Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Five)

(Ed. note: Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen.)

The following is, from start to finish, a work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive and/or dead are purely coincidental, so please don't sue me (because I own nothing of value); unless, of course, it's a reference to someone here on BRB, in which case REALLY don't sue me.

Chapter One - It's Good To Be The QB

Chapter Two - A Blogger Named Scott Brooks

Chapter Three - The Quarterback Is Dead

Chapter Four - Why Is Housekeeping Never There When You Need It?

Chapter Five: The Photograph

It was like seeing a ghost. The first, of several, images that appeared in Scott's search results was of Eliot Nash. His head was at such an angle that his face couldn't be identified. But despite the grainy appearance of the shot, Scott immediately recognized the gleaming bald head of the former Texans quarterback. Nash appeared to be clutching the wrist of a young woman, her face obscured by long blonde locks.

Scott clicked on the picture and pulled up the webpage it was connected to. The website heading flashed in big pink letters "Le Rumour Mill" on a black backdrop, eliciting a groan from Scott. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't be caught dead at a celebrity gossip site like this one. Gossip sites, to him, were the biggest waste of time outside of lighting farts on fire and daytime television.

He tentatively clicked on the link to read the "article" on Eliot Nash. He immediately regretted it. Just skimming over the badly misspelled words, the irritating comic sans font used, and the overabundance of the word "totally" made Scott want to shut down the computer, grab the dictionary from the bookcase and read it while weeping gently on its thin pages.

Grudgingly, Scott read the piece.

It became abundantly clear that the writer knew very little about Nash, let alone about Texans football. Judging by page hit calculator on the bottom of the site, the writer was trying to get suckers who wanted to know more about Nash's death to visit their site. Suckers like Scott.

He pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, cursing himself for giving this writer, who he now suspected was a 14-year-old girl, a single page hit.

The irritating part about reading the article, in Scott's mind, was that it raised more questions than it answered; if there was one thing he didn't need more of, it was questions.

According to the timestamp on the picture, it was taken at 12:27 a.m. Sunday morning, probably from someone's cameraphone. If this was taken at 12:27, Scott thought, when did they say he died?

Scott pulled up another page and reluctantly searched for McClanahan's story on Nash. He clicked on the link and was greeted with McClanahan's jaundiced face with dull brown eyes hovering over the article. Compared to the 14-year-old's site, reading Flapjacks was a sight for sore eyes. Scott scanned the page.

Preliminary reports state that Nash had died on Sunday morning between 3 and 4 a.m. No cause of death has been officially determined at this time.

Or they just refused to tell you, Scott thought maliciously.

Scott grabbed his notepad and jotted down the assumed time of death so he wouldn't have to return to McClanahan's page again. He also noted the time on the cameraphone on his notepad just above the time of death.

"So," Scott said to the ficus in the corner, "if what Flapjacks said was true, and he died Sunday morning, then this picture," he went back to the cameraphone picture of Nash, "is probably the last time he was seen alive."

Scott looked past the bookcase and out the window. The orange glow of late afternoon had faded to a deep rust enveloped by the slow, all-consuming darkness of nightfall.

He remained silent for several minutes as he leaned in toward the monitor and stared at the picture. If that was the last time he was seen alive, he thought, then that must mean--

The silence was shattered when a high, clear voice from downstairs yelled, "Soup!"

Scott turned toward the door and then back at the picture. The day's activity had left him pretty hungry. The lone chicken biscuit he had eaten earlier that day was but a fond memory for his stomach.

His stomach demanded food by rumbling violently. Scott decided that this would be a good time for a break and went downstairs, throwing himself against the wall as his children stormed past him and down the stairs for the dining room.

"No running in the halls," he yelled out at them. But it was no use. They had long since gone downstairs and were well out of earshot.

