By Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Michael Koryta
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316122610
THE TOWN FEELS LIKE home immediately, and he credits the leaves. It must be a pickup day. Plastic bags bursting with withered remains of life are stacked on the curbs, a few spilling over onto the sidewalks, flecks of crimson and copper that dot the white concrete like blood splatters on pale flesh. The air is that contrary blend: alive with a smell, but the smell is death.
Those who pass him have their heads down and shoulders hunched, turtles seeking their shells. He stands tall as he walks, embracing the cold wind, which is wonderfully unblocked by concrete walls, unmarred by razor wire fencing. He is grateful for that. There are other people in this town who have similar feelings, memories of days when one could not embrace the wind and longed to, no matter how bitter and chill. He knows some of them, and he knows that those very memories—realities—are in some cases exactly what chased them to this town, a chance to hide from the past.
At first glance, this town feels like a fine place for hiding from reality, too: impossibly quaint, with an actual town square and a brick courthouse. It could be the stage set from some Hollywood version of small-town middle America if not for all the empty buildings. Half the storefronts facing the courthouse have FOR RENT or FOR SALE signs in dusty windows. As he moves away from the square, walking north, toward the lake, stepping carefully around those swollen bags of leaves, he encounters vacant properties, once-tidy yards filled with brown weeds, vinyl siding begging for a hose and some bleach.
Hard times have come to Chambers, Ohio.
Five blocks farther north, the lake visible now, the smell of water pushed toward him by a steady wind, and he departs to follow the signs for the high school. Turns west, walks a few more blocks, and now he can see it. A two-story main structure with single-story wings sprawling in odd directions, indications that several additions have been made over the years.
Chambers High School, Home of the Cardinals.
A cardinal was the third creature he ever killed. Caught it beneath his grandmother’s birdfeeder. He’d watched the cat’s approach to this task and marveled. The cat didn’t hide; it just waited with incredible, dazzling patience. There was no cover under the birdfeeder, nothing to shield a killer, and still the killer succeeded. As the cat approached, the birds would scatter. The cat was unbothered by that, content in his role and devoted to it, possessed of unusual clarity of purpose. The cat would simply settle down into the grass beside a dusting of fallen sunflower seeds and wait. And without fail, the birds would return. Even though they could see the cat, its lack of motion reassured them, convinced them that they were safe. The cat never reacted to those first birds. The cat would wait, and watch, and eventually they’d become so confident in their safety that one would come just near enough, and then there would be a blinding strike, and those around the victim would scatter.
Give them enough time, though? Then they would return. Always. Because the feeder was there, the feeder was home, and though they might be capable of remembering what had befallen one of their own in the same spot, they did not believe it could happen to them as well.
Unshakable confidence. Unshakable stupidity.
He is fascinated by the confident specimens of the helpless. He finds no fascination in the fearful.
The first bird took him longer than it took the cat, but not as long as he’d expected. The secret was in his stillness. The secret was in their stupidity. It took him only five days to get the cardinal. He killed the cat when that was done. There was nothing more to be learned from it.
He has patience for study, and hunger for it, in the way that only those truly devoted to a craft can ever possess. His craft is killing. His understanding of it is great, but he knows there will always be more to learn, and in that knowledge is his happiness. He has studied the behavior of killers, has spoken with them, has lived behind steel bars with them, and he has learned from them all.
Now, as the wind freshens and the smell of dead leaves fills air that is rapidly chilling with the promise of rain, he stares at the front of the high school long enough to observe the security guard in the parking lot, and then he walks down the block and turns the corner and the football field comes into view. Here the Cardinals make their claim to glory. It’s a terrible name for sporting teams. Why not the Warriors or Titans or Tigers? How does one summon any level of confidence wearing the logo of a bird that can be killed by the squeeze of a child’s palm?
There are half a dozen men sitting in the aluminum bleachers that border the field. He is not the only watcher today. They are undefeated, these Cardinals, they are the most intense pride of a town that once had many more reasons to be proud.
He slips in, leans beside the bleachers with hands in pockets, and waits for the coach to arrive. The coach, of course, is more than a coach. He has won 153 games for this school, this community. He has lost only twenty-two. On this field where his players are now stretching, limbering up against the wind and beneath the gray sky, he has a record of eighty-one wins against four losses. Just four home losses. He’s more than a coach, he is a folk hero. A mythic figure. And not just because of the wins. Oh, no. Coach Kent Austin is about much more than football.
He proves it now, drawing silence as he walks across the field, still a young man and a fit one but always with the trace of a limp, the left knee refusing to match strides with the right, always yielding just a little more, a little too much. It only adds to the coach’s compelling quality. Everyone else recognizes his wounds; the coach pretends not to.
It is not only the young players in uniform who fall silent as the coach makes his way across the field, it is the men in the stands, the watchers. There is a reverence about them now, because what happens on this field matters deeply to people who have not so much as walked across its surface. You take your pride where you can find it, and right now, this is where it can be found. Because hard times have come to Chambers. This much he understands well, reads it as a weather forecaster would read the dark clouds scudding in off Lake Erie. He is a forecaster in his own right.
A prophet of hard times.
The coach is far too focused to look up and see him, because the coach is at work, lost to the game that he insists does not matter, but of course it matters because it is all he really has, in the end. Empty games and empty faith. Hollow words and false promises. A child’s preoccupations and distractions, carefully constructed walls to separate him from the reality of the world that owns him, that carries him in an open palm that could so swiftly turn into a closed fist. He needs to feel the first squeeze of that fist.
The prophet spent three years with a killer named Zane who murdered his wife and both of her parents with a ten-gauge shotgun. Quite a messy weapon, the ten-gauge. Before he pulled the trigger, he gave all three of them the chance to renounce God. To say that Zane was their God. A promising idea, though poorly understood. Zane was not of proper depth for such a task, but he was to be admired for the effort nevertheless. The way Zane told it, two of the victims accepted him as their God and one did not. It made no difference in their fate, of course, but Zane was interested in their answers, and so was the prophet. At one time, he was even impressed. The idea of posing that question to someone facing the final seconds before entering eternity seemed powerful.
He no longer believes this, though. Consideration has shown him its weaknesses and ultimate insignificance. The question and its answer mean little. What matters, what Zane was unable to see—he was an impulsive man was Zane—is in the removing of the question from the mind entirely, and replacing it with certainty.
There is no God.
You walk alone in the darkness.
To prove this, to imprint it in the mind so deeply that no alternative can so much as flicker, is the goal. This is power, pure as it comes.
Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless. Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken. Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.
The prophet’s goal is simple. When the final scream in the night comes, whoever issues it will be certain of one thing:
No one hears.
What he has been promised in Chambers, Ohio, is strength and resiliency. He has looked into a confident man’s eyes and heard his assurance that there is no fear that will not bow to his faith.
The prophet of hard times, who has looked into many a confident gaze in his day, has his doubts about that.
ADAM HAD HIS SHIRT LIFTED, studying the lead-colored bruise along his ribcage, when the girl opened the door. She turned her head in swift horror, as if she’d caught him crouched on his desk in the nude. He gave the bruise one more look, frowning, and then lowered his shirt.
“Want a lesson for the day?”
The girl, a brunette with very tan skin—too tan for this time of the year in this part of the world—turned back hesitantly and didn’t speak.
“If you’re going to tell a drunk man that it’s time to go back to jail, you ought to see that the pool cue is out of his hand first,” Adam told her.
She parted her lips, then closed them again.
“Not your concern,” Adam said. “Sorry. Come on in.”
She stepped forward and let the door swing shut. When the latch clicked, she glanced backward, as if worried about being trapped in here with him.
Husband is a good decade older than her, Adam thought. He hasn’t hit her, at least not yet or at least not recently, but he’s the kind who might. The charges probably aren’t domestic. Let’s say, oh, drunk and disorderly. It won’t be costly to get him out. Not in dollars, at least.
He walked behind the desk, then extended a hand and said, “Adam Austin.”
