Authors: John F. Dobbyn
John F. Dobbyn
Copyright Â© 2011 by John F. Dobbyn
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States of America by Oceanview Publishing,
Longboat Key, Florida
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
There is just one reason that this novel is seeing the light of dayâand that reason is the inspiration, the constant devotion, and the endless love that makes every day of my life a celebrationâall of which flow from the one I love more than I dreamed one person could love anotherâmy bride, partner in everything, and my very best friendâLois.
A track-wise old denizen of the backstretch at Boston's Suffolk Downs once shared with me his conclusion that there are dozens of ways a horse can lose a race, and only one way to win. It sounds poetic, but it's basically bunk. There are as many ways to make a horse win a race as there are devious twists in the minds of those who stand to make a buck.
That thought cruised through my mind the afternoon of the Massachusetts Handicap, the granddaddy of New England stakes races. I was in the grandstand at Suffolk Downs early in the afternoon to watch Danny Ryan, a buddy from my youthful days when we were both stable hands for my adoptive father and patron saint, Miles O'Connor. Danny was riding a two-year-old colt, Black Diamond, in one of the earlier races. The Diamond went to the post as a twenty-to-one long shot.
I had a few bucks on him, but that aside, when he entered the starting gate, my heart was pounding for the sake of Danny. He had run a painful gauntlet with some unhealthy substances, but now he was clean. This was the start of a major comeback.
Rick McDonough, the trainer of Black Diamond, had gone out on a limb to give Danny the mount. According to track scuttlebutt, Rick's stable needed this win to keep the thread it was hanging by from snapping. In the salad days, when Danny was the leading rider at Suffolk Downs, he'd brought in winners for Rick's stable more often than not by putting his body at risk with moves that would
give most jockeys the shivers. His wins bought a lot of hay and oats, and Rick never forgot.
The race was five furlongs, a little over half a mile. Black Diamond broke well from the third post, and Danny settled him nicely into a comfortable fourth position on the rail. They just cruised in that position until they hit the far turn, and my heart went into a slow seizure. Danny was completely boxed in by the three front-runners. He had no choice but to stay in the box, hard on the driving heels of the horse ahead of him, catching clods of dirt with every stride, until they hit the top of the homestretch.
In one magic moment, the horse on the rail ahead of Danny veered to the right just enough to open a bit of daylight. Black Diamond blew through the opening and went for the lead. Over the crowd, I could barely hear the track announcer booming, “Here comes Black Diamond, and the Diamond is flying!”
And flying he was. Hector Vasquez, the jockey on the leader, Sundowner, went to the right-handed whip. His horse veered left, and pressed Black Diamond nearly to the rail, but the Diamond never slackened. They were noses apart, swapping the lead with every stride. Danny was hand riding him. He never went to the whip, but by the eighth pole, it was becoming clear that Black Diamond was seizing the lead for good.
A sixteenth of a mile to go, and I was yelling my lungs out, though in that din, I wasn't sure I was making a sound. Black Diamond's lead of a nose grew to half a head and kept growing. I was picking my route to get down to the winner's circle to congratulate Danny.
This is where it gets fuzzy. I've tried a thousand times to put together what I saw next. Some of it doesn't scan, and I'm never sure what my imagination is adding or subtracting.
In a fraction of a second, Danny went from the rhythmic crouch of a jockey aboard the front-runner to a splaying spasm of arms and legs that had him hurtling over the rail into an unnatural twist of body and limbs on the inside turf.
Black Diamond went on to cross the finish line riderless and therefore disqualified, but every eye in that suddenly hushed crowd was on the still figure of the jockey. For seconds, I was too stunned to move. I just stared with everyone else, trying to will movement into Danny's distorted body.
The ambulance came flying down the track behind the final finishers. The first EMTs who reached Danny immediately signaled for the brace that would hold his head and neck in line with his spine. The rest was blotted out by people and horses in the way of my view. In a matter of minutes, all I could see was the track dust behind the wailing ambulance. I prayed to God that they were taking my buddy to the hospital and not the morgue.
There was no word from the hospital that afternoon or evening. Danny was in what seemed like interminable surgery. A few predawn calls the next morning zeroed me in on the intensive care unit at the Mass. General Hospital. I arrived there before the night shift changed. Experience taught me that it's easier to get past the nurses' station at the end of a long night shift than to avoid the attention of the alert, more populated day crew.
Danny had just been moved to a private room, but he was still under guard against visitors. I approached the two-hundred-pound Cerberus in a nurse's pantsuit and asked her for a quick minute with “my brother.” I figured that small deviation from the truth would obviate the usual, “Are you a member of the family?”
Nurse Ratched compared my six foot one to Danny's five foot three and gave me a look of squinting disbelief. I gave her an understanding nod and my most ingratiating smile.
“He's the runt of the litter. I'm abnormally tall.”
She relented an inch.
