“Hello,” I greet no one in particular, hopelessly hoping for a response, any response.
I plod onward, unsure how I manage to keep my voice from quivering.
“My name is Piccolo Granger, and I’m a reporter with the Daily Herald. Did any of you by chance see or hear anything unusual? Did you notice any unknown vehicles or visitors in the parking lot? Did any of you have any contact with Coach Smith? Anything, anything at all will be helpful.”
Everyone just looks at me, silent, shrugging, murmuring amongst themselves.
I really should tell Dickhead to stick it where the sun don’t shine and go back home. I don’t need this shit. But, unfortunately, I DO need my job. And he knows it, the merciless bastard.
And so, ever the consummate professional while in the public eye, I continue to chip away at the throng of gawkers.
The result is the same.
From the looks of them, not many — if any — of them actually work at Bluegrass High School. That much, I do know, being a frequent visitor of the school and all. I recognize a few of the sports parents, but they’re not talking. I’m relatively sure at least one person in this crowd is the proud, albeit nosy, owner of a police scanner and hot-footed it to the school as soon as he or she heard whatever the code is for homicide.
The only code I DO know is 10-46, which stands for personal-injury accident. We have lots of car accidents here, unfortunately. Kentucky’s Drive Safe campaign is a joke. The state motto should be “drive reckless,” instead of “united we stand, divided we fall.” But that’s a debate for another day.
My frustrating helplessness, on the other hand, is chewing away at my confidence and threatening to swallow it in one humongous gulp, but I can’t force these people to cooperate.
I’m starting to get frantic. I cannot go back to the office empty-handed. That’s not even an option.
The bile rises in my throat as I struggle to tamp down a wave of hysteria.
I need something for Coach Smith’s story, or I might as well just go home and call it a career at the Daily Herald. I’m sure Dickhead will be lying in wait for me, expecting me to fail, the rat bastard.
Contrary to popular belief and my constant sardonic running commentary, I DO care about everything I write, down to the most minute detail. Maybe a little too much, according to my colleagues.
More important, I care about the people gracious enough to tell me their stories regardless of my own personal feelings. I never, ever refer to anything as my story. It’s not about me. I am merely the messenger, the storyteller. Nothing more.
I love talking to people, just not today is all. Not when it involves death. Not when it brings murder into my world. And especially not when it involves someone I know.
Even Coach Smith.
I can’t begin to imagine the scene of the crime, the horror of it all. Nor do I want to envision it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know all of the sordid details. But in this case, I HAVE to know so I can do my job right by presenting all of the facts in his story.
I shake my head as if to dispel any images that might creep into my mind like an unwanted guest sitting on my doorstep. Let me just say again: I do not do death at all.
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Amber Hardy walking toward the “Three Musketeers.”
I make a beeline for Amber like a blitzing linebacker about to sack a quarterback on his blind side.
Amber is an English teacher and the varsity softball coach at Bluegrass High.
No one, not even my best friend, knows of my friendship with Amber away from the softball field. And we’ve been keeping it that way for five years.
It sucks, but we just don’t want to deal with any conflict-of-interest accusations. Some of the coaches and parents around here tend to get a little touchy if they think for one second that you like someone better than their kids, or you’re showing bias if you develop a friendship like the one I share with Amber.
It’s a catch-22 all the way around. But that’s life here in good ole Derby County, and that’s the way it always will be, unfortunately for the two of us. Which really is too bad. She’s a great person.
“Hi, Coach Hardy,” I greet her breathlessly in my bid to reach her before she gets to the “Three Musketeers,” giving nothing away.
I manage to head her off before she gets to them. Barely.
The look on her face tells me I’m going to get the break I need to start telling Coach Smith’s story. But she plays it off well enough so that the others remain clueless. For now.
“Hello, Piccolo,” she says. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Funny story: You and me both.
“Long story short: The person who’s supposed to be here is on sabbatical, leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, writing a book,” I retort, “so they sent me, instead.”
I smile ruefully.
Amber doesn’t respond.
She keeps giving me this … this look, as if she is just seeing me for the first time. Or seeing me in a new light. Or sizing me up. Or knows something no one else does, like some kind of dark secret. Or a mixture of all four.
Then again, maybe my mind is just playing tricks on me for shits and giggles.
I’ll find out soon enough. We have a code that needs no words.
Her look tells me that we’ll meet up at our usual place — Thoroughbred Park — which gives us all the privacy we need to talk without anyone noticing or recognizing us.
We literally talk for hours on end there. It’s been our meeting place, if you will, since running into each other at the park by sheer chance one night not too long after I began working at the Daily Herald. Both of us were walking the gravel track, which we always refer to as our thinking time rather than part of our exercise regimen, and we struck up a conversation that lasted for hours like we were old friends catching up on the day’s events.
“Is the other Coach Hardy inside?” I ask, motioning my head toward the school’s main building.
The “other” Coach Hardy is Amber’s husband, Shane. He teaches phys ed, coaches the varsity baseball team and is — well, I suppose WAS is the case since sometime late last night or early this morning — one of Coach Smith’s varsity football assistants. Shane coaches the linebackers.
