(This is the eleventh and final chapter of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can win a race against a horse. Jonas crossed the finish-line first, but that’s not enough for Alphonse.)
After an emergency-room sponge-bath and some morphine for my torn-up leg, I fell into coma-like sleep. I woke on a king-sized bed under a chandelier, completely alone.
I prepared for the onset of accumulated aches and pains, but somehow felt as good as I possibly could after an ultra. Even my left knee was sewn back together. My patella rolled like new. Frankly I was surprised they didn’t stitch my missing finger back on, too. The knuckle-nub was just nicely bandaged. “Hello?” I sat up and looked around. This was no ordinary hospital: marble columns supported a vaulted ceiling. I heard a bubbling hot-tub. “Is anyone here?” No nurses or attendants were near to advice me.
On the nightstand stood a bottle of champagne. I couldn’t read the French label, but it tasted expensive to me. I drank a quarter of the bottle before testing my body-weight on my left foot; the knee didn’t disagree. I limped to the hot-tub, shrugged off my medical gown, and sank right in. The bubble-jets melted my bones out my pores.
Who paid for this? Maybe Alphonse ponied up my million bucks and the hospital transferred me to the hoity-toity wing—but I doubted it. Alphonse wouldn’t pay so eagerly.
I finished the champagne before Whitney walked in. “Jonas! You’re awake!”
“Hey Whitney! Did you bring me some ice-cream sandwiches?” I offered her the last drops from the bottle. “Get in the hot-tub! The bubbles are on!”
“You’re talk of the town,” said Whitney. “You made the 11 o’ clock news nationwide. Everyone knows about Georgie Masawa’s corpse, too. You didn’t tell me you found a body at the time, and I’m kind of glad you didn’t. Would’ve put me off my stride.”
“Awesome!” I splashed at her. She backed away from the hot-tub and I knew she wasn’t in the mood for games. I drank the last drops of champagne myself. “How long have I slept?”
“About 36 hours.”
“I could use another 36.”
“Sorry to hear that, because we’ve got business.”
“Where am I? Whose champagne was this?”
“I’ll get to that,” said Whitney. “Alphonse is suing the pants off everyone in spitting distance. You. Me. Hermes. Kevin. Everyone.”
“Anything he can think of. He’s charging hundreds of people $10,000 for every mile they traveled in the estate, even the news-crew in that helicopter.”
“Alphonse is also suing our publisher preemptively. He doesn’t want us writing a book about this. The publisher paid for you to be treated here, and for your champagne. How’s your knee?”
“Better than ever.” My left knee never felt so strong even before my boyhood skiing accident. “So do we need, like, a lawyer, or something?”
“Nope. The publisher wants to handle the lawsuits, too. Their legal-department is negotiating with Bronson’s right now. It sounds like there’s gonna be one catch-all mass-settlement. Alphonse might pay out for the dangerous conditions of his estate, and mutilating you, and all that.”
“Good. Sounds like I’m not needed.” I tilted the empty bottle hoping for another drop. “Can you ask the publisher for more champagne?”
“Ask them yourself,” said Whitney. “We’re meeting soon to discuss the trial.”
“Ugh.” My quadriceps protested when I pulled myself from the hot-tub.
The hospital staff lent me a wheelchair for my tired legs and Whitney rolled me out to a limousine. The chauffeur, in tuxedo, opened the door for us and supported me on their shoulder as I stepped into the back. I recognized the three other passengers.
“Hey Kevin. Hey Hermes.” Whitney sat beside me. “Hey, you. What are you doing here?” Sandra was across from us with her arms folded, silent.
Kevin slapped my back. “How are you enjoying your million bucks, Jonas?”
“Um.” I looked at Whitney. “Where is that money, anyway?”
“Alphonse hasn’t coughed it up and doesn’t want to.”
“What’s his excuse?” I asked.
“He’s got thousands,” said Whitney.
“Fuck that,” said Kevin. “If he’d won, he’d demand Jonas pay a million bucks, for sure.”
“Uh. Yeah.” I shivered. “For sure.”
“I’ve never ridden in a limo before,” said Hermes. “Your publisher must be loaded, Whitney.”
“I’ve never met them before,” said Whitney. “Kevin knows them.”
Kevin shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I know of the publishing company, as a business. I’ve never met anyone in person. I get phone-calls from representatives.”
“So… Who are we meeting?” I asked. “A team of lawyers?”
No one in the limo said a word. Sandra smirked.
A sixty-flight elevator up a building downtown opened to an office with dark glass windows. Behind a mahogany desk, Craig smoked a thick cigar. “Come on in and take a seat, unless you brought your own.”
“What the fuck,” I said, “I know you!” Whitney pushed my wheelchair alongside Sandra’s as we all entered the office. “You and I bet booze-money over nudie cards at Alphonse’s casino! Aren’t you Craig, the helicopter-pilot?”