Another hesitation, and then she reached forward and took his hand. Her eyes dropped to his knuckles, which were swollen and scabbed. When she removed her hand, he saw that she was wearing bright red nail polish with some sort of silver glitter worked into it.
“My name’s April.”
“All right.” He dropped into the leather swivel chair behind the desk, trying not to wince at the pain in his side. “Somebody you care about in a little trouble, April?”
She tilted her head. “What?”
“I assume you’re looking to post a bond.”
She shook her head. “No. That’s not it.” She was holding a folder in her free hand, and now she lifted it and held it against her chest while she sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. It was a bright blue folder, plastic and shiny.
“No?” The sign said AA BAIL BONDS. People who came to see him came for a reason.
“Look, um, you’re the detective, right?”
The detective. He did indeed hold a PI license. He did not recall ever being referred to as “the detective” before.
“I’m… yeah. I do that kind of work.”
He didn’t think he was even listed in the phone book as a private investigator. He was just AA Bail Bonds, which covered both his initials and gave him pole position in the Yellow Pages as people with shaking hands turned pages seeking help.
The girl didn’t say anything, but looked down at that shiny folder as if it held the secrets of her life. Adam, touching his left side gingerly with his fingertips, still trying to assess whether the ribs were bruised or cracked, said, “What exactly brought you here, April?”
“I’d heard… I was given a referral.”
“A referral,” he echoed. “Can I ask the source?”
She pushed her hair back over her left ear and sat forward in the chair, meeting his eyes for the first time, as if she’d summoned some confidence. “My boyfriend. Your brother was his football coach. We heard from him that you were a detective.”
Adam said, “My brother?” in an empty voice.
“Yes. Coach Austin.”
“Kent,” he said. “We’re not on his squad, April. We can call him Kent.”
She didn’t seem to like that idea, but she nodded.
“My brother gave you a referral,” he said, and found himself amused somehow, despite the aching ribs and bruised hand and the sandpaper eyelids that a full week of uneven hours and too much drinking provided. Until she walked in, he’d been two minutes from locking the office and going in pursuit of black coffee. The tallest cup and strongest blend they had. A savage headache had been building, and he needed something beyond Advil to take its knees out.
“That’s right.” She seemed unsatisfied with his response, as if she’d expected the mention of his brother would establish a personal connection. “I’m in school at Baldwin-Wallace College. A senior.”
“Terrific,” Adam said.
“It’s a good school.”
“I’ve always understood that to be true.” He was trying to keep his attention on her, but right now all she represented was a delay between him and coffee. “What’s in the folder?”
She looked down protectively, as if he’d violated the folder’s privacy. “Some letters.”
He waited. Could this take any longer? He was used to fighting his way through personal stories he didn’t care to hear about, used to deflecting tales of woe, but he did not have the patience to tug one out just so he could begin deflecting it.
“What precisely do you need, April?”
“I’d like to get in touch with my father.”
“You don’t know him?” Adam said, thinking that this wasn’t the sort of problem he could handle even if it interested him. How in the hell did you go about finding someone who’d abandoned his child decades ago? It wasn’t like chasing down a guy who’d skipped out on bail, leaving behind a fresh trail of friends, relatives, and property.
“I’ve met him,” she said. “But he was… well, by the time I was old enough to really get to know him, he was already in prison.”
Adam understood now why she’d gone to the trouble of telling him that she was in a good school. She didn’t want him to form his understanding of her from this one element, the knowledge that her father was in prison.
“I see. Well, we can figure out where he’s doing his time easily enough.”
“He’s done. He’s out.”
Damn. That would slow things down.
“What I’ve got,” the too-tan-for-October girl said, “is some letters. We started writing while he was still in prison. That was, actually, your brother’s idea.”
“No kidding,” Adam said, doing his damnedest to hide his disgust. Just what this girl needed, a relationship with some asshole in a cell. But Kent, he’d have found that a fine plan. Adam’s brother had gotten a lot of ink for his prison visits over the years. DRIVEN BY THE PAST, one headline had read. Adam found that a patently obvious observation. Everyone was driven by the past, all the time. Did Kent’s past play a role in his prison visits? Of course. Did that shared past play a role in Adam’s own prison visits? Better believe it. They were just different sorts of visits.
“Yes. And it was a wonderful idea. I mean, I learned to forgive him, you know? And then to understand that he wasn’t this monster, that he was someone who made a mistake and—”
“He stopped writing when he got out?”
She stuttered to a stop. “No. Well, he did for a while. But it’s an adjustment.”
“It certainly is,” Adam said, thinking That’s why most of them go right back. She was so damn young. This was what college seniors looked like? Shit, he was getting old. These girls seemed to be moving backward, sliding away from him just as fast as he aged away from them, until their youth was an impossible thing to comprehend.
“Right,” April said, pleased that he’d agreed. “So some time passed. Five months. It was frustrating, but then I got another letter, and he told me he’d gotten out and explained how difficult it was, and apologized.”
Of course he did. Has he asked for money yet?
“So now he writes, but he hasn’t given me his address. He said he’s nervous about meeting me, and I understand that. I don’t want to force things. But I’d at least like to be able to write back, you know? And I don’t want him to be… scared of me.”
Adam thought that maybe he didn’t need coffee anymore. Maybe he needed a beer. It was four in the afternoon. That was close enough to happy hour to count, wasn’t it?
“You might give him some time on that,” he said. “You might—”
“I will give him time. But I can’t give him anything more than that if I can’t write back.”
That’s the point, honey. Give him nothing but time and distance.
“He explained where he was living,” she said. “I feel like I should have been able to find it myself, honestly. I tried on the Internet, but I guess I don’t know what I’m doing. Anyhow, I’d love it if you’d find the address. All I want to do is respond, right? To let him know that he doesn’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not going to ask him to start being a dad.”
Adam rubbed his eyes. “I’m more of a, uh, local-focused type. I don’t do a lot of—”
“He’s in town.”
“He’s from here?”
She seemed to consider this a difficult question. “We all are, originally. My family. I mean, everyone left, like me to go to college, and…”
And your father to go to prison. Yes, everyone left.
She opened the folder and withdrew a photocopy of a letter.
“In this, he gives the name of his landlord. It should be easy to come up with a list, right? He’s living in a rental house, and this is the name of the woman who owns it. It should be easy.”
It would be easy. One stop at the auditor’s office and he’d have every piece of property in this woman’s name.
“Maybe you should let things take a natural course,” he said.
Her eyes sparked. “I have plenty of people who actually know something about this situation who can give me advice. I’m asking you to give me an address.”
It should have pissed him off, but instead it almost made him smile. He hadn’t thought she had that in her, not after the way she’d crept so uneasily into his office, scared by the sound of the door shutting behind her. He wished she’d come in when Chelsea was working. Not that Chelsea had a gentle touch, but maybe that was why it would have been better. Someone needed to chase her out of here, and Adam wasn’t doing a good job of that.
“Fair enough,” he said. “May I see the letter?”
She passed it over. A typed letter, the message filling barely a quarter of the page.
I understand you’re probably not very happy with me. It just takes some time to adjust, that’s all. I don’t want you to expect more of me than I can be. Right now I will just say that it feels good to be back home. And a little frightening. You might be surprised at that. But remember it has been a while since I was here. Since I was anywhere. It’s great to be out, of course, just strange and new. I am living in a rental house with a roof that leaks and a furnace that stinks when it runs, but it still feels like a castle. Mrs. Ruzich—that’s my landlord—keeps apologizing and saying she will fix those things and I tell her there is no rush, they don’t bother me. I’m not lying about that.
It is my favorite season here. Autumn—so beautiful. Love the way those leaves smell, don’t you? I hope you are doing good. I hope you aren’t too upset about the way I’ve handled things. Take care of yourself.
Adam read through it and handed it back to her. He didn’t say what he wanted to—Let it breathe, don’t force contact because it will likely bring you nothing but pain— because that argument had already been shot down with gusto. The landlord’s name made it cake, anyhow. Ruzich? There wouldn’t be many.
