Authors: Sean Black
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Serial Killers, #Vigilante Justice, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Suspense
It was part of the reason he had taken the job in the first place. He could have gone to Florida as an assistant coach for twice the salary they could offer the head coach here. He could have gone to a similar-sized college in New Hampshire that, courtesy of some seriously wealthy alumni, had an annual endowment ten times what they had at Harrisburg. Hell, he could easily have secured a post somewhere that didn’t require snow chains for three months of the year. But he hadn’t.
Malik had come to Harrisburg because he knew he could make a difference to people’s lives. And that was all he had wanted to do. God had granted him a gift, and he wanted to go where that gift could do the most good. It sounded cheesy, but it was the truth. When it came time to meet his maker, Malik knew that what mattered more than money, acclaim or any of the other superficial, materialistic nonsense the country obsessed about, was the difference he had made to the lives of others.
Malik pulled up his Dodge at the small side entrance used on game days by the coaching staff and players. That was when he noticed the dark grey sedan tucked in next to the entrance. It stood out because, apart from his truck, the rest of the stadium parking lot was empty.
He turned off his engine and got out, leaving the dog in the cab. He walked over to the sedan and peered through the windshield. There was no driver, and no one in the passenger seat.
Malik walked round the car. There was no one in the back seats either. The car had a Minnesota license plate. There were two bumper stickers. One announced that the owner was a college alumnus, and the other read ‘Go Wolves.’ Malik racked his brain: had he seen the car before? Alumni who hung out around the stadium were hardly a rarity, though they tended to show up for practice or pep rallies, rather than at midnight the night before a game.
He dug his cell phone from his pocket and snapped a picture of the car. There was likely a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why it was there, but in case there wasn’t … He put his cell back in his pocket, and let the dog out of the truck. Flint immediately ran over to the sedan and cocked a leg against the rear wheel.
Choking back a laugh, Malik unlocked the side door of the building and stepped into the narrow hallway that led toward the locker rooms. The dog at his side, he stopped to take a deep breath. He loved the smell of these places. That mix of sweat and floor polish did it for him every time. It was the scent of hard work and challenges faced.
He walked past the locker rooms, heading for the caretaker's office. The office was unlocked. The alarm system inside was unarmed. Usually it would have blinked red if the alarm was on, but tonight it was flashing green: disarmed. Malik glanced to the side entrance door. That had definitely been locked. The two things didn’t square, unless the caretaker had forgotten to activate the alarm.
He kept walking. He pushed open a set of double doors that opened straight onto the court and walked to the center. He looked at his watch. It was a minute to midnight.
As the seconds fell toward twelve, he closed his eyes. That was when he heard it. At five seconds to midnight.
For the first few seconds Malik thought it was the dog whimpering. But Flint was right there, tucked in next to him in the middle of the court. He must have heard it too, because first he cocked his head, and then he stood up, front legs spread out, lips peeled back from his teeth, a ridge of hair standing up all the way down his back.
‘Hey!’ Malik yelled. ‘Who’s in here?’
He waited as the echo of his own voice died away to silence.
‘I said, who’s in here?’
He scanned the empty bleachers. He looked down at Flint. When Malik used to play hide-and-go-seek with the kids, he’d sometimes use the dog to flush them out. Flint loved the game even more than the kids did. He’d chase furiously around the house until he tracked them down, showering them with slobbery kisses when he found them.
‘Go on!’ Malik said to the dog. ‘Go find them.’
Flint took off. Malik followed, breaking into a run as the dog headed straight for the locker area.
Malik pushed through the double doors, Flint squeezing ahead of him, almost knocking him over as he shouldered past his legs. ‘I know you’re in here,’ said Malik.
The dog hung a left into the locker room reserved for the visiting team. Malik followed.
Before he made it into the room, he heard a car engine start outside, quickly followed by the squeal of rubber as the vehicle took off at speed. Malik changed direction, hurtling down the corridor, his long, lean, basketball-player legs eating up the distance to the side entrance door. He pushed it open just in time to see the lights of the grey sedan sweep past his truck, heading for the exit.