“I’m a lot of things,” said Craig.
“I’ll say,” said Kevin. “Three days ago I knew you as an ex-military drone-geek on an internet forum. Who the hell are you, really?”
“I really am an ex-military drone-geek, Kevin. I’m just more than that, too. Thanks for plugging my delivery-business on your blog. Sit down, and drink up, if that’s your style.” Craig poured himself a little brandy. Sandra rolled up for a shot. “We’re here to celebrate. Congratulations on the race, Jonas.”
I wanted a shot, too, but Whitney held back my wheelchair and I figured she was right to do so. “Craig, right?” asked Whitney. “Is it just a coincidence that you published our book and you work for Alphonse?”
“Mmm… Let’s say it was in the stars I would be your inside man.” Craig ashed his cigar and looked at us over his sunglasses. “Kevin, Alphonse says you owe him over ten million dollars.”
“I know, it’s such bullshit,” said Kevin. “He’s charging me ten grand per mile I drove in his estate, plus a million bucks for each photo-set I posted online.”
“Hermes, Whitney,” said Craig, “you each owe Alphonse more than half a million. Hundreds of people are being charged up to 200,000 apiece for running to meet you, Jonas.”
“I wonder if Alphonse will let them pay with body-parts,” said Sandra. She raised her eyebrows at me and I shuddered. I thought only Alphonse and Whitney knew I’d wagered my legs, but of course Craig and Sandra knew too.
“That won’t be necessary, Sandra,” said Craig. “We just need to play our cards right. I know more about Alphonse than anyone but his father, and Father Bronson is dead. I’ve negotiated Alphonse to an assailable position. I need all of you on my side to tip the scale.”
“Didn’t you betray Alphonse at his most desperate moment?” asked Kevin.
“Boy, he was furious! But we both have secrets to keep, and that let me strike a deal. We’ll meet in court to determine what’s owed to every involved individual in sort of a class-action lawsuit. You might make more money than just your race-winnings, Jonas.”
“Oh yeah? How about this?” I raised my left fist, flipping him off with my middle finger’s ghost. “You were in that helicopter when Alphonse fucking mutilated me. You watched him do it. Your goons in leather grappled me.”
“The goons are gone, and that event is our Ace.” Craig opened his leather jacket and half the room almost vomited. Sandra yawned. “Alphonse gave me your finger, toothpick under the nail and all.”
My finger had half-mummified and smelled like a corpse. “Holy shit, dude!” said Kevin.
“This toothpick heard most of the race,” said Craig. “Alphonse thinks I deleted the audio record but I didn’t.” He grabbed the middle finger and depressed the toothpick’s ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick screamed my scream.
“Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”
“Please!” A gunshot. Craig pressed the ruby handle again to cease reenacting my trauma.
When my neck’s raised hair settled, I managed to speak. “Okay, you have evidence Alphonse is a twisted sicko. Let’s skip a civil suit and lock him in the slammer.”
Craig tutted. “It’s not that easy, Jonas. Like you said, I watched all this happen. If we run for the end-zone, Alphonse will spill some dirt and destroy my credibility. You won’t stand a chance on your own. Alphonse can make anything and anyone disappear unless I’m here to wrangle him.”
“Then wouldn’t Alphonse spill dirt right away, destroying your credibility?” asked Whitney.
“No!” said Craig. “I know enough about Alphonse to go down swinging. Revealing our connection is the nuclear option, and there’s no telling who’d go down in the crossfire. Five hundred people might end up paying fines with body-parts, including everyone in this room. I’m not joking. This trial has got to be a controlled demolition.”
“What does that mean?” asked Kevin.
“Alphonse almost certainly has his own copy of the toothpick’s audio-record,” said Craig. “As long as we let him think he’s controlling the narrative, we’re at truce. When he digs himself a deep enough hole, I’ll have a clear shot at his vitals. I can detonate him at a safe distance.”
“You’re making this sound like a death-match,” said Hermes.
“Damn straight,” said Craig. “I’ve watched a Bronson collapse before. If we can’t defuse Alphonse, we want this to be an implosion.”
“I’m in,” said Sandra, “and you’d be in, too, if you knew best. Without this settlement there’s no telling how bad it could be. If we’re in this together, we’ll do better than break even.”
“Hell, I’m in.” Kevin shook Craig’s hand. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen half a million bucks in my life,” said Hermes. “I couldn’t begin to pay. I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Whitney rubbed my shoulders. “What do you think, Jonas?”
I wished I was more drunk. “You got me into this, Craig. In Alphonse’s underground casino, you and your goons buttered me up into racing Champ.”
“And you won,” said Craig. “Let’s keep winning.”
