by Rob Boffard | Mar 15, 2013 | Thriller
“Nope. They’re playing this one by the book,” the man said. “This is a private meeting. I believe they think I’m going to try to squeeze you for a confession.”
“Must mean they getting’ worried, then.”
“Probably. They’re fast-tracking the hearing, and I think you’re likely to get a sympathetic jury. Besides, you’re a minor. I don’t exactly see you getting the electric chair.”
“How you figure that? You a lawyer now? Already got one of those. He pretty good, too.”
“No I’m not. But I don’t imagine there’s a jury on earth that’ll convict you, and even if they did, there’s no judge who’ll hand out anything but a suspended sentence. You’re a national hero, after all.”
The scorching Chicago summer had bled through the hotel’s air conditioning into its gym, and grey sweat-spots dotted the collar of Danny Beecham’s white shirt. His dark suit felt heavy, too tight today, and his earpiece was slippery with sweat. The glass walls of the gym’s basketball court had actually begun to steam up.
Beecham looked at the court’s occupant, and jerked his thumb towards the door. “I said, get outta here,” he added, in case his point hadn’t been made.
“Why?” said Darius Mitchell. He was sixteen years old, with his hair rolled into tight, black cornrows. He was rolling a basketball from hand to hand.
“Because I’m asking nicely,” said Beecham. “In a minute, I’m not going to be so nice.”
“I ain’t done yet. My pops only gets finished his shift in half an hour. I gotta wait for him. Who are you anyway?”
Beecham flashed his badge, whipping it out of his pocket and opening it in one movement. “United States Secret Service.”
“Come on, man.”
“That’s some fake shit. I seen ’em selling one just like it on the block for five dollars. You ain’t no Secret Service.”
With that, Darius turned around and shot an easy three-pointer, swishing it. He grinned; all those hours on the court were paying off. He was too small to get to the hoop in a game; his slender frame always got shoved out of the way. But as a point guard? Or a shooter, draining buckets from deep? Yeah, he could do that.
Beecham folded his arms. “Last chance, son. You can either leave this court free, or in cuffs. What’s it gonna be?”
Darius had collected the ball, and was dribbling it back to the top of the court. He passed the ball between his legs a few times. Then he shook his head, and fired off another shot, flicking his wrist on the follow-through.
“Alright, that’s it,” said Beecham, unbuttoning his jacket and striding towards Darius. “You’re coming with me.”
“Hey, get your hands off me, man!”
William Dalgleash III came into the gym just as Beecham grabbed Darius Mitchell. The blood drained from his face.
He was a little man, bald, and his pinstripe suit and neat red tie looked out of place among the angular exercise machines. He strode across the gym to the court, and entered as Beecham pinned Darius’ arms behind him.
“What the hell’s going on here?” said Dalgleash, his brogues squeaking on the faux-wood floor of the court.
“Get him off me,” said Darius, wrestling with Beecham’s grip.
Dalgleash ignored him. “Jesus Christ, Agent Beecham. I have the White House press corps out there, and you’re in here manhandling some kid. What if someone got a photo?”
Reluctantly, Beecham released Darius, who spun round. “It ain’t right!”
“I told him to leave,” said Beecham.
Dalgleash gritted his teeth, and slowly counted to three in his head. He had to do it twice. This campaign was proving to be even more difficult and trying than the last one. The President Of The United States – POTUS, to use the shorthand – had decided to have this unscheduled photo op, which was headache enough (he hated it when candidates thought they knew what was best for the press – and really, shooting basketball? Now?) On top of that, he had a Secret Serviceman tangling with a kid in front of a bunch of photographers. It was not what he or his candidate needed.
He looked at Darius. God. Couldn’t the Service find any real villains to fight?
“I’m afraid Mr Beecham here is right. I’m sorry he acted a little…” he straightened his tie. “…Overzealous, but we really do need the court. I’m sure you understand.”
“You work for the hotel?”
Whatever works, thought Dalgleash. “That’s right. I’m the concierge. And I’d appreciate it if… what are you laughing at?”
“Man, my dad works for the hotel. He a janitor. It was the concierge said I could play here after school until my dad finishes work. His name’s Mr Santos. Maybe I should introduce y’all sometime.”
