by Barbara Anne Helberg
Chapter Nine — An Opportunity
“Rodd! I hoped you would drop by.”
“Drop by?” Rodd smiled. “You gave me a key, Ralph.”
“Yes. Well, I hoped you would stay, actually,” I said.
Rodd’s laugh was pleasant to me. I hoped it was real, not my hope rising to ridiculous heights in grave error.
“I stayed in my car. I don’t know why you gave me a key. I came to return it.”
“I didn’t think you were ready to stay anywhere. I wanted to drag you home with me, but I couldn’t spring that on Mary. She’s not well.”
Rodd looked unhappy. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I waved away his concern. My wife’s illness was long and unpredictable, as cancer can be, like a constant predator. “The key was an invitation to make up your mind,” I said. “You didn’t come back to West Central to stay?” I watched the conflict play across his face and had no idea who had the privilege of being the players of the moment.
Rodd hung his head. “Guess I don’t know why I came back. Spur of the moment.”
“Something must have triggered your decision. We haven’t seen you around here since –”
“Yeah.” Rodd’s look cut me off. He shrugged. “The Blade ran a two-incher on Coach Archmiller. I…I felt…strange.”
“Yes. We all do. It’s a sad thing. Herm was part of the community. It’s a shock.” I pointed to my spare chair, said, “It doesn’t get crazy around here for another hour. Take a load off. Relax.” I took a slow dive into my high back desk lounger, my tattered pride and joy whose purchase had celebrated my acquisition of the very healthy Town Crier some twenty years gone by.
“Any ideas what happened?” Rodd asked.
He took an uneasy position in the chair I’d indicated, but I quickly tuned into his obvious and natural curiosity. There was no hesitation, no shaky indecision. It was a glass smooth tone of interest from a long gone reporter type. A light bulb turned on in the dimmest part of my brain. “The police haven’t said anything new,” I told Rodd. I tapped a pencil on my desktop and looked at him.
Rodd rubbed exploratory fingers across his thin lips. “How’s his family doing?”
“There were plenty of helping hands offered but Rebecca snapped the boys up and left town.”
“When? Right away?”
“Day after the funeral.”
“Home? Permanent to New York, you mean?”
“Why? He’s buried here and she trips back to New York?”
“No. He’s…He went along…Ashes.”
Rodd chewed on the information while I chewed on the possibilities. Why not? I thought. Nothing lost if it doesn’t work out. A lot gained if it does. “Rodd, you just asked me all five of the classic questions on a mystery situation we already shared.”
“What?” Rodd’s face pinched together, then relaxed. “Yeah. I sorta did, didn’t I?”
“We already shared ‘who’, before you asked ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’. The reporter’s six-question Bible. Why did you come back, Rodd? And what will you do?”
Rodd shook his closely-cropped head. “I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
“You came back because you couldn’t stay away. You want to find out what happened to Coach Archmiller, and you had nothing keeping you anywhere else.”
Rodd fidgeted in the chair, his meatless bones scraping. “That’s true,” he said after a long consideration. He squeezed it out around what appeared to be embarrassment over his displacement. I remembered suddenly how I’d always felt my fatherly instincts kick in whenever I was in the presence of this mild-mannered, highly vulnerable and talented high school athlete. I was doing it again. He seemed to need it desperately now. His last layer of tough, grin and bear it was worn through. I, perhaps, could provide a little push in the right direction. “Rodd, you’ve got a nose for this business. How about hiring on for a bit of freelance snooping?”
Rodd fidgeted again. The false leg thumped against the bottom chair rail.
“As a matter of fact, I could use a night cleanup man, too. I see you’ve been using your hands a lot. My regular guy took a hike last week.”
Rodd took an immediate interest in his hands, broken nails, jagged cuticles; traces of grease deeply lined the pores of his fingertips.
“That would be enough income to keep you, wouldn’t it, if you took a room somewhere?”
The intercom telephone rang before Rodd’s weary breath was finished. “Ralph, I have Mr. Willis on the line,” Eurlene told him. “He says it’s urgent.”
“Willis? Of course. Sherman Willis?”
Rodd’s head snapped to alert attention.
“Yes, Eurlene, put Mr. Willis through.”
*******(MORE OF “FANS” WILL CONTINUE after a break in the action to offer fans of “FANS” some excerpts from another thriller novelette, or Novel In A Nutshell, “Interlocked”, also from Barbara Anne Helberg…)
Story and Artwork from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg, Author of “FANS”