Kerry L. Cole

 

Take Dead Aim

Kerry L. Cole

 75,000 words


Chapter One

 

     California beauty is the term I think they use. 

     I stared at her, caught up in an emotional trance, oblivious to the commotion around me. Honey blond hair curled and fell to thin shoulders.  Brilliant-blue eyes sparkled under long eyelashes and surprisingly dark eyebrows. My pulse quickened as I plucked the framed photograph from the glass living room table and gazed at my wife.  I hadn’t seen her in almost two years, in the flesh or photo, and now I couldn’t take my eyes off her. My arm was around her slender waist and I, too, beamed back at the unseen photographer.  Brown hair tousled, flipping in the ocean breeze.  In fact, we looked a lot alike standing there on the beach, almost like brother and sister. Those cozy days seemed so long ago, we’d both changed since then, maybe not for the better. 

     The unseen photographer, my best friend Alan, lay in the adjacent room, his life’s blood pooled under his body, his eyes unseeing.

     “Name?” 

     The voice jolted me back to the present.  A dark haired man in a tailored suit glared at me and flashed a leather wallet with a badge. I knew he was a cop; I’d seen him earlier in the house.

     “Name?”  He spat out the single syllable in a voice that echoed through the plush living room, though he stood only three feet away.  Had I done something to make him angry?

      “My name’s Robert Anderson. Rob.”  Images of a blood stained knife and lifeless eyes washed through my brain. I felt nauseated, but I wanted to be civil to the cop. “What’s your name, detective? Sorry I missed it.”

     “You make the 911 call?” He said ignoring my question. 

      “Yes,” I said, feeling light headed. “Mind if I sit down? Not feeling well.”

     He gestured to a nearby sofa with his notepad, then folded his arms.  I sat forward holding my head in both hands, looking down with vision swimming and darkening around the edges.  Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the photograph again.

     Estranged wife is the term I think they use.  She hadn’t lived in my house, our house, since she walked out over two years ago.  In a cold rage I’d destroyed every picture of her, thrown out every memento and vowed never to waste even one minute thinking of her or mourning our separation.  It was a vow I’d ruthlessly enforced until now, unexpectedly coming upon the framed photograph.  I hated her and loved her.

      “Graziano,” he said.

     “What?”

     “My name. Detective Graziano.”  He said it like a stern schoolmarm addressing a dull student.

     I closed my eyes, still holding my head.

     “Not going to faint on me, are you?”

     I opened my eyes, but didn’t respond otherwise. Graziano’s brown, wing-tipped shoes were in my line of sight, sharp crease in the cuffed pants, breaking just above the shoes. The notepad slid under my chin and he used it to lever up my head.  I looked into a pair of intense brown eyes, deeply set in a leathery face.

     “You touch anything before you picked up the telephone to call 911?”

     “No.” I pulled my head away.  I’d already been over the horror in excruciating detail with a uniformed cop.  “I can’t do this again right now.”

     “You will do this again, here or downtown. Your call.”

     I didn’t answer.

     A pair of powerful hands grabbed my shoulders and jerked me upright on the sofa.   My stomach convulsed and my legs turned to mush.  I slowly slid back to the couch, weakly pushing at him with my hands.

     “Don’t,” I muttered. “I don’t feel . . . .”

     An explosive torrent of bile hit his pant leg just above the cuff, plastering the crease to his leg and plunging on to the expensive leather shoes.

     “Shit!”  The cop backed away, banging into the glass coffee table, tipping over the photograph.  He cursed at me again, then turned and tramped into the adjacent kitchen.

     I lay on the sofa shivering and closed my eyes, trying to get a grip on my nervous system.  Policemen, ambulance personnel and others I couldn’t identify roamed around the house, ignoring my presence.  Various voices floated to me.

     “Just the two of them?”

     “Yeah, the DOA and the sick guy.”

     DOA?

     “Any witnesses?”

      “Not yet.  We’ve got officers canvassing the neighbors.”

     After a while an EMT came over and gave me a quick once over, “Shock.”  He elevated my feet, covered me with a blanket and told me to stay put.

     “Where’d this blood come from,” he said, pointing to a couple of red drops on the sleeve of my shirt. 

     “Don’t know.”

     “Detective, come over here.”

     Graziano strode across the room, his pant leg wet where he’d cleaned it.

     The EMT showed the blood smudge to Graziano, who ripped off the blanket and began examining me like a mother gorilla inspecting her baby for grubs. He found another small blotch of red on the thigh of my pants and a long smear on the sole of my tennis shoe.

