The Prophet — Excerpt

Part One

PLEDGES

PROLOGUE

THE TOWN FEELS LIKE home immediately, and he credits the leaves. It must be a pickup day. Plastic bags bursting with withered remains of life are stacked on the curbs, a few spilling over onto the sidewalks, flecks of crimson and copper that dot the white concrete like blood splatters on pale flesh. The air is that contrary blend: alive with a smell, but the smell is death.

Those who pass him have their heads down and shoulders hunched, turtles seeking their shells. He stands tall as he walks, embracing the cold wind, which is wonderfully unblocked by concrete walls, unmarred by razor wire fencing. He is grateful for that. There are other people in this town who have similar feelings, memories of days when one could not embrace the wind and longed to, no matter how bitter and chill. He knows some of them, and he knows that those very memories—realities—are in some cases exactly what chased them to this town, a chance to hide from the past.

At first glance, this town feels like a fine place for hiding from reality, too: impossibly quaint, with an actual town square and a brick courthouse. It could be the stage set from some Hollywood version of small-town middle America if not for all the empty buildings. Half the storefronts facing the courthouse have FOR RENT or FOR SALE signs in dusty windows. As he moves away from the square, walking north, toward the lake, stepping carefully around those swollen bags of leaves, he encounters vacant properties, once-tidy yards filled with brown weeds, vinyl siding begging for a hose and some bleach.

Hard times have come to Chambers, Ohio.

Five blocks farther north, the lake visible now, the smell of water pushed toward him by a steady wind, and he departs to follow the signs for the high school. Turns west, walks a few more blocks, and now he can see it. A two-story main structure with single-story wings sprawling in odd directions, indications that several additions have been made over the years.

Chambers High School, Home of the Cardinals.

A cardinal was the third creature he ever killed. Caught it beneath his grandmother’s birdfeeder. He’d watched the cat’s approach to this task and marveled. The cat didn’t hide; it just waited with incredible, dazzling patience. There was no cover under the birdfeeder, nothing to shield a killer, and still the killer succeeded. As the cat approached, the birds would scatter. The cat was unbothered by that, content in his role and devoted to it, possessed of unusual clarity of purpose. The cat would simply settle down into the grass beside a dusting of fallen sunflower seeds and wait. And without fail, the birds would return. Even though they could see the cat, its lack of motion reassured them, convinced them that they were safe. The cat never reacted to those first birds. The cat would wait, and watch, and eventually they’d become so confident in their safety that one would come just near enough, and then there would be a blinding strike, and those around the victim would scatter.

Give them enough time, though? Then they would return. Always. Because the feeder was there, the feeder was home, and though they might be capable of remembering what had befallen one of their own in the same spot, they did not believe it could happen to them as well.

Unshakable confidence. Unshakable stupidity.

He is fascinated by the confident specimens of the helpless. He finds no fascination in the fearful.

The first bird took him longer than it took the cat, but not as long as he’d expected. The secret was in his stillness. The secret was in their stupidity. It took him only five days to get the cardinal. He killed the cat when that was done. There was nothing more to be learned from it.

He has patience for study, and hunger for it, in the way that only those truly devoted to a craft can ever possess. His craft is killing. His understanding of it is great, but he knows there will always be more to learn, and in that knowledge is his happiness. He has studied the behavior of killers, has spoken with them, has lived behind steel bars with them, and he has learned from them all.

Now, as the wind freshens and the smell of dead leaves fills air that is rapidly chilling with the promise of rain, he stares at the front of the high school long enough to observe the security guard in the parking lot, and then he walks down the block and turns the corner and the football field comes into view. Here the Cardinals make their claim to glory. It’s a terrible name for sporting teams. Why not the Warriors or Titans or Tigers? How does one summon any level of confidence wearing the logo of a bird that can be killed by the squeeze of a child’s palm?

There are half a dozen men sitting in the aluminum bleachers that border the field. He is not the only watcher today. They are undefeated, these Cardinals, they are the most intense pride of a town that once had many more reasons to be proud.

He slips in, leans beside the bleachers with hands in pockets, and waits for the coach to arrive. The coach, of course, is more than a coach. He has won 153 games for this school, this community. He has lost only twenty-two. On this field where his players are now stretching, limbering up against the wind and beneath the gray sky, he has a record of eighty-one wins against four losses. Just four home losses. He’s more than a coach, he is a folk hero. A mythic figure. And not just because of the wins. Oh, no. Coach Kent Austin is about much more than football.

