Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - The Enemies List by Mark Wheaton
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A man decides to ruin a couple of lives and might just ruin his own in this deft crime story from screenwriter Mark Wheaton.

The Enemies List

They're here! 

And like clockwork, they both got here at the same time. Well, not the exact same time, but no sooner had I watched Fred Jr. park than I saw Arnold pulling off the highway and rolling to an empty spot on the opposite side of the pumps, over where the eighteen wheelers refuel. It looked like his windshield was completely iced over and I kept thinking he was going to run into something, maybe break his collarbone on the steering wheel of his rental.

And yes, this hot chocolate I'm drinking is delicious, thanks for asking. My second cup. Had an apple strudel, too. Yeah, I know it's on the list of my no-no foods, but I wanted to treat myself. Also, I've been sitting here staring out the window of this little gas station café for over forty-five minutes now, so I'd feel bad if I didn't order at least something. 

"Just waiting for the trucks to crunch it down a little," I'd told the waitress. 

She'd given me a smile reserved for non-Coloradans who, in her mind, had no business driving in her state during the winter months endangering its citizens. Point taken and understood, I often play the befuddled stranger and have no problem being the outsider.

Though it was hazy and gray outside, I could see the puffs of white coming from Fred Jr.'s tailpipe as if he was hesitating, wondering why he'd made this trip all the way in from Maryland. 

Arnold, on the other hand, was already out of his car and looking around. He looked like an idiot, bright orange and red ski hat, puffy jacket that he'd probably dug out of a closet where it'd sat for twenty years, jeans - naturally - and then combat boots, probably to look tough. He took one step, obviously not realizing that boot tread means less than nothing on ice, and slipped and fell on his ass.

I chuckled. I shifted my weight, which I don't mind telling you is about forty-five pounds heavier than a man of my height and age should be carrying around on fifty-five year old knees, and felt the reassuring bulk of the gun against my thigh. When I'd sat down, the gun's shape became as obvious as a hard-on in my too-tight pants so I'd arranged my coat on the seat next to me, but enough on my leg to obscure it. It looked accidental enough so it didn't appear to be hiding a pee stain or something.

I looked back out the window and could tell from the angle of Fred Jr.'s head that he had Arnold in his sights. His gaze was aimed straight at the rearview and he was frozen still, like a retriever who'd spotted a covey of quail and was awaiting the order to flush them out. 

But when I'd started this ball rolling a few months back I knew that Fred Jr. wasn't the type of guy who'd need a command. The minute he made the decision to come to this lonely truck stop in the ice and snow and sleet and bullshit cold he was off the leash and ready to do some damage.

I also knew that even though Arnold had a gun, too, a pawn shop piece of shit that he'd lowballed the store owner for and then ended up buying the wrong ammunition for anyway, there wasn't a real question about who was going to die today and who was going to go to prison for the murder. Fred Jr. knew guns, Arnold didn't. Yeah, the little bastard might surprise me, but strange as it may sound, it was as if I didn't have a horse in this race. Whoever killed the other was fine with me and whoever went away, no problem. It was "none of my nevermind" as an athlete I dined with recently quoted his grandmother as saying.

"None of my nevermind," I grunted aloud as Arnold, apparently spotting Fred Jr.'s car, took a step towards it as its driver silenced the engine and opened the door. 

The first time I ever heard of an enemies list was like most people, when it came out during the Watergate hearings that Nixon had compiled one that included folks like CBS honcho Daniel Schorr and actor Paul Newman. He'd passed this on to the IRS to potentially investigate, audit or otherwise make their lives hell as he saw them getting in the way of his re-election. I was just graduating high school when all that went down, breathing a big sigh of relief that Vietnam didn't appear to be in my future anymore and, again like most, thought Nixon's "enemies list" was more funny than menacing. I mean, he was the president, right?  Who cares about some movie star making a couple of remarks during a fundraiser?  Or was Nixon the one guy who saw WUSA and thought, 'Shit, he's onto me!'?  Mad, paranoid bastard.

Terrible film, WUSA, by the way. Saw it again in a hotel over draft weekend a couple of years ago. Just awful.

At this point, the Nixon enemies list has become a historical badge of honor and there's almost no journalist from the time period, from the Woodward's and the Bernstein's to some beat guy out in Tucson who preferred to blame his lack of advancement on the president rather than the fact that he couldn't stitch two words together to save his life, doesn't try and say he was on the thing now. And since when do reporters let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?

By the time Nixon was back in California licking his wounds and Jimmy Carter was installing solar panels on the White House roof and talking to Playboy about the "lust in his heart," I had finished six semesters at North Carolina at had already been offered a job covering sports for a local television station based on the print work I was doing for the Daily Tar Heel. People had been putting feelers out to me from the big media hubs of New York, Chicago and L.A. about coming to work for their papers, but the lure of television, that vibrant medium of the future even on this small scale, was just too great and I dropped out and signed up only to get assigned the sports beat.