The dining room had a long espresso-finished oak table in the center of the room flanked by badly scuffed side chairs, the unfortunate result of years of mistreatment by young children. On both ends of the table stood a pair of ornately-carved arm chairs. The warm cherry wood floors were polished to a bright sheen, except around the kids' chairs where their constant bouncing around had taken its toll.

Scott took his seat on the opposite end of the table from his wife. On the table sat five paper plates with large napkins set to the left of the plate. In the middle of the table were a pair of large flat boxes. Their tops were folded underneath to reveal a pair of large pepperoni pizzas. The kids eyed the pizzas ravenously, the way a pack of dogs would stare down a three-legged cat. The only thing that stood in the way between the kids and an all-out cheese and pepperoni frenzy was Claire, who shot them the kind of glare only a mother could get away with.

Scott looked at his wife and was briefly taken aback by her appearance. Typically, Claire would wear her long chestnut-brown hair up in a tight bun, small black-framed glasses which accentuated her sharply-angled face, and a highly-tailored blouse which showed off her curves; Scott loved seeing her in her "hot librarian" look, as he called it. The woman who sat across from him did not resemble his wife. Her flowing hair dangled in a clump over her right shoulder, her glasses were on the table covered in some thick indescribable muck, and her blouse was severely wrinkled and missing a couple of buttons near her neckline. Scott could not remember a time she had looked so disheveled.

Dinner went off mostly without a hitch. Rachel, who now demanded to be called Enzio, threatened a temper tantrum when the boys would refuse to go along with her, but settled down after Scott placed a big slice of pizza on her plate.

"So how was work today, honey?" Claire asked, her eyes firmly fixed upon him.

Scott took a bite of pizza and chewed slowly. Something was wrong. Had she found out that he didn't go in today? How? Should he just come clean and spill what he'd been doing since news broke out about Nash's death? He quickly decided against that. If Nash's death was as fishy as Scott thought it was, then whoever was responsible might go to great lengths to keep it buried, including going after anyone looking into it, and their loved ones. I don't want them getting mixed up in all this. I would never be able to live with myself if anything happened to them because of something I did, he thought.

"Fine," he said calmly. "Boring. It's always boring; like they try to make it as uninteresting as possible down there." He chomped down on his pizza.

"Nothing interesting? You're sure?" Claire tilted her head down, her eyes remained firmly locked onto Scott's.

Scott's stomach felt like it was tying itself in knots. The less they know, the better off they'll be. Just remember that, he thought.

"Yep. Nothing of note. Just really dull."

"I...see," Claire said coldly.

The rest of dinner passed without another word spoken after that point. Even the typically rambunctious children were quiet.

The uncomfortable silence allowed Scott's mind to drift back to the photograph. Nash was not alone in the picture. He was with a woman, a blonde with long hair. Assuming that picture was the last time anybody saw Nash alive, Scott thought as he gnawed on a pizza crust, then was the blonde the last person to see him alive?

Scott felt a brief tingle in the back of his mind; the little gray cells were hard at work. He tried to remember what the housekeeper said she saw in the room the morning she found Nash.

Scott's eyes widened as he jumped out of his seat and exclaimed, "The hairbrush!" He moved the chair out of his way when he heard his wife shout, "We're not done with dinner yet!"

He turned around with an apologetic look on his face and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry, I just realized I have to take care of something for the blog."

Claire let out a groan of exasperation, "Of course it is. Your whole world revolves around that blog now!"

Scott looked down at the floor, guiltily, "I-I'm sorry. This is important," he said and turned to leave the room. He could feel Claire burning a hole into his back with her scornful gaze.

He took the stairs three at a time to get back to the library and flip through his notes to Belgreave's testimony.

Found a hairbrush on the floor with several strands of long blonde hair caught in the tines.

The puzzle was finally beginning to take shape for Scott. "Not only was she the last person to see Nash alive, but I'll bet my signed J.J. Watt jersey that she was the girl Orlund heard the night Nash died. She was the last girl Nash slept with," he said. He glanced at the picture of the blonde again and nodded approvingly. "Not bad, Mr. Nash."