“I just want to write him a short note,” April repeated. “Tell him that I’m wishing him well and that he doesn’t need to be worried about my expectations.”
Definitely beer, Adam thought. Definitely skip the coffee and go right to beer.
“Can you get me an address?” she asked.
“Probably. I bill for my time, nothing more, nothing less. The results of the situation aren’t my responsibility. All I guarantee is my time.”
She nodded, reached into her purse. “I’m prepared to pay two hundred dollars.”
“Give me a hundred. I charge fifty an hour. If it takes me more than two hours, I’ll let you know.”
He charged one hundred an hour, but this would likely take him all of twenty minutes and it was good to seem generous.
“All right.” She counted out five twenty-dollar bills and pushed them across the desk. “One other thing—you have a policy of being confidential, don’t you? Like a lawyer?”
“I’m not a lawyer.”
She looked dismayed.
“But I also am not a talker,” Adam said. “My business is my own, and yours is your own. I won’t talk about it unless a police officer walks in this door and tells me to.”
“That won’t happen.”
She had no idea how often that did happen with Adam’s clients.
“I just wanted to be sure… it’s private, you know,” she said. “It’s a private thing.”
“I’m not putting out any press releases.”
“Right. But you won’t even say anything to, um, to your brother? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really respect Coach Austin, but… it’s private.”
“Kent and I don’t do a whole lot of talking,” Adam said. “What I will do is find some potential addresses and pass them along to you. The rest is between you and your dad.”
She nodded, grateful.
“How do I get in touch with you?” he said.
She gave him a cell phone number, which he wrote down on a legal pad. Beside it he wrote April and then looked up.
She frowned, and he knew why she didn’t want to give it. If she still carried her father’s name, and he was betting that she did, then she was afraid Adam would look into what the man had done to land in prison.
“Harper,” she said. “But remember, this is—”
“Private. Yes, Miss Harper. I understand that. I deal with it every day.”
She thanked him, shook his hand. She smelled of cocoa, and he thought about that and her dark skin and figured she’d just left a tanning bed. October in northern Ohio. All the pretty girls were fighting the gathering cold and darkness. Trying to carry summer into the winter.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said, and he waited long enough to hear the engine of her car start in the parking lot before he locked the office and went to get his beer.
KENT KNEW WHAT THEY were hearing and what they were reading: this was their season, the stuff of destiny, and they were too good to lose.
It was his job to make them forget that.
This week, that would be a little more difficult. They’d played a good team on Friday, a ranked team, and handled them easily, 34–14, to complete the first perfect regular season in school history. They’d won every statistical battle, and while Kent didn’t believe in paying much attention to statistics, he knew that his boys watched them carefully, and he was happy to use that tendency against them. In four short days they’d play again, the first playoff game, and there would be pep rallies and television cameras and T-shirts announcing their unbeaten season.
All of those things scared him more than anything the opponent might do. Overconfidence was a killer.
So, knowing that their confidence would be a difficult thing to shake, knowing that they’d be looking ahead to the school’s first state championship in twenty-two years—an undefeated championship, no less—he sought out drills that would show their weaknesses.
Colin Mears would be all-state at receiver for the second year in a row. The fastest kid Kent had ever coached at the position, and the most sure-handed, Colin would run routes all practice long with a smile on his face. Colin would not block long with a smile on his face. His lanky, lean frame made it difficult for him to get low enough quick enough to set the kind of block that contributed, and the Cardinal linebackers were happy to demonstrate that to him. Damon Ritter in particular, who ranked among Kent’s all-time favorite players, a quiet black kid with an unmatched ability to transfer game video to on-field execution, as bright a player as Kent had ever had at middle linebacker. Lorell McCoy, likewise, would be all-state at quarterback for the second year in a row. He had the touch that you didn’t see often in a high school quarterback, could zip it in like a dart when needed or float one up so soft in the corner of the end zone that his receiver always had time to gather his feet. What Lorell didn’t have was Colin’s speed. He had unusual pocket presence and read gaps well enough that he could gain yards up the middle consistently, but he had no burst. On a naked bootleg, then, taking the snap and sprinting around the end, he would nearly always be lacking the gear needed to make the play a success, and on the bootleg, Colin Mears had to block, his least favorite thing.
They ran the naked bootleg for the last twenty minutes of practice.
Kent didn’t have any intention of beating Spencer Heights on Friday night with this play, but he did intend to beat Spencer Heights, and this reminder of the things that his boys couldn’t do well was important. This unbeaten team needed to leave the practice field with a sense of fallibility. The attitude you needed to win football games was a difficult balance. Confidence was crucial; overconfidence killed. Success lived on the blade’s edge between.
Up in the bleachers, thirty people were watching. It was cold and windy, but there they sat anyhow. Talents like Mears and Ritter and McCoy were on their way out of the program, and their like might not pass through Chambers again. This much Kent understood better than anyone. He’d been the head coach for thirteen seasons now and had reached the state championship game twice. He had never had a team like this.
Watching them now, he wanted the lights on and the ball in the air. Wanted game day. That was unusual. Like most coaches, he was always wishing for one more practice day. You were never prepared enough. This week, though, this season, this team? He found himself wanting to be under the game lights. Wanted it over, so he could begin wishing that it had never ended. Because if he couldn’t close out that elusive state championship with this kind of talent?
It’s a game played among boys, he reminded himself while Matt Byers, his defensive coordinator, walked into the middle of the field to make a point about leverage, and the reason you’re here is to use this game to help these boys. You’re not here to put a trophy in that case. Never were, never will be. That trophy’s absence doesn’t say a thing about your measure as a man, and its presence wouldn’t, either.
This season, though? This season that was difficult to remember.
He let Byers say his piece and then he called them over, everyone circling around him, forty-seven players and six coaches, and told them they were done.
“Keep your heads down,” he said, the same thing he said to end every practice and locker room talk until the season was finished. Then he’d tell them to lift their heads up and make sure they held them high. Only then.
The practice officially over, Kent walked to midfield and most of the team followed. He offered no instruction for them to do so, and this was critical—the school board had required this of him after a complaint from a parent four years earlier. Praying with a public school team, he’d been told, was a violation of the separation of church and state. He couldn’t require it of his players. And so he did not. He prayed to end every practice, but participation was voluntary.
The players took a knee and Kent offered a short prayer. Football was not mentioned. Never was, never would be, never should be. The closest he came was when he prayed for their health, though he caught himself drifting too close to the game sometimes this season even as the words were leaving his lips. A swift, sharp desire to make it specific: Not Damon’s knee, Lord, not his knee. God, please watch over Lorell’s throwing shoulder… Silly things, desires for which he would chastise himself privately, but still they arose.
Because this season…
“Amen,” he said, and they echoed, and then they were on their feet and headed for the locker room at a run—no player walked onto or off of the field, ever. Kent watched while Colin Mears made a beeline to where his girlfriend, Rachel Bond, waited at the fence. One kiss, quick and amusingly chaste for hormonal teenagers, and then he rejoined the others. It was a deviation from the team-first routine that Kent ordinarily wouldn’t have allowed, but you needed to understand your players as something beyond cogs in the gridiron machine. That girl had been through a great deal, and Colin was a light in the darkness for her. He was what Kent wanted them to be so badly: not only about more than football but also about more than the self.
Kent let the assistants follow the team to the locker room while he headed directly to the parking lot. This wasn’t standard, but today he had places to be. A prison waited.
Standing behind the end zone, hands tucked in his pockets, was Dan Grissom, a local minister. Together, they would make the drive down to Mansfield, to one of the state’s larger prisons, and there Kent would speak to a group of inmates. There would be some talk of football; there would be more talk of family. Truth be told, Kent had winced a little when he saw Grissom arrive, the reminder of his required task. He wanted to put it off until after the season, after playoffs. But responsibilities were responsibilities. You weren’t allowed days off.
