The kid – like all University of Alabama students in the offseason, was sallow-faced and jumpy. I could tell the Demon had its teeth in him good. He tugged nervously at the button-down collar cloaking his neck and mopped the beads of sweat from his brow.
But I’d dealt with junkies before. I took a sip of my lukewarm Natural Lite and let him stew for a minute.
“C’mon, man!” he hissed finally. “You promised!”
I pushed him a little harder: “You say the girl made them mad. What did she do?
He squirmed in the unforgiving church pew The CopperTop calls a ‘VIP Booth.
“I don’t know, man!” he was practically pleading now. “It could have been anything. Who knows, with those guys! They’re crazy! Give me the stuff! Now!”
“In a minute,” I said coolly. “You say she’s in Bryant-Denny? Right now?”
“Yes! Yes! Chained to the North goalpost! To make an example of her, or something! Give me the stuff! Now!”
I could tell he was done. I reached inside my Carhartt jacket and pulled out a small cellophane bag and tossed it to the kid. His face lit up momentarily – then fell suddenly.
“What’s this, man?” he hissed. “This isn’t enough! This will barely get me through the week, man!” He waved the bag of dope around in the air, disgusted. I momentarily cringed. But then I remembered: This is Tuscaloosa. They sell that junk to kindergarteners here and no one bats an eye.
“That’s good, Lee County product, right there, friend,” I replied. “The best in the world. And there’s plenty more where that came from – provided you keep the information coming.”
Like any Auburn Man, it sickens me to think that the talents of our world-alass Agricultural program have to be used to grow hydroponic, medicinal-grade marijuana. But, as The Director says, desperate times call for desperate measures. Disgusting though it may be, the Devil Weed opens many doors in Tuscaloosa.
In a flash, the kid scooped up his dope and was gone. I choked down another swallow of beer and considered my options. Going back into Bryant-Denny sent a chill down my spine. I still carry scars from the Feral Pig attack there last time. On the other hand, the new moon was weeks away. So there would be no late-night, Black Wiccan Mass to contend with.
With a start, I suddenly realized the large man lurking in the shadows by the dart board was my old nemesis, Barrett Jones. And hulking next to him was Fluker! They were on to me!
I had to stay cool. I casually drained my beer (served in a glass, of all things!) and made like I was heading for the restroom.
Barrett roughly bumped my shoulder as I passed him in the tightly-packed bar. It was just a cold, gray Monday night in February: But in Tuscaloosa, that might as well be New Year’s Eve.
“Going somewhere, Jerdun?” Jones asked.
“Just in here,” I replied. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Fluker assured me.
Jones and I had unfinished business. But this was no time for that. I slipped through the small window at the back of the restroom and dropped to the ground. My landing was as deft and graceful as Spirit the Eagle himself before a screaming throng of Auburn faithful. But I still startled a pack of winos huddled around a barrel fire as I alighted in the garbage-filled alley below.
The streets of Tuscaloosa are dangerous in even broad daylight. By night, they’re jammed with junkies, drug dealers, hookers and the homeless. Moonshiners openly sell rotgut whiskey from the backs of pickup trucks. Fake Rolexs can be had for $10 or a bag of Devil Weed. The cops are all paid off, so there’s nothing to worry about.
I cut through the treacherous back alleys, avoiding the garish, neon-lit main boulevards. All the while, the dark hulk of Bryant-Denny loomed ever larger in the murk before me.
Getting in was easy enough. Getting out would be the problem.
* * * *
As the kid said, they had her chained to the goalpost. But the stadium was dark and the high-dollar skyboxes where empty. Lord only knew what she’d been through. She was unconscious. I gently slapped her cheek to awaken her. In a moment, her eyes popped open.
“AJ?” she said. “Is that you, AJ?” The pathetic hope in her voice wrenched my heart.
“My name’s Jerdun,” I said. “Ramone Jerdun. I’m from Auburn Intelligence. I’m here to take you home.”
“Auburn Intelligence!” There was panic in her voice. The brainwashing was far worse than I’d feared. Her eyes rolled upward until only the whites were visible.
“Help me somebody,” she screamed, “Please help me!”
I clamped my hand over her mouth, but it was too late. The stadium lights snapped on and I saw Jones, and a whole host of Saban’s henchmen surrounding me. Even Foster was there, his soulless eyes boring through me with undisguised hatred. There was no escape. I held up my hands in surrender.
Smiling with glee, Upshaw shoved me hard toward a black Escalade with glittering spinner rims parked in the main tunnel. I caught of glimpse of Yeldon sitting behind the wheel before someone – Cooper, I think it was – shoved a rough bag down over my head.
Tuscaloosa is a huge, sprawling metropolis, so the drive through the twisting city streets seemed to take forever. Why they bothered with the bag, I’ll never know. We were going to the Saban’s Lair – the formidable football complex in the heart of the city, and we all knew it.
Once inside, Jones whipped the bag off. I knew from the spy photos obtained by Agent Orange that I was on the main floor of the complex itself. Jones, though, shoved me into an elevator. Fluker guarded my right side. Jones leaned forward, flipped up a hidden panel above the normal elevator buttons for a retina scan. The elevator suddenly lurched downward.
My ears popped as the car sped down deep under the bowels of the football complex; how many levels I couldn’t say. When the door finally opened, I stepped out into a large office space. Flames from a fireplace flickered brightly on my right. Various works of art adorned the room. Ill-gotten crystal footballs sat on various pieces of antique furniture. Despite the grand trappings, I could tell the office was bio-sealed and blast-proofed. The facility could probably withstand a nuclear strike with little ill effect.
Saban himself sat with his back to me at his desk. He was gazing up at bank of television screens: ESPN was on, of course, as was MSNBC and Al Jeezera. But I noted drone footage of Toomer’s Corner on one screen, and hidden camera footage of several high school practice fields, including that of Auburn High School.
As I approached his desk, Saban spun slowly toward me. He was stroking a small mammal nestled in his lap. I knew from my Zoology 101 Class at Auburn University that it was a marmot.
“Ah! Jim Jerdun,” Saban rasped. “Or should I call you Agent Double Eagle? Either way, we meet at last!”
The game, it seemed, was afoot.
To be continued…