Somewhere beyond my line of sight a man groaned, pathetically. It sounded as if he had reached the end of his reserves and was now about to die.
But I couldn't stop to see what the problem was. I was too deep into the rhythm of working the hard belly of the speed bag. That air-filled leather bladder was hitting its suspension plate faster than any basketball the NBA could imagine. Nothing in the world is more harmonizing than hitting the speed bag at three in the afternoon when most other workers are sitting in cubicles, dreaming of retirement, praying for Saturday, or finding themselves crammed-in down underground on subway cars, hurtling toward destinations they never bargained for.
Battling the speed bag, first with the heels of your gloved fists and then with a straight punch peppered in for variety, you hone the ability to go all the way, as far as you can; getting in close but never allowing the bag to slap you in the face. Then, after that hard leather sack is moving more rapidly than the eye can follow, your hips and thighs, neck and head begin to move quickly, unexpectedly, like water, unerring in its headlong rush over and around any obstacle, wearing down your imagined opponent with the inevitability of time.
And, as any boxer can tell you, time is always running out.
Anybody you get in the ring with you is bigger and stronger, the worst problem you evah had in your lazy life, Gordo would say when I was a young man, sweating hard and thinking that I might be a professional boxer one day. The only chance you got is to wear him down, them fists like pistons and your head a movin' target. You use your skull and shoulders, stomach and spit, anything you can to keep him off balance. And the whole time your fists is at him, they don't even know how to stop.
"Give me four more." The words came, and then a whining groan of agony.
"I can't," the bodiless voice pleaded.
The strain audible in the ensuing grunt sounded like a man vomiting up his guts.
"My chest!" he cried. "It hurts!"
"You won't die," the torturer promised. It was more like a pledge of vengeance than any assurance of survival.
Without looking in their direction, I lowered my shuddering arms and headed for the showers. Pain is of no consequence in a gladiatorial gym; neither is blood or bruises, broken noses or concussions, unconsciousness, or even, now and then --- death.
Of late I had been taking three ice-cold showers a day. Only that restorative chill, along with working the speed bag and a daily counting of breaths, kept me from going crazy. At fifty-five, I found that as life went on, the problems mounted and their solutions only served to make things worse.
I didn't have a case at that moment, which meant that no money was coming in. When I did get a job, that just meant somebody was going to come to harm, one way or the other --- maybe both. And even then I might not collect my detective's fee.
A good friend was dying in my eleventh-floor apartment. My wife was having an affair with a man half her age. And those were just the devils I knew.
After the shower I was so spent that it was all I could do to sit upright and naked on the little oak stool that had somehow made its way into the locker room. The groaning from the gym was constant as my muscles still quivered from the exertions of the midday workout session.
Rising to my feet was an act of faith. I had the feeling of being the last man left standing after a lifelong battle in a meaningless war.
The chubby, café au lait-colored young man was in the middle of failing at executing a sit-up. He looked like a giant drunken grub that had lost its sense of balance, writhing and then falling back with the impact of a heavy mattress on the concrete floor.
"Three more and you're through," Iran Shelfly said.
Tiny Bateman, dressed in a gray T-shirt and shiny aqua trunks, let his arms fall to the side looking to the world like a fat drunk lowered to the ground on the curb in front of his favorite bar. Above him stood a well-built copper-skinned young man with a shaved head and a perpetual grin on his lips. His mirth seemed more predatory than happy, but Iran was really trying to help Tiny out.
"Three more," Iran commanded.
"That's enough," I said.
Tiny sighed in relief.
"He only been at it a half-hour, boss," Iran complained.
"Tomorrow he'll make thirty-one minutes," I said. "Isn't that right, Bug?"
I held out a hand and Tiny "Bug" Bateman grabbed for it twice before making contact. I pulled him to his feet and he genuflected, putting his hands on his knees, blowing hard.
"Hit the showers, young man," I said to him but it was all he could do to keep upright and gasp.
So I turned to Iran.
The thirty-two-year-old had on navy sweatpants and a white T-shirt that molded his well-defined physique like melted wax. This was the body that a stint in prison sculpted for you: either you were ready to kick ass or you got it kicked. He was five ten --- four and half inches over me --- and tense in spite of his lying grin.
"How's it goin', Eye Ran," I said, pronouncing the name as he did.
"It'll be eleven years before I put him in the ring," the bright-skinned young thief opined, "with a girl half his weight."
"I mean you. How you doin'?"
"Gym's goin' great," he said evasively. "Everybody's paid up and keepin' to Gordo's routines. Somebody gimme shit, I pretend to call you. And me, personally, I'm keepin' my head down like you said."
"Tell me if you have a problem," I said, "in or out of the gym."
He gave me a quizzical look, crinkling his nose like a wolf wondering at the hint of a scent of something strange.
"What?" I asked him.
"Why you wanna be helpin' me, Mr. McGill?" Iran asked. He had to. Suspicion was the primary lesson that any halfway intelligent convict learned.
A decade before, a man named Andrew Lodsman put on a ski mask and robbed a jewelry courier in Midtown at midday. The problem was Amy, an ex-girlfriend who hadn't been an ex when he planned the rip-off. Amy talked to the cops and they were after Andy. The gems were marked with a laser imprint, invisible to the naked eye. And so Andy gave me a small one that I dropped into Iran's sock drawer when he was down in Philly committing a robbery of his own.
Someone made an anonymous call about the Philadelphia robbery and the cops found the three-caret diamond mixed in with the socks --- among other things. Doubt was thrown on Andy's involvement in the robbery and Iran was put away for two crimes --- one which he did and the other he didn't.
That was a long time ago and I am no longer that kind of man. I was trying to make amends for my misdeeds by helping young Mr. Shelfly out. He was just one of a dozen private projects that I'd taken on.
He didn't know that I was the cause of his six-year incarceration. He didn't need to know.
The cell phone in my pocket vibrated and so I took it out rather than answer Iran's question.
? Client IO was printed across the screen of my phone: possible client in office.
I texted back 20, meaning that I'd make it there in that many minutes.
"Just workin' on my karma," I said to Iran, feeling the pain of those words.
He didn't understand what I meant but he was superstitious enough to accept the words. In prison men learned first to be suspicious, then fearful, and finally respectful of a higher power.
I stuck my head in the showers before heading down to the street. Bug was standing under the water with one hand holding on to the nozzle above his head.
"Is Zephyra worth all this pain?" I asked from far enough away not to get splashed.
It took him half a minute to gather enough wind to say, "Anything."
The biggest enemy of the revolution, my crackpot Communist father used to say, is a man's love for a woman. He will turn his back on his comrades in a heartbeat if that heart beats for some señorita with dark eyes and a sway to her butt.
I chuckled all the way down the stairs to the street and then half the way to my office, headed for the question mark of a client waiting therein.
Excerpted from WHEN THE THRILL IS GONE: A Leonid McGill Mystery © Copyright 2011 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted with permission by Riverhead Hardcover. All rights reserved.