As he becomes embroiled deeper in a Montana murder, punter Nick Gallow must figure out who tried to set him up, and why
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. Enjoy!
I try to make sense of what I’ve just seen. Jonah's hands are covered with fresh scars, as if he’d been in some kind of fight. But he also told me he’d been interviewed by the police this morning. Kinsey had looked at me for defensive scars during our talk, and surely he would have done the same with Jonah. Yet Jonah reacted as if what was on his hands had been incriminating.
But I also remember how I met Jonah. He was trying to hustle me in a football-throwing contest, which he justified by saying it was only something he and his pals did to mess with tourists. Whoever stuck Dean's body in the truck of my rental car had that same impulse—let's stick it on a tourist.
It is the rare person who, in need of a quick solution, doesn't use something that's worked for them before.
Jonah Volt sidles away from me. The next time his Hill Rats need to punt, he sends in a guy from the regular roster, without even glancing at me. The result is a predictable 25-yard shank. At halftime his players gather around a cooler on the sideline, but it looks like they’re drinking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I pull off my Hill Rats shirt, toss it to Max, the player who’d loaned it to me, and return to the stands to join Freddie, who’s sitting on his own in the top row. I go over with him what I saw.
“I just can't believe Jonah would be a part of that,” I say to him.
“Why not?” Freddie says. “You don't know a thing about him.”
It’s true. I talked to him for one night, but mostly I know him as a fan.
“It's just disappointing,” I say. “Why try to stick the murder on us?”
Freddie leans back in the stands.
“Do you know why they call that bar the Boneyard?” Freddie asks.
“It's because in the old days that place was a business, and its business was selling buffalo bones. Here’s how much buffalo bones cost back then—five dollars a ton.”
“How do you know this? I ask.
“In the bar they had framed letters on the wall—bills of sale, contracts. The bones were sold to chemical plants back East. God knows what they did with them. But think about how many buffalo you’d have to kill to make five bucks. It's the same type of deal they're doing with us.”
“How?” I ask.
“There's only one way you can turn all those dead animals into five bucks and not blink an eye,” Freddie says. “You have to decide that the value of the life of a buffalo is so negligible it doesn't matter at all. Because once you decide something doesn't matter to you, it allows you to do whatever you want to it—be it buffalo or tourists or whatever. You just do the thing that improves your situation by the slightest amount, and you don't even think twice about it.”
Freddie and I leave in the middle of the third quarter—the olden-days charm of this game between the Hill Rats and the Rustlers has faded.
We return to our room at the lodge and sit out on the deck. Freddie’s eating a bag of potato chips from the minibar, while I’m drinking a cup of chamomile tea. The lodge is remote enough that, even with its ambient light, we see a sky filled with stars.
My thoughts turn to Dacey McAllister, the one Hill Rat who apparently cared enough about Dean's death to skip the game tonight. I wonder if she would have something to say.
“Hey, Freddie,” I say. “Use your phone to see if you can find an address for Dacey McAllister.”
“Who's Dacey McAllister?” he asks. I explain to Freddie that she’s a woman I met at the Boneyard, and that she kicked and punted for Jonah Volt's Hill Rats.
“They have a girl punter?” Freddie says, his face lighting up. “So how does it feel to know your job is essentially woman's work?”
“Freddie,” I say, “Dacey McAllister drills for natural gas for a living. She could beat the crap out of you.”
“She sounds hot,” Freddie says.
I don't say anything, but I smile a little, “She is hot, isn't she?” Freddie says. “What's she look like?”
I reluctantly give Freddie the basics: Dacey is about six feet tall in cowboy boots, has long blonde hair she was wears in a pony tail, and has strong shoulders and stronger legs.
“Hmmm,” Freddie says.
“Was she was wearing a white shirt last night?” Freddie says.
“I don't know because I didn't ask,” Freddie says. “But from the little I saw, I had the impression she might have been the girlfriend of our dear departed Dean.”
“She was hanging all over him for a while,” I think.
“So you did see Dean again after our first encounter with him,” I say. Freddie did not tell the police this when they interviewed us.
“Yes,” Freddie says. After a moment of silence he adds, “It was when I was buying pot. I didn't want to say anything about that to the police. I just wanted to end that conversation as quickly as possible and keep my role”—he holds up his thumb and forefinger and then squeezes them together—”minimized.”
“Freddie, a man is dead,” I say.
“Nothing I saw would help the police.”
I hope he’s telling me everything. “What do you mean when you say that Dacey was hanging all over Dean?”
“She was leaning on him, half sitting on his knee.”
I remember Dacey putting her hand on my shoulder after we’d been talking for two seconds. She also “accidentally” fell onto me when she was demonstrating her punting stroke. I suppose the real surprise to me wasn’t that she was Dean's girlfriend, but rather that she was anyone's girlfriend. She had carried herself like a free agent.
The next morning I wake at six a.m., go out on the deck and do my five hundred squats and two hundred push-ups. Then I run my hill sprints. I come back and shower, and Freddie is still asleep in his part of our suite. History suggests he will be out for another three hours. I decide to visit Dacey.
She lives on the outskirts of town, in a small but functional-looking ranch house. White siding, dark roof, leafy trees that keep her half-acre in the shade. Her pickup truck is parked underneath a carport.
She answers the door wearing jeans and a shirt with blue-and-white horizontal stripes. The stripes make her look broader than she’d appeared the other night.
“What can I do you for?” she says, not bothering to smile.
“Just wanted to talk,” I say.
“Talk quickly,” she says, as she steps back, allowing me in. “I’m driving to North Dakota today.”
“What's happening in North Dakota?”
