by Diana Deverell
In honor of March Madness enjoy this basketball mystery short story, Texas Two-Step, which was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in February of 2003.
So, had star forward Meghan Cronin tried to throw the first round game? FBI Special Agent Dawna Shepherd was ninety-nine percent convinced the answer was no. Meghan hadn’t intended to miss those free throws last night in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship playoff against Oregon State. Most likely, she’d put up those bricks only because she had tournament jitters.
Dawna caught a whiff of frying onions from the campus grill, and her stomach grumbled noisily. Six o’clock on Saturday night and she’d been at it all afternoon. Time to kick back and get some chow. She’d already gone farther than the Bureau required. But then, the Bureau hadn’t sent Dawna to Nacogdoches State University. She’d interrupted her West Texas vacation as a favor to her old friend and former college teammate, Guadalupe Navarro, who had a big—very big—thing about illegal gambling on college sports. Lupe had been in her first year at Tulane in 1985 when five players on the men’s basketball team were caught shaving points in exchange for cash and cocaine. Appalled, Lupe’d transferred to UT where Dawna had later joined her as a Lady Longhorn. She’d told Dawna often how high rollers ruined the game she loved.
Now Lupe was on the coaching staff at Nacogdoches State, and she was still outraged by illegal betting, which Lupe feared was the explanation for what she believed she’d witnessed last night. She’d shown Dawna the crucial seconds of videotape, and the odd expression on Meghan’s face at the moment she knew her second shot would fail. Relief was what Lupe read there. The head coach had disagreed, and he’d told Lupe to back off. But Lupe—being Lupe—wouldn’t let it go. She’d tracked Dawna down, called her in to investigate Meghan on the sly. And Lupe would not be satisfied until Dawna checked out every lead Lupe had given her. Which left one more interview to finish tonight.
Dawna found an occupied pay phone near the grill. She loitered ostentatiously nearby, mentally urging the multiply-pierced lime-haired co-ed to hurry. The fog off the lake hadn’t lifted all day, and mist blurred the edges of the surrounding buildings. Dawna caught an alarmed glance from the co-ed, and she checked out her reflection in the display window. With her high-rising hairdo and platform shoes, she’d added at least three more inches to the six-three nature had given her. In boot-cut jeans topped by a tweed blazer, her silhouette was all long legs and backbone. Not a student, and from the nervous way the caller ended her conversation, not a woman you’d want to mess with on a foggy night.
Dawna inhaled the scent of French fries blended with the piney tang of East Texas. Then she dialed the number for Meghan Cronin’s younger brother, Michael. And for the third time, the answering machine in his apartment asked her to leave a number or drop by his fraternity house.
Dawna would’ve preferred to speak to Michael alone. Not likely he’d reveal anything new about his sister, not in front of his frat brothers. Dawna had already learned that Meghan Cronin came from Beverly Farms, a town outside of Boston. A green-eyed redhead with an exuberant grin, she’d led her high school to four consecutive state championships and been named All-American by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Early in her freshman year in Nacogdoches, she’d torn the ACL in her left knee, missing the season while she had reconstructive surgery. Now she was twenty-three years old, a fifth-year senior, and the leading scorer for the Axewomen. Nacogdoches State had lost only two regular season games—both while Meghan was benched recovering from a possible concussion.
Posing as a sports reporter, Dawna had heard from Meghan’s roommates, teammates, and male and female friends that Meghan was a comedian equally adept at one-liners and practical jokes. Despite her life-of-the-party demeanor, she went to bed early most nights, got up on Sunday mornings in time for Mass, swilled nonfat milk from gallon containers, and ate huge quantities of green vegetables and very little meat. No minor vices: Meghan didn’t drink, smoke, or cheat on her taxes. Nor did she wager. She was so fiercely opposed to gambling that she wouldn’t even buy a lottery ticket.
Dawna had talked to seven people and the sole criticism of Meghan came from the guy she’d dropped mid-season: “Basketball was the only thing she took seriously.”
