Rotted Roots — Part 8: Jump Ball
It was the game everyone wanted to see. A rematch of last year’s finals between the Desert Knights and Swashbucklers. It had been sold out ever since ticket sales opened back in August. Fans cheered and booed in equal measure as the game played out. Everyone was gabbing or on their phones during stoppages in play. No one knew or cared about the people outside their personal groups. The game was all that mattered to them.
Servaes figured it was the perfect place for a clandestine meeting.
It wasn’t until well into the third quarter that Ryder showed up in the empty seat Servaes had acquired for him. He limped down the concrete stairs and dusted off the plastic seat before easing himself into it. His tie was askew, suit rumpled, thin stubble poking through his cheeks. He carried his bags under his bloodshot eyes. The lines on his face were more pronounced.
“You look like crap,” shouted Servaes over another hefty cheer from Swashbucklers fans as they drained another three. Ryder grunted. Servaes could practically see him shrinking into himself from the near-supersonic cries of buzzed and manic fans. “What did you find out?”
“Shouldn’t we invite your friends over first?” Ryder nodded behind him. “Seat EE 22.” Servaes smiled and turned. There, right in the seat Ryder had mentioned, was Agent Ellis, himself hunched over from his injured back, his face a puffy mass of purple. “I passed seven others as I came in, if you want their locations as well.”
“That won’t be necessary. They’re all wired up to hear us. Besides, they’re here because they don’t trust you.”
“And you do?” The Desert Knights’ point guard made a decisive block. Another round of joyous cries. Ryder continued to shrink.
“Why don’t I go first?” asked Servaes. Ryder nodded, his eyes slits. He breathed slowly as Servaes pulled his phone out. He brought up a photo and showed it to Ryder. “This the guy who came to see you?”
On the screen was the same bullish face and enormous body that had sat in his office weeks ago. He was smiling — sneering might have been the better word — in the photo. A faint gleam from a silver tooth was visible.
“That’s him,” Ryder said.
Servaes put his phone back in his pocket. “His name’s William Way. A former heavy for the European mob. Was kicked out when his boss was found with his head caved in. No one wanted to say it was him, even though everyone apparently knew it was, so he was sent packing instead of eating a bullet.”
“Why let him live?”
“Apparently he has a medical condition known as Uninhibited Muscle Usage. Basically he can use the full strength of his muscles while a normal human can only use about twenty to thirty percent. Makes him crazy strong and impossible to take down in a fight. The only weakness he seems to have from this is that he burns through energy quickly, so he can’t fight for long.”
“That explains why he constantly ate.” He winced as the game was paused for a television break. The loudspeakers began blaring a bland chart-topper. An ad for WorldTree Technologies flashed on the jumbotron. He shielded his eyes from the cacophony.
Servaes handed Ryder an unopened bottle of water. “You need this more than I do.”
“Thanks,” Ryder grunted, and poured half the bottle into his mouth. It helped, if only a touch. Servaes continued.
“The last anyone heard from him he was working as a gun for hire in China. That was almost two years ago. Ever since he’s been a ghost.”
“So why reappear now?”
“What did he say when he was at your office?”
“Just that you guys — the National branch, I guess — were going to go after my family and he wanted my help.”
“In what way?”
“He needed me to distract the guards in the lobby so his interview would be disrupted and they wouldn’t notice inconsistencies in his cover. Only my siblings said they haven’t hired anyone new in months.”
“Why lie then? He must have known you’d figure out he wasn’t who he said he was soon enough.”
“Because whatever he needed must already be done by now.”
“Possible. But that still doesn’t explain why he’s going after your family company. Or what he hoped to accomplish. Or who’s he’s working for.”
“Whoever they are, I don’t think Way is the only one they’re using.”
“How so?” A cheer as the Swashbucklers stole the ball.
“When I went to see my brother and sister the other day, they made a reference to bigger problems than me asking questions. Whatever Way is up to, I think it’s just a piece of something.”
That’s when the first bomb went off.
The entire stadium shook violently. The southeast end of the stadium, directly diagonal from where Ryder and Servaes were sitting, was soon covered with falling debris from the ceiling. The upper deck collapsed and began to slide towards the court. People ran in terror. Screams replaced exuberance. The jumbotron snapped and swung on a pendulum towards the north end. Ryder watched as it swung.
The second explosion snapped the remaining cables and sent the gigantic screen plummeting. The court exploded in a shower of splinters. Servaes was shouting things to his allies, who were running towards the exits to help the evacuation. The ground shook from the stampede towards the exit. Servaes grabbed a hypnotized Ryder and dragged him away from the crumbling stadium into the throng of panic and desperation.
They jostled with people caked in facepaint and dust from the falling concrete. They were cattle pushing through the few remaining doors to the outside. The turnstiles had been shoved to one side. Ryder felt himself trip over unconscious bodies as he and Servaes moved into the fresh air of the outside world.
Sirens blared. People cried. A woman sat on the steps holding her head, a huge crack running from her forehead into the back of her skull. Several men in fluorescent vests carried screaming children away from the people running like bustling bugs. A third explosion blew out the windows on the upper floors, where the press boxes and V.I.P. suites were located. It was as Ryder turned away from the latest detonation that he saw their own rival.
William Way stood on the other side of the street as people scampered past his large body. He watched as the flames kicked glass shards onto the crowd. He was impassive. A remote was in his hand.
Ryder grabbed Servaes’ shoulders and shouted. Their ears were ringing too much to hear. Instead he pointed to Way. Servaes had the same recognition on his face. He took off towards Way, who had noticed the pair moving towards him and was now running from the scene. They vanished into the crowd.
Ryder knew he wouldn’t have been able to keep up with them. His body still ached from his recent fight. Instead he seized a fallen motorcycle and drove through the madness to help his new partner.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…