Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Fifteen)

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.

Also, if you want to read Checkdown from the very beginning, there is a new section heading on Battle Red Blog called, oddly enough, "Checkdown." It can be found under the sections tab on the upper left hand side of the main page. Enjoy!

Chapter Fifteen - Apples

Traditionally, in the Brooks family, there were only three acceptable reasons to drink heavily. The first was when surrounded by people drinking and joining in was simply considered good manners. The second was to celebrate good news, like the birth of a child or getting released from prison. The last, known as the "Uncle Hubert rule," was intended to drown out bad memories or to numb the end of a very bad day.

That night, Scott played the role of "Uncle Hubert." He reached up on top of the corner cabinet and grasped around until he felt the smooth glass bottle perched on top of it.

The bottle, a handle of Scotch, was almost entirely full, save for three shots. He unscrewed the bottle and poured a large helping into the only clean cup he could find: one of Rachel's old sippy cups.

It was a blessing and a curse that Claire and the kids were gone. On one hand, if whoever killed Eliot Nash came after him, at least they wouldn't be caught in the crossfire. But Scott still wished it hadn't gone down the way it did. The house was empty and almost completely dark except in the kitchen. The cat's yowling was the only sound to puncture the silence.

He closed his eyes and took a swig of the amber liquid. His throat, nose, and stomach all burned like napalm. When he opened his eyes, he found himself face-to-face with Elmo, and he really didn't like the way Elmo was looking at him. He took the bottle and his sippy cup into the den.

He plopped down on the couch and took another drink, toasting a successful landing. The cat soon followed after him. Hastings tilted his head as he looked at his human quizzically.

"What?" Scott asked. "What do you want?"

Hastings continued to stare at him in the way only cats can do.

"You...want some?" Scott asked, pointing at the bottle.

He unscrewed the bottle, poured a tiny amount into the cap and set it on the floor in front of Hastings. The cat sniffed at it gingerly and bolted out of the room.

"You never could keep up with me," he bellowed at the runaway cat.

He turned on the TV and flung the remote down on the couch, and gulped another shot from the sippy cup.

"Stop staring at me," he shouted at Elmo.

The TV cast the room in a dim glow as it warmed up. A very familiar face appeared on screen. He was all smiles and laughs as he talked excitedly to an unseen interviewer.

"I'm gonna take this team to the top, baby. You hear me? The top."

Scott jumped out of his seat; or he would have if the scotch hadn't made him lose all feeling in his legs.

It was a much younger Eliot Nash boasting about how he would win multiple Super Bowls for the Texans. The interviewer asked if he considered himself fortunate to be drafted so early by the Texans.

"Shoot, man, the Texans are the blessed ones. They're lucky I lasted as long as I did, you know? You seen what I did at Vermont Tech. I wasn't gonna be waitin' there much longer."

The clip from his rookie interview had apparently been part of an hour long special dedicated to the fallen quarterback.

Scott scowled at the bombastic quarterback and downed another shot. How many lives had he ruined since joining the Texans? Sheridan was in jail because of his antipathy toward Nash. The woman who found his body was beaten beyond recognition because she had taken his bribe money. And that wasn't including the damage investigating Nash's murder had done to Scott's own marriage.

He briefly entertained thoughts of how he would have killed Nash, had he gotten to him first. At least he tried to do so. The scotch had clouded his thinking to the point where his grand plan consisted of nothing more than to smother Nash to death with an onion sandwich.

Scott turned to a print of Magritte's "The Son of Man" hanging on the wall and asked, "Are you seeing this?" He paused for a moment, then laughed uproariously at his own joke.

Half a bottle later, Hastings ducked his head around the door frame, wondering what had gotten into his human. Scott flung the half-empty sippy cup at the cat, who neatly avoided it and vanished out of sight. When he got up to retrieve Elmo and give him a stern talking-to, he collapsed onto the floor. The scotch still in the bottle dribbled onto the carpet, but Scott was well past caring; he was down for the night.

In his blacked-out stupor, Scott dreamed of Claire and the kids. Except something was wrong. They were far less...colorful than he had remembered seeing them earlier in the day. In fact, they were in black and white. So was the house. And the furniture. And the cat, but then he was always in black and white. From nowhere, Scott could hear a peppy, upbeat tune which would have been more suited to a 1950's sitcom.