Too seriously to blow a free throw on purpose, Dawna figured. One more interview, she could make then report to Lupe. She owed Lupe, after all. For the past six months, Dawna had been teaching at Quantico East, the FBI’s International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest. She’d saved all her vacation time for March—for March Madness, really—combining a visit to her folks with the end-of-the-month Big Dance in San Antonio. She hadn’t guessed that Lupe’s Axewomen would capture the Southland Conference title. The first and second round games in Nacogdoches had sold out while she was in transit from Budapest. Dawna had cursed her luck.
So when Lupe had reached her by phone at eleven-thirty last night and offered her a reserved seat at Sunday’s game against Texas Tech, Dawna had agreed instantly to Lupe’s price. Leaving her girlhood home at sunrise, Dawna had traveled by plane and rental car across Texas, from the treeless plains to the moist woodlands of the east, arriving in Nacogdoches in time for lunch with Lupe. I have to know, Lupe had told Dawna. I have to know for sure.
Lupe had told her that Michael Cronin was a former high school athlete who’d never played at the collegiate level. He’d transferred to Nacogdoches his sophomore year. At first he’d shown up often to watch Meghan practice, but Lupe hadn’t seen him much this season. She had a feeling about Michael, which meant there was no way Dawna could skip this interview.
With a no-nonsense stride, she covered the three blocks to the frat house and found the brothers finishing their evening meal. The dining room was set up like a sports bar with TV monitors in the four corners showing local news, both ESPN channels and CNN headline news with the sports ticker running across the bottom of the screen. No surprise that Meghan’s brother, a former high school player, had joined a house that followed athletic events. But noteworthy—very noteworthy—that he belonged to precisely the kind of sports-obsessed collegiate community where illegal gambling thrived.
Dawna chalked up a mental three-pointer for Lupe as she zeroed in on a Neanderthal who’d ripped the sleeves off his jersey to expose massive biceps. When she asked him for help, he flexed winningly before pointing out her quarry. She wished she had time to bust the hulking fellow for steroid abuse. But suddenly, her investigation was heating up, her focus on Meghan’s brother who turned out to be a rangy strawberry blond with freckles even more virulent than his sister’s. He sat alone at a table for six, staring moodily at a dish of vanilla ice cream surrounding a mega-brownie.
When Dawna got close, she saw that his right arm was wrapped in bandages and cradled in a sling. She took the chair across from him. “Michael Cronin?”
“Mike.” His grin was as engaging as Meghan’s, his eyes the same pine-needle green. “And you’re the reporter. I got the message you left on my machine.” He beckoned to a white-jacketed nineteen-year-old clearing the next table. “Tanner, bring the lady a dessert.”
“I won’t turn that down,” Dawna said.
Mike beamed like a good host as the waiter centered a dessert plate in front of Dawna. “Have a second piece if you want. Take your time, I’ve got all night if we need it.” Sounding as if he were willing to stay in this room till dawn.
And maybe he was, she realized. He looked as though he hadn’t slept, his skin pasty, and marks like bruises beneath his red-rimmed eyes. He should’ve been home napping this afternoon, resting that injured arm. But the message on his machine implied that he’d been at the fraternity house all day. And Dawna had a good guess as to why. Mike was here to follow the betting action.
“You’ll want coffee with that,” he said rising. He went to the urn on the sideboard. The little finger on his left hand was splinted. Awkward, he overfilled a cup so that he had to grab a napkin to mop the counter.
Jumpy, she decided, and though he was charmingly likable, there was a tinny edge to his hospitality, like the telltale flavor of canned laughter. Mike was nowhere near as relaxed as he wanted to appear. And the patch-up job on his arm was pristinely white. “That break pretty recent?”
“Happened early this morning. You know, too many late-night brews, lost my balance.” He forced his face into what he must have thought was a rueful expression, but Dawna saw more wariness than embarrassment in the look.
The room had emptied of diners. Tanner, the waiter, finished wiping tables and left Dawna alone with Mike, the two of them seated too far from the door to be easily overheard by passersby.
Mike seized on their sudden privacy to change the subject. “So, you’re doing a piece on Meghan. What, you want to hear how she made life miserable for her little brother?”
