The Halfback by Night (PG-13)

This didn’t seem to placate Valerie who continued, “Even worse, they had had the funeral that very day. Nobody invited me. The love of my life gets planted in the ground and nobody knows to find me or have me there. It took a couple of days but I scrounged some money together – got a loan from Angel-” At this, Rockford shot a skeptical look at his friend in the back seat. “-and I booked my flight. This was the earliest I could get here.”

“What about the call?” Rockford interjected, “You mentioned that you heard from Clay two days ago?”

“Yeah, while I was packing. I was already a wreck and then the phone rang.”

Kolchak asked, “You know what time this was?”

“It was late Monday night – probably around 12:30.”

Kolchak nodded, “So 9:30 California time.”

Rockford wondered for a moment what conclusion it was that Kolchak had just drawn for himself before getting Valerie back on track, “What did he say, Valerie?”

“He was kind of freaked out, said he couldn’t talk long. He said he knew what I must be hearing, but he wanted me to know that he was okay. He said he hadn’t felt so good in his whole life in fact, and that all he wished is that I could be with him-” Tears streamed down her face anew, but this time they ran silently, Valerie’s voice remaining a numb monotone, “He said, ‘I love you, Val baby, and I can’t wait to show you how much’. And that was it. I couldn’t breathe for the longest time.”

“Are you sure it was really him?” asked Rockford.

Valerie found his eyes in the rearview mirror to gravely make her point, “He sounded kind of…odd, but it was definitely him.”

“I’m only saying there are some freaks out there,” Rockford continued, “might think it’s a kick to impersonate a dead man and torture his loved ones.”

“A sick joke, right?” Valerie said, “That’s exactly what the Shoemakers accused me of when I called to tell them that Clay was still alive.”

The following day started off cool and grayish yellow as the thick layer of smog held out against the Pacific breezes for the first several hours of the morning. It was going to be a hot one, typical weather for L.A. in the middle of May. At their prearranged time, Rockford rapped at Kolchak’s room door and was answered promptly by the reporter, wearing the same clothes from the day before, daubing at his still-wet face with a motel towel.

“Hey, Jim, gimme a minute, would ya?”

“Sure,” Rockford replied, entering the room while Kolchak finished his ablutions with a toss of the towel to the edge of the room’s tiny sink. “Couldn’t help but notice that you’re in yesterday’s duds.”

Kolchak frowned as he grabbed for his coat, “Ah, yeah. The cost of making last minute changes to one’s itinerary. My luggage made the long journey home without me. But not to worry, the stuff that’s washable got washed last night in the motel Laundromat. I will do my best not to offend.”

“That’s okay,” Rockford responded, “I was in jail for a stretch, it’d take a lot more than ripe socks to offend me.”

“Yeah? Prison, huh?” the reporter’s curiosity, as reflexive a response as a knee-jerk under a doctor’s mallet.

Rockford couldn’t help but smile at Kolchak’s expression, “Wrongfully accused. Long story there and one that doesn’t help Valerie Martin’s case in the slightest.”

Kolchak, never one for dropping a subject of any stripe, none­theless ceded the topic by grabbing his hat and the two carry-on items that had stayed behind: his camera and his boxlike Sony “Cassette Corder” which he slung over his shoulder, “Understood. Shall we?”

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