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!
For Scott, there was no walking to the parking lot. In fact, if Verdieri had seen the way he had sprinted like Trindon Holliday out of the stadium, he would have given Scott an invitation to compete at next season's training camp.
Somehow, he had managed to extricate himself from the throng of reporters on the field and out of the stadium. Close behind him were those same reporters, all of whom shouted questions about the murder and requests for interviews.
Behind the reporters came the first of several waves of fans who wanted to meet the man who solved the murder of Eliot Nash, and then beat him senseless.
When he finally got to his car, Scott clutched at his chest as he drank in deep lungfuls of air. If he ever survived this, he vowed to himself that he'd start riding his bike again. But for now, he'd settle for just getting the hell out of Dodge. He slid the key into the ignition, which came on with a low rumble, put the car into drive, and tore out of the lot.
As he was driving down 610 toward Southwest Freeway and home, his phone rang from the passenger's seat. He looked at the caller ID on it.
This was not how it was supposed to go, he thought.
"Can't really talk right now, Julia," he said gruffly, but smiled inwardly.
"I won't keep you. Could you come down to the jail? They're about to let Marc out."
The last time he had seen Marcus Sheridan, he had threatened to show Scott his own liver by a method that seemed both painful and physically impossible.
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," Scott said warily.
"Just this once. Please," she said in such a pitiful manner that made Scott roll his eyes.
There was a long pause, considering what the likelihood was that someone would recognize him from the media day circus at the county lockup.
"I'll be down in 20 minutes," he sighed.
Julia was standing at the entrance to the jail as he was walking up. Standing next to him was a great hulking beast of a man sporting a fauxhawk and wearing a gray pinstripe suit. The only times Scott had ever seen Marcus Sheridan, he had a look on his face that screamed one thing: "Don't screw with me." Today, however, there seemed to be a faint trace of a smile as he stood and scanned the horizon with what appeared to be a whole new appreciation for the world around him.
Unfortunately for Scott, that appreciation ended when Sheridan's eyes locked onto him.
Sheridan stomped toward him, "I thought I done told you--"
Sheridan froze on the spot, for which Scott silently thanked Julia as he wasn't sure he had enough strength left to outrun a professional athlete.
"If it weren't for him, you still be in there," she said, tilting her head toward the jail. "How about showing a bit of gratitude instead?"
Sheridan snarled and shot a vicious look at Scott.
"Thanks, I guess," he grumbled. "So who did off that turd?"
"Yount's agent. He was trying to protect his nephew."
"Yount, huh? There won't be enough of him left to identify when I get through with him."
Scott clapped a hand to his forehead.
"And...I'm s-sorry. 'Bout the liver thing, you know?"
"Oh, right," Scott said, pretending to have forgotten about it. "No worries."
The two men shook hands. It took every ounce of restraint Scott had to avoid groaning; it was like shaking hands with a vise grip.
"So what happens now?" Scott asked.
"Go and win a Super Bowl, I guess," Sheridan said. "After that, who knows?"
Scott did, for one. Sheridan may not have killed Nash, but he still had a lot of drugs in his possession that he would have to account for. The odds of Goodell not handing down his own punishment for the defensive end were as close to zero as you could get, which meant the Texans might be without both a starting quarterback and their best pass rusher.
This must have been what it felt like to be Steve Bartman.
People walking down the sidewalk stopped and pointed at Scott; he could see they were talking animatedly to one another and one of them deftly pulled out their phone and aimed it at him.
Scott turned to Julia and Sheridan. "I'd like to stay, but I think I'd better get home and hide in the pantry or something," he said gesturing at the passerby with the cameraphone.
They nodded and he beat a hasty retreat to his car.
The streets were ominously empty when he arrived home that afternoon. There were no camera crews camping on his meticulously manicured lawn, no news trucks lined up along the curb up and down his street, and, much to Scott's relief, no armed mob of Texans fans waiting for him. It was a typical Houston suburb, and nothing could have made him happier.
That happiness was short lived, however, when he saw the light on his voicemail blinking happily. He looked at the number of messages waiting for him.
With a resigned shrug, he hit play.