Turning back, he heard Flint barking from the locker room, a yelping sound, the kind he made when he’d cornered a squirrel up a tree and the terrified creature wouldn’t come down to resume the chase.
All of a sudden the realization of what was happening came to him. It was so obvious he felt like an idiot. He even laughed at his own stupidity. The car might have belonged to an alumnus, but Malik was pretty certain it was being driven by a couple of kids. Maybe the janitor had been in on the prank, hence the alarm being switched off, or maybe the kids had just gotten lucky or had found someone who knew the code to switch it off.
It was obvious now what was going on. The tip-off was the visitors’ locker room. Someone had probably snuck something in there to unsettle tomorrow’s opposition. A skunk, or a couple of rats stolen from one of the college labs, something like that.
Malik called the dog back to his side. Whatever was in there, he didn’t need the dog in the mix. He walked outside and put Flint back in the pick-up. Then he went back.
Bracing himself, he pushed open the door into the visitors’ locker room. He’d been partly right. Something was huddled in the far corner. Only it wasn’t a prank.
The small naked white figure of a young boy, aged no more than twelve, looked up at Malik, a long brown fringe masking tear-filled brown eyes.
Once he had checked that the boy wasn’t injured, or not in any life-threatening way, Malik stepped out into the corridor and called the campus police, wishing now that he’d taken up the young security officer on his earlier offer. ‘This is Coach Shaw. I’m down at the stadium, and …’
He didn’t know how to describe what he’d found, or what had just gone on while he was yards away. Worse, he didn’t want to think about what might have happened if he hadn’t been there.
‘Listen, get someone down here. Now. We have a situation. I found … Just get someone down here, okay?’
He finished the call, and walked back into the locker room. The boy visibly flinched as Malik knelt down next to him.
‘It’s okay,’ Malik said. ‘You’re safe. The cops are on their way.’
There it was again. That tensing of the boy’s body, the squeezing shut of his eyes as he heard the word ‘cops’.
‘I’m Coach Shaw,’ said Malik, starting over, trying to find some point of contact. It was only now that he realized the kid was wet, and so were his clothes. He was small for his age, and skinny, the kind of kid you’d expect to see bullied in the schoolyard. Putting all that together just made it worse, as far as Malik was concerned. He got up and went to the shower stalls. One of the heads was still dripping from recent use.
Lord help me
, he said to himself, grateful for the first time that whoever had been with the boy had fled because he would have beaten them to death right there.
‘What’s your name, son?’ Malik asked. He couldn’t bring himself to ask what he really wanted to know. It wasn’t that he couldn’t form the words. It was more that he wasn’t sure he could live with hearing the answers.
The boy shook his head, eyes closed.
Malik tried another tack. ‘Who was here with you? I mean, I know someone was here. I saw their car.’
The boy’s eyes screwed up tighter until they were little more than two lines above his nose. He didn’t answer. Instead he shook his head. Some of the water from his hair splashed onto Malik’s polo shirt.
Malik let it go. He wasn’t a cop. There was a vending machine out in the hallway.
‘You want a Coke?’ he asked the boy.
A nod. Malik walked out into the hallway. He wanted to call Kim, his wife, but he didn’t like to wake her and the kids. He dug some change out of his pockets and got a Coke. He took it back into the locker room, and gave it to the boy.
The boy took a sip. ‘Am I in trouble?’ he asked Malik.
‘No, of course not.’
Malik glanced at his watch. Where the hell was security? Maybe he should have called the city cops, after all. Just then he heard someone calling from the area of the side entrance.
‘In here,’ Malik shouted, relieved not to be alone with the boy any longer.
The cop who showed up was the same kid he had seen earlier. Malik gave him the basic facts. He’d come to visit the stadium while it was quiet. He told him about the grey sedan, and about hearing a noise, then seeing someone flee and finding the boy in the locker room, all wet. The cop seemed even more freaked out by it than Malik had been.
As he talked to the boy, Malik stepped outside, and called Mike, one of his assistant coaches. It was a while before he answered. When he did, he sounded groggy.
‘Hey, Mike, it’s Malik. Did you text me earlier?’
‘Huh,’ said Mike. ‘Yeah, about the line-up. I thought we should maybe keep Darius on the bench for the first quarter.’