I know, I know, every time I tell this story the idea that the great Ike Shelley wasn't born with a Super Bowl ring in his mouth shocks the lot of you. No, I was a military brat and was interested in politics. Look up my stuff from the Tar Heel (yeah, we called it the "Tar Hell" back then, too) and you'll see it's all campus affairs, state and local government and veterans affairs as we had a great many return soldiers on our campus. And unlike other universities, we were still southern enough to welcome them back with open arms. 

But sports was what Fred Stanton Morley Jr. wanted me to cover and as he signed the checks (in his father's handwriting until he inherited the station when the old man kicked it three downs into Super Bowl XVI, rumor having it that Fred Jr. had just told Fred Sr. how much it cost them to get me to Pontiac for the big game though I prefer to think it was from the shock of seeing Guy Frazier fumble the opening kick-off for the Bengals), so that's what I did.

And I did it well. 

I had a camera crew and a truck and was told to get as much as we could get as Fred wanted to fill the hours of the tiny station with local sports to encourage local advertising as opposed to running the typical all-day weekend Kung Fu and monster movies the station usually did as not to run up against the college and NFL games. The thing was, well, it worked. ABC's Wide World of Sports doing ice skating?  We've got some killer UNC lacrosse action down the dial. The one person in the state who didn't give a damn Wolf Pack versus Tar Heels?  Well, we couldn't really help that guy, but we'd have some hard-charging high school game next door. 

Even better, if your team was getting smashed up you always had the option to change the channel in frustration, find us running some local basketball game where we're guaranteed to aim the camera at the cheerleaders every three minutes or so and have picked out all the hot blondes and sweater girls in the stands beforehand for cutaways. We knew our audience.

We also just so happened to be the very first camera crew to ever aim a lens at a young Laney High School athlete in Wilmington who was at the time competing on the baseball, basketball and football teams. Yes, our attention drew the college scouts and a couple of years later, Michael Jordan led the Tar Heels to the national title.

I was a kid. It was glorious. I went from having to claw and fight to be allowed in to a post-game college locker room to being invited onto the team bus for away games. We became a machine and the advertisers spent. The sad truth is I didn't think anything of it. Fred Jr. wasn't paying me much, but I was still looking at this like an internship. I had no idea the guy was making hundreds of thousands of dollars off my work at the time. In fact, I wasn't to know this for almost a decade.

"Shelley?  Get in here a second."

Sometime around the end of the Reagan years, beginning of the Bush I administration, Fred Jr. called me into his office.

"Shelley," he said, always calling me by my last name as he seemed to like how a woman's name might be heard as a diminutive. Growing up on a Marine base, I was over it by second grade, so I let it slide. "We're entering into a partnership with the big boys. Cable sports. They're national, but they're opening an office in Wilmington. They want to take what we're doing here and move the whole team over."

What followed was one of the lowest points in my entire life. Fred Jr. explained to me that they'd gone over all the books and had been writing my contract based on what Fred Jr. had told them he had been paying me.

"See, these guys are big city types," he began. "They don't understand the cost of living down here. If I came in and said that we're this two-horse operation, they'd turn us away. So, this is what I told them I'd been paying you."

He pushed a piece of paper across his desk that laid out a ten-year lie. Well, "lie" is not a strong enough word. It was a horrific disaster of a mistruth. He was not paying me an eighth of what was on the page and I could tell from his face and body language that something had him scared. 

"That's something," I finally said.

"Yeah, well, the good news is you'll be getting a raise based on these dollar amounts. You'll make what you're 'making' this year plus a thirty-five percent bump. That's how valuable they think you are to the organization."

I was doing the math, something I wasn't that good at but even I knew I was looking at well over a one hundred percent raise. But that's when it hit me: why the hell was Fred Jr. telling me any of this in first place?

Unless he had to. 

I realized I must be, on some level, the key to this contract. If I didn't play ball, there'd be no deal with Fred Jr. and cable would come to North Carolina piggybacking on somebody else. I wondered how much Fred Jr. said he was making and realized that if this was an actual acquisition that he'd have to back that up in an independent audit. So all that money that he was claiming he paid me?  It had existed and I was looking at who had pocketed it.

I almost told him to go fuck himself. I almost walked right out of there and never looked back. I almost threatened to sue him if he didn't pay me my back wages plus some to sign the contract.

But then I thought about Carla.

Skip ahead ten years when I'm a lot closer to the Ike Shelley you probably know, taking a ridiculously large paycheck to be on the masthead of the online presence of the only magazine that matters in the sports space. No more clawing and scratching to get into press conferences or on the field at national events, I was the first one in the door. Athletes knew who I was on sight having grown up watching me and trusted me not to turn their occasionally frustrated answers to tough questions into hot copy. I was judicious, I was careful not to offend or burn too many bridges and it paid off. 

During the NFL season alone, a week doesn't go by where I'm not on the road.  I've covered a Thursday night game in one city, jetted off to a second, third and fourth one to do pre-game interviews for games on Sunday, Sunday night and Monday night and then attended each of those games in their respective cities logging literally thousands of miles of air travel in a handful of days.

