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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Franklin Handshake (continued from Cybercorpse #7)
by Keith Abbott
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Chapter Thirteen

Back up at the college library, more dog work. Fishing by phone, Whitcomb school newspapers, Logger publicity materials. Computer searches by Sue Masuren were started. Via a police connection of mine in Berkeley, I learned Arlis "Arlie" Inman had an expunged rap sheet, as they say. Charges filed and dropped, or suspended sentences pending counseling, public service. The charges themselves were a seesaw of minor and major. For some reason, Inman had not gone directly into college after high school. The year he roamed around as a civilian, working construction, indicated his range of talents: shoplifting, trespassing, loitering, littering, petty larceny, assault and battery, drunk and disorderly, disorderly conduct, malicious destruction of property, all of them shuffled, reduced, dismissed or suspended. However, his team bio stressed all the weightlifting awards he scored that year. His personal lust for statues was fulfilled. Some more boys will be boys charges floated up his freshman year. Dismissed. His sophomore year at WU he redshirted. But just practicing and no ball games apparently didn't occupy Arlie's mind enough: vandalism, two disorderly conducts, speeding tickets, DUI, and sexual harassment charges surfaced and were sunk without further trace. Over those six redshirt months Inman gained sixty pounds, topping out at two hundred and ninety, and scored a third-team All American defensive end honor his junior year and second-team All American his senior.
     And no charges were filed for those two years. White as snow Arlie was.
     No graduation for him, so his return to civilian life proved a bump, as Coondog said. Two arrests for disturbing the peace, plus a serious assault and battery popped up; the last got him his most weighty suspended sentence in June. I read that sentence as meaning no Whitcomb baby-sitter for Inman any more.
     A backwards fishing trip through newspapers around the time of his assault arrest revealed he'd been farmed out to a therapist for anger management as a condition of his suspended sentence. A stroll through the public health records via Sue Masuren's greymarket contacts brought up the fact that Arlie had been put on SSI at the tender age of 24: so that meant a doctor or licensed therapist had signed off for him on the Federal benefits.
     I got the phone numbers for local counselors and hit paydirt on the third one I called. I claimed to have a hot need for Mr. Inman to sign an out of court settlement and got the info that Arlie was indeed a client there, but due tomorrow for a session. I apologized and said something about court dates. Under the mistaken impression that she was talking to Inman's lawyer, the clinic secretary said there was a problem with his billing. Well, I'd try to help, and she gave me the number of his case and then reminded me of his insurance carrier.
     I left that info on Sue Masuren's answering service and decided to stop dog work and try to make a break. I only had one lever, but I was going to try to use it.
     Once I got to the gym, Baumgarten's secretary chased down Deacon Ulthus via some Betty calls to the other secretaries around the school. She promised she'd get me a few minutes with him, then directed me to cross the quad outside her window and use the VIP lounge opposite her office to wait.
     I'd almost decided to cool my heels in the quad garden, when I thought I saw Deb Baumgarten in the lounge. There was a bank of low windows about knee high that opened out to let any garden breezes in along the length of the lounge. Today they were swung out, reflecting the sun. Through the last two I could see her reach for a diet Coke as she read a magazine.
     I hung back in the lounge doorway and squinted my eyes so her head was only a profile against the bright windows. I was trying to fit that outline with the silhouette I'd seen the night of Nock's death. I'd almost decided it was her when she leaned forward. She was bent over, only the top of her head and shoulders in my sight. From her arm movement, seemed to be writing something. I thought for a second about how to approach her, when my beeper went off. I turned to check it, and she was up and off, coming across the room. I drifted over to one side, holding up my beeper, and she hurried past, without acknowledging me.
     Grey hair, sensible glasses, the same face scarcely aged from the photo at their house. An slim, attractive Mid-west matron in a pale blue cashmere sweater, white blouse, and powder blue cotton skirt with stylish soft pink strands woven in it.
     I thought for a second of stopping her and asking about that night, but she seemed unapproachable right then, so I got busy working out how I was going to play Ulthus.
     After awhile Baumgarten's secretary crossed the quad and told me that he was ready to see me for a few minutes. I trailed along after her, still thinking about Ulthus. When I opened the door to her office, I saw something glitter across the quad.
     Along the bank of low open windows only one sparkled, the last window. In a moment of panic, I thought that shimmer was a tremor, earthquake, then I saw that it was the sun, shining off the badly scratched window glass.
