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.
When Scott arrived at the office, it was as quiet as a tomb. It did not start out that way, but when Scott entered, all conversation came to an abrupt halt. Their eyes fixated on Scott's bedraggled appearance. His hair looked like it had gotten into a street fight with a hair dryer and lost, his black shirt was untucked and badly wrinkled with scattered bits of debris from the ground clinging to it like so much decoration, and his typically upright posture was replaced with one more in keeping with a character from a Victor Hugo novel.
Scott did not notice, he did not care. All he could think about was the pain that screamed from the left side of his abdomen and the "conversation" he had, such as it was, with Texans defensive end Marcus Sheridan. Scott lurched into the elevator, which emptied out as he walked in amid people muttering how they would take the next elevator up. He leaned against the side of the car and mashed feebly the button for his floor until the doors closed.
When the doors opened on his floor, he hobbled out and flicked his eyes around the office at his coworkers. He was greeted by the same awkward silence as the people down in the lobby. As he made the turn into his office, not daring to remove his hand from the wound, he snarled, "What, you've never had a bad hair day?"
An even more awkward series of chuckles followed Scott's half-hearted attempt at a joke. He took great pains to sit slowly at his desk. The door remained open and the sound of normal office chatter resumed, much to Scott's chagrin. He hated being made a spectacle of.
It took Scott half an hour to reach underneath his desk to grab his pen, which had fallen on the floor in his hurry to leave yesterday. He reached out to the power button on his computer and pressed it, wincing and taking short sharp breaths as he did so.
As the machine blinked to life, Scott slumped into his chair and contemplated what happened to him in the last few days. Since Monday, he had been verbally abused by an irate Barbadoan housekeeper, repeatedly lied to his wife, been made a fool of by the one person who could shed some light on Nash's death, and punched so hard by a Texans player that his great grandchildren would feel its impact. Worse still, Scott was no closer to figuring out who killed Nash than he was when he started.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Scott's snooping had drawn Sheridan's wrath. It struck Scott as unlikely that Sheridan would have gone to such measures if he were not worried about...what, exactly? Scott pinched the bridge of his nose; thinking about it was giving him a massive headache.
Scott reached down into a drawer, moving his body as little as he could manage, and rummaged around until his hand came up clutching a small vial of ibuprofen. He popped out five of them and gulped them down without water. He gagged as the bitter aftertaste of the pills registered on his tongue, making disgusted, unpleasant faces as he forced the medicine down. As he did so, Diego came in and stood in the doorway. He watched the spectacle his friend was making. It was one of the things that vaguely irritated Scott about his friend; he always picked the worst time to make an entrance.
"Nice to see you, too," he said, in a flawless deadpan.
Scott closed his mouth, opened his eyes wide, and fixed Diego with a withering glare. Diego recoiled in mock horror as he got his first good look at Scott's face.
"Yikes. I'd ask you who died, but I think I already know the answer."
Scott chuckled for a split second before he grimaced.
"What the hell happened to you?"
Scott laboriously sat up in his chair, "I slipped on a banana peel and landed on Marcus Sheridan's fist."
Diego's eyes went wide, "You're shittin' me."
"You're right," Scott replied. "I am. I didn't slip on a banana."
Diego snorted, but quickly stifled it. "How'd you end up getting the business end of Sheridan's fist?"
"I was following a lead. Nash was not alone the night he died."
If he were expecting a reaction from Diego at this news, he would be disappointed.
"Can't say I'm surprised. It would explain why they found him at that fleabag motel."
"And yesterday, I found the girl he was with that night."
"Like you wouldn't believe," Scott said, hoping nobody beyond his door heard.
"Go on," Diego said.
But he didn't go on. His mind had returned to the abandoned lot from this morning, replaying the scene in slow motion. He remembered the spittle flying out of Sheridan's mouth and landing on his face when he was shouting at him, the expulsion of hot air from his lungs as Sheridan's fist made contact. He could even hear the faint sound of a bone cracking and the oddly comforting sensation of the icy concrete pressed against his body, cooling the heat coming from his ribcage.
