In Search of Mercy

A Mystery

Michael Ayoob

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1
I played for some bad crowds, but man, that last one . . . A couple hundred drunks banging on the glass, chins flapping with beer fat. Glazed eyes beaming hatred at me and Time itself. I was just a Falcon goalie blanking their Blizzard kids, but their beef with Time ran deeper. Time yanked them out of high school and dumped their bloated asses on those bleachers. It left them impotent, screaming at their kids to hit somebody. Hurt somebody, cripple somebody if you have to, as long as you win.
“Goalllll-chick, Goalllll-chick,” they chanted dirgelike during every lull because my last name is Bolzjak. “Goalchick” kind of rhymed with it, and more importantly, “Goalchick” let me know I was a long-haired fag. It was that kind of crowd, that kind of vibe. Pennsylvania state championship, nine minutes left, tied 0–0, and you just knew things wouldn’t end peaceably.
The ref went down, tangled in Falcons and Blizzards. A guy in the stands screamed, “Get off your knees, ref, you’re blowing the game!” so loud the ref heard him. So the ref got up looking for the guy and missed a high-stick to a Falcon. A crush of noise came down from the bleachers, boos mostly, quaking Cooper Rink to the rebar in its concrete bones. The glass panes around the ice swayed more than glass panes ever should.
The Blizzards came charging back with a two-on-one. Left passed to Right and juked my defenseman. Pass back to Left. Shot.
I took it in the chest, let the puck drop in my glove. Even did the old Statue of Liberty, raising my glove high to rile the Falcon fans. And it worked; they leapt up and screamed themselves hoarse, though I still didn’t see Mom or Dad anywhere. It felt weird to play to a crowd without them, weird to see strangers in their usual spot. But I couldn’t afford to think about it, not with eight minutes left.
The ref dropped the puck for a face-off. My guy clacked sticks with their guy, and the puck rolled out to the far end.
Something white appeared against the glass to my right. I looked over to a poster of a Falcon goalie strapped in an electric chair. Double quotes bracketed his hands and feet to show that he was shaking. Smoke puffs rose from his smoldering eye sockets. The scorekeeper’s light hung over his head, glowing red with the same current that sizzled his body. FIRE IT UP! read block letters across the bottom. I couldn’t tell if the artist used paint or Magic Markers, but damn.
The ref whistled the play dead, and everybody stopped all confused. Coach waved us to the bench, looking grim in his fudge-colored suit. Last time he wore that thing was the last time he coached a championship. Judging by the polyester of it, Coach hadn’t seen a championship since the Carter era. Nor had he modified his Caesar haircut since then, nor shaved his gray mustache that twitched when he talked.
Our team captain, Durdovitch, pushed his way through to get closest to Coach. Standing six foot five and weighing over two hundred pounds, Durdovitch was a tower of anger. He kept track of the concussions he doled out by stenciling little skulls on his locker. At last count, he was up to six. “Coach,” he said, “if that Timonon kid touches me one more time, I’m gonna fuck him up. You see what he did? That was a flagrant fuckin’ cross-check.”
Then the ref came over and said, “Sorry about the stop, but we got a problem with Larky’s audio. They tried everything upstairs, but they still can’t get it up. They want to patch him into the rink’s PA. We’re not crazy about the idea, but if both teams agree to it, we’ll go ahead. Ropersdale’s okay with it, so it’s your call, Coach.”
We all looked to Coach, having no idea what the ref was talking about.
Coach said, “Kip Larky’s here, guys. I didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t need the distraction. He’s broadcasting this on public access and calling the game himself. Personally, I think he’s a sleazy hack looking to ham it up and pad his demo reel.”
But the Falcons only heard “Kip Larky,” who was Pittsburgh’s leading high school sports reporter, and “broadcast,” and it was all let’s go, let’s play, awesome, cool, let’s go, go, go. I sensed that Coach hated the idea. He looked right at me and said, “If it’s gonna be a distraction, forget it. We won’t do it.” Looked at me like he knew Mom and Dad weren’t there, like he’d been watching me watch the stands.