“I’ll go and fetch Mr Santos,” said Beecham, smoothing down his jacket and glaring daggers at Darius.
“Thank you,” said Dalgleash. Beecham stalked off the court, his footfalls echoing around the empty gym.
“So if you ain’t the concierge, who are you then?” said Darius, turning to face the basket and lining up another shot. He was on the foul line this time.
“My name’s William Dalgleash. I’m the press secretary for President Artis Jackson.”
“Like hell you are.”
Dalgleash smiled, his teeth too close together. “Would you like to see a business card?” he said, reaching inside his suit jacket.
“Nah, that’s all good. Besides, I know you can’t kick me off the court. You just told your boy to back off.”
Dalgleash was about to reply when he stopped. The one thing he’d learned at Artis Jackson’s side was that you pick your battles. It wasn’t quite time yet. He could wait. And when Mr Santos did indeed show up, this kid was going to get the shock of his life.
Mr. Santos got nervous about a lot of things. For starters, he was very nervous about this photo op, and very keen that it should go smoothly because after all, how often did the President come to this hotel? Or any hotel? It would look great on their website.
“What’s going on?” Santos asked Dalgleash. He was immaculately dressed, but kept tugging the slim silver band on his ring finger, back and forth, back and forth.
They were standing just above the three point line. Darius had finally given them his full attention. Dalgleash’s face was bright red. “You told this young man – what’s his name?
“Darius Mitchell, Sir,” said Santos.
“You told him he could play on the court, correct?”
“That’s right. His father works here.”
“Well, that’s just stunning. Fantastic. Let me make something clear, Mr Santos. I can’t get him off the court – not with the press hovering over this damn thing like the vultures they are – but if you don’t, I will take this to another hotel.”
Santos wrung his hands. “Sorry,” he said to Darius. “They’re right. Time to go.”
Santos’ eyes bugged out of his head. “Darius, please. I’ll tell your father about this. You see what happens then.”
“Oh, what, you gonna tell my dad that you just bowed down for these clowns, let ’em kick his son off the court? Yeah, that’ll work.”
Santos licked his lips. He looked at Dalgleash, then Beecham, then Darius Mitchell. His brow was beaded with sweat.
“Fetch his father, then,” said Dalgleash.
“Yes,” said Santos. “Yes, I will. But I’ll have to find him first. There are twenty-five floors, over five hundred rooms…”
For the love of God, thought Dalgleash. “Enough is enough, young man,” he said. “You will go with Mr Santos here, right now. Do I make myself clear?”
“Help! Help!” Darius shouted. “They’re violating my rights! Brutality!”
The man from the Michigan Advertiser wasn’t even supposed to be in the Wynne Hotel. He’d had to wheedle and threaten just to get his editor to pony up the cash for a bus fare. Then he’d had to fight and scrap for his Presidential press pass. So for the entire Illinois segment of the trip, he’d made sure that he was at the head of every queue, every single time.
When he heard raised voices from the gym, he stopped chatting to the hottie from DCTV News, and listened intently. She carried on talking, going on about something to do with a governor and a senator, and he had to shush her.
She stared at him. “Did you just shush me?”
He shushed her again. Raised voices. Definitely. One was Dalgleash. Before a photo op, the press secretary usually hung out with the reporters, laughing too loudly at jokes and winking too much.
The man from the Advertiser glanced around, and strode into the gym, leaving the woman from the Post staring at him, open-mouthed.
“You get back here,” she said, her heels clacking on the floor as she followed him in.
“Hey,” said the security guard. “Where do you think you two’re going?”
“Buzz off,” said the man from the Advertiser.
“Yeah, buzz off,” said the woman, walking right past him.
And the entire Washington press corps, mistaking their entrance for a signal that the session had started, charged right in after them.
Dalgleash was in the middle of telling Darius Mitchell that if he didn’t shut up, he was going to have him shipped to Guantanamo Bay when he saw them coming.
He turned from Darius mid-sentence and strode out of the court, his face transforming. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said. “Thank you for coming. If you’d like to take your places, the President will be with you shortly.”
“Everything alright in here, Bill?” That was the grizzled old reporter from the Los Angeles Enquirer, who knew that Dalgleash hated to be called Bill.
Dalgleash smiled. “Couldn’t be better, Ray. We’re just waiting for the man himself.”
