(This is part eight of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Jonas is behind the horse, and this section is gonna get gruesome, so be warned, like, really, but first, a flashback.)
Jonas was running drunk. He’d run to the Bronson Place so many times he knew the way even after a few too many beers. A narrow trail carved by dirt-bike-traffic led between valleys to a cement bunker in a little-known portion of Alphonse’s estate. Jonas jogged to the bunker through a motorcycle parking-lot and thumbed a code on a keypad. A metal door opened to velveteen stairs into the earth. The stairwell was lined with silk curtains lit by chandelier.
“Yo, Jonas.” A man in a leather jacket took Jonas’ water-backpack like a butler taking a coat. The security at Alphonse’s estate was exclusively bikers, or at least dressed like it. The clientele themselves arrived by helicopter in tuxedo. “You ran all the way here again, huh?”
“Of course.” Jonas twisted sweat from his headband on the stairwell into the deep. “It’s only twenty miles.”
The man in leather gave Jonas a vodka tonic, on the house. Jonas drank it down. “Need a ride home after this?”
“Nah, nah, I’ll just run. It’s only twenty miles back, too.” Jonas and the man in leather passed through oak doors into an underground casino. Billionaires in black tie bunched around roulette-wheels. Jonas turned away from them and walked into a slim service-corridor. “Can I use your showers again? I worked up a sweat.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll put your water-thingy in a locker. Oh, and, uh, Jonas.” The man in leather pat Jonas’ shoulder. “After your shower, Alphonse wants to speak with you.”
“Seriously?” Jonas scratched his head. “How come? We’ve never met in person before. I don’t even know why he invited me to the casino.” The man in leather shrugged. “I’d rather not see him. Your boss gives me the creeps.”
“Ha, yeah, Alphonse does that. When he’s done talking your ear off, join the gang in the laundry room. We’ve got the nudie-deck again.”
As he showered, Jonas dreaded meeting Alphonse. Jonas had deep antipathy for the Bronsons even if he enjoyed playing cards in the casino’s laundry room, and all the free drinks. Maybe Alphonse had invited him to apologize for the childhood charity-race—or maybe Alphonse had forgotten about that charity-race entirely and had ulterior motives.
Jonas changed into fresh running gear from his locker. He wondered when and where he’d meet Alphonse, but he didn’t wonder long. Alphonse was standing outside the door to the showers when Jonas stepped out. “Jonas!”
“Uh, sir!” Jonas almost saluted at the sight of Alphonse’s gaudy military jacket. “I heard you wanted to see me?”
Alphonse took a good, long look. He appraised Jonas like a horse. “Have you enjoyed my private casino, Jonas?”
“Yeah. No clue why you invited me, but I’m sure glad you did. This is a nice place.”
“You haven’t seen half of it! Let me give you a tour which will explain everything.” Alphonse led Jonas around roulette tables. Jonas felt awkward in his running gear among the tuxedos. “I heard you ran here this morning. Is it because you like my estate?”
“Of course. It’s gorgeous.”
Alphonse laughed as they passed poker-tables. “This casino is in the estate’s back-lot. The estate proper is truly a spectacle. Please, through here.” Alphonse led Jonas through diamond-studded platinum doors. Jonas sniffed: he smelled horseshit. “Welcome to where the real action happens. My heart and soul is in this room, Jonas. Sit down.”
Jonas joined Alphonse in stadium-seating. A whole horse-track had been excavated under the Bronson Estate. The stands were optimistically large; barely a tenth of the seats were occupied by extravagantly wealthy businessmen or members of their entourage.
A gun went off, and Jonas jumped up in surprise. “Ha!” Alphonse pulled Jonas back into his seat. “You’re an eager one, aren’t you?” Now Jonas noticed ten horses racing across the track. They ran from one wall to the other where sliding gates hid the horses both before and after the race. “In this room, we don’t bet money. We bet whole horses! Everyone here brings a horse or two to ante.” Spectators cheered or ripped up bad bets. “I wager my own horses all the time. It’s a thrill!”
“Wow.” Jonas rubbed his chin-stubble. “How does it work? Does the owner of the winning horse get to take the losing horse home, or something?”
“Or something!” said Alphonse. “I knew you’d understand! You’re a racer, too, at heart.”
“Yeah, um… I don’t know if you know this, Alphonse, but I’m sort of… off the racing circuit, ever since my book came out. I just run for the sport of it, now.”
