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The Chosen Ones
By Lisa Luciano
The Keys PressCopyright © 2017 Lisa Luciano
All rights reserved.
The door to the office should have been shut and locked, but he left it open, half-hoping someone would pass by and hear what he had heard, relieving him of sole responsibility. If even one other person knew, the weight would be off his shoulders. Despite weekly visits to the gym, he couldn't help noticing his shoulders hanging a little lower each day, not so much the result of six decades on the planet as from the burden of running the sports department of a major newspaper for fifteen years in a city where athletes are exalted over mayors, governors, hell, even visiting diplomats and royalty.
Sam Jacobs' hand shook as he pressed replay on his answering machine for the twentieth time. The paint around the button had worn away months earlier leaving a jagged silver circle to mark the spot. He had been meaning to replace the damn thing. Thank God it held on long enough to preserve the one message of thousands he'd suffered through that might actually be worth something more than just a headline.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake, as he's known to allies and enemies alike, noted people scurrying back and forth in the main office as they always did, yet something was different. Where was the daily cacophony of sounds that grated on his nerves? Fax machines beeping and grinding out their reports. Telephones ringing. Excited chatter over tomorrow's big story. Raucous laughter from a huddle of men with their white shirt sleeves rolled up, sharing a joke fresh from the first place team's locker room.
Instead, he could hear only the whiny voice repeating its message once more, and then abruptly ending. Not one given to flights of fancy, the result of his pragmatic New England upbringing as well as the constant deadlines confronting him, he was caught off-guard when a scene as vivid and palpable as the massive oak desk staring back at him invaded his mind.
It was a familiar sight. He found himself gazing, as he did countless times in childhood, at the picture-perfect coast of Maine. In the distance he could make out the shape of a man standing on the edge of a cliff overhanging the sea. As he walked toward him, the rolling thunder of waves crashing against the pointed rocks below grew louder. He could almost feel the cool mist splattering his arms and the smell of salt sting his nostrils.
Now only a few feet away, he slowly lifted his head to examine the face. It was not one he knew. The features were pleasant, but indistinct, like a police sketch rather than a flesh and blood human being. Judging from the lack of lines around the eyes and the carved, toned muscles of his slim frame barely disguised by a loose-fitting jogging suit, the young man couldn't have been much more than twenty five.
Jake involuntarily stepped back as a hand slowly reached out for his. Sensing no danger, he relaxed and leaned toward him. Before he could grasp it, the young man withdrew his arm, lurching backward as if pushed, and disappeared. Jake rushed to the edge to look for the spot where he had landed. There was no sign of life or death; only white caps slapping the boulders below.
He gasped and threw his head back against the black leather recliner. His stomach lurched as if he'd absorbed one of Muhammad Ali's best jabs. He reluctantly opened his eyes, then pushed out a breath, relieved to find himself where he's always been; in his office that stank of smoke and stress. A thousand decisions were waiting to be made, but a single thought forced all the rest into a temporary holding pattern.
"If he screws up again, this time I'll kill him."
The voice he once loved for its deceptively innocent twang that reminded him there were still simple, clean, wide open spaces somewhere outside the concrete walls of the dark, angry city Jake was forced to call home, pierced the silence, making his skin crawl like the squeal of truck brakes.
"Can I come in or do I need to check for land mines?"
Jake didn't even have to look, though he did. The face was slightly rounder and the skin a bit ruddier than when he'd seen it last, but there was no doubt once he spotted the killer smile that had saved its owner's ass more than a few times. Brody Yates was back, and whatever came of it, Jake had no one but himself to blame.
How many times had he welcomed the sight of Brody standing there in the doorway with his tall, lean body comfortably encased in its regular uniform — a sport jacket, white t-shirt, faded jeans, and scuffed cowboy boots? But that was back in the good old days when they were both young and stupid enough to believe what they were doing was important.
Brody hesitated, looking around for signs of friendly fire.
"Come in," Jake said. "Close the door."
Jake hated this. It had been too long. Too much had happened between them. He chose the location for their meeting carefully. He wanted the home court advantage. But that would put Brody on the defensive. He'd feel obligated to get in the first shot. Brody took several strides, then dropped into a low-backed chair not as large or as comfortable as Jake's. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed.
"Phew! Still suckin' up them cancer sticks?"
Fear. Good choice, Jake thought. Get the opponent off balance by distracting him. Okay. My turn.
Jake lifted the intricately carved lid of a small cherry wood box, revealing a half dozen cigars laying neatly in a row. Brody took one, examined it, then returned it to its place. He knew this wasn't an offer, but rather a show of power.
"Cohibas. Things must be lookin' up," Brody said.
