A dead body in the trunk, and two football-playing brothers with secrets in their past. For Sentinels punter Nick Gallow, the mystery in Montana deepens
Editor's note: Welcome to the The MMQB's Summer Beach Read. This week we're publishing an original four-part football mystery, "Night at the Boneyard," by Bill Syken, based on characters he created for his novel to be published in 2015. Part Three will appear on Thursday and the conclusion on Friday. Enjoy!
I take out my phone to call the police and Freddie says, “What are you doing?”
To me, the body in the trunk provides all the explanation necessary.
“Whoever made this mess dumped it on us,” Freddie says. “I say we just pass it down the line. When in Rome …”
“So what are you saying, that we should find another car with an unlocked trunk?”
“Doesn't even have to be that complicated,” Freddie says. “It's nighttime. We're in Montana. Wide open spaces everywhere you look. All we have to do is dump Dean's body and get on with our lives.”
Freddie's point about the abundance of dumping spots makes me wonder—why was the body put in our car and not someplace else? Dean had to have been killed at the Boneyard, and the gulch right behind the roadhouse might as well have been designed for the disposing of corpses.
“My solution is the environmentally friendly one,” Freddie says. “Think of it as feeding the animals.”
Freddie graduated law school, though he never passed the bar. It's too bad, because he has a gift for shameless position-taking.
“No one's going to think this is your fault,” I say.
“My father will,” Freddie answers, then slips his hands into his pockets and looks away.
I dial 9-1-1.
It takes nearly 40 minutes, but a police car arrives with two officers. One, rotund and middle-aged with white hair, is named Kinsey. The other, younger and leaner with a short blond crew cut, is Utrecht.
“Well look at that,” says Kinsey, examining our trunk. “Dean Hartwell.”
“No kidding,” says his younger colleague, with a chuckle. “I knew I should have taken him in the pool?”
“What pool?” I ask.
“Dean and his pals are all well acquainted with local law enforcement,” Kinsey says. “I busted him three years ago for DUI, two years ago for vandalism. He threw his motorcycle helmet through a store window. Did three months for that one, I think.”
“Two months,” says Utrecht. The younger officer has a camera and is taking photographs of the body in the trunk.
“You may be right,” Kinsey says. “The nonsense all blends together with those guys.” He turns to me. “So what happened?”
I run back the evening for him, and how Dean roped Freddie and me into a football contest with a man who turned out to be Jonah Volt, former star turned recluse. Then I went off with Jonah Volt and never saw Dean again—until I opened the trunk.
“How about you?” Kinsey says to Freddie. “You see Dean after that?”
Freddie shrugs his shoulders. “Nope. That was it. I went inside a few minutes after Nick, and Dean was still out back.”
“How'd you guys end up at the Boneyard?” Utrecht asks.
After Freddie doesn't say anything, I volunteer: “My friend here heard they had good burgers.”
The officers look at each other and laugh.
“The Boneyard doesn't even have a kitchen,” Utrecht says.
Freddie's eyes are down, avoiding mine.
Kinsey leans over Dean's body, placing a gloved finger on the chin.
“Looks like his neck was snapped,” Kinsey says. “Got punched around, too.” Kinsey shifts his gaze down the body and lifts up a hand. “Looks like Dean landed a couple shots before he checked out. Fresh cuts on the knuckles.”
Kinsey turns to us.
“Why do you think he ended up in your trunk?”
“I wish I knew,” I say. “I'm kind of pissed off about it.”
“The car was unlocked,” Freddie chips in. “So anyone could have gotten in the trunk.”
The cops exchange a stoic glance.
“Can you hold out your hands, please,” Kinsey says. “Roll up your sleeves too.” I hold mine out. He bends over and examines them, looking for signs I'd been in a fight, but there are none. Utrecht takes a photo.
“Want to see my hands?” Freddie says. The officers exchange another glance. The waifish Freddie looks as if he would struggle to snap a carrot, much less the neck of a man twice his weight.
“Sure,” says Kinsey. “Sure.”
After he passes inspection, I say, “Freddie, why don't you go up to the room. If there's anything more they need, I'll come get you.”
