Chapter 1

On a Friday that began ordinarily enough, Matt Durant’s left hook ended two lives.

 

Before dawn, Matt had awoken preoccupied with a legal brief. By six that morning, he arrived at his law firm just south of the French Quarter, Farrar Levinson, inserted his key into the shiny brass lock and pushed the door open. For the rest of the day, phone calls and emails required only a fraction of his attention as he remained engrossed in the brief. Around seven-thirty that night, he finished, affixed the electronic signature of the lead partner, Thomas—never Tom—Farrar, uploaded it to the court’s electronic filing system, and then printed confirmation he’d filed it on September 7, 2007. He turned off his computer, grabbed his ripped Nike gym bag, and threw it over his shoulder. The office was dark.

 

Walking down the hallway, he spotted a single light and smiled. Lisa Boudreaux, a new associate, was still at her desk, so he stuck his head into her office. She had dark chocolate hair that fell over her shoulders and down her back, setting off pale skin, with spritely features: high cheekbones and a dainty nose. “You’re working too late for a Friday,” Matt said.

 

“I’m not the only one.”

 

“Yeah, well, I had to file a brief today.”

 

“I’m actually trying to do some work too, believe it or not,” Lisa said, waving towards her own computer and then the open books scattered about her desk. “You headed for the boxing gym?”

 

“Yeah,” Matt said.

 

“Are you up to anything fun this weekend?” She cocked her head to the side and enunciated: “Going to the gym doesn’t count.”

 

“I don’t really have any plans.” Matt shook his head. “The weekend kind of snuck up on me again.”

 

“Andrea’s not in town?”

 

“We broke up.” Matt stared at the gray carpet.

 

“Oh really? What happened?”

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Matt said, raising his gaze to meet hers.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I’m going out with some friends for drinks. You’re welcome to come along.” Her emerald eyes locked with his, her mouth quirked, and she qualified: “But I guess it’s your business if you’d rather hang out with a bunch of sweaty, half-naked men.”

 

Matt blinked, but he kept his expression otherwise blank. “Stressful week,” he said. “I need to go to the gym and vent.”

 

“There’s such a thing as moderation, you know. In work, in exercise, in play—”

 

“I know, I know.” Matt interrupted. “Maybe I’ll join you next Friday night. Try not to stay here too late.” He turned toward the door.

 

“I’ll try not to work any harder than you,” Lisa said.

 

Matt left the office, took the streetcar, then walked the rest of the way to Tommy O’Rourke’s boxing gym on Baronne Street, near Jackson Avenue. He entered the two-story converted house, ascended rickety stairs, and, at the top, opened the gym door to the sting of bleach.

 

On Matt’s left, Tommy sat tucked behind the desk in his cramped office, reading the newspaper, his face covered in the same stubble that outlined a bald spot atop his head. Matt knocked on the doorframe to say hello, and, in return, Tommy looked over the the paper with hazel eyes and raised a gnarled finger.

 

The week’s stress subsided as Matt removed his jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his shirt, uncinched his belt, and removed his patent-leather shoes, trading them for nylon shorts, an LSU t-shirt, and battered cross-trainers. He rolled sweat-stained yellow wraps around each hand, piling the strips over his knuckles, spooling them around his wrists and then securing them. He slid on eighteen-ounce gloves, fastening the Velcro on the second with his teeth.

 

The buzzer sounded, and Matt started pounding one of the 150-pound bags hanging from the ceiling by a gunmetal link chain. He wanted to throw two to three hundred punches each three-minute round but never counted; instead, he focused on delivering every blow with maximum speed and power; with each, he tried to break the bag.

 

Jab, jab, cross. Jab, jab, cross. Neither packed enough power, but each made the bag shudder and swing.

 

The buzzer signaled the end of his rounds on the heavy bag and he moved to the twenty-foot square ring, where Tommy waited with paddle-shaped focus mitts. With Tommy leading and Matt following, they began to dance.

