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Frankoin Handshake
by Keith Abbott

     Chapter One

While You're At It jobs always start easy. In this case I was lounging in the back room of The Solid Rock of Christ Church in Sacramento. Reverend Edwin Mack Virgil and I were each giving thanks with a glass of single malt scotch while professing admiration for each other's savoir faire, street smarts and cool. We felt entitled because of the profits from our Friday and Saturday night benefit. Before he found the Lord, the Reverend's street name was E Mack. He used to work for my rock 'n roll concert security service.
     Funny thing was, when I agreed to do the Solid Rock Of Christ benefit, I didn't even know E Mack ran the church. My services were comped for California's Speaker of the House, Willie Brown, in return for a favor--some juicy documents the speaker provided on another politico engaged in a lawsuit against a client of mine.
     E Mack's church benefit was my first gig in ten years. Even though, compared to what E Mack and I used to do in the old days, this was small potatoes: only ten acts over two nights, and eight hundred fans of gospel, blues, and soul. The past few days reminded us of how much fun concerts were and how good we were at it. So, when we were flush, E Mack made his While You're At It request: a missing person case for a parishioneer, Mrs. Essie Bee Robineson; "Just a favor, we're nothing more than friends. Good people." I said yeah, no big whoops, drop by there on my way out of town.
     Mrs. Robineson's address was a house in a 1930s part of Sacramento. A big stucco perched on a stonewall berm about four feet above the sidewalk. With its wide red brick porch, the Robineson home was a future Americans used to want: a home to grow up in, grow old in and die in.
     That was sentimental, but scotch and a gospel high were thinking for me. Besides, on most August afternoons the flat Sacramento heat melts the brains out of your head, so I trudged up those steps, not really noticing much. Between the street and the porch there was a new cement wall, a recent addition on top of the berm's stonework, and that should have told me something. What with the children's toys scattered around the lawn, that wall seemed a practical way to keep stuff from rolling down into the street.
     Mrs. Robineson was waiting on the porch. Not only was she almost as tall as I was--close to six feet--she was as formidable as her house: a big-boned black woman, high Indian cheekbones with a touch of copper-red skin, and eyes that looked through things all the way to the other side.
     I didn't recall her at the Sunday service earlier, but then she'd obviously changed out of her church-going duds into a white cotton summer dress and flip flops and, if I guessed right, had removed her hat and wig. Her hair might have been cut short, but she was long on Southern manners.
     First, we exchanged our names. I gave her my card.
     "That used to be O'Roule?"
     I said yes. My father was Irish and a professional gambler. The family joke was that dad lost the 0' off our family name in Baton Rouge to a full house. Probably, I added, he really changed his name to duck a creditor, and she went uh-huh to that.
     "My people come from Hattiesburg."
     "Is that right? That's a long way to come."
     "Sometimes it doesn't seem like far enough."
     Then she offered me the porch sofa before she eased down on a rattan chair next to a table holding a sweating pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. She apologized for not being more hospitable. "No sense inviting you in, the house is too hot, so we might as well sit on my porch in preparation for an evening breeze," she said with a sly smile.
     After she poured us some lemonade, she was careful to thank me for hiring local young people for the benefit, plus training them. She also detailed what social services the benefit profits would fund and how much the congregation appreciated that. Then, for a minute or two, we remained with the silent pleasures of drinking cold lemonade in the shade, before she brought up the missing person, her son, Alcel.
     Then it was my turn to issue my routine disclaimers, Standard Operating Procedure boilerplate info about the nature of such cases. Then we got down to specifics.
     "Since June, 1988," she answered.
     "It's still 1988," I reminded her.
     "In our neighborhood some of our kids here have been missing for years," this in a soft voice with a pause, her eyes on mine. "So we always add the year. Here, folks don't give up hope that easy."
     With her comment about the neighborhood, I checked out her street again. Sunday sleepy and working class modest, but except for her home, definitely declining. Many older houses on the opposite side of the street had been replaced by tacky fourplexes. Junkers here and there. Down two lots on our side of the street some locals were out on a lawn. Couldn't see them from where we sat, but their boombox and their woofing at each other was clear.
     "It doesn't appear so bad to me," I returned my attention to her, "but then I'm used to Oakland."
     Mrs. Robineson let that comment pass into silence, which sort of uncomfortably pointed out that big city Roule was scoring points on her. Then she said she'd get some documents on Alcel. While she was in her house, I poured and sipped my second lemonade and thought about how a missing kid case seldom ever turns out happy. As this involved not a kid, but a young man, there was an outside chance he found himself something too good or too bad to bring home to mother, especially this mom. If her son was going to act the fool, he'd best do it out of range of those eyes. That was the best scenario I could imagine coming out of this.
