Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Eight)

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

Chapter Six - I'm Looking For A Girl. Yeah, Aren't We All?

Chapter Seven: Finnegan's Eliot's Wake

Chapter Eight: When You Wish Upon A Star

The drive from Jersey Village to Scott's house on the southwest side of town was an arduous one. Scott drove onto Northwest Freeway, which, at rush hour, was not so much a major thoroughfare as it was the world's largest mobile parking lot. The languid pace of his fellow commuters allowed his mind to drift to the drive time program "Wack and Jack," who were, for once, actually talking about sports. Listening to them talk about whether Ashton Yount could lead the Texans to the promised land made Scott think about Eliot Nash. Thoughts of Nash made Scott think about his death and the one person who could break the investigation wide open. This, in turn, only reminded him of how Julia eluded him not even an hour ago and made him want to mentally kick himself. Again.

Scott pounded his fist on the horn, blasting sound at the car in front of him. The driver in front, who was too busy cursing at the idiot ahead of him, hardly noticed. Scott did not know who to be angrier at: Julia for giving him the slip, or at himself for not recognizing her despite her hair color.

Despite feeling dumber than a box of hair, Scott felt vaguely encouraged by Julia's escape. He could not figure out why, exactly, he felt this way, but he did. It was just one more question heaped atop the quickly growing pile of questions to which he needed an answer.

As Scott replayed the scene in his head for the umpteenth time, he contemplated Julia's hair, specifically, its color. In the photo, she had long blonde locks, the kind that women would spend hundreds of dollars to have. Why would Julia go from the second coming of Veronica Lake to the short, auburn hair she had now? For that matter, why did she run off? For her to bolt like that, she had to know something about...what, though? Nash? Scott's face lit up, and not just because he drew closer to the 610 exit. She did know something about Nash, which meant that Scott was on the right track. He allowed the briefest of smiles to form on his face before sinking back into his seat and letting out a dejected sigh. There was no way Julia would be at that house again. If she was avoiding attention, there was less than a snowball's chance she would remain there; not as long as Scott knew about it. She was long gone, and he knew it. He mentally kicked himself once more for letting his one golden opportunity slip out of his hands like a Jacoby Jones reception.

The copper sky shifted to a murky blue as the first star of the night twinkled just over the horizon. Scott spotted it and absently wished for his family's health and well-being before adding, "And if you could help me find this redhead, I'd appreciate it,"

Compared to Northwest Freeway, the drive down 610 was a relatively quick jaunt, and 59 going southwest was quicker still. By this time, the night had fully enveloped the city and the lone star now had dozens of friends shimmering like crystals in the clear sky above. Scott wound his way through the gauntlet of Houston traffic until he reached Sugar Land and home.

Scott's house was easily recognizable. In any other neighborhood, Scott's house might have dominated the skyline for miles around. Among the stately manors and nondescript McMansions which lined the streets, Scott's house would most likely have been their pet. It was a two-story brick house with a graceful high-arched doorway, and bay windows which jutted out over the front yard. What it lacked in height, it more than made up for in the expansive front yard. The pathway to the door was lined on either side with neatly manicured gardens teeming with shrubs and flowers waiting, with muted colors, for spring.

Scott got out of the car, looked at his lawn and sighed happily the fruits of his labor. When he walked into the house, the lights were low and he caught the scent of buttered popcorn followed by a quick whiff of the burnt kernels which stubbornly refused to pop.

He looked around, listening for the sound of buffalo only to hear silence.

"Anybody home," Scott asked loudly.

Then he heard the buffalo, but not all of them. From out of the den, Rachel came racing toward Scott who dropped down to give her a hug.

"Daddy," she shouted. Matt and Charlie walked out nonchalantly to see what the ruckus was all about.

"Hey Dad," they said, almost in unison.

Scott lifted Rachel up onto his shoulder and tousled the boys' hair. Matt immediately straightened his hair back up, trying to look cool while doing so.

Last out of the den was Claire. She had gotten out of her work clothes and into an old burnt orange T-shirt she had had since college and a pair of baggy blue jeans.

"You're just in time," she said matter-of-factly, "We thought you were going to miss it."

Scott's eyes widened as it finally dawned on him what Claire meant. The lowered lights, the popcorn, the quieted children. It was movie night. He looked upstairs and back at the family standing in the foyer around him. He thought he would finally get a chance to write his theory of Nash's death for BRB. He put Rachel back down on the ground. She smiled at him with that goofy semi-toothless smile that six-year-olds do which melts the heart like butter. Scott never stood a chance.