‘No,’ said Malik. ‘This was just before midnight. You texted me about a problem at the stadium.’
‘Not me, Coach,’ said Mike. ‘Why? What’s happened? You want me to come down there?’
‘No, it’s fine,’ said Malik. ‘Go back to sleep.’ He ended the call, and walked back inside the stadium to check on the boy.
Five minutes later, further reinforcements arrived in the shape of the five-foot-six-inches-tall, 250-pound head of campus police, Captain Keith Tromso. Malik had met him a couple of times, once to discuss a frat party attended by some of his senior players that had gotten a little rowdy, and again when a freshman had been pulled over for a DUI. The partygoers had been let off with warning, but the DUI had led Malik to end the freshman’s time at the college. Tromso hadn’t impressed him on either occasion.
The head of campus police seemed to have a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. Maybe it was his height, or that he was head of a campus police force rather than state or federal, but he seemed to regard even the most insignificant discussion as some kind of pissing contest. When Malik had suggested that he talk to the players who had been at the party, Tromso had shot him down, making a big deal of how he was the law, not Malik. The guy was a grade-A asshole.
But all that said, Malik was still glad to see him, and he was impressed by Tromso’s reaction to the incident. For a start, he seemed to grasp the potential gravity of what Malik had found.
‘You said you got a picture of the car?’ Tromso asked, as the younger cop waited with the kid while a female officer was summoned.
Malik nodded and pulled out his cell phone. Tromso took it from him and studied the grainy image.
‘Outstanding, Coach! You got the plate and everything. Y’know, most people wouldn’t think to take a picture.’
‘You have any idea whose car it is?’ Malik asked.
‘No, but we’ll find them,’ said Tromso.
As he’d handed over his cell phone, Malik had caught sight of the time. It was after one in the morning. Kim would be worried if she had woken up and found him gone.
‘Listen, Chief, if you don’t mind, I have a game tomorrow.’
‘Right, of course. Go Wolves,’ said Tromso, in a way that undid whatever improved feelings Malik had for him. Tromso held up the cell. ‘I’m going to need to copy this. Do you mind if I keep a hold of it?’
Malik grimaced. ‘I kind of need it for work.’
‘I’ll drop it back first thing. You’re on Beech Avenue, right? I’ll be able to bring you up to speed on what we’ve found out too,’ Tromso said, with a nod to the locker room.
‘Sure,’ said Malik. ‘I guess that’s okay.’
‘Appreciate it,’ said Tromso, slapping Malik on the back. ‘Now, I know I probably don’t even need to mention this to a man like yourself, but don’t go talking to anyone about it. Y’know, live investigation and everything.’
From his brief time as a pro ball player, Malik had come to trust cops as much as reporters. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said.
Tromso smiled. ‘Knew I could count on you.’
Malik didn’t get to sleep until sometime after four, and even then, he kept waking up. He was thinking about the boy he’d found in the visitors’ locker room, after midnight, soaking wet from the shower. More than anything he couldn’t shift from his mind the look on the boy’s face when he’d found him. A mixture of sadness, shame and fear.
He tried to tell himself that, while there might not be a completely innocent explanation for what he’d discovered, it wasn’t necessarily what he thought it was. But what else could it have been? If it had been innocent, why had whoever was with the boy, the person in the grey sedan, hightailed it out of there? If someone had been showing the kid around the stadium, or sneaking in to shoot some hoops, why had they fled? Running away was hardly the action of someone who had nothing to hide.
But, then, what if they had stuck around? Malik didn’t want to contemplate what might have happened. If someone had been messing with the kid, he already knew what he would have done. Right now, he wouldn’t be back home, lying in bed next to his wife. He’d be cooling his heels in a cell, waiting to see if he could make bail on a homicide charge.
Worse, he thought, what if he hadn’t walked in? What if he hadn’t gotten that text? What if he hadn’t seen it until the morning? And, while he was at it, who was to say that he’d just happened to stumble in on something that wasn’t a one-off? What if someone was using the locker rooms as— Well, he didn’t want to think about what they might have been using them for, but what if this was part of a pattern?