The following morning Joey’s headache still sat behind his right eye, but when Willy asked him how he felt he was able to convince him he felt no different than any other day. The nausea had disappeared, but that might have been because the visions that had haunted him the previous night now seemed like nothing more than a realistic and very bad dream.
Willy did not mention the trainer on Monday, and in fact Joey didn’t even see his friend until practice. As Joey was tying his shoes, he heard Willy say, “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Thanks.”
“No problem,” Willy said and walked away. He seemed to have forgotten the conversation, having other things on his mind. That was fine with Joey who wanted to put the whole episode behind him. This was Georgia week.
Georgia’s season mirrored their last few seasons. The media began the frenzy with a high ranking and even higher expectations since several key players returned from last year’s team. Then, the fans, convinced by the hype, took their expectations even higher. This year, the season began with a loss to Clemson. Unexpectedly, the Bulldogs lost another game two weeks later to South Carolina and dropped to 1 and 2. Now, they were on a four game win streak and it seemed possible they might be able to sneak into the SEC Championship game by winning the eastern division. That was the same division as Vandy at 7-0. If Georgia won however, both teams would have one loss in the SEC and Georgia would own the tie breaker.
Practice went well on Monday working on schemes. Tuesday they would hit in pads. Joey, however, would take a hit before he even got out of bed. Someone knocked on his bedroom door, and he answered in his underwear.
“Get dressed and come look out the window.” It was Willy.
“Police. Forensic vehicles. They’re everywhere.”
Joey could see the parade of flashing lights, and a crowd of uniformed personnel stood gathered around a set of bushes near the student center no more than a hundred yards from Joey’s window.
“What are they doing?” Joey whispered.
“No idea. They’ve been down there a while.”
“Anyone know anything?” Joey asked.
“Everyone’s looking out their dorm windows. Curiosity. No one knows.”
By mid-morning though, ESPN began to carry the story. Nick Bonner, the Sports Illustrated reporter, was dead.
“What was he doing there?” Joey asked. He and Willy were catching passes from the quarterbacks as practice began.
“I’m serious, Willy. What could he have been doing?”
“You said you saw him the other night.”
“So. I thought I did. That was the other night.”
“So how long has he been there?” Willy asked. He took a step to his right and caught a pass before flinging it back.
“How would I know?”
“You tell me.”
“I can’t,” Joey said. He didn’t know what else to say. Willy looked on him without saying anything in return then turned his attention back to the quarterbacks and caught another pass. “I mean, I don’t know anything about the reporter.”
“What will you tell them when they start asking around?”
“Them? Who’s them? Tell who?”
“The au-tho-ri-ties,” Willy said, enunciating the word. “They’ll come around asking. They always do. They’re going to want to know if you saw anything. There was a dead man in the bushes right across from the dorm. ‘Joey, did you know this man? Have you seen him around?’ Then you’ll say what?”
“I saw him taking pictures as I looked out the window the other night.”
“Then ‘I fainted’, right?”
“I might leave that part out,” Joey said. He caught a pass and held the ball. “I don’t know anything more.”
“Why did you faint then? What caused you to pass out?”
“I don’t know, Willy.”
But that wasn’t the whole truth. He did know. Joey had seen hell out his window that night. Both players caught passes and said nothing for a bit before Joey broke the silence.
“I need for you to believe me. You’re my friend, Willy.”
“You don’t have anything to do with this? I’m just asking. You don’t have to tell me. If you tell me you didn’t have anything to do with it, I will believe you. If you did have something to do with this, maybe you should tell me your plan to cheat the devil.” Willy looked straight into Joey’s eyes.
“Willy, I don’t know anything about how that man died.”
Willy waited only a second and said, “I believe you.”
Joey believed him too, and he felt better after talking to Willy, especially since his friend had not pursued the comment about cheating the devil. Joey wanted to forget that part most of all. At least now he had someone on his side. Someone who believed him. Or at least he thought so. But after practice, when Coach Michaels asked him to come into the office and shut the door, having Willy in his corner still didn’t prevent Joey’s pulse from rising and his palms from sweating.