He looked down at himself. He was wearing a dapper charcoal gray flannel suit and thick horn-rimmed glasses. He took them off and studied them, wondering how they got there and why he was wearing them. Before he could formulate a theory, he said, "Honey, I'm home," for reasons he couldn't fully understand. He looked around confusedly to the sound of canned laughter.

Claire didn't stand up to greet her husband, nor did the kids. They remained motionless in their chairs.

Scott came closer to look at them and discovered their faces were hidden from view by a green apple; or at least what he imagined a green apple would look like in black and white.

"Honey?"

He leaned closer, his nose less than an inch from the obstructive fruit. Waving his hand in front of her face was useless as was snapping. In a fit of frustration, he seized the apple and pulled it away with everything he had. The apple came away in a low "plock" and Scott looked at it curiously, then at Claire.

The apple was still there.

He snatched that apple away, and another replaced it. He flung it into the other room and started ripping the apples away in rapid succession, tossing each one into the next room. After what felt like several minutes, Scott felt something bump up against his foot. He looked down. A layer of green apples had covered the floor and continued rising with every apple he plucked away. There was another round of canned laughter. Scott threw the apples furiously in the direction of the laughter. The laughter intensified and was joined by the intermittent "plock" of more apples being removed. Scott looked back down. The apples were up to his waist. The dining room began to resemble the ball pit at Weevil McSnout's, the local kiddie restaurant. He kept pulling and pulling and pulling and pulling the apples away. He badly wanted to stop, to rest, but continued nonetheless. Even as the apple level rose to eye level, he kept swimming his arms through them and tearing more apples away.

Wave after wave of canned laughter bounced against the walls. With each wave, the house rattled and rumbled and creaked and groaned as if it had eaten far too many apples and couldn't keep them all in anymore. Scott screamed, but the vast sea of apples silenced him. The laughter subsided, replaced with a violent clatter, a strangled buzz. and the high-pitched squeal of splintering wood. It felt like only a matter of time until Scott became a part of the world's largest and least appetizing apple cobbler, and he was powerless to stop it.

And that was when the cell phone smacked him on the back of the head. He rubbed the back of his head carefully, felt the still painful knot on the back of his head from the other day, and swore at whoever was on the other end of the line.

Scott glanced at the screen, then jerked his head away when the harsh afternoon sunlight reflected off the glass and into his eyes.

"What time is it?" Scott asked groggily.

While looking for a clock, Scott saw the cat sitting on the couch looking down on him intently.

"Don-Don't you judge me," he said harshly.

When he sat up, Dontari Poe started dancing in his head. This time, however, Poe was joined by Haloti Ngata and Shaun Cody as they tap danced to the chorus of Muse's "Knights of Cydonia."

Scott climbed up onto the couch as if it were Mount Everest and stared at the TV. The Pro Bowl was on and instantly Scott wanted to fall back asleep. As he weighed the pros and cons of using the cat as a pillow, the phone buzzed to life again. He read the screen again. It was another unlisted number. He mashed his finger against the screen to send the call to voicemail. Maybe then they'd get the hint.

He looked down on the floor, then waited a few seconds for the room to adjust. The bottle laid half empty on the floor, still open, and there was no sign of Rachel's sippy cup anywhere.

A sudden thought filtered into Scott's mind, which still felt kind of fuzzy, as if lined with cotton. Maybe it was Claire calling from Corpus. He picked up the phone and checked his voicemail. There was nothing there. Whoever had called wasn't leaving a message.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Scott froze in place as if unsure the sound was coming from outside or just the pounding of his head.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

Definitely outside, Scott thought. He got up uneasily and waddled toward the doorway. When he got to the door, he propped himself up against the frame and poked his head out.

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

It was coming from the front door, which Scott would have realized sooner had he been thinking clearly.

"Scott Brooks! Houston Police! Open up!" shouted a muffled authoritative voice.

Scott's eyes bulged wide with panic. What the hell are the police doing here?! He tried desperately to remember what he had done the night before. The only memories he could faintly recall had something to do with apples, the deadly capacity of onion sandwiches, and Eliot Nash. The rest remained a cottony blur.