My readership expects it and I deliver because they ultimately pay my salary.  I consider myself beholden to no one except them. It was the good life. But into every life a little rain must fall, right?

Enter Arnold Manker (nee "Manquer").

There's an old joke that someone has a "great face for radio and a great voice for newspaper" and that doesn't even begin to describe Arnold. He's a mess. In another age, this rotund, slovenly, bearded nitwit would spend his life behind the counter of some five-and-dime insulting customers behind their backs as he flips through a copy of Hustler hidden below the register. But in the Information Age and the rise of the internet famous, he's a star. How it happened, at least in journalistic circles, is legend.

Arnold got a job for one of the major Detroit dailies because he had an uncle who worked the city desk. He was assigned a copy editing spot, but lost that after forty-eight hours when it was determined that his complete lack of reading and writing skills added more mistakes than he corrected. He was shuttled from one department to another, eventually working in the morgue retrieving clips for the copy boys when requested by reporters or editors, a job that, ironically, was soon made obsolete by the internet.

Long story short, Arnold wanted to be rich and famous, but didn't know how to do it so was frustrated. Worse, he was disgusting about it having once been caught masturbating in a men's room to, wait for it: crime scene photographs of a popular high school girl that had been killed in a car accident. An accident that had torn off her top.

I am not making that up to prove a point. He did this. The Detroit paper dutifully reports it whenever someone calls for a reference. It hasn't made it into print when people write up these hagiographies to his talent now that he's famous, but it's absolutely true as not only have I confirmed it with people from the paper I'm friendly with, but Arnold himself admitted it to me during one of our many long, long, long talks when he would come and bare his soul to me in a fit of depression.

"The black dog has returned," Arnold would say approaching my desk when he came to work at the online sports magazine, accidentally quoting Churchill's famous take on depression as, when pressed, he would say that he heard it on Dr. Phil.

How Arnold got from being a Detroit newsroom masturbator to one of the most famous online sportswriters in the country is based on a single article and the second I mention it, you will know that you read it and remember the impact it had on the game it referred to. 

One of the aged owners of one of Detroit's major franchises (no names, but if you can't figure it out after five minutes on the internet, God help you) had agreed to do an interview with the daily where Arnold worked, but it was to be immediate and the entirety of the sports bureau was assigned elsewhere. The Tigers were in the playoffs, the NHL season had just begun, the Lions were 4-1 and the Pistons pre-season had just begun with two weeks to go before the home opener. Busy, busy, busy and here comes this old geezer with every right to demand time in the paper's columns. Arnold was handed a list of questions for a pre-interview and sent over without a second thought.

This was the interview where the geezer went on the record about his knowledge of gambling among players, illegal collusion amongst the owners, land fraud deals and bribes around the new downtown arena, his knowledge of steroid use, and his knowledge of the career-shattering impact of various injuries and reeled off a list of enemies like you couldn't imagine. He pulled the curtain back on everything and any reporters worth his salt would've known that they were sitting on gold when the old man was done three hours later.

Arnold, of course, had no clue and dutifully headed back to the office with a box full of cassettes.

Four days later, the old guy kicks it. It was as if Arnold's interview had been his final confession and now that he had purged his soul he was free to kick the bucket.

Rumors began to circulate about just what was on Arnold's tapes and the calls started coming in from the big boys. Arnold panicked…at first. But then a few editors started talking dollar amounts and it didn't take much for him to walk out the door and bring the interview to not a sports magazine, but a news magazine complete with a contract to join their sports staff. The story ran and it stayed in the news cycle for weeks and weeks with every actor even tangentially involved in the old man's claims being sought out for comment and then it went away, tarnishing certain aspects of one team forever and making Arnold a household name in sports journo circles.

His next ten articles were utter disasters and he was paid out and fired.  That's when he became my problem. But now that you know who Arnold is and who Fred Jr. is, I have to introduce you to one more person.

"Oh, hey, sorry about that. I'm Carla Walpole. I just needed your signature."

Carla had been at our station for three weeks and I was finally learning her name. This was four months before Fred Jr. dropped the bomb on me about my salary. It wasn't for lack of trying, mind you (learning her name, not the salary-stuff), but no one seemed to know her. She'd been a temp from an agency whose name was forgotten two seconds after she introduced herself as nobody thought they'd need to remember it. Then, the person who she was replacing had their stomach ache turn into stomach cancer turn into death in a matter of ten days and we had a new secretary in accounting.

I fell in love with her from the way she walked, the way she smiled, the way she observed everybody, the precision with which she did her job and the easy way she was with people. I had practiced nonchalantly asking her name from the first day I saw her but hadn't had the chance to put it into practice. Then, she came to me with a stack of papers she wanted me to sign.

"Yeahsureohwaitwhat'syournameagain?" I blurted out like an idiot.

She told me, I signed the papers and handed them back and almost had a panic attack in the men's room after she'd left. It was love.

I spent the next couple of weeks finding new and unusual ways to get in her way, even making errors on expense reports knowing that I'd have her to answer to. Yes, of course I saw the wedding ring and then the photograph of her and her three children on her desk that appeared not long after Roxanne's funeral that signaled her new permanence, but it's not hard to see when somebody is in a troubled marriage being held together by the kids.