     “How’d you get blood all over yourself?”

     Two or three small blips of blood hardly qualified as all-over-myself, in my opinion, but I didn’t want to antagonize Graziano any further. “I don’t know. Maybe when I checked Alan.”

     A police technician in a white lab coat and surgeon’s gloves took swabs of each of the blood splotches on my clothes, as well as a cut on my hand.

     “How’d you cut your hand?”

      “I was swinging a golf club in my house and smacked my hand into the edge of a kitchen counter.”

     “When?”

     “Yesterday morning I think it was.”

     Graziano nodded to the technician. “That look like yesterday’s cut?”

     “Possible.”

     “You always play golf in your house?”

     “I was just experimenting. I’m a golf pro. It seems like I’m always checking my grip or swing. ”

     “That how you know the deceased?”

     Deceased.

      “Well, not really. I mean we’re both professional golfers, but I’ve known Alan since childhood. He’s my best friend. . .was.”

     “Maybe we go over to your house. You show me how you cut your hand.”

     “Fine,” I said, moving into a sitting position. My head was aching and I was freezing.  My best friend was dead.  I felt hollow and sick.

     Graziano caught the EMT’s eye and hollered across the room, “Can this guy leave?”

     The EMT came across the room and asked me a few questions, while he checked my pulse and blood pressure again.

     “He’ll be okay, but he needs to lie back down and elevate his feet for another twenty minutes or so.  Still in mild shock.”

     “Can I question him?”

     “Yeah, see how he does.”

     I lay back down and pulled the blanket up to my neck.  Seemed to me he’d been questioning me all ready.

     Graziano picked up the fallen photograph, looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again and said, “Wow. That your wife?”

     “Yes.”  I gave him the shortest of the possible responses to that question.

     He put the picture back and said, “From the top.  Why were you found in the deceased’s house? Was the deceased alive when you arrived?”

      “I’ve already said--.”

    He cut me off. “You’ll say it twenty more times before we’re through, so save us both time by not whining.  Why were you found in the deceased’s house?”

    I closed my eyes, threw my right arm over them and started again.

     “First off, I wasn’t found in this house,” I said emphasizing the verb. “Alan called me about noon and said he had something he wanted to show me and asked me over.”

     “Something to show you?”

     “Yeah, he’s always tinkering with golf clubs in his garage. He has a shop out there.  I figured it was something to do with that.”

    “But he didn’t say?”

     “No.” I paused and he motioned with his note pad for me to continue. “I took a quick shower, dressed and bought a couple of deli sandwiches on my way over to his house.”

     “This was what time?”

     “I’d say it was about 12:50 or 1:00 when I pulled in his driveway.  The front door was open so I stepped in and yelled his name.  Got no answer so I walked in further, calling to let him know I was here.  I figured he was in the bathroom or something.”

        “Go on.”

      “When I got no answer I walked back to the kitchen, to get plates and I saw. . .I saw him.”

     “Tell me exactly what you saw.”

     “Alan was lying on his back. Right over there by the bar.  A kitchen knife was stuck in his throat.  There was a large pool of blood around his head and shoulders.  One foot was tangled in a barstool tipped over.  His hair was matted and soaked with blood. His eyes were open.”

     “What’d you do?”

     “Ran over to check if he was alive.  Felt for a pulse, but there was none. Then I called 911 from the kitchen phone, but he was obviously dead.”

     “A few minutes ago you told me you didn’t touch anything before you phoned.”

     “I touched my friend’s wrist and neck.”

     “You touch the knife?”

     “I don’t think so.”

     “What’d you do after the call?”

     “Started feeling nauseated so I lay down on the couch, but it only took a couple of minutes for the first officer to show up.  Showed him Alan’s body. Gave him the story and then I kind of collapsed.  The next thing I remember was puking on your pants.”

     “You see anybody else here when you got here?”

     “No.”

     Graziano got up and walked away without saying anything else.

      The police took a bunch of photographs of the body and removed it, but I could see the pool of blood on the kitchen floor, near the bar.  The house was filled with people, none of whom knew Alan or cared about him as a person.  He was another job, more work for them.  I wanted to get out of that house as fast as possible, go home, take a shower.  Try to wash the horror off my body and out of my mind.

     “Can I go now?” I said, addressing the nearest blue uniformed officer.

     “Wait a second.”  He hollered across the room to Graziano, “GQ, can this guy go?”

     GQ, cute.