Jake slammed the box shut harder than he had to. The intent was not lost on Brody who he knew noticed everything like the top notch reporter, which despite anything else, he was.
A few uncomfortable moments passed. Jake undid the top button of his shirt, tugged at the knot, then ran his hand down the yellow and black polka-dotted tie that was askew as usual.
Silk, Brody noted silently. I'm sure you paid a fortune for that thing, but it's still just a fancy hangman's noose.
Brody crossed his right ankle over his left thigh. He didn't like sitting unless it was on a horse. He much preferred to be a moving target. Jake enjoyed watching him squirm. Brody tapped his fingers against the arms of the chair, then lifted his hands as if to say, "What's the deal?" though no words escaped.
"God," Jake said, finally. "I can't believe how much I still hate you."
Brody couldn't help chuckling as he nodded.
"Welcome to the club. My ex-wife's the president, and I'm sure she's spent the last ten years trainin' my little girl to take over when she's ready to quit."
The forced smile dropped from his face. Suddenly, reluctantly, Jake felt sorry for the poor bastard.
"Do you see them?" Jake asked, knowing the sadness shaded by the hooded lids overhanging Brody's amber eyes was his answer.
Brody shook his head, then ran his fingers through his hair, looking for something to replace the cigarette that used to be his constant companion. Jake was jealous. Brody looked damn good. He had lost a little at the temples, but not as much as Jake had at forty. His hair appeared to be recently cut, yet still had an untamed look as the shorter top layers which shot in different directions casually flowed into the light brown waves that came to rest at the nape of his tanned neck.
Nearly bald except for a few unyielding tufts of gray at the sides, Jake's hooked nose, coupled with flapping arms and a voice that escalated to a frantic tenor in moments of frustration, gave him the appearance of an eagle about to attack its helpless prey. The only person who was never intimidated by his rants was sitting before him — at his request. What was he thinking, bringing him back?
Jake was as eager as he was frightened to trust Brody with something this important. He had done it once before and it was the biggest mistake of his life. He was too old and too tired to go through that again. His fearless days were long behind him. But he had no choice. Brody was the best investigative reporter he'd ever known. If anybody could get to the truth, he could. But that was the problem. The truth.
"You stupid son-of-a-bitch. You had it all. We both did. And you blew if for us," Jake said.
The words poured out with more bitterness than he intended. He didn't want Brody to know how deeply his emotions still ran. Caring makes you vulnerable. Vulnerability is weakness. And Brody was a master at searching out and turning someone else's weaknesses to his advantage.
"You knew what was goin' on then," Brody responded with an uncharacteristically docile tone.
"Lots of people go through messy divorces. My second wife took me to the cleaners," Jake shot back.
"She wouldn't let me see my kid. I had to do somethin'."
"And you figured committing fraud was going to get you custody of your daughter?"
"I told you, I thought I'd have my sources locked down by the time we ran the article."
"But you didn't," Jake said, as if slamming a cell door shut. "If I hadn't found out you'd fabricated parts of the piece and yanked it at the last minute, we both would've spent the rest of our lives in court. I trusted you, damn it. I gave you your shot. How could you do that to me?"
Brody edged forward in his seat.
"I needed some leverage. The judge was never gonna give me custody of Shelly if he thought I was just some bad imitation of Jimmy Olsen. I needed to get a name for myself. Somethin' that would give me a wedge to fight Dora with."
"You treat everything like a military strike. Did you try talking with her? Maybe you could have worked out visitation rights," Jake offered.
"The bitch made a bonfire, burned up my entire CD collection, then mailed the melted discs to me COD. Does that sound like somebody who wants to talk?"
"So you got desperate, made up the facts, destroyed your career, and nearly took me and this paper down with you."
"I didn't make up nothin'. It was all true and you knew it," Brody said, aiming his finger at Jake.
"But we couldn't prove it."
"Since when does that matter? You know half of what's printed and taken for fact is nothin' but a bunch of freakin' lies."
"Not on my watch," Jake insisted, glaring back at him.
"Yeah, right. Like all of Gary's material is verifiable. Tell me. How does he get such great ringside quotes when he spends most of his time on a barstool?"
"You would know. You've been keeping one warm for years."
Brody tightened his bottom lip as his eyes locked onto Jake's.
"I don't need this crap," he said, leaping to his feet. "I'm not some kid you can dress down. You did more'n enough of that ten years ago. And I'm the first to say I deserved it. But I been around the barn a few times since then and paid for that one mistake in ways you'll never know."
Brody thought for a moment. His voice softened.
"I won't lie."
Brody swallowed the shame lodged in his throat.