I'd dated here and there, but had never, ever been looking for anything resembling a steady thing. I liked life on the road, eating room service, hitting the strip clubs with the athletes and occasionally (but hardly with any regularity) shagging their castoffs.

But I fell hard for Carla and, being not blind or stupid or something other than a human being, she knew it. As I did absolutely nothing about it, she figured me for an honorable enough guy and we became friends. I got to know all about her family, how her husband, Bill, getting laid off made her seek out temp work and how he had taken it upon himself to gradually stop looking for a new job. 

"He calls himself a 'discouraged worker,'" Carla said. "I keep thinking I should encourage him with a swift kick in the ass, but I just end up nodding and trying to be understanding."

"Is he looking after the kids?"

"Barely. They get a ride home from school with the neighbor and then they play over there until I get home."

"So what's he do?"

"I have no idea."

I had an idea. He waited until everybody left the house and then he landed on his sofa and watched a day of my programming. This was confirmed to me when Carla began asking little questions about me and the games I covered, her husband having seen me on television. This told me that, yes, he was a loser, but more than that, she had probably brought me up to him first.

The first time we slept together was on the road when she came to Miami for Super Bowl XXIII (ironically, another match-up between the 49ers and Bengals won by the heroics of Joe Montana like the one that killed Fred Sr.) as we had gotten some extra tickets, ones I later found out came from the cabler who was trying to woo Fred Jr. She didn't talk to me for a month after that, avoiding me completely as if trying to cover-up the worst mistake of her life, but then nature stepped in, literally, and we got trapped together in a massive late snowstorm and had to fend for ourselves at the station.

"This is absurd. Now God is telling us to work this out," I said to her in the break room where we ran into one another foraging for snacks.

She laughed, we talked, she said that her marriage was already on the rocks before Miami and that she had gone there at about "sixty-five percent."

"Sixty-five percent 'what?'" I asked.

"Committed to sleeping with you," she replied. "It was up to seventy by the first night when we shot pool and had drinks with the guys from the NFL front office, up to eighty-five by the end of the interview day and well over a hundred the night before the game. You're hot stuff when you're all professional."

We laughed about it, made some arrangements and started getting together fairly regularly after that. She switched departments so that travel was easier and we ended up fooling around after games in the camera truck more times than I'd like to admit. The fact remained that a bed in a hotel felt like we were doing something illicit we were committing to, not simply recreational, and this went on for weeks.

So, when Fred Jr. approached me about the salary issue, my first thought wasn't vengeance against the station but what it might mean for me and Carla. I'd be able to afford a house. I knew damn little about raising kids, but she'd found little coincidental ways to introduce them to me here and there and I was wrapping my head around how to play step-dad in the near future.

"Is the whole company coming?" I asked Fred Jr. as I looked up from the number.

He was so surprised by my response having apparently anticipated everything but that, that he was stunned into silence. But then, as if having something confirmed to him for the very first time, he smiled at me.

"Not the whole company, but you can be instrumental in selecting who you want on your staff. This, of course, includes Ms. Walpole."

That smile was etched in my memory as I stared at him through the window of the Colorado café so many years later, counting down the seconds until he would be dead, my actions leading to the relief of Carla of a husband for the second time.

Back to Arnold. After he got fired from the big east coast news rag, he bounced around this magazine and that until he couldn't make it in the print world anymore. He ended up on the internet, but got fired from every paying job there. Now, it appeared, he had nothing.

This was a misnomer. What he had picked up along the way were contacts of the worst kind. Agents and front office execs and trainers were his buddies and after Arnold started a blog, yes the blog, the blog that now receives literally millions of views a week now that it's been ported over onto the site we both work for, they began to leak him material knowing he'd print anything.

See, what they had detected in Arnold is what it took me awhile to discover: a complete and utter lack of ethics or moral compass. Got some dirt?  He'll print it. Got a score to settle?  Do it on Arnold's blog. A lot of it was done with the age-old journalistic standard the "blind item," but the rumors and stories were juicy, so advertisers kept paying him, including a lucrative bit with a sports drink, and the goss kept rolling in. Pretty soon, he was breaking stories that had real-world impact: trades that were being negotiated, run-ins with the law that had been covered up, injuries that were being hushed up. When that happened, his work started leading the news and I ended up having to check his site at least twice a day as well. It was tedious getting through it, but I did and I found myself quoting him at least two or three times a week in my own stories.

Okay, let me step back a moment. Maybe I am being over-the-top in my vitriol of Arnold's work and I'm hardly objective as I have already admitted to you that I am happy to have arranged for him, within minutes, to die or face life in prison. The truth is what he does offends me on every level of my being so I will never be objective. If he was a simple Sammy Glick looking to kiss ass and get ahead, that'd be one thing. But the fact that he has single-handedly brought down the level of discourse to his own while manipulating the system, putting the fear of God into his enemies and being rewarded for all sorts of heinous behaviors is just something I cannot abide. 