“Even better! It’s more natural that way.” Alphonse clapped. “I want you to give me an edge against the competition, Jonas. My horses are already the best, but only because I learn from the best. Now I want to learn from you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Beat my best horse in a race. I’ll pay handsomely if you can show me room to improve.”
Jonas gaped dumbly. “You want me… to run… in there?” He pointed to the track. “I can’t run half as fast as those horses. No one can.”
Alphonse chortled and slapped Jonas on the back. “You’re right, too right! But I’m proposing a race on your level—an ultra-marathon, a hundred miles around my beautiful estate. Could a human beat a horse then?”
“Um… maybe. It’s been done before, but I can’t guarantee I could do it.”
“Would you give yourself 50/50 odds?”
Jonas considered. Alphonse licked his lips. “I guess.”
“Then let’s make a wager! We’ll each ante a million dollars, and the winner of a 100-mile race takes it all.”
Jonas shook his head. “No way.”
Alphonse pretended not to hear as he flagged down a cocktail-waitress. “Bring my friend and me two of those Mojitos. Jonas, the rum in these drinks is worth more than most of those horses. Drink up!” Jonas never turned down a drink. It wasn’t a bad Mojito. “Now, what were you saying?”
“I don’t have the liquid funds for that bet, Alphonse. I just play cards with the security gang in the laundry room. What we gamble would be pocket-lint to you.”
“Jonas, Jonas, Jonas. It’s not about the money! You’re a winner! You won The Great Race, didn’t you?”
Jonas inhaled. “Well, not really. It turned out someone else had won.”
“Who cares? You came first first. Who cares who came first second? I won’t take it easy on you, but I pray you can outrace Champ, Jonas. I’m begging to pay you your winnings.”
“I… I’ll think about it.” Jonas stood, staggering drunk. “But for now, the answer is no.”
When Jonas made it to the laundry room, the security gang in leather jackets were playing cards around an ironing-board. “Yo, Jonas!”
“You really ran here again this morning?” A man in sunglasses dealt Jonas a hand and a free drink. “What did Alphonse want with you?”
Jonas drank up. “I think I’m gonna race a horse.”
BEEP. Mile 71: 21:34 / 11:13:59.
“I think I’m gonna die,” I said. Whitney rolled her eyes and passed me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank. “I fuckin’ inhaled that pizza. I’m bursting.”
Whitney drank, too. “I once watched you eat a full Thanksgiving dinner ninety-seven miles into a 144-mile race. You’ll survive.”
“Ooh, that cranberry-sauce was worth bursting for.” I pat my stomach. “Don’t they make a cranberry-flavored running gel? Do we have one of those?”
“I thought you hated the fruity ones.” Whitney checked her backpack. “I’ve just got peanut-butter and chocolate.”
“Man, screw peanut-butter. Gimme a chocolate.” I tore open the silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. “Aaugh, I’m popping like a balloon.”
“That Turkey Trot was a nice run, wasn’t it,” said Whitney. “The weather was perfect.”
“And that cranberry-sauce.”
“I’ve had years of fun running with you, Jonas. I’m sorry I kicked you out after The Great Race.”
“I didn’t mean to cheat. I promise.”
“I don’t know if I believe you, but who can say what’s good or bad?” Whitney grinned and punched my left shoulder. “It made a great book. I’m sorry you come across as the bad-guy.”
“Nah, nah. Considering you wrote the book from my perspective, you could’ve been a lot more vindictive. Thanks for pulling your punches.”
“I didn’t know you ever read Live to Run.”
“I haven’t, but I’ve read comments on internet forums about it. It’s cathartic to see people online arguing about whether I’m a shithead or not.”
“Why’d the jockey pick this path?” wondered Whitney as we panted up the mountain. “Hermes said the horse didn’t look so good. Maybe you were right: the jockey picked left at mile 60 because the horse couldn’t take the steeper slope. So why’d she pick more uphill at mile 70?”
“Hermes said Alphonse injected the horse with something,” said Whitney. “Maybe it gave Champ a second-wind.”
“I gotta get me one of those injections.”
BEEP. Mile 72: 18:51 / 11:32:50.
“Yeah, you could use a pick-me-up,” said Whitney. “I promised you’d beat the horse to mile 80, didn’t I?”