With great trepidation, he opened the door. There were two uniformed officers standing on his doorstep. The one of the left was a doughy man in late middle age with a mustache that bristled as he spoke. The other was taller, darker, with a nose like a pencil eraser.

The light made Scott wince instantly and groan. He smacked his lips a couple of times before saying, "Can I help y'all with something?"

"You Scott Brooks?"

At first, he didn't respond. He was too busy trying to get his eyes open.

"I am," he finally said.

"I'm Officer Slocumb and this is Officer Chalmers," said the doughy officer. Chalmers tipped his hat to Scott wordlessly. "We'd like to ask you a few questions."

By now, Scott had managed to open his eyes halfway.

"What about?"

"Do you know this person?" He flashed a picture of Belgreave.

Scott leaned in to take a better look at the picture, placing a hand over his eyes to block out that vicious sunlight. Slocumb's eyes opened wide as he caught a whiff of Scott's breath. He gave them a quick nod and pulled himself back within the door frame.

"You do know her," Chalmers asked, in a thin, reedy voice.

"Yeah," Scott replied hoarsely after a long moment.

The two officers looked at each other and gave an imperceptible nod toward their squad car, "Mr. Brooks, we'd like you to come with us down to the station."

"Why?"

"We just had a few questions we'd like to ask you about the dece--"

Chalmers elbowed Slocumb sharply in the ribs. Slocumb grunted with a slight cough.

"Just as a formality, Mr. Brooks," Chalmers said, trying to sound pleasant.

Scott groaned and placed a hand to his aching forehead, "Give me a minute."

He went inside to put on a hat, a pair of sunglasses, put some food in the bowl for Hastings, and grabbed his phone. Slocumb and Chalmers watched Scott's every move.

"Took you long enough," Chalmers said.

They went out to the squad car parked in front. Scott looked for any sign of his neighbors and hoped none of them were out getting their paper or watering their lawn.

Slocumb escorted Brooks into the backseat of the car. When he sat down, and his surroundings stopped spinning again, the first thing he noticed was the steel grating which separated the two halves of the car. The seats smelled faintly of sweat and old vomit.

"Could y'all crack the windows or something?" he asked when the two officers sat down in front of him.

"Why?"

" 'Why?' Because the car smells like my Uncle Hubert and if I don't get some air in here, I'll be puking my guts up."

"Go ahead," Chalmers said. "We're used to the smell."

Scott glowered at Chalmers.

"Relax," said Slocumb, "It'll be a fast trip."

Scott pulled out the phone and dialed Claire's cell number. He waited several rings until her voicemail picked up. He pressed the "end" button and slipped it back into his pocket. He wanted a chance to explain himself; to make things right. But what else was there he could say? 'Honey, sorry I went out and lied to you, oh please, please, please forgive me and come home?' That had about as much chance of working as a perpetual motion engine.

'Fast,' as it turned out, was roughly an hour-long trip to the station on St. Emanuel in Houston's Third Ward. When he arrived, Scott was taken to one of the interview rooms deep within the station. The room itself was cramped with walls of gray painted brick. A small formica table jutted out as if one of the walls were sticking its tongue out. Beneath the table were a pair of cheap metal chairs with fabric upholstery which matched the walls. Scott sat down in the chair that faced the door. Slocumb closed the door as he left.

Scott darted his eyes as if following some invisible fly around the room while tapping his fingers on the table. Every couple of minutes, he turned back to the look at the door and hoped that it would open. Each time proved to be a disappointment.

He kept tapping his fingers on the table, which were soon accompanied by the tapping of his foot on the floor. The darting glances became more and more frantic until he was ready to scream. Sweat trickled from his forehead, but all he could do was stare at the locked door. Will that damn door never open, Scott thought frantically.

It did open, finally. The detective had his nose buried in a file as he stepped through the doorway and into the interview room.

"Mr. Brooks," he said, not looking at Scott. "Thank you for coming today."

"Um, whatever I can do to help, I guess," Scott said, glad to see the door finally open, even for just a few minutes.

The detective behind the file was quiet for a long moment. He put down the file and stared at Scott with his deep-set bloodhound eyes.

"Adenauer? The hell are you doing here? Where's this Brooks guy at?"

Scott gulped audibly but remained quiet.

"Wait, you don't mean," he said as the dime finally dropped. "You're..."

Scott grinned sheepishly at Detective Carlyle.