“Nope.” Dawna leaned across the table so her face was six inches from Mike’s. “I want to hear how you got Meghan to shave points for you last night.”
“She didn’t.” The little color in his face drained away leaving the freckles stark as stick-on beauty marks. “Where’d you get a crazy idea like that?”
Dawna bluffed. “I saw her intentionally miss those free throws.”
“You can’t prove that.”
Dawna snorted. His last sentence was all the proof she needed. Meghan had tried to keep her team’s victory margin lower than predicted. Unfortunately for anyone gambling on her ability to do that, Meghan’s efforts had been inadvertently thwarted by the head coach. He’d yanked Meghan and put in an excited freshman who sank one from outside the arc in the final seconds. Nacogdoches won by seventeen and beat the point spread by two-and-a-half. “Your sister didn’t quite pull it off, did she? If she lets the Axewomen cover the spread against Texas Tech tomorrow, what part of your body will your bookie break next?”
“You don’t know shit.”
“I know gambling operations don’t usually come after welshing students. So tell me why you’re so special.”
He shoved his chair back. “You’re no reporter.”
“No.” Dawna caught him around the left wrist, pinning him in his seat. “But I am exactly who you need. You can’t get out of this on your own.”
Anger and stubbornness tightened his jaw, pulling his lips into a straight line. But fear flickered in his green eyes.
“I can help Meghan,” Dawna said.
At the sound of his sister’s name, his features sagged.
“Trust me,” Dawna added.
He stared back at her, trying to hang onto his resolve. But he was too exhausted. Slowly, the mulish fury on his face gave way. What was left was the same expression Meghan had worn the night before. Relief—Lupe’d had that right, too.
“You got to help Meghan,” he said urgently. “She’s in big trouble. If she doesn’t throw the game tomorrow night, before she ever gets to the Sweet Sixteen, they’ll do a Tonya Harding on her. I can’t even say that to her, she’ll freak. Her knee, she can’t bear the idea, anyone hurting her knee again.”
“Tell me who they are,” Dawna demanded.
He hesitated, then forced out the words. “Guys I know from my job. I’m an attendant at Twenty-Four Hour Fitness during the evenings, nine o’clock till two. Three guys on swing shift at the RV plant. They come in most nights to work out.” He swallowed. “I owe them five grand.”
“What, they’re running a bookmaking operation?”
“No, no. I booked their action. They won.”
How had this clean-cut frat-boy jock ended up taking bets from local bonebreakers? “I need the whole story, right from when you got involved with gambling.”
“You mean here in Nacogdoches?”
The way he asked, she knew he’d gotten into trouble before he transferred to his sister’s school. “From when you started. Wherever you were then.”
“You mean at Boston College.” Now, Mike was eager to talk. “Freshman year at BC was when I got into it. Everybody else in the dorm was betting football. Hell, I wasn’t playing anymore, it made the games more interesting. I started out betting through my roommate. Then his bookie gave me my own account.”
“And he let you run a tab.” Credit was what made illegal sports betting so attractive to cash-poor students. A gambler didn’t have to part with a cent—until his losses reached a limit established by the bookie.
“I thought I had it under control,” Mike continued. “I was doing just a quarter a game, maybe a dollar over the weekend.” Dawna understood that Mike had been placing twenty-five dollar bets, totaling a hundred dollars over three or four days. “But then there was a Thursday night game and I got carried away, betting a dollar parlay and the under, another dollar straight, and another on the under.”
Gamblers don’t get hooked by losing. Mike’s next words didn’t surprise Dawna.
“I won everything. I was up like three hundred and seventy-five for the night. I mean, I was golden. But then I lost five hundred over the weekend, five-fifty with the vig.”
“Vig” was the bookie’s ten percent edge on a bettor’s losing bets. If a gambler won a five hundred dollar bet, he kept his five hundred and the bookie owed him five hundred more. But if he lost a five hundred dollar bet, he owed the bookie an extra fifty dollars “juice” or “vigorish” on top of the five hundred he’d lost. To break even with the bookie, a gambler had to win 52.38 percent of his bets.