Freddie disappears without argument, and when he’s gone, I pull Kinsey aside and say under my breath, “Can I ask you for a favor?”
“You can ask.”
“My friend and I will help you in any way we can,” I say. “But I would appreciate it if, when you write this up, you keep Freddie out of the report. He's supposed to in Montana for therapy, and it wouldn't look good if he ended up in news stories about a bar killing.”
“Who is he, exactly?”
“Does the name Curly Fries mean anything to you?”
Kinsey eyes go wide.
“He's the Curly Fries guy?
Freddie, by virtue of his family fortune, is probably worth more than every human within a fifty-mile radius put together. But now he is known to the public as the guy who got high and demanded the Sentinels draft Curly Fries.
“I'll do what I can,” Kinsey says, and then switches to a deep announcer's voice: “With their seventh round selection, the Sentinels order up Curly Fries!” He laughs. “Too bad the pick didn't go through. It would have been classic.”
As has been our custom since we've been in Montana, Freddie sleeps until noon while I get up in the morning and do my daily workout: five hundred squats, two hundred pushups, and then a series of sprints on the mountain road to the lodge. The awfulness of last night intrudes on my mind, but I go on with my exercise. Working through distraction is as much the point of the daily routine as building leg strength.
By the time Freddie wakes, the hotel staff has proved worthy of whatever Freddie is paying for us to stay here. They’ve coordinated with the rental car company to deliver us a replacement for our Sebring, which is being held by the police as evidence. We have an SUV now, and we decide to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a two-lane highway that cuts across the width of Glacier National Park. The road is more crowded with other drivers than would be ideal, but we see amazing views of snow-frosted mountains, a waterfall and even one of the park’s glaciers. “I wish it was advancing,” the hung-over Freddie says of the huge tongue of ice. “I'd lay down in front of it and wait to go extinct.”
It is breathtaking, but it is also harder to be in love with the land when we think of what one of its locals did to Dean—and, by dumping his body in our trunk, to us as well.
We had been listening to satellite radio—classic soul, something Freddie and I could agree on—but on our way back to the lodge we switched from Eddie Floyd to the local am/fm, hunting for information about what had happened last night.
“The death of 31-year-old Dean Hartwell has been ruled a homicide, but police are still searching for eyewitnesses to the killing of the Kalispell native,” the news announcer says. Freddie clicks back to satellite radio. It is William Bell singing “You Don't Miss Your Water.”
“So when I talking to Jonah Volt last night at the Boneyard,” I say to Freddie. “What were you doing?”
“I don't know,” he says diffidently. “Finding out what people do for fun around here.”
“What do they do?” I ask.
He shrugs. We ride for a while more.
“Just give it to me, okay?” I say.
Freddie pulls out a bag of weed from the glove compartment. He unfurls it, opens the Ziploc top and lets its contents fly out the window.
“Some grizzly bear is about to be have a serious craving for berries,” he says.
At 7:30 p.m. Freddie and I drive to the Whitefish high school and find that the Hill Rats are playing tonight despite the death of their lineman/equipment manager. The temperature had been up near 80 during the day, but there is already a chill in the air, signaling a drop into the 50s tonight. There are a couple hundred cars in the parking lot, and the lights are on in the stadium.
The tickets, sold at a card table set up by the entrance, are $10 each. The bleachers at this field are even smaller than they were at my high school, and they are maybe a quarter-filled with fans. It would feel like a Pee-Wee League game if the guys weren’t so big. The grass on the field is burnt brown, reflecting a dry summer. The stadium lights cast long shadows across the field.
But what captivates me is mountain backdrop; beyond a set of goalposts the Rockies hulk darkly in silhouette as the sun sets behind them, the sky aflame in orange and red. I think I would be happy just watching the changing hues for however long it takes for the sky to go dark.
But Freddie and I move on to the stands. The game is already midway through the first quarter. The Hill Rats, up 8-0, are in maroon, and the Rustlers, their opposition, are in white. The uniforms are tavern-league quality at best. While players wear helmets and pads and uniform tops, below that everyone is wearing shorts or sweatpants, with no effort made even to match colors.