“They’re looking good!” Dan said, gushing with his usual enthusiasm, and Kent smiled a little, because Dan didn’t know the first thing about football. He knew plenty about encouragement, though.
“They should be,” Kent told him. “It’s that time of year.”
“I can’t believe you have a crowd in the stands just for a practice.”
Kent turned and glanced into the bleachers, saw the faces, some familiar, some not. The watchers grew as the season went on, as the wins stacked up and the losses stayed at bay. Definitely more strangers on hand. Curious about what the Cardinals had. What they could do.
“It’s a big deal in this town,” he admitted.
“Alice and I would like to have you and Beth and the kids over for dinner,” Dan said. “To celebrate the season.”
“Let’s wait until the season’s done.”
“I mean to celebrate how well it’s gone so far,” Dan said, and Kent wasn’t sure if he imagined the uneasiness, the sense that Dan didn’t expect it to close out as well as it had begun.
“I appreciate it. But dinner right now, it’s tough. With practices, you know.”
“We can eat late. Be fun to get the kids together. Sarah’s the same age as Lisa, you know. I think they’d get along well.”
“After practices, there’s film,” Kent said. And then, after catching a glance between disappointment and reproach from the minister, he said, “I’m sorry, Dan. But this time of year I get a little… edgy. I’m not much of a dinner companion. So as soon as we’re done, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Dan said. “Win, lose, or draw, we’re doing that dinner at season’s end.”
But there are no draws, Dan, Kent thought. Not in the playoffs. It’s win or lose.
They were in the parking lot when they passed Rachel Bond, who caught Kent’s eye and smiled, lifting a hand. He nodded and tipped two fingers off the bill of his cap. She was a prize. A convict for a father and an alcoholic for a mother and she’d risen above it all. It was unbelievable how much some of these children had to bear, so young.
But life? It didn’t card you before it sold you some pain. Kent had been given the most personal of examples in that lesson. It was why he devoted so much of himself to a game. Sometimes a game was what you needed—mind, body, and soul. That much he’d known for years.
THERE WAS A TIME when Chambers County had produced more steel by itself than forty-six states. It had been home to mills for five major companies that exported worldwide, and the steel industry had employed more than half of the county’s workforce.
That time was a whispered recollection now.
The steel industry was gone, and a decade since the last plant closed and two decades since the writing on the wall had been clear, nothing had been found to replace it. Chambers had boasted one of the highest unemployment rates in the state for years, and most of those who could leave did. The population had dropped by twenty-five percent since 1950, one of the few places in an always-growing country that had experienced such a thing. A manufacturing town that found itself without anything to manufacture.
While the census reported a declining population, the county jail reported a rising one. It had been remodeled and expanded twice. The core of the town’s troubles—economic woes and absence of jobs—also provided the core of Adam’s business. Only two things were flourishing in Chambers of late: high school football and bail bonds.
Because he was busy, he had to determine focus areas. Nature of the beast, simple as that. A skip with a $10,000 bond was a priority. A girl with a hundred bucks and a missing father was not. April Harper got one call, and one call only, from Adam on the morning after her visit. She didn’t answer her cell phone, so he left a message informing her that there was only one Ruzich in town who might own a rental property. Her first name was Eleanor, and she owned two homes: one that was assessed at three hundred thousand, pricey for Chambers, and another well outside of town, a place on a small private lake that looked like a seasonal property. If she was renting out a place with a leaking roof and a failing furnace, he told her, it was probably 7330 Shadow Wood Lane, the lake cottage.
He told her to call with questions and then hesitated for just a moment, tempted to remind her again that if her ex-con father wanted communication to be a one-way street, she might be well advised to agree. Then he remembered that the hundred dollars in his pocket had been paid for an address, not advice, and he disconnected the call. He hadn’t allowed himself to look up Jason Harper’s criminal record, because he knew what he’d think if he did, knew what he’d be tempted to tell his client: Your father is toxic, and you need to stay the hell away from him. Unlike his brother, he wasn’t in the pro bono therapy business.
The average person—hell, the average client—viewed Adam as part of the criminal defense system. You needed an attorney to beat your charges, but you needed a bondsman to pop the locks on that cell while the attorneys played their games. In that part of the role, and only in that part, did Adam live up to the standard perception: he helped secure temporary release.
Emphasis on temporary. Adam did not view himself as any part of the criminal defense side of the spectrum. He viewed himself as a free-world jailer. Convictions might not yet have been made in the cases, but charges had been. After the good felons of Chambers County scraped together enough money to secure a surety bond, they walked back into the free world, entering a process of trial delays and plea bargains designed to keep them out. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t. But during that process? During that process, they belonged to Adam. They weren’t free, they were his. In nineteen years, more than three hundred of his clients had jumped bail. He’d found all but four. It wasn’t a bad winning percentage. Those four, though? There were days he’d catch himself grinding his teeth over them.
The entire bail process was uniquely American. There were only two countries in the world that allowed a private businessman to pay to secure a prisoner’s release—America and the Philippines. Criticism of the idea lay in the fact that defendants paid a nonrefundable sum to get out of jail, presenting an unfair burden on the innocent. Adam wasn’t interested, and never had been, in the moral merits of his profession. What he was interested in was the promise made with every bond he posted: he’d see that his wards faced their day in court. It was a small role, maybe, and hardly glamorous, but it counted. He knew just how much it counted.
Any curiosity he had over April Harper faded as the week progressed. On Thursday, which was a busy day on the Chambers County criminal court dockets, two of his own failed to show up for their hearings. One was facing his third round of charges for drunk driving. The second had a more serious charge, prison time likely, for selling OxyContin and Vicodin. Many people couldn’t fathom the idea of simply failing to appear for a court date in a criminal case. They expected that the police would come after you then, expected SWAT teams kicking in doors and detectives sitting in surveillance vans, everyone vigorous and vigilant until the missing offender was caught. Much of the time, though, that would never happen. There were too many warrants, too many inmates, too many active cases. Police were overworked, prisons were overpopulated, and if you didn’t show up for your court date, law enforcement wasn’t necessarily going to come looking for you unless you were a high-profile offender. Enter Adam Austin, owner and operator of AA Bail Bonds.
He’d come for you.
The class of people Adam posted bond for didn’t work nine-to-fives and didn’t own alarm clocks. They didn’t go to sleep; they passed out. They didn’t fear missing a court date, because they were in no hurry to listen to their public defender explain why a plea bargain was the best option. Most of them simply paid their surety and walked out the door, and then they either showed up for court or they didn’t. When they didn’t, Adam got the call, and went hunting. Like with most forms of hunting, you had your best luck if you understood your prey and knew their territory. Adam was an excellent hunter. He’d float between bars and trailer parks and he’d intimidate when he could and open his wallet for bribes when he could not and he would work every angle until he got a lead that counted. It was a game of diligence, and Adam had diligence to spare. That had been put in him long ago, and it hadn’t faded over time.
On Friday after April Harper’s visit, Adam learned that he had one skip missing, a painkiller-dealing gent named Jerry Norris. It was the third time Adam had held a bond for Jerry and the third time he’d gone missing. Adam wasn’t overly worried about tracking him down, but he did know it would make for a late night, because he wouldn’t be able to start until after the football game. The last place he wanted to be was at Chambers High School, but tonight was a playoff game, the first, and he would not miss a playoff game for his brother. He had never missed one before and he would not start now. Marie wouldn’t let him. Marie might not have approved of what Adam was, but he attended to the things he knew she’d have demanded, and watching her little brother’s team take a run at the state championship was one of them. Marie wouldn’t allow Adam to miss the playoffs, no matter the circumstances. He’d tried it once, but he’d felt her ghost heavy around him, and the most frightening of ghosts is a disappointed one.
When the lights came on, he’d be in the stands.
One of Kent’s preferences for a football game was that the kickoff be handled routinely. Big plays to open the game excited the fans, but not him, not even when they went his way. He’d just as soon see the ballgame get its start with a first and ten from the twenty every time out. High school kids were emotional atom bombs, and it was good to settle them down early.