“The whole year went like that,” Mike continued. “I’d lose. Then I’d double my bet thinking, if I win, I’m even. I started drawing out cash on a credit card my parents gave me for emergencies.”
“But you never got even.”
“I lost probably about eighteen thousand dollars. My folks caught on, of course. They were mad. But at the same time, glad. They thought I was spending all that money on drugs. I mean, gambling was better than drugs, right? Still, they figured I was mixed up with the mob and I was going to get hurt. They said I had to stop betting. And I wanted to. I promised to stop. We had a big family conference, Meghan, too. We all agreed, I had to get away from BC and the people I was running with. Meghan said if I came here she’d look after me. I guess they were all thinking, ‘Nacogdoches, Texas, Mike’ll be safe there.’ Like who’d be making book in Nacogdoches?'”
“Somebody,” Dawna said. “Any campus, doesn’t take long to find somebody taking bets.”
“First day,” Mike said. “Right in this house I hear a guy laying down his action for the weekend. But I stayed away from it. And Meghan, she tried to help me. Like she’s telling me, ‘I’m here Mike, let me know if you need me.’ And that was good. But in some ways, it wasn’t. Hard to take sometimes, not being in the game anymore.”
Dawna nodded. She knew how that felt, going from playing the game to watching it. Not the same high, not ever again.
“For a year or so, I was okay. But I missed it, you know, the rush when you win. And gradually, I got back into it. Just a bet here, a bet there. Start of football season, I opened an account with Louis—he used to be a student here, runs his own book now. People down at Twenty-Four Hour Fitness started betting through me—another trainer, a server at the juice bar, the maintenance man, some of the customers. And that was okay, I liked that. Until…” His voice trailed off.
Dawna prodded. “Until what?”
“February. That’s when everybody on my ticket got hammered. I mean, none of us could win a bet. We were down ten thousand by March first. I maxed out on my credit cards, I couldn’t raise more cash. Which is when Louis cut me off.”
“Your bookie wouldn’t take any more bets until you paid him what you owed him.”
“Which I couldn’t do. So I told people I couldn’t take any more action. But these three guys, see, Duane, Kyle, and Lance, they acted like they didn’t hear me. Duane, he comes back from delivering an RV to nowhere Washington and he and Kyle and Lance, they’re after me to place five thousand on some Civil War game in the PAC-10. Now these three guys are born losers, they can’t pick worth a damn. I was just so tempted to take their money. Still, Duane seemed to think he knew something. I checked the spread. And when I got back to them, I moved the line a little, you know making it Huskies minus twenty-nine instead of twenty-four and a half.”
“Making it more likely they’d lose the bet,” Dawna clarified.
“And they still wanted to put their money on the Huskies,” he marveled.
“So you booked it yourself, figuring you’d take their money plus the juice.”
“Fifty-five hundred, damn I needed the dough.”
Dawna doubted that Mike would ever have collected a dime from the three local toughs. Which was probably why the trio had chosen to book through him—they risked nothing financially if they lost the bet. “But they didn’t lose.”
“The other team pulled their best player an hour before game time. Some injury flare-up, an old concussion or something. Damn Huskies walked away with it, won by thirty points. And I got screwed. I couldn’t pay off.” He grimaced. “Duane was cool about it. He was willing to forget the whole thing. Only Kyle and Lance, they had to have their share of the five grand, more than sixteen hundred apiece. We’re talking and Kyle, he like grabs my hand and he’s bending my finger back. ‘You get our money,’ he tells me and everybody heard the bone snap. ‘Next time I’ll do you worse.’ ”
“You didn’t tell the police.”
“Cops would’ve busted me, too. No, I had to find another way out.”
“Sure you did.” Gamblers don’t understand when they’re irrevocably beaten. A bettor always looks to make up his losses, get ahead again. So Mike had dragged his sister into it. “You came up with the idea of using Meghan.”