Darius had gone silent. He was dribbling the ball between his legs, watching the pack with a curious expression on his face. Santos stood next to him, still wringing his hands.
“Who’s the boy on the court?” said the woman from the News.
Dalgleash thought about lying, decided against it. It was too late now. “He’s just a young man who didn’t want to stop playing. Who can blame him? And in a few moments -” he spread his arms wide and grinned “- he’s going to play a little one-on-one with President Jackson himself!”
“What’s his name?” asked the man from the Advertiser.
“Oh don’t worry, you’ll get to meet him very shortly. Now, the court won’t hold all of you, but we’ll make sure that the door is wide open so you can hear everything. Reporters can watch from out here, photographers lined up against the far wall inside, please, thank you…”
“So he really comin’ down here?” said Darius. He, Dalgleash and Beecham were in the middle of the court. Around them, reporters and photographers jostled for position.
Dalgleash had on his most winning smile. “He wants to shoot some hoops, sport. Just like you. And it sure would be great if you could play some ball with him. You know, just a friendly game?”
“You were tryna kick me out. Why should I listen to you?”
If this doesn’t go off without a hitch, Dalgleash thought, I’m going to get your father fired, you little brat. See how you like that.
Darius appeared to be deep in thought. “He really comin’ down here?” he said again.
“In that case, yeah, I’ll take him on.”
Dalgleash breathed an inner sigh of relief. “Fantastic, sport. Now how’d you like to meet the press?” He punched Darius’ shoulder, and got a stony stare for his efforts. But the boy let himself be led off the court. He was thinking about Artis Jackson. And about what he was going to say to the man when he arrived.
“Alright folks, thank you all for waiting,” said Dalgleash. “This here is Darius Mitchell, and he’s very excited to play the President today, aren’t you Darius?”
Darius gave him a blank look. A split-second later, he was hit by a wave of shouted questions, ranging from “Have you done any preparation for the game?” to “Which party do you support?” to “Who’s your favourite rapper?”
Darius didn’t get a chance to answer any of the questions, because right at that moment, the reporters at the back of the scrum started yelling in the direction of the gym’s entrance.
What they were yelling was: “Mr President! Mr President!”
Artis Jackson knew all about greeting the press. Big smile, first names. He didn’t even bother to answer the questions thrown at him. He never did; as long as he shook the right hands and asked after the right wives and husbands, he got an easy ride.
His six-foot-four frame, clad in a navy sweatsuit, glided through the gaggle of reporters. “Bill, how’s it going? Jeanne – great to see you! How’s Mark doing? Howie! I owe you a quote don’t I? Ray, my man!”
It was only when he got to the front of the pack that he spotted Darius. Not for nothing had he been regarded as one of the most savvy senators on the hill, and a look from Dalgleash told him all he needed to know. He reached out a hand. “Good to meet you. I’m Artis.”
“Darius.” They shook.
Jackson grinned. “What do you say we hit the court, Darius?” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the press. “Give these guys a show?” By now the clicking of flashbulbs had risen to a whirring crescendo. Darius shrugged again.
“I guess,” he said. “But just so you know: I’ma dunk on you.”
That got a big laugh from the press. Jackson gave another grin, but one that wasn’t quite as wide as before. He clapped Darius on the shoulder, and walked him onto the court.
“Have you been following the election?” he asked, picking up the ball and tossing it to Darius. It was always important, he felt, to talk to teenagers like they were adults.
“Nope,” said Darius, bouncing the ball. “I don’t like politics.”
“Oh?” Jackson said. “Well, perhaps you can tell me a bit about yourself then. Where do you go to school?”
“Parker High. On the South Side.”
“I know it. I grew up in Chicago.”
“Yeah. ‘Cept you were one of them rich kids who spent their time up in Lincoln Park.”
The reporters gasped. Pencils quickly began to scratch on notepads. Cameras were shifted into more comfortable positions on shoulder blades.
Jackson studied Darius. “Oh, it’s like that then?” he said at length. “Guess we’d better settle this on the court. Do you want to shoot to start?” He gestured to the hoop.
“You can take it.”
Darius tossed Jackson the ball, then moved between him and the basket.
“Just check the damn ball, man.”