     She returned with a framed copy of Alcel's college yearbook photograph, plus a Nike shoebox full of friends' letters, press clippings, college transcripts, bank statements and a video interview with him by a local cable sports channel on his signing a letter of intent for an athletic scholarship. His clippings included an article in their church newsletter about his many athletic scholarship offers during his high school days. His choice was Whitcomb University in Northern California, described as a perennial Division I powerhouse. From his college course transcripts it was clear Alcel wasn't just a football player. He had a double major in economics and marketing with a B average.
     We ducked inside the house for me to view Alcel's video interview, about five minutes. She excused herself, returned to the porch. Alcel was impressive, his mother's son. My first reaction was that a kid this good looking and together would not lack for company (or for temptation). So, a spark of hope.
     I quickly beat a retreat back outside for more lemonade and that hope of a breeze. During my questions about his social life in his first two college years, Mrs. Robineson seemed well aware of the pitfalls.
     "Alcel was never going to be an instant star, so he never got puffed up too much on himself," she assured me. "But in his sophomore year, after he played well in their final three games last fall, well, first string on defense was his for the next two years. Or so he was told."
     Another sign of that bright future happened when his sophomore year ended. "Alcel landed a summer job for a month in a Caribbean resort, courtesy of a wealthy alumni," she said, the pride still in her voice. "He left Whitcomb for San Francisco in his car and never arrived at the airport. The football program had called in July, asking why he wasn't back for training, and that's the first I knew something was wrong."
     "His friends?"
     "His friends weren't any help. I wasn't too worried when he didn't call," Mrs. Robineson explained, her eyes a touch stony, "I was well informed of what pleasures he hoped to find down on a resort beach in the Caribbean. Here are his checks. The last one's for his plane ticket. Which was never used."
     She showed me things from the Nike box. The date on the airline returned check was month and a half ago. "The resort called the alumni sponsor about Alcel, but the sponsor assumed that there was a change of plans."
     She reviewed, even more stonily, the efforts of the Whitcomb city police to find him. Left unspoken was her feeling that a black football player wasn't high on the cop's priority for a college town. She said she'd appealed directly to the athletic department and they'd leaned on the police, and more was done. Then I had to ask a harder question.
     "So why me?"
     "You cost a lot, Mister Roule. And you don't play fair."
I cost a lot but I don't play fair," I corrected her. And she grinned at that. "But there's others who do that, too. So why?"
     "Speaker Brown spoke well of you, and Reverend Virgil sings your praises," she reported, "and I know from your good work this weekend with our young people that you can talk to them. Until I saw you working with them, I wouldn't have considered hiring you."
     "I didn't know I was being watched."
     "I wasn't alone." She picked up my card again. "Tebeaux. Your people from the South?"
     "Father was, born and bred. Mother's from Louisiana, by way of Quebec, originally French Canadian."
     "Uh huh," she said, "that's about what the prevailing opinion was in the Amen Corner."
     "Your Amen Corner scrutinizes your visitors that closely."
     "You best not concern yourself with that," she warned me. "But you might be surprised just how much curiosity there is around where I sit in our church." She glanced down demurely for a second and then, with a deadpan look: "That's why we clap so much. Idle hands and all that."
     From the table beside the pitcher of lemonade, she took an envelope and handed it to me. Inside were some hundred dollar bills. Crisp Franklins, straight from some bank.
     I fanned the bills out to twenty and just as quickly brought them up to eye level to look at their serial numbers. There were two sets of ten, both consecutive. After handling the box office cash all weekend, this was automatic. She turned her head aside. For a split second I imagined Mrs. Robineson thought me rude, checking for counterfeits. I was about to comment on the recent flood of hundred dollar fakes from Eastern Europe, when she suddenly grabbed my shirt collar with both hands. She lifted me up off the sofa and put me down on the floor, landing on my back just as guns went off..
     Simultaneously a car roared, speeding up the street toward us. One burst of automatic fire after another, with a shotgun blast. Something ricocheted off the porch bricks and there was a sputter of punctured stucco. Screams, breaking glass, yelling, and then only the sound of the boombox and someone crying. A long moment passed.
     Mrs. Robineson's face was on my neck. My arms were pinned under my chin, hands up, her money jammed between my face and the brick wall.
     There was the thump, thump, thump of the bass line from the boombox.
     My breath joined with hers in ruffling the bills. Through my shirt back her heartbeat.
     Then, someone shut off the boombox.
     There was that eerie silence of only us breathing.
     Some glass fell somewhere down the street and broke. There was a faint sound of whimpering.
     The Franklins were bent up against the bricks and I thought how idiotic money was, compared to breathing.
     Mrs. Robineson didn't get up as easy as she put me down. She planted one big hand on either side of my shoulders for leverage, heaved herself upright, and it was like the sofa was hoisted off me.
     I rolled to one side and looked up. Right behind her, head high across the wall above the sofa and her chair, was a rising line of bulletholes.