 

Tommy swiped at Matt’s head with his left mitt and he blocked the shot. Tommy repositioned the mitts and Matt registered the new configuration. Left jab to the head, left jab to the head, right cross to the head, left hook to the body; same combination again. At the end of this set, Tommy held up his left mitt, braced the back with his right hand, and said: “Double up.”

‚Äč

Thwap, thwap. Matt shot two left hooks into the paddle, and, despite the reinforcement, Tommy’s left mitt bent inward. At least he knew how to throw one punch—he’d thrown both hooks in less than half a second.

 

After three rounds, Tommy traded the mitts for gloves. They began to spar; each pulled his punches about an inch short of contact. As always, it surprised Matt that keeping his arms up for defense was harder than hitting the heavy bag; and, even though Tommy was well into his fifties, Matt’s youth was no match for his experience. But he came close with a couple of punches. His breathing was only slightly heavier than normal, but sweat dripped from his face, rose in sheets from his body, and saturated his t-shirt.

 

Tommy stepped out of the ring, stomping onto the lower two ropes and lifting the highest, and Matt ducked between them. He finished by slapping a double-end bag, tethered to the floor and ceiling with elastic, which sprang back after each blow and forced him to quicken his punches. Bathed in sweat, Matt nodded to Tommy and ran down the steps.

 

Outside, Matt boarded another streetcar. Halfway home, his brain reactivated: when he’d first taken up boxing, he’d been able to work himself into an endorphin-induced buzz that, for several hours, obliterated thought and feeling. Now he wondered whether it was time to take up something new.

 

He rehashed the recent breakup with his girlfriend Andrea, who had moved to New York City after law school graduation three years before. Their relationship had since petered out. And he wondered why—instead of sad, he felt empty, detached, and ambivalent.

 

 

 

Matt walked into his house, opened the refrigerator, ignored the pitcher of water, and instead grabbed a Bud Light. He cracked the beer open, took a swig, and then studied the can. He knew he should try to get out to meet people and make friends, but he couldn’t summon the energy—with no plans on the horizon, the beer would likely be the first of several.

 

After a second beer and a shower, Matt turned on the TiVo and reviewed the week’s fare. He settled on another terrible spinoff from a mediocre series: its only redeeming feature was a well-muscled actor with hickory eyes, but the producers had hidden him in an ensemble cast. A pity.

 

As Matt polished off his third and fourth beers, he checked out the actor and felt a hint of arousal—interest and curiosity gnawed at the edges of his ennui.

 

Matt finished the six-pack and his thoughts wandered to a loud oomp-oomp club on Bourbon Street called Drink. When Andrea had tried to cajole him into going dancing about a year ago, he’d mentioned—in passing—that Lisa had recommended Drink. Lisa, like many women, hated the wandering hands of strangers in most dance clubs and the men there weren’t interested in even the most beautiful women. Andrea had “convinced” him to go to Drink that night.

 

Impelled toward the gay club again, new excuses multiplied: boredom; an opportunity to converse with strangers; and a chance for social contact without the risk of rejection from anyone he knew. He began to get ready, knowing that, if his resolve faltered, he could always retreat to the couch.

 

Matt threw on a pair of black pants and a silver-patterned button-up shirt, then ran his fingers through wet, pitch-black hair and swept the front into the same part he’d had for decades: his arctic blue eyes were surrounded by bags dark enough to be mistaken for bruises. He hoped his appearance attractive but nondescript enough to avoid any unwanted attention from the fraternity guys south of St Ann Street. He went outside and hailed a cab.

 

“Where you goin’?” asked the driver.

 

“Bourbon and St. Ann, or as close as you can get,” Matt said. He fretted about what the driver might think or say about his destination. Then he reassured himself: the city was packed with tourists taking cabs; the Quarter had countless coffeeshops, hotels, bars, and clubs; and in their first week on the job, most New Orleans cab drivers probably saw every combination and permutation of humanity. He’d soon be forgotten.