The other guys looked at me, too, but not real friendly, like I was gonna veto something fun. We’d already had some tension—they still didn’t like that Post article that called me a phenom. Dexter Bolzjak, savior of Pittsburgh high school hockey—and now this. Me the phenom jeopardizing their big TV break.
“No, it’s cool,” I said. “All cool. Let’s go.”
The PA booth overlooked the ice from behind my net, a cubicle walled off with glass. On non-hockey nights, the staffers used it to pipe in Top 40 music or announce discounts at the snack bar. But when I settled back in net, I saw Kip Larky up there, wearing his trademark white shirt and pink suspenders. His scalp shone through his hair plugs, just like on TV.
“Hell-ooooooo, ladies and gentlemen, this is WPIT’s Kip Larky broadcasting from historic Cooper Rink! Smile, because tonight you’re live on public access!”
His voice boomed out over the PA, and the crowd lapped it up.
“We got ourselves a real blockrocker here, a clash of the titans. Rob ‘Da Bomb’ Bomley in goal for the Ropersdale Blizzards versus Dexter ‘The X-Factor’ Bolzjak of the Truman Falcons. Both have been near perfect throughout these playoffs, but tonight only one can be a champion. The other a mere footnote. Forever remembered as a loser, if remembered at all.”
I rolled my head around, crackled the tendons in my neck. Holding up okay there. Crouched, leaned forward. My knees were numb, but I could still trust them to move. Sweat soaked through my pads, kept dripping to my lips. It tasted no worse than warm beer. Took a fresh grip on my stick, and once again I was a fortress. An icon. I owned that ice, every divot and scratch.
Couldn’t help it, I looked up to the bleachers again. Still no Mom and Dad, but close to the glass was a girl staring at me. Not screaming or clapping, not even blinking, just sitting there perfectly still and pretty. She had bloodred hair that looked natural with her pale skin, green eyes that could have lured mine from the game. I refocused but noted her position.
The Blizzards won the face-off, and back they came, crashing my space.
“The Blizzards set up a two-on-two. And oh, look at the move Torkle just put on Kelly! He’s got a lane! Shot!
“Save, Bolzjak!
“Rebound—shot! Save, Bolzjak!
“A tussle around the net! They’re scraping for the rebound. It rolls to Winchel—stolen! Stolen by Torkle! He backhands it!
“Save, Bolzjak! Off the blocker! Ladies and gentlemen, this is THE Dexter Bolzjak! He’s a juggernaut out there on the ice!”
Kelly cleared the puck, and our fans went half past apeshit. Screaming their throats to pulp, waving green-and-white Falcons towels. Their energy boosted mine if you could believe it. Call it adrenaline or confidence, but my whole body quickened. My knees felt loose, limbs more limber, and the puck looked like a spare tire to my eyes.
The other Falcons caught the same surge. They churned a step harder, passes clicking from blade to blade as they skated and blurred to pure flowing motion. If I hadn’t known what those kids were like in the locker room, I would’ve sworn I was seeing poetry.
The Blizzard defenders backpedaled. Durdovitch forced the puck between them and went straight for Bomley, and even Da Bomb shrunk back from two hundred pounds closing fast.
“But Timonon hooks Durdovitch from behind! Durdovitch can’t keep the puck, and the Blizzards will steal it. No whistle. There’s no whistle on the play. Boy, I can’t believe there’s no call. Did Timonon get away with— Oh my God! Oh my God! Durdovitch just whacked Timonon in the face!”
Timonon crumpled to the ice. The Blizzard fans blew out their throats screaming and booing, none of them knowing that Durdovitch got off on it. He told me himself he loved it, said booing was the best sound he’d ever heard besides his Glock.
The ref doubled over blowing his whistle, and the linesman grabbed Durdovitch. But there was no fight to break up. Durdovitch seated himself in the penalty box, surrounded by glass and raging Blizzard fans. He showed neither fear nor remorse, much like his idol Mike Tyson.