"Well, I'll be damned. This whole time. You've been lyin' to me this whole time."

"Yeah, um, about that."

"Can it!" Carlyle barked. "I don't want to hear it, Brooks. Now then, tell us how you know her," he said trying to suppress the anger in his voice. He slid a picture of Belgreave across the table.

"She's the housekeeper at the motel they found Eliot Nash at."

"Answer the question, Brooks."

"I'm getting there," he said, staring daggers back at Carlyle. "I asked her what was in the room when she found the body."

"That's all?"

"Pretty much. Did something happen to her?"

"You tell me."

"What are you talking about," Scott asked.

"She was found dead yesterday, in the same room that Nash was in."

Scott tried to feign surprise at this "bombshell."

"Really? You knew nothing about this?"

He shook his head.

Carlyle arched his eyebrows, curiously. "Then explain to me why we found your fingerprints on the body?"

Scott sat very still trying to project an aura of calm. Inwardly, though, he cursed a blue streak at himself for such a careless mistake.

"I'll ask you again, Brooks: Why were your prints at the crime scene?"

"Because I was there, okay?" Scott let out a deep breath. "I was there because I got a call from someone saying that she'd been killed."

"From whom?"

"One of the residents at the motel. Jay Orlund."

Carlyle picked up the file and flipped through pages looking for the name.

"Orlund...Orlund...Orlund...he found the body," he looked at Scott over the file, "Why would he call you instead of the cops?"

"He wanted me to get a look at her first, before y'all took over the scene like with Nash."

"But why you?"

"He knew I was looking into Nash's murder. He must have thought the two were related, somehow."

"Well," Carlyle said, getting annoyed, "are they?"

Scott shrugged his shoulders.

Carlyle leaned over the table and down at Scott. The foul stench of rotting brisket and cigarette smoke made Scott's eyes water. "You know something, don't you? Come on, out with it already."

Scott looked impassively at the detective, which only made him angrier.

"I'm running out of patience, here, Brooks. Tell me or I'll throw your ass into jail for obstruction."

A wry smile formed on Scott's face.

"What's so damn funny?"

"You have no right to arrest me for obstruction. After all, I do have the right to remain silent."

"You failed to report that you'd found a dead body. That's all I need."

"Legally speaking, Orlund found the body, not me. And he reported it to you, as required by state law."

Carlyle looked mildly impressed.

"Your fingerprints were also found on a slip of paper in the deceased's pocket."

"Helena."

"What?"

"That was her name. Helena."

"Okay...in Helena's pocket. That's evidence tampering. You tell me what you know and those charges go bye-bye."

"No."

"The hell do you mean 'no?' "

"I found that on her. I looked at it and put it back where I found it. Nothing was altered, nothing was destroyed or hidden. If anything, I was trying to make sure y'all saw it. You can't hold me."

Carlyle sneered at Scott, "Who the hell are you anyway?"

"My name is Scott Brooks, I'm an attorney with Posey, Mondek, and Crick."

Carlyle let out a low moan. "A lawyer. Perfect."

"Look. I want to help you find these guys. I do. But--"

"But what, lawyer boy?"

"But," Scott said remaining calm, "how do I know you won't just take what I know and leave me in the lurch? I've already been screwed out of information once. I'll be damned if I'm about to let it happen again."

"So what is it? What do you want?"

"I want to know what y'all know about the Nash murder."

Carlyle stared at Scott as if he had cauliflower coming out of his ears. "And why the hell should I tell you anything?"

"If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even know Nash was murdered, for starters. That entire article that McClanahan put out? He used my notes to write 'his' article," Scott said, using air quotes around 'his.' "I will tell you one thing, though."

Carlyle scoffed, "And what's that?"

"You've got the wrong guy behind bars."

Carlyle fell silent as he considered Scott's declaration.

"Really?" Carlyle asked. "And what makes you so sure about that?"

"If you're not talking, I'm not talking."

Carlyle grunted and ran his hands through his hair. "Tell you what, lawyer boy. You explain why you think Sheridan isn't the doer. If I like your theory, I'll tell you a bit about what we've found. Deal?"

Scott nodded in agreement.

"Now, what makes you think Sheridan's innocent?"

"There were drugs on the nightstand at the crime scene, right?"