     Graziano sauntered over and I stood, pleased for some reason to see that I had him by a good three inches.

      “Here’s my card.  Don’t leave town.  Need to go somewhere, call me.  We’ll talk again, amigo.” He turned and sauntered off.

    I said, “Yes sir, amigo. Vaya con Dios.”

 

Chapter 2

 

     A sense of melancholy overwhelmed me on the drive home, clouding my mind and engulfing me like a heavy fogbank drifting in from the Pacific. Mindlessly stumbled through the front door, stripped, and stepped in the shower.  While the hot water pulsed and pounded my shoulders, I lost myself in a collage of memories.

      I met Alan Cheswick, the deceased, when I was 12 and we both tried out for pitcher on the local little league team. A short, but furious competition ensued and he became our star hurler. I became the shortstop.  We’d competed, albeit in friendly competition, in one capacity or another ever since.  He had a slight edge in most things that are important to boys. Ran a bit faster and jumped a tad higher.  In high school, he dated the homecoming queen. I dated an attendant.  Alan led the basketball team in scoring. I was assist’s leader. He went to UCLA on a full golf scholarship and I went to USC on a partial. Alan was the best man at my wedding, and I at his.

     The scorching water became tepid, then cold, forcing me back to the present.  I grabbed a towel and was drying myself when I heard the phone ring.  Wrapping the wet towel around my waist, I padded out to the kitchen telephone and picked up after the third ring.

      “Hello?”

     I heard the fuzzy nothingness of dead air.

      “Hello, is someone there?” The line clicked and a dial tone hummed in my ear.

      Probably a wrong number.

     I finished drying, pulled on a pair of worn sweats, and retrieved my mail. Staring up from the cover of Golf Digest, with his mischievous eyes and goofy grin, was my pal, Alan Cheswick. As I looked at that unsuspecting smile, pangs of loss shot through me again. Nikki, his wife, stood next to him, arms entwined with his, smiling contentedly. 

     I sat on the couch and thumbed to the accompanying story.  My heart went out to Nikki.  Had the police reached her yet and delivered this, the worst possible news? Tomorrow I’d call and try to help her in any way I could. They’d epitomized marital bliss, to my mind, despite their individual career successes, or because of them.  The strength of their marriage contrasted sharply with the demise of mine, failed after three years, though technically I was still married.

     Just as in our youth, Allen had reached a level of success that I couldn’t match in both his marriage and his career.  He was a bona fide star as a professional golfer, with lucrative endorsement deals and fans to prove it.  I hadn’t qualified for the US tour in several attempts and therefore was forced to spend most of the golf season competing in Europe and Asia, battling the food, travel, snakes and loneliness as much as the golf courses.

     I ate a bowl of cold cereal and fell into bed, physically and emotionally drained.

                                         * * *

     The telephone rang at 5:15 a.m., jolting me from the darkest depths of sleep. At that hour it’s either bad news or a loose-cannon telemarketer.

     “Hello.”

     “Did I wake you?” A vaguely familiar voice.

     I squinted at the luminescent numbers on the clock radio next to my bed. “Gee, do ya think?”

     “We have a proposition for you.”

     I couldn’t quite place the voice. “Who is this? What’re you talking about?”

     “This is Larry Palmer. I’ll be in LA this evening. Can we get together?”

     Lawrence Palmer had been my golf coach at USC.  We were pretty close then, but I hadn’t spoken to him in over five years.

     “Yeah, sure, but what’s up?”

      “I assume you know of Alan Cheswick’s death?”

     “Yes. I’m aware of it,” I said, growing wary.

     “I know you two were close. My sincerest condolences.  Hoped I wouldn’t be the one giving you the news.” 

     Fully awake now, I sat up in bed, waiting for him to continue. “You know I now work with the PGA Tour Commissioner’s office, here in Ponte Vedra, Florida.  We have a problem on tour that I think you might be able to help us with. It may relate to Alan’s death.  I don’t want to discuss it over the phone. Don’t want anyone to know we’ve spoken.  Can we get together and discuss it?”

     “Sure.” My interest was piqued, but just barely. “Looks like I can’t leave town anytime soon. It’ll be nice to catch up with you, anyway.”

     “Good, I’ll call when I’ve got my flight finalized.”