His team didn’t give him that chance tonight. Instead, Colin Mears decided that it was a good opportunity for the first fumbled kickoff of his career. It slipped through his gloved hands and between his legs and skittered backward, rolling all the way down to the five-yard line, and there Spencer Heights recovered. No first and ten from the twenty for Kent tonight; it was first and goal from the five, and his defense was taking the field in front of a suddenly hushed crowd.
The defense held, stuffing three straight running attempts to the strong side, swarming to the ball carrier, and then the crowd was back into it, because holding Spencer Heights to a field goal from that starting position was no small feat.
Only they didn’t go for the field goal. They lined up again, going for it on fourth down, and Kent had to admit that while he never would have made that call—he took points whenever he could—he liked the guts of it. What he didn’t like was the way his safeties bit on the subsequent play-action fake, the way they came roaring in expecting another running play as a Spencer Heights receiver glided into the end zone on a seam route and caught the ball untouched.
The crowd was silent again, the Cardinals were down a touchdown, and Colin Mears was going to have his second attempt at catching a kickoff in just a matter of minutes. Kent thought about going to him, then dismissed it. Sometimes you showed your faith through silence.
Colin secured this one, though he didn’t do much with the return, and then they had their first down and Lorell McCoy was under center and things were surely about to improve.
They didn’t, though. His 10–0 squad was rattled, and spent the rest of the half proving it. Lorell and Colin misfired on several plays, the Spencer Heights pass rush was better than anybody—including Kent—had expected, and late in the second quarter the Cardinals’ junior tailback, Justin Payne, fumbled the ball on what should have been a big gain, holding it low and away from his body as he tried to spin away from a tackler. Instead, the ball spun away from him—high and tight, high and tight! Kent shouted, sick of watching fundamental mistakes at a point in the season when fundamental mistakes should not be made—and then Spencer Heights went to work making them pay for the turnover again. It was 14–0 at the half, and the home crowd was silent.
Not this year, Kent thought as he walked to the locker room. They had made mistakes, yes, far too many of them, but they were correctable mistakes. They would be corrected, and his team would not lose this football game. As he left the field, Kent’s focus was on his own demeanor. Steady stride, steady stare. No pleasure in his face, of course, but no anger, either, no disgust, and above all else, no fear. While some coaches liked to feed players a testosterone-fueled fury, Kent wanted to teach them how to drain it away. The approach he wanted wasn’t wild aggression, it was clinical discipline. If you prepared well enough, if you studied and anticipated and understood the opponent, there was no need for fear. When your opponent saw calm, when your opponent saw understanding and preparation, your opponent could not find fear. And so they felt it themselves. In the strength of your will, in your composure, they felt it.
Outside the locker room, the coaches paused for a few minutes, broken up into offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Here they had a brief opportunity for technical adjustments, a chance to look at the charted plays from the first half and consider what wasn’t working, and why it wasn’t. Once inside, Matt Byers took the first speaking role and started it off by punting an empty Gatorade jug across the room. This was standard fare. Byers was a holdover from the days when Kent himself had played on this field, a thirty-three-year assistant, and to say that his style differed from Kent’s was a laughable understatement. Kent was cool precision, Byers was hot emotion. Matt could—and did—intimidate the hell out of the kids with furious and profane reactions to mistakes, theatrical demonstrations, and imposing size. They butted heads, sometimes so much so that the rest of his staff took bets on the likelihood of a firing, but in the end, Kent needed Matt. He’d let someone else throw clipboards and scream himself hoarse—it delivered a message to the boys, certainly, but what it also did was emphasize the occasions when Kent was the one shouting. Those caught more attention because it was not a constant. Players learned to tune out the consistently raving coaches. When Kent’s voice rose, the field went silent fast. That was how he liked it.
Matt was in the midst of an explanation of how the team’s performance apparently demonstrated that the players were not only pussy sons of bitches but also lacking in so much as a shred of respect for their fans, parents, state, and country when Kent rose from his chair. This was the signal, and this was where they’d had their greatest clashes. When Kent stood, Byers was to shut up and sit down. Immediately. He stopped in mid-tirade, which always distressed him, and said, “Listen to the head coach, now. Damn it, listen.”
Kent stood and faced his team, let them all sit in silence, hoping they’d absorb two things from him: calmness and disappointment.
“Who thinks I’m upset with the numbers on that scoreboard?” he said eventually. His voice was low enough that those in the back leaned forward to hear.
Nobody raised a hand. They knew better; it was not a game of points to him, it was a game of execution. The points were a product of proper execution, and proper execution was a product of proper focus. He turned to Damon Ritter and said, “What am I upset with, Damon?”
“We’re giving them their points.”
“Correct. I want you boys to be generous, but not with the football.” He swiveled to look at Colin Mears. “Colin, are you afraid of losing tonight?”
“You ought to be,” Kent said. “Tell me why that’s true, Colin. Tell me why.”
His star receiver said, “Because we aren’t getting beat, we’re losing the game.”
This difference was critical; this difference was the focus of their season.
“Do me a favor, Colin. Read that poster on the wall behind me. Read it out loud.”
The poster said, THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ACCEPTING A LOSS AND EARNING ONE. The boys were sick of hearing that little slogan. Kent watched while they heard it one more time.
“You’ve earned ten wins this year,” he said. “Haven’t earned a loss yet. If we have to accept one, we will. But, boys? Let’s not earn it. Let’s not do that.”
He was looking at Colin, who nodded emphatically. There was something off with him, though. Something wrong with his focus. Of all the players to have playoff jitters, Colin was the most surprising. Kent decided they’d feed him the ball early in the second half, see if they could settle him down through repetition and ritual.
“We’re going to run a lot of thirty-one flood at them,” he began, and from then on their focus was on the technical details. He hoped.
If you focused on your individual responsibilities, good things happened as a team. Early in the third quarter, the Chambers safeties no longer biting on that play-action fake, Spencer Heights threw an interception. Then the offense finally got going, with Lorell and Colin connecting up the seam for a quick touchdown. They also scored at the start of the fourth, and when they got the ball back, it was a tie game with six minutes left. Lorell marched them down the field patiently, taking what was offered, letting the defense chase frantically after Colin on the vertical routes and then throwing into the windows underneath. They had first and goal from the three, and Kent looked at the field and thought, What the heck, we practiced it, and called for the bootleg. Lorell jogged in without a hand on him.
That was how it finished: 21–14. Kids and parents alike came streaming down out of the stands and onto the field and the band boomed away and Kent spoke to the opposing players, telling them all the reasons they might find victory in defeat. Through it all, he could already feel the squeeze in his chest. He knew the teams that awaited would be better, each week they would be better, and four teams and four weeks stood between Chambers and a trophy.
He was going to get it this year. He was going to get it.
WHAT KENT TOLD THE BOYS in the locker room—Enjoy this one, all right? Don’t look ahead yet. Tonight, relish the opportunity you’ve had to play ball this season with your best friends. But keep your heads down. We aren’t done— was something he believed. They were entitled to a night of celebration. The intensity of focus he demanded on the field needed to be released when they stepped off it. This was a game, and these were kids, and they needed to enjoy it.
For him, though, there would be no celebration. There had been an alarming number of mental errors made, fundamental mistakes, and those sickened Kent. He could tolerate many things, but not those that should have been handled by preparation and practice.
The digital age was a beautiful thing for a football coach. Less than an hour after the game concluded, he and his assistants already had the chance to watch a high-definition replay. Coffee had been made and cans of soda opened. No alcohol was allowed on school grounds, but after this session, most of his assistants would go out to drink together. Kent rarely joined, for two reasons: one, he didn’t drink, and two, far more important, he understood that his staff often needed the opportunity to vent without him around. Or, more aptly, the need to vent about him. His was not a relaxed coaches’ room, nothing about it was low-key, not even after victory, and he understood that this wore on them. He did not intend to address that by relaxing the tone, but he did know that it needed to be addressed. So they’d invite him out to join the festivities and he would decline, and it was better for everyone that way.