“Not me. I never said one word about Meghan to those guys. I wouldn’t do that to her. But Duane, he already knew she was my sister. He knew her stats and everything. And he was the one that said she was a player who could control the final score of the game. Last night, he and Kyle and Lance bet against Nacogdoches so they’d get their money back.”
Dawna saw a slick con game shaping up behind Mike’s story. “Suddenly those three found a new bookmaker, I take it.”
“Except,” Dawna pointed out, “if your pals bet against the Axewomen last night, they doubled their loss.”
“Turns out they made only token bets on last night’s game. They wanted to see if Meghan would really come through for me. See, they never talked to her. They didn’t trust me when I said she’d do it. But last night, it looked to them like she came close enough. Right now the spread is Axewomen by five and these guys have put down ten grand on Texas Tech.” Another shudder made him tremble. “Kyle, he really, really can’t afford to lose. Makes him crazy.”
Dawna let her gaze rest on Mike’s cast. “Seriously crazy.”
Mike stared at his broken arm. “He didn’t have to do this. But he wanted to. And he’ll hurt Meghan, too, he really will. My mistake, letting them get me alone last night. I’m not taking that chance again. And I warned Meghan, ‘make sure you’re never alone.’ But sooner or later you know, she’s got to come outside. And Kyle, that’s what he’ll be waiting for. For Meghan to be alone.”
In her head, Dawna was going through the criminal charges against Duane and Kyle and Lance: assault, making terroristic threats, extortion, and conspiracy to violate gambling law. She knew the territory, illegal sports betting was Bureau turf. One call to Bill Meeks, the Special-Agent-in-Charge of the Houston office, and by dawn on Sunday, Duane and Kyle and Lance would be in the arms of the FBI. Mike would be too, but that couldn’t be helped. He had booked the original bet. And it wasn’t all bad news. Going this route, she could get some help for Mike’s problem, too. She glanced up, caught him watching her.
“So, how are you going to help Meghan?”
“Still thinking it through.” Sure, Dawna could keep these goons from going after Meghan’s knees. And she could eliminate the pressure on Meghan to throw the next game. But what about Meghan shaving points last night?
It was bound to come up. If Duane and Lance had any brains at all—or if their lawyers did—those two would try to lay off the more serious charges on Kyle, who’d done the assault. Either Duane or Lance, trying to save himself, was likely to nail Meghan. The Bureau wouldn’t ignore a charge of point shaving. Bill Meeks would open an investigation into Meghan’s attempt to throw Friday night’s game.
Alleged attempt, Dawna corrected herself. Okay, she was sure now that Meghan had missed those shots intentionally. To Dawna’s surprise, she didn’t give a damn. The video image of the shooter at the free throw line flickered through Dawna’s mind. Hell, Meghan hadn’t even been certain she could miss.
Dawna didn’t intend to miss. After all, as Mike had argued, nobody could prove Meghan had blown those free throws on purpose. And Meghan was the victim here.
“Okay,” Dawna said to Mike, “first thing you told me was that your sister didn’t shave points last night. But you told Duane and his friends that she did. And that she’ll do it again on Sunday. And you’re letting me think that you were telling them the truth. But I think you spoke true in the first place. I don’t believe your sister would risk her entire future to save your neck.”
Quick, she cut him off. “Listen to me. Carefully.” She waited until she was sure she had his full attention. “I’m surprised you even asked her to fix the game. Knowing what it would cost her if she got caught. She’d have a criminal record. She’d lose her eligibility to play. She’d be benched for the rest of the playoffs. Her future would be tarnished. No way you’re going to convince me your sister would risk all that for you.”
The crease between Mike’s eyes deepened. Trying to understand what Dawna wanted from him.
To lie, of course. But she couldn’t say that. “Come on, Mike. Your sister doesn’t deserve all this grief. You can’t let her be busted because you’ve got a problem.”
He got it then, Dawna could tell by the way his forehead smoothed out. “Okay. You got it right. She never said she’d help me.”
“So you were lying when you told Duane and Kyle and Lance that Meghan would do what they wanted.”