     Any hope of falling back to sleep was gone, so I pulled some sweats, found my jogging shoes and went outside for a run.  The sun had yet to made an appearance, but the neighborhood was taking on a rosy glow as I broke into an easy jog.  The crisp air felt good on my face and I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, and almost ran into a parked Cadillac.  An ungainly pivot saved my knee. I grinned sheepishly at the driver, who’d witnessed the entire event over the top of his newspaper.  Having avoided early disaster I picked up the pace, lengthening my stride into a steady rhythm. I ran at a brisk pace for forty-five minutes, making a broad looping circuit through my neighborhood and ended approaching my house from the opposite direction.  The parked Cadillac was still there, the driver working on the crossword puzzle and a glazed donut.

     Unlocking the door to my house, I turned on the kitchen-counter television for company and fried a couple of eggs for breakfast.  I planned to spend the day at the golf course before picking up Coach Palmer at the airport. 

     When a golfer doesn’t qualify for the PGA tour in the United States, he has the choice of playing in a minor-league type tour in America or traveling overseas and playing one of the foreign tours. I’d chosen to play overseas, but always with the hope of returning to the big-league U.S. Tour. This looked to be a break-through year for me. Several top-ten finishes to close the prior season in Europe made me as excited about my career as I’d ever been.  Break-through to me meant finally qualifying for the U.S. tour where the real money is, not to mention my home. I was sick, sick, sick of living overseas.

     After an uneventful day knocking the little white ball over the big earthen one, I picked up Coach Palmer at about 7:00 p.m.  We shook hands and surveyed each other, registering our own private thoughts and evaluations.  Was he disappointed in me?  He predicted fame and riches for me in golf when I graduated from USC.  Instead I barely made a living.  Coach Palmer looked almost the same as I remembered him, though he was on the far side of sixty now.  A dead squirrel lay on his head, or perhaps that was hair.  He was a frumpy 6 feet tall and the bright knit golf shirt, stretched beyond reason across his gut, probably was tight fifteen pounds ago.

     Coach Palmer claimed he couldn’t eat airline food and was famished, so we stopped at a small, hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant near the airport.  He ordered a macho-beef burrito and a beer, then plunged into the chips and salsa.  I asked for a chicken tostada and water.

     “That’s right, you’re the guy who doesn’t drink or swear.  Never could figure out what the hell was wrong with you.  Not a bad guy though, as I remember,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.  We’d had this conversation many times before, but he seemed to take it personally when I turned down a drink.      

     “What’s this big mystery you’ve got up your sleeve?” I said.

     “You’ll need to keep this conversation confidential, even if you choose not to participate.”  He dug deep into the salsa with a couple of stacked chips and paused, mid scoop, waiting for confirmation before proceeding.

     “OK.”

     “As you know, prominent athletes, including golfers, receive threats of violence from time to time.  Usually the person making the threat is some lonely crackpot hoping to get a reaction. Sometimes its racially motivated, which we’re seeing more of with the success of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. Almost always it’s an empty threat.” He motioned with his glass for a refill, then continued. “However, everything we hear gets treated seriously. That’s where I come in.  My job with the PGA includes overseeing security at every tour stop throughout the country.”

     The food arrived and we busied ourselves for a few minutes.  The tostada was good, but a little too spicy for my still tender stomach.  Coach Palmer took a gulp from his second beverage, then began again.

     “We keep all threats private, discuss with the player how he wants to react, maybe skip the event, maybe have beefed-up security in the crowd. Whatever.  Big name players like Tiger and Greg Norman have beefed up security at every event anyway. The public and other players never hear half of it.”

     “This is fascinating stuff, Coach,” I said, “but if you’re here to offer me additional security, I think you can rest at ease. I wish someone would stalk me. Unfortunately they’d have to go to Podunk, South Africa to find me.”

     “Patience was never one of your strong suits,” he said with a sigh. “The nature and number of threats directed toward PGA members have escalated at an alarming rate in the last few years.  There’s so much money on tour now, we’ve caught the attention of the world.  Inevitably, where there’s money, blood-sucking parasites will follow, like moths to light.”

      “The only parasites I’ve encountered attached themselves to my leg in a water hazard in India.  Had welts for weeks.  And aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?  The players are big boys.  They can take care of themselves.”

       “Like when Monica Seles, the tennis star, was stabbed?”  He pointed at me with his fork. “Rob, to be honest, you haven’t exactly been involved in huge sums of money.  Tiger had more than $40 million in endorsement contracts before he entered his first pro tournament and made more than $2 million in tour earnings, his first year. That’s serious moolah.”

     “True,” I said, not needing to be reminded of my place on pro golf’s food chain, which is to say, lower than dirt.