“Joey, I know you’ve heard about Bonner.”
“We saw the police cars,” Joey said.
“The police were here. In fact, they’re still here. Seems your name was all over his notes. He had quite an infatuation with you.”
“He stopped me after the photo shoot,” Joey began. “He started asking personal questions, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking with him. You said freshmen didn’t talk to reporters.”
“Do you feel like talking to the police?” Michaels asked. “I can tell them no, and we can go to the station with the school’s attorney.”
“Why would we need to do that?”
“If you know anything else, it would be wise to have legal representation. I’m inclined to think you should anyway.”
“I don’t have anything to hide. I didn’t do anything,” Joey said. He almost made himself believe it.
Michaels stood and walked from the room. When he returned two men in suits walked in behind him and shut the door. They introduced themselves.
“Nice to meet you. I’m-,”
“We know who you are,” the first detective, a large man with a square head and a moustache that made him resemble Tom Selleck, replied and then smiled.
“Vandy fans,” said the second man bespectacled and much smaller with slick hair parted on the side. He looked out of place.
“Bonner, the dead reporter, had your name all over his notes. He must have been writing a story.”
“He stopped me the other night after a photo shoot,” Joey said. “I didn’t answer too many questions.”
“Well, it looks like he’s been camped out over in the bushes,” first detective said. “There were cigarette butts all over. He’s quite a fan of McDonald’s too. You haven’t seen him around the dorm?”
Joey felt compelled to level with the two detectives. He waited just long enough for their smiles to disappear, which probably wasn’t a good thing.
“I did see him Sunday evening. He was taking pictures of the building when I looked out the window over the parking lot. I think he might have been taking my picture.”
That seemed to satisfy the detectives and their manner returned.
“That’s the only time you saw him?”
“Yeah. I didn’t see him after that. Willy woke me this morning to show me the commotion.”
“Not that it matters, but is there anything special he might have been trying to uncover? We have to ask.”
This time Joey didn’t hesitate even though he knew the honest answer. The man knew that Joey’s story didn’t add up.
“I don’t have anything to hide,” Joey said, realizing it was another of the lies he was going to be forced to perpetrate when he agreed to try out his newfound youth.
“Okay, that’s all we’ve got. Coach,” the first detective said shaking Michaels’ hand, “take care of this guy. Get him lots of carries and let us have a Heisman winner.”
“We get the ball in his hands as much as we can,” Michaels said smiling.
After the detectives left, Joey collected his things in the now deserted field house and began walking back to the dorm amid the lengthening shadows of late afternoon.
That was when Al stepped around the corner of a building.
“Joey, my fine fellow. How is the Heisman season progressing? We haven’t spoken, my lad.”
“You startled me, Al. Things are going fine.”
“Are you ready to commit finally? Put this lingering shadow, or should I say specter, to rest, so that you can enjoy this championship season?”
“I’ll let you know, Al.”
Al repositioned himself in front of Joey, and it seemed as if the man grew a few inches to hover over him. His eyes bore down into Joey, and for a split second the irises seemed to glare bright red.
“You mustn’t worry about answering questions,” Al said. “I told you, it’s all taken care of. You say your parents took you to Little League games, then pictures will appear showing you rounding the bases. Your mother and father were fine people, were they not?”
Joey said nothing and tried to hide his growing fear.
“You must know, Joey, I’m much more powerful than you give me credit. Do you believe me?”
“Yes sir, I do,” Joey said. He tried to swallow and found his mouth to be dry.
“Good boy. I look after my flock,” Al said and laughed. It seemed as though he had made a joke he could no longer contain. After his laughter subsided he continued in an altogether different tone. “No one, I mean NO ONE,” Al said clinching his teeth, “will take advantage of you.” Al whispered the last part and moved so close to Joey’s face that for a moment it seemed the tall man with the pointy, Italian boots might try to kiss him. “I’d kill anyone, anyone who tried to harm you, Joey.”
Al smiled, turned, and walked away into the night.