(Photo courtesy of Rare Bird Books)

Nina Black fights men and steals their wallets. It’s how she makes her living in Denver’s bars and back alleys. But she follows a strict code: never strike first.

She’s tough and unflappable, that is until she unexpectedly gains custody of an 8-year-old niece she never knew existed.

That’s the plot of “Contenders,” the first novel from Boulder writer Erika Krouse, who also works as a private investigator. Krouse is also the author of an acclaimed collection of short stories called “Come Up and See Me Sometime.”

Last year, she was selected as one of 24 writers -- from more than 16,000 applicants -- to participate in Amtrak’s first literary residency program. It will take place this summer, when Krouse travels from Denver to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr. She plans to work on her next novel, also set in Colorado, along the way.

Krouse spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt

Reprinted from CONTENDERS by Erika Krouse with permission of Rare Bird Books. Copyright (c) Erika Krouse, 2015.

Chapter One: The Job

If two tigers fight, one is bound to be hurt, and the other to die.

—Okinawan proverb

It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.

—Muhammad Ali

Nina Black waited in the alley for a fight. It was taking longer than she had hoped. Conditions weren’t ideal. A cool wind blew her hair sideways, and she jumped up and down to stay loose. She always forgot how cold Denver could get on summer nights. The graffiti on the bar’s back door was blurry; she couldn’t tell if it said Courage, Bondage, or Cabbage. She stopped jumping and squinted.

The door cracked open, and the word slid into the dark. A shorn head poked out. “There you went.” The man’s torso leaned out of the door and his legs scrambled underneath to keep up, until he stood in front of her. In the light from the streetlamp, his hair glinted orange. His souring breath wafted across her cheek. “Were you that woman in there? That woman at the bar? Staring at me?”

Nina pulled her hands from her pockets.

“I think you dropped something.” The man was tall, thick, like someone who had played football in high school and watched football ever since. A Rorschach birthmark blotted his face. His movements were exaggerated, yet careful. He reminded Nina of every drunken thirty-year-old she had ever met.

“I said, you dropped something,” he said.

Nina scanned the ground and patted for car keys, money. The man sighed and clutched his own T-shirt in his fist. It bunched and lifted until a crescent of belly gleamed above his belt. “It was my heart,” he said.

He licked his finger, pressed her bare shoulder, and made a hissing noise with his mouth. “You’re hot.” Then, “I came out here to puke. But now I don’t have to.” His fingerprint evaporated from her shoulder. “What are you, Filipino?”

“I’m American.”

“No, but what are you?” His face flashed a frown and went slack again.

“My mother was Okinawan. My father was a white guy.”

“Ching chong,” he said.

Nina tried to breathe evenly, but instead she hiccupped. Rancid cooking oil dribbled toward a drain hole from the open door of a Japanese restaurant, staining the night air with the scent of bitter, scorched fish. She hiccupped again.

“Gesundheit.” For a second, his face was fatherly. “Hey.”

“What?”

“You wanna blow me?”

She hiccupped again and pounded her chest with a fist. “You’re drunk.”

“Nope. I’m high on Jesus. Been saved and everything.” He stared at her like she was a twenty-dollar bill he found in the street. “You what? You wanna?”

Nina smelled him, his metallic beer breath, sweat, and the chemical smell of air-conditioned flesh. At some point that night, he had eaten celery. He breathed high in his chest. The canvas of his skin was uneven, with pale jade patches near the veins in his temples. His shoulders strained his jean jacket.

He reached for her. She stepped out of the path of his hand.

“Hey.” A sharpness rose in his voice. The alcohol cleared from his eyes, and the capillaries around his nostrils reddened as he sobered up. An updraft brushed their hair off their foreheads. High in the atmosphere, Nina smelled rain.

He said, “C’mere, you little bitch,” and grabbed her wrist.

Nina’s other arm whipped around and bit into the side of his neck, edging downward into his carotid artery. His knees buckled and his fingers loosened. Before he could recover, she kicked out his standing leg and slammed her palm into his chest, clotheslining him. His surprised face glided through the air, a freckled moon.

He landed on his back with a soft, patting sound. Almost without realizing it, Nina had caught his head on her instep a few inches above the concrete. She cradled it on her foot for a second, just to let him know he had been saved yet again, before sliding it off her shoe to the ground.

It was over. She stood above him, panting. Adrenaline zinged across her chest. The man’s neck muscles strained under his skin as his lungs pulled hard for oxygen. Nina flipped him onto his belly, bent his arms into chicken wings, and pinned them high behind his back with her knee.

Her knuckles were turning pink, his imprint still on her skin. She hiccupped again and played back everything that had happened since her last hiccup. How had she hit him? What came first? Could she have done it better?

On his stomach, the man was still sucking air, his face torqued to the side against the pavement. Nina thumped between his shoulder blades a few times to help him get his wind back. His breath rasped against her shoe, and a dab of spittle landed on the toe. “This. Ain’t. Right,” he gasped between breaths.

Nina shoved his fists higher up his back, and he grunted. The bar door stayed shut. Her vision was beginning to clear, but the graffiti on the door made even less sense than before. The man’s pupils jittered back and forth.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Nobody’s watching.”

“Let me go.” She could tell that he was trying to sound reasonable, but the knee in his back cropped his words. “Cut me a break. I'm only human.”

“But I'm not,” she said.

He twisted, trying to see her face. His birthmark was a sapphire shadow. He asked, “Then what are you?”

She reached for his wallet.