      I ordered more chips and salsa from the food server and waited for him to explain how any of this affected me. The waitress brought the chips along with another brew for Coach Palmer.  The reason for his impressive girth was becoming increasingly obvious.

      “We’ve spent countless hours at tour headquarters, deliberating how best to protect our players. We need someone on the inside.”

     “On the inside?”

     “We want to place one of our security officers at each site to pose as a player. To be a player.  You know. Enter tournaments. Practice.  Lockerroom. Travel and mingle with other players, agents, wives, girlfriends, managers, club vendors, sponsors, tournament committee members. Everyone.  In short, to be a player competing on the tour, but with priority to our concerns over earnings. Be our eyes and ears. Ferret out problems before they begin and investigate problems after they happen.  We have a few projects already lined up, beginning with an investigation into Alan Cheswick’s murder.”

     “Are you offering me a job?” I asked incredulously.

     “You were always bright.  Impatient, but bright,” he said with a wry smile.

     “Coach, I’m a real player, not an undercover spy masquerading as a player.  I’ll make it on tour.  I will.  I’ve spent my entire life preparing to play PGA golf. My game is ready.”  My face felt flushed and hot as I leaned across the table and jabbed a finger at him for emphasis. “Playing professional golf, successful professional golf is my dream and I’m not ready to let go of that dream to play I Spy.  You always encouraged me to go for it.  Said I have what it takes to make it big on tour. That’s the only thing I live for.  I have nothing else.”

     My pride was taking a  beating.  Never in the past five frustrating years had I considered changing careers.  I knew, deep inside where it counts, that I could compete with the best players in the game. 

     “Rob, hear me out.  I know you want to play the tour.  I know better than anyone you’re capable of playing with the big boys.  I coached you. I watched you in dozens of tournaments. You’ve got what it takes, if you just get a chance.  I’m offering you that chance, to do it now.  I can guarantee you entrance into at least twenty tournaments this year on sponsor’s exemptions. That’s enough to qualify for full time PGA rights, if you’re as good as you think you are.  Your commitment to me is for one year, then either the PGA or you can cancel the contract.  I’m giving you the best chance for your dream that you’ll ever have.”  He had my undivided attention as he continued, “This is a free pass to the bigs. To the majors. This opportunity will not be offered to you again.  You can go back overseas by yourself this year or you can tee it up with Tiger Woods and Phil Michelson in the L.A. Open, in two weeks.”

     “And I don’t have to sell my soul?”  . 

     “No, you don’t have to sell your soul and you won’t turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.  What do ya say?”

     “Aw, what the heck.”

     And thus began my fractured fairy tale.

 

Chapter 3

 

      We discussed the details until well past midnight.  Strange job description. Play golf with millionaires and look out for bad guys.   Oh, and by the way, be competitive with the best players in the world.  The ultimate success of the plan depended upon me being accepted as a PGA player, by both the good guys and the bad guys. If I missed cuts week after week this little venture was not going to work.

     I climbed into bed exhausted, but my brain wouldn’t shut down.  So much had happened in the last 24 hours and I hadn’t properly grieved for Alan yet.  Tomorrow I would get to the call to Nikki, Alan’s wife. Widow. How unreal it seemed.  Would she shun me as a suspect in his murder?  What had Detective Graziano said to her? Nikki and I were close, going back years. She couldn’t think me capable of such a thing.

      The morning arrived with heavy rain slashing my bedroom window.  With a yawn, I padded into the kitchen in stocking feet, pausing over the warm air vent, and considered the relative merits of a bagel versus a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats.  February is Southern California’s winter month; lots of rain, or at least some.  I was leaning towards the bagel, but would probably strike out trying to find cream cheese without fur growing on it.

     My house, a typical California bungalow, can best be described as adequate and functional, certainly not plush or luxurious.  Two smallish bedrooms separated by a bathroom, tiny kitchen and a generous living room. Something newlyweds might move into, which is exactly what we had done, five years ago.  It was now a bachelor’s pad, complete with moldy cheese in the refrigerator and assorted cereal boxes in the cabinet.  The living room walls are speckled with tiny craters, like the meteor-impacted surface of the moon, from practice chip shots gone astray.  My first TV fell victim to an errant practice swing. A five iron can do a lot of damage.  I wouldn’t want to get hit by one.  The new television sits high on a counter in the kitchen and all practice is expressly restricted to the living room.

