for John Vercher
He still woke up with blood in his mouth, the taste of the mouthguard, turf, the smell of someone’s cleat or the stink of pads or a jockstrap, and the blood was real, him biting his cheeks and his lips like he’d pitched a fit, snarling in his sleep. Still woke up as if he were under that pile of bodies, fourth and inches on that game-winning drive against Clemson or those two seasons he’d played in Pittsburgh, helmets crunching, adrenaline and cortisone masking the pain.
Those days before the concussion protocol, he’d suffered twelve in as many months as a pro before they carted him off the field in Indianapolis with a shattered tibia. Tried to make it back, but they cut him in camp, so he’d signed with the Eagles, which was how he ended up in Philly. But he didn’t play there, either. Never made it off the practice squad.
Couldn’t say how many snaps he’d taken as blood leaked into his brain, eating holes in his memory like a cartoon wedge of swiss cheese, so sometimes he wasn’t sure who he was.
Yeah, sometimes he just flipped his shit—saw red—and it scared him, what he’d seen himself do. But he knew before he opened his eyes this morning was different, like he’d entered a whole new world of hurt.
For one thing, there was a lot more blood. He touched his mouth and came away with a palmful of red. Wasn’t missing any teeth. But he’d bitten his tongue. Might’ve gnawed a hole in his cheek, too.
For another thing, he was in San Francisco.
How did he know that?
The light, for one. Nothing like the light in California, which he remembered from those games they’d played against the Niners and Raiders. Even before the plane landed, you knew you were in Cali.
Dude he worked for, Jimmy Gee, had sent him here. His line of employment, a guy didn’t ask questions. The hell else was he supposed to do when he was six-seven, three twenty-five, and hadn’t read a book since Clifford, the Big Red Dog?
Not that he hadn’t loved to read, even if he was a dumb white kid, a cracker from Florence, Alabama. But he’d been taking it on the head since he was 12 and had no attention span for anything longer than the nutrition information on the back of his Weetabix box.
A jet came in low over the building.
His head throbbed, tears in his eyes.
“Blue Angels,” a voice said.
A female voice.
Shit, shit, shit.
A lighter struck, and he smelled the cigarette before he turned to find her in the chair across the room. Blond, and still beautiful with the scar on her left cheek, like a long time back, someone had cut her. And brother, she was looking at him like his day of holy reckoning had come.
With a sickening crunch like the sound of bodies colliding after the snap, he became aware of a weight, something—someone—beside him on the mattress.
Even if it wasn’t for the hand-sized bruises around the guy’s neck, he would’ve known the dude next to him was dead. Guy looked like he’d lost a fight with a Mack Truck. His face was purple as an armadillo’s asshole.
Big hands had left those bruises—hands like mine.
The dead guy wore dress blues.
Another plane came in, rattling the windows, and he cowered.
“It’s Fleet Week,” the girl said, which explained the flyovers: Navy boys showing off. He had a flash of that dead guy grabbing his shoulder in a bedroom doorway, saying take a hike, give us a minute here, buddy. Nothing more.
Always, the doctors had asked his name, the year, and who was president. Howie. His ex-wife had called him that, so must be his name. That, or What’s the matter with you? She’d thrown in the towel his second year out of the pros, when the nightmares got bad, and the blackouts started. Not that he could blame her. Scared himself, too.
“Dubya,” Howie, on what you might’ve called autopilot, tongue numb, mumbled. “Thoo-thoushandh-thoo.”
Not that he’d voted for the guy. Or the other guy. Or that third guy. Not that he’d voted, period.
“Bravo.” The girl blew smoke. Leaned closer. She looked furious, like she might’ve stabbed her cigarette out in his eye, or she wanted to watch him squirm, like a lizard pinned to the dirt with a Buck knife. “Do you remember who I am?”
And oh, great balls of shit, he did.
On the phone back in Philly, Jimmy had called it “babysitting”: hang out with his daughter and look hard, keep the flies away. Jimmy was famously protective, and talk around town was he’d cut her himself, to discourage guys who didn’t see her inner beauty or psycho shit like that.