"Scott," Diego said.
Scott broke out of his reverie, "Huh?"
"I assume there's more to the story," Diego said, getting impatient.
"Right, right. It turns out this girl is Sheridan's fiancee."
Diego let out a low whistle. "Nash was schtupping Sheridan's girl?"
"Whatever. Damn, that's cold-blooded. I'd've killed Nash with my bare hands if he'd done that with my girl," Diego said, strangling the air in front of him.
Scott pondered his friend's sentiment. Any guy would have gone ballistic if they had been in Sheridan's shoes, but would they kill because of it? Would Sheridan have? It seemed unlikely, but not impossible, given his apparent disposition toward violence. Despite this, something about the entire scene in the lot struck Scott as odd. Every time he tried to put a finger on what, his mind would drift over to a story about his sister.
"You remember my sister, Lisa?"
Diego nodded appreciatively as a mischievous smile curled on his lips. The smile disappeared when Scott glared at him.
"Her fiance was screwing around behind her back, even up to the night before the wedding."
"Yep," Scott said nonchalantly. "Immediately she broke off the engagement and called off the wedding. After the usual round of crying and ice cream, she swore if she ever found the 'little tramp,' that she would make her wish she'd never been born."
"Is she still available?" Diego asked, his voice tinged with a trace of optimism.
"Focus, Diego. My point is, it's kind of strange that despite Julia's philandering, not only are they still together like nothing happened, but Sheridan also made a point of protecting her from anyone nosing around. Like me."
Diego tilted his head upward, looking toward the ceiling. "You think he was worried about you trying to get with her, too?"
"No, I think he knew I wasn't interested in her; not that way, at least."
Scott recalled Sheridan's warning, "If you know what's good for you, you'll let the whole thing go,"
"He doesn't want anybody finding out what happened that night, finding out Eliot Nash was murdered in that motel room."
It was the only conclusion Scott could come to. Why else would Julia and Sheridan go through all that trouble if it was anything but murder? A chill went down Scott's spine as it dawned on him that in the last two days he may have crossed paths with a cold-blooded killer.
"You think this Julia girl killed Nash?"
"I don't think she did. For the life of me, I can't think of a motive for her to kill him. But she does know something about it. Then again, I think Sheridan does too, which is why I think he tried to scare me off the trail. It has that 'he doth protest too much, methinks' kind of feel to it."
"You think Sheridan would want him dead?"
"Well, they've never liked each other, that much is no secret. Sleeping with Julia could have sent Sheridan over the edge," Scott said, as if trying to convince himself.
"I don't like this. I think you have to go to the police now," Diego said, in uncharacteristic seriousness.
"With what? I've got nothing concrete to back it up; just a couple of witnesses who would be shaky at best and a bunch of rampant speculation. They'd laugh me out of the building."
"Look, this was all well and fun a couple of days ago, but now there's serious shit on the line. If it's murder, then you need to get out while you're still in one piece. Nash's murder isn't worth risking your life for."
Scott lowered his head. "I can't. I can't let this go."
Diego shrugged. "Then maybe you should file charges against him. If you're going to insist on this, then you might want to consider getting him off the street while you do, if only for a few days."
Scott opened his mouth to speak but stopped for a moment.
"What did you say?"
"I said maybe you should file charges against him."
He paused for a long moment as thoughts of an old news story popped into mind.
"You just gave me an idea," Scott said as he leaned forward looking at his monitor. He typed in the address for the Harris County District Clerk's web page and went "search documents" tab. He typed in Sheridan's name and hit "enter."