Then there's all the personal stuff. You know why people compare him to me?  Because when his blog was brought over to our site, he knew that this was his big chance, so who did he suck up to?  Me. I'm the one who took him under my wing, taught him how to write an article, taught him how to do an interview, taught him how to source a quote, chase a story, get someone who actually didn't want to tell him something to tell him anyway, and so on. All the tricks of the trade I'd learned over decades of sports writing. I gave it away for free because I felt sorry for him, but also because he seemed so eager to be my friend and learn and I was suckered in.

Then it got more personal. He borrowed money without ever paying it back, he'd steal little bits of my stories and push them onto his blog posts which went out much quicker as they didn't face the same editorial process as mine did and then he turned on me.

"Wow, man, that Arnold guy really hates you."

"What're you talking about?" I replied the first time somebody told me this.  "He's been crashing at my place for a week since his apartment flooded. He borrows my toothpaste."

 But it surprised me. How would a story like that even get started?

Then it came up again, some other reporter who didn't even know each other.  "Watch your back. That Arnold-guy is gunning for your job. I heard him tell like five execs that you were a douchebag, some dinosaur with one foot in the grave."

"Really?!  Arnold?  That doesn't sound like him at all."

But it was him. And I knew the moment it switched over, but I didn't want to admit that I did. 

"Hey, man, I need to borrow some money," he had said to me, slipping up to my desk.

"For what?" I asked, preoccupied, but accustomed to this. 

"I fucked up my laptop. They said I'd get docked if I did that again, but I know a place where I can get one cheap and they'll never know."

"How much do you need?"

"A grand. I'll pay you back. Swear."

This wasn't the most money I ever gave him, but I was starting to feel used ("starting?"  Maybe I am a dinosaur!). When a month passed by and he hadn't paid the money back, I confronted him about it, but gently. He wasn't making the same money I was, but I wasn't made of laptops. That's when I saw his old company laptop on his desk working perfectly. 

I asked him if this was a joke and he played dumb. Acted like I had loaned him the money, but it had nothing to do with any "broken laptop."

"What the fuck are you talking about, Arnold?  You're telling me to my face that I'm crazy?"

By now, a few staffers had gathered and were enjoying the sparks. Arnold just shrugged. "I don't know, man, but my laptop's fine, so one of us is!"

I walked away. He apologized later and offered to pay back the loan, but wouldn't admit to the lie. He never asked for another cent, but then the thing that made me want him dead happened: he stole my story.

It doesn't matter which story now as it disappeared after being in the news cycle for a couple of days, but it was a good one. I'd been following up on what looked like an upcoming labor dispute with big, multi-billion dollar implications and Arnold snuck into my computer, took all of the information and quotes, knocking out the attributions and citing them to "unnamed sources," and published it himself.

To this day, I have no idea why he did it. He knew he'd get caught, he knew it'd be the easiest thing in the world to expose and destroy his career with, but he did it anyway. 

"What the fuck!?!" I screamed at our editor, then a wonderful woman named Rebecca who had been one of the best I'd ever worked for. "I can play you the tapes, I can show you the transcripts, and I've got the expense reports from the legwork. This was my story."

Rebecca let me vent, her face darkening the entire time until I was finally out of breath and she could get a word in. 

"Are you finished?"

"Yes, I think so," I said, hoping I wasn't giving myself a heart attack. "But I want him gone. Today."

"Well, you've got your wish," Rebecca replied, but didn't sound happy about it.

"What's the catch?"

"They promoted him. That was his last story. He's going to be hosting his own show on radio and on-air. Guess he felt like going out on a high note."

I tried to believe that that was what it was, an act of desperation in hopes of cementing his online legacy, but I couldn't. I knew it was a personal attack. A final "fuck you" to me and how I had mistreated him.  People had continued to bring me the slanderous stories he would spread about me until, one day, they stopped. They must've known what I didn't, that their loyalty to me might cost them. I was now the man on the outside pissing in, not pissing out.

That's when the idea to get revenge on Arnold in a true and permanent way began to take shape in my mind.

When the cable network acquisition happened and everyone who was coming over did so, there was a heady four-month period where Carla and I were as in the open as we ever dared to be. She had joined my department as a production coordinator setting up shoots, securing locations, etc., and that meant a lot of time on the road. Her sister, Robin, knew what we were up to and during the kids' spring break and summer vacation, they'd come with us leaving Bill at home. I worried that he knew, but Robin assured me he didn't.

"You've met him. When we're gone, he jerks off to the internet, orders pizza and watches sports on cable non-stop."

She was right. By then I had met him at this function or that, but he had barely registered. There was the version of him that I had been living with in my head for so long that this real person wasn't going to replace it. 

There was more sex in the camera truck and even in a couple of hotel rooms now, but that wasn't what made it so great. We went to restaurants, we went to movies, we went to museums, and we went on hikes. We spoke on the phone all day, emailed when we were apart and ate every meal together. We did all those couple-things we couldn't do back in Carolina. I was fifteen years older than her, but it didn't matter. We were in love and made out like teenagers to silly pop CDs her oldest daughter had thought her mom might like. We held hands.