But when Howie showed up in San Fran kid had other plans, and she’d dragged them to a place in North Beach, Columbus Café, where she’d spent the night glued to a boyfriend, a Naval lieutenant, an arrogant prick who’d followed them back to the hotel, wouldn’t leave when Howie said go, and flicked Howie’s ear while they were standing in that doorway, calling him a moron and a stooge.
And yeah, sure enough, knew without looking that was the dead dude, and now it was probably the guy’s douchebag buddies doing flyovers, too.
“Dad,” she said, “will believe anything I tell him.”
About what? What happened? Howie wanted to ask but couldn’t, not with his broken tongue. Her word against his. And he didn’t even have a story. Maybe the guy had gotten fresh with her. And then what, Howie had tried to protect her?
Her name was Lindsey. She was 22, a senior at Temple, visiting the Bay for interviews at Berkeley and Stanford. A smart kid, Jimmy had said, pride in the guy’s voice. But like anybody else, didn’t she have her secrets?
“He kissed me goodnight.” Lindsey was crying. “And you went mental, you fucking meathead. You went apeshit, and you killed him.”
And she didn’t have to say—Howie knew—that she hadn’t called the cops because if she did, her dad would’ve found out about the boyfriend.
That Clemson game had come down to Coach’s decision to go for it on fourth and inches. A field goal would’ve evened it up, but Coach didn’t want the tie. Down three with twenty seconds to play, a shot at the national championship on the line, Coach wanted the win, and if Howie and the rest of the O-line thought they had nothing left, they’d had to find the will to go one more play, pushing until they had less than nothing. Sometimes a guy had to leave it all on the field.
Even odds said Jimmy would have Howie whacked. Not the first time he’d flipped, probably wouldn’t be the last. He was a screwup, a loose cannon. And Jimmy, well, Jimmy had cut his own daughter.
But maybe Jimmy hadn’t known about the boyfriend. And after all, Howie had been defending the kid’s honor. Not that he cared who she hooked up with, or whether she’d lied to her dad about why she’d come here. He’d been doing his job.
“Give me your phone.” He couldn’t find his.
“What?” She made a face.
“Your phone.” He snapped his fingers. “Give it here.”
He scrolled through her contacts, found Dad. Dialed.
Feeling the pins in that busted leg, he rolled off the mattress like getting up from under a pile of bodies. Trying to psyche himself up for one more play, one last drive. All of it—the whole shebang—on the line.
“You can’t tell my dad I have a boyfriend.” She wiped her nose. “Please. He’ll kill me.”
In a Temple sweatshirt and flannel pajamas, she looked like she belonged in a dorm, cramming for finals, not trying to get rid of a body at a murder scene. He was 28, not that much older than she was, so maybe in another life she might’ve been into him, Howie dating the boss’s daughter.
Not that he was interested in her, not like that. This wasn’t about him wanting to boink the kid.
The girl was pointing to her face, that ugly, red welt down her cheek.
“He cut me the day I got my first period,” she said, whispering it, “so what do you think he’s going to do if he finds out about this?”
And Howie knew the answer to that question, sure, not that he believed Jimmy would kill her. Maybe he’d ground her, confine her to that house in Chestnut Hill, take away her allowance, fine, tough titty. But he wasn’t going to top his own kid.
“What’s up, Pumpkin?” When Jimmy’s voice came on the line, the guy’s tone made Howie’s skin crawl, and it took him a second to figure it out, but he was calling on the girl’s phone, so with the caller ID, Jimmy thought it was his daughter. And yeah, it was hopeless, no chance the guy was going to take Howie’s side, not even if he ratted her out, snitching on her about the boyfriend. “Hello?” the guy said, voice sounding like he was about to hit a boil. “Sweetie, you know your father doesn’t like it when you keep him waiting.”
And yeah, there was one way out of this, even if Howie didn’t want to see it. And he could see in her face that she saw it, too. The one chance he had.
I don’t know what happened, he would say. The guy followed us back to the room. He must’ve been psycho. I choked him out, but by then it was too late, and he’d killed her.