“Jonas.” Sandra shook the arm of my wheelchair. “You said you pity me, and I get it. I pity the horse, too! But there’s no pitying Alphonse. Let’s bury Alphonse, crutch-kid.”
I swallowed. “I’m in.”
“What’s the plan,” asked Whitney. Craig cracked his knuckles.
The courtroom was packed. As I limped through the audience, I recognized Danny and Debra and a few other folks who ran with me. Whitney led me across the bar to join Craig, Sandra, Kevin, Hermes, and a man and woman I didn’t know. “Who are they?” I whispered to Whitney.
“That’s investigative-journalist Naira Nightly and her camera-guy Mike Mann. They filmed your news-spot. Alphonse says they owe him a hundred bucks for every frame of video they recorded in the estate.”
To our left, Alphonse sat with his lawyer. Alphonse’s broken arms were repaired good as new, just like my knee. He wore his gaudy military jacket and sucked a minty metal toothpick. His lawyer wore a pastel yellow suit and had blonde hair, expensively cut. He typed on a laptop. Craig bumped my elbow. “That’s Alphonse’s top lawyer, Lloyd. The rest of his legal team is probably video-chatting on that laptop from across the country.”
“Where’s our legal team?” I asked.
“I’m it, baby.”
“All rise for the honorable Judge Fairfax,” said the court clerk. It took me a moment to join the rest of court in standing for the judge, a portly man who already looked fed up. Judge Fairfax took his seat. “Please be seated,” said the clerk.
Fairfax smacked his gavel. “Court is now in session. Alphonse Bronson, stay standing.” Alphonse remained risen. “I watched that news-spot about the race, Mister Bronson. There were many concerning elements.”
“Assuredly,” said Alphonse, bowing, hand over his heart.
“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. Alphonse soured. “That news-crew over there uncovered a corpse suspected to be Georgie Masawa, who disappeared in your estate when you were a young boy. You’ve denied our requests to collect the body to perform an autopsy. Correct?”
“Yes,” said Alphonse. “I ch—”
“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. “With your permission or without, we’ll recover that corpse. More immediately pressing, the news-spot reported the poor condition of your horse. You wore spurs—”
“Spurs are entirely legal,” said Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd.
“—spurs with long pointed tips, spurs which got you banned from multiple riding associations, spurs which you jabbed inches deep into your horse’s gut. A local veterinarian also said he personally inspected your horse and determined it was delirious and unresponsive. At the finish-line, two hooves were totally missing. I almost threw up seeing that.”
Lloyd interjected again. “Bronson-brand cutting-edge medical-technology makes such injuries irreverent.”
“I’d like to examine the results of those technologies,” said Fairfax, “but Alphonse, you won’t let us see the horse, either.”
“Champ wants to rest,” said Alphonse, “and out of the goodness of my heart, I’m leaving him alone.” I wondered if Champ was already glue.
“The veterinarian said your ‘goons in leather’ accosted him and spray-painted his face and his favorite tank-top. Many people in your estate said they felt menaced by this ‘biker gang.'”
“You’ll have to take that up with my head of security.” Alphonse grinned, knowing Craig wouldn’t confess to the role.
“Regardless, these events happened and you acknowledge they happened. You agreed to pay 6.6 million dollars for fines related to animal abuse and zoning violations, and a replacement tank-top.”
“I’m glad to make things right.” Alphonse bowed again, this time sweepingly. “May we begin to make our case that I’m owed more money than that?”
“Go ahead,” said Judge Fairfax.
“I think questioning the ultra-runner, Jonas, would be illuminating,” said Lloyd.
“Hell yeah.” I stood to take the stand. “You better cough up some dough, Alphonse. I won the race.”
Alphonse smiled and let Lloyd speak. “Jonas, we could spend all day explaining why your victory was illegitimate, but more importantly, Alphonse is owed money regardless.”
“Not a penny from me,” I said. “Alphonse charges $10,000 per mile but he waived that for the race.”
“Aha. So you knew of the charge,” said Lloyd.
“Of course. Everyone knows.”
“Aha, indeed, aha. That means everyone in this class-action lawsuit knew they would owe Alphonse money when they set foot inside the estate.”
“He opened the gates,” I said.
“And they passed through those gates knowing they would be charged. The estate is no charity. Alphonse is calling in the tab. Over five hundred people owe over $200,000 apiece. The bulk is owed by Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, who recorded and released video footage knowing it would cost them. I assume their studio will pay on their behalf.”
Judge Fairfax stroked his fuzzy black beard. “Mister Bronson, does anybody actually pay these exorbitant rates?”
“Of course,” said Alphonse. “My typical guests are more esteemed gentlemen, mostly business-associates who enjoy discussing deals on horseback. They pay for every meter of every mile, even for their arrival and departure by helicopter. Those fees keep the estate in tip-top condition. So you see, when Tom Dick and Harry in the class-action suit claim they felt ‘menaced’ or ‘endangered’ on my property, despite my more than thorough security, I’m the financial victim, and I demand compensation.”
