For punter Nick Gallow, events come to a head in the foothills of the Montana Rockies, where the fates of three football players, and the life of his best friend, hang in the balance
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 show Dacey the photo of Freddie in Jack's truck.
“Oh hell,” she says.
Dammit. She knows Jack Volt better than I do. The alarm in her eyes sets my heart pounding.
“Freddie's message says, ‘We're on our way.’ Where do you think they're on their way to?”
“Jonah's house?” Dacey says. “Where else could you be that your friend thinks Jonah would be taking you?”
Freddie had been asleep when I left, so he would have no idea I was at Dacey’s place. Jack and Jonah live together. I can’t think of anywhere else Jack would claim to be taking him. It is the only shot I can think of to take.
“How do I get to Jack and Jonah’s?”
Dacey looks at her suitcase on her bed, packed for North Dakota and months in the field.
“I’ll take you,” she says.
“What about the job?”
“They'll still need me tomorrow,” she says. “Let’s go.”
We dash down to her blue Dodge pickup. She tells me we have about a 40-minute ride to the Volt compound, but she'll get us there in 25. Jonah Volt owns 90 acres north of town, up toward Canada.
We are driving down a wooded road that, through its occasional openings, offers views of a broad valley. Dacey is speeding along with the easy concentration of a woman who knows each curve and swale in the road.
As we course through this terrain that is strange to me, I have a flash of panic. I realize I don't know Dacey at all, and she and Jack Volt took lake vacations together. I consider that the she might be bringing me out to Volt’s 90 acres as part of some trap. I’m a passenger in her truck the same way Freddie is in Jonah’s.
But I don't know exactly what I can do about it at this point. In this circumstance, I have to trust someone.
“Who is this Freddie exactly?” Dacey asks.
“He's my best friend,” I say. “And the vice president of operations for the Sentinels. And he's the owners' son.”
“So is this a strategic friendship, then?” she asks. “No one's going to cut the owner's son's best bud, right?”
“It's not like that,” I say, and it isn’t, though teammates had kidded me about this before. My long snapper, John Backlund, who’s on his fourth team in nine years and has five kids at home, always tells me to put in a good word with Freddie around cutdown time, despite my assurances that Freddie holds no sway in the process. “Freddie only has his job because his father owns the team. Freddie shows up to the facility, sometimes. That's about it. We met in the players’ lounge. He spends a lot of time playing Xbox in there.”
“Wait a second,” Dacey says. “Was Freddie that guy who showed up stoned in the draft room and demanded that you guys draft Curly Fries?”
“Yes,” I say. Freddie was right about one thing. People would take notice.
“So you're the straight one, and he's the goofy one. Is that it?”
“Sort of.” After doing five hundred squats and two hundred pushups a day for five years, it is fun to hang out with someone who doesn't give a crap about anything. “But Freddie's a good guy.”
“Like how? Always paying for drinks?”
“No, I mean like a really good guy,” I say. “Two years ago my dad died in a car accident … ”
“I'm sorry,” Dacey says.
“Thank you,” I say. “My dad and I were very close. He was my high school football coach, and he was the one who suggested I become a punter. His death hit me hard. After I came home from the funeral, Freddie invited me to stay at his beach house at the Jersey shore for as long as I wanted. I figured I'd go there and lay around for a weekend at most, but I ended up staying a month. Freddie even took one of his spare bedrooms and decorated it with framed covers from vinyl records of my favorite bands. He made me feel at home at the exact moment I needed it.”
Tears well at the memory of it.
“I can't let him get hurt,” I say.
“Okay,” Dacey says quietly. “Wherever he is, we're gonna get him.”
From the two-lane highway Dacey turns on to an unmarked dirt road with the sign PRIVATE–DO NOT ENTER hammered into the trunk of a tree. “We're here,” she says as we continue driving, the bumps on the lane jostling us. I see pine trees and low shrubs with purple berries and continued notices that we are on private property, but beyond that no sign of any human habitat. Jonah had told me he wanted room to swing his arms; he has plenty of it here.
Dacey pulls a truck over to the side of the drive and parks it, even though from what I can see we are still in the middle of the woods.
“We're about a quarter mile from their house,” Dacey says. “Figure we should walk from here. It'll make for a quieter approach.”
She and I disembark from the truck, closing the doors quietly, and we walk quickly up the path. I see her point about noise—it’s so remote here on Jonah Volt's acres that even our careful footsteps feel like they are making an ostentatious crunch.
As the road goes on the trees begin to thin out. We come around the curve, and I see, up at the top of a rise, a yellow Mercedes.
“What's the deal with that?” I whisper to Dacey.
“Jonah's old ride,” Dacey says. “When he quit Miami, he climbed in his Mercedes and drove it straight from there to Montana. And then he ditched it. In the two years he's been back, I bet he hasn't driven it twice.”