Hello Mr. Brooks, this is Johnny Meyers with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I was--
Beep, the machine said, as Scott hit delete.
This message is for Scott. My name is Lonnie Wilkes with the New Orleans Ti--
I swear to God, you sumbitch, if the Texans lose on Sunday because o' you, Imma come over to your house and kick the sh--
In all, it was a roughly 70-30 split between reporters looking for quotes and fans demanding his head on a spit. As he deleted messages, the phone would ring anew and leave more messages for him.
it took 15 minutes to get rid of all his messages. When the phone rang again, he pulled the cord out, causing the phone to finally go silent.
His cell phone was no better. Aside from Julia's call, there were dozens of missed calls and messages waiting there for him, but at least Scott could delete them all in one fell swoop.
Originally, Scott had undertaken the investigation into Nash's death because the facts he had read in the paper didn't add up. When he broke the case, he'd planned on writing a full expose on Battle Red Blog as a means of putting the blog into the national spotlight. Although he never got to publish his article, Battle Red Blog was most definitely in the spotlight.
Scott opened his email. The box that showed the number of emails waiting for him simply said "OMG."
The first email came from Chief:
Do you have any idea how much hate mail I've gotten in the last few hours? Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Care to guess what they're about? What have you gotten us into, Scott?
Scott scoffed. At least his email was still listing numbers.
Unlike the phone messages, the overwhelming majority of email Scott had received were from fans. As he read, he grew vaguely amused; the angrier, more hateful the email, the worse the spelling and grammar tended to be, which took a lot of the venom out of their message.
He responded to Chief's message:
Why you blaming me for this? I just followed the evidence. What was I supposed to do? Nothing? Let Glaston get away with the murder because it might affect the team? I don't like it any more than anybody but I will not apologize for putting a killer away. It was the right thing to do.
This elicited a furious reply from Chief almost immediately:
"Right thing to do?" Are you serious? What about thinking of others? At any point did you stop and think of the consequences? Hell, couldn't you have let the cops finger Glaston instead? Might have saved me a big ass headache.
I STARTED the goddamn investigation! Nobody else thought he was killed except me! Would you have just sat and watched someone else take credit for a story that YOU worked so hard for? Of course not.
I would have when I knew what kind of shitstorm was headed my way. I ain't stupid, Scott, and until this calamity, I didn't think you were, either.
Is that what this whole thing was about: you getting credit?
I will not apologize for what I did. You want to be pissed at someone, be pissed at Yount for lying and Glaston for covering his ass.
I did nothing wrong.
There was a long pause after he sent his email to Chief. Scott assumed he'd just gotten up from his computer in a fit of disgust. When he did respond, Scott nearly deleted it among the countless emails he was in the process of mass deleting.
You were just trying to follow up a lead. I can't fire you for that. But it'd probably be best for all of us if you stayed away from BRB for a while. At least until this thing blows over.
Scott re-read the email multiple times. He didn't know whether to blow up at Chief or to agree with him. He liked writing for BRB and didn't want to take an enforced leave of absence, but to stick it out was only inviting the wrath of an entire fanbase.
He prepared a new email to respond, only to stare at it blankly. Every argument he thought of to refute Chief's recommendation would disappear just as he prepared to write it. It was the worst time to get writer's block.
He turned off the computer and sat alone in the darkening library. The only light came from Scott's phone as it flashed with yet another new caller; this one, oddly, was local, the Houston Daily, home paper of his ill-conceived alias Charles Adenauer. He refused to answer, and the phone went dead again. He stared at the phone. The one person he knew would make him feel better was in Corpus with her mother and the last time they spoke had not ended very well.
He wanted to call, but couldn't bring himself to pick up the phone. He knew rejection from Claire, especially at that moment, would have killed him.
Instead, he decided to call it an early night.
After all, things always look better in the morning, Scott thought.
The morning proved to be a severe disappointment to Scott. Not only did things not look better, but the media now had a full night to think of the fabricated outrages that would take them through their day. The sports station was the first to kick off the festivities by demanding that Scott come out of the woodwork and explain why he hated the Texans so much that he would fabricate the entire murder.
"Damn you, Mac Ennis," Scott said to himself.