“Tom, Dick, and Harry?” Craig flipped a few papers at his desk. “Alphonse, do you know who Tom, Dick, and Harry are, and why they’re included in this suit?”
“No, and expecting me to know the names of my intruders is unreasonable.”
“Tom, Dick, and Harry were three preteens who disappeared in the late 2000s,” said Craig. “They were last spotted near your front gates. Their parents requested I add them to the class-action suit in honor of longstanding theories that the boys died somewhere in the Bronson Estate. You and your father refused to reveal security-footage or admit rescue squads to conduct a search. Then you electrified the gates and put up barbed wire.”
“Objection—” said Lloyd, but Alphonse silenced him by raising one gloved hand.
“If you want to question me, Craig, why don’t I take the stand?”
“Why don’t you?” Craig gestured for Alphonse, and I returned to Whitney’s side.
“I know of those conspiracy theories,” said Alphonse as he sat. “Just another example of how we Bronsons are notoriously portrayed in bad light. Some kids go missing in the tristate area and I’m expected to open my estate and share private footage. Let me tell you something—if those kids had climbed the gates, and did die on my property, then the parents shouldn’t come to me for evidence, or for an apology—they should come with payment for the time their kids spent on my land.”
A groan rolled across the court. Craig smiled. “Only the time? Or could Tom, Dick, and Harry be charged for anything else?”
Alphonse relished the audience’s seething. “As a matter of fact, there might be additional fees. For example, disturbing a topiary-bush could incur a botanical-repair fine. I take pride in my pristine estate.”
“Are you charging any of the five hundred quote-unquote intruders for property-damage?”
“I wish,” said Alphonse. “Tree-branches were broken, grasses trampled, and strategically-placed rocks turned and overturned, but I cannot attribute the damage to anyone in particular, so I must cover the restoration myself.”
“Did Jonas do anything of the sort?”
The court was silent, but up close, I saw lightning crack between Craig and Alphonse. Craig coyly stared him down, daring Alphonse to reveal unscrupulous behavior. Lloyd nodded no, no, no, but Alphonse eventually grinned, which I recognized as the nefarious concoction of a spin. “As a matter of fact, Jonas wrecked havoc across my estate.”
“How do you know?” asked Craig.
Alphonse showed the judge his minty metal toothpick. “Jonas accepted wearing a toothpick which recorded the race with an audio receiver. He dropped it around mile 75 when he went off-course and lost his finger. Isn’t that right, Jonas?”
I swallowed. Telling the truth, that Alphonse had taken my finger, would endanger Craig, and without Craig, we might have less than nothing. “That’s right,” I said. Whitney squeezed my hand.
“It wasn’t easy to retrieve that toothpick,” said Alphonse, “like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Rhode Island. But its audio captures Jonas disturbing my property! I’m charging you for it, Jonas.”
“Can we hear that audio?” asked Craig.
Alphonse beamed. “Lloyd?” Lloyd sighed and brought Alphonse the laptop. Alphonse clicked and typed, hunt-and-peck. “This is Jonas filling his water-backpack from my river.” The laptop played the sound of the stream around the 30-mile mark. “This is him drinking it.” The laptop gulped. I remembered the bitter taste. “This is him deciding my water isn’t good enough, and dumping it on a cactus patch.” The laptop splashed. “That water was chemically treated to sparkle photogenically. You stole my water and you killed my cacti, Jonas. You’re going to pay, for this and for a hundred other things.”
“But you’ll pay right back,” said Craig. “Please, play the audio of Jonas losing his finger. Let’s see if your estate’s hazardous conditions are at fault, and if you owe Jonas medical expenses.”
“Ha!” Alphonse selected a file. “Let’s hear, shall we? To set the scene, Jonas and Whitney are both hallucinating and Whitney has removed her top.”
Whitney blushed while the laptop spoke our voices. “Hey, what’s that?” it asked as her. “There’s another fork in the road.”
“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way,” it said as me. Alphonse chuckled.
“You’re hallucinating, Jonas.” Kevin squinted at the telltale clip of an audio edit.
“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a—” Then my voice cut off, replaced with the sound of me sliding down a ditch next to a skeleton. Alphonse had edited together miles 76 and 69.
Alphonse stopped the playback. “Jonas lost his finger because he and his lady-friend went off the trail. He was probably distracted by his topless waif. Can I be blamed?”
“Can we hear any more?” asked Craig.
“No,” said Alphonse. “The fall also corrupted the toothpick’s audio. We’re lucky to have what evidence there is.”
“And where is this toothpick now?” asked Craig.
Their eye-contact was electric. I worried I was close enough to be zapped. Alphonse leaned on the stand. “I sold it to you, Craig! My trusty helicopter-pilot.”