He proves it now, drawing silence as he walks across the field, still a young man and a fit one but always with the trace of a limp, the left knee refusing to match strides with the right, always yielding just a little more, a little too much. It only adds to the coach’s compelling quality. Everyone else recognizes his wounds; the coach pretends not to.

It is not only the young players in uniform who fall silent as the coach makes his way across the field, it is the men in the stands, the watchers. There is a reverence about them now, because what happens on this field matters deeply to people who have not so much as walked across its surface. You take your pride where you can find it, and right now, this is where it can be found. Because hard times have come to Chambers. This much he understands well, reads it as a weather forecaster would read the dark clouds scudding in off Lake Erie. He is a forecaster in his own right.

A prophet of hard times.

The coach is far too focused to look up and see him, because the coach is at work, lost to the game that he insists does not matter, but of course it matters because it is all he really has, in the end. Empty games and empty faith. Hollow words and false promises. A child’s preoccupations and distractions, carefully constructed walls to separate him from the reality of the world that owns him, that carries him in an open palm that could so swiftly turn into a closed fist. He needs to feel the first squeeze of that fist.

The prophet spent three years with a killer named Zane who murdered his wife and both of her parents with a ten-gauge shotgun. Quite a messy weapon, the ten-gauge. Before he pulled the trigger, he gave all three of them the chance to renounce God. To say that Zane was their God. A promising idea, though poorly understood. Zane was not of proper depth for such a task, but he was to be admired for the effort nevertheless. The way Zane told it, two of the victims accepted him as their God and one did not. It made no difference in their fate, of course, but Zane was interested in their answers, and so was the prophet. At one time, he was even impressed. The idea of posing that question to someone facing the final seconds before entering eternity seemed powerful.

He no longer believes this, though. Consideration has shown him its weaknesses and ultimate insignificance. The question and its answer mean little. What matters, what Zane was unable to see—he was an impulsive man was Zane—is in the removing of the question from the mind entirely, and replacing it with certainty.

There is no God.

You walk alone in the darkness.

To prove this, to imprint it in the mind so deeply that no alternative can so much as flicker, is the goal. This is power, pure as it comes.

Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless. Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken. Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.

The prophet’s goal is simple. When the final scream in the night comes, whoever issues it will be certain of one thing:

No one hears.

What he has been promised in Chambers, Ohio, is strength and resiliency. He has looked into a confident man’s eyes and heard his assurance that there is no fear that will not bow to his faith.

The prophet of hard times, who has looked into many a confident gaze in his day, has his doubts about that.

1

ADAM HAD HIS SHIRT LIFTED, studying the lead-colored bruise along his ribcage, when the girl opened the door. She turned her head in swift horror, as if she’d caught him crouched on his desk in the nude. He gave the bruise one more look, frowning, and then lowered his shirt.

“Want a lesson for the day?”

The girl, a brunette with very tan skin—too tan for this time of the year in this part of the world—turned back hesitantly and didn’t speak.

“If you’re going to tell a drunk man that it’s time to go back to jail, you ought to see that the pool cue is out of his hand first,” Adam told her.

She parted her lips, then closed them again.

“Not your concern,” Adam said. “Sorry. Come on in.”

She stepped forward and let the door swing shut. When the latch clicked, she glanced backward, as if worried about being trapped in here with him.

Husband is a good decade older than her, Adam thought. He hasn’t hit her, at least not yet or at least not recently, but he’s the kind who might. The charges probably aren’t domestic. Let’s say, oh, drunk and disorderly. It won’t be costly to get him out. Not in dollars, at least.

He walked behind the desk, then extended a hand and said, “Adam Austin.”

Another hesitation, and then she reached forward and took his hand. Her eyes dropped to his knuckles, which were swollen and scabbed. When she removed her hand, he saw that she was wearing bright red nail polish with some sort of silver glitter worked into it.

“My name’s April.”

“All right.” He dropped into the leather swivel chair behind the desk, trying not to wince at the pain in his side. “Somebody you care about in a little trouble, April?”

She tilted her head. “What?”

“I assume you’re looking to post a bond.”

She shook her head. “No. That’s not it.” She was holding a folder in her free hand, and now she lifted it and held it against her chest while she sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. It was a bright blue folder, plastic and shiny.

“No?” The sign said AA BAIL BONDS. People who came to see him came for a reason.