     Suddenly her face came into focus. She leaned down, plucked a ballpoint pen out of my shirt pocket, clicked it to the ready, and she wrote down a license plate number on the palm of her hand. "You all right?" she asked, glancing down.


Chapter Two

     Dinner that evening was a ham and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, frozen peas, fresh greens, some day-old packages of rolls, margarine, lime Jell-O with canned fruit salad in it. The drink was Kool-Aid, two different flavors, judging from the colors. I had tap water with ice. The rolls and the Kool-Aid were the big hit among her five children, three of them pre-teen boys, considering how much they tucked away. One boy was Caucasian, the other two light-skinned. Only the two teenage girls were hers, Rasheedi and Karenlee, and they looked it: the same high, slightly copper-red cheek-bones, the same eyes, the same Robineson stare.
     Reverend Virgil had mentioned that Mrs. Robineson took in children, but not for any child welfare money. She did it because she believed in it. "I raise them once," she mentioned, "because I don't believe in rehearsals."
     Such a normal Sunday dinner felt strange after a drive-by shooting. Her daughters were excited because a new kid was coming from a church in Fresno via Reverend Virgil. From their conversation, I got the idea the new foster kid was half-Vietnamese. After this Sunday afternoon, it seemed like blind courage to add one more kid to her duties, in this neighborhood especially, but I didn't doubt Mrs. Robineson could handle it.
     Her day job was supervising the staff for a medical clinic, Tuesdays through Saturdays, but Reverend Virgil never told me her night job was telemarketing. She'd trained her two girls to do it, save for their college tuition. By tripling up on the workload, the three made a full-time weekly salary, Rasheedi informed me, sometimes in four days. The company paid for the phone lines and Mrs. Robineson remodeled their back porch into an office: all the furniture still had the Bekin's Moving company salvage stickers on it.
     The twenty Franklins in my wallet were already too many by the time I finished my casserole. after my inspection of their makeshift office, the fee seemed like robbery. There was no reason to say it, but I suspected that the Speaker was the Franklin's donor, because Mrs. Robineson mentioned she had got the hang of doing telemarketing from working the phones for his reelection campaign. And also because I never mentioned my fee to either E Mack or her. The two grand retainer was for politicos only; I had a sliding scale for civilians. But Mrs. Robineson didn't cotton to pity, and I knew there was no way of returning the money, not without insulting her. I wasn't going to risk that, not with the memory still so fresh of her hands lifting me off that sofa away from those bullets.
     When the police came by, interrupting the family's telemarketing, I fronted for Mrs. Robinson, largely out of gratitude for still being alive and also to put some authority between her and them. I overheard what she told them over the phone. Even though I hadn't seen anything, to the police I described what she saw and confirmed the license plate number as if I were the expert witness.
     Because no one was hit by the drive-by shooters, the cops were one and a half hours late. Their cover story was that they were harvesting reluctant eye witnesses. So they then claimed they were shielding Mrs. Robinson, the only caller with a license ID, from a gang reprisal by stopping by so casual. Their delay was actually a courtesy to protect and serve concerned citizens a.k.a. informants.
     Mrs. Robineson had no time for such stuff. She pointedly showed them that she had her own courtesy calling devices: two locked and loaded automatics, with one in the pipe, eight in the clip, one gun for her back and one for her front door. I wondered for a second if that was wise, with kids around, then remembered how attentive they were to her moods at dinner.
     So, from the porch I watched them work the neighborhood and thought about things. War zones never really get you in the gut, especially if you live somewhere else. And if you only describe them over white wine to concerned folks at weekend benefits like the one we had just engineered, that's even more distance. But Essie Bee Robineson wasn't going to move. She owned this barn of a house and there was no chance of getting another one this big, as close to her day job, or as useful for her second job.
     When she came back out on her porch to say goodbye, I glanced again at the bullet holes in the stucco wall above the empty lemonade pitcher, and she told me, "Find my boy. Bring him back."
     She knew Alcel was dead.
     Her only son.
     But her voice was cool.
     Those eyes of hers never left mine, even when two blocks down her street the breeze ruffled all the yellow crowd-control ribbons. She was right. It was just her promised cooling evening wind, off the American River somewhere to the north.


Chapter Three

     Palatial isn't a word you usually use when you're talking about a gym. But, from the outside the gym was palatial: a temple of glass and glitz. Inside the lobby of the new Whitcomb Sports Center, it was clear that Italy had gotten considerably lighter, what with all the polished green, grey and cream marble the country donated to this triumph. Whitcomb Center was a cross between Las Vegas and a corporate flagship high-rise: a Sistine Chapel for Sweat Socks.
     A young intern greeted me and showed me down the hallway to the Athletic Director's office. His walls were marble-free. Instead, he had an Orchid Arboretum, a wall to ceiling plate-glass window displaying a hothouse of jungle flora and fauna, a nice touch what with the Whitcomb winters. And there was no access to that Orchid Arboretum from the office: it was only for show (and/or the hired help to service).