The court murmured, and Judge Fairfax rubbed his temples. “You, Craig, are Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot?”
“I am,” said Craig.
“And head of a publishing company?”
“And you run a drone-delivery service? And you shot down your own drones?”
“I’ve got fingers in lots of pies.”
Judge Fairfax sighed, resigning himself to a tedious fate. “I knew this case would be complicated. So, Craig, where is this toothpick?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Alphonse. “The toothpick’s audio-record was wiped by the head of my tech-security.”
Craig grinned. “And who is that, sir?”
Alphonse pondered. “I can’t remember. I recently fired most of my help” I knew Alphonse and Craig were tiptoeing around dirt, but I think Alphonse had genuinely forgotten Craig’s many roles in the estate.
“Maybe they’ll come forward later,” said Craig, as an oblique threat. “For now I’d like to talk to my friend Sandra.”
“By all means.” Alphonse descended, and court-security helped Sandra take the stand from her wheelchair.
“I’ve been Alphonse’s best jockey for years now,” said Sandra, “so I know all the horseshit. Where to fucking start.”
“Language,” said Judge Fairfax.
Sandra rolled her eyes. “Alphonse has factories where he grinds cheap horses into glue.”
Lloyd raised a hand. “This is publicly known and irrelevant to the trial.”
“When racehorses lose, he grinds them into glue, too,” said Sandra.
Lloyed kept his hand raised, and when the audience quieted enough, he spoke. “It’s still irrelevant, and besides, when you eat a hamburger, you know a cow went into it. When you eat jello, you know it’s made of bone. When you use glue, you worry an animal was needlessly harmed, but there’s no worry with Bronson! Bronson glue uses every part of the horse! Not an ounce of harm goes to waste!”
“Not an ounce of jockey, either,” said Sandra. “The losing jockeys have their organs harvested and sold on the black market. There’s a rumor among his staff Alphonse has two livers.” Alphonse chuckled. “What he can’t sell, he grinds into a paste we call ‘jockey juice.’ I took it all the time. It let me walk.”
Now Alphonse laughed. “What a story! I tell you, Bronson medical-technology is second to none and has achieved marvelous miracles, but is there any evidence of the wrongdoing you suggest?”
Lloyd spoke before Sandra could: “How could Alphonse possibly pull off the organ-harvesting operation you claim? It’s baseless and preposterous.”
“Nah, it’s easy,” said Sandra. “Alphonse and his billionaire buddies train folks on the fringe like me into jockeys with nothing to lose. How many people go missing every year? I bet some end up in glue.”
“This is just slander,” said Lloyd.
“I’m afraid I have to agree,” said Judge Fairfax. “Ma’am, do you actually have any tangible proof of these claims? It seems like there should be plenty.”
“The casino,” said Sandra.
A warrant was quickly drafted. Alphonse graciously and generously allowed select few to enter his estate free of charge. Craig piloted one helicopter ferrying Sandra, Whitney, and me, while Alphonse and Lloyd followed in another police-chopper with two officers.
Whitney leaned on the window. “This side of the estate isn’t half as pretty.”
“I kinda like the desert charm,” I said.
“How often did you run here?”
“Every weekend. Totally hammered, too.”
“There it is!” Sandra pushed me aside to see through the window. “That’s the bunker!” She prepared her wheelchair.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Craig.
We all landed near the cement bunker. Alphonse stepped from the police-chopper and shouted over the helicopters’ roars. “Let’s see if there exists such a fabled casino!”
“Let’s.” I led the group to the bunker and typed a code onto the keypad. It blinked red. “Um. I guess he changed the pin.”
“Or maybe you never knew the pin, because this casino is a fantasy,” said Lloyd.
Alphonse brushed me aside and typed the code himself. The bunker clicked open. “Officers?”
The police-officers opened the steel door. Gone were the silk curtains and chandeliers. The walls and stairs were stone lit by flickering LED. Below was a concrete room full of canned beans.
“Nothing at all!” said Alphonse. “Just my personal safety-bunker!” The officers rubbed their mustaches. “What a bizarre allegation—a casino on my property! How ridiculous!”
“I’m disappointed,” said Whitney. “I wanted to see that casino. You made it sound pretty lush.”
“It was.” My stomach twisted. Had Alphonse disintegrated the casino in a day and a half?
“How’d you do it Alphonse?” said Sandra, but Craig just shook his head and blew bubblegum.
The officers descended into the bunker and we all followed. Craig carried Sandra in her wheelchair down the stairs. “Well, I don’t see a casino down here,” said one officer.
The other officer examined a can of beans. “What’s this bunker preparing for, Mr. Bronson?”
“You don’t have to answer that,” said Lloyd.
“The bunker is for whatever may come,” said Alphonse. “I appreciate safety, but I don’t put much stock into conspiracy theories.”