Shane and Amber, both of whom hail from Indiana, will be married seven years in September. They’re both 31. He’s the only other person who knows about our taboo friendship. He’s an all-around good guy, very deserving of Amber. Just my humble observation, for what it’s worth.
“Yes,” Amber confirms, bringing me out of my reverie and back into a reality in which I no longer wish to partake. “He’s being questioned by the police right now. It could be a while, though.”
She takes a deep breath, something I’ve been doing all damn morning, and lets loose a slow, heartbreaking sigh.
“He found Lester in the fieldhouse,” she continues, referring to the athletics building that adjoins the school’s football stadium.
I remain quiet and keep my expression neutral because I know her well enough to realize she needs to keep talking as a means to cope with the fact that one of her fellow co-workers, not to mention someone she knows — sorry, knew — personally, has just been murdered.
Fuck! Too late.
Bitch Face and Antique Man apparently have dog ears. So does Jason.
Antique Man is practically running to his car to get his monstrosity of a tape recorder that looks like it’s at least 100 years old. Bitch Face, meanwhile, is scrambling to get the attention of her cameraman, who is in the midst of shooting footage of the ever-growing crowd of spectators.
Jason looks at Amber and me speculatively. Nah, he can’t be that smart. Or can he?
“That’s all I know right now,” Amber says, her eyes telling me otherwise as Bitch Face and Antique Man attempt to clamor for her attention. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get out of here.”
I nod. I understand all too well.
“You OK to drive, Coach Hardy?” I ask, trying to come off as nonchalant as possible in my concern for my friend’s well-being while the “Three Musketeers” eavesdrop.
“Yes, thank you, Piccolo,” she responds. “I’ll be fine. I didn’t see anything, thank God. Shane is really taking it hard. He asked me to meet him at home and wait for him since, well, you know. I … I just can’t believe it.”
Amen to that.
I take her cue to leave as Bitch Face and Antique Man sputter questions I know she won’t answer.
Jason continues to watch us, keeping mum.
“Thanks for your time, Coach Hardy,” I say loudly, walking toward my eyesore of a teal green — yes, teal green — car with its white, yet-to-be-painted trunk.
“I’ll call you from the office in about an hour-ISH,” I say casually over my shoulder to Jason, not quite wanting to meet the eyes of a man who might not be as dumb as I think.
I don’t foresee the school or police having a news conference before the paper’s 11:30 a.m. deadline. And I doubt very seriously that the police department’s liaison will have any new information for me, although Jason may prove to be a problem if he uncovers my friendship with the Hardys.
I have all of Coach Smith’s info to do a biographical piece on him to honor his memory despite my misgivings in my personal, everyday dealings with him while he was alive, but I’ll wait and see what Amber has in store for me first.
This can be a good thing.
I crank the tunes in my hoopty — slang for a piece-of-shit car — at last settling on “Mama, I’m Coming Home” by Ozzy Osbourne from his No More Tears album. It’s my all-time favorite of his, even though I was only 8 when it came out in 1991. My musical tastes are eclectic. I have my parents to thank for that.
Or this can be a bad thing.
The day looms over me. It seems endless, unsympathetic, unyielding, taunting.
Time to find out.
I drive away from the morning’s ugliness at the school, taking a right and turning toward downtown Bluegrass via Whirlaway Road, the city’s main drag, strip, drive, whatever you want to call it.
Another few minutes, and I’ll be pulling into Thoroughbred Park. Ever since Secretariat Park was built on this side of town roughly six years ago, Thoroughbred is pretty well deserted. Which suits Amber and I just fine.
Except this time, I feel like I’m skulking about. Like the super secretive meetings between Bob Woodward and the source he referred to as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal from the early 1970s. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, blew the socks off of the Nixon administration with their amazing investigative skills that eventually resulted in the president’s resignation in 1974.
The movie, All the President’s Men, and the book of the same name written by Woodward and Bernstein give me chills.
I shiver. The not knowing weighs heavily on my mind. This is not going to be a lighthearted chat with Amber. I just can’t shake my unease.
I turn right onto Thoroughbred Drive and park on the side of the road about a half-mile down. I briskly walk the remaining quarter-mile to the park entrance. I won’t see Amber’s gold 2016 Ford Focus for another 10 or 15 minutes because we don’t want anyone to get suspicious. She may park further down the road, which is covered by trees. You can’t see anything from Whirlaway Road, and that’s precisely why we always meet here to catch up on everything.
I veer off the road onto the gravel track to wait for Amber. It’s as good a time as any for a walk to clear my head. This is one of those times I wish I was anything but a reporter.
Whatever Amber is going to tell me may put her in a very bad position. With me. Her husband. The school. Everyone. Everything. And yet, she’s risking it all anyway. For me.
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Whatever it is, I can handle it. So I walk as I wait, trying unsuccessfully not to overthink everything.
Still, I have a feeling my smoke-free days are about to end.