Scott looked around nervously, hoping there weren't any tiny ears, or not-so-tiny ears, that heard him.

His salacious thoughts toward the comely blonde were replaced by a single overarching question: who exactly was this girl?

Scott checked every site that posted the same photograph as the 14-year-old's site. The other sites he visited provided little insight to the identity of the blonde. The only thing they did was make Scott want a Maalox milkshake.

Nobody knew who this girl was or where she came from, and Scott was growing impatient with each fluffy gossip site he visited.

Then it dawned on him, and he clapped his palm to his face. Who else would know about Nash and his conquests better than the guys on BRB? He opened up his email and addressed it to the listserv, copied the photo to the body of the email, and asked below it, "Have any of you seen this picture? Any idea who the girl is in it?" He then hit the send button.

"I hope one of them knows something about her."

The sun had long gone down and the only light in the library came from the soft glow of the computer screen. Scott glanced at the time in the upper right corner of the monitor.

"Might as well not even bother sleeping," he said glumly. He shut the computer down for the night and went downstairs to clean out the litter box, grumbling with every scoop. He threw the mess into the garbage and quietly walked to his bedroom.

Claire had wrapped herself up in the thick blankets and snored peacefully as Scott carefully laid himself down. He wrapped his arm around Claire's waist and kissed her on the ear. Claire jerked away violently and threw off her husband's arm. Scott delicately pulled a small swath of the blankets off her and huddled underneath them as best he could, and fell asleep.

The following morning, Scott got dressed and went into the kitchen looking for his morning coffee. The coffee pot was empty and the machine was unplugged.

"Claire," Scott shouted, "what happened to the coffee?"

Claire came into the kitchen wearing a sharp, very tailored pantsuit which flattered her curves nicely.

"Didn't have time to get the coffee started," she said pointedly as she passed Scott by without even so much as a peck on the cheek. "You'll have to get some on the way to work. You are going to work, right?"

"O-of course," he managed to get out, "I'll see you tonight, sweetheart."

"Bye," Claire said and walked out the door, the kids following along behind her.

Scott soon followed her out the door after a couple of minutes of watching the news. He briefly made a stop at a convenience store downtown. The bell jingled brightly as Scott entered the little shop. The walls were a dingy gray and the floor looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the last time the Cowboys won a Super Bowl. The shelves were meagerly stocked with boxes of food that had probably long since gone stale. The only redeeming feature of the mini-mart, for Scott, was the coffee machine. It spouted out a hot, black liquid that bore a physical resemblance to coffee, but that was where the comparisons ended; Scott took the cup and headed for the counter.

The line at the counter was surprisingly long, Scott discovered. The people in line ahead of him clutched their purchases close to their chests. The line moved along at a slow, mechanical pace until only two people remained: Scott and the man in front of him. The man plopped down a small bag of candy in a bright red paper wrapper onto the counter as he fished money out of his pocket.

"You like those, huh," the clerk asked.

"Can't get enough of them. Surprised more people aren't grabbing them considering--"

The man turned and shot a look at Scott. "Nevermind."

"That'll be $1.95."

The man carefully handed his money to the clerk, took his change and his receipt and left with the bag of candy. Scott came up and put the cup of coffee on the counter.

"$.99," the clerk said, devoid of whatever warmth he had shown the previous customer.

Scott laid a dollar on the counter and was given a cent back in change and no receipt. As he walked out the door, Scott watched as the man who had stood in front of him in line pulled out of the parking lot, the bag of candy lying limp on the white dividing line. He picked up the bag, held it high in the air above him, gesturing wildly at the driver.

No response.

He scratched his head and glanced at the candy. "Must have forgotten it, I guess," he said. He then got back into his car and took a sip of his coffee. The coffee tasted like warmed-over mud. No, that's not entirely true. Mud would have had more flavor than that.