When he came out of the elevator and walked down the hall to his office, the voluble chatter stopped immediately, as if everybody on the floor was suddenly put on mute. As he passed, every eye fixed on him. Some had a pitying look, as if to say "better you than me." Others...others were rabid Texans fans.
As he passed the angry fans in the office, Scott made a mental note to check his office for poisonous snakes and deadly intricate traps involving white out and red Swingline staplers.
Scott eased into his chair and let out a huge sigh of relief. Nothing seemed out of place or tinkered with. Maybe, just maybe, life can finally get back to normal.
He was wrong. Very wrong. Not five minutes after he sat in his chair, Diego came dashing into his office and slammed the door behind him.
"Dude, where have you been?"
Scott fixed him with an angry glare, "Haven't you seen the news?"
Diego shook his head, "I never watch the news. I thought you knew that."
Scott shook his head. "I've never really been aware of your television viewing habits, D."
"Obviously. Did you get my message?"
Scott turned on his computer. "Something about Anderson, right?"
"You could say that. He's ready to decorate his office with your head on a plaque."
Scott narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Your hours. He said they looked 'hinky,' and he thinks you should be long done with the Smithson contract by now. He is less than happy with you right now."
There was a loud harsh beep on his desk phone. He picked up the receiver, "This is Brooks."
"Scott, Mr. Anderson would like to see you in his office. Immediately."
Scott groaned audibly, "I'll be right there."
"He called you up?" Diego asked in astonishment.
"I'll meet you at the Alcove tonight; and I'm buying."
This made Scott nervous. In their long and strange friendship, Diego had never offered to pay for drinks.
"Thanks, Diego," Scott said, growing more nervous with each passing moment.
He walked down the hallway and stood before a massive door flanked by a secretary sitting at a small formica desk. The secretary smiled sadly at Scott as he approached.
"Mr. Anderson's expecting you."
Scott tentatively opened the door and peeked through the crack.
"That you, Brooks?" asked a gruff, though unmistakably irritated voice.
Scott trepidatiously walked into Anderson's office.
The back wall of Anderson's office consisted of a single pane of floor-to-ceiling glass which looked out onto downtown Houston. His desk was made of solid mahogany with an unnecessarily tall leather office chair stationed behind it. In front of the desk sat a pair of diminutive, though comfortable-looking, barrel-backed chairs.
Anderson stood looking out the window onto the city.
"Close the door behind you," he said, without looking at Scott.
He did, and sat in one of the barrel-back chairs.
"I've been going through your files, Mr. Brooks," he said as he turned to face him, his mustache bristling. "In the last week, you've logged exactly five hours of time working on the Smithson contract, three of which you list as 'research.' Is this incorrect?"
Scott shook his head, he was in enough trouble, lying would only make it worse.
Anderson adjusted his pince nes. "And I've been informed that you've been gallivanting around town playing Sam Spade or something, is this also true?"
"Do you want this job? At all? Because you sure don't seem all that interested in staying at your desk and doing what I pay you to do! Get one thing straight," he bellowed. "I will not put up with half-assed efforts like you're giving me now. Do you understand?"
Scott said nothing. His mind had drifted away from Anderson's tirade back to whether he should call his wife when he got back to his desk. As if in response, his mind went back to the night things went sideways outside Trample.
"Brooks! I will not repeat myself. Do I make myself clear?"
Scott shook his head. "Sorry, I didn't catch that last part."
"You will give me the respect I deserve, Brooks, and you will give this firm the respect that it deserves. Got it?"
"No," Scott said flatly.
In the last week, Scott had broken one of his ribs after getting slugged by Sheridan, knocked unconscious by a cold-blooded gangster, nearly garrotted to death by a hitman, and harassed by his fellow Texans fans. He didn't need this.
Anderson's eyes flashed angrily. "I didn't hear you, right. Did you just say no?"
"No. You're not worthy of my respect. You're a bully and I will not put up with your stupid bullshit anymore, sir," Scott said, placing a sarcastic emphasis on the word 'sir.'
"Watch your mouth, Brooks. You say another word and I'll have your head on a silver platter!"