When the search concluded, there were two cases which had Sheridan's name connected to them. The first was a criminal case for possession of a controlled substance. He got the usual slap on the wrist typically reserved for professional athletes. The second was a civil case where Sheridan was being sued for a sum with more zeroes than Hastings' brain cells and Kareem Jackson's interceptions combined. Scott clicked on it in breathless anticipation.
"What idea?" Diego asked, who did not liking the direction this was headed.
"I don't have enough to get the police to look into it with what I have now. But if a pattern of enmity with Nash could be established, it might...just..."
His voice trailed off as he reviewed the sparse details of the civil suit brought against him. As he did so, a childlike grin formed on his face as if he found the answer to a long-lost question.
Around the start of the playoffs, there had been constant, and largely pointless, conjecture about a story that briefly made the rounds among Houston sports media. Marcus Sheridan had been eating lunch at Pappadeaux's across the street from Reliant Stadium when witnesses reported someone plopping down a manila folder on Sheridan's blackened catfish. The process server mumbled his apologies for interrupting and wandered off. Because the details were unusually well-guarded, and the potential for media sensationalism was at best minimal, the story died a quiet, unremarkable death.
Scott scanned over the details of the story when his eyes stopped at the plaintiff's column. Another all-too-familiar name was listed in unmistakable capital letters. The plaintiff was Eliot Nash.
"Scott," Diego said, with a trace of annoyance.
Scott grunted a response as he continued reading. There wasn't much else to read on the case itself. Nash had dropped the charges against his teammate almost as quickly as he had filed them. The only other detail on there was the name and occupation of a witness who never got the chance to testify.
"Get this," Scott said, "Nash sued Sheridan for assault a couple of weeks ago and then withdrew the suit a day later."
"One day? That doesn't make any sense. Nash doesn't give up anything that easily," Diego said.
"Except sacks, lately."
Diego nodded. While not as much of a football fan as his friend, he was not immune to hearing the local sports stations screaming about Nash's inability to stay upright in the weeks leading up to his murder. "I wonder why he dropped the suit," Diego asked, instantly regretting it.
"Dunno, but I think this guy might be able to tell us," Scott said, pointing at the name of the witness for the plaintiff.
He logged into the office's time-keeping program and entered three billable hours claiming his use of the District Clerk's site was relevant to the Smithson case, but declined to specify how.
"You're making a mistake, Scott," Diego said. "Don't do this, it's only asking for more trouble."
Scott pushed himself out of his chair and hobbled toward Diego.
"I have to do this, D."
Diego let out a strangled groan. "You're an idiot, you know that?"
"I know, I know," Scott said, displaying a weak smile.
Diego returned it reluctantly, turned, and walked slowly down the hall, shaking his head all the while.
Scott got into the elevator and used the palms of his hands to smooth out his hair. After several attempts, his hair looked less like a squirrels' nest than it did earlier that day, but not by much. He strolled through the lobby looking as dignified as he could manage. When the door closed and he was sure nobody could hear him, he let out a loud, guttural scream which had been building since he stood up in his office.
As he drove into River Oaks, Scott already felt like a stranger in a strange land. The gaudy McMansions that lined his street in Sugar Land would pale in comparison to the tasteful opulence that ran along both sides of the street. Not that Scott could actually see any of the houses along the street. Towering rows of hedges obscured any view he might have had from his beaten up machine. Along the sidewalk, well-to-do joggers ran down the sidewalk wearing dark sunglasses and carrying designer-label water bottles as they listened to whoever happened to be popular that week on their iPod.
These were the people who would spend thousands of dollars on permanent seating licenses or luxury suites at Reliant Stadium and never go to a single game to use them, who would get top priority when Super Bowl tickets came available only to sell them for astronomical prices. They would sell these tickets to people who would take out a second mortgage or sell everything they owned for a chance to see their beloved team hoist the Lombardi Trophy in person. These were the people Scott hated, the people to whom their unfettered access to Texans football was little more than another status symbol heaped atop a pile of others.