“Neither do I,” said Craig, “but a bunker is a good thing to have. Have you checked the thickness of the walls to ensure safety against nuclear strikes?”
Alphonse shrugged. “Yes.”
“I’ll check again.” Craig produced from his leather jacket a handheld device like a tiny metal-detector. “This is a ground-penetrating radar. It makes maps of subterranean areas. It’ll make sure the outer walls of your bunker are built to last.”
Alphonse bit his lip. “You didn’t mention this in the warrant,” said Lloyd, but Craig waved the device definitively and gestured for the officers to look at its screen.
“See?” said Craig. “This bunker isn’t safe at all. It’s over a huge, hollow cavern.”
Alphonse shook. “My my. Thank you for alerting me. I’ll deal with it on my own time.”
One officer took the radar. “The cavern below us has some precise corners, Mister Bronson.”
“Doesn’t this remind you of Vegas?” said the other. “It looks like Caesars Palace.”
Alphonse clenched and unclenched shaking fists. “Entirely coincidental,” said Lloyd, “and even if there were a casino down there, it was discovered via unlawful means, and as fruit of the poisoned tree—”
“Alphonse invited us onto his property without condition,” said Craig. “No rule against ground-penetrating radar.”
“Get out!” shouted Alphonse. “All of you, out!” Lloyd palmed his face as Alphonse chased us back to our helicopters.
Alphonse was so humiliated by the incident that he reappeared in court on Lloyd’s laptop, video-chatting from the veranda of his mansion in the estate.
Judge Fairfax reviewed Craig’s radar-map of the casino. “Is this, in fact, a casino, Alphonse?”
“It could be a peculiar cave,” said Lloyd. “In any case, Alphonse has already paid 6.6 million dollars in fines. Let’s finish this civil case before considering some fantasy criminal one.”
“It’s a casino!” said Alphonse, over the laptop’s speakers. Lloyd groaned. “A little social gambling is perfectly legal in the district! I don’t make a dime from my associates except my fair winnings, and the fee for their footage in my estate. It’s no business, just friends who enjoy the aesthetic of a casino. Jonas, every weekend for four months, you ran to that casino, correct?”
“Then you owe me for the privilege! Each time you visited the casino, you ran twenty miles on my property. You owe me $320,000.”
“You invited me to your casino.”
“And you came knowing of the cost.”
Judge Fairfax ran his hands through his hair. “Alphonse, if you charge an entry fee, it’s not social-gambling!”
“Many elements of that are debatable,” said Lloyd.
Judge Fairfax slammed his gavel. “Jonas, in the casino, did you gamble money?”
“Not personally. I tried not to lose more than fifty bucks at once. But I heard the billionaires bet whole horses.”
“And Alphonse,” asked Judge Fairfax, “did you report your winnings on your taxes?”
Alphonse said nothing. “My client’s taxes aren’t up for discussion,” said Lloyd.
Sandra shouted. “He launders the money by pretending to sell glue!”
The court was silent. Judge Fairfax cradled his face. “Mister Bronson.”
“I’m trying to make sense of what I’m hearing. You’re widely known as a successful glue-manufacturer who controversially uses animal-products. Now I’m to understand that not only do you source those animal-products from the losers of races you host in an illegal gambling ring, but also, no one even bought the glue?”
“No, no! You’ve got it all wrong!” said Alphonse, but Lloyd typed a private message to him on the laptop.
“Perhaps that statement could be called partially accurate, in a technical legalese sense,” said Lloyd, “but it’s hardly the matter at hand. If you want to bring criminal charges against my client, do it later. And there’s still no evidence of organ-harvesting.”
“You’re fired,” said Alphonse.
Lloyd pushed up his glasses to see Alphonse on the laptop. “I’m sorry?”
“Your attitude makes me look guilty. Get out of here.”
“You fired the rest of your legal team,” said Lloyd.
“I’ll represent myself.”
Lloyd’s lower lip trembled, then stiffened. He glared at Alphonse like this wasn’t the first disagreement they’d had. “Alright. Goodbye.” Lloyd packed some folders into his suitcase and left the laptop on the table when he stormed from the courtroom.
Judge Fairfax rubbed his eyes. “Oookay. Let’s take this from the top.”
“Jonas,” said Alphonse, “you owe—Hold on. You. Lady. Yes, you in the front row! Turn the laptop toward Jonas.” Debra turned the laptop. “You owe me your legs, Jonas! And so much more.”
The whole court gasped. Alphonse played another clip from the toothpick, my agreement to wager my legs around mile 40. Whitney and Hermes squeezed my shoulders, but Kevin was just flabbergasted. “Dude. Seriously?”
“What else could I have done?” I said. “He said he’d take 40% of my legs if I quit the bet.”