"Screw you," he said, and as he did so, felt a ton of weight lift off his back. "And when you're done with that, go screw yourself again and again and again and then come back and talk to me about respect. I'm done with this place and I'm done with you."
Scott turned on his heels and walked toward the door.
"Brooks! You step out that door and you won't have an office to go back to."
Scott deliberately placed one foot past the threshold. "Or what? You're going to beat me up and take my lunch money? I've dealt with sociopaths and murderers this last week. You think your little threats are scary? Don't make me laugh."
He stepped out the door.
By now, Anderson's mustache seemed to have grown even more gray just in the last few minutes. Nobody had dared to speak to him in such a way, and he couldn't let Scott have the last word. He thought hard for a final crusher to scream, came up with nothing, and shouted, "You're through, Brooks!"
Scott turned calmly and looked contemptuously at Anderson. "Eat me. I quit," he said and slammed the door behind him.
He went down to his office and packed away what he brought from home. With his personal effects and office supplies that he knew nobody would miss, half the box remained empty. As he packed, he thought of nothing but Claire and how he would do anything now to get her back. He needed her back in the worst way.
Diego came in as Scott had finished packing, "He canned you?"
Scott shook his head. "I quit. I'm not going to take his bullying a minute longer."
Diego let out a low whistle. "So I'll see you at the Alcove then?"
"Nope," Scott said as he pushed a lid onto the box, "I think I'm going to take a nice long drive. Take my mind off things."
"So when you get back, then?"
Scott shrugged his shoulders, "We'll see."
He went down to his car and turned it on. He looked briefly at his phone and the calls that had come in since going to work. The Houston Daily had called again and sent him texts as well. The text said it was urgent, but Scott assumed it was just a ploy to get an interview.
He sped down Southwest Freeway and blew past the exit for his house and scanned the mileage sign along the road: 205 miles to Corpus Christi.
Claire was in Corpus Christi, and Scott assumed, quite reasonably, that any attempts to call her would either be intercepted by her parents or ignored entirely. He wanted her back. No, he needed her back, and he would do whatever it took to bring her and the kids back home; if he had learned anything from investigating Nash's murder, it was that life was short and not meant to be frittered away worrying about what might or might not happen.
Four hours passed before Scott arrived in Corpus Christi. It took another couple of hours before he recognized the right streets to turn on from the infrequent visits to Claire's parents' home.
After a couple of wrong turns, Scott finally arrived at his in-laws' home. It was a sweeping all-brick ranch-style house with a tiny man-made babbling brook which cascaded into a small, well-kept pond. As the sun dipped below the horizon, floodlights in the pond grew brighter, making the water shimmer. In the parking lot were three cars: a large black Cadillac, a shiny new Cooper Mini, and a well-worn navy blue minivan which Scott recognized as Claire's.
He pulled up along the curb and went up to the door.
The door opened to show a frail old woman with a pink wrinkly face and sharp brown eyes. She wore an old "Planet Hollywood" T-shirt and held a cigarette between two tobacco-stained fingers.
"Blanche," Scott said, less as a greeting and more of a statement of fact.
"Scott," she said, in a frigid tone.
"Is Claire here?"
Behind her, he could see Charlie as a blur that ran past.
"Maybe. What's this about?" she asked with a cruel smile.
"Can you just go get her please, Blanche?"
Blanche turned and yelled, "Claire, what's-his-name is here for you!"
A brief awkward moment passed as Scott and Blanche just stood and stared at one another, having exhausted all their conversation material.
Claire came to the door wearing a thick sweater, her long hair tied back in a ponytail.
"Scott," she said, surprised.
He was silent for a while, just taking in the sight of made him feel dramatically better.
"Can we talk?"
She looked around uneasily. Blanche, who was now pretending not to pay attention, turned and walked out of the front room.
"I don't know if there's anything else for us to talk about, Scott."
"You can't mean that."
"I can't be with someone who can't be honest with me," she said sadly.
"You're right. And the only reason I didn't tell you was to keep y'all safe. I would have never forgiven myself if anything had happened to you, to the kids."
Claire looked down at the ground, "I didn't leave because you didn't tell me about the Nash thing. You told me you'd stop and you didn't."