When we reach the Mercedes, I can see the Volt home. It is majestic. It looks like a new, sleek, construction, all wood and glass. The middle section is flat and only one story, with wide windows on either side of the door. To each side of the middle section is a modern wooden cabin, with a high roof sloping away from the center. Each cabin is the same size, neither ascendant over the other. The home's design seems to go to pains to say that the two brothers are tied together, and that what one of them has, the other will share in equally.
Parked on the loose gravel, one in front of each cabin, are two pickup trucks, red and black.
“The red truck is Jack's,” Dacey says. So he's here. And so, presumably, is Freddie.
“Where does Jack set up?”
“The cabin on the left,” Dacey whispers. “Beside the main entrance, each cabin has its own side door. And there's a big deck out back. It runs the whole width of the house.”
I think for a moment about what I'm going to do, now that we're here.
“Thank you for getting me here, Dacey,” I say. “But maybe this will go better if I approach Jack alone.”
Dacey’s face darkens, and then she sighs. I imagine she’s thinking of Dean. “Yeah,” she says. “Jack seeing you and me together might not calm things down.”
I leave Dacey behind at Jonah's Mercedes and walk toward the house, which is perched on a hillside. Through the gaps in the trees I glimpse a view of a valley rolling off in the distance.
“Jack Volt,” I shout, my raised voice cutting through the silence. “It's Nick Gallow. I'm looking for Freddie.”
Through a window in Jack's cabin I see a figure in motion, and then from the side door emerges Jack Volt. He is shirtless, with tattoos all over his chest and arms, and he is holding a hunting rifle in his left hand.
“Get out of here, Gallow,” he shouts. “Ain't nothing you can do now. It's over.”
“Over?” I scream. “What's over? Where's Freddie?”
“Everything's over. Everything's over,” he says. “You can't do nothing no more.”
“Out!” he shouts and then raises the gun and fires to the right of me. The bullet hits the trunk of a pine tree about five yards to my side, sending wood chips flying.
The name is called by two voices, nearly in unison, an angry chorus. One voice is Jonah's. He’s standing in the front door of the house, wearing a gray T-shirt and black sweatpants. His long hair is wild and unkempt.
The second voice, coming from behind me, belongs to Dacey. Jack's rifle shot has flushed the two of them out.
“Gallow, get out of here,” Jonah shouts to me. “And take Dacey with you.”
“Where's Freddie!” I shout. “Give me Freddie and I'll go.”
Jack, meanwhile, has his eyes on Dacey.
“Did you bring him here, Dace?” Jack yells. He is holding the rifle loosely with his finger still on the trigger. “You took sides with him—against me?”
I turn to look at Dacey, who dives behind Jonah's yellow Mercedes just as a rifle shot shatters the driver-side window.
“Goddammit, Jack!” Jonah yells as he runs over and grabs his brother by the shoulders. Jack goes into a tuck, head down, arms tight to his side, two hands still gripping the rifle. He looks, for the merest moment, like a quarterback protecting the ball as he’s getting sacked.Jonah wraps Jack up with both arms and drives him back into his cabin.
I dash to Dacey behind the Mercedes. “You OK?” I ask.She’s kneeling by the wheel, shattered glass on the ground beside her.
“Pissed off,” she says.
She takes out her phone and dials 911.
“We’re at the Volt brothers’ house …” she says. Then she pauses and listens. “Twenty-five minutes?” she says grimly.
Dacey looks grim.
“They said they already had a car on the way,” she says. “But it won’t be here for twenty-five minutes. Dark side of living in the wide open spaces.”
I wonder why a car is on the way. But it doesn’t matter right now. What’s important is that 25 minutes is too long to wait.
“You go,” I say. “I have to do this.”
I rise from behind the car and begin toward the house, staying low, doing a bear crawl, like my dad had the entire team do up and back the length of the field when we were having a crappy practice in high school.
As I close in on the house I hear shouting coming from inside, and then a loud clatter. I spring to my feet, and just as I do, Freddie emerges from the side door of Jonah’s cabin. He stumbles out, as if pushed, and falls to the dirt. Blood is running down the side of his throat.
“Freddie!” I shout.
Freddie's head snaps in my direction, with the suddenness of a deer reacting to a broken branch. I run to him and lift him up. He says “I'm OK, I'm OK,” and we take off, me holding his upper arm to carry him along, his long brown hair flopping. I realize that while I have known Freddie four years, and this is the first time I've seen him run.
We reach the Mercedes. Dacey grabs Freddie and guides him down low, so we’re covered behind the car.
“Hi, I'm Freddie,” he says.
“Nice to meet you.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“That psycho came to the lodge and told me you were out here with his brother,” Freddie says. “Said that you had sent him to fetch me, that I should come along and join the party.”
Freddie rubs his wrists. which I see are raw and bruised.
“What did he do to you?” I ask.
“He tied me up, put a knife to my neck, and made me call the police and confess to killing that guy in the bar the other night.”
“You told the police you snapped Dean Hartwell's neck?”
“It seemed like the thing to do,” Freddie says. “As opposed to dying.”