 

The driver dropped him off on Canal Street, several blocks south of the club. Heading north, Matt stopped at a souvenir shop advertising crude t-shirts and an ATM machine. He grinned to himself and thought that finally, after so many years, he could afford to withdraw a significant sum of money. He took out the largest round number his bank and the machine permitted in two transactions—$800. He was happy to trade the risk of surrendering it to any mugger for an added, momentary sense of security and the options it created; he also didn’t want to use a credit card.

 

Then he melted into the press of college kids and tourists. He passed a blonde girl who looked about fifteen years old sitting on a curb, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. No one else in the crowd, including a cop on a white horse, gave a second glance to her or her pregnant belly.

 

Moments later, he crossed the velvet line that St Ann drew across Bourbon Street. Joints south of the line catered to college kids, were open to the street and, in addition to huge-ass beers, sold hurricanes and hand-grenades. North of St Ann was the French Quarter’s gay area.

 

He approached Drink still buzzing but under control, as nervousness fluttered his stomach. Above the entrance, the balcony railing flew a rainbow flag and Matt worried about who might see him entering beneath it. But he reminded himself that native New Orleaneans seldom went to the Quarter; they largely considered it only fit for tourists. At French doors, thrown open to the street, a bouncer with a close-shaven crewcut, wearing a leather vest and dog collar, pointed a flashlight at Matt’s license, examined it front and back, and then nodded.

 

Matt stepped into the club. Bass pounded through his head and chest and fluorescent lights seared a pattern of brilliant flashes and fading afterimages onto his retinas. Magenta light bathed a crowd of men writhing to the music and candy-colored lasers, straight as arrows, sliced through the throng. Accustomed to controlling the direction of his eyes around attractive men, Matt realized that he couldn’t avoid looking at them here and no one would mind. Tension eased.

 

He made his way to the bar, sconce-lit, mirrored, and a sporting a wooden surface latticed with scratches. The bartender wore a net shirt and the word tacky sprang to Matt’s mind, but the guy—or his chest—made it work. “Gin and tonic,” Matt said, reaching for his wallet. The bartender handed him the drink.

 

Matt peered beyond the dance floor to the stage as a spotlight hit it. A statuesque and strong-jawed black woman with gold and turquoise eyeshadow and impossible lashes prominent even in the uneven light of the club took the stage: her gold-sequined dress splintered the white spotlight. She began to lip-syc “Vogue,” as a steady pulse alternated with snapping fingers.

 

A petite man to Matt’s left interrupted, shouting, “Let me buy you another. I’m Joey.”

 

Matt turned to size him up. Joey had platinum hair that clashed with darker brows, blue eyes, stood a few inches shorter than Matt, and wore a canary-yellow button-down shirt over a pair of $200 jeans. Matt frowned inwardly at the hair dye and felt skittish about accepting a drink but thought refusing might be rude. And he didn’t know anyone else in the bar. “Thanks,” he said.

 

“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before,” Joey said.

 

“Yeah. I’ve actually been here a couple of times when my girlfriend wanted to dance.”

 

“Really. Where is she now?” Joey asked, glancing around the bar. “Not many girls in here—it’d be hard to lose one.” He locked eyes with Matt, head tilted to the side.

 

“We broke up,” Matt responded.

 

“Well, color me surprised. When? Just now?”

 

“No.” Matt smiled. “A couple of months ago. She lives in New York, and it was a distance thing.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what created the distance. So is there anything else I could help you could lose tonight?” Joey’s brows climbed toward his hair, emphasizing the contrasting color.

 

Matt narrowed his eyes, then said: “Subtle. No thanks. I’m flattered, but I’ve never met anyone who could tempt me into sex with one drink.”

 

Joey snickered. “Well, many of us are surprised by our first reaction to a lack of heterosexual supervision. But maybe we should move on to safer topics for now. What do you do?” Joey spoke in singsong.

 

“I’m a lawyer.”