     Weirdly the Athletic Director's room smelled of hot towels and soap, although there was none to be seen.
     I wondered if those scents were piped in from the locker rooms, just to keep the AD in touch with the jocks, and then wondered if I was hallucinating that smell.
     "Are those," I asked, "odors supposed to be here?"
     The intern looked embarrassed. "The AD'll be in a minute. There's some foul-up with the vent system with this new building," he confided, "and the laundry room feeds into--so we get that, uh--" He waved at the room as if that explained everything before he left.
     Athletic Director Deacon Ulthus looked a lot younger than I thought he'd be. He actually still had a few freckles. It wasn't undisturbing to recall that he was two years under my age, about 31, and probably making more bucks than I've ever made, too. My time with him was obviously a distraction, His discussion of Alcel Robinson was brisk: good kid, hard worker, never any trouble, made his grades, not a star but a contributor, etc. "And one thing this job teaches you is," he finished, "you can't legislate morality and that's a fact. So--."
     "You mean you think the kid's shacked up somewhere?"
     Ulthus didn't enjoy being interrupted. He cocked his head to one side and looked into his own private greenhouse. A fresh, trendy haircut above a fresh pale-blue shirt, a fresh white tie and pressed white pants. With the tropical plants behind him, he was ripe for a cruise ship ad.
     "I mean," trying for a softer touch, "he was a good looking guy and popular."
     Ulthus obviously did not want to dig the dirt with me, so he took another tack. "You met his mother?"
     "Oh yeah," I said, "you know where the kid got his big-boned build."
     Ulthus smiled and winked. "And, Mr. Roule, would you want to bring a bit of plum home for her approval?"
     "She braced me good," I agreed. "You have a run-in with her? I did."
     "Wasn't a run-in," Ulthus dodged that idea, "just a discussion. About a line item on Alcel's scholarship terms."
     "Uh-huh, a discussion," I said. "I bet."
     "You know the Speaker." It wasn't a question.
     "Worked for him off and on over the years. He did a favor for me recently," I shrugged . "Hell, I'm a security consultant, no investigative work. This is kind of a," I spread my hands, palms up, "a while you're at it job."
     "Oh. Oh, yeah I know about those." Ulthus was a lot more comfortable with me being a flunky. "Then you can understand, how do you pronounce your first name?"
     "Tay-Bo, call me Bo."
     "There are a lot of boys who come through this program, Bo. They leave in the goshdarndest ways. Had one kid get a phone call, we never knew who from or what it was about, and zip, we were without our starting two guard a week before the basketball tournament. Four years of tuition paid and zipola."
     "Four year scholarship and he cuts and runs?"
     "Right, a four-ride," Ulthus agreed, "his boat gone, no notion of the future. And the kid had one here. We take care of our young men."
     With that reassurance, a silence settled in, along with a distinct feeling that my future here was no longer with him. His comments had been so generic, I doubted if he even recalled who Alcel was. He probably remembered his mother better because she'd hassled him. "I know your time is valuable, Mr. Ulthus, so is there someone you can hand me off to, get me caught up on a few more details . . . ?"
     Ulthus had just snuck a glance at his watch, and his smile came with a flunky's name. "I'll call for an intern, Bo, to guide you to his office."
     "I'd be grateful, a guy could get lost in this place."
     "Some have," Ulthus said, "this place needs a tour guide for the anyone lacking a sense of direction."
     I wondered if Alcel got that courtesy. I had the feeling not, at least not from him.


Chapter Four

     My ex-wife met me when I ran security for one of her gigs. She observed me taking care of business during those slow hours before a concert and apparently liked what she saw. She told me that whenever I got bored, I'd dig into perfectly one-dimensional people, come up with stuff no one else did. She said she learned things about her management listening to me talk to them that she'd never found out by herself. She fired them, shortly after, as a matter of fact. It was what made me a good security dick, she said, but not much of a casual conversationalist. It was true. But those years of being conned, hassled, chiseled and downright abused by music industry creeps refined my nose.
     In Athletic Director Ulthus's office I knew that inside his private orchid emporium was as hot, funky and humid as a four hour fuckfest fueled by an eight-ball of cocaine, no matter how polished the janitorial staff kept his glass wall. Because for those plants to succeed, they needed thick, heavy air, and wet rotted slime at their roots.
     Of course, I was thinking this nasty because I was on my fourth handoff. I'd interviewed two financial advisors and two academic counselors, who only knew Alcel as a type of person. Either he rarely showed people his real feelings, which I doubted, having seen his video, or they were too white-bread for confidences. These four killed most of the afternoon. It seemed obvious that Alcel's teammates were being kept away from me. Of course, it was the pre-season. Training camp came first, and yadda yadda, but someone, somewhere, was lining up guys who would say the right things.