     Kitry and I had fallen madly, passionately in love during my senior year at USC.  We met at an athletic department awards banquet where I received a trophy as golfer of the year and she was recognized as outstanding freshman on the women’s tennis team.  I wasn’t the only man to notice her.  She was stunning with vivid blue eyes, honey wheat hair worn below shoulder length, and a confident air.  A petite 5'5", she bristled with energy, was bright and easily bored.  For me it was love at first sight, but then most of the football team felt the same way about her.

     Notwithstanding the best efforts of the gridiron heroes, Kitry and I were married a year later. Too soon maybe, but I’d felt happy and fulfilled.  She juggled her college classes and traveled with me to as many tournaments as possible, an ongoing honeymoon as we traveled from site to site.  I was doing well on the mini-tours, preparing for Tour Qualifying School, a gut-wrenching tournament that graduates the top finishers to PGA tour status.  We both believed in my talent with total conviction and looked forward to life on the big tour. 

     The closest I came to qualifying was that first year.  It was only a major collapse on the final nine holes of the qualifying tournament that cost me a spot on the PGA tour.  I suppose the dream clouded with that setback and reality set in.  Kitry spent more time at school while I spent more time traveling the mini-tour and overseas circuits alone, doggedly pursuing my dream.  Long periods of time apart were not what we needed at that tender stage of our marriage. The bloom of newly wedded bliss had faded, and the grind of supporting ourselves on a fringe golfer’s winnings became our reality.  I didn’t have enough maturity to recognize the danger signs, for I was deeply, blindly in love with Kitry.

     After a grueling, three-week stretch competing on the Asian tour, I came back late one evening, to find an empty house. With golf clubs hanging from my shoulder and lugging a suitcase in the other hand, I stumbled through the front door and was greeted by an oppressive silence. No television sounds, no dishwasher, no shower running. Nothing. I dropped my bags called Kitry’s name. No answer.  The house felt lifeless and smelled stale. I walked through the house, calling out for her as a terrible foreboding gnawed at my chest. In our bedroom her clothes were missing from the closet.  I yanked open the drawers to her dresser. Empty. Confused and afraid that something horrific had happened, I reached for the telephone.  A page of Kitry’s pink stationary was folded across the handset.  With trembling fingers I unfolded the note, recognizing her handwriting, and read:

     “Sorry honey, I love you—Goodbye. K.”

     My heart sank and my spirit imploded. I slumped to the floor and cried as my soul melted in unbearable anguish.  I sobbed for an hour. Alone.

     Over the next few weeks, grief evolved into anger.  The day I saw her on the arm of Troy Phalon, one of golf’s superstars and a multi-millionaire at age 29, I went berserk and tore through our house, destroying every possible reference to her. Wedding photographs were shredded. Every birthday present I’d received from her was dumped.  Anything in the house that reminded me of Kitry was destroyed and replaced.  I made a pact that I would not allow myself to see her again, anywhere, and I committed to never let any thought of her linger in my mind.  I don’t know whom I hated more in those moments: her, him or myself.

      I bought myself a one way ticket to London to play the European tour, perfect my game and lose myself.  That was two years ago and I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks in that tiny house since.  I’d already booked a flight to Heathrow Airport when Alan’s death and the call from Coach Palmer changed everything.

     The ringing doorbell startled me and jolted me back to the present.  I shuffled to the door, realizing I’d violated my self-imposed boycott of Kitry thoughts and wondering who would be out at this hour, on such a cold and rainy day.

     Opening the door, I was shocked to see Nikki, Alan’s widow, standing there in the pelting monsoon.  I pulled her in and shut the door.  Rainwater dripped off her soaked, auburn hair and streaked down her face.  Her eyes were bloodshot and strain showed in her face. Mascara colored a dark trail down one cheek. Her clothes were sopping wet; shoes squished as she stepped in my front room.  Her long arms reached around my neck and pulled me into a tight bear-hug. Sobbing uncontrollably, she clung to me, so overcome with grief that her shuddering body could scarcely hold itself erect.  Great spasms wracked her torso as salty tears mixed with the rainwater.  Emotions gushed as she mourned the incomprehensible loss of her soul mate.

     Not a word was uttered as we supported each other.  Five minutes passed and the intensity of her emotions began to flag as she cried herself out. I’d been crying too, but the pain I felt was for the one left behind as much as for the one deceased.

       “I’m so sorry.  I feel so bad.” My voice cracked and my eyes burned. “He was a wonderful man. I loved him like a brother.” Words were inadequate.