“Look, um, you’re the detective, right?”

The detective. He did indeed hold a PI license. He did not recall ever being referred to as “the detective” before.

“I’m… yeah. I do that kind of work.”

He didn’t think he was even listed in the phone book as a private investigator. He was just AA Bail Bonds, which covered both his initials and gave him pole position in the Yellow Pages as people with shaking hands turned pages seeking help.

The girl didn’t say anything, but looked down at that shiny folder as if it held the secrets of her life. Adam, touching his left side gingerly with his fingertips, still trying to assess whether the ribs were bruised or cracked, said, “What exactly brought you here, April?”

“I’d heard… I was given a referral.”

“A referral,” he echoed. “Can I ask the source?”

She pushed her hair back over her left ear and sat forward in the chair, meeting his eyes for the first time, as if she’d summoned some confidence. “My boyfriend. Your brother was his football coach. We heard from him that you were a detective.”

Adam said, “My brother?” in an empty voice.

“Yes. Coach Austin.”

“Kent,” he said. “We’re not on his squad, April. We can call him Kent.”

She didn’t seem to like that idea, but she nodded.

“My brother gave you a referral,” he said, and found himself amused somehow, despite the aching ribs and bruised hand and the sandpaper eyelids that a full week of uneven hours and too much drinking provided. Until she walked in, he’d been two minutes from locking the office and going in pursuit of black coffee. The tallest cup and strongest blend they had. A savage headache had been building, and he needed something beyond Advil to take its knees out.

“That’s right.” She seemed unsatisfied with his response, as if she’d expected the mention of his brother would establish a personal connection. “I’m in school at Baldwin-Wallace College. A senior.”

“Terrific,” Adam said.

“It’s a good school.”

“I’ve always understood that to be true.” He was trying to keep his attention on her, but right now all she represented was a delay between him and coffee. “What’s in the folder?”

She looked down protectively, as if he’d violated the folder’s privacy. “Some letters.”

He waited. Could this take any longer? He was used to fighting his way through personal stories he didn’t care to hear about, used to deflecting tales of woe, but he did not have the patience to tug one out just so he could begin deflecting it.

“What precisely do you need, April?”

“I’d like to get in touch with my father.”

“You don’t know him?” Adam said, thinking that this wasn’t the sort of problem he could handle even if it interested him. How in the hell did you go about finding someone who’d abandoned his child decades ago? It wasn’t like chasing down a guy who’d skipped out on bail, leaving behind a fresh trail of friends, relatives, and property.

“I’ve met him,” she said. “But he was… well, by the time I was old enough to really get to know him, he was already in prison.”

Adam understood now why she’d gone to the trouble of telling him that she was in a good school. She didn’t want him to form his understanding of her from this one element, the knowledge that her father was in prison.

“I see. Well, we can figure out where he’s doing his time easily enough.”

“He’s done. He’s out.”

Damn. That would slow things down.

“What I’ve got,” the too-tan-for-October girl said, “is some letters. We started writing while he was still in prison. That was, actually, your brother’s idea.”

“No kidding,” Adam said, doing his damnedest to hide his disgust. Just what this girl needed, a relationship with some asshole in a cell. But Kent, he’d have found that a fine plan. Adam’s brother had gotten a lot of ink for his prison visits over the years. DRIVEN BY THE PAST, one headline had read. Adam found that a patently obvious observation. Everyone was driven by the past, all the time. Did Kent’s past play a role in his prison visits? Of course. Did that shared past play a role in Adam’s own prison visits? Better believe it. They were just different sorts of visits.

“Yes. And it was a wonderful idea. I mean, I learned to forgive him, you know? And then to understand that he wasn’t this monster, that he was someone who made a mistake and—”

“He stopped writing when he got out?”

She stuttered to a stop. “No. Well, he did for a while. But it’s an adjustment.”

“It certainly is,” Adam said, thinking That’s why most of them go right back. She was so damn young. This was what college seniors looked like? Shit, he was getting old. These girls seemed to be moving backward, sliding away from him just as fast as he aged away from them, until their youth was an impossible thing to comprehend.

“Right,” April said, pleased that he’d agreed. “So some time passed. Five months. It was frustrating, but then I got another letter, and he told me he’d gotten out and explained how difficult it was, and apologized.”

Of course he did. Has he asked for money yet?