Jackson threw him the ball, and Darius bounce-passed it back, completing the curious ritual that marks the start of any pick-up game. Around them, the gym was quiet.
“We’ve got about fifteen minutes, Sir,” Dalgleash called out,
“Thank you William,” said Jackson, without looking around.
He started dribbling the ball, and Darius dropped into a guard position: knees bent, head up, one hand reached out towards Jackson. The ball boomed off the court as the President slowly dribbled to the left, keeping his eyes on the hoop the whole time.
Darius jabbed forward, nicking the ball with his fingertips, Jackson pulling it back just in time. He dribbled between his legs, and drove for the basket. Darius dived to stop him, and the two collided with a muffled thud. Jackson was solidly built, but Darius held his ground, chest out, hands probing for the ball.
The President pump-faked once, twice, then turned and dropped a slow fadeaway jumper that sank straight through the net. He grinned, and the press corps applauded. There was another whir of camera shutters.
Darius looked sullen, and when he and Jackson checked the ball again, he threw it a back a lot harder than before.
“Easy now, Darius,” said Jackson. “It’s just a game.”
“No it ain’t,” Darius replied. He was back in the guard position, standing on the foul line.
“Alright,” Jackson said. “But just remember to have fun.”
“Yeah, fun. You know what’ll be fun? Dunkin’ on you. Posterisin’ you, nigga.”
“Appreciate it if you didn’t use that term.”
On the last word, the President drove hard, dribbling once before palming the ball and lofting it for a layup. It bounced off the rim, and Darius sprinted away, grabbing the rebound and moving to the top of the arc.
“Nice,” said Jackson. It was his turn to go into the guard position. He wasn’t worried. He had at least five inches on the kid, and he was sure he could block any shot Darius put up.
“You think that was nice, Lincoln Park? Check this out.”
Darius stopped, holding the ball. Under the rules, he couldn’t start dribbling again, so Jackson closed in on him, getting his hand in his face, towering over him.
“Yeah, I got you,” muttered Darius and sprang upwards for the shot. Jackson followed a split-second later. He would block this, no problem, his hand was already in front of the ball –
– Which suddenly moved to the side as Darius bent his entire body, leaning back at the same time. The ball flew past Jackson’s head, sinking into the net.
Darius whooped, drinking in the reporters’ applause. “Two-one, man! Two-one!” he shouted.
“One-all, I think you’ll find,” said Jackson, gathering the ball. Inside, he was seething. Did this little punk think he could beat him?
“Uh-uh. Three-pointer. Counts two in a pick-up.”
“Guess you can’t win ’em all, Mr President,” called the man from the Advertiser.
The President smiled again, shrugged. “Suppose I should be happy it’s not a live debate, right?”
He checked the ball with Darius, who attacked the hoop hard and fast, his sneakers squeaking on the wood. Jackson had to put out a hand and get right into the kid’s back. He could feel Darius’ muscles moving under him. Darius had his right arm out, blocking the President’s attempts to reach around. He jumped backwards, spinning around in mid-air to face the hoop.
Jackson moved to swat the ball, and his hand smashed down on Darius’ forehead. The kid gave out a startled cry, and dropped to the court. The reporters gasped.
“You alright?” said Jackson, reaching a hand out.
Darius knocked it away. “That’s a foul.”
The President towered over him. “No fouls in a pick-up. But I’ll let you take it again, if you like.”
Darius stared at him for a moment, then stood and jogged back to the top of the court. No fouls? He thought. OK. I can rock with that.
The President was soon up three-two, first off a shot and then a beautiful, driving layup. He’d heard the camera lenses chatter even faster as he’d taken off. Nothing like an action photo.
He had the ball again, and this time Darius didn’t wait. As soon as it was checked, he got right in Jackson’s face, his hands everywhere. He was trash talking now, his voice barbed. “You think you can get past me? I am the motherfuckin’ Great Wall Of China. I was built to keep niggas like you out. This my court. I’ma take that ball, then I’ma dunk on you. I’ma go Blake Griffin on that ass.”
Jackson flipped the ball between his legs, then spun, pushing his back into Darius. The kid was smaller than him, but it was like trying to shove a brick wall down. He gave up trying to go inside, and fired the ball up for a shot.