     “Thanks. You were a great friend to both of us,” she whispered, still clinging to me for support, a noble woman, enduring the storm.  No more needed to be said. Our mutual anguish hung in the air and enveloped us like a heavy fog.

     “I need to visit the ladies’ room,” she said after several minutes.  “Put myself back together.”

     I hoped the bathroom was clean as I watched her turn and walk away.

      When she returned she’d washed her face and dried her hair, but waterlogged clothes hung from her body.  She stood 5'11", very thin and delicate looking with smooth, pale skin and short auburn hair.  Her green eyes were still red rimmed and bloodshot. 

     “You’re soaked,” she said. “Did I do that to you?” She seemed to have recovered somewhat.

     “Either that or a typhoon blew through my house.  And you’re still dripping on my carpet.”

     “Sorry,” she said with a shrug, a smile forming on the corners of her lips.

     “Let’s see what I have that’ll fit a beanpole.”  I walked through the kitchen to my bedroom. After rummaging around a minute I found her a clean pair of sweats and a change of clothes for myself.  When I turned around I saw she’d followed me into the bedroom.

     “Here, put these on.” I tossed her the clothes, and began fishing around in my dresser drawer for a pair of socks.

     I straightened up with the socks in one hand just as she dropped her wet blouse on the floor and began unbuttoning her soaked, denim jeans.  Her shoes and socks were already off.

     “Heellooo,” I said, nonplussed to see this statuesque beauty standing in front of me clad in a tiny white bra and unbuttoned trousers.

     “You’re blushing.”  She stepped out of the pants and faced me, hands on narrow hips.

     “I should think so.”  My cheeks burned as I fumbled for a response. “I didn’t expect to find my best friend’s wife undressing in my bedroom.”

      “It’s been a few years since you’ve had a woman in the house,” she said playfully as she grabbed the sweats and covered her exposed upper torso. “Sorry, but you know models are used to changing in front of people.  Now quit gawking and see if you can’t rustle up something hot to drink.”  She smiled coyly, but had an unsettling twinkle in her eye.  No doubt a whiplash reaction to the earlier grief.

     When Nikki came out of my bedroom she was fully clothed and seemed all business as she brought up the real reason for her visit.

     “I need your help.  This Detective Graziano guy keeps asking questions about Alan and me. About our relationship. Why wasn’t I home the night he died? Was I faithful to Alan? Was he faithful to me? Do I know why he was killed?  He goes on and on. Last night he implied you were somehow involved in Alan’s murder and then wondered if I was. He scares me.  He’s an evil man. I don’t know what to do. I hate him.”

     “I know. He’s a jerk, slinging around innuendo instead of doing a decent investigation. Don’t worry about Graziano for now.  He’s just stirring the pot, waiting to see what or who rises to the top.” 

     I handed her a mug of hot chocolate and sat next to her on the worn sofa.  “Maybe it was a break-in.  A robbery that Alan walked in on.”   

      “Nothing was stolen as far as I can tell.  That detective followed me through each room of the house while I looked for anything out of place or missing. The police didn’t find any sign of forced entry.  No broken windows or jammed locks. Nothing.”  She held the mug with both hands and took another sip. “They think Alan may have known the killer and let the killer in the door himself.  It’s all so awful.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  We were planning to start our family. Alan was so excited.”

     “He had everything to live for. It’s a terrible shame.”

     “He must have been thrilled to finally reach the number one ranking. He was the most competitive, goal oriented person I knew.”

     “Oh, believe me, he followed the rankings. It was important to him to be number one. Personally, I think he put too much stress on himself getting there.  He’d been staying out on the road a little longer, playing in more tournaments without a break.  It became a grind. He seemed to be stressing all the time. I tried to talk about it, but he was evasive and changed the subject.”  She took another gulp from the steamy mug and said, “I miss him so much I ache.”

     “How can I help?  Need help with the funeral arrangements?”

     “My dad’s helping me.  We’ll get it worked out. That reminds me. We’d like you to be a pallbearer.”

     “I’d be honored.”

     “Another thing. Kitry called me to express her condolences.  She was sweet.  She’ll be at the funeral Wednesday. I know that’ll be awkward for you, but she was our friend, too, and I wouldn’t think of keeping her from paying her respects to Alan.” 

     “No problem. I’ve got bigger issues right now.  I haven’t thought about her twice since she left,”  I said with as much nonchalance as I could muster.

     “Yeah, right.”