     So, on my fifth stop I was parked in an assistant PE professor's office. This was a big step down from the AD's office, as it only had an four foot long aquarium in the wall to amuse this occupant, not a whole greenhouse full of rare plants. The office also smelled of cafeteria food. This intern was just as embarrassed as the first intern when asked about this. "Some problem with the vents," he informed me.
     "The athletes have their own cafeteria?"
     The intern looked offended for a moment. "Well, each sport has its own diet," he said, not a little testily. "They can't just feed in the population."
     In the population.
I liked that phrase.
     So, there I sat, imagining feedlot pens somewhere down in these marble bowels with lines of hungry jocks.
     While I was waiting for the moment when I'd buddy up to some Whitcomb football players, the assistant PE prof entered, bearing a cell phone, and handed it to me. The coach, Phil Baumgarten himself, was on the line with an invitation to dinner at his house in company of some of his coaches. There was even a big car and my next intern of the day to whisk me away, and right now.
     This was said so breathlessly by the assistant PE prof (and he made such a practiced show of his awe that I'd been so honored with some words "from Coach Bum"), I sensed I wasn't the first civilian in the population to get this fluff and flip treatment.
     Why the fluff and flip was the question.
     Knowing the head political honcho in the state legislature was an easy answer. There might be a message they needed me to take back to the Speaker of the House. But this obvious answer was not necessarily the only one.
     Whatever the reason, this treatment was a touch heavy for a security consultant turned private dick for a day. But I accepted graciously. As I was led away to that big car, the door to the locker room opened enough to let out a wisp of steam and some echoes of yells and horseplay.


Chapter Five

     On the drive up the mountain, it was made clear that there wasn't anything my driver didn't know about the Loggers' football team, except that he didn't recognize the name of Alcel Robinson. I mentioned that he played varsity the year before as a sophomore.
     "Uh-huh, oh yeah, I remember," the intern said warily, as if
Alcel's absence now was some kind of betrayal, "did he wash out?"
     "No. Why'd you think he washed out?"
     "If he's not here this year--" the intern shrugged as if only some personal failing could account for his absence.
     "He could have been injured."
     "Then he would have been held out of action, you know, redshirted, and I know all the redshirts." He saw that I didn't understand the term and explained that redshirting a player legally gave him an extra year of college.
     "Do most fans follow the team members that closely?"
     The intern assured me that Whitcomb wasn't called the Green Bay of College towns for nothing. I said I didn't know what that meant. He explained that in the National Football League the Green Bay Packers were located in the little Wisconsin town of Green Bay and the team was owned by the citizens. Every other National Football League team was owned by big corporations. The Green Bay citizens were fanatics and knew everything about their team, just like Whitcomb Logger fans.
     We talked about what he was doing at the college. Besides memorizing football stats, he seemed to be enthusiastic about the skiing, mainly, plus the program in sports medicine, which was his major, and how he got to show visitors around the Sistine Chapel for Satisfied Jocks.
     He turned into an unmarked two lane road that ended at a development enclosed by a stone fence with a steel gate. A rent-a-cop manned the guard post beside a stone slab, which was somewhat smaller than a Greyhound bus. Chiseled on it was The Estates.
     The Coach lived on Palm Drive. There wasn't a palm tree in sight, as these Estates were above the snow line.
     Coach Baumgarten's manse was probably no larger than his neighbors, but his neighbors were not on display for any comparisons, being well back from the access road. Between the coach's home and that access road were stands of fir and Ponderosa pines framing the stone wall and its voice-activated wrought-iron gates, then the driveway meandered alongside some lawn acreage, passed through an eight-foot hedge, and skirted an Olympic-size rock garden via some gentle curves.
     "Two winning bowl appearances, and all the perks that go with that, plus successful national motivational seminars," my intern enthused, as he dropped me off at the front steps of Baumgarten's house, "buys a lot of class."
     Well, it was expensive. The twin front doors were about eight feet tall, white with green trim, and a brass knocker. A chrome plaque dominated the wall above the brass mail slot, but it just had "Coach" on it, rather than Phil Baumgarten, Head Coach, a homey touch.
     An assistant football coach by the name of Ted Graycar captured me at the front door. The hors d'oeurves were in the den. A pro designer did the interior. The finger food was on a Mission table, and it was laid out in platters around a bronze statue of an eagle trying to climb into the top knot of an Indian Chief while both of them looked upward, at the Great Spirit, I think. Or the sunset that the walls represented, what with their Southwest color scheme--pinks, mauves, and sandy beiges. This seemed more than a little out of place for a Georgian knockoff, but once a body was inside, obviously the main job was to forget whatever was outside.
