight. His head hung lower than usual. Ostap was a proud man. How did he let himself get into this situation? He dreaded the walk down the long hall to the arena entrance; he dreaded the cheers that would follow the announcement of his name; he dreaded the whole damn night.
A small radio was tuned to the local station with its volume turned low. Ostap listened to it before every fight. He didn’t understand a lot of what was said, but the host often mentioned the upcoming bouts and he liked to hear his name mentioned on the radio. This time was no different.
“Many of my regular listeners are on their way to the big bout this evening,” the host mentioned, “to see a couple of masterful pugs duke it out for the city heavyweight title. Fan hero, Fortitudo is favored by such a large spread, they may as well not even have the bout. The fans are in for a lopsided fight, the likes of which have never been seen by this host. Still, the fans pour into the arena to cheer their invincible hero. Anyone not at the fight will be surely listening in on this very station. It seems, the world has stopped this very night, to watch the spectacle…”
Ostap Rodchenko fled his homeland during the Bolshevik coup. He made it to America with nothing but the rags on his back. Once at Ellis Island, they made him change his name…crushing the already beaten proud man. He was Robert Reynolds from that moment on. He was strong, so he had little trouble finding odd jobs in New York City, but he wanted more; he needed more. He needed to raise money to pay the right people to smuggle his wife and young son out of the Ukraine. It was a bad time to be Ukrainian during the coup; it was worse now. There had been rumors of mass murders of his countrymen carried out by Stalin’s soldiers. He regretted leaving his family behind more now than ever. He had never thought it would come to mass slaughter.
He began fighting in dismal alleys for little pay. The gamblers took most of the profits while he took all the bruises. The fights were violent, bloodthirsty affairs. No gloves; no rules. The onlookers cheered for more blood. It was at one of these human cockfights where the big man was spotted by Connie Lacertus; Connie the Lip as he was known in the boxing world. The man could not stop grumbling to save his life; hence the nickname, but he knew how to mold a fighter into a boxer.
After that fateful fight, Connie convinced Ostap to come here; to this city, to make his name in the ring. It didn’t take them long to make Ostap the most feared pugilist in the city. Between Connie’s training and publicity stunts, and Ostap’s fists of lead, there was no stopping them. He hadn’t lost a fight in two years. Then the wheels came off.
His mentor, Connie the Lip suddenly suffered a stroke and was placed in a home. Ostap was not a dumb man, but he was naïve in a lot of ways. He found a new manager in Tony Avaritia, whom Ostap had seen around the gym and in the audience for many of his fights. Tony was much more demanding than Connie, and he took a bigger cut of Ostap’s winnings – much bigger. He continued winning and did as Tony told him. Then, one day two months ago, during his workout, Tony introduced him to Salvatore Scelestus. Ostap could tell instantly, Sal was no good.
Sal informed Ostap he had connections to get his family out of the U.S.S.R. but needed several favors to make it worth his while. Ostap didn’t trust the man, but was willing to do anything if it meant getting his family to America with him. The first favor was simple; he only had to keep his opponent on his feet and fighting until the fifth round and then knock him out. He could have taken him down in the second round, but he did as he was told.
This pattern continued for several more fights. Tony would set up a fight with an inferior fighter and Sal would tell Ostap which round to take him down. He never got any extra scratch for his efforts, and he knew Tony and Sal were getting rich off him, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care because he believed his family would soon be with him.
Now Ostap sat waiting for Tony to come get him for the introductions. He had always loved the yelling of his fans, but not this night. Earlier that day, Sal informed him he was to lose in the seventh round. Never, before had he thrown a fight. His pride was struggling with his desire to see his wife and son. He now doubted Sal had any connections helping his family. It had been weeks with no progress. Sal kept telling him to trust him, but he didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to throw the fight without hard evidence his family was on the way to join him. Tears stung his eyes.
He wished Connie were around to help him. During his visits with Connie, the gruff old man stared blankly into space…no recognition, no awareness. Ostap saw no way out for himself. If he threw the fight and Sal had been lying about his family, his career would be ruined for nothing. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself. If he didn’t throw the fight, he was sure men more powerful than Tony and Sal would make sure he was dead by morning. America was supposed to be the place where dreams could come true, not nightmares.
He suddenly heard the sound approaching footsteps coming from down the hall. He wiped the tears from his eyes as best he could with the clumsy glove. It had to be Tony coming to get him. The first fight must be over; it went quickly. He thought he would have more time to make his decision. The door opened and a man in a dark blue suit, whom Ostap didn’t recognize entered.