That would explain why the cops were already on their way when Dacey called. But looking at Freddie's frail physique, it seems like the least plausible story imaginable. I wonder if Jack hadn't come to our lodge looking for me and taken Freddie when he turned out to be the only one there.
“How'd you get out?” I ask him.
“Jonah Volt,” Freddie says. “He came in and untied me. Even though Jack told the police it was Jonah who `caught me.’ Said the cops would believe his brother before they would him. Any more questions, or can we get the hell out of here?”
Dacey peers over the hood of the Mercedes.
“It's clear,” she says. “Let's bolt.”
She and Freddie, still ducked over, scamper off in the direction of her truck. I stand up, but I don't want to run. I hear shouts and clatter coming from the cabin. The two brothers are fighting. I now think I know where the scars on Jonah Volt's hands came from, and why they didn't appear until after he had been interviewed by police.
“Nick!” It’s Dacey calling. “Let's go.” She’s stopped and is waiting for me. Freddie, of course, is still running, now upright, tearing off down the road. But I stay. Whatever danger lurks on Jonah Volt's 90 acres, it's all in his brother’s cabin.
I continue watching, waiting, and there it comes: a bright flash through the window, preceding by the briefest instant the thunderclap of a gunshot.
“What happened?” Dacey calls, hesitantly, as if she does not really want to know.
After a moment the cabin door opens and a figure steps out. It is Jonah Volt, his hair pushed back, his eyes bulging in terror.
Jonah takes two steps, then drops to this knees and pounds his fist into the dirt. He batters the ground with a violence that somehow compels me to run toward him.
“No!” I shout. “Jonah, stop.”
Jonah pounds the dirt once more, a terrifying slam. Then he hangs his head and falls back into a sitting position. His eyes are closed, his face flushed.
“Can I use your phone?” he asks calmly, though his chest is heaving. He has a bloody nose, and his hand is curled up like a claw.
I reach into my back pocket and pull out my phone. He attempts to take the phone with hand with which he’d been punching the ground, but it slides through his grip and falls to the dirt.
“Dammit,” he says. He reaches down with his left hand and, cradling the phone in his palm, he punches out 9-1-1 with his thumb.
“Calling to report a suicide,” Jonah says. “Thirty-three-year old male, gunshot wound to the head. And a thirty-one year old male with broken bones in his hand.” He gives the location without ever once mentioning his name.
Jonah hands the phone back to me.
“Suicide?” I say, my voice full of doubt. I had heard the fighting.
Jonah shakes his head. “I was trying to stop him,” he says. “I tried to pull the rifle away … ”
It’s a simple story. I will later reflect on the convenience of it, and how quickly Jonah came up with it. The story explains why Jonah's fingerprints are on the gun, and also why Jonah might be covered with gunpowder residue, should the police care to test for that. Mr. Electricity was always at his best under pressure.
I stand up and look in the open door of the cabin. Jack Volt is laying face down on the floor. The gunshot wound is to the side of his head. Maybe a lawyer with an expensive enough protractor could argue for some obscure geometry that would explain how Jack could shoot himself from that angle with a rifle. But from what I see, it looks like Jonah Volt, after one more fight with his brother, decided he’d had all he could take.
I am interviewed by Kinsey and tell him everything I saw, everything I heard. “So they were fighting?” Kinsey asks me. “Yeah, that's what Jonah said.” Jack Volt's death is reported as an apparent suicide. It is also eventually reported that Jack Volt's DNA matches skin found out under the fingernails of Dean Hartwell. Jonah confirms that his brother was the killer, and also confesses to having helped Jack place the body in the trunk of my rental car. For his cooperation in the investigation he will receive a sentence that could have him on parole in six months. Dacey will tell me via email that the confession was voluntary on Jonah's part. No one who’d been at the Boneyard that night had told the police anything, and they had no evidence on him. I believe that Jonah confessed to that lesser crime because he felt he should go to jail for something.
After the police and the ambulance had arrived to the Volt compound and they were handling Jack's body, I walked around Jonah's house and sat on the deck that ran along the back of the home. The view was the kind that artists would paint in the 1800s, and that inspired so many to dream about going west. The space seemed infinite. Whereas the room behind me seemed painfully small.
After a while Jonah Volt came and sat next to me, saying nothing at first. So still was the scene that a bird landed on the deck railing and perched in front of us, its head swiveling in quick darts but its body still. The bird had bright blue feathers, and it was a kind I’d never seen before.
“So,” I finally ventured. “Dacey told me that the reason you quit football was because of Jack.”
Jonah didn't say anything. He just looked down at his hand, the one that has thrown so many touchdown passes. It was swollen and red, on its way to purple. He tried to close his fingers into a fist and he grimaced, not even able to begin.
“I did give up football for Jack,” he said. “Though lately I’d been thinking about coming back to the game, while I have a few good years left. Told Jack about it a couple days ago.”
“Right before all this mess started up?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Jonah said. “Funny timing, right?”
Jonah tried to flex his fingers again, and he cringed as the pain shivered through him.
“Doesn’t matter now. Looks like I’m done for good.”
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