“So now he writes, but he hasn’t given me his address. He said he’s nervous about meeting me, and I understand that. I don’t want to force things. But I’d at least like to be able to write back, you know? And I don’t want him to be… scared of me.”

Adam thought that maybe he didn’t need coffee anymore. Maybe he needed a beer. It was four in the afternoon. That was close enough to happy hour to count, wasn’t it?

“You might give him some time on that,” he said. “You might—”

“I will give him time. But I can’t give him anything more than that if I can’t write back.”

That’s the point, honey. Give him nothing but time and distance.

“He explained where he was living,” she said. “I feel like I should have been able to find it myself, honestly. I tried on the Internet, but I guess I don’t know what I’m doing. Anyhow, I’d love it if you’d find the address. All I want to do is respond, right? To let him know that he doesn’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not going to ask him to start being a dad.

Adam rubbed his eyes. “I’m more of a, uh, local-focused type. I don’t do a lot of—”

“He’s in town.”

“Chambers?”

She nodded.

“He’s from here?”

She seemed to consider this a difficult question. “We all are, originally. My family. I mean, everyone left, like me to go to college, and…”

And your father to go to prison. Yes, everyone left.

She opened the folder and withdrew a photocopy of a letter.

“In this, he gives the name of his landlord. It should be easy to come up with a list, right? He’s living in a rental house, and this is the name of the woman who owns it. It should be easy.”

It would be easy. One stop at the auditor’s office and he’d have every piece of property in this woman’s name.

“Maybe you should let things take a natural course,” he said.

Her eyes sparked. “I have plenty of people who actually know something about this situation who can give me advice. I’m asking you to give me an address.

It should have pissed him off, but instead it almost made him smile. He hadn’t thought she had that in her, not after the way she’d crept so uneasily into his office, scared by the sound of the door shutting behind her. He wished she’d come in when Chelsea was working. Not that Chelsea had a gentle touch, but maybe that was why it would have been better. Someone needed to chase her out of here, and Adam wasn’t doing a good job of that.

“Fair enough,” he said. “May I see the letter?”

She passed it over. A typed letter, the message filling barely a quarter of the page.

Dear April,

I understand you’re probably not very happy with me. It just takes some time to adjust, that’s all. I don’t want you to expect more of me than I can be. Right now I will just say that it feels good to be back home. And a little frightening. You might be surprised at that. But remember it has been a while since I was here. Since I was anywhere. It’s great to be out, of course, just strange and new. I am living in a rental house with a roof that leaks and a furnace that stinks when it runs, but it still feels like a castle. Mrs. Ruzich—that’s my landlord—keeps apologizing and saying she will fix those things and I tell her there is no rush, they don’t bother me. I’m not lying about that.

It is my favorite season here. Autumn—so beautiful. Love the way those leaves smell, don’t you? I hope you are doing good. I hope you aren’t too upset about the way I’ve handled things. Take care of yourself.

Jason (Dad)

Adam read through it and handed it back to her. He didn’t say what he wanted to—Let it breathe, don’t force contact because it will likely bring you nothing but pain— because that argument had already been shot down with gusto. The landlord’s name made it cake, anyhow. Ruzich? There wouldn’t be many.

“I just want to write him a short note,” April repeated. “Tell him that I’m wishing him well and that he doesn’t need to be worried about my expectations.”

Definitely beer, Adam thought. Definitely skip the coffee and go right to beer.

“Can you get me an address?” she asked.

“Probably. I bill for my time, nothing more, nothing less. The results of the situation aren’t my responsibility. All I guarantee is my time.”

She nodded, reached into her purse. “I’m prepared to pay two hundred dollars.”

“Give me a hundred. I charge fifty an hour. If it takes me more than two hours, I’ll let you know.”

He charged one hundred an hour, but this would likely take him all of twenty minutes and it was good to seem generous.

“All right.” She counted out five twenty-dollar bills and pushed them across the desk. “One other thing—you have a policy of being confidential, don’t you? Like a lawyer?”

“I’m not a lawyer.”

She looked dismayed.

“But I also am not a talker,” Adam said. “My business is my own, and yours is your own. I won’t talk about it unless a police officer walks in this door and tells me to.”

“That won’t happen.”

She had no idea how often that did happen with Adam’s clients.

“I just wanted to be sure… it’s private, you know,” she said. “It’s a private thing.”

“I’m not putting out any press releases.”

