The Halfback by Night (PG-13)

“It didn’t occur to you to maybe, oh, I don’t know, share this snippet of information with me up-front?”

“Look, I don’t know what version of the facts you read in those reports-”

“Let’s just say you don’t come off so well,” Rockford inter­jected.

Kolchak was squeezing his chin with a nod, “Yeah, I imagine. Who signed off on those – Lieutenant Mateo?”

“The very same.”

“I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with that gent-”

Rockford nodded, “Pompous little twerp with an Ivy League accent.”

Kolchak pointed a finger at Rockford, “That’s the very guy. Now, would you say – as somebody who’s had dealings with the local constabulary – that Mateo is a stalwart public servant whose primary allegiance is to the public good?”

“Mateo?” Rockford admitted, “Mateo’s a company man, toes the line, does what he can to ensure he keeps his detective’s pension.”

“Ah-ha!” Kolchak exclaimed, “So you, yourself, would admit that Lt. Mateo might be inclined to promote and propagate whatever theory his bosses felt the public needed to hear, even if that theory was a pure fabrication. A bedtime story of devil-worshippers with drug-fueled super-strength and butcher knives for instance.”

“The coven members copped to the murders, or don’t you read the papers,” Rockford quipped.

“Sure, suuure,” Kolchak expounded, “and those confessions were obtained how exactly? Maybe after a little excessive force perhaps? Or a day or two of withdrawal symptoms in lockup?”

“If you’re trying to imply that the LAPD may have, on occasion, leaned on their suspects a little hard or purposely fudged a report now and again – for whatever reason – then you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know,” said Rockford. “But if you think I’m just gonna throw in with a guy who’s managed to get himself un­officially exiled from three major American cities-”

“They had that in there, huh?” Kolchak said, sounding like a bashful reprobate in the principal’s office. “Good to know they did their research.”

Rockford just uttered an “Uh-huh.” The temperature was dropping and a night wind snaked around the hillside.

“You’ll get it, Jim, the whole story for better or worse, I swear. But first you’ve got to believe me that this is serious business and there are going to be more Valerie Martins out there getting the worst news of their lives.”

“What are you getting at, Carl?” Rockford demanded, his voice tinged with impatience; he’d never developed a taste for the cryptic.

For Carl Kolchak, however, such was his stock and trade. “We do this thing and then I’ll fill in every blank, you have my word. What do you say, Jim?”

There was a moment’s pause as many, many possible answers to that question ping-ponged through Jim Rockford’s mind, most of them involving Kolchak taking long walks off of short piers. Before he opened his mouth to respond, Rockford wondered if it was too late to stop by his sometime lady friend Beth’s place for a nightcap or, barring that, if he still had any beers in the fridge.

“I’ll get the shovels,” he finally said in the resigned voice of the instantly regretful.

With a fair amount of dexterity for men of their advancing years, they boosted themselves over the top of the stone wall of the cemetery grounds, each landing with a grunt on the soft grass awaiting on the other side. Kolchak, somehow, managed not to lose his hat or his ever-present camera. They collected the shovels they had chucked over in advance, took their bearings as best they could in the darkness, and then hustled off in what Rockford decided was the direction of Stacker Shoemaker’s final resting place.

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