Fade Away Page 13

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“First Greg Downing leaves the team under mysterious circumstances—”

“What’s mysterious about an ankle injury?”

“—then you, his old nemesis, take his place after being out of commission for the better part of eleven years. You don’t find that strange?”

Great, Myron thought. On the job five minutes and already someone was voicing suspicion. Myron Bolitar, master of the undercover. They reached the door to the locker room.

“I gotta go, Audrey. We’ll talk later.”

“Count on it,” she said. She smiled at him with a gentle mocking sweetness. “Good luck, Myron. Knock them dead.”

He nodded, took a deep breath, and pushed open the locker-room door.


Chapter 6

No one greeted Myron when he entered the locker room. No one broke stride. No one even looked at him. The room did not go quiet like something out of an old Western where the sheriff pushes open the creaking door and sashays into the saloon. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the door needed to creak. Or maybe Myron had to work on his sashay.

His new teammates were sprawled about like socks in a college dorm. Three of them were draped over benches, semidressed and seminapping. Two were on the floor, a leg being held in the air by assistants, stretching quads and calves. A couple others were dribbling basketballs. Four were hobbling back to their lockers after getting taped. Almost all were chewing gum. Almost all were also listening to Walkmans, the tiny speakers jammed in their ears and blaring so loudly that they sounded like competing floor models at a stereo store.

Myron found his dressing area pretty easily. All the other lockers had bronze plaques with a player’s name engraved on it. Myron’s did not. It had a piece of white adhesive tape above it, the kind used to tape ankles, with the letters M. BOLITAR scrawled in black marker. It hardly inspired confidence or spoke commitment.

He glanced around for someone to talk to, but the Walkmans were the ideal room dividers. Everyone was in their own private space. Myron spotted Terry “TC” Collins, the team’s famed whining superstar, sitting alone in a corner. TC was the media’s newest poster boy for the spoiled athlete, the guy “ruining” the genteel world of sports “as we know it,” whatever that meant. TC was a hell of a physical specimen. Six-ten, muscular, wiry. His cleanly shaven head glistened in the fluorescent light. Rumor had it TC was black though it was hard to see any trace of skin through the work of his tattoo artist. The obscure ink images blanketed almost all available somatic sites. Body piercing too appeared to be more of a lifestyle with TC than a hobby. The man looked like a nightmare version of Mr. Clean.

Myron caught TC’s eye, smiled, and nodded a hello. TC glared daggers and turned away. Making chums already.

His uniform was hung where it should be. His name had already been sewn on the back in block letters. BOLITAR. He stared at it for a moment or two. Then he quickly snatched it off the hanger and put it on. Everything caused bouts of déjà vu. The feel of the crumbly cotton. The shoelacelike tie-string on his shorts. The slight elastic tug at the waist when he put them on. The slight tightness of the top as it went over his shoulders. The practiced hands tucking in the tail. The lacing up of his high-tops. It all caused pangs. It was getting harder to breathe. His eyes blinked something back. He sat and waited until the feeling went away.

Myron noticed very few of the guys wore jockstraps anymore, preferring those tight, Lycra shorts. Myron stuck with old dependable. Mr. Old Fashioned. Then he strapped a contraption onto his leg that was loosely labeled a “knee brace.” Felt more like a metal compressor. The last thing he put on was his warm-ups. The bottoms had dozens of snaps up and down the legs, so a player could dramatically rip them off when called to go into a game.

“Hey, kid, how’s it going?”

Myron stood and shook hands with Kip Corovan, one of the team’s assistant coaches. Kip wore a plaid jacket that was about three sizes too small. The sleeves inched up to the forearms. The gut jutted out with great defiance. He looked like a farmer at the semiannual square dance. “I’m doing fine, coach.”

“Great, great. And call me Kip. Or Kipper. Most people call me Kipper. Sit down, relax.”

“Okay.” Kipper?

“Great, happy to have you with us.” The Kipper pulled over a chair, turned it so the back faced Myron, and straddled it. His pants inseam didn’t look happy with the move. “I’ll be honest with you, Myron, okay? Donny wasn’t thrilled about this. Nothing personal, you understand. Just Donny likes to pick his own players. He don’t like interference from upstairs, you know what I’m saying?”

Myron nodded. Donny Walsh was the head coach.

“Great, good. Donny’s a straight guy though. He remembers you from the old days, liked you a lot. But we got a team heading for the playoffs. With a bit of luck we can lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. It took a while to get the ducks all in a row. It’s a balance, you know. Got to keep the ducks on an even keel. Losing Greg really knocked the wind from our sails, but we finally got those ducks back up. Now you come along, see. Clip doesn’t tell us why, but he insists we add you to the roster. Fine, Clip is the big chief, no question. But we worry about getting our ducks back sailing straight, you see?”

The mixing of metaphors was making Myron dizzy. “Sure. I don’t want to cause any problems.”

“I know that.” He stood, put the chair back with a sweeping motion. “You’re a good guy, Myron. Always were a straight arrow. We need that now. A team-comes-first kinda guy, am I right?”

Myron nodded. “A straight-sailing duck.”

“Great, fine. See you out there. And don’t worry. You’re not going to get in unless it’s a blowout.” With that the Kipper hoisted his belt up over the gut and sauntered—almost sashayed—across the room.

Three minutes later, the Kipper shouted out, “Gather round the board, boys.” No one paid any attention. He repeated this several times, tapping Walkman-entranced players on the shoulders, so that they would hear. It took a full ten minutes to get twelve professional athletes to move less than ten feet. Coach Donny Walsh strode in with great self-importance, took center stage, and began spilling out the tired clichés. This didn’t mean he was a bad coach or anything. You play over a hundred games a season it’s hard to come up with anything new.

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