At the same instant, Darius jumped, his left arm raised like a child in a classroom. He swung it down, and swatted the ball right back into Jackson’s face.
The crowd let off a sound like the hiss of air escaping from a blown tire. The President grunted, his hands cupping his nose. Blood began to drip through his fingers.
“Jesus,” he said, his voice muffled.
Darius simply stood, his shoulders rising and falling, as all the President’s men rushed the court. Dalgleash and Beecham, with other Secret Service agents behind them, clustered around him. The reporters were hurriedly tapping on iPads and iPhones, scribbling into notebooks. The man from the Advertiser was speaking on his phone, his hand cupped over his mouth, dictating to his editor back in Dearborn.
One of the Secret Servicemen tried to touch the President’s face, his fingers darting in gently, like someone trying to disarm a bomb.
“Get off,” Jackson growled. He pulled his hands away from his face. Thick blood dripped onto his top lip, crusted on his stubble.
He pointed at Darius. “Mr Mitchell, there’s a difference between fouling and flagrant fouling. You should learn a little sportsmanship, son. William, we’re done here. I hope the photographers got what they needed.”
He started to walk away, his forehead knitted with anger.
Jackson turned, stared at Darius. “Excuse me?”
The kid returned the stare, his chin high. “You heard me.”
In three strides, Jackson was on Darius, looking down on him. “Say that again.”
Jackson opened his mouth, then shut it again. This time there was no noise from the reporters. Every single one had been shocked into silence.
“That’s it,” said Dalgleash, inserting himself between them. “We’re done.” He turned to the press corps. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I think it’s best if we move on from here…”
Dalgleash turned. “Sir?”
“I said no.” The President’s eyes had not left Darius. His look was pure poison. “We’re notdone here.”
“With respect, Mr President, I think we should…”
“I don’t. I want you and everyone else off the court, right now. Actually, no. Mr Beecham: you stay. I want you to throw up a jump ball between me and my man here. We’re going to sudden death.”
For the first time, Darius felt a tiny prickle of fear. He had to choose his moment. It had to be just right.
He returned Jackson’s gaze, trying not to show any emotion.
“OK then. Sudden death it is.”
They stood at the foul line, the ball held out on Beecham’s right hand, like a sacrificial offering, the two players crouched low on either side.
Danny Beecham thought: this is getting out of hand.
William Dalgleash thought: be calm. This’ll all work out. Just be calm. They’ll play and shake hands and it’ll be a footnote in this campaign, and anyway, I can spin this, no problem, just be calm.
Artis Jackson thought: I’m not just going to beat you, kid. I’m going to end you. Knock you on your ass.
Beecham moved to throw the ball up.
And Darius Mitchell said: “The 108th.”
From where Dalgleash was standing, it looked like the President tripped.
He’d seen Jackson tense, ready to jump for the ball, but at the last second, his legs, ready to spring, did a kind of stutter, and he faltered, swaying in place. Darius got a clean jump, tapping the ball gently backwards. He grabbed it, dribbling back outside the three-point arc. Beecham jogged backwards towards the wall, out of the way.
Jackson turned, and for a split-second, Dalgleash thought he saw something in his expression. Something like shock.
“What did you say?” said Jackson.
“I think you heard that, too,” Darius replied. He was dribbling the ball, putting it between his legs, shifting from side to side. At that moment, he didn’t look like a kid. He looked like LeBron James, right before a freight-train drive to the bucket.
“And I got another one for you,” he said, his voice louder this time. “Operation Poseidon. You like that?”
Artis Jackson roared, and leapt for the ball. Darius pulled it back, dancing out of reach. Jackson followed, swiping, trying to knock the ball away. Behind them, reporters began to shout questions at Dalgleash. Poseidon? Was that what the kid said? What did he mean?
Darius paused, faked, then dribbled and spun, rolling around Jackson, who had to furiously backpedal to keep up. They ended up on the baseline, a few steps from the basket. Darius had backed into Jackson, his left arm out. Beads of sweat stood out on the President’s forehead.
“My brother was in the 108th division,” said Darius, loudly enough for the reporters to catch every word. “Out in Helmand, when Operation Poseidon went down. When that little drone of yours mistook them for a bunch of insurgents. You thought you could keep that one under wraps. Well guess what: I know.”