Before he released them, though, they’d assess the night’s performance and agree to responsibilities for the next day’s video breakdown. Tonight he knew that they wanted to get out early. Byers was hosting a celebration, and because of that, Kent would hold them a little longer. There were four games left, and they could refresh themselves on that notion before they refreshed themselves with a Budweiser.
While they all looked at their watches and then at the door, he hooked up the laptop to the projector and suggested they have a quick look at some key plays.
The first key play was that fumbled kickoff, and even though they knew it was coming, everyone shook their heads. Colin Mears didn’t make mistakes like that. He just didn’t.
“Won’t happen again,” promised Steve Haskins, who coached the receivers and special teams units. “First playoff game, lot of crowd energy, he was trying to show off a little, that’s all. Break a big one for his parents, for his girl.”
Kent nodded, but something felt off about the explanation.
“Something was up with him tonight,” Kent said.
“He came back fine,” Haskins said. “Big second half. Big.”
“Yeah,” Kent said, but still he was bothered. Maybe that’s why it didn’t come as a total surprise when he got the call from the police.
It was almost midnight and they were still watching the game video. The ringing phone got an immediate reaction, because one of the swiftly understood rules of Kent’s locker rooms was that cell phones did not exist. He didn’t hold his staff long, but when he had them there, he demanded focus. Each year there would be some new assistant who’d decide it was acceptable to send a text message or check an e-mail during a meeting. That would happen once. It would not happen twice.
This call came on the locker room landline, which almost never rang. All of the coaches were given the number at the start of the season with specific instructions to share it with family. You never knew when someone was going to need you for something bigger than football. Kent answered the phone, heard a man identifying himself as a lieutenant, and closed his eyes. It was not the first call from the police to this locker room, nor would it be the last. Boys got in trouble, even good boys.
So it wasn’t the caller’s identity that rattled Kent but the player’s name. Colin Mears. Something was wrong with him, he thought. Something was wrong and I could see it but I didn’t ask, why didn’t I ask?
“What’s he gotten into?” Kent said, and his voice drew attention from the other coaches. The next thing he said—whispered, really—was “Oh, Lord,” and then Byers grabbed the remote and shut off the video.
“Of course,” Kent said into the phone while his assistants stared at him, trying to read the situation from the one-sided conversation. “Of course I can provide witnesses. Fifty of them.”
That got a visible reaction, everyone turning to look at one another.
“I’ll come down,” he said. “You tell his parents I’m going to come down. Please.”
He hung up, the room silent, everyone waiting.
“Rachel Bond is dead,” he said. They all knew who she was. It was a small school and a smaller football program. When you had an all-state receiver on the roster, your coaches knew his girlfriend. “They’ve got Colin down at the jail.”
“No way,” Haskins said. “Absolutely no way on earth could that boy have—”
“Of course not.”
“But they think?”
“I don’t know,” Kent said. “Probably not. He’d be one of the first to look at, that’s all. I guess they need me to confirm where he was this afternoon and tonight. They want to see me.”
Byers said, “First to look at. You’re not talking a car wreck. Someone killed that girl?”
There was a hushed pause. Kent picked his keys up off the desk, stood, and said, “Get on home, gentlemen. Go see your families.”
He drove with the windows down and the radio off and he prayed aloud, as was his habit when he drove in the darkness. He prayed for Rachel Bond and her family and for Colin Mears and for the police tasked with the investigation. Prayed for everyone he could think of except himself, because of all the people deserving, he was well down on the list.
Prepared for this, he told himself, flicking a glance at the mirror. You are unusually, terribly prepared for this. Every horror has its purpose, and this…
He prayed for his sister then, and her name rose through him and passed his lips like a strand of cold barbwire tugged from a coil within. Marie Lynn. How it hurt to let that go, as if by saying it aloud he was releasing her into a world that would not return her, and he knew that but did it anyhow. Memories of the dead. You wanted them close; you needed them far.
The police station was bright, clean limestone, the sidewalk marred by scattered leaves. Kent crunched through them and went up the steps to where the Mears family waited.
Looking for a leader, he reminded himself. It was important to know that people were watching. You carried yourself differently when you remembered that, carried yourself better. There under the bright lights when the crowd was watching, you could become a different man, the one you knew you should be. How much better would the world be if everyone operated under the lights and before the crowd, if they were not granted moments alone in the dark?
The police led him through a hall and into a room where Colin Mears and his parents sat at a small round table. Colin’s face was a winter pallor with anguished and unbelieving eyes. Kent said, “Let’s do what we have to do to help her, son. Let’s do that first.”
He meant doing this: the police station, the questions. He meant holding his head above the waters of grief for just a little longer. The boy understood.
“Yes, sir,” Colin Mears said. “I’m trying.”
Kent reached across the table and laid a hand on his shoulder, gave it a squeeze, and Colin’s mother, Robin, said a soft “Thank you for coming.” Kent nodded and stepped back and looked at the police officer who’d brought him in, a Lieutenant Salter.
“Anything you need from me, or my staff, I can get you immediately. Beyond my statement, and verification that he was with our team, what can we offer that will—”
“Hang on, Coach,” Salter said. “We don’t need any of that from you. We know where Colin was, and we understand that can be verified several hundred times over. What we need is a little more personal to you.”
“Personal?” Kent said, and he thought, Here it begins, the shared experience. They will want you to tell the boy how to carry this weight, because you had to once before.
“Yes,” Salter said. “Do you have any idea how we might get in touch with your brother?”
Kent swiveled his head a quarter turn, as if he’d had his ear in the wrong place and missed the question.
It wasn’t Lieutenant Salter who answered but Colin.
“He helped her, Coach. But she wasn’t… I don’t think she was honest with him.”
“Helped her,” Kent said. “My brother helped Rachel.”
He was squinting at the boy now.
“You have a number for him?” Salter asked. “We haven’t been able to reach him. Sent someone out to his house, but he’s not there.”
“Probably a little early for that.”
“It’s past midnight.”
“Yes,” Kent said, and then he looked at Colin, catching up now. “You went to him for help with her father?”
“He wrote to her that he was out of prison. She wanted to find him. She believed him. We both believed him. And so I suggested…”
His words were swept away from him then like flimsy things in a gust of wind, and Kent said, “What do you mean, you believed him?”
Salter answered for the boy.
“Rachel’s father never left prison, Coach. We don’t know much yet, but that part is clear. So whoever your brother found for her… well, it was not her father.”
“She didn’t tell me she was going alone,” Colin said, the tears spilling now. “I wouldn’t have let her do that. She promised me I could go with her. I got a message just before the game, she said she was going to see him and would meet me at the game, but she wasn’t there. She was missing at the start and she…”
Was missing at the end. Kent didn’t need the boy to finish that sentence. He thought of the fumbled kickoff, the kid standing there alone waiting on a football to float through the air to him and trying to tell himself that it mattered. Why hadn’t he told anyone? What might have been avoided if he’d spoken?
But of course he wouldn’t have said anything. Kent’s demands on the field were consistent: total focus. Total.
“The place where… where she was located,” Salter said, choosing his words with gentle care, “is not where she was sent. This is why we need your brother. To find that place.”
Kent lifted a hand, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and told himself to focus. He could not think of the full weight of it yet, could not allow himself to consider the scope of this night, the way it was spreading away, seeping into corners he’d never imagined it would touch.
“I can give you his cell phone number,” he said. “I just can’t guarantee that he’ll answer.”
Salter took the number and left to make his call and then, for a few minutes, it was just Kent and his star receiver and the boy’s parents. Kent said, “Tell me how we got here, son.”