“Are you hiding a syringe you didn’t tell me abououwoah.” Whitney took off her visibility vest and sports bra.
I could only obey. Her naked back demanded I keep up. “Whitney, you don’t need to do this. It can’t be comfy bouncing around like that.”
“Jonas, you once ran ten miles without pants pacing me on a hundo. Just keep this up, it’s downhill for the rest of the race.”
BEEP. Mile 73: 11:19 / 11:44:09.
Hermes’ fanny-pack bounced against his fanny as he puffed down the trail.
Jonas said he lost his visibility vest around mile 68. Why did Jonas turn down a new vest in favor of finding the old one? Hermes could only imagine Jonas was trying to lead him somewhere.
Hermes pointed a flashlight off the trail. The light blared back off the neon-yellow vest, ten feet down the steep slope. It was tied to an old tree’s roots.
Hermes sat on the side of the trail and slid down the slope on his ass. He thought he would grab the vest and keep sliding down to the next switchback, but he suddenly slid into a ditch hidden in the dark. “Whoa!” He braced his legs against the opposite wall before he fell more than a meter. “Phoo-boy.”
He glimpsed down the ditch. It was so deep his headlamp didn’t illuminate the bottom, but what it did illuminate made Hermes double-take. There was a skeleton down there.
BEEP. Mile 74: 8:46 / 11:52:55.
“Easy peasy.” The downhill slope agreed with me. “Georgie Masawa would’ve been home-free if he made it over that peak.”
“You’ve run almost three marathons,” said Whitney. “How’s your knee?”
I extended my left leg for a few paces. As my leg straightened, the kneecap clicked from right to left, and it clicked back when my leg bent. “Starting to click, but it hardly aches yet. I pity myself in ten miles.”
“Hey, what’s that?” Whitney pointed, and I pulled my gaze from her chest to see bright white flour or chalk-powder poured in an arrow. It pointed right, toward a narrow trail. “There’s another fork in the road.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “This fork wasn’t on any maps.”
“Well, any maps of the Bronson Estate are probably out-of-date anyway.” Whitney bounced on her heels waiting for me. “Who drew this arrow? It must have been some estate-agent clarifying the path for us.”
“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way.”
“You’re overthinking it, Jonas.” Whitney followed the arrow right.
BEEP. Mile 75: 8:51 / 12:01:46.
“I don’t know,” I said, following. “Does this really match the other trails in the estate?”
Whitney scanned the ground with her headlamp. “I guess you’ve run fifty more miles here than I have, so you’d know. But you’re also hallucinating, so I’m not sure I trust your senses.”
“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. I mean, do you see that?” I pointed just off the trail to an old discarded toy: a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. It had a little cowboy-hat.
“I do see it. Weird.”
“So I’m seeing straight, at least. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a tire-track?”
“It does, a little. But you couldn’t get a car out here on the trail.”
“Not a car-tire.” I grit my teeth. “This trail was made by motorcycles. Alphonse sent his dirt-biker goons to mislead us.” Confirming my paranoia, the trail ended, drowned by grass and brush. “There’s nowhere to go from here. We have to turn back.”
BEEP. Mile 76 (75): 9:02 / 12:10:48.
“Shit.” Whitney fiddled with her GPS-watch while we turned around. “By the time we get back to the fork, our run-tracker will be off by two miles. It’ll say 77 when you’re at 75.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Should I restart the watch with a fresh run?”
“No, no.” I panted uphill. It was so steep we had to walk again. “I have a sinking feeling the GPS-record of this race will be historically important one day.”
Whitney led the pace. “Come on. The faster we get back to the fork, the faster we can head downhill again.”
“…Whitney…” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Do you hear a helicopter?”
She looked at the sky. “You’re not hallucinating. I hear it too. Better dress up.” She donned her sports-bra. “Maybe Alphonse is bothering Hermes and Kevin again. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Alphonse shot down two drones.”
“Kevin got your pizzas here by drone—you know, those itty-bitty helicopter-robot things. Try explaining that to a caveman.”
“And Alphonse shot them down? Holy shit. What a loser.”
“Excuse me!” Spotlights blew out our vision. Whitney and I almost collapsed in shock. Alphonse was waiting for us at the fork. Behind him, two men in leather jackets emerged from the helicopter as the blades spun down. “A loser, am I, Jonas? At least my jockey stayed on-course.”