"Give me one minute to change," he said.

The kids raced back into the den and Claire followed, but not before flashing the faint half-smile herself, which quickly vanished as she entered the den.

Scott dashed up to the bedroom and changed out of his work clothes and into an old Houston Cougars sweatshirt and a ratty old pair of sweatpants which were held together with nothing more than a thin strip of elastic and Scott's prayers.

He sat between Charlie, who propped his feet up on the end of the couch, and Rachel, who snuggled up so close not even theoretical particles could come between them. The bowl of popcorn, which tempted Scott mercilessly, was placed upon his lap. He could still feel the warmth radiating from the corn. Claire, sitting on the far side of the couch pressed play on the remote control and the movie began.

"Little Giants," Scott asked in mock surprise. He had lost count how many times the kids would beg and plead to watch this movie over the years. He had to admit, it was one of his favorites, too; any movie that showed the Cowboys losing was okay in his book.

Scott tried to control himself with the popcorn, but the tantalizing smell was too much to resist and he grabbed a large handful of fluffy yellow kernels and bit into them as if it were an apple. This prompted a laugh from Charlie and a hostile shushing from Matt, who propped his feet up on his mother. As the big game approached between the Little Giants and the Little Cowboys, Scott heard a gentle snoring sound and looked down. Rachel was out like a light. To his left, he could see Charlie was losing his battle with the Sandman. Matt rested his head against the right arm of the couch, preparing to nod off, leaving only Scott and Claire to watch the Cowboys' downfall.

Scott looked over at his wife. The glow from the television made her look like an angel sent straight from Heaven. Who would have thought Ed O'Neill's ugly mug could make Claire look so beautiful. Her arms sprawled over the top of the couch. Scott stretched his arms out, softly touching the tips of Claire's fingers with his own. Claire lowered her arm down onto her leg, her eyes firmly fixed on the movie. Scott frowned. He knew he was still in the soup for last night.

"Hey," Scott whispered to Claire, careful not to wake up the snoring six-year-old on his lap.

"Hmm," Claire asked, taking her attention away from the movie.

"Does this remind you of something?"

Claire tilted her head up for a second, "Like what?"

"Our first date," he said, his grin growing by the second.

Claire looked down at the dozing kids and the popcorn scattered on the floor, "How do you figure that?"

"The first time I tried to hold your hand, remember? You took it away like that, too."

She stifled a chuckle, "I did, didn't I? Not that that really stopped you or anything."

"Well, we did go to see 'Kung Fu Zombie Assassins 4,'" Scott said, "It wasn't because of the stellar cast."

Claire chuckled harder, "I knew. I knew what you were up to."

"Never thought I'd have been the one clinging to you during the scary parts," he said, covering his face and stifling an embarrassed laugh. "I-I'm sorry," he continued, becoming serious, "About jumping up and leaving dinner before it was over."

Claire looked over at the cat, who had begun his evening regimen of licking himself in inappropriate places, "I'm not upset about last night," she said, "You got a message from your boss yesterday."

Scott gulped hard, already not liking where this conversation was headed, "I did?"

Claire turned toward Scott, her face deadly serious, "Where were you yesterday? For real this time."

Scott spun his wedding ring around his finger, "You know I love you right?"

"Yes," Claire said, dubiously.

"Do you trust me," he asked softly.

"I do," she replied.

"I can't tell you what's going on, at least not right now. When it's all over and done with, I will tell you everything, but for right now, I'm asking that you trust me on this. I ain't running around on you, if that's what you're worried about."

Claire sat motionless as she processed what she just heard, "Are you in trouble?"

"No," he said quietly.

Rachel shifted position on his lap and resumed snoring.

"Are we in danger?"

"No," he said.

"How long will this last?"

"I wish I knew. Believe me, I do. If I did, you'd be the first to know."

Claire pondered this for a moment, "Okay, I trust you," she said uneasily, "But no more lies. Promise?"

Scott nodded quickly and breathed a massive sigh of relief before feeling a cold trickle down his back. He knew what was on the line now. He just wagered everything he had invested in their marriage of 11 years on his hunch about Nash. If he lost that wager...Scott shook his head; he did not want to even think about the consequences.

The credits rolled and Claire turned on the lamp on the nearby end table. The kids remained motionless. Claire roused Matt from his slumber and Scott did the same to Charlie. Scott scooped up Rachel in his arms and stood up. Carrying Rachel to bed was like hauling a 50 pound bag of flour, but far less cooperative.