It started in the summer, Colin explained, and this much Kent already knew. Rachel was around their house often because she was their regular babysitter and because Kent’s wife, Beth, had taken a special interest in her. Mostly, Kent left her to Beth. The exception was in the situation with her father, who’d never been a figure in her life and was currently in prison. She was interested in Kent’s prison visits, asked about them often, from details of the cells to what he thought of the men inside. She told him that she wanted to see her father again. It had been nearly ten years since their last encounter, when he stopped by to drop off a birthday card days after her seventh birthday, a crumpled ten-dollar bill inside, and Rachel’s mother, a woman named Penny Gootee, chased him off. Kent’s advice was to start with a letter. He warned her not to expect an answer.
She’d received one.
Short, curt, and to the point. Jason Bond was sorry they did not have a relationship. He appreciated her taking the time to write. He hoped her mother was well. Things for him were as good as could be expected. She was to stay in school, take care of herself, and make better decisions than he had.
Kent remembered this letter. He also remembered that the four Rachel sent back went unanswered. He’d tried to counsel her through that, tried to remind her that she represented guilt to the man, and that you could not rush a relationship along, could not force one into existence.
He was unaware of other letters. He hadn’t pressed after learning that those beyond the initial attempt had been ignored. Then the season began, and while he was focusing on football, she was focusing on her father. Letters had been exchanged regularly, according to Colin, who had seen most of what Rachel’s father had to say: apologies, always couched in the warning that he did not want to fail her again and perhaps they should not be in contact. There was talk of guilt, talk of almost everything Kent had explained to her earlier in the summer.
There was also talk of a pending release.
By September the letters were more frequent, and more detailed. Jason Bond said he was back in Chambers, close enough to tantalize the daughter who wanted to meet with him. But he would not be rushed. He urged her to understand that one-way communication was best, urged her not to discuss the situation with her mother because that was another relationship that he was not ready to handle just yet, if ever.
Not a bad ploy, because Rachel Bond’s relationship with her mother was hardly a strong one. Penny Gootee was an alcoholic, given to struggles with depression and greater struggles with maintaining employment. Her only words for Rachel’s father were soaked in bitterness. If there was one person to whom Rachel was unlikely to rush for guidance, it was her mother.
So she rushed to her boyfriend, to Colin. He had an idea. If she wanted to find a way to return her father’s letters, she would have to locate him. And Coach Austin? He had a brother who was a detective.
HASLEM’S HAD A single TV mounted in the corner above the bar, an ancient, heavy thing in an age of sleek flat screens. Nobody ever complained, because what people came there to watch wasn’t on television but cavorting across the stage and swinging around a stainless steel pole.
Adam Austin watched it for ten minutes, though. At 11:20 he asked the bartender, Davey, to tune it over to Cleveland’s ABC affiliate.
“Volume?” Davey asked.
It was the sports segment of the local news, and all Adam wanted to see were the scores ticking by at the bottom of the screen. He wanted to know who was coming at his brother’s team from the other side of the bracket. The only team in the state that posed a real risk was probably Saint Anthony’s, a program that had dominated Kent’s squad consistently. They’d won, of course. By forty points. A confident thrashing. Chambers, on the other hand, had advanced with a win that felt more like a sigh of relief.
“Too close, Franchise,” Adam muttered as he thought about it, using a nickname that only one other person in the world had ever called his younger brother. “Way too close.”
Kent had probably spent the past week preaching them up instead of teaching them to hit. That was his way. But they’d gotten the job done, they were 11–0, and the state title was no longer a dream for this town, it was an expectation. How his brother would handle that remained to be seen. Perhaps some of the Psalms would be forfeited in favor of the lessons of Lombardi, and the teachings of Paul would come to mean one man and one man only: Paul Brown.
Behind Adam there were three girls working the stage and maybe two dozen rednecks shoving bills at them. Every now and then somebody who’d just sold a used jet ski or some such bullshit would get giddy over his fortune and flash a twenty, but mostly these girls were dancing for dollars quite literally. Adam kept his back to them. He was waiting for the appearance of one Jerry Norris, who hadn’t deemed Thursday’s court appearance worth his time. Jerry hadn’t shown yet, which suggested one of two things: he was too wasted to make it to the titty bar, or he had been tipped off to Adam’s presence by a friend.
Adam meant to leave at midnight, but Davey poured him a shot of Jim Beam on the house, and it was sacrilege to pass on free whiskey. By the time it was gone, he felt a little less tired and a Drive-By Truckers song was playing on the computerized bastard imposter of a jukebox and he thought he might as well have one more last beer.
He’d had three last beers before the phone call came. He felt no surprise; the calls that came for him often came at this time of night. It was late and he was tired, but this would be money calling, and when money called, it didn’t matter if it was late and you were tired. Hell, in his business, money rarely called at other hours. When it turned out to be Stan Salter, he was surprised but not stunned. He dealt with police too often for that.
“Which one of my favorites has done what?” he asked.
“It’s not that kind of situation,” Salter said. “We’re going to need to talk to you in person, Adam. You good to drive in, or should I send someone out to get you?”
“The hell you talking about?”
“Homicide,” Salter said. “When I say I need to talk to you, I mean now.”
This wouldn’t be the first time one of Adam’s charges had killed somebody—it would, in fact, be the third—but it was never a pleasant experience.
“Who did it?” he asked.
“Adam, it’s not that kind of case. We need to talk to you about the victim. I’ve been told you spoke with her recently.”
“I said we’re going to need to speak in person.”
“And we will. I can still hear the damn name.”
There was a hesitation, and then Salter said, “Rachel Bond.”
“Don’t know her,” Adam said. He wouldn’t have forgotten posting bond for someone named Bond. That shit would stick with you.
“We’re hearing otherwise.”
Rachel, he thought. Rachel. Was that the woman who came in all bruised up, asking to get her husband out?
“Blond chick, ’bout thirty?” he said. “Husband’s name is Roger?”
“No,” Salter said. “Brunette, and she wasn’t about thirty. She was exactly seventeen. Came to you to ask for help finding her father.”
“That’s not right. No. That girl… her name was April. She was a college student.”
But he was remembering the way he’d looked at her and thought that he was getting old fast, because college girls were beginning to look impossibly young.
“That may be what she said,” Salter told him, “but that’s not what she was. And she’s dead now, Adam, and we need to talk about it. We need to talk tonight. I’ll ask you again—can you make the drive or do I need to send someone?”
“I can make the drive,” Adam said, thinking that she’d brought the letters in one of those plastic-covered folders that students carried. Not college students. And the nail polish. Red with silver sparkles. She’d painted her nails for the Cardinals.
“Then get down here. I’ll be waiting on you.”
Salter hung up, and Adam set the phone onto the bar and stared into the mirror in front of him. With all those rows of bottles, all he could make out of the reflection were his eyes and receding hairline.
“Fuck me,” he whispered.
He didn’t remember the address, to the great frustration of the men in the room with too-bright lighting and the smell of new plastic, a digital recorder running on the table.
“It was out in the country,” he said. “On a lake. It was… Shadow Lane. No, Shadow Wood Lane. I don’t remember the number.”
“You’re sure of the road?”
“Shadow Wood. Yes.”
One of the detectives left then, and it was just Stan Salter and Adam.
“Do you think she was killed there?” Adam said.
“We’re going to find out. Did you see the place?”
“Just gave her the address?”
Adam wasn’t sure if Salter’s tone was really loaded with contempt or if he was imagining it. He couldn’t have blamed the man either way. He was remembering that while the girl had teeth that were straight and white, she’d smiled in an odd, careful way, lips-only most of the time, as if she’d worn braces until recently and was still trained by muscle memory and teenage insecurity to hide those now-perfect teeth…
No, she didn’t. She didn’t have that smile at all. That was a different girl. You cannot think of them together, Adam, you cannot do that.
“Yes. I gave her the address in a phone message. Said she could let me know if it didn’t pan out, and then we’d try again. I never heard back. She told me her name was April Harper. She told me she was a college student.”
“You make no habit of checking identification?” Salter asked, and Adam had to make an effort to focus on the question. He kept losing himself to that nail polish, that plastic folder, that smell of coconut that told him she’d been to a tanning bed.