     The Whitcomb coaches to a man looked like they could play ball now. They were young, in great shape and had oversize, big arms, plus a spring to their step that suggested they had maintained their weight room habits. Graycar handled the intros, using the security consultant handle for me. This led to one of the coaches telling me about the tight security at the Super Bowl the past year. Nothing would please the Arabs more than to humiliate the National Football League and the Super Bowl.
     Being at the Super Bowl got a lot of play from two of the coaches. The rest expressed hope that their new upcoming season would end with that bonus being repeated, so I got the idea that maybe most were newcomers to the staff.
     "Hell, Coach Baum," another said, pronouncing it bum, "probably will only comp us to his Just One Man instead, if we don't win."
     And everyone laughed at that.
     "What's Just One Man?" I asked.
     "You don't know about that?" Graycar seemed genuinely touched by my ignorance. "We'll have to bring you up to speed on that. But hey, look at this, Chink food."
     And with that the guys chowed down the platters of pot stickers and those promoted a thirst. As we drank our beers and scarfed, the feeling came over me that I'd wandered into a Junior Chamber of Commerce meeting. Even though I wasn't that much older than the coaches, their act still seemed both boyish and insecure.
     The "We work hard but we play hard" routine was mentioned several times. Nervous jokes about who was wearing out their video machines and who'd really screwed up with their wives' social calendar in their fatigue over eighteen hour workdays.
     And there was a strain to find something other than football to talk about. But that's where I came in handy, once they discovered I'd run a rock 'n roll security firm. I trotted out some gossip about the top groups, their routines and their demands, but even then, when I touched on some mild sexual stuff--groupies and all that--some of the coaches shied away. So I went light on those yarns, even though they were most entertaining from those years.
     But then, much like cops, they had to get me typed: civilian or not.
     "You ever play ball?" Ted Graycar asked me, looking me over casually. "You've got the size."
     "No, no such luck," I smiled apologetically. "Didn't get to college. I went into the military in 1972 at age 18."
     "See any action?"
     "A little. The 46th Special Forces A-41 in Thailand until March of 1974. We were advisors to the Special Warfare Center of Thailand."
     "My older brother was over there. That was fast, in one year you were trained--"
     "In high school martial arts captured me, so I was prime material for their, uh, needs," I said. Then, to avoid an inevitable body count question, I added a very practiced lie, "But mainly, besides training sessions, I did a lot of KP."
     "Oh, what type of martial arts?"
     "A little bit of everything, Aikido, mainly."
     "Compete? In those tournaments."
     "Yes. When I was a kid."
     "You look in good shape."
     Graycar's body was, of course, ripped. His back and shoulders and arms were well-defined, so in his eighteen hour days there must have been time for the weight room. I said something about his habits, and he allowed himself one comment about his workouts keeping the respect of the young players.
     "I still workout," I allowed back. "What was your position?"
     "Tight end at UCLA. I work with the receivers now."
     Our pissing contest over, he looked at my card and asked me how to pronounce my first name.
     "Just call me Bo. That's French."
     "Should just put that on your card."
     "I give discounts to those who get it right the first time."
     Greycar introduced me to two defensive coaches who turned out to be, as I guessed, new to the team. They knew nothing about Alcel except his stats for his sophomore year. I asked who recruited him. Graycar said that that was a coach who left Whitcomb for another job. And suddenly I had the feeling that maybe no one on the staff knew who Alcel was. Or, because he was gone, didn't care. And it seemed weird that, if the locals knew everything about these kids, why didn't the coaches? The intern who drove me up here rattled off their home towns, stats, and projections. Alcel was no longer a blimp on anyone's radar screen.
     Coach Baumgarten came in. He wasn't what I expected from the head shot in the team brochure. Not a large guy or even particularly physically imposing, unlike his coaches. Basically he looked like an insurance salesman. Tall, maybe six two, but Baumgarten had a kind of stoop. A diffident smile, and a habit of tilting his head a little sideways to look into his listener's eyes, as if he had spent a lot of time talking to children.
     Graycar introduced us, and Baumgarten looked me in the eyes, shook my hand firmly, though not the bone crushers that his coaches had hung on me. He said something about whether I'd been shown around. I said I certainly had, using "Impressive" once or twice for his Sistine Chapel. Baumgarten's accent was mid-Western, perhaps Southern Indiana, or even a little deeper south. Though he mimed attention very well, he wasn't quite there, he was a little absent.
     I wondered again why I'd been invited. I wasn't sure if I liked or disliked him, and I wasn't also sure if that mattered.
     As if I were the guest of honor, he led me toward the dining room, which was in the back of the manse. It was like stepping into another house entirely.
     Gone was the Southwest look of the front rooms; the decor was middle-class ranch house: blue-striped frilled curtains with tie-backs, pale blues and off-white walls, a few touches of pink, even a knickknack shelf of miniature brass kitchen gewgaws. The table didn't belong to a decorator's decor, either; it was an old family table, obviously from someone's farm; and it was set with older cream colored heavy dishes, nothing fancy.