After tucking the kids in, Scott returned downstairs to clean out the litter. He was greeted by a very irritable slate gray tortoise shell cat. The cat looked at his litter box then back up at Scott and meowed expectantly.

"Keep your pants on, Hastings," Scott said as he cleaned the box.

The following morning, Scott plodded down the stairs to the sounds of aggrieved children pleading to watch last night's movie again tonight. As he entered the kitchen, they turned their pleas to their father.

"If you fall asleep during movie night, you'll have to wait until next week to watch it again."

The kids groaned in unison after Scott upheld the ruling given by their mother.

Scott wrapped his arms around Claire's waist and squeezed gently, kissing her gently on the back of her neck, "Mornin'," he added.

Claire smiled and groaned softly as she was in the middle of taking a swill of coffee.

The boys groaned in disgust at the mushiness their parents displayed.

She turned around and stared dubiously at his choice of wardrobe, "Did someone die?"

It was not an unusual question to ask. Scott wore a black dress shirt with a silver tie and black trousers. He had not worn this particular set of clothes since his grandfather's funeral in 2009. "It was all I had in the closet," Scott protested, making a mental note to do laundry when he got home.

Claire looked at her watch and put on her glasses, "Time to go, let's get this show going."

The kids muttered their futile objections and obediently followed their mother.

"Bye guys, love you!"

They returned the sentiments and went out the door with Matt and Charlie on the brink of an argument.

Scott poured coffee into his mug with a print of M.C. Escher's "Reptiles" wrapping around it. As the steaming coffee filled the mug, the black and white version dissolved into a cacophony of vibrant colors. He took a sip and went into the den to watch the local news.

After sitting through the anchors cheerily describe the murder and misery that took place in Houston as he slept last night, they turned to the Texans and the Super Bowl. The sports director was on hand at morning practice looking for someone, anyone, to grant him an interview. Scott took another slurp of coffee, making a note of the clock in the corner of the screen. In a couple of minutes, he would have to leave for work. The scene cut away to footage of Verdieri talking with someone and throwing down his clipboard in disgust before smash cutting back to the sports director who had convinced some poor soul to be interviewed.

"We're here with Texans defensive end and three-time pro bowler Marcus Sheridan. Marcus, how much has practice changed since the team found out about Eliot Nash's tragic death?"

Sheridan grunted, "Not much. He never came to practices unless Coach threatened to bench him, and even then he was usually three hours late."

Scott was not paying attention to Sheridan. Instead, his focus was drawn on the redhead his arm was draped around. She looked sullen, bordering on miserable. Her green eyes were hidden by a pair of oversized sunglasses, and her body language conveyed one feeling: bored. Scott knew who she was immediately. It was Julia Quinn. The realization made him nearly choke on his coffee.

Two thoughts ran through Scott's mind at the same time. First, if she was with Nash the night he died, and they were doing what Orlund said they had been doing, what was she doing with Marcus Sheridan? Second, if she's there, then there might still be a slim chance to pump Julia for information. Scott eyed the phone. It seemed like an easy call to make. Any hope of keeping the investigation going depended on what Julia had to say about the night of Nash's death. Without her, what little of a case he had would dissolve like a sand castle at high tide. At the same time, he thought about how little time he had actually spent at the office. Anderson would soon find out the truth and Scott knew there was no way that would end well; and it would do no good to crack the case if doing so cost him his livelihood.

He picked up the phone, dialed Anderson's number, told his secretary he was running late and that he would come in later that day. Scott thought it was a fair compromise.

Scott shut off the television and raced to his beater car and peeled out of his driveway and down the street. The drive from Sugar Land to Reliant Park took what felt like no time at all. Scott could not believe how well traffic cooperated for once in his 34 years as a Houstonian. As he came down South Loop, he could see the stadium towering over the landscape and dwarfing the old Astrodome nearby. Watching it come into full view was always a thrill for Scott, it reminded him of the day Houston was awarded the newest and last NFL franchise.

He took the Kirby exit and circled Reliant Park and spotted the practice facility, lovingly referred to as "The Bubble." Traffic around The Bubble was light, almost non-existent; and for good reason. Team practices were closed to the public; the last thing the Texans needed was for some schmuck to go onto YouTube and post video from Texans practice, especially with the Super Bowl a week from Sunday. Since getting into practice was a non-starter, Scott pondered where he could intercept Sheridan and, more importantly, Julia.