Kevin grunted. “You’re lucky I bothered saving your ass. Literally, I saved your ass.”
Alphonse stopped the recording. “Jonas, you put your legs in the pot, and I won the race. You’ll pay.”
Naira Nightly stood so quickly her chair fell behind her. “We broadcast Jonas winning the race from two different angles on national television. Half the people in this courtroom witnessed it firsthand!”
“He had to win by some duration,” said Alphonse.
“Yeah,” said Mike Mann, “and your horse didn’t cross the finish-line for twelve minutes.”
“But Jonas had to win by several hours,” said Alphonse. I felt fire in my fists. “I mentioned, at the time, some police-officers stopped me for three minutes around mile 98, but there were other delays. For example, I had to wait for Jonas at mile 40 to inquire about gambling his legs. That was at least an hour lost! And, by the way, those police-officers will pay $40,000 each for intruding on my land. So will that meddling veterinarian.”
“You rat!” I pointed across the court. “You weren’t waiting for me at mile 40! You said you stopped because you injured yourself and were swapping with Sandra!”
“Oh?” Alphonse leaned close to his camera and his face became large on the laptop. “That part of the audio-record is missing. Do you have any evidence to back up your claim?”
My feet were weak. My knees knocked.
“We might,” said Craig. “Alphonse, you said the head of your tech-security wiped the toothpick’s memory before you gave it to me.”
“Alphonse, I am your tech-security.”
Alphonse blinked and backed away from the camera. “Wait.”
“I managed to recover that audio. In fact, there’s more audio on the toothpick than you let on.”
“Maybe we should play the whole thing for the court? It’s only thirteen hours or so.”
“Craig!” Alphonse shouted so loudly he clipped his microphone. “You can’t share that evidence until we have access to it too!”
“Who’s we?” asked Craig. “You’re alone, Alphonse. Do you want to discuss this over coffee?”
Judge Fairfax slumped back in his chair. “I need a recess anyway. I’ve got a headache.”
As the court cleared up, Craig punched my shoulder. “Mountain King. Your check’s in the mail.”
“I’ll buy the toothpick from you,” said Alphonse.
Craig smiled and sipped some tea. Alphonse had boiled the water himself; it was the finest culinary art he could handle now that he’d fired all his help. The seating on his mansion’s veranda was luxuriously adjustable beach-chairs. “How much will you pay, Alphonse?”
“I produce the toothpicks for ten thousand dollars each. I gave that one to Jonas for free. I bought it from Jonas for ten thousand dollars. I gave it to you for free. I’ll buy it from you for twenty thousand. It’s more than fair.”
Craig laughed, just once. “Ha.”
Alphonse hadn’t touched his tea. “Forty thousand.”
“Alphonse, I own a sixty floor office-building in every country worth dirt. Every floor of every building does something unrelated, but they all report to me. I made eighty thousand bucks last year working as your helicopter pilot, and I half-assed that. You didn’t even remember my name, but I owned all those men in leather. I owned some of those tuxedos walking around your casino, too. You’ll have to do better than eighty thousand dollars.”
Alphonse’s mouth hung open as he gathered words. “What do you want?”
“I want your military-jacket. I want your pistol. I want your estate. I want all your assets. And I want your body, Alphonse Bronson. The whole thing. Head to toe.”
Alphonse cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Why would I give you one percent of that? Do you know something I don’t know about the audio on that toothpick?”
“No, I just know how the public would react,” said Craig. “That’s never been your strong-suit, has it? You’re the kind of guy who can put needles under someone’s nails and wonder why no one sits with you at lunch. If the court hears your cackling after you shot Jonas’ finger off, it won’t matter if there’s proof you harvested organs. You’ll be underground before you’re dead.”
“I’ll drag you down with me.”
“You’ll try, but I’m mist. I can be gone in an instant. You don’t have those kinds of connections.”
“Yes I do! I’ve got—”
“You had me, Alphonse. I was your go-to guy. See that’s your problem: you only remember the names of your enemies, but you didn’t know I was one, so I was invisible. You know nothing about me, but I know everything about you. You can’t disappear. You get to barter with me.”
“Oh.” Alphonse’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give you the jacket, the pistol, and ten million dollars.”
“Alphonse.” Craig chuckled. “I’m not just selling you a toothpick here.”
“I have to pay for Jonas’ finger, too?”
Now Craig burst out laughing. “No, Alphonse, I’ll give you the finger! You’re buying your dignity! I want your jacket, your pistol, your estate, your assets, and your life. It’s a small price to pay for what remains of the name ‘Alphonse Bronson.’ You’ve messed up. I’m your only way out with a scrap of esteem.”
Alphonse spent a long time biting his fingernails, pleading, and not drinking his tea. Finally he wiped tears from his eyes. “Okay, Craig.”
“Take it all. Just leave my dignity.”