As Scott pulled into the office parking lot and went up the elevator, he noticed the office, normally abuzz with gossip and people going about their work, was unnervingly silent. Their heads hung low and their eyes would dart from side to side, as if they expected to be hit by a falling mortar at any minute. Even Diego, one of the most upbeat people Scott knew, looked jittery.

"Diego?"

Diego froze abruptly and turned to his friend. "Oh," he sighed, "it's just you."

"Yeah, what is going on around here? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that I was at a funeral."

Diego glanced over his left shoulder, then his right, and turned back to Scott, "It's Anderson. You remember that big case he was trying?"

"Yeah..." Scott said. The light started to flicker, "You don't mean..."

Diego nodded his head solemnly.

"Whoooooooa..."

It was rare for Anderson to take a case on personally. It was almost unheard of for him to lose a case.

"How bad has the damage been so far?" Scott asked, tugging on the knot of his tie until it came loose.

"A handful of firings, which you know he'll take back before the day's out, a dented paper towel dispenser, and a slice of pie thrown against the wall."

"My god. I think I'm going to go hide in my office," Scott said

"Good idea," Diego said, "Scott?"

Scott froze in mid-stride and turned abruptly, "Yeah?"

"Drinks tonight?"

"Can't. It's my turn to make dinner tonight."

"Ah, I see," Diego said, darting his head in either direction. "If you need me, I'll be hiding under my desk," and Diego hurried down the hallway.

Scott turned and strode briskly to his office, quietly closed the door and turned off the lights just to be on the safe side. He pressed a button on the monitor to bring his slumbering computer to life.

The monitor hesitated, but reluctantly flickered on, radiating a pale white glow into the darkened office. After a couple of minutes, the contract he had become long familiar with, despite so little time spent reading it, had loaded. Scott read over the jargon-laden contract with an unfamiliar vigor, making notes on a mostly blank legal pad next to his keyboard. He glanced down at the compass on his toolbar and dragged the cursor down intending to click it. But he stopped and shook his head violently. Today, he was determined to avoid distractions at all costs. "Dammit, Scott," he said to himself, "Anderson is on the warpath. The last thing you need is for him to come barging in and see you screwing around looking at the internet.

He instead moved the cursor and opened his work e-mail. To Scott's dismay, he discovered that it had piled up over the last couple of days. Only a handful of the emails in his folder were about the "Smithson contract" as it turned out. The rest were a hodgepodge of spam, office gossip/politicking, and updates from previous work he had done on other contracts.

The office gossip went straight into the garbage, and he clicked on the first email on the list. As he read, his mind returned to the picture. This time he wasn't thinking about the blonde so much as Nash. His head had been turned and it looked like he was running from something, or someone. But who would he be running from? And why? Did it involve the blonde?

Scott's eyes returned to the logo on the toolbar, desperately trying to justify even a brief glimpse at his BRB email.

"Mendoza!" bellowed an angry voice sounding like it came from the other side of the building.

"Oh god," he said in a quiet groan. "He's looking for Diego." Hearing Anderson was enough to force Scott back to reading the Smithson contract. This time, he didn't stray for a few hours. It was getting close to lunch time as Scott remembered the email he had sent to the guys, his last chance at figuring out who this woman was, his last chance at finding a lead.

He couldn't stand it anymore and clicked on the browser logo. The internet popped up and Scott hurried to his personal email folder to see if anyone had responded to his question.

There were three emails in response. The first was from Anders, which simply said:

Oh the horrible things I'd do to her.

The second came from Chief:

Sorry, Scott. I have no idea who this is. Why are you asking us, though? Should we know?

Scott replied:

I've been looking into this Eliot Nash business. And there's something that isn't adding up about it. This picture was the last time Nash was seen alive, and I think she was the last person to see him before he died. If that's the case, then why hasn't anybody even mentioned her? It's like she's a ghost or something. I mostly just wanted to ask her about that night, what she remembers from it.