      We said our good-byes, feeling better for the crying time.  My mind, however, was in crisis mode at the news that Kitry would be at the funeral.  I’d studiously avoided being in the same city as Kitry, much less the same room.  The thought of seeing her and having to share social conversation with her distressed me.  I knew that sooner or later our paths would inevitably cross. It was just that in my daydreams Kitry would be looking longingly across the room at me, the tour’s number one player, with the tour's most beautiful girlfriend on my arm.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t earned my first dollar on the tour and not only did I not have a girlfriend, I hadn’t been on a date in months.  On the other hand, she was traveling with the tour’s hottest player, Troy Phalon.

                                   * * *

     “You going to throw up? You look like crap.”

     “Thanks. I look better than I feel.”

     “Roll down your window. Get some fresh air.”

     The day of the funeral dawned clear and crisp.  Jonny Onefeather, my part-time caddy and full-time friend, picked me up for the ride to the services.  I lowered the passenger side window and drank in the fresh air. We’d both seen my balky stomach in action.

     “Here, take this trash bag just in case.”

      My stomach is my weak link, an Achilles heel that has embarrassed me and cost me. When I get nervous, I throw up.  It’s as simple as that, stage fright without the stage.  The blood drains from my face, I turn as pale as a ghost and then my insides start to convulse. My body shuts down and I can barely move.  Not good if your livelihood depends on putting yourself in highly tense and nervous situations. Standing over a ball in the middle of the eighteenth fairway, eyeing a five iron shot over a water hazard to a heavily bunkered green, knowing that qualifying for the tour depends upon getting the ball close, is a nervous moment.  A dead arms, guts about to come spilling out of your mouth, I can’t even get the club out of the bag, moment.

     Why is this important?  It helps explain why I never made it through PGA Tour Qualifying School.  It also explains how I was handling the prospects of seeing Kitry again.  I embraced the barf bag.

     The funeral was being held in a large white chapel in Arcadia, just north of the 210 Freeway.  We arrived just as the service commenced and I rushed to a seat with the other pallbearers.  Jonny hung out at the back of the chapel to silently observe the goings on.  Jonny Onefeather is a full-blooded American Indian, Sioux Tribe, who wears his shiny black hair beyond shoulder length, in the traditional style of his ancestors.  He’s a keen observer of people and experience told me that his impressions of the funeral would be considerably different than my own. I looked forward to hearing his thoughts on the way home. 

     The eulogy was given by Alan’s uncle. He told stories of Alan’s childhood, some which involved me.  I reflected on those innocent, carefree days when summer was a time for playing baseball and golf, fishing and camping, and meeting girls at the movie theatre after a heavy splash of cologne. It was a time for innocence and youth, and blissful ignorance of future events.

     Nikki was dressed in a knee length black dress with black sheer hose, black patent leather pumps and a small handbag.  The contrast of her pale skin and black clothes made her appear frail.  She was downcast, but composed, managing a weak smile from time to time in support of the various speakers’ comments.  She sat in the front row, flanked by her parents and Allen’s parents.  In front of them stood the polished mahogany casket.

     I surreptitiously peeked behind me to see where Kitry was sitting, in order to keep as wide a berth as possible, but I couldn’t spy her in the room.  It would be just like her to show up late or not make it at all.  The service was short and surprisingly uplifting. A celebration of the life of a good man.  He would be missed, but remembered fondly, an inspiration in many ways.

     I joined the other pallbearers in carrying the coffin to the black hearse, then returned to the chapel to find Jonny for the ride to the cemetery.  Walking against the flow of the departing mourners, I felt like a salmon swimming upstream.   I pushed three steps ahead, searching for the path of least resistance when I saw my wife, Kitry, directly in my path.  There was no escape short of turning tail and exiting with the flow of mourners. That seemed a bit cowardly and she may have seen me already, so I plunged ahead.  My mouth was dry, but my mind churned, trying out possible comments.  I settled on a neutral line and quickly rehearsed it in my mind. We certainly couldn’t have the discussion we needed.  Not in this setting. Not today. That discussion probably would never happen and maybe it was best that it didn’t.

       There she was, a few feet away. We were on a collision course. I could feel her presence, like heat emanating from a warm oven.  She was dressed in a gray and white checked dress, with a white ribbon in her hair and matching gray high-heeled shoes.  She looked tanned and fit with very little makeup, only pale lipstick. The moment I’d been dreading and avoiding for two years was suddenly upon me.  I raised my eyes to meet hers and recite my script when in an instant she brushed by, our elbows touched and I swear I felt an electric charge.  She was deep in conversation and didn’t look up.     

      She hadn’t even seen me.