Scott's eyes widened as he thought of a plan. He circled the stadium until he found the players' parking lot. Getting into the players' lot seemed to Scott like the longest of long shots. But considering the slim odds he faced of bumping into Julia again, he was feeling lucky. He walked up to the players' lot and stopped in his tracks, marveling at the security measures surrounding the area.

The black chain link fences rose high above him, easily 15 feet high. Scott imagined these fences were probably electrified as well, just to keep fools like him, from doing something stupid like hopping the fence. Security guards wandered through the lot, the nearest one had a severe look on his face. He shot Scott the kind of glare that would have intimidated even the bravest of souls. To Scott, who was not the bravest of souls, the players' lot might as well have been Fort Knox.

Scott strode up to the security gate, displaying all the confidence he wished he actually had.

"Who died, son," the security guard asked, looking up from his folding chair inside the booth. The guard was a beefy man with leathery skin who wore comically large sunglasses and sported a mustache which would have made Wilford Brimley proud.

Scott maintained his poker face.

"Can I help you, son," the guard asked.

"Yeah, detective Adenauer, Houston Police," Scott said, flashing his driver's license quick enough to avoid closer scrutiny by the guard, "I have a warrant to search Marcus Sheridan's car."

The guard stood up and gave Scott a quizzical look. "You have a warrant?"

Scott nodded resolutely.

The quizzical look vanished from the guard's face and was replaced by one that he reserved for when he found mess on the bottom of his shoe. "Mind showing me this warrant?"

Crap, Scott thought. He grinned like a buffoon as he scrambled to think of a reason why he did not have the alleged warrant on his person.

"I-I left it in the car. I'll just be right back," Scott said, laughing nervously. He turned and bolted for his car. It was not one of his finest moments, but he was just grateful that guard did not turn the actual police on him.

As he was about to turn the key, he spotted a couple crossing into the parking lot and entering a silver Mercedes coupe. It was Sheridan and Julia. Scott quickly pumped his fist and started his car.

"If the mountain will not come to Mohammed," Scott said, "then Mohammed will go to the mountain."

As far as car chases went, Scott's pursuit of the silver Mercedes ranked somewhere between the LAPD's pursuit of a white Ford Bronco and the fable about the tortoise and the hare. The Mercedes pulled off the road and out of Scott's line of sight. He turned off the road and onto an abandoned lot to follow the car, but he could not find any trace of it. At least not right away.

Scott got out of his car and scanned the surrounding area for any sign of the car. When he caught a brief glimpse of it, it was immediately obstructed by a 6'5" 290 pound behemoth.

"What you followin' me around for, huh," asked Sheridan, his voice quivering with rage.

"I-I-I--"

"Shut up," Sheridan continued, "You think you're some kind of bad ass, dressing all in black and shit?"

Scott's blood turned to ice as he stared up at the defensive end, paralyzed by fear. He wondered if this was what rabbits felt like when being stared down by a rattlesnake.

"I-I just wanted to ask her about Na--,"

"About what? Nash? That son of a bitch? He ain't worth your time. He ain't worth shit. If you know what's good for you, you'll let the whole thing go."

Before Scott could utter another word, he felt a deep burning pain in his abdomen. He looked down to see where Sheridan's fist made contact. The pain was sharp at first, like he had been shot with a nail gun, and then radiated through his midsection. The pain was so great and so sudden that the only sound Scott could make was a strangled gasp for air. His legs grew weak beneath him and he dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The pain had dulled his senses so much that he could no longer see the defensive end, or his car, or even the very ground he fell to. All he could do was writhe and clutch at his stomach.

"If you ever come near my fiancee again, I'll kill you. You hear? I. Will. Kill. You."

It was the last thing he heard before drifting into unconsciousness. He could not remember much from that point, only that he dreamed, oddly enough, of his billable hours, and Anderson taking a golf club to his stomach for not meeting his quota. This struck him as odd as he had never dreamed about work before.

When he woke up, he was relieved to see that nobody had bothered to steal his car, or his kidneys, for that matter. Scott took a deep breath, which was painful, and then tried to stand up, which was excruciating. He very carefully dusted himself off and crept to his car, got in, and drove to work.

Numerous thoughts filled his mind as he drove. Julia was not only involved with Sheridan, she was his fiancee. Did she tell him about her little fling? He obviously was not fond of Nash. Why did he make a point about wearing black? It's not the most common choice, but it was enough to drive him to violence?

As if in response, Scott gasped in anguish. It would all have to wait, though. Scott swore he would go into work, and he was dead set on doing so; even if it killed him.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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