“There’s an arrow leading to a dead-end.” Whitney tried to show him, but the helicopter’s arrival had blown the arrow away. “Well, there was.”
“That wouldn’t excuse your exploration,” said Alphonse.
“There are tire-tracks,” I said. “It looks like your security gang made this dead-end with their dirt-bikes and motorcycles.”
The men in leather shrugged, and Alphonse shrugged with them. “How my security-personnel choose to patrol the estate is none of my concern. I didn’t tell them to do this.”
“I bet you didn’t,” I said. “I bet you just winked at them and they knew exactly what to do. But—that doesn’t matter. I’ve got a horse to catch.” I started running down the correct trail, and Whitney followed me, but we both froze when we heard a pistol click.
Alphonse pointed the barrel at my heart. “You ran a mile off-course, and then a mile back. The nominal fee for sporting in the Bronson Estate is ten thousand dollars per mile. I waived that fee for this gamble, but if you’re going to tour, I’ll have to charge. I need twenty thousand dollars, Jonas. Here and now.”
I had my hands up, almost speechless. “Dude.”
Whitney filled in for me. “We don’t carry that kind of money on us, Mr. Bronson.”
“Oh? But you’re already halfway there.” Alphonse walked close enough to count the horses engraved in his pistol’s grip. He plucked the toothpick from my shirt-collar. “This silver ruby-handled toothpick is worth ten thousand on its own. You’re just ten thousand short.”
“Maybe you can add it to the gamble,” I suggested. “If I lose, I owe you another ten grand.”
“I want my money now, Jonas, but I’m not an unreasonable man. I’ll settle for—your finger.”
Alphonse pointed the pistol at my left hand. “I saw you flip me off at mile 55. You thought I wouldn’t notice, hmm? I value the offending digit at ten thousand dollars.”
“Ridiculous,” balked Whitney. “Where were you at mile 55? I sure didn’t see you. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you in person. When did Jonas have the opportunity to flip you off?”
“You’re a bad liar, young lady.” Alphonse presented the toothpick and depressed the ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick spoke with my voice and with Whitney’s.
“I don’t need any help to flip someone off,” said the toothpick, as me. “Take that, Alphonse.”
“Careful,” said the toothpick, as Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.” Alphonse released the ruby handle.
“You… bugged us?” asked Whitney.
“I heard everything,” said Alphonse. “I heard you talk to Thog. I heard you flip me off. I heard you vomit all over my beautiful estate. You owe me ten thousand dollars, Jonas, and you’re going to pay.”
“I’ll pay,” said Whitney. “I’ll call my bank while we run and arrange a transfer from my savings. Just leave us alone.”
“Stop talking, young lady,” said Alphonse. “You’ve run twenty-seven miles on my property so far, and you’re lucky I’ve elected not to charge you for it. By all rights you and your friends owe me well over a million dollars. Instead I’m asking for just one finger. And you can’t take another step until I get it.”
“No,” said Whitney. “I knew you were a twisted sicko, but get fucked, scumbag.”
“Wait.” I showed him my hands. “Which finger, Alphonse?”
“The middle one, obviously,” said Alphonse. “I’ll let you choose your left or right hand, since I’m not sure which you used to insult me.”
“I used my right hand. Now, can we go?”
“Not with my property, Jonas. I want that finger now. And I want the left one.”
I sweat. “Why?”
“Because you flipped me off with your left hand, Jonas. I took photos.” His goons in leather flanked me. “Besides, I know you’re left-handed. Leave double-reverse-psychology to business-men.”
“Leave him alone!” Whitney was crying angry now. “You’re holding us up!”
“Just take it, Alphonse, and make it quick.” I held up my left hand for him. “Stop wasting our time and do what you’re gonna do.”
“Okay. So you see, I own this toothpick now, and I own this finger now, so I’m well within my rights to—” Alphonse jammed the minty metal toothpick under my middle-finger’s nail. I yelped in surprise, but that didn’t stop Alphonse. He grabbed my wrist and pushed the toothpick an inch into my finger. His goons in leather held me steady by my shoulders.
Even if I could describe the pain, I’d still spare you the details. It made me forget my aching legs, my bleeding palms, and my foot-blisters. All I could do was shout and swear and knock my knees. The minty flavor burned. “Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”
Alphonse shot the knuckle with his pistol. He plucked the fallen finger from a puddle of my blood and his goons dropped me into the same puddle, writhing. Whitney sobbed, but it was actually a relief to lose the needle under my nail. “Jonas!” she wept.