“I hoped I could talk her into it.” He gave Dawna the almost-rueful look again. “I guess I knew I couldn’t. Maybe Kyle suspected as much. I think that’s why he broke my arm and threatened to hurt Meghan worse. But even if she’d known about the threat, it wouldn’t have worked. She’d never have thrown the game.”
Dawna frowned at him. “You’re sticking with what you said to me originally? She didn’t shave points.”
“And she’ll tell me the same story?”
“You can count on it.”
“Okay, so long as you’re sure of that.” Dawna stopped herself from patting Mike’s hand, settled for giving him an atta-boy smile. But she still wasn’t happy. As soon as the FBI opened an investigation, the university would suspend Meghan from the team until all questions were answered. She wouldn’t be exonerated in time to play on Sunday night. The Axewomen would be in trouble without her in the lineup. Even if Nacogdoches did beat Texas Tech, the game would be very close. The Axewomen likely wouldn’t win by more than the spread. Duane, Kyle and Lance already had their bets down on the game. Those three low-lifes would clean up.
It was so unfair Dawna wanted to spit. How had basketball and justice ended up at opposite ends of the court?
Dawna felt her spine stiffen. There was a way out, if she’d just take it. What the hell, illegal gambling wasn’t exclusively FBI turf. She had to stop thinking Bureau. Start thinking Texas, instead.
“I need to make a call,” she said to Mike. “You got a phone I can use where I won’t be overheard?”
“You calling the cops now?”
“The top cop. Chief of Police in Amity, Texas.”
Dawna’s dad, of course, Donald Raymond Shepherd. And while Donny Ray didn’t know every other police chief in Texas, he had Rangered, years ago with Sergeant Zachary Taylor Smith who was now with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Nacogdoches. And Sergeant Smith was more than happy to help Donny Ray’s little girl. When Dawna laid out the facts he invited her and Mike to meet with him in his office in half an hour.
Dawna brought her rental car to the frat house, loaded Mike into it, and hustled him over to the Public Safety Building. Sergeant Smith turned out to be a massive fifty-two-year-old dressed casually for a Saturday evening in lemon-yellow sweats. His uncoplike hairdo was longish and curly, gray hair frothing above the Ovaltine-colored skin of his face. He clasped both of her hands between his and beamed at her.
“Dawna Raylene,” he began, in the annoying way her dad’s friends always did. But she forgave him for remembering her awful middle name when he added, “Used to love watching you play. I’d a sworn you couldn’t get more beautiful. Damn, I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
She blushed—these old guys always had that effect—and she automatically responded in the way she’d been taught, “Thank you, sir.”
“Call me Z.T.,” Sergeant Smith said, “everybody does.” He ushered Mike and Dawna into his office, and after he’d spent an hour with them, he dragged in the on-call Assistant District Attorney and Mike waived his rights in exchange for the usual assurances—”it’ll go easier with you, son”—and told the whole story again.
At ten-thirty Mike was sent home with cryptic instructions from Dawna to talk to his big sister. Sergeant Smith spent the next twenty minutes with a pair of troopers he’d called in from patrol and at five minutes before eleven he had Dawna chauffeur him to a fifty-acre manufacturing facility on the outskirts of Nacogdoches where luxury motor coaches were turned out twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The sergeant instructed her to park at the edge of the employee lot and turn off the ignition and lights. They waited in the darkness, a hundred feet from the cabinet shop in which Duane, Kyle, and Lance had spent the last ten hours turning high quality hardwoods into glossy paneling, countertops and European-style kitchen cabinets.
Peering through the windshield, Dawna saw young men crowd out of the shop’s exit. The pair of burly troopers culled a skinny blond from the herd and yanked him to one side of the door. “Kyle Buncombe,” Sergeant Smith said aloud. “Mean as a snake but about half as smart.”
The shorter trooper held onto Kyle while his partner grabbed a bald guy with a Fu Manchu mustache. “Duane Holsum,” according to Sergeant Smith, “the only one with any brains.”
As if to prove the sergeant’s point, a flabby fellow broke from the crowd and ran awkwardly toward their edge of the lot. Dawna’s body tensed. Her fingers closed around the door handle and her shoulder dropped, ready to push the door open with her body. She sensed Sergeant Smith doing the same.