And then one day she was just different to me, distant like she'd been after we'd first had sex. I had no idea what changed but knew something had. When I confronted her about it, she insisted it was all in my head but then went right back to ignoring me. 

I was heartbroken, Carla asked to be transferred back to accounting and I authorized this without question. I threw myself into work, actually ended up in a rebound relationship with another reporter named Elizabeth pretty quickly, but two months later found out that Carla was now separated from Bill. I called her immediately.

"Um, hi…," she said, obviously not alone.

"I heard."

"I figured. I can't talk, okay?"

"Not now or not ever?" I pressed.

There was a long pause. "Maybe not ever. I'm sorry. I have to think of my kids."

I'm ninety-nine percent sure that Carla and Fred Jr. weren't fooling around behind my back, but after Carla's divorce was final and they showed up at a company event together it felt as if someone had just dunked my face in boiling water. I can't describe how upset I was or confused or furious. I was embarrassed because I knew Fred Jr. knew and here he was with the prize I felt I had earned.

I got the whole story out of Robin a few months later after running into her at a baseball game (she'd met a notorious lothario of a ball player while on the road with me and Carla and they were still together, amazingly enough).

"If she left Bill for you, you'd be to blame for everything that ever, ever went wrong in the marriage. Any fight, any disagreement. She had to leave Bill cleanly and when she did, there was Fred Jr. It just made sense. She didn't want to be single, but she also didn't want to marry the guy who cheated with her behind her husband's back. She didn't want any of that baggage to carry over to the new marriage or worse, her children. She wanted to put it behind her and start totally fresh."

I was flabbergasted. 

"And she didn't want to even have a conversation about this?"

"No, because she loves you. It's why she lets Fred Jr. get away with murder. He can run around on her with any stripper or cheerleader or secretary that comes along if he always ends up back home with her.  It's like they have an agreement. He needed a corporate wife now that you've got the big cable deal and she wanted stability."

I didn't want to hear any of this shit. The next day, I went to Fred Jr. to resign.

"Nope, not going to happen," Fred Jr. said, shaking his head. "You're under contract."

"I'm not an indentured servant," I replied. "I can get a lawyer."

Always one step ahead, Fred Jr. got to his feet and closed the door to his office as he knew his secretary was gleefully listening in.

"Too many know about you and Carla for you to resign," he said plainly. "She worked under you. Coming all out of the blue like this, it'll look like you were forced to resign and when people look for a reason, they'll say, 'sexual harassment' as you were her boss. That'll hurt the company bad. We'll lose this deal and they will sue the living shit out of you."

"I don't care. Fuck 'em."

To my credit, I said this and then turned on my heel and exited the office.

But late that night, my phone rang and I knew who it would be. 

"Don't make this about us," Carla said.

"Is he standing there?"

"No. I'm in the car on a cell. I'm driving around."

"Will you come over?"

Long pause. "Yeah."

But then she finished her statement with: "If that's what it takes."

"Jesus," I muttered. "You'd prostitute yourself to save your husband's new company?"

"I'd do it so you can move on."

"Go home," I said. "I won't quit. But tell Fred Jr. that I want to cover it all. I want to stay on the road 300 damn days out of the year. I don't ever want to come home. Deal?"

"Deal. And Ike?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't love you."

I spent the next eight years living out of a suitcase. It was a version of what I'd done before, but I had absolutely no interest in going home. In that time, I even went overseas and covered the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway and Nagano, Japan. I did Wimbledon three times, the Ryder Cup, the Dakar Rally, the World Cup in France and boxing matches in the Kremlin. I attended track and field events that I knew very little about and made them fascinating to the viewers back home. I did play-by-play, somewhat as a joke, of an early round at the Scripps Spelling Bee in D.C. which is where Fred Jr. moved his operations at some point when I couldn't have cared less. I covered Super Bowls and NHL Finals and College World Series and the Indy 500. When the NASCAR boom came along, I even tried to make a go of that but just didn't have the credibility.

And then, when I figured the last person who knew about me and Carla had forgotten all about it, I resigned and struck out on my own for the first time in my life, a move Fred Jr. has never forgiven me for making.

Spend five minutes with Arnold and you'll learn of his enemies list. Spend five minutes perusing the Twitter feed the network set up for him when he went on-air and you'll know just how put-upon he is. If he gets a sniffle, he takes to his bed like a Victorian widow to her fainting couch. If someone even vaguely slights him, it's a mortal wound he hemorrhages on about for days. He works very, very hard to portray as an underdog when he sees himself as superior to just about everybody.  I heard someone once describe the worst of human characteristics as false humility. People can be smug, people can be arrogant, people can be narcissistic, but to create an entire "aw, shucks" persona when the reality is bile, backbiting and hatred, the kind where you're campaigning against the success of people you called friend only moments before, well, that's despicable.

I have often questioned how I got on Arnold's enemies list and a male colleague I once wondered about this aloud to gave me the answer. 