I see Jonah on the sidelines, standing amid a dozen other players.
He’s wearing a hoodie, with both hands in the pouch, and is attentive but silent, as if he is nothing more than a moderately interested spectator. Which I suspect is pretty much the case. He is so uninvolved that I feel fine leaving the stands and moving to the sidelines to say hello.
“Hey,” I say as I sidle up next to him.
“Hey. Hear you had quite a ride home last night.” He says this without emotion, even though Dean had appeared to be his partner in crime, at least when it came to suckering tourists.
“How well did you know Dean?” I ask.
“Long time,” Jonah says flatly. “We went to the same school. He was a couple years ahead of me.”
“I'm sorry for your loss,” I say.
“Me too,” Jonah says. “But the show must go on.”
Passive as Jonah's body language is, his eyes are closely following the action. The team's quarterback has the name VOLT on his No. 12 jersey. When Jonah played for Miami, he wore the number 12.
“Is that someone else wearing your shirt?” I ask.
“It's my older brother, Jack,” he says.
Jack takes the snap from center, fakes a pitch and wheels around the edge with a speed that befuddles the bruisers on the field. He takes the ball down the sideline, until he is pushed out around the fifteen-yard line.
“Nice wheels,” I say.
“Shoulda seen him in high school,” Jonah says. “Best mobile quarterback I've ever seen. People would ask me if I modeled my game after Joe Montana or John Elway,” Jonah says. “Nope. All I ever wanted was to play like Jack.”
I eye Jonah's brother with fresh curiosity. In the huddle he shouts at his teammates, eyes fiery, as if a Super Bowl was at stake.
“Did he play in college?” I ask.
“Couple seasons,” Jonah said.
“What happened?” I ask.
On the next play Jack Volt calls his own number again, another run around the right side that the other team is hapless to stop. One juke back inside is all in takes to split the last two defenders and stride into the end zone.
“The road to glory has many off-ramps,” Jonah says, as he holds up two fingers. Even though the team is up 14-0 now, he’s going for two.
“I'm light a kicker,” Jonah explains.
“Where's Dacey?” I ask.
“Couldn't make it tonight,” he says, “Problem with women. They get too emotional.” The words sound as false coming out of Jonah's mouth as they do to my ear.
After the two-point conversion—another Jack Volt run, this time a keeper up the middle—half the offense drifts back to the sideline. Jack comes straight to his brother, helmet off. His hair is black and shoulder length, but thinner than his brother's. His green eyes are wild and intense. He smiles, and it is a horror show of bad dental work—his front teeth are out, the kind of injury I would associate with hockey players.
“This the Philly guy?” Jack says to his brother, pointing toward me as if his words and gestures were somehow invisible to my eyes. “Figured he'd be in jail by now.”
The presumption that I am a perpetrator leaves me flat-footed.
“Jack's joking,” Jonah says quickly.
Jack smiles and laughs, with a heartiness that feels forced.
“I just don’t like how the police here spend their time leaning on locals and they let the out-of-town money get away with everything,” Jack says. His voice was raspy but surprisingly soft. “You know what I mean?”
“Police talked to me for a good while last night,” I say. “How about you guys—you been interviewed?”
On the field Dacey's replacement at placekicker, who must weigh 250 pounds, takes a mighty run at the kick-off and hits a wobbling duck that dives hard to the right and goes out of bounds at the 30. Jack turns and trots back on the field, slipping on his helmet as he joins the defensive huddle.
“I went in to the police and had them interview me as soon as I heard the news,” Jonah says.
“I talked to an officer named Kinsey,” I say.
“Good man?” I ask.
“Wouldn't want to have to take Bunker Hill with him,” Jonah says. “But for up here he'll do. He gets it.”
“That up this way,” Jonah says slowly, “people don't always need the government to solve their problems for them.”
Jack Volt, now playing safety, makes an over-the-shoulder interception on a deep pass and brings it back a few steps before being tackled at his own 28. Some players run off while others go on, but Jack stays on the field to quarterback.
