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
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
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
First, we exchanged our names. I gave her my
"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
"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 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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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.
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.
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
"Tight end at UCLA. I work with the receivers
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
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
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?"
"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 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
"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.
"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
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.