“Aaaugh!” I rolled, clutching my fist. “Alphonse, you sick bastard!”
“Careful. You might accidentally hurt my feelings.” Alphonse squat beside me. “Do you know why I want your legs, Jonas?”
“Of course not, you crazy cretin! The bet’s off, get me outta here!”
“It’s not for the scientific merit. Oh, the lab-boys will have fun examining your musculature, but there’s nothing for me to learn from your legs, Jonas.” I hyperventilated; maybe if I breathed hard enough, I’d get my finger back. Whitney moved to help me up but men in leather stood between us. “Jonas, do you imagine I’ll take your legs all at once?” Alphonse leaned in close. “I’ll take your legs millimeter by millimeter, Jonas. Your agony will be legendary.” He just stared for a moment. I looked back breathlessly. “Run, Jonas. You too, young lady.”
We could only obey.
BEEP. Mile 77 (75): 27:23 / 12:38:11.
“Holy shit,” I panted. “Holy shit.”
“Jesus Christ.” Whitney fished in her water-backpack. “Quick, have some ibuprofen.”
“Are you kidding me Whitney ibuprofen is not gonna fucking cut it.”
“Drink!” I drank from the hose of her backpack and swallowed the pills she handed me. “That’s some salt tabs, too. Lemme get my first-aid-kit.”
“I can’t believe that actually happened.” The helicopter flew right over us. Adrenaline made me run faster than I thought I was possible. “Oh my god, oh my god.”
“Here.” Whitney doused my knuckle-stump with alcohol. She put medical-tape on a cotton-ball and stuck it to the nub. “Hermes will do better than that once we get to mile 80.”
“82,” I corrected her.
BEEP. Mile 78 (76): 7:12 / 12:45:23.
“That’s a mighty-fine pace, Jonas.”
“Of course. I weigh less now.” I held up the knuckle-stump. “A finger’s gotta weigh, what, a pound?”
Whitney almost chuckled. “See, sometimes gallows humor is all that can keep us moving.”
“If I win the race, I’ll buy my finger back from Alphonse. Maybe a hospital can reattach it. Hell, maybe they could reattach my legs, too, if we collect the dough.”
“Maybe we won’t need to.” Whitney pointed. “Look!”
Fresh dung! “Champ must’ve been here not too long ago.”
“And he’s struggling.” Whitney pointed her headlamp at some bloody hoof-prints on a rock. “We can still win the flag at mile 80. 82, I mean.”
“Beep,” I said. “I just finished three marathons in under 13 hours. Not too shabby.”
“If Alphonse hadn’t tricked us out of two miles, we’d be ahead of the horse by now,” said Whitney. “Let’s cut the chatter and bomb this hill.”
BEEP. Mile 79 (77): 6:52 / 12:52:15.
BEEP. Mile 80 (78): 5:46 / 12:58:01.
Kevin honked his car’s horn. “Yo! Hermes!”
Hermes looked over his shoulder and ran to the side of the service-road while Kevin parked. Hermes sat in the car and buckled up. “I figured I might beat you to mile 80 on foot. What took so long?”
“I got your photos developed.” Kevin tossed Hermes the pictures of Sandra and Alphonse with Champ. “You can really see her spurs, huh? They’re reflecting the light from Alphonse’s helicopter. And the horse’s blood shows up pretty well, too. Nice shots, man. Didn’t take much Photoshop to clean up.”
“What are you gonna do with these?”
“Already done, chief.” Kevin sped along the winding service-road. “I posted those photos online everywhere I could. I’ve got two-hundred-thousand followers on Instagram alone. Some are big names in the media who’ll be eager to get some dirt on the Bronson family.”
“Do you really think they’ll see?”
“Of course! I tagged Jonas and Whitney in the post. Half my followers are fans of their book. They’ll share those photos everywhere.”
Hermes pulled a water-bottle from his fanny-pack and gulped most of it down. “Are you sure about this, Kev? Alphonse is gonna flip.”
“I hope he sues me,” said Kevin. “Craig’s been talking with his lawyers since Alphonse shot down the first drone. Jonas bumbled into a social-media diamond-mine, and Craig’s got the capital to put it on billboards. Hey, what happened to you, Hermes? You’re bleeding on the seat.”