“If we have to punt,” Jonah says, “I'm sending you in.”
“You know you want to,” he says.
“I don't have any cleats.”
Before I can say anything more, Jonah shouts, “Yo Max!” to a big guy a few yards down the sideline. This guy is about my height but weighs about 100 pounds more than me. “Give my friend Nick here your uniform.”
“He's a guest here,” Jonah says. “Show him some Montana hospitality.”
The phrase feels ironic, given what happened last night, but Max removes his uniform—he has a white undershirt on beneath it— and hands it to me. The uniform hangs down to my knees, nearly. I let it hang over my jeans, which I unbutton, to make them a little looser, and do a lunging hamstring stretch. All it took was getting into a uniform to feel the adrenaline surge. I am rooting for Jack Volt and the offense to crap out so that I can take the field.
It happens quickly, and in a great spot, on their own 40-yard line. Jack throws a third-down dart to a wide-open tight end, but the ball skids off his fingertips, into his facemask, and to the ground. “Nice hands, you piece of crap!” Jack yells at his teammate as they run to the sideline.
I quickly yank off my shoes and socks and trot onto the field, the dry grass crunching beneath my bare feet. I have to slow myself down, so eager am I. I go to my spot, ten yards behind center. I raise up to the balls of my feet, shake out my arms and hold them out to receive the ball. The snap comes in below my target but not horribly so, about waist high. I bend slightly to catch it and take my step-step-step, drop the ball flat and hit it maybe a half-inch lower than ideal, but it doesn't matter. The worn ball hugs my bare foot for a millisecond and then leaps off it, soaring up and up, above the silhouette of the mountains, a dark dot crossing the backdrop of the fading sun. I don't know if it’s the mountain air or the setting, but never has a punt of mine looked so good.
I trot downfield in coverage, even though I know it’s not necessary. I’d aimed the ball toward the left coffin corner, and it comes down where the five-yard line intersects the paint of the sideline. Fifty-five yards, no chance of return, no need for an official to even think about where to place it. Perfect.
The ref's whistle blows, and then—blam!—I’m speared in the side and knocked off my feet. I land shoulder-and-head-first on the ground. An enormous Rustlers player stands over me, lets his black mouthpiece fall and grins. “Nice kick, barefoot.”
Back on the sideline I take fresh notice of the style of play, and how extraordinarily rough it is. This morning the police examined my hands looking for signs I'd been in a scrape. I hope they’ve already checked out these guys, because I would bet that every player will be emerging from the game with fresh wounds.
Along the line, guys are throwing forearms and punches, and in the secondary defensive backs are mugging receivers as they run their routes. I see Night Train Lane’s infamous—and long since outlawed—clothesline tackle deployed a time or three. I feel as though I've stepped back into the old-time football I've read about, when anything went and guys were paid less than we get as meal money. They did it because they loved it.
“Can I get a series at quarterback?” I ask Jonah.
“Ah, Jackie's my signal-caller,” he drawls.
“C'mon, Jonah,” I say. “One series.”
Jonah shakes his head. “I like you, Nick,” he says. “But I have to live with that man.”
I take it in good humor, but I am disappointed. I go to the drawstring sack of balls, the same one that Dean carried last night, before his face had been bloodied and his neck snapped. In this small world up here, with such a heavy resemblance between this crew on the sideline and the big bodies at the Boneyard last night, it feels likely that whoever killed Dean and dumped his body in my car is somewhere in this stadium.
I grab a ball from the drawstring sack.
“Hey Jonah,” I call to him. We are about five yards apart. “Think fast,” and I wing the ball at him, as Dean had done to me last night. My throw is a laser spiral, head height.
Jonah whips his hands out of hoodie pouch to make the catch, and there I see it. Last night Jonah's enormous hands were clean and smooth. Tonight they are all cut up.
We both freeze. Jonah sees what I have seen. “Dammit,” he says. He spits and glares at me.
Read Part Three of Night at the Boneyard on Thursday.
Bill Syken's first Nick Gallow novel will be published in 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books. Follow him @bsyken.
Photo credit for bison skull interstitials: Getty Images