“Job,” she says. “Came up this morning”
“You told me you had enough saved up to take the summer off.”
“Yeah, well,” she says, curtly. “Getting the hell out of here is suddenly sounding like a great idea.”
She asks me if I'd like anything to eat or drink. I decline.
Her house is minimally decorated, with a functional flower-patterned sofa. A huge plasma TV opposite a kitchen bar seems like her one big-ticket item. Through the open door of a bedroom I see a suitcase on the bed, open and half full of clothes. Her toaster oven dings. She goes to the open kitchen, removes a couple waffles from the toaster oven with her bare hands. One she puts on a plate, the other waffle she folds and dips into a bowl of syrup and takes a bite.
“If you go today, you'll miss Dean's funeral.”
“Yeah, well … ” she says between chews. “I think he'll get over it.”
“How well did you know Dean?”
She puts the half-eaten waffle down on the plate.
“You mean, were we doing it?”
I suppose that is what I meant, in the coarsest sense.
“We fooled around a couple times when we were sloshed,” Dacey says, “But I don't think anyone would mistake us for Romeo and Juliet.”
To me she sounded too rough by half. She was overdoing it.
“Who killed him?” I asked. “Do you know?”
She studies me warily.
“What business is it of yours?”
“They dumped the body in my trunk,” I say. “You can see where that would bother a man.”
“They ain't arrested you, have they?”
“So maybe you should just go back to Philadelphia. I bet we’ll all be very easy to forget about.”
I say nothing, and she places one hand down on the counter and places the other over her eyes.
“I'm sorry,” I say.
“Yeah, I'm sorry too,” she straightens herself and wipes her eyes. “And I have to finish packing.”
She shoves the other half of the waffle in her mouth and goes to her bedroom.
I notice a standing wooden shelf dotted with framed photographs that describe an outline for Dacey's life. I see her beaming in a graduation gown, her arm around a large older woman I assume is her mother. Then there's Dacey on a mountaintop, wearing wraparound sunglasses, her fist raised in triumph. Another photo shows Dacey with her Hill Rat teammates in their maroon uniforms, grinning and on one knee, huddled around a tall trophy. In that picture she’s positioned next to Jack Volt, who, it appears, has his arm around her.
In another photo, Dacey and Jack Volt are at a lake. She's in a bikini, and they’re sitting in beach chairs with beers in their hands. Jack is grinning widely and his green eyes glow, while Dacey is raising her beer in a toast to the camera.
“Did you date Jack Volt too?” I ask. As soon as the word “too” comes out of my mouth I regret it.
“Is there a law against a woman having two different boyfriends,” she asks.
“Of course not,” I say. “Sorry.”
“What's the story there—who ended it?”
She turns to me.
“You go out-of-state for five months on a gas job, Jack Volt is not the kind of guy who's going to sit at home and wait.” She pauses, and then adds, “He is the kind of guy who will get mad, though, when he finds out you took up with someone else.”
I feel as if she has said the phrase two plus two and is waiting for me to say four.
“Do you think Jack Volt killed Dean?” I ask.
She closes her eyes. “I don't know anything. But it wouldn't surprise me. I can imagine those two idiots getting in a fight, and it escalating. They're both big babies. If Dean was dumb enough to throw the first punch, that would drive Jack crazy.”
“Because Jack Volt doesn't like being shown up. You know the story of how his football career ended, don't you?”
“His sophomore year in college, he has having a bad half—he threw interceptions in three straight series—and when he got yanked from the game Jack punched his coach in the face. Right there on the sideline. Broke his jaw.”
Wow. I can see where that would end a career quickly. I think back to last night, when I asked Jonah to let me play a series at quarterback instead of Jack, and Jonah wouldn't even consider it.
“I imagine the police know what a hothead Jack Volt is,” I ask.
Dacey throws some socks into her suitcase, closes the lid and zips it shut. “Yeah, but if there's one thing Jack Volt is better at than football, it's getting people to feel sorry for him.”
“Why do people feel sorry for him?”
“Oh, there's a lot of chump-ass families around here, but none worse than the Volts—before Jonah hit it big, anyway. Their daddy died in prison when Jack was eight, and their mama killed herself soon after that. They were raised by their grandmother. She was a real hard case, from what I hear. Tougher than either of the two of them. She died a couple years ago from lung cancer.”
“And that’s when Jonah quit football,” I say.
“Right. He came home because he was worried about what would happen to Jack if no one was there to watch over him. Which is exactly what I mean about people feeling sorry for Jack. He even got his brother to walk away from millions of dollars to come back here.
“I used to feel sorry for Jack, too. When we were together I put up with some crap you cannot even imagine. Yelling. Threats. I’d call him on it, and he’d get all weepy and say that with all that happened to him as a kid, it’s not his fault.
“But then one day it hit me. Lots of people had it as bad as Jack. Jonah had it exactly as bad as Jack. And look at what Jonah became. The problem with Jack Volt is simple: He’s just no damn good.”
Everything Dacey says points to Jack Volt as a likely suspect in Dean's death. I wonder, though—why were Jonah's hands so scratched up, and why was he so upset that I had seen them?
My phone buzzes. I have a message from Freddie, with a photo attachment.
I open the message, and the text reads, We're on our way! Be there soon!
My stomach knots as the picture fills in, line by line, over the sluggish reception my phone has been getting up here. The data bits crawl in, and I see Freddie, in the front passenger seat of a pickup truck, grinning obliviously. Behind him, with a devilish smirk, hands tight on the wheel, boring holes into the camera, are the green eyes of Jack Volt.
Read Part Four of Night at the Boneyard on Friday.
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