"You're a reporter so your job is to see through people. He looks into your eyes and doesn't like what he sees reflecting back. You're one of the few people who looks at him and instead of saying, 'genius!'  You know he's a fraud, which confirms everything he already thinks about himself."

I thought about this and realized that it was applicable to Fred Jr. in a way.  Objectively, he had become a media titan, a multi-millionaire who had risen high in the executive but never asked to run a company as he could con many but not all. He would always know that his fortune came from me and that I knew he'd swindled me to line his pockets. He was big on the charity circuit, the kind of guy whose names you hear over the loudspeaker at a ball game right before they hand a big check to the kid in the wheelchair. But when he looked at me, he saw a guy who knew the truth.

When you have powerful enemies, the way they operate is never that overt.  You're denied access to something you couldn't possibly trace back to one of them, but it could have only come from somebody like that. You don't get the raise, you don't get the special assignments, you don't get the perks, you don't win the awards and people begin to wonder why, going ahead and ascribing to you imagined mistakes and slights you were to have committed at some point. 

Some boorish comment at a fundraiser, some egregious error in judgment in front of some powerful somebody, something that embarrassed the company in front of an advertiser. 

A favor not returned. A gift under-appreciated. A rumored hint of entitlement and then everybody wants to take you down a peg.

The bad thing is, I'd watched from the inside as both Arnold and Fred Jr. had done this to other people they thought had wronged them along the way. The glee they took in finding minute and intricate ways to screw someone over without them ever knowing. They say you'll never see somebody fight to get something gratis like the most powerful, wealthiest people in the world, but it's just as true to say you'll never see someone spending so much time on revenge as the same folks.

After I left Fred Jr.'s company, it took a year, but I soon found that I just wasn't welcome in front of a camera anymore, not even as a guest commentator. Luckily, I had fans on the print side untainted by Fred Jr.'s reach and my second career took off in a big way. But as I've described, Arnold came along and ruined that, a death of a thousand cuts.

"We think you should take a reduced role here," Rebecca told me one day over lunch. "I'm sorry."

"At least you're not going to pretend to offer me a litany of reasons. We know why."

Rebecca sighed. "Ike, come on. Yeah, Arnold's a douchebag and he screwed you over that one time, but that was a while ago. You have to know how paranoid it sounds to think he's still at it."

I looked at her for a moment, found a way to change the subject and tendered my resignation the next morning.

"You don't have to do this," she said.

"You'll be surprised at how happy your bosses will be when they hear the news."

But instead of getting better, it got worse. People had always suggested I write a book and I thought this would be the right time. Unfortunately, as you know, the mergers between media companies have left virtually no publisher in the sports book space outside the corporate umbrella of either of my last two places of employment, Arnold at one, Fred Jr. at the other.

And when I finally did line up a publishing deal after months of pitching and lining up sources to be interviewed and putting together a full outline, I suddenly found that these sources, former players, former coaches, spouses of those deceased, etc. (the book was about the origins of professional football in Texas, notably the old Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers) had dried up as if someone had told them not to talk to me. It turned out that the exact same book had been pitched and set-up with a publisher under the auspices of the company I had just left and the writer just happened to be someone I knew Arnold was friendly with.

This continued on the next book, about high school basketball scouts in Queens (usurped by a sportswriter who was on the board of at least two of Fred Jr.'s charities) and I finally gave up and left sports writing for good. 

But as I sat at home, I knew exactly what I would be doing with my free time.

Two years and three months later, I was now sitting in a café looking at Arnold and Fred Jr. as they stared across each other in the frozen parking lot, guns in their pockets. They were both there with a singular purpose: to kill the other for ruining their lives. 

When two men know they are frauds what they fear most is simple: exposure. 

Before you criticize me for what I did, understand that life is all about making decisions and you never know which one is going to be forgotten a moment later and which is going to have earth-shattering implications. All of these decisions were made with agency and free will.

Arnold didn't know that "fan" that convinced him to send sexually suggestive photos to would turn out to be underage. 

Fred Jr. didn't know that the six year statute of limitations on tax evasion was limited to Federal cases, but there was none on civil actions made by the IRS to claim back taxes. Even worse, he didn't know that the maximum penalty was one year for every year of proven failure-to-pay. He also didn't know that the judge would, quietly, be prejudicial in the case.

Arnold didn't know or believe that anyone could hack into his computers and pull out story drafts going back ten years that included literally thousands of cases of plagiarism that had been covered up by his editors, including Rebecca.

Fred Jr. didn't know that his offshore assets could be tangentially linked to organized crime through allegations of gambling and thereby become subject to seizure based on current U.S. extradition treaties.

Arnold didn't know that hooker had STDs.

Fred Jr. didn't know that his mistress didn't know how to delete texts or her call logs.

Arnold didn't know that the accountant he'd been recommended was a crook.

Fred Jr. didn't know that information about his various impending legal troubles would be leaked twenty-four hours before the shareholders annual meeting in Florida and that he'd get voted out of the company based strictly on allegations.