He stepped back, darting out of range. But the look on Jackson’s face wasn’t shock, or anger. Now it was triumph. It was the look of a bully in a schoolyard who’s rubbing someone’s face in the dirt, and doesn’t care that the teachers have seen him do it.
“You just revealed highly classified information,” he said. “You’re going to go to jail for a long time, Mr Mitchell.”
“Maybe,” said Darius. “But I’ma still dunk on you.”
He drove for the hoop, palmed the ball, took two steps, and jumped.
Darius Mitchell couldn’t have known about Poseidon. It wasn’t possible. A kid from the South Side of Chicago knowing about a failed black op deep in insurgent territory? Just couldn’t happen. Not unless…
Not unless the kid’s brother was in the unit felled by friendly fire from the drone. Not unless someone – a soldier in the unit, maybe, or the kid’s own brother – happened to say something to his family back home before the op. Let something slip.
Maybe he did it without thinking. Or maybe it was just an insurance policy. But in any case, how could Darius possibly have known the exact details?
Someone had taken him through exactly what happened to his brother. Someone close to it. Someone who wanted him here, on the court, right now, in front of the Press Corps.
All of this went through Artis Jackson’s mind as Darius Mitchell flew over him, his legs pistoning out like Michael Jordan, the ball held in two hands behind his head, like a tomahawk.
For a moment, Darius thought he wasn’t going to make it.
He had the height – for the first time in his life, he had the height – and his aim was on point. Jackson had been forced to backpedal, somewhere far below him, somewhere that didn’t matter anymore. But as Darius saw the hoop approaching, he felt the tug of gravity, first gentle, and then firm. The net began to rise, moving away from him.
Without being aware that he was doing it, Darius screamed. In one motion, he slammed the ball home, smashing it through the hoop so hard that the net cracked like a whip.
And then, he was descending.
The ball had to bounce twice before anyone spoke. It thumped off the floor, the noise echoing into the stunned gym. As it rolled to a stop, there was a low groundswell of sound. And as it gently came to rest against the wall, the noise rose to a rumbling thunderclap.
Some of the reporters were cheering. Others were yelling questions. Still more were applauding. Darius stood under the hoop, staring at Artis Jackon. His expression was unreadable. Jackson didn’t look triumphant anymore. He looked sick. He turned and walked out of the court. A dozen reporters broke off from the pack and followed him, nipping at his heels like bloodhounds. The others swarmed the court, clustering around Darius, bellowing questions.
He told them everything.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to go easy,” said Darius’s visitor. “You did reveal top-secret information.”
“Straight trash, man,” said Darius. “It’s only top secret ‘cos they messed up. That operation had gone smoothly, the 108th’d be back home, and that dude Jackson would be handing out the medals instead of looking for a new job.”
“I suppose so. Still, the new guy’s not bad. And he’s publicly said that there’ll be no more drones.”
“You ever see this kind of thing happen when you were in the service?”
There was a pause while his visitor considered this.
“Friendly fire? Sure, once or twice, back in Desert Storm. But not like this. Not where they just pretend it didn’t happen. Not when you can zoom in from thirty thousand feet and see exactly who you’re shooting at. When you can give the order, and walk away. That’s not right. No-one should screw up that badly and get to walk away.”
Darius’ head had dropped. He was thinking about his brother.
At last, he said, “Thank you. For letting me do this.”
“We wanted the same thing. And hey, that was one hell of a game.”
“Nearly was no game. Thought you was trying to get me off that court for real.”
“I had to make it look good. And anyway, you put an idea like an impromptu basketball shoot in Jackson’s head, and he’ll jump on it. All I had to do was mention it to the right people.”
“One thing I don’t get.”
“I mean, why not just go public with it? You coulda been a whistleblower, man. ”
“We’ve had this conversation. Politicians can shuck and jive and dance and talk their way around almost anything. You have to put it right out in front of them. And you have to do it publicly. I needed you.”
“You straight? Still got a job, I mean?”
“I’ve still got a job, don’t you worry. After all, the new President still needs his staff.”
“OK then. I’ll see you in court.”
“First on the court, then in court. Got a nice ring to it.”
Darius Mitchell and Danny Beecham stood up and shook hands. Beecham left.