“Right. But you won’t even say anything to, um, to your brother? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really respect Coach Austin, but… it’s private.”

“Kent and I don’t do a whole lot of talking,” Adam said. “What I will do is find some potential addresses and pass them along to you. The rest is between you and your dad.”

She nodded, grateful.

“How do I get in touch with you?” he said.

She gave him a cell phone number, which he wrote down on a legal pad. Beside it he wrote April and then looked up.

“Last name?”

She frowned, and he knew why she didn’t want to give it. If she still carried her father’s name, and he was betting that she did, then she was afraid Adam would look into what the man had done to land in prison.

“Harper,” she said. “But remember, this is—”

“Private. Yes, Miss Harper. I understand that. I deal with it every day.”

She thanked him, shook his hand. She smelled of cocoa, and he thought about that and her dark skin and figured she’d just left a tanning bed. October in northern Ohio. All the pretty girls were fighting the gathering cold and darkness. Trying to carry summer into the winter.

“I’ll be in touch,” he said, and he waited long enough to hear the engine of her car start in the parking lot before he locked the office and went to get his beer.

2

KENT KNEW WHAT THEY were hearing and what they were reading: this was their season, the stuff of destiny, and they were too good to lose.

It was his job to make them forget that.

This week, that would be a little more difficult. They’d played a good team on Friday, a ranked team, and handled them easily, 34–14, to complete the first perfect regular season in school history. They’d won every statistical battle, and while Kent didn’t believe in paying much attention to statistics, he knew that his boys watched them carefully, and he was happy to use that tendency against them. In four short days they’d play again, the first playoff game, and there would be pep rallies and television cameras and T-shirts announcing their unbeaten season.

All of those things scared him more than anything the opponent might do. Overconfidence was a killer.

So, knowing that their confidence would be a difficult thing to shake, knowing that they’d be looking ahead to the school’s first state championship in twenty-two years—an undefeated championship, no less—he sought out drills that would show their weaknesses.

Colin Mears would be all-state at receiver for the second year in a row. The fastest kid Kent had ever coached at the position, and the most sure-handed, Colin would run routes all practice long with a smile on his face. Colin would not block long with a smile on his face. His lanky, lean frame made it difficult for him to get low enough quick enough to set the kind of block that contributed, and the Cardinal linebackers were happy to demonstrate that to him. Damon Ritter in particular, who ranked among Kent’s all-time favorite players, a quiet black kid with an unmatched ability to transfer game video to on-field execution, as bright a player as Kent had ever had at middle linebacker. Lorell McCoy, likewise, would be all-state at quarterback for the second year in a row. He had the touch that you didn’t see often in a high school quarterback, could zip it in like a dart when needed or float one up so soft in the corner of the end zone that his receiver always had time to gather his feet. What Lorell didn’t have was Colin’s speed. He had unusual pocket presence and read gaps well enough that he could gain yards up the middle consistently, but he had no burst. On a naked bootleg, then, taking the snap and sprinting around the end, he would nearly always be lacking the gear needed to make the play a success, and on the bootleg, Colin Mears had to block, his least favorite thing.

They ran the naked bootleg for the last twenty minutes of practice.

Kent didn’t have any intention of beating Spencer Heights on Friday night with this play, but he did intend to beat Spencer Heights, and this reminder of the things that his boys couldn’t do well was important. This unbeaten team needed to leave the practice field with a sense of fallibility. The attitude you needed to win football games was a difficult balance. Confidence was crucial; overconfidence killed. Success lived on the blade’s edge between.

Up in the bleachers, thirty people were watching. It was cold and windy, but there they sat anyhow. Talents like Mears and Ritter and McCoy were on their way out of the program, and their like might not pass through Chambers again. This much Kent understood better than anyone. He’d been the head coach for thirteen seasons now and had reached the state championship game twice. He had never had a team like this.

Watching them now, he wanted the lights on and the ball in the air. Wanted game day. That was unusual. Like most coaches, he was always wishing for one more practice day. You were never prepared enough. This week, though, this season, this team? He found himself wanting to be under the game lights. Wanted it over, so he could begin wishing that it had never ended. Because if he couldn’t close out that elusive state championship with this kind of talent?

It’s a game played among boys, he reminded himself while Matt Byers, his defensive coordinator, walked into the middle of the field to make a point about leverage, and the reason you’re here is to use this game to help these boys. You’re not here to put a trophy in that case. Never were, never will be. That trophy’s absence doesn’t say a thing about your measure as a man, and its presence wouldn’t, either.