     For such a group of large size guys as ourselves, the table accommodated us easily. There was simple silver cross above the long hutch by the back wall. On its bottom shelf was a steaming feast: ham, potatoes, several platters of vegetables, carbo-loading dishes of rice, yams and noodles.
     There was no sign of any help or how the meal got there. The white door to one side presumably opened into a kitchen, but there were no sounds from there, either.
     "Serve yourself, gentlemen, we're on our own tonight. Deb's got a conference tonight."
     On my way to the table, I noticed the photographs on the hutch: the Coach and his wife and daughter, plus several extended family shots probably taken at summer holidays, because they were all outdoors. One of Baumgarten behind a podium, with Just One Man emblazoned on the yellow banner draped over it.
     The coach led us in saying Grace, and again I heard that folksy country accent. Once our thanks were dispatched, these guys were no slouches at the food trough. Neither was I; I hadn't eaten lunch. We were into seconds when the phone call came. I was surprised that the Coach took the call at all, he was so engaged in talking to one of his coaches about his family's summer vacation to San Diego. He twisted around in his chair and got a cell phone out of a drawer in the hutch. After he listened for a moment, he looked at me and said, "Mr. Roule, could you come with me for a moment?"
     I followed him into the hallway leading to the side of the house as he continued press the phone to his ear without saying anything more than a uh-huh and I see.
     "We'll be right there." He snapped the phone off and looked at me. "You know anything about police procedure?"
     "Of course," I said. "And for arena security I've even gone through extensive anti-terrorist training with SWAT teams."
     "Good, but I'm only going to need your advice." He handed me a set of car keys. "My Cherokee's around the side," he pointed, "I'll be right out when I make my apologies to the guys. It's the red one."
     "Uh, where's your head, first?"
     He waved me up the stairs and pointed left. When I came out, I went back down to the hallway. I decided to go through the kitchen, see if there were some silent inscrutable scullery Nija there or something. But the kitchen was empty, except for some catering company towels. The crew must be on smoke break or banished to an outbuilding. As I ducked back into the hallway, I saw Baumgarten through an open doorway, in what looked like an office. He was leaning over an open desk drawer, and he slid banded ten-packs of crisp bills into the inside pocket of his overcoat.
     Once he joined me out in his Cherokee, Baumgarten directed me down into town, via some back roads. "Some of my boys are near trouble," he said, "and uh, what's your handle again?"
     "Tay-bo, but you can call me Bo."
     "The police are going to be involved, Bo."
     "Going to be?"
     "Yeah," he said. "Someone may be dead."
     "A student?" He may have nodded, though I couldn't be sure. "Have the police been called?"
     "We'll call them when we get there and ascertain the facts." He looked at me. "The Speaker said you were discreet."
     "That is my job."
     "You may have to be, Mr. Roule, and I am going to rely on you. Don't take this wrong, but this is a time for plain speaking: what is your usual retainer?"
     I thought of the Speaker and said two thousand. He asked if some earnest money was good enough for me as he didn't have his checkbook. I hesitated, and he slipped two one hundred dollar bills from his inside overcoat pocket. I said yes, took them, and then, "Has your school attorney been called?"
     "I believe he is engaged in something that demands his phone be dead to the world right now, Bo." Baumgarten didn't look at me as he said this. He instead hummed a little. What A Friend We Have In Jesus.
     We turned into an unmarked road that ended at a lakefront. In a gravel parking lot to the right there was a fairly large fire that had been bigger, probably a bonfire, judging from the wide ring of embers and ashes around it. At the water's edge, there were two burly looking kids on a dock, near a white speedboat.
     After taking a flashlight out of the glove compartment, Baumgarten uncoiled from the passenger side and told me to stay in the Cherokee while he went down there. He talked to one kid, looked down into the boat, and waved for me to come over.
     When I got there, the Coach was shining his flashlight on a body in the shadowy bottom of the boat. It was a hefty black man in blue swimming trunks and with an orange life preserver on his chest. He was so well muscled, the orange life preserver vest straps barely held it around his body. He looked dead, although not drowned, and not for long.
     "I don't want to know who else was here, not right now," the Coach was saying. "You two weren't drinking, right?"
     "That's right."
     "Okay, wait for me over by the house."
     When the two left the dock and walked off toward our left, I asked if they were his players. "Yes," he said. "Now, I need your professional opinion. Take a look at that fellow and tell me how you think he died." He handed me his flashlight and held the boat so I could get in.
     A quick glance at the boat showed me its outboard engine was a 150 horsepower and there were water-skiing rigs looped on the stern seats. As for the body, what I saw first was an ugly head wound, as if the dead man had been whacked across his temple with something flat and rectangular, judging from the indentation. As I held the light on the head, the dock creaked as if the Coach were leaning over, too, for a look. But the victim was very cold. I dipped my hand over the side into the lake water. It felt close to freezing. His head didn't move easily with pressure. I pressed a finger down on his skin. It showed white, so even with being in that cold water the death occured within four hours. There were no other marks on his body, but I couldn't tell if he had drowned or not; that'd take an autopsy. I told Baumgarten what I saw.