“Yeah, sorry. Jonas asked me to find a visibility vest he lost, and I took a tumble.”
“Huh.” Kevin examined Hermes’ scratches. “Did you find the vest?”
“Yeah, but I left it where I found it.”
Hermes chewed his beard. “You ever heard of Georgie Masawa?”
BEEP. Mile 81 (79): 5:37 / 13:03:38.
Whitney couldn’t restrain herself from shouting. “Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”
As we passed her, the jockey sat up straight in the saddle and spurred the horse. “Yah! Yah!” Champ limped a little quicker, and his limping kept up with our sprint.
“What’s your name?” shouted Whitney at the jockey. I was shocked she could shout so loudly at this pace. “You! Answer me! What’s your name!”
“Sandra,” said the jockey. “Who’s asking?”
“Well, Jonas, is it her?” I nodded. “Then say whatcha gotta say.”
“You’re not in your wheelchair,” I panted. “I only knew your name because it was written on the back.”
Sandra blinked. “Huh?”
“I’m sure you don’t recognize me,” I panted. “You were ahead most of the race.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
“I was the kid on the crutch, Sandra. And then you ate my pizza.”
I sprinted ahead. Whitney ran interference.
BEEP. Mile 82 (80): 5:59 / 13:09:37.
I grabbed the flag. Champ plodded just behind us. “Pfft. Big deal,” said Sandra. “Which way?”
“Nuh-uh.” I clutched the flag in both hands, all nine fingers. “You can’t continue the race until I choose left or right, so now you gotta put up with my bullshit!”
Sandra squinted at me. “Okay, get on with it.”
“I— I—” I pointed the flag at her. “I pity you, Sandra. I really do. I’m glad I lost that charity race. If I became Alphonse’s lackey, I’d be living in hell, like you. I’m missing a finger and I pity you. I pity you, I pity the horse, I pity Alphonse!”
“Okay, so toss the flag,” said Sandra.
I considered the fork. Both trails led downhill, but the trail right was more rocky.
Whitney waved at the service-road. “Here come Hermes and Kevin!”
Kevin parked and stepped out of his car with a disposable camera. “Sorry we’re late. Say cheese!” He took a photo of Whitney and me, then tossed us our own disposable cameras. “Exposing animal-abuse is newsworthy stuff, so take plenty of pictures of that ho, ho, holy shit! Jonas! Your hand!”
I looked down. Blood had streamed down my body. “Yeah.”
“Now do you believe me, Kev? I told you what I saw.” Hermes brought a first-aid kit. “I found your vest, Jonas.” I nodded in understanding. Before he treated my finger, he offered me race-food from his fanny-pack. I ate fistfuls of salty roasted almonds.
“Kevin, look at this.” Whitney took photos of Champ’s hooves—all three and a half of them. “The horse lost half a hoof a few miles ago. No wonder we caught up.”
Sandra folded her arms. “I’m waiting for the flag, you guys.”
Hermes wrapped tight bandages around my wound. “Do you have the finger?” I shook my head. “What happened to it?”
“Alphonse owns it now.”
“Do you want to keep running?”
“Don’t have much of a choice. I’m in it to win it.”
“I’ll call the police anyway. Keep this elevated.” Hermes pat my butt. “Which way are you headed, left or right?”
“I haven’t decided.”
Sandra groaned. “Come on, already!”
Kevin shot close-ups of the horse’s injury. “The trail to the right looks more rocky, Jonas. I bet it’d chip more off this hoof.”
I shook my head. “I don’t wanna do that sorta thing on purpose. I already feel bad for Champ.”
“Jonas. Buddy.” Kevin slapped my back. “Give ’em hell, Mountain-King.”
I tossed the flag right. Sandra took off.
Whitney and I ran after her. Kevin and Hermes got back in their car. “More pizza!” I shouted at them as they pulled away.
“And a veggie-smoothie!” shouted Whitney. “Jonas, you’ve told me why you’re racing the horse, but how did you get the opportunity?”
I pursed my lips. “Long story short, I’m an idiot, and Alphonse knew it. He wanted my legs and he suckered me in. I guess he wants to outdo his father’s race with Masawa.”
“Hm.” Whitney considered. “But why did Father Bronson race Masawa?”
“Why did your father race Masawa?”