 

“Well, we didn’t need to get that boring.” Joey sighed. “What do you like to do for fun, other than tease cute guys for drinks?”

 

“I read. And when possible, I eat and drink too much. What do you do?”

 

“I’m sometimes a sculptor and sometimes a waiter. You can guess which I prefer.”

 

“Everyone has to earn a living,” Matt said.

 

“So, how many more drinks do I need to get in you before I can talk you into a dance?” Joey asked.

 

“A few.”

 

“That can be arranged.”

 

The next hour passed in a frenzy of shouted conversation and emptied glasses. While ordering another round, out of the corner of his eye, Matt saw Joey signaling to the woman on stage. She started lip syncing: Matt laughed, recognizing The Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha.”

 

“I knew that would get a laugh. I know you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” he said, pulling Matt out on the dance floor.

 

Matt realized that most of the other men had their shirts off—and a few had removed even more. His arms and legs felt liquid—he relaxed, let the beat carry him, stopped fighting off fun and reveled in the moment.

 

At some point, the performer left the stage but the music continued. A sassy brass opening diverted his attention but, only after several lines slipped past did he recognize Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca.”

 

Following Ricky Martin came a wall of techno music with little break between songs, which propelled Matt through the night until Joey leaned in to shout, “Do you want to get out of here?”

 

Matt stilled. “Depends on where you want to go.”

 

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. I know you’re shy. I was thinking we could walk down to a little place I know close by. They’ve got great oysters.”

 

“No thanks.”

 

“No? You sure? Is this the end of our evening?”

 

“Let’s just find a back table here,” Matt said. “I’m tired of shouting.”

 

“Well, okay. But if you aren’t even going to have dinner with me, the next round is on you. Can you grab me a Maker’s Mark on the rocks? I’m going to run to the little boys’ room.” Joey gestured toward the back.

 

Matt pushed through the crowd to the bar and ordered a Maker’s Mark and a bottle of Purple Haze. Then he worked his way to the rear of the club. The place reeked of beer and sickly sweet alcohol, and he was glad he couldn’t see the floor as he moved toward the back where the music receded to a soft, dull thump. He could finally hear himself think again—but he wasn’t sure he liked it.

 

“So, what made you finally take the plunge and come here alone?” Joey asked.

 

“I don’t know. I suppose I’ve always been interested in men and curiosity led me here.”

 

“Was dancing enough to satisfy your curiosity?” Joey grinned.

 

“For now.”

 

“Why are you afraid to go to a restaurant? We could just be two friends grabbing dinner together,” Joey beseeched, appearing unwilling to waste the few hours he’d invested that night with an attractive newcomer, no matter how reluctant. “You are permitted to have gay friends, right? Look, don’t get me wrong—I know coming out can be hard—but I don’t think you have to be that paranoid.”

 

“Yeah, I know you’re right. But I’ve had some early success in a profession that’s very conservative—my name and face are already out there. I haven’t seen any signs of discrimination at the office, but why should I take the chance?” Matt shrugged his shoulders, unwilling to add that, most of the time, he felt work was his only bulwark against loneliness and safeguard for sanity. “And what about outside the office? I should probably figure out whether I prefer men before I come out.”

 

“Well, honey, I’d be happy to help you make up your mind. I understand you want to take it slow, but it’d be a real shame to discover you’re gay after your twenties have passed. You want to join me in the alley?” Joey cocked his head toward the fire exit.

 

“I thought you understood I wanted to take it slow.”

 

“Settle down. I just need to take a leak and the bathroom line would keep me from you for far too long.”

 

“I thought pissing in the street could actually get you arrested, even in the Quarter,” Matt said.

 

“Live a little. I piss in that alley every weekend.”

 

“Okay. I could stand to take a leak myself.”

 

Matt stood. The table pitched and rolled in a shift of frame just short of the spins—he was drunk. He followed Joey, and, as they approached the exit, Joey rested his hand on the small of Matt’s back. He let it rest there for several seconds, then disentangled himself.

