Spot Conlon grinned as his fist cracked against the man's eye socket. The sound was glorious and filled him with a violent purple joy as it echoed down the alley and died in the late afternoon haze.
Long ago he'd learned and perfected the golden rule of a fight: hurt 'em where the whole world can see, and keep your injuries to yourself. It satisfied Spot that Vinny DeMarco was going to have a nasty black reminder of him for weeks. And then some.
"Get 'em up, Vinny! Give it to 'im!"
The handful of dockers watching from the alley's end were much louder than Spot liked. They shouted so recklessly he wondered silently if they were drunk already, swigging at the saloon while they waited for a ship desperate enough to hire them. Fuckin' simps, Spot thought to himself. Drunken rubes, they are, begging for the bulls to show up.
Vinny was slow today, and Spot quickly got in another jab at his torso. The man doubled-over and groaned, spittle flying from his lips onto the dark street. Half of the crowd hissed. Spot took in this noise, breathed it into his chest, and pulled from it a sick kind of energy. To show his appreciation for his audience, he gathered all his spit and launched it down the alley to a chorus of squalls.
Spot's verve was short-lived. Vinny recovered from the blow quicker than Spot expected and pulled himself upright. With an arm over his stomach and a grimace painted on his mouth, Vinny lunged toward where Spot stood. The dockers at alley's end inhaled sharply and Spot felt them watch him with more intent than before.
It was a show they were here for, cheerfully cheap. Spot had grown used to acting the antihero, and whichever drunk goop the hopeful champion. He didn't begrudge the men their fun; he couldn't, in fact, since he relished his own cheap entertainment. Their close attention roused him, and he side-stepped just in time for Vinny to careen headfirst into a stack of empty coffee crates.
Reluctant applause echoed down the alley. Spot watched Vinny and waited for him to rise. When Vinny didn't rise and instead stayed prone, Spot spit on the soles of his shoes and growled, "Looks like I won't be seeing you at the docks tonight."
Naturally, he didn't wait for a response. He pushed past the glaring spectators and stepped out of the alley onto the weary streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
As sundown neared, Spot sat at the saloon bar, flexing his bruised knuckles and downing a whiskey neat. For a moment he winced at the sharp pain in his hand but he soon grew used to it, even taking small pleasure in the sharp electric pains running through his fingers. He switched his glass to his injured hand, daring his body to rebel from the pain.
At the far end of the bar three dayworkers lolled drunkenly upon their stools. They spoke amongst each other but between slurred words and near-weeping, none heard what the others were saying. It was the weeping that always made the bile rise in Spot's throat, so he finished the dregs of his whiskey and left the saloon for the docks.
At dusk the company foreman selected his men. Though it was June, the night was blustery and Spot noted fewer men vying for night work today. As he waited for the foreman to nod in his direction the cargo hook hanging from his belt loop bounced restlessly against Spot's leg.
He had worked for this steamship company before. Spot recognized the foreman and hoped the foreman had recognized him, but the more men the foreman called up ahead of Spot, the more he felt the dark fist in the center of his chest tighten. It was small consolation to see that none of the selected men looked over their shoulders at him. It seemed he had taught them well—the memory of his glowing cigarette in the early morning hours as he waited for their shift to end kept them from gloating now.
Although the dockers' angst didn't guarantee him a job, he found that these moments on the docks returned to him the power he craved, albeit for a moment only. Daily he missed the respect he'd once had as leader of the Brooklyn Newsies. He missed watching them hustle to sell their papes by any means necessary. He missed the underhanded and vicious way they fought off territory poachers. Most of all, he missed the way they'd pick scratch off a fancy man and present it to him, Spot Conlon, as an offering, too scared or stupid to keep some for themselves.
All of it flashed through Spot's mind. As his chances at work for the night grew ever slimmer, the familiar dark fist slowly choked the breath from him.
Damn you and your bunk, Conlon, he said to himself. You need proof? Just look at the way the hair on their necks stand up as they scurry by. No, he was no longer Spot Conlon, King of Brooklyn and Errant Newsies, it was true. Would he ever be again? He shut off his mind before it could find an answer. What he knew for certain was that he wanted it back, wanted it with a fury born from hell.
But for now, the dockers' palpable unease would have to be enough.
A man, much older than Spot, passed too close on his way toward the foreman and whacked against Spot's shoulder. The man faltered and looked over his shoulder with an expression half confounded and annoyed. Spot took a step toward the man, his neck hot from too much thinking and a harsh sound rumbling in his chest.
As Spot tried to beat down the crushing rage that gripped his lungs, he happened to look beyond the man. The foreman, alerted by this sudden movement, looked Spot in the eye, paused, and finally nodded.