The man spoke first, “Robert Reynolds, I’m guessing…or is it Ostap Rodchenko?”
Ostap rose to his feet as a courtesy, “Ostap.”
He spoke very little English, but had learned enough to get by with, for the most part. He certainly knew more than Tony or Sal thought he did.
“I was sent by someone who can probably help.” The man continued, suddenly feeling a little uneasy in the shadow of the towering man. The man before him seemed oddly familiar, yet he had never met the man, to his knowledge.
Ostap was confused. He hadn’t told a soul of his situation. He didn’t trust the man in the fancy suit, but he couldn’t be worse than the men he had gotten mixed up with already. He waited for the man to explain himself.
“My name is Isaac…Isaac Midnight. I represent an interested party. We can help you break free of the crums you have gotten involved with.”
“What do I have to do?” Ostap asked skeptically, his thick accent showing through.
“Easy. Go out there and have a hell of a fight. Win your bout and leave the rest to us.” Isaac said.
Ostap didn’t like the fast-talking stranger, but he did like what he was hearing. He decided to win his fight and take his chances with Mr. Midnight. If Sal killed him, so be it.
“What about my family?” Ostap asked.
“One thing at a time. After your fight, meet me at the Elysium, on the waterfront. Do you think you can find it?”
“Da, I think I can.” The big man answered.
“Good. Now I’ve got to go before someone steals my seat. I got ringside, ya know.”
Ostap shook his head after the man had left. It was a whirlwind moment. So much had happened so quickly, he needed time to process it all. At that moment, Tony walked in.
“Time to go, big lug.” He said to Ostap.
Tony then turned and walked back out; he made no mention of the fix. Ostap followed him out the door into the hall and began the long walk, down the dim corridor, to the arena. He could already hear the screaming fans and the announcer making the introduction for his opponent. The crowd gave a large collective booing upon the entrance of the opponent. Ostap reached the entryway and waited for the announcer to call his name. He heard his ring name echo throughout the arena followed by a deafening roar from his fans. His name in the ring was, ‘Fortitudo’. He didn’t know what it meant, but Connie insisted on using the name for him. He jogged into the spotlight of the arena, causing the cheering fans to roar louder. Ostap’s eyes misted with gratitude.
Detective Travis mentally crossed his fingers as he entered the missing persons bureau. He could have waited at his desk in the homicide bureau for a telephone call, but he couldn’t handle the scrutinizing looks from his superiors, or the hushed tones of his colleagues talking behind his back. They thought he had lost his knack for solving tough cases. Gone were the days when he strung a series of seemingly unrelated, unsolved murders to catch a clever hitman. Gone were the days of his relentless pursuit of a serial killer preying on women. At first, he thought he was being paranoid, but soon it was obvious. The other detectives would stop talking when he entered the room. He knew they were talking about the latest ‘wash-up’. He had been on the other side of those hushed conversations before, but he never suspected that one day he would be the subject. He decided, for his own well-being, that he would come to Missing Persons and wait to be told in person if there was a case that matched his John Doe. The bureau had to check each case for physical similarities. It could take some time.
He knew his prying eyes were not welcome by the officers in bureau, or as they were known to the homicide detectives, ‘lost and found division’. To the detectives, the Bureau of Missing Persons, as it was officially known, was filled with washouts and old-timers biding their time until their pensions kicked in; and to missing persons officers, homicide detectives were glory-hounds who only solved a case when they stumbled onto the culprit in the act. He could tell from the looks on their faces when he entered that he had been right in his assumptions. He could tell they would rather be in a room with Vladimir Lenin than him. Of course, they knew nothing of his troubles upstairs, and that was a relief. He could put up with snide comments, just not the hushed whispers.
“Any news for me, boys? Please tell me one of your files can put a name to my body.” Travis knew as soon as he said it, that he had played right into their stereotype of his kind.
“Nothin’ yet. We have dozens of files to search for you…in addition to, you know, doing our jobs. It’s not like looking for the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks,” responded a weary veteran.
“I think I’ll wait in the hall,” the detective stammered as he backed through the swinging double doors. The hallway was deserted. He found a chair and sat down to wait. He knew he had a long, dull night of waiting ahead of him, but what else was there for him to do? He was stuck and needed an identity to go on, and until they told him his man was not in the files, he would wait.