"Okay," he said, exhaling. "I need this job. If I'd been workin' for the Podunk Sentinel when all the crap came down, I'd have had a shot at startin' over. But when you screw up at one of the biggest papers in the world, every editor on the planet remembers your name. You know I'm good. I deserve another chance. My personal life's in the crapper. All I have is the work. Now when you called, you said you had somethin' big. If that was just bait to get me here so you could rip my flesh off one more time, then I'm outta here."
Brody grabbed the doorknob. "Tell your therapist to come up with some other way for you to manage your repressed anger." He swung the door open.
Brody's back stiffened as he waited for one last assault.
"Get your ass back in here. I want you to hear something."
Brody grudgingly returned to his seat as Jake played the answering machine message. It was a woman's voice, but more than that was impossible to decipher.
"Somebody has to do something. One of the world's top male skaters is in danger. He'll be dead before the end of the Olympics. If you can't stop it, at least find out why it happened. For once, tell the real story."
Jake studied Brody's face. He couldn't tell if he was about to run to the nearest skating rink, pen and pad in hand, or burst into fits of hysterical laughter.
"What do you think?" Jake asked.
"It's a joke. Who'd want to kill a figure skater?"
"Do you follow the sport? Be honest."
"It's all over the damn TV. You'd have to live in a cave not to see it once in a while."
"So you're one of those guys who can't get to the remote fast enough when it comes on the screen."
"I didn't say that," Brody said, shifting in his chair, unable to find a comfortable position.
"Are you afraid of what someone might think if you admitted to watching a bunch of fags run around in sequins?"
Jake had thrown out the bait, wondering if Brody knew that's what it was.
"I been married," he answered, his voice as flat as the mid-western plains he called home. "Nothin' scares me anymore."
One more try. He had to be sure.
"I need someone who can get close to these people without feeling threatened."
"Hold it," Brody said, thrusting his open palm in the air like he was taking an oath. "Don't lay that homophobic crap on me like I'm so different. There ain't a single male writer on your staff who's willin' to cover that sport. At least not the straight ones."
The springs of Jake's chair let out a long, agonizing croak as he leaned back. "You're right. Every time I offer an assignment for a skating event, the same guys who'd run over their mothers with an eighteen-wheeler for a shot at a feature story suddenly get sick or go on vacation."
"Let's say I take the job. And I'm not sayin' I will," Brody added quickly. "But if I do, how are you gonna get around the union? They get wind of a freelancer ridin' into town and stealin' one of their boys' assignments, you'll be outta here quicker'n you can say stop the presses."
"I know. That's why you won't be going in as a reporter. Besides, the skating community would never open up to a writer or any outsider for that matter. That means we need a cover."
He knew Brody. He could see it in his eyes. The idea of getting back in the saddle intrigued him for more than monetary reasons. They were both adrenalin junkies. Jake wouldn't admit it, but he hadn't felt this excited about a story in years. "You can't pretend to be a skater or a coach," Jake said. "They'd see right through that. Who else would have access to athletes?"
"What do you know about skating?"
"Not a damn thing," Brody admitted.
"Then you know as much as some of the judges, but it's an exclusive little club and we've got less than two months. It would take too long to gain their trust."
Like generals on the eve of battle, they continued to run the workable strategies through their minds.
"How about a trainer?" Brody suggested finally.
The room went silent. Jake knew how hard it was for him to offer that. He had heard the story one night in a bar when Brody was too drunk to care and thought Jake would be too drunk to remember.
Brody had dreamed of being a star athlete. It was the only thing that satisfied his competitive nature and there was an added bonus. It was a way out of the Wichita corn fields. Boundless desire, but a lack of talent forced him to settle for studying sports medicine in college until the family farm began to fail. He quit school to help his father, knowing they were only plugging the leaks to buy time before the ship went down.
When it finally did, his younger brother, Del, had graduated from high school. There wasn't enough money for both of Jim Yates' boys to attend college. By then, Brody was twenty-one. His muscles were like tempered steel, his skin toughened by the sun, his hands calloused. He couldn't see himself sitting behind a desk. Fair is fair. He'd had his chance. Now, it was Del's turn. Del was the smarter one anyway. At least that's what Brody told everybody the day his brother graduated from medical school.
As he bounced from one temporary job to another, it gnawed at him. Why was he the one who had to make the sacrifice? Eventually, Brody moved out of the house, ending months of shouting matches and near brawls between him and his father. Everyone chalked it up to the frustration of being helpless to prevent their back-breaking efforts from being washed away like the floods that came every few years. But Brody knew. This was about something that ran much deeper.
Excerpted from The Chosen Ones by Lisa Luciano. Copyright © 2017 Lisa Luciano. Excerpted by permission of The Keys Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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