Arnold didn't know that that one football player would go ahead and humiliate him on national television based on his lack of knowledge in a certain area, an area the player had been alerted to in advance, and the internet meme that followed made Arnold a laughingstock online, a name associated with fakery.

Fred Jr. didn't know that the Feds would wait until he was in a brothel whose clientele favored bondage and transsexual experiences to frog-march him out in front of the cameras as they'd heard he was a flight risk.

But what they would come to know over the coming weeks and months was that they were indeed at the center of a conspiracy, much as I had been, and that there was a person responsible for their downfall.

In Arnold's case, this was the heretofore unknown Fred Stanton Morley Jr.

In Fred Jr.'s case, this was the sports writer Arnold Manker.

How did I know they wanted to kill each other?  Because that is precisely what each told the other they would do in e-mailed correspondence. Each received notice from the other that what had happened so far was "just the beginning" and the exchanges got more and more incendiary until mortal threats were made, sure, but also much worse. Arnold threatened to molest Fred Jr.'s step-daughters and do worse to his wife. Fred Jr. said that he was planning to expose Arnold's drug addiction and frame him up so that he would come off as a major dealer, likely to get decades behind bars.

It got worse from there and in both cases, it was ultimately decided that the only way they could finish this was with a meeting, no cops, no colleagues. Mano-a-mano.

Of course, they were not talking to each other but talking to me. What that reporter had told me so long ago proved true. I knew their buttons better than anyone on the planet and I pushed them - right to the edge.  It's amazing how simple it is to take someone to their mental breaking point once you really get to know them.

And now here they were, moments away from resolving their imagined conflict by the oldest means necessary. I imagined it like a quick draw contest in an old western…

"Sir?  Can we have a word with you?"

I looked up and saw the two Colorado State Troopers approaching my table. I was confused, unsure what they could possibly want. 

"What can I do for you?" I asked, blank-faced.

"You could keep your hands where we can see them. We know what's in your pocket. No sudden moves, all right?"

My head whipped around towards the parking lot and I saw Arnold and Fred Jr. staring back at me through the window. They were still a good distance away from me, but I could see their faces. Fred Jr. looked old and haggard and was now sporting a mustache and beard combination that was more gray than black as it had been in the past. Arnold, I could now see, had lost a significant amount of weight and just looked out of it, as if drugged up.

"I don't know what you're talking about officers," I said, mentally scrambling. "I've just got my coat and keys…"

I rose to my feet and the two troopers I hadn't seen, the ones that had crept up along the floor, tackled me to the ground. I struggled, managing to punch one of the men in the nose so hard his nose exploded in a bouquet of blood. His partner rushed to cuff me, but I wriggled away from him and, to everyone's surprise, I was soon on my feet and running straight towards the door.

When I'd taken my first step onto the parking lot, I saw that Fred Jr.'s face was reacting to the sudden "change in the situational momentum" (a favorite phrase of mine when writing about the simple impact of a turnover during a critical moment in a football game) first as his eyes went wide at the sight of my raised gun. Arnold was just staring at me as if watching something on television that had nothing to do with his reality and, maybe, it didn't matter to him much at that point if he lived or died. His face certainly reflected that.

I aimed the gun at Fred Jr.'s face and was about to fire when I heard: "Ike!"

I turned and there she was, Carla, poking her head out of the back of a squad car parked on the side of the building. I'd seen a recent photograph, maybe four months old that I'd then taped up on my bathroom mirror, a second copy on my bedroom door, but she looked as if she'd aged a dozen years since the picture was taken. 

But I still loved her. I couldn't help it, my heart leaped up into my throat as if it was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on her. I longed for her touch, to be back in that place that was only ours, and I wheeled the gun around and aimed it at her.

It was then that I heard the roar of the shotgun coming up from behind me and felt the searing hot blast of metal tearing into my torso. The impact alone launched me forward and off my feet and I landed on the icy ground face-first, splintering my nose just as I'd done to the trooper. 

I stayed in that position for what felt like a lifetime, staring down at the ice-covered concrete. My vision, beginning to blur, traced patterns across the ice that mirrored the grooves in the pavement below it.

But then I used my last strength to roll myself over and took three more bullets into the chest and one into my head for my trouble despite my gun having tumbled at least two yards away. 

I found myself staring up into the gray sky as Fred Jr. moved over to me and looked down into my face, his eyes full of judgment. Arnold moved into view as well and his eyes were blank, which confirmed to me that he was strung out. I was surprised to see that they were taking no joy in this sight, their greatest enemy finally vanquished. If I were in their shoes, I knew I would be savoring every last moment. 

But I supposed they were just hiding their glee. They'd soak in the experience now for their audience of law enforcement, but then later, when alone, they'd smile and pop the corks on the champagne. They'd remember my death with relish, how I'd freed them with my actions, the one man who knew the truth: dead. 

This I knew to be true.

About the Author

Mark Wheaton is the author of the bestselling indie horror series, "Bones," about a cadaver dog that reluctantly confronts Apocalyptic events. He also writes movies, video games and the occasional comic book and is writing this bio from his hotel's business center in Cape Town where he's been sent to research a South Africa-based action-thriller.