"Yes," Carlyle said dubiously, as if rethinking his decision.

"Someone planted those drugs there. Nash was a fitness nut. He wouldn't be caught dead with--I mean, he wouldn't ever use drugs."

"That's it?"

"No. But think about it: if Sheridan killed him, why would he leave drugs at the scene of the crime? Murphy, the guy at the gym, said he suspected Sheridan was dealing drugs and steroids from a stash in his locker, because whenever he was at his locker, there was always a big crowd."

"Get to the point, Brooks."

"I'm getting there. If there were drugs in his locker, even enough to start dealing them, then leaving a stash at the crime scene would only point the finger at him."

Carlyle rubbed his chin, thoughtfully.

"So, do I get a question here?"

Carlyle glowered at Scott with those lugubrious brown eyes. "Fine, what's your question?"

"What kind of drugs were on the nightstand?"

"That's it? That's your big question?"

"I've got more, but first thing's first."

"Heroin. Black tar heroin to be exact."

Scott leaned over the table. "Was that what you were looking for at Sheridan's house?"

Carlyle shook his head. "My turn to ask questions now. Your prints were all over that slip of paper. Why? Did you put it there?"

"No. I tripped over her and saw it sticking out of her pocket. So I pulled it out to look at it."

"Why?"

"In a minute. Were you looking through Sheridan's house for heroin?"

"Yes, but not just his house. His locker at the gym, at the stadium, storage units, whatever we could think of. Now why were you looking at that receipt?"

"It was a receipt for a mini-mart chain that I was at the night before. I was comparing it to the receipt I had in my pocket. Did you find any heroin?"

"Only in his gym locker, and not enough of anything to suspect him of dealing. We asked Sheridan about it, he said he was using it to 'kill the pain in his back.' I think you may be onto something here, lawyer boy. Sheridan's a jackass, but not a stupid one."

Bad choice of words, Scott thought.

"What was so special about that receipt?"

"The amount on the bottom was for $75,000. There was also a number on it which is normally found on betting slips."

"You think she gambled all that money away?"

Scott nodded confidently. "So, two questions for me then. Why were you looking for heroin?"

"The heroin we found at the scene matched a batch we found in a previous drug bust a couple of years back. We weren't sure if the crimes were related though. Next question?"

"Did you find an envelope at the crime scene?"

"No. No envelope of any kind. Why?"

"I was told that someone busted in on Nash and his lady friend that night and gave him a big envelope. I think that's where Belgreave got the $75,000 from. Was it heroin that caused Nash's death?"

Carlyle paused and pondered his answer, or more importantly, whether or not he would answer. "No. It was hemlock. Injected it between his toes to make it look like he was shooting up heroin. Here's what I want to know: What does any of this have to do with Belgreave's murder?"

"I think she was killed because whoever gave Nash that money wanted it back. Badly. So they harassed her for the money, which she no longer had."

"They killed her for it? It doesn't make sense."

"I know," Scott said laconically. "I'm still trying to figure it out. The only thing I can figure is maybe the guy was in such a panic over the missing money that he went overboard in threatening her so she'd return it. I think whoever killed Belgreave was involved with Nash's murder as well; maybe even responsible for his murder, too. I do have one final question."

"Shoot," Carlyle said, his mood lightening now that he was getting some cooperation for a change.

"You mentioned something about this heroin you found being involved in a previous crime. Is there a file I can take a look at?"

"Out of the question. The best I can do is let you look at some of the mug shots we took, see if anybody looks familiar."

"If that's all you can let me see..."

Carlyle went out of the room and came back a moment later, leaving the door open, and carrying a series of images in his weathered hand.

"If you spot anybody you recognize, say something."

Scott shuffled through the pictures. Most of the figures in the mug shots looked like they belonged in prison, including one named "Carlos Guerrero" who, between the buzz cut and wearing only black, matched the description that Julia gave. He came to the last image. The culprit had slicked back black hair that would have made him attractive to any woman if it weren't for the multiple cowlicks that sprung randomly from his head. The man's name was listed as "Francis (a/k/a. Frankie) Albert Podolski," and the realization came like a lightning bolt to Scott. He had seen him before, only a few days ago, in fact, cleaning beer glasses and listening to Sinatra.

I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow...

TO BE CONTINUED...

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