He quickly dozed off, in the chair, as he waited. It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep he had ever had. The hallway faded and was replaced with a bare apartment. His wife had packed up most the belongings and had left. He had returned from a night of drinking and messing around with some dame he met at the Silver Star Lounge. He had slept at her pad and was just now getting home; it was nearly noon. He found the note and divorce papers on the kitchen counter. Josie had put a lot of thought into this and obviously began planning it months before. He had been caught totally off-guard by this development…him, the seasoned investigator, blindsided by his own housewife. Go figure. There was little he could argue with; he had put himself in this situation. Josie had always been faithful and put up with so much of his carousing. It hadn’t always been this way…they were happy, once. He had finally pushed her too far and where she went was anybody’s guess. That was two years ago, and he hadn’t heard from her in all that time. He hadn’t even looked for her, because he deserved it all and she deserved so much better than him. He genuinely hoped she was finally happy; wherever she was.
A nudging at his shoulder brought him back to full consciousness. He looked at his watch; he’d been asleep for two hours. A dame from the steno-pool was waking him, gently.
“They found a match.” She sounded surprised even as she said it. She turned and went back into the offices, with Detective Travis in tow.
“Who is he?” Travis excitedly yelped as soon as he was through the doors.
One of the officers spoke up, “He could quite possibly be this guy…Robert Burris. We were lucky he even had a case, let alone a file. He was reported missing by a Mr. Jacobson, his building’s superintendent. He has no known family and it is odd for a super to check up on his tenants, but it is a pretty swanky pad. According to the file, Mr. Jacobson says this Burris is a quiet fellow and a perfect tenant. We have the address for him, but that’s the extant of the file. We still hadn’t assigned a detective to it yet…Do you want to handle it?”
Travis took the file, “Yeah, I got it from here. If he was so perfect, why did his mutilated corpse end up dumped in an alley on the westside?”
At least he had a name and an address. He needed to get this Burris bloke’s pad; he had wasted enough time already. He suddenly felt good about this case, now. It had gone from hopeless mess to a decent case quickly. He was finally excited about his job again. The adrenaline rush back. It was addictive and this was his first shot of it in months, and he wanted more. He was winning. He knew, somehow, he had the bastard now.
The fight was over in three rounds. Ostap was now worried about the inevitable repercussions of his actions. Reporters from all the city’s rags waited for him to appear from the locker room. He changed quickly, because he knew once the reporters were gone, he was a dead man. He slipped out the locker room exit into the alley. Spectators still filled the streets as they filtered out of the arena. Ostap lowered the brim of his hat and walked at a deliberately moderate pace, to not draw attention. He knew Tony and Sal would be checking the locker room by now. He headed for the waterfront, as he had been instructed. He hoped no one would look for him on the route he was taking, since he had no real reason to be going that way.
The people began thinning out the further he got from the arena. Soon, he was alone on the darkened street. The occasional dog was his only company. A few times, he thought he heard footsteps in the distance, but no one ever materialized. He maintained a quick pace and tried to keep calm. He sweated profusely as his heart raced.
He finally relaxed somewhat once he noticed the rising fog and could hear the subtle lapping of the river. As he hurriedly walked, a man suddenly appeared out of the fog in front of him. He was oddly dressed, in an outdated suit and thick handlebar mustache. The strange man narrowly avoided Ostap and quickly brushed by on his way toward the heart of the city. He reached the waterfront without further incident; now he needed to find the Elysium. He had never heard of the joint before, but didn’t think it would be too difficult to find; there wasn’t much apart from warehouses in this area.
The fog, while providing Ostap some protection, created other problems. It had become so thick he couldn’t see anything from a distance. He had to inspect every building, which took more time than he had anticipated. It took him an hour to search only a few blocks. He realized the process was going to be more difficult than he first imagined. The thoughts of Tony and Sal catching up to him returned the fear, which had subsided somewhat. He needed to find Mr. Midnight soon.
The fight hadn’t been masterful or pretty, But Isaac had been highly entertained. He always loved a good fight and the two brutes hadn’t disappointed. There was something about two oversized lugs laying into each other that strongly appealed the lanky, yet completely out of shape singer. The smell of the arena: stale sweat, beer, roasted peanuts. The sound of the massive building: yelling fans, bells between rounds, the announcer broadcast over a too loud speaker system. The sights of the ring: men beating each other with reckless abandon, scantily clad ring girls carrying signs for each round, crusty ex-pugs in their fighter’s respective corner. The feel of the atmosphere: surging crowd, pushing and all. Isaac had soaked it all in and reveled in the den of vice. It had been awhile since he could enjoy the night…well, most of it, at least.