“Disastrous for Truman High. Absolutely disastrous. Just when they really needed their captain to step up and show some maturity. That’ll be a five-minute major for fighting.”
Coach hung his head and aged a decade. Meanwhile the ref tried to gather everybody for the face-off, but it was no use. Pissed fans threw a few bags of popcorn on the ice. Before the linesman could even summon the staffers, everybody was looking at the penalty box.
Durdovitch was on his feet, choking the box’s water bottle with both hands, spraying a geyser over the glass. His target, a massive Blizzard fan, was beating on the glass with obese fists. Red-faced and cursing as the water showered him and his blond buzz cut.
The glass could not contain the fan’s girth or wrath. It shattered in a mess of crystal pebbles, and he teetered on the drop-off. His lard sac hung over the edge, pulling him forward despite his arms’ desperate flapping.
“Oh my God, did you see that?! A fan has fallen into the penalty box! Yes, into the box! Somebody better get him out of there. Is he all right? What’s this? Durdovitch appears to be— Somebody get that guy out of there!”
Durdovitch’s fist cocking back and plunging, that’s all I saw at first. Then, through the commotion, Durdovitch pulling the guy up by his jersey. Then pulling the jersey over the guy’s head, exposing his tits and gut. And then Durdovitch hammering away. He finally got to be Tyson, and it was like watching Tyson go off on a manatee. You could hear each thwack, see the guy’s flab fly in all directions. Flab undulating with every blow.
The crowd loved it, even the Blizzard fans. They disowned that guy the second he broke through the glass, and they cheered every punch as loud as the Falcon fans. Players on both teams laughed. Even the linesman was smirking as he tried to break it up. In fact, the whole building seemed entertained except for a little blond kid standing on the drop-off’s edge, looking down into the box. I couldn’t tell if he was screaming or crying.
Larky gauged the crowd and piled on, “A left! A right! Another right! A body blow! But how could you miss that body? Upstairs now! To the head! Left hook! Uppercut! Down goes Fatso! Down goes Fatso! Somebody call Greenpeace and save the whale!”
In the midst of all this, I looked at her again, and sure enough she was looking back at me. The girl with the ghostly skin and haunting gaze. She undid the top button of her denim jacket, then reached down to the next. Eyes never leaving mine, unbuttoning button after button.
Coach screamed at me to wake up, get my ass to the bench. He’d been waving me over, and the other Falcons were waiting. After all, the delay functioned like a free time-out.
Durdovitch approached the bench with me. The linesman and ref flanked him like bailiffs, each holding an arm. “You saw that, Coach. He was gonna attack me. I had to do something.”
“Game misconduct, Durdy. You’re done. Ejected.”
“But, Coach—”
“See you downstairs.”
“But, Coach, can I say just one thing. Please? As team captain?”
“Make it quick.”
Durdovitch surveyed us, his troops. The bench, his defensemen, his fellow forwards. “We worked our asses off to get here. Most of us for four years. I wish I could be out there with you, but you saw how they screwed me. It’s okay, though, because we got a phenom in goal.” He yanked his hand from the linesman and slapped his clump of bloody knuckles on my shoulder. “We know you won’t fuck it up, Bolzjak.”
The Falcon fans gave him a standing ovation as he skated off. The Blizzard fans booed, but probably not as much as Durdovitch wanted, and the staffers installed a new pane. Or swept the crystals out of the penalty box. Or helped the EMTs load the battered fan onto a stretcher while the crowd sang the “Hey, hey-ey, goodbye” song.
Coach said, “Okay, it’s simple, and it’s what I’ve said all along. We’re a team. No matter what happens, it comes down to what we do as a team. Forget Durdy. Get him out of your heads. You have to win without him, and that means killing this penalty. Give them nothing. No room to skate, no room to pass. Shut down the lanes, and watch Torkle. He’s been smoking you guys all night.”
I started back to my net, but Coach reached over and grabbed me. Leaning in close so nobody else could hear, he said, “Hey. You okay? Something on your mind?”