"I wanted to stay out of it, I never wanted to lie to you. But I couldn't live with myself if I knew someone was in jail for a crime he never committed."
"Then why didn't you just come and tell me that instead of skulking around?"
Scott looked up at the porch light, trying to think of a good explanation.
Claire narrowed her eyes. "What on earth happened to your neck?"
Instinctively, Scott reached to rub the mark still on his neck, "This...this was part of what I wanted to protect y'all from."
"Someone attacked you?"
"Yeah," Scott said reluctantly. "He tried to kill me."
"Are you still looking for Nash's killer?"
Scott shook his head happily. "Not anymore. They arrested him. It's over."
Claire let out a relieved sigh, "I'm glad. I really am. But you still lied to me. I can't look past that."
There was a pause.
"I'm not proud of doing what I did," Scott finally said, "But I still think it was the right thing to do. I know I could tell you I'd never lie to you like that again, but you wouldn't believe me. I mean, why would you? I won't tell another lie to you, I do promise that. But I want to prove it to you."
Claire furrowed her brow, "How?"
"Come back home with me. My life will be an open book for you, the way it should be, right? Whatever you ask, I will answer without hesitation. Just please, I'm begging you, don't make me go back to an empty home."
She looked dubiously at Scott. "Whatever I want to know, you'll tell me?"
He nodded, "I'll prove it. I'm taking time off from Battle Red Blog, possibly for good."
Her eyes went wide, "You quit?"
"Not quit, more like an indefinite leave of absence."
He told her about media day and the hordes of angry fans and the hounding reporters. He even showed her the texts from the Houston Daily. She looked carefully at the text.
"Have you read this?"
He shook his head, "They all say the same thing, they want an interview."
"Not this one," she pointed at the phone.
He re-read the Daily's text.
"They want to bring me in for a job interview?! Why? I'm no reporter."
"You're not thinking of going, are you?"
He hesitated for a moment. "We do need the money. And anything they assign me can't possibly be worse than what I got myself caught up in. So, yeah, I think I am considering it."
"We 'need the money?' Why would we need the money? Did something happen at work?"
He could sense this conversation was taking a turn for the worse. After some hemming and hawing, he finally admitted, "Um, yeah. I, uh, kind of quit my job."
"I got fed up with his bullying antics and told him to go screw himself."
When he finished, he closed his eyes tightly as if expecting the door to be slammed in his face. Instead, he felt a pair of arms thrown around his neck. Claire's arms. It felt better than he had remembered it.
Scott opened his eyes and looked at her confusedly.
As if reading his thoughts, she said, "Thank you, for being honest with me. That's all I really wanted."
"Being honest with me."
She turned her head, "Kids go get your clothes, we're going back home!"
In the back, he could hear Blanche groaning at the news. Itmade Scott smile.
The kids filed behind their mother, their clothes in plastic grocery bags. When their eyes caught their father's, they all broke out into broad grins.
"Let's go home," he said.
As the kids piled into the back of the car, and Scott slid into the driver's seat with Claire at his side, he thought about how long it would take to change his number. If he got a job with the Daily, he knew instinctively he would have to use a pseudonym; the name Scott Brooks was anathema in Houston at the moment. But he would get his anonymity back, even if it meant that Scott would vanish from public view, becoming little more than a faint memory and a mythical figure around Battle Red Blog.
I would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to this endeavor (in no particular order):
Thank you to Barryfromtexas for his consultation about the inner workings of law enforcement and the mentality of police officers. Without him, Detective Carlyle and the Houston Police Department would have been done an injustice; and possibly gotten me arrested when I next return to Houston.
Thank you to Tim for helping me with certain legal procedures involved in this story and for putting up with this nonsense as long as he did.
Thank you to Mrs. UT who acted as my entirely-too-patient editor and listened as I bounced good, bad, and dreadful ideas off of her, and without whose help, this story would never have gotten past chapter six.
And finally, thank you to all you readers. If it weren't for y'all, I would not have bothered writing past chapter three, as it would have felt like howling at the wind. Y'all made this whole thing worth doing.
Any feedback you have on this novel as a whole, what you liked or didn't like, is welcome in the Comments below. And again, thank you for reading.