He had passed on the message for the Augury, which was a pretty good one, for once. He had enjoyed the bout immensely; then came the bad part of the night for Isaac. At least it was over and done with now. A couple of murders could hardly dampen his mood on this night. Of course, just a few months prior, the idea of killing another human being would have sent Isaac spinning. He justified his actions, committed in the name of the Augury, by noting the world was better off without Tony Avaritia and Salvatore Scelestus. The duo was a couple of crums so far down the criminal food chain of the city, no one would be out for revenge.
The thirty-eight weighing down his right jacket pocket was warm to the touch. He now walked purposefully back to the Elysium to meet the winning pug. The man seemed dumb as an obedient house-dog, but Isaac had noticed something in his eyes that betrayed a world-weary knowledge. Midnight didn’t have an exorbitant amount of time to get to the Elysium, but he had some time. He knew from experience that Fortitudo would not find the joint before he, himself got there. He walked the main stem away from the arena, taking note of a streetwalker trying to sizzle it with a Smith or Jones, who was probably handcuffed with a dilly and brats at home. All that work for an ace or nickel, at best. Isaac crossed the street to avoid the situation and turned right to head to his appointment at the waterfront dive.
As downtown gave way to the industrial zone of the city, the streetwalkers disappeared in favor of sorry slobs, curled up over sidewalk grates, covered in California blankets for the night. Most were harmless, but some were yeggs out for a bump and run, looking for a quick score off some unsuspecting dilly. He was no longer one of those dillies. He chose this course to walk because the industrial zone gave way to the waterfront directly, avoiding Oldtown.
He made it back to the Elysium shortly before midnight. He pushed through the door, nearly running into a man with the strangest cheaters Isaac had ever seen. The man walked hurriedly away from the joint, toward the river. Isaac removed his hat as he entered, as was his habit, and scanned the joint noticing the nearly empty nature of the bar. The place was occupied by a few lushes, lost in their drinks, wishing for the return of better days. They seemed to melt into the stools and were quickly forgotten by Isaac. He made his way to the bar, which was manned by Jake Browne.
“How’d it play?” Jake asked Isaac as he fixed him his usual – gin and tonic.
Isaac accepted the drink and downed it before answering, “Played as expected, no complications. Where is everyone tonight?”
“Got me. This always happens when there is an appointment. Place empties out just before the poor sod is due. I imagine the big palooka is just the other side of the door, wonderin’ what he got himself into.”
“Why are you back there slingin’ paint? Where’s Sam?” Isaac asked after downing his second gin and tonic.
“Sam’s moved on. New guy starts tomorrow, if all works out as planned.” Jake answered, his sour mood showing through.
Isaac was stunned by the news, “Moved on to where? How?”
Jake’s lip curled in one corner, “Just…moved on. It’s all I know…honest.”
The two musicians’ conversation was interrupted by a slight breeze caused by the opening of the door. The big fighter cautiously made his way into the Elysium with an unsure look about him. He instantly recognized Isaac Midnight as the man from the fight. He shuffled over to the well-dressed man.
He said nothing as looked at Isaac. Isaac, in turn, looked expectantly at Jake. Jake laughed and pulled a yellowed envelope from under the bar. The envelope was yellowed by age, not design. It was covered in a layer of dust, as if it had been waiting for this very moment for years. The dust was blown clear, by Jake, before he set the envelope on the bar. He kept the envelope pinned between his fingers and the bar for a brief moment. He appeared to contemplate something and then thought better of whatever it was he had been thinking of. He slid the envelope across the bar toward Fortitudo. The fighter looked up from the envelope to Jake in obvious confusion.
Jake broke the silence, “Take the envelope and go to the address written inside; use the key in there to room 306. If you are agreeable, come back tomorrow.”
Ostap picked up the envelope and finally spoke, “What of my family? What of the men looking for me?”
Jake responded, “Tomorrow. For tonight, just go to the room and get some sleep. It’s been a long day for you. As for those looking for you…” He trailed off and turned his gaze to Isaac.
“No one’s looking for you tonight, trust me.” Isaac finished.
Ostap shrugged, put the envelope in his pocket and walked away. He didn’t believe Isaac, but he was in no mood to care. The dejected fighter left the bar unsure of his lot at that moment.
“Nice guy,” Jake muttered.
Isaac was surprised, “You know him?”