     "Oh no, not again." Baumgarten's secretary shook her head and crossed to her phone. "Look," she said cradling the phone to her shoulder. "Ulthus is in his office. I've got to call our custodians."
     "I know the way." I went around her desk, thinking that I must have missed something. "What's up?"
     "More vandalism. The lounge," she said into the phone as I left her office.

Chapter Fourteen
Deacon Ulthus was busy, but he managed to squeeze me into a few minutes of his time. "How's it going?" he shook my hand. "You got your team interviews?"
     "Oh yeah, a fine bunch of young men you have there. Well-mannered. Very helpful."
     "Well, some of them don't arrive here that way."
     "I wondered about that," I said. "Some of the fellas, well, they're not, uh, socialized for--ah uh--need special handling" I waved at the greenhouse behind him. "Like those plants in there."
     He shrugged. "Our student athletes leave here with some polish. And they know how to present themselves and represent the Loggers."
     "Yeah, whew, and that must be a chore sometimes." I chuckled and he did, too. "Got a couple. . . ." I shuffle through some sheets. "Couple last minute names to track . . . ."
     "How are you doing, I mean, on the whys and wherefores?"
     "Think it's some wild hair up Alcel's ass--like you suspected. Something he jumped sideways on, for god knows what reason, and probably's guilty about it now. It happened between the time he left town and the airport."
     He chuckled and so did I. Boys will be boys.
     "Hey, at his age, life can do a 180 in a second."
     "Couldn't agree more," a little impatient now.
     "You know ah--someone ah-a player--called--a player--" I held up Alcel's schedule, read it, then flipped the sheet around so his eyes automatically looked at it, not me. "A Tiffster?"
     He was staring hard at the sheet when the name hit. For a moment his eyes glazed over, he blinked, and then he caught himself, went back to staring even harder at the sheet, his eyes slowly going back up to the top, as if check it again what the sheet was. There was a pause, then. "No, none of our players that I know--"
     "No Tiffster?" I paused, disappointed. "These kids, especially the ones from the uh, I mean inner cities, have a million nicknames. I got to talking with Coondog--your booster--he knows all their handles, right?"
     "Oh yeah?" Ulthus was uneasy.
     "Uh huh, Coondog had hired or, I mean, got Alcel that job in the Caribbean--"
      "You have to take a lot of what Brent says with a grain of salt. Like any other student Alcel applied for that job and--"
     "Coondog is some kinda Texan, isn't he?"
     "Brent's proud of his kinfolks, as we all should be," he allowed. "Now, if there's anything else--"
     There wasn't. I'd gotten what I came for. Tiffster was a hot button for someone connected to this team.

Chapter Fifteen
Brent Cooner held court in the Redwood Lodge's bar, The Pink Elephant. In the daylight all the walls looked wounded, and the place smelled like a damp ashtray. When I entered Cooner waved me over while shooing away his cronies, a crusty bunch with a wildcatter look about them.
     "Oh my, have I just gotten an earful about you," he said.
     "How'd I get so lucky?"
     "Speaker of the House."
     "The Speaker's prone to exaggerations, Mr. Cooner. It's part of his job description."
     Cooner registered the name I used and then laughed at that. "He's from Texas, too."
     "Really? Never could tell that by Willie's behavior."
     Now it was Coondog who smiled at me. "That environmental case that made your reputation? Cyber Dick, or New Age Private Eye?'
     "That case got our agency's name in lights, all right." Cooner was referring to my lucky break six years ago for my new PI agency right after I'd sold my concert security firm. The case put our name on the map. A pulp mill near the California-Oregon border was suspected of environmental crimes. I'd bird-dogged an obscure shipping company until I proved the pulp mill's illegal chemical dumping--involving not a small amount of mercury. "I'm out of that business now."
     "Well, shit, Roule, not before that cost me some serious cash. I inherited a stock portfolio in that sucker. Could have used those certificates for asswipe after you got done."
     "Then, as a self-made entrepreneur, you could hardly miss those stocks. Not earning those dividends yourself, hell, Coondog, that must have been a blot on your record, right?"
     Cooner regarded me with amazement. "Cool one, aren't you?"
     "Mr. Cooner, your daddy was in the oil biz. He lost his ass regularly, as wildcatters do," I looked across the bar at his cronies, "so that speedbump was hardly a novel sensation. You inherit these guys from your dad, too? I expect you just redoubled your efforts to pump up the exchequer."