“On my clients?” he said. “No. Who does? I wasn’t letting her board a plane or even drink a beer, I was agreeing to do a job. Checking her age, that’s not my responsibility.”
But he was thinking—seventeen, seventeen, seven-fucking-teen— and the liquor was stirring in his belly like acid.
She’d looked it, too. He couldn’t pretend otherwise, couldn’t even grasp at the pathetic shield of claiming she’d been one of those girls who looked older than her age. If anything, she maybe looked a little younger. Would’ve been carded for cigarettes by any gas station clerk. Went out of her way to tell him she was a senior at Baldwin-Wallace, and while his eyes had said No, his brain had said Who gives a shit and her money had said Just do the job, Adam.
“You didn’t think,” Salter asked, “that she might be lying to you?”
“Everyone lies to me, Salter. All the time. Did I think she might be lying? Sure. But caring about why she was lying, that’s just… look, she said what she wanted me to do and she had a reason for it and she had the letters.”
“And the cash,” Salter said.
Adam felt like breaking the smug prick’s nose, Salter sitting there with his bristling military crew cut and hooded eyes and his badge, looking at Adam as if he were one of the dancers back at Haslem’s, empty of dignity and hungry for a dollar.
“You don’t need a paycheck?” Adam said. “You don’t need to keep the mortgage paid?”
Salter’s gaze didn’t waver. “I’m not interested in the idea that you wanted work. I’m interested in the idea that she paid cash.”
Right. Because cash suggested her age, at least to Salter, who expected an adult would have written a check or asked if Adam accepted credit cards.
“In my business,” Adam said, “cash transactions aren’t unusual.”
This was true. A lot of people came to him with higher IQs than credit scores, and that wasn’t to say they were bright.
“I see.” Salter made a notation on his pad, and then said, “Let’s talk about the letters she had. You read them?”
“Yeah.” Seventeen. A child. A corpse.
“Did you make copies?”
“No. She’d already done that. What she had, they were copies. I never saw the originals. And I saw only one of the letters. But there were others.”
“What did that letter say?”
“It was from her dad. He was—he’d been—in prison. Got out and then I guess he didn’t write anymore for a while. She was upset about that. Then he started back up, but he wouldn’t say where he was, wouldn’t give a return address or anything. So it was just, you know, a one-way street. She wanted to be able to respond. Asked me to find him. An address, I mean.”
“You’re qualified for this sort of work?”
“I’m a licensed PI, you know that.”
Salter didn’t respond.
“It’s what I do,” Adam said. “Same thing I do every day. People skip out on bond, and I go find them. I bring them back. You know this.”
“Nobody had skipped out on a bond here.”
“Skill set,” Adam said. “Same skill set.”
“I see. So you used that skill set, and you found an address?”
“Do you remember it?”
“But you have records?”
“She didn’t give you a physical address? Just the phone number?”
“Just the phone number. She said she was a student at—”
“Baldwin-Wallace,” Salter said. “Yes. She say how she picked you for the job?”
“She said she had a referral.” Adam wished he’d stopped for a mint or some gum. He was breathing beer out with every word, and it made them seem flimsy, pathetic.
“We understand this part,” Salter said. “Her boyfriend told us. The referral, if we can call it that, came from him. He plays football for your brother.”
“Plays?” Adam said. “Like, right now? On this team?”
“Like right now,” Salter said, nodding. “Colin Mears? I gather he and his family are pretty close to your brother. There was some conversation about you, and I guess Colin understood you to be a detective.”
Adam let that glide by. Understood you to be, not understands that you are. Who cared? Who cared what Salter thought? What mattered here was a girl with glitter nail polish. What mattered was finding the sick son of a bitch who’d killed her, finding him and ending him. Because if you didn’t… if he just stayed out there…
“It’s a shame she lied to you,” Salter said, “and a shame you didn’t ask for any sort of identification. Because if you’d been operating with her real name, you’d have found her father easily. At Mansfield Correctional.”
Adam stared at him. “He never left?”
“Never left. He’s been there seven years. We’ve got people interviewing him right now. He says he wrote his last letter in August. So whoever kept writing? Whoever it is you found for her? We need to find him. Fast.”
“Makes no sense,” Adam said.
“It doesn’t make sense, Salter. I saw the letter, okay? The guy who wrote it was trying not to see her.”
“Yes, really. I read the damn—”
“You’ve told me that. But it seems like he was tossing a lot of breadcrumbs out for someone who didn’t want anyone following the trail. Telling her he was in town, then giving her his landlord’s name? This to a girl who was actively seeking contact with him? That doesn’t strike you as contradictory?”
These were fair points, but still Adam shook his head.
“He knew where to find her, clearly. So what’s the point in that kind of a game?”
“I’m not sure,” Salter said. “But games aren’t uncommon with stalking. Not at all.”
“It’s so patient, though,” Adam said. “Waiting to see if she’d respond? If she’d look for him? It’s too damn patient.”
“Maybe he wasn’t so patient. Maybe when she showed up at his door, it rushed him.”
Adam remembered the numbers then. They floated toward him on a black breeze: 7330. On Shadow Wood Lane, yes. That was the address, that was the door at which she’d arrived.
That was where he’d sent her.
WHEN BETH CAME DOWNSTAIRS to greet Kent, it was past two in the morning but she didn’t show any surprise. During the season, hours like this were no cause for alarm for a coach’s wife, and in the years before they’d had children, hours like this had been Beth’s norm. She’d been an ER nurse and intended to return to it once Lisa and Andrew were old enough. The night shift had never ebbed away from her; Kent sometimes found her making coffee at four in the morning simply because she knew better than to fight for a return to sleep.
Tonight, though, she’d been asleep. He could tell that from her foggy smile and the way her long blond hair was fuzzed out from the pillow. “Still perfect,” she said. “Nice work, babe.”
He’d opened the refrigerator to get a bottle of water and in the shaft of white light she saw something that made her say, “Hon?” in a concerned voice.
He took the water out and let the door swing shut and they were standing in darkness when he told her that Rachel Bond was dead.
“Someone killed that poor girl? Murdered her?” she said, her reflex response to bad news, stating the facts and considering them, the practiced reaction of someone who had been required to show poise in the face of crisis. Tonight it chafed. Scream, he wanted to say, cry, shout, break down, because no quality was so annoying in someone else as the very one you didn’t like in yourself. He’d spent the whole night trying to offer calm and strength and to repress emotion. He was tired of that.
Beth crossed the kitchen and took him in her arms then and the irritable edge that sorrow and fatigue had given him melted into her warmth. He held her while he told her about the police station, all that had been said, Stan Salter and Colin Mears and the news about Adam.
“Adam sent her to him?” Beth leaned back, searching his eyes. “Adam?”
He nodded. “You remember the night that Colin asked me about him? Saw him in the team photo from the championship year and asked where he’d gone? Well, I told him he was still here, and I said… I said he was a private detective. He remembered that, apparently. And when Rachel decided to try and find her father…”
“She went to Adam.”
They were silent. Kent finished his water. Neither of them turned on the lights.
“She was such a beautiful girl,” Beth whispered. “In every way. Too mature. You know I used to tell you that. Like she’d never been a girl, always had to be an adult.”
Beth wiped tears from her eyes with her fingertips. “She was going to do so much, Kent. She was one of those… you could just tell that she was going to do so much.”
Her voice trailed off and he reached out and stroked her hair as she took a shaking breath, folded her arms tightly around herself, and said, “By tomorrow morning, people will have heard what happened. Maybe before practice.”
“We won’t practice. I’ll say a few words, send them home.” He leaned against the counter and removed his baseball cap and ran a hand through his hair. “They’ll try to connect it to football. Make her a symbol, start dedicating games to her. I wish they wouldn’t.” Continues...
Excerpted from The Prophet by Michael Koryta Copyright © 2012 by Michael Koryta. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.