     "Good," the Coach said, "so, Bo, we're dealing with something that matches the story."
     Without telling me what that story was, he held the boat and took the flashlight and let me climb back out safely. We went back toward the fire. Behind it were the two young guys standing the front steps of the deck to a house. They looked truly scared now, once they were away from the body: shivering and wide-eyed. Before we got past the fire, the Coach nodded at me to get in the Cherokee, and then took the two up on the front deck of the house. They stood there and, once my eyes got adjusted to looking through the flickering light from the flames, the coach seemed to be doing most of the talking. One of the guys was shaking badly now. Obviously the shock was wearing off fast for them.
     Gradually the shape and size of the house behind them came in clearer, outlined against the dark trees. It was much larger than it appeared from the drive, at least three bedrooms on an upper story built on the rear of the house. Just then a figure moved into the front doorway, and it appeared that the Coach motioned it to stay back. Then he got out his phone and made a call.
     He returned to the Cherokee and told me that the county sheriffs were coming. I might as well drive back to Whitcomb. He'd handle things from here on. I asked him if he was sure, because facing the police wasn't for amateurs. As long as he had hired me, it might be best if I was there.
     He said no. He'd have legal counsel by then if he needed it, as the sheriffs promised to patch a call through to the department's attorney. I asked him if he knew the deceased, and he nodded, but volunteered no name.
     "No longer a student," he added while looking toward the dock, as if that were the most important detail. "Waterskiing in the dadgum dark. Knuckleheads."
     Either this was the easiest two grand I'd ever made, or something else entirely, but I didn't say that. "How'd he get that bruise, then?"
     "There's a building site over yonder." Baumgarten pointed across the lake. "Somehow a load of lumber got dumped in the lake. He swung wide on the skis and never saw them."
     "They have permission to use the boat? Or be here?" I couldn't imagine the young guys owned a lakefront this grand, let alone the ski boat.
     He nodded.
     "Sir, sure you don't want me to check out their stories before the cops come?"
     He shook his head, and then, "Excuse me, Bo, but I've got to lead these two young men in prayer," and walked away.
     I wondered how long the black guy had been in the water and if the others had found him shortly before we arrived. I bet that he wasn't wearing that vest; it looked thrown on. The Coach wasn't sure anyone was dead when we left his house, so maybe the kids had to search for him. He'd have been hard to see if he wasn't in that orange vest and if they lacked a flashlight (I didn't see one in the boat). With the vest on, he'd been easy to spot in the water. Or, had the kids took the vest off him to try CPR?
     I tried to back the Cherokee up the drive. Coach turned from praying with the boys and thoughtfully laid the flashlight over to one side, showing me where among the trees I could turn around. He kept the light on that spot until I did.
     I drove off, but at the entrance to the county road, signaled a left turn, shut off my lights and hung a right. The road went up from there. I'd spotted a turnout a little ways further when I swung into the drive earlier. I parked there, lights off, and went back to a thick stand of trees across from the cabin turnoff and checked my watch.
     After twenty minutes, a sedan, either a Ford Taurus or a Mercury Sable judging from its taillights, drove up to the turnoff, did a U-ie, almost catching me in its high beams. It backed up to the cabin entrance and a man got out quickly. I saw a silhouette of a driver with long hair. The man went down the road to the cabin without a flashlight. I thought he must know the road well, maybe as well as Baumgarten.
     The sedan drove off in a hurry, then stopped on the curve of the road about a hundred feet down the road. The passenger door swung open, the interior light went on, and someone climbed in and shut the door quickly. The hood on that person's coat was up. There was something in the driver's hand, too, as the driver raised it off the steering wheel, gesturing to the person climbing in.
     By the time I returned to the Cherokee, wrote down the sedan's license plate and the address on the mailbox at the cabin turnoff, and got on down the road, the sedan was long gone. There was no sign of it, even though I went over the speed limit. But there were any number of turnoffs along the way. I wondered how many more cars and people had fled the scene, before we got there and how drunk they were. The remains of that bonfire wasn't small. Then a Sheriff's wagon followed by an ambulance passed me, going toward the cabin, their lights flashing.
     I drove to the Sistine Chapel for Jock Rash and parked Baumgarten's Cherokee in the slot marked Head Coach. In the bright lobby there were some of the coaches from dinner standing around a Coke Machine. I checked my watch. It was late. They had clipboards and video tapes in their hands. They weren't kidding about eighteen hour days.
     I drove my car to my motel in Whitcomb. In my room I left a phone message at the coach's office, telling him his Cherokee was appropriately parked. Then I watched some TV until I slept.

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