“Here.” Craig opened his leather jacket and gave Alphonse the finger with the toothpick stuck in it. “The audio dies with you.”
Alphonse smeared his sobs away and surrendered his gaudy military jacket. Craig put it on. He made it look good. “What are you going to do to me?” asked Alphonse.
“Now that I own your body? Anything I like.”
Alphonse swallowed. “Are you going to harvest my organs?”
“No, no–though I would like to count your livers. See, Alphonse, you’ve done too many strange drugs to trust your organs. What’s in those toothpicks, anyway?”
“What are you going to do to me?” Alphonse asked again.
“I might make you into glue. Let’s go.” Craig led Alphonse through his mansion into a back-entrance to the casino by way of the horse paddocks. As they walked, Craig listed factual statements. “You have conceded the race to Jonas and the class-action lawsuit to me. Your estate is now a non-profit nature preserve. We’ll find Tom, Dick, Harry, and Georgie, and your lab-boys will help perform the autopsies. We’ll confirm your father’s biggest cock-up. He was a lot better at hiding his shame than you, Alphonse, but you helped me dig up Masawa’s murder.” He led Alphonse to the glue-grinding and jockey-harvesting machine, covered with an unsuspicious tarp. “Get in,” said Craig.
Alphonse, clutching the toothpick to his chest, climbed into the big metal box. Craig shut the hatch behind him. “Um.” There was a TV in the box with Alphonse, tuned to the news.
“Get comfy. You’ll be here a while,” Craig said from outside the box. “Don’t worry—I’ll bring you food and water, and I’ll move you somewhere more hospitable when this is all over. I just thought the box would be poetic.”
“Craig! What are you doing!”
“Alphonse, you’re not worth glue. Your estate is gorgeous. Your jacket is gaudy. But your pistol? This is a work of art, Alphonse. This is the real prize. Do you know why I came to you offering my skills as a helicopter-pilot and security expert? Do you know?”
“Um. I thought it was to exchange your service for currency.”
“Your father and I were born the same year, Alphonse. I know because we met in the early fifties, when we were both eight years old. We met because my father was a diplomat, and your grandfather was a diplomat, of sorts.”
The TV in the box showed Alphonse news about the trial. “Diplomats of where, exactly?”
“I’d like to know!” said Craig. “I was one of the few survivors, and as a child at the time, my memory is hazy. It was either South America or South Africa, or maybe Eastern Europe. What matters is, it’s my father’s pistol, Alphonse.”
“Well, now you’ve got it back. Congratulations!”
“He brought this pistol to meet your grandfather because he heard rumors, Alphonse. Rumors your granddad was a de facto dictator through military power and assassinations. The gun did not keep my father safe.”
“Your grandfather shot my father dead with this silver pistol, in front of me, and he tried to shoot me dead, too.” Craig lifted his shirt. Alphonse couldn’t see it from inside the box, but Craig had an old scar across his belly. “He dumped me in a river, Alphonse. I woke up with some local native tribe.”
“Georgie was a babe at the time. The tribe helped me escape the country while your granddad tore it apart to cover up his crimes. My father’s murder was the beginning of the end for your home country.”
“So in the race’s last moments, you betrayed me by refusing to bring Champ Junior back across the finish-line.”
Craig laughed. “Alphonse, my betrayal was planned the moment the first shithead crawled from the ocean onto land. I sent Champ Junior across the finish-line to stop you! I convinced you to race Jonas with a book I published! At the charity-race which produced Jonas and Sandra, I made that sadistic donation to tempt you! Did you even remember betting on Jonas as a child? You’d remember if you actually read the book, Alphonse, because Whitney wrote about you. Destiny foretold that Jonas would race the horse, and Sandra would ride it.”
“You couldn’t have planned every minute detail!”
“Pfft! If I told you I arranged Jonas’ boyhood skiing-accident, you’d have no choice but to believe me.” Craig examined the silver pistol’s hilt, embossed with horses. He pressed one horse’s eye and the hilt opened. There were cold-war era electronics inside. “My father put an audio-recorder in this pistol. It recorded his own murder, my attempted murder, and the next six weeks. We’ll see exactly what your ancestry did.”
“If your beef is with my grandfather, why are you doing this to me?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the organ-harvesting. Maybe it’s the horse-grinding. Maybe it’s because I don’t like your breath after all those toothpicks. But I promise you, Alphonse, the public will never hear of you again, and won’t learn another tidbit about little baby Bronson. But they, and you, and I, will hear this pistol’s record. What was your granddaddy so ashamed of that he destroyed his country to escape it? Let’s find out, Alphonse.”
Craig left Alphonse in the box. Alphonse sat in front of the TV and watched the news.
Outside the paddock, Craig walked along the horse-stalls. They were all empty except for one, which he opened. Champ and Junior followed Craig in walking freely onto the estate.