This season, though? This season that was difficult to remember.

He let Byers say his piece and then he called them over, everyone circling around him, forty-seven players and six coaches, and told them they were done.

“Keep your heads down,” he said, the same thing he said to end every practice and locker room talk until the season was finished. Then he’d tell them to lift their heads up and make sure they held them high. Only then.

The practice officially over, Kent walked to midfield and most of the team followed. He offered no instruction for them to do so, and this was critical—the school board had required this of him after a complaint from a parent four years earlier. Praying with a public school team, he’d been told, was a violation of the separation of church and state. He couldn’t require it of his players. And so he did not. He prayed to end every practice, but participation was voluntary.

The players took a knee and Kent offered a short prayer. Football was not mentioned. Never was, never would be, never should be. The closest he came was when he prayed for their health, though he caught himself drifting too close to the game sometimes this season even as the words were leaving his lips. A swift, sharp desire to make it specific: Not Damon’s knee, Lord, not his knee. God, please watch over Lorell’s throwing shoulder… Silly things, desires for which he would chastise himself privately, but still they arose.

Because this season…

“Amen,” he said, and they echoed, and then they were on their feet and headed for the locker room at a run—no player walked onto or off of the field, ever. Kent watched while Colin Mears made a beeline to where his girlfriend, Rachel Bond, waited at the fence. One kiss, quick and amusingly chaste for hormonal teenagers, and then he rejoined the others. It was a deviation from the team-first routine that Kent ordinarily wouldn’t have allowed, but you needed to understand your players as something beyond cogs in the gridiron machine. That girl had been through a great deal, and Colin was a light in the darkness for her. He was what Kent wanted them to be so badly: not only about more than football but also about more than the self.

Kent let the assistants follow the team to the locker room while he headed directly to the parking lot. This wasn’t standard, but today he had places to be. A prison waited.

Standing behind the end zone, hands tucked in his pockets, was Dan Grissom, a local minister. Together, they would make the drive down to Mansfield, to one of the state’s larger prisons, and there Kent would speak to a group of inmates. There would be some talk of football; there would be more talk of family. Truth be told, Kent had winced a little when he saw Grissom arrive, the reminder of his required task. He wanted to put it off until after the season, after playoffs. But responsibilities were responsibilities. You weren’t allowed days off.

“They’re looking good!” Dan said, gushing with his usual enthusiasm, and Kent smiled a little, because Dan didn’t know the first thing about football. He knew plenty about encouragement, though.

“They should be,” Kent told him. “It’s that time of year.”

“I can’t believe you have a crowd in the stands just for a practice.”

Kent turned and glanced into the bleachers, saw the faces, some familiar, some not. The watchers grew as the season went on, as the wins stacked up and the losses stayed at bay. Definitely more strangers on hand. Curious about what the Cardinals had. What they could do.

“It’s a big deal in this town,” he admitted.

“Alice and I would like to have you and Beth and the kids over for dinner,” Dan said. “To celebrate the season.”

“Let’s wait until the season’s done.”

“I mean to celebrate how well it’s gone so far,” Dan said, and Kent wasn’t sure if he imagined the uneasiness, the sense that Dan didn’t expect it to close out as well as it had begun.

“I appreciate it. But dinner right now, it’s tough. With practices, you know.”

“We can eat late. Be fun to get the kids together. Sarah’s the same age as Lisa, you know. I think they’d get along well.”

“After practices, there’s film,” Kent said. And then, after catching a glance between disappointment and reproach from the minister, he said, “I’m sorry, Dan. But this time of year I get a little… edgy. I’m not much of a dinner companion. So as soon as we’re done, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Dan said. “Win, lose, or draw, we’re doing that dinner at season’s end.”

But there are no draws, Dan, Kent thought. Not in the playoffs. It’s win or lose.

They were in the parking lot when they passed Rachel Bond, who caught Kent’s eye and smiled, lifting a hand. He nodded and tipped two fingers off the bill of his cap. She was a prize. A convict for a father and an alcoholic for a mother and she’d risen above it all. It was unbelievable how much some of these children had to bear, so young.

But life? It didn’t card you before it sold you some pain. Kent had been given the most personal of examples in that lesson. It was why he devoted so much of himself to a game. Sometimes a game was what you needed—mind, body, and soul. That much he’d known for years.