Alphonse and Sandra were drinking tea on the veranda overlooking the estate. Alphonse polished the buttons of his gaudy military jacket, which he’d just received as per his father’s will. “Georgie Masawa came to our mansion without warning. I think it was my birthday, because I recall my father gave me a gift. It was a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole.”
“Aw. That’s nice.”
“I hated it,” said Alphonse. “My father was trying to make me love horses, and I wouldn’t comply. I threatened to destroy the toy he gave me, but as a child I wasn’t strong enough.”
“But back to Georgie. What did he want with the Bronsons?”
“Oh, something or other about his tribe in South-America, or maybe South-Africa? He blamed my father for their plight.”
“Well, what was the plight? Was it really your father’s fault?”
“I think he confused my father for my grandfather,” said Alphonse. “My grandfather was a real Bronson. This is his jacket, you know. When he left the old country, they blamed him for the collapsing economy.”
“What was that country? Where are you from?”
“No way to know,” said Alphonse. “Without my grandpa, the country crumbled so pathetically no one knows its name anymore. I don’t, anyway. Losers. Anyway, Georgie was upset about it, and he demanded my father make amends. My father asked him how he got to our mansion without a horse. Back then there were no service-roads in the estate, and narrower trails, so Georgie couldn’t have driven. Georgie said he ran here from Cape Horn. My father was impressed, and said if he could win a race against a horse, the Bronsons would sponsor the tribe, or whatever.”
“Huh.” Sandra surveyed the estate. “Then what?”
Three shots echoed across the estate. Masawa made no sound when he hit the dirt. Father Bronson stowed his silver pistol in his gaudy military jacket. “That’ll teach you to make threats on my property.” Georgie rolled and clutched his chest, but he was smiling. Father Bronson scowled. “What’s that look for?”
“You finished the job,” said Georgie. “You Bronsons killed my whole family.”
“You keep saying that,” said Father Bronson, “but from how you spelled it out, I’ll sleep easy tonight. My family has never touched yours.”
“Your father took everything from us.”
“Is there any evidence of that? Besides, that’s my father, not me.”
“You continue his legacy. You pipe chemicals through our homeland. Last month the pipes leaked, and killed my parents and sister. The pipes read Bronson.”
“Those pipes are vital to glue-manufacturing, and completely safe as determined by the letter of the law. If your people are so good at running, why don’t you just run somewhere else?”
Georgie chuckled while he bled to death. Father Bronson pushed Georgie’s corpse with the heel of his boot until it slid down a switchback and tumbled into a ditch. Then Father Bronson mounted his horse and returned to Alphonse, several miles away. “I bagged the deer, son. Back on, boy.”
Alphonse dismounted his toy horse and prepared to board the real one, but hesitated. “I don’t wanna ride the horse. My legs hurt. I don’t wanna race no more.”
Father Bronson furrowed his brow. “Not much longer, son. Just thirty miles back home. And the race is over; I can’t find Masawa anywhere. He must have given up, or gotten lost. So join me in the saddle with pride.”
“But I don’t wanna!” Alphonse threw his horse-toy like a javelin. It landed somewhere in the night.
Father Bronson bit back his anger. He picked up his son by the collar and set him on the saddle. “You’ll learn to appreciate horses, son.” Alphonse pouted. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to the races. You’ll love it, and learn the finer elements of life.”
“And I did,” said Alphonse. “Now I understand horses are the mark of a fine man.”
“Okay, so how’s your own horse-race fit into this?” asked Sandra. “What do you want to improve on your father’s race with Masawa?”
“Well, the race ended prematurely.” Alphonse poured more tea. “What an anticlimax. Hardly masculine, accepting surrender. I want to race a man who can’t afford to quit—a man who will chase me to the end. I want to establish my indomitable dominance over a public figure more well-known that Masawa. Someone with farther to fall.”
“Why?” Sandra poured sugar in her tea. “Do you really want to attract all that attention? You always tell me the media is a Bronson’s worst enemy.”
“I’ll control the narrative.” Alphonse sipped his tea. “I’ve already arranged things with my teams of lawyers. No one’s allowed to film on my property, and I own this land from heaven to hell—no news-choppers. Have you met my private helicopter-pilot?”
“A genius in every sense,” said Alphonse. “A military man who fought in… some war, I can’t recall. He owes his life to the Bronsons, like you owe me your legs.” Sandra felt the wheels of her wheelchair. “He manages my security personnel, among other things.”
“Oh, the guys in leather jackets? What’s his name?”