The neighborhood soon gave way to a sprawling strip mall. It was, for River Oaks, surprisingly nondescript. It had gleaming white plaster facades with homogenous black marquees for high-end stores scrawled out above. Palm trees jutted out of the ground in meticulously exact distances from one another. Shoppers with massive bags walking along the parking lot chatted amiably as they steadfastly ignored a man with a wild salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a ratty, threadbare coat, and shoes whose fronts flapped open with every step. The area screamed one thing to anybody passing by: If you want to belong here, you better have money on you.
One building stood out among the bland elegance of the shopping center like a thumb that had been repeatedly smashed with a hammer. It shone like the purest obsidian with broad streaks of neon green and dusky purple criss-crossing the front of the building like art deco spotlights at a rave. It was easily the tallest building in the lot, standing at three stories high. This was Omega Fitness, where athletes and celebrities could work up a sweat and reasonably expect it not to wind up on the internet.
It was also the workplace of Daniel Murphy, who was listed as a witness in Eliot Nash's lawsuit.
Scott got out of his car and looked up at the great monolith dedicated to sweat and iron. He immediately felt like he didn't belong there, which he found oddly encouraging. As he grew closer, he could feel the whump whump whump of bass surging from the gym. The sounds of Linkin Park could be heard amid the furious grunting of wealthy meatheads pumping iron beyond the reception area.
Oh God, I'm deaf, he thought, barely able to hear himself.
On the other side of the reception area was a broad black desk scattered with bits of the same green and purple attended by a girl who couldn't have been older than 20 with her mousy brown hair swept up in a pony tail.
"Oh, I'm sorry, are you lost?" she asked in a perky yet condescending manner.
Scott offered no sign of emotion at the slight. "No. I'm looking for someone."
"Are you sure they're here? We don't employ," she stopped with a slightly embarrassed smile, "people of a dubious nature here."
She motioned at his generally shabby appearance and let out an abbreviated, high-pitched giggle in an attempt to lighten the mood.
It didn't work, "My name," Scott said, controlling his temper, "Is Scott Brooks. I'm investigating a lawsuit one of your...," he emphasized the your by pointing at the perky receptionist, "...employees is named in. Now either be a little more cooperative and less of a condescending drip or I'll--"
"Wh-what's his name," the receptionist asked, in a conciliatory tone. "I'll bring him right up here."
"I'll find him myself," Scott said as he made his way toward the entrance.
"I can't let you do that," she said resolutely. "This is a private club. If we let any non-members in, our clients will pitch a fit. You understand, right?"
Scott rubbed at his temples. "Fine. I'm looking for Daniel Murphy."
She made the call which somehow boomed over Linkin Park, and after a short wait, a lanky man dressed in an Omega Fitness polo and jeans trotted in. His face was red and streaked with sweat, but still had a dopey smiled plastered on it. Scott immediately wanted to slap him.
"You sent for me, Jenny," Murphy said breathlessly while he continued to jog in place.
"This man here would like a word with you. Something about a lawsuit."
Murphy's smile dropped almost instantly as he looked plaintively at Scott.
"Not against you," Scott said with no small amount of annoyance in his voice.
The smile came back up. "Whatcha need, captain?"
Scott rolled his eyes. "Can we talk about this outside?"
"Sure," Murphy said as he jogged briskly out the front doors.
As Scott went outside, he noticed Murphy was in the middle of lighting a cigarette.
"What?" Murphy asked with some surprise.
Scott pointed at the cigarette.
"We don't get smoke breaks. The owner's a health Nazi. Not even allowed outside, technically. If anyone sees me here, I'm finished."
"I'll try to be quick then," Scott said. "I'm looking into the death of Eliot Nash."
"I thought you said you were here about a lawsuit."
"I'm getting there. A couple of weeks ago, you were named as a witness in a lawsuit against Nash's teammate, Marcus Sheridan, is that right?"
"It is," Murphy said. "Is something wrong?"