 

Joey’s slight shoulder pushed against the steel door and it swung open, clattered against the alley wall, then, behind them, thudded shut. Rain sleeted down, spilling over a three-foot overhang, stories above. Joey scrambled about five feet down the alley, trying to stay dry by hugging the wall, and then began watering it. Matt ventured ten feet beyond.

 

“Bashful as always. At least you’re consistent,” Joey said.

 

“I just don’t want to intimidate you,” Matt responded.

 

Joey tittered. Matt shifted the beer bottle to his left hand, unzipped, and whizzed on the garbage at the foot of the wall.

 

 

 

Movement drew Matt’s attention beyond Joey, where the street’s light painted the alley’s mouth in twilight. Three figures lurched toward them, and the largest, funneled closer by the brick walls, cast a shadow even in the alley’s depths. Then he loomed over Joey.

 

“I told you we’d find a couple of faggots back here,” said the massive man. “Hard to believe such little faggots would have cocks big enough to do anything to each other so far apart.” He shifted to a soft but ungentle drawl. “So, tell me, little man, are you a faggot ’cause you got a tiny cock?”

 

“Why? You interested?” Joey approached him and alarmed Matt; by closing the distance, Joey had narrowed their options.

 

“I could say we’re gonna beat the shit out of y’all because of that smart-assed comment. But we’ve been plannin’ to beat the shit out of some fag all night.”

 

His two companions grabbed Joey and pinned his arms behind his back. Matt zipped up. He considered going for help, but the men stood between him and the club door and behind him a large U-Haul truck and a dumpster choked off the exit to the street. He probably couldn’t weave his way to either without being caught.

 

Cornered, outnumbered, and outsized, Matt’s adrenaline spiked. Fear tinged with panic and fury spurred him to seize every advantage—rather than dropping the bottle, he dropped the hand holding it to his thigh, tilted it down so the dregs gurgled out, and then pushed it against his leg until he gripped the fat, slick barrel. He steadied himself and started toward the men. “You’ve had your fun,” he said. “Why don’t you let him go now? He was just taking a leak, like every other drunk in the Quarter tonight.”

 

“We haven’t had our fun. Our fun involves more’n just scarin’ your girlfriend here.”

 

The largest man turned toward Joey, pulled back a gargantuan fist, and unloaded it. Joey’s nose exploded and he sagged against the men restraining him.

 

“Tell you what,” Joey’s assailant said to Matt. “Why don’t you just hide over there by that dumpster for a while and we’ll think about cutting you some slack.”

 

“Sorry. Can’t do that,” Matt said.

 

One of the smaller men dropped Joey’s arm and he slumped to the ground. The man stepped out to meet Matt; his right hand went into his pocket; and there was a glint of steel—a four-inch blade. Matt had to act.

 

As the runt approached, he said: “Last warning. Why dont’cha be smart and get outta here? Maybe you’ll get lucky and we won’t chase you.”

 

Matt closed the distance and delivered a right uppercut to the body. As the man fell back a half-step, Matt pulled back, rotated his hips, and the muscles in his shoulder blade transformed his mediocre jab into a snapping left hook. Matt slipped it behind the smaller man’s guard, pointed the neck of the beer bottle toward the him, and concentrated on punching through his head.

 

The bottle tip crumpled the smaller man’s right temple. On instinct, Matt doubled up and swung again with the same left hook, which came harder. The man’s left temple collapsed, the neck of the beer bottle buried in his skull. Matt didn’t let go fast enough—inky blood coated his hand before the falling body tore the bottle from his grasp.

 

Matt rushed past the man’s two companions, who were standing stunned. He stuttered to a stop, pulled open the back door, and yelled, “Three rednecks are out here beating the shit out of Joey.”

 

The woman in the gold dress rushed out with a Louisville Slugger, a crowd of patrons surging behind her. The assailants bent over their friend on the ground.

 

The large man screamed, “Call 911! I think he’s dead.”