“Wait,” he said, his eyes locked on the approaching fat man. The bigger trooper was now in pursuit, and the runaway was running full tilt, apparently unaware that the darkened car in front of him was occupied. When he was ten feet away, the Sergeant Smith said, “Now.”
As if they’d rehearsed the move, Dawna and the sergeant flung open both front doors. The interior light came on, illuminating the two of them standing beside the car, legs apart and arms raised in the familiar pistol-shooters stance. A fake, at least in Dawna’s case, but she was counting on her posture to fool the fat man, make him imagine a gun in her weaponless hands, something to match the snub-nosed revolver held by the sergeant. “Lance Stevens,” he said calmly, “you’re under arrest.”
Lance skidded to a stop, gasping. Seconds later, the massive trooper was behind him, snapping on handcuffs. “You can’t arrest me,” Lance said. “I ain’t done—”
The sergeant cut him off. “Let’s get these boys downtown.”
The trooper prodded Lance, moving him toward the waiting paddy wagon. “You don’t want me,” Lance whined over his shoulder. “The college boy, he’s the one you want.”
“Is that right?” the sergeant asked.
“Him and his sister,” Lance shouted. “Whole thing was their idea.” He kept up his patter, but the words became unintelligible as he got farther away.
Dawna let her breath out in a silent sigh. Damn, what would the sergeant make of that?
“Definitely the dumbest of the litter,” he muttered, climbing into the car.
Dawna slid behind the wheel. The slamming of her door was echoed by the closing of the one on the jailhouse van. Sergeant Smith motioned Dawna to follow it. “Like I said,” he continued, “Duane’s the only one who can think. Got to figure he put this all together. Saw a way to get his hooks into the Cronin boy.”
Dawna started her engine and put on her headlights. “You think Duane set Mike up?”
“Duane’d be the one put the pieces together. Always been a gambler, always looking for a way to get himself an edge. Running a number on a college boy, that’d be just his style.”
Dawna ran the wipers to clear the windshield of mist. She pulled out of the lot behind the police vehicle. “You think the arrests will hold up in court?”
“Kyle’s got a record of assault. He’ll do some time for hurting the Cronin boy. The gambling won’t count for much. As soon as court opens on Monday, the other two will be fined and go on probation, same as Cronin. Illegal betting is minor stuff in these parts. Course Cronin will have to participate in Gamblers Anonymous, since you asked for that.”
“He agreed to it. Mike’s a compulsive gambler, and he knows he can’t handle it by himself.”
“Made him an easy mark for Holsum, that’s for sure.” Sergeant Smith rubbed his chin and stared at the cottony fog, caught in the car’s lights. “You know, I go to all the Axewomen games. I’m a big fan of Meghan Cronin. And I wondered why she played so badly last night.”
He’d heard Lance’s quickie version of events. Now he was passing Dawna the ball, waiting to see what play she’d run. Dawna knew better than to try a fake against this man. She met him head on. “You think Meghan really meant to miss those foul shots?”
“Nobody’d blame her if she did. Big sister helping her little brother out of a jam. Be the right thing to do, far as most people are concerned.”
Dawna felt her nerve ends vibrating. Had all her careful maneuvering come to nothing? Was the sergeant going to open an investigation into Meghan? She pulled into the lot behind the Public Service Building and parked next to the sergeant’s Crown Vic. She kept her voice casual. “How about you? You think she did the right thing, Sergeant Smith?”
“Call me Z.T.” He levered himself out of the passenger seat, then leaned back into Dawna’s car. “I don’t work for the NCAA. Hell, makes no difference to me, what Meghan Cronin was thinking last night. But I guess you probably figured that’s how I’d play it.”
Well, damn, he’d known all along why she called him instead of by-the-book Bill Meeks. For the same reason that Lupe had called her. If you can get the home court advantage, you take it. Any fool knows that.
“Been a pleasure doing business with you,” she said, quickly adding, “Z.T.” She grinned. “Purely a pleasure.”
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