"What did you see that day between Nash and Marcus Sheridan?"
Murphy took a quick puff and let out a acrid cloud of smoke. "It was late at night and I was cleaning up inside the locker room when I heard someone shouting at Nash."
"This was Sheridan, I take it," Scott asked.
"Did you hear what they were fighting about? Anything stand out to you?"
Murphy stared out into the parking lot. "Yeah. Sheridan was screaming at Nash about badly thrown passes and just standing in the pocket and taking sacks during the last game of the season. Basically grousing about Nash playing like he didn't give a damn and threatening to kick his ass if he did it again."
"Beats me. Next thing I hear is Nash chuckling and telling Sheridan he better watch what he says because, and I quote, 'You only get one shot at a threat. If you ain't got proof, then your threats lose all their juice.'"
Scott's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. "You mean..."
Murphy nodded. "That's when Sheridan hauled off and slugged him. Nash laughed it off and walked out of the locker; which is when he saw me."
Murphy shook his head glumly."Worse. I think he's dealing them, among other things. Every so often, I'd see a big crowd around him in the locker room and he'd be handing these guys everything they need."
"Why didn't you tell your boss?"
"Because I'd get canned if I did. You know, for 'violating their privacy.'"
Scott thought back to what Belgreave had told him, about finding syringes and drugs at the scene of the murder. About how Sheridan had tried to scare him away from asking Julia questions about that night. About Orlund saying he heard a door open while Nash was asleep. To say it didn't look good would have been a gross understatement. Using steroids might have gotten him a suspension. Dealing steroids the way Sam Hurd dealt pretty much anything else, that could have ended his career. The lawsuit would have made that public knowledge. Nash would have made certain of it. That is, if the suit had actually made it to trial.
After some extensive scribbling, Scott asked. "Do you know why Nash suddenly dropped the lawsuit?"
Murphy shrugged his shoulders. "Got me. My guess is it was a big power play."
One that might have gotten him killed, Scott thought.
Scott thanked him for his time and went back to his car. This time, he only let out a whelp of pain as he buckled up and drove to the office.
When he got back to his desk at the office, Scott didn't even bother opening up the Smithson contract and instead went straight to Battle Red Blog to write his post. In the three years he had been writing there, he had never felt the words flow so easily from his fingers to the screen. He included references to the witnesses who had been in Nash's room and near enough to hear Nash and Julia groaning. The inspired writing even drove him to create a point-by-point timeline from the lawsuit to Nash's death, to when Sheridan warned him to back off. It felt so natural, so liberating, and he even wondered if he and Battle Red Blog would be the first blogger/blog to win a Pulitzer. But he was getting ahead of himself.
He had just put on the finishing touches of his masterwork when the phone rang. Scott lifted the receiver to his ear, "Scott Brooks," he said in a sing-song.
"Mr. Brooks?" The voice on the other end was gruff, but smooth and instantly recognizable.
"Mr. Orlund. What can I do for you?"
"Well, first of all, you can apologize for insulting my intelligence with that alias you gave me."
Scott pressed his palm to his face. He knew what Orlund was talking about.
"You know, if you're going to use false names, it's not a good idea to give business cards with your real name on them."
Scott groaned. "Is there something you wanted, Mr. Orlund?"
"Jay, I'm kind of busy," Scott said, eyeing the send button on his post.
"Right. I've got some new information for you."
Scott said up, listening intently and gritting his teeth from the pain in his stomach.
"It's the housekeeper. She's in a panic about something."
"Did she say?"
"Yes and no. She's been swearing and raving in some language I can't make heads or tails of. She said she needed to talk to you. Like now."
Scott sighed. His epic post would have to wait. New information from Belgreave would undoubtedly make the wait worth while, he figured.
He grabbed his note pad and left the office and made his way back to the Third Ward and the finest hourly rate motel money could buy.
TO BE CONTINUED...