They didn’t show, I wanted to say. Mom didn’t show. Dad didn’t show. They didn’t show, and it’s left a gaping hole in my game. This wasn’t supposed to happen; I wasn’t supposed to care. But of course I couldn’t say such a thing at such a time. It would’ve made me look weak.
So I said, “Yeah. Winning’s on my mind. What else you want?”
Coach’s mustache twitched up into a half smile. He gave me a shove and a get outta here.
Finally the ref resumed the game. Six minutes left, and we’d be short-handed for five. The Blizzards won the face-off and crossed the blue line. Instead of shooting, they took positions in my zone. My guys fell back, trying to cover.
The Blizzards edged in toward me. Right Blizzard tipped it to Left, who faked a shot then shot. The puck thunked off my leg, rebounded past my catcher to Kelly. He wristed it all the way back to Bomley, and the Blizzards had to retreat.
The girl touched her fingertips to her collar, slid them down along her chest. Slowly, artfully slowly, she opened her jacket, revealing a white T-shirt that read GOALCHICK in black letters. The “O” and second “C” rung around her nipples. Then she smiled all cutesy and blew me a kiss.
That settled that. No way would I look in her direction again, the sadistic bitch. And you’d have to be sadistic to make a shirt like that, let alone wear it. I swear I had nothing against the good people of Ropersdale, PA, prior to that night. Nothing, but man, they came heavy with that Goalchick shit.
But you know what? It didn’t matter. Screw her, I thought, I’ll show her. And as for Mom and Dad, I shook that off, too. I knew—just knew—they were in the building somewhere. And when it was over, and we won, I knew they’d be the first to congratulate me, and they’d have some funny reason for not being in their usual place. Like Larky said, I was a juggernaut. And juggernauts don’t sweat chants or T-shirts or lack of support. They just crush stuff.
Back came the Blizzards. Center dumped it off to Left. Winchel tried to check him but missed, slammed into the boards. Left ripped off a shot, and ding! The sweetest sound in hockey.
“Off the post! It hit the post! Bolzjak scrambles to cover it, but Heenan gets to it first! Heenan shoots! Off Bolzjak’s skate! It’s still loose! Knocked away by Bolzjak, and the Falcons will clear.
“Boy, I don’t know. Bolzjak looked a little rattled on that last attack. I think the Blizzards might be getting to him now. He didn’t seem very focused there.”
“Goalllll-chick, Goalllll-chick,” they chanted, louder than before.
Back came the Blizzards again, unrelenting, with ticktack passes. Left to Right to Center.
“Shot! Save, Bolzjak!
“Rebound! Shot!
“Saaaaave, Bolzjak! And the Falcons will clear.
“No, wait! Torkle kept it in at the point. Torkle goes to pass—no, he doesn’t! He just burned past Kelly and wrists it!”
I dropped to my knees, and I knew by the roar.
“Scoooooore! Oh, Lord, what a score! Right between Bolzjak’s legs!”
The Blizzards mobbed Torkle.
I dug the puck out of my net, glanced up at the scorekeeper’s light. The bulb glowed red like a bloody cherry.
The Falcons kept their distance from me, and I ignored them anyway. Just to make a point, I reset like nothing happened. Got back in my crouch, rolled my head around to work out the kinks. My way of saying, let’s go. We got five minutes left. Are we gonna show up tonight or what?
The ref dropped the puck at center ice. Conlan won the draw, and the other Falcons plowed ahead, knocking a Blizzard on his butt. The puck ended up in the far corner, caught in a scrum of blades.
So with the play down at the other end, I did a bad thing. Call it a moment of weakness, but I looked her way again, the girl with the red hair and ghostly skin. Thought I could sneak a glance, but she was already watching me. A skeleton sat to her left, a witch to her right. Behind her, three zombies with rotting skin. In front of her, a green-faced ghoul holding a scythe. A blond girl with a gashed throat and blood on her white bathrobe. An ape holding a bloody straight razor. All of them looking right at me, all laughing.