And maybe Jimmy would go for that.
Yeah, maybe he would.
Had to be a ghost of a chance.
Better yet, Howie could ice the kid, take everything she had, fly to Mexico, and he’d be out of it before Jimmy knew what happened. The hell did Howie have to go home to, anyway, another shift working the door at Jimmy’s place, Sanctuary Gentleman’s Club, across the Ben Franklin in Gloucester City, New Jersey, with its dressing rooms that smelled of meth smoke and ass? Yeah, even if he made it out of this situation, in a couple days he’d be back in Philly, cranking the hog, watching Insomniac with Dave Attell on Comedy Central, and scarfing down takeout from Raj’s Indian, which his whole life since his ex-wife had bailed.
So, no, nothing was waiting for him back there.
“I’ll tell my dad that you two kidnapped me,” she said, still whispering, pointing at the dead guy on the bed. “And you killed him in a fit of jealous rage.”
Jimmy still barking in his ear, Howie closed the phone.
And she opened her mouth, but he wasn’t going to give her time to scream.
But could he do this?
“If you kill me,” she said, baring her teeth, picking up her handbag from the floor and holding it on her lap, “my father will do the same to you. As much of an idiot as you are, you must know that.”
And yeah, he did know that.
But even if it would’ve been a way out of this, he couldn’t kill the kid. Lucky for him, cracking heads was a skillset that had transferred from his previous line of work, and he’d busted an arm or a leg on Jimmy’s orders, sure—he’d dangled a guy out a third story window, snapped a few fingers, though mostly, he’d stood around looking tough, letting his size do the work—but icing an innocent kid, well, it was a step too far, even for a degenerate piece of shit and a career loser like one-time All-American Howie Hood.
“Please?” she said, and it came out like a question.
That was when he looked at the guy’s face, and he saw what he’d been missing, namely, the hole in the guy’s cheek, under his right eye, which had been turned away from Howie on the bed. Looked like it had come from a small caliber pistol, a 22. And yeah, probably that was the same one she’d taken out of the bag, the same gun that was now in her hand, pointing at him.
“Son of a bitch has been telling me for two and a half years he was going to leave his wife and kids,” she said. “We had tickets to Acapulco, and we were supposed to fly out this morning, but when push came to shove, last night he said he wasn’t going to leave with me, so what was I supposed to do? If he’s such a family man, if he loves that bitch he married and those brats so much, why does he keep coming back for another piece of this pussy, again and again?”
She wiped the tears from her cheeks. Jesus. Like father, like daughter. Howie’s tongue was still too swollen, and he was too shocked to do or say anything except grunt, sitting on the edge of the bed in the suite Jimmy had sprung for at the Sir Francis Drake, with the traffic sounds from Powell and the cable car clanging past below the window, with the crowds on Union Square down the street and another plane approaching in the distance.
Shit. Great flaming mounds of it.
“You choked him.” She was crying, the light coming in the windows behind her and shining on her cheeks, the curtains blowing on the breeze. “You beat him up because he wouldn’t leave the room and because of some stupid guy shit, like you were practically comparing the size of your dicks all night, so you started this. It’s not my fault. I just saw a chance, and I finished it.”
From down the hall came Howie’s familiar ringtone, Eminem’s “White America,” and sure enough, Howie’s Nokia was busted on the floor, so it must’ve gotten smashed last night when they were brawling, and now it was probably Jimmy calling, the guy in a tizzy since Howie had hung up on him on the kid’s phone.
Yeah, it was just like that goal line stand. Sometimes a guy had to lay everything on the line. And if it wasn’t true before, now it was true: only one way out of this.
Howie heard the first shot, but he was off the bed and halfway across the room with his hands reaching for her neck before he felt the impact, like he was busting off the line after hearing the snap count.
Yeah, this time there were going to be two bodies laid out on the gridiron, and if he was lucky, someone would be there to put him back together when it was all over. But either way, he was going to be long gone before they had to figure how to get rid of the corpses.