Scott sent the email and went back to reviewing the contract when he heard the tell-tale ding of a new email in his folder. It was from Chief:

What do you mean "adding up?" He OD'd. As much as he's a hack, even Flapjacks wouldn't make up something like this.

Scott:

I don't think he did overdose. You know how egotistical he was about his body. The only time he did drugs was weed and when he got popped, it turned out to be a first offense. He'd never done it before then. I spoke to the woman who found his body. She said she found a syringe and some small packets of blackish-brown powder next to it on the nightstand. I don't know what it was for sure since I couldn't see it for myself, but I doubt someone who was as body conscious as Nash would be injecting anything, let alone whatever that might have been, into him.

I think he was murdered.

Chief didn't hesitate to reply:

Murder?! And you think this blonde had something to do with it?

Scott:

I don't know. I think she was with him the night he died. The guy staying the room next to his said he heard moaning noises and a high-pitched shriek. Unless Nash ditched the blonde and picked up some other girl, then the blonde had to be the girl he heard.

Chief:

Do you think this blonde girl did it? Killed Nash, I mean.

Scott:

No idea. I would like to know why she wasn't the one to discover the body if they had slept together that night; or why she seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth since then.

Chief:

I don't know what you're expecting to find, or if you'll even find anything. Just don't do something stupid like get yourself killed.

Scott closed the email and read the third one, from Knile:

Dude, no idea who the girl is, but I recognize the place, if that's any help. It's a club called "Trample" down on the corner of Westheimer and Fountainview. I used to go there all the time before it became trendy. Now I go to a new spot that nobody knows about.

Scott's eyes widened. He had planned on taking lunch at his usual time, but with a new break in the case, the idea of taking yet another half day crept into his head. He turned off the monitor and glanced cautiously down both ends of the hallway. Anderson was nowhere to be seen. Scott stepped out of his office and skulked toward the elevator. There was still no sign of Anderson in the vicinity. Only 15 feet and one turn until he got to the elevators and the start of another half day.

He didn't see Anderson as he turned the corner and ran straight into him.

"M-Mr. Anderson, I'm sorry sir, I didn't see you there!" Scott said nervously.

Scott looked up at his boss. If he was angry at all, he was certainly doing a good job of hiding it. Anderson took off his pince nez and buffed it carefully with the handkerchief in his pocket. Anderson was several inches taller than Scott and a good 100 pounds wider as well. But the only thing Scott could ever see whenever he was face-to-face with his boss was his mustache. It was wild and bushy with a bit of gray on both ends. Whenever Anderson talked, Scott thought the mustache was about to reach out and grab him by his lapels.

"Headed somewhere, Brooks?" Anderson asked, his eyes icy blue and his voice without intonation.

"Um..."

"Not trying to duck out of work early, like the rest of these slackers?" Anderson asked while looking at Scott as if he were a child

"N-no sir. Just going to l-lunch, sir," Scott said, hoping that Anderson would believe him.

"I see. How's the Smithson contract looking?"

Scott gulped, "It's coming along, I-I've got a lot of notes about it o-on my desk, sir."

"Very good. You haven't seen Mendoza around, have you?" Anderson asked, his mustache quivering wildly, "Need a word with him about something."

"Haven't seen him at all, sir," Scott lied.

"Let me know if you do, eh, Brooks?"

"O-of course, sir," Scott said, wiping the sweat pouring off his brow.

"Very good," Anderson said and walked away, as other office workers obscured their faces from his line of sight.

Scott bolted for the elevator and mash the down button. He felt like an idiot doing that, since he knew it wouldn't bring it up any faster, but he didn't want to risk Anderson coming back for him. The elevator doors finally opened and he flung himself in.

As the elevator went down to the ground floor, the sound system started playing "I Love The Nightlife." Scott wondered if anybody would actually be at the nightclub in the middle of the afternoon and, if they were, if he could score a drink while he was down there.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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