“Give me one reason why I should bend the rules, âBrother.'”
“We've been estranged for years. I just realized how much he means to me. Before anything happensâ”
“Let's play it again, âBrother,' this time without the bullshit. You're working on your third strike.”
When all else fails, try the truth.
“It's like this. Based on what got him here, he could need my
help in ways you couldn't even imagine. I need to talk to him as soon as possible.”
She gave me another squint, but she had a nose for the truth.
“You get one minute, âBrother.' That's sixty seconds, not sixty-one. Andâ”
“You didn't let me finish. If after those sixty seconds, his pulse is two clicks higher than it is right now, you're going to be wearing this bedpan in a funny place at an unusual angle. Are we clear with one another?”
“I take your meaning.”
“Good. He's in there. That's one secondâtwo secondsâ”
In spite of what I expected, I was stunned. Whatever parts of Danny were not encased in elevated casts were receptacles for tubes or wires. He looked like a string puppet in the hands of a mad puppeteer.
I sensed the time bomb ticking in the hall and got down to business.
“Danny, can you hear me?”
I saw one finger slowly flicker at the side of the bed. A gurgling voice that seemed to come from deep in his chest rasped something like, “Could only be Mike. How'd you get in?”
“You're my brother. Mom says âHi.'”
“Nice. Yours or mine?”
“Let's not blow my cover. What happened, Danny?”
There was silence that could have been pain, weakness, drugs, whatever. Then he gurgled again.
“Mike . . . leave it alone.”
“Danny, I've only got a minute. I think you need help on the outside. But I have to know what's going on. What happened? Who should I be looking for?”
“Mike, back off. This is not yours.”
“Danny, would you back off if it were me?”
He opened his eyes a crack for the first time and looked in my general direction.
“Don't make me come over there and slap you around, Mike. I want your word you'll stay outâ”
He went back to wherever the drugs were mercifully taking him. I gave it a few seconds, and touched him as softly as I could.
“I'll be back, Danny.”
When I got to the door, I barely heard a thin voice. “I'll be here, brother.”
It was about three o'clock that afternoon when I got back from court to the offices at 77 Franklin Street in the center of Boston, which had, for the last eight months, housed the law firm of Devlin & Knight, of which I was the junior partner. My senior partner, Mr. Alexis (Lex) Devlin, was, to be poetic but truthful, the Paul Bunyan of the criminal defense bar, aging a bit to be sure, but on any given trial date, the source of everything from butterflies to ulcers for any unfortunate prosecutor.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to be absorbed in returning clients' phone calls, drafting motions, whatever might distract my preoccupation with Danny. The visions of him, both splayed on the track and trussed up in the hospital, dominated my thoughts.
We had a strange tie, Danny and I. After my father's death when I was an early teen, my mother moved us from the WASPish neighborhood of Winchester outside of Boston, the ancestral home of my father, to the then heavily Puerto Rican barrio of Jamaica Plain, my mother being full-blooded from that sunny isle.
She meant well, but without knowing it, she plunked me smack on the turf border between two of the diciest teen gangs then in existence. Not to join one or the other would have been like being a mouse between an alley cat and a coyote. For arbitrary reasons, I cast my lot with the coyotes.
As an initiation, I was sent out to hot-wireâas any thirteen-year-old
in my neighborhood could in those daysâa classic Cadillac. I was caught, tried, and in short order convicted, in spite of the nervous efforts of my court-appointed lawyer, on whose law school diploma you could still smell wet ink. To be fair, it was no miscarriage of justice; I was the dictionary picture for the word “guilty.”
I was about to be sentenced by a crusading judge to the Lord only knows what graduate school of criminality, when the owner of the Cadillac asked to approach the bench. Miles O'Connor was defense counsel to some of the top white-collar heavies of Boston's political and financial communities. I sweated bullets while they bargained in whispered tones over my futureâif any.
When the tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte broke, the judge rapped the gavel, and I followed the summoning finger of my new guardian, Mr. Miles O'Connor. That path brought me into a life of rigid demands, no such thing as rest, and the eventual opportunity to walk through any door in life that could be opened by hard work on my part and unlimited financial and spiritual backing on his part. God love him, he's passed on now, but there never lived a man on earth for whom I would more gladly walk off a cliff.
My current life really began at the age of thirteen as stall mucker and horse waterer in the Beverly Thoroughbred horse stables of Miles O'Connor. My partner in grime, in those days, was another O'Connor rescue, a diminutive Irish kid from the streets of South Boston by the name of Danny Ryan.
The two of us spent the first three weeks at the stables covering for each other, trying to find shortcuts and cover-ups to hide a job half done. We finally realized that Miles O'Connor's time was never so taken with momentous cases as to distract him from checking every minute detail of our menial labors. Within a year, Danny and I absorbed the O'Connor principle: perfection is the barely passing standard. That scale has driven the lives of both of us to this day.