     "You know, Beaux, you are right. Verdict on that pulpmill hit Thursday, stocks were worthless by that afternoon, the coffee tasted the same the next morning. By noon I was back at bringing in the bucks, that Saturday night the women were as horny as ever, and I went pheasant hunting on Sunday as usual."
     "How'd you do?"
     "What are you here for, Roule?"
     "Know a Tiffster?"
     Cooner was nodding even before I got to the -ster of Tiffster. "That's not a player. That might be Tiffany Rounds, Coach Baumgarten's daughter. Alcel didn't have anything to do with her, as I recall."
     "She's married?"
     "Yes, she's married."
     "Yes, but I don't have her number. Was there a connection?"
     "Just cleaning up names that surfaced, last minute ones I couldn't find."
     "How's it look about Alcel?"
     I shook my head. "I've charted a pattern for his days preceding his disappearance. Seems nothing unusual." I showed him the chart. He hardly glanced at it. "Between him leaving Whitcomb and the flight from San Francisco, I've got several leads. Get back to the Bay Area," Cooner nodded his approval, "where I've got some San Francisco friends of his to interview tomorrow morning," I lied. His eyes flickered, but he covered up quick.
     Outside the Pink Elephant I thought about how Cooner answered my question. He knew I was going to ask about the coach's daughter, Tiffany a.k.a. the Tiffster even before I got her name out of my mouth. And The Speaker of the House didn't tell him that. Ulthus did. Coondog'd been talking to Ulthus on the phone before I arrived. Seemed like everyone was talking to everyone else but to me.

Chapter Sixteen

     Because of business in San Francisco, I only had time for the service early that morning. The post-mortem report stated Nock's death was accidental trauma, not drowning, and he was legally drunk. The morgue released Nock's remains for shipment to his funeral in Kansas City. No public notice of a Whitcomb service, but for twenty bucks a morgue attendant said that it'd be a private one. When I eased into the back pew of the mortuary chapel, the service was half over. There was a small crowd of large guys in the front three rows. obviously from the team. After two fumbling, awkward remembrances from players, Nock's widow, Tiffany Rounds, gave her eulogy. She was dressed in black, with a big veil that looked like it belonged to someone else's widow weeds.
     "The Nockster was the funnest guy I ever met," she started, sweeping back her veil. In the harsh morning light her face looked flat and garish, her makeup better suited for some other time of day. "Nockster never got in the dumps, never let himself get too low or too high. But he had really deep feelings."
     Her voice was slightly adolescent, a little breathless, and I moved forward a few rows, for a better look at her.
     "The Nockster, hey, would never know where to stop, though, having fun. But it was . . ." She looked down, as if seeking strength. From the Just One Man promotional videos I recognized the gesture as her father's. "It was work hard, play hard. And tell you another thing, though. This is what the Tiffster says. Word. Nockster went out . . ." she smiled, "having fun, testing himself. And that's the way he would have wanted it."
     There was shifting and murmurs in the front rows. This wasn't what they wanted, obviously.
     "And listen up, this is what the Tiffster says. When Saint Peter standing there at the gate, the Nockster's gonna say, Raise that bar a little higher. The Nockster's gonna say, Saint Peter, lift that bar one more once for the Nockster. Cuz I'm ready, but don't mind another challenge!" There was a dead silence as she scanned the front rows, waiting for a response. "I mean, he wanted to go out flying, he told that to the Tiffster, . . ." she faltered, "like, his ashes thrown from a plane or something."
     To her left was the funeral director beside a woman, slim, older, in a dark blue skirt and jacket. She was rocking two kids back and forth in a double stroller. Deborah Baumgarten. She looked at the Director and he took the stroller and trundled the kids out a side door when they started to cry. Tiffany Baumgarten bowed her head, lifted the veil back into place, stepped once to the side, then rushed out the side door past her mother. Deborah looked around the silent front rows, a tic of a smile jerked at her lips, then she turned and left. There was an awkward moment when nothing happened, then an usher scrambled forward as music started, indicating where the line formed for the viewing.
     I started down the aisle for the side door when this guy slid in front of me. He was one of Cooner's wildcatter buddies from the Pink Elephant, only dressed in a gray suit with a black tie.
     "Private services, brother." Two hands came up to push me back. "So, sir, if you would--" and he stumbled past me as his hands got nothing but air.
     I was already hustling for the rear double doors of the chapel. But the right door was locked. I tried the other side. It was locked, too. Cooner's pal was watching me, an easy smile on his mug. I knocked. No one came. Cooner's pal smiled.
     "It's locked," I said to him.
     There was a silence. The mourners were filing past Nock's casket and then they formed a football huddle, holding each other's hands as they bowed their heads and prayed. Cooner's pal looked at his wristwatch as if timing how long I was to wait.
     "Give it two short raps," he advised.
     I did. The right side of the double door opened. Another of Cooner's guys was there, looking sly at me. I went outside and around back. But Tiffany, Deb, and her kids were long gone. There wasn't anything for me to do but leave.
     On the drive south, I mulled over the weirdness of that funeral service, the sullen silence after her pep rally style eulogy, the way Tiffany referred to herself in third person, and decided to stop in at Sacramento. I called ahead to Mrs. Robinson. In the clinic's employee lounge I filled her in on what I found in Whitcomb: Brent Cooner, Wilbur Nock, and the coach's daughter Tiffany. She said that Alcel had never mentioned Tiffany or Wilbur Nock or squealers. Or Nock harassing Alcel.
     "He never talked football with me. I was always worried about him getting hurt. I see too many accidents here every day. I know what a cracked sternum means in real life."
     I asked her if she could do something for me. She said she'd surely try. I showed her the names, phone numbers of Voree and Geneva, Alcel's girlfriends, plus dupes of their interview tapes along with one of my field tape recorders. I asked her to drive to Whitcomb that weekend and tape new interviews. Make up a different questions from mine, including some about Tiffany.
     "What I'm looking for is their take on Tiffany, or her and Alcel. With me Voree and Geneva were formal. Maybe talking with another woman, his mother, they'd loosen up a bit."
     "Well, this seems a stretch."
     "These two women have, as near as I can tell, no other group of young black men except the athletes. Whitcomb's mostly white, as you must know. So there's no percentage talking to me. Both claimed they weren't upset when Alcel left, but they knew as well as you did about those temptations on the beach. Now, there's no sign of any foul play, or anyone being pissed off at your son enough to anger him or attack him. Alcel got connected to Tiffany somehow, in someone's mind. It was alleged that Alcel was harassed for being linked with the coach's daughter."
     "Who said this?"
     "The most unreliable source I met in Whitcomb. Take your daughter Rasheedi to break the ice. Say you're picking up some of Alcel's stuff in storage."
     Mrs. Robinson eyed me in that hardass way of hers. "You're putting me on a fishing expedition."
     "Did you call the Speaker of the House?"
     Another one of her silences. It was as stony as her eyes. "Yes, I said I would. He's informed and he approves."
     "Good. Then you are covered up in Whitcomb as much as I am." I let that idea sink in before going on. "I'm saying the clock is ticking. Any favors Whitcomb guys owe the Speaker are almost done. Something between Alcel and Nock is not getting said by anyone. Brent Cooner's sidekicks made sure I never got near Tiffany Rounds to find out what it was. Either the coaches made a mistake or she was the cause of Alcel getting harassed in spring training. And only this ex-football player Arlis Inman, a.k.a. Arlie?" Mrs. Robinson shook her head that she didn't know him, "was the only one not coached about what to say to me."
     I showed her the team photo from Inman's house of him and Alcel. Mrs. Robinson confirmed that Alcel never mentioned Inman or Tiffany Rounds and asked me why this guy was untrustworthy.
     "The guy's cooked on body building drugs. On SSI. Never be believed in court. But he volunteered that this squealer routine was a mistake. He didn't say if it was a mistake for Nock to harass Alcel. Or if it was a mistaken belief that Alcel ever had anything to do with Tiffany. He's all we got."
     She was still balking.
     "Look, Mrs. Robinson, I'm a guy. These women will talk to you about what, if anything, was going on between Alcel and Nock. If there's jealousy, that's motive for harm. If Alcel got angry over his treatment, someone may have hit back."
     I waited. She thought this over.
     "Alcel usually date more than one woman? It's a small pond."
     "My son never went steady with either woman. That may be what they wished, but he dated both." She reached across the table and put a fingertip on the knuckle on my right index finger. "Ever do something like that, Tebeaux, double-dipping?"
     "I'm not judging him, I'm--"
     "But have you?"
     I nodded.
     "Hmmm, thought you might." She mulled this over some more, then agreed to do what I asked.
     "I'll be up to Whitcomb this weekend, too. Phone me about where you're staying."

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