(This is part nine of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can win a 100-mile race against a horse. Even though he was tricked two miles off-track, Jonas barely beat the horse to mile 80. Now Champ is ahead again.)
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
Naira Nightly groaned and pulled herself from her evening bubble-bath to pick up her beeping cellphone. “I told you,” she said to the caller, her camera-guy, “this is my night off.”
“This is big,” said Mike Mann. “You wanna break into sports-news, right?”
“Can’t this sport wait until morning?”
“It’ll be over in a few hours, and we’d basically be the only journalists on-scene. I’m driving to your place as we speak.”
Naira toweled off and dressed, holding her phone to her ear with her shoulder. “What’s up?”
“Have you read that book Live to Run?”
“No, but I’ve heard of it. Gimme the cliff-notes.”
“Ultra-runner Jonas cheats at a 100-mile race to beat his girlfriend.”
“What a shithead.”
“Yeah, but he’s up against king of the shitheads. Bronson. Jonas has been racing Alphonse on horseback all day and people are just learning about it now. It’s almost over and it’s neck-and-neck!”
Naira Nightly marched out her front door with a microphone. Mike waited in a van with a camera mounted on his shoulder. Naira continued the conversation in the shotgun seat. “Bronson won’t let us newsies into his estate. We’ll have to film outside the front gates.”
“There’s already a guy in there posting photos online.” Mike pulled onto the highway and passed Naira his phone displaying Kevin’s blog. “This guy is in Jonas’ race-crew, and he’s got the best photos of the Bronson Estate in decades.”
“How come they’re Kodaks? The guy doesn’t have a smartphone?”
“Kevin says Alphonse is screwing with anything attached to wifi. I brought an older camera, just in case.”
“Whoa.” Naira scrolled through the blog. Kevin had photographed a mob of spectators crowding the front gates to the Bronson Estate.
The entry-booth was manned by a security-guard in a leather jacket. He eyed the gathering crowds then the walkie-talkie hidden under his desk. He knew Alphonse had to hear about the mob, but he also knew Alphonse hated to be interrupted with bad news and would probably take it out on the messenger.
“Hey!” Two cyclists wheeled their bikes to the entry-booth and rapped on the glass. The security-guard opened the window. “Can you open the gates?”
“Fuck off,” said the security-guard, “and tell everyone else here to fuck off, too.”
One cyclist scowled. She was a woman about 30 years old. Her slightly older husband flipped the bird to the man in leather. “Hey, fuck you too, pal.”
The man in leather flipped the bird right back. “Sporting in the Bronson Estate is ten thousand bucks per mile, and that’s if you have permission from the boss.”
“So…” The cyclist’s wife pondered. “Does that mean it’s free if we don’t have permission?”
“Um…” The man in leather watched the cyclists chuck their bikes over the gates. The gates were electrified, but the cyclists climbed the brick wall beside them and crawled mostly unscathed over barbed wire. The crowd cheered. The man in leather took his walkie-talkie. “Sir? We got a situation here.”
BEEP. Mile 83 (81): 13:02 / 13:22:39.
My missing finger was half hurt and half numb. It felt like a missing tooth whose absence is constantly noticed by the tongue. The real pain came from my left knee and my feet. I’d be peeling skin off my soles for days, and every step, my left quadriceps quivered.
“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack, and I drank. “The horse isn’t really that far ahead. Sandra’s just playing the mental game with some distance. You’re going to win, Jonas.”
“Why was Kevin taking pictures of us?”
“Huh?” Whitney checked over her shoulder. Keven and Hermes were long gone. “Who knows? Kevin’s an influencer, or whatever.”
“What does he influence?”
“The internet, I think? He keeps talking about how many followers he has. I guess he makes money just being the center of attention. That sounds like Kevin’s style.”
BEEP. Mile 84 (82): 9:14 / 13:31:53.
Alphonse waited in his helicopter with three men wearing leather jackets. In addition to leather, the helicopter-pilot also wore sunglasses and a baseball cap. He was about sixty, but he popped gum like a disobedient school-boy. “My jockey should be here soon,” said Alphonse. “We’ll see how my horse is doing.”
The helicopter-pilot’s cellphone rang. He put it on speakerphone. “Hello, police?” asked the caller—it was Hermes.
“Yes, this is the police,” said the helicopter-pilot. He popped his gum. Alphonse and the others in leather suppressed their smirks. “What’s your emergency?”
“My name is Hermes. I called a few hours ago, and the situation’s gotten worse. Remember I said Alphonse Bronson shot down a drone?”
“A drone in his private airspace, yes,” said the pilot, “quite legally.”
“Well, I think Alphonse just cut off my friend’s finger.”
“You think he did, or you know he did?”
“Uh… I think. It kinda looked like a bullet-wound.”
“Well, unless you’ve got more evidence than thinking, I’m afraid our hands are tied when it comes to the Bronson Estate.”
“Um… Okay. Can you send an ambulance to the front gates, at least?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” The pilot hung up. Alphonse and the men in leather jackets laughed and slapped each other on the back.
Along the trail, Sandra stroked Champ’s mane. “Easy, boy. Easy.” She empathized with her horse’s distress: she’d worried about Alphonse’s reaction to her loss at the last flag ever since she saw his helicopter land just up ahead. Now Alphonse stepped from the cockpit.
“My word! What a catastrophe!” Alphonse got on his knees to inspect Champ’s hooves. “This hoof is half-missing! It’s grotesque!”
“Jockey-juice ain’t gonna fix it,” said Sandra. “To be honest, I think jockey-juice caused it. Coming downhill after that injection, we were overconfident. Champ took a nasty step in a gopher-hole. But don’t worry—we’re miles ahead of Jonas.”
“I know Champ will win. That’s not the problem.” Alphonse bit back tears. “I just received word that fans of Jonas are gathered outside the estate. Apparently Kevin, that fiend, posted pictures of the horse’s state on social-media. Social-media combines the two things I hate most—”
“Society and the media?”
“—quite right—and my lawsuits against Kevin won’t make those pictures disappear. I can’t control this narrative anymore.”
“You don’t have to—because Kevin will control it for you.”
Alphonse sniffed. “Huh?”
“Meet me at mile 90 and make a big show of pampering Champ and cooing and all that. Let Kevin show the world what great people you Bronsons are. As long as that’s the only footage that makes it on the news, you’ll smell like a rose.”
“Wow.” Alphonse stood and took Sandra’s hand. “You’re always a beacon of focus. It’s you and me to the end! Thank you, Sandy.”
“Sandra,” said Sandra. Alphonse shrugged. “Keep your head, Boss.” Sandra and Champ took off down the trail.
Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. The pilot adjusted his sunglasses and prepared for take-off. “How’s the horse, sir?”
“Not particularly well. And you’ve got your work cut out for you: remind the Nightly News that our airspace is private. No filming! None!”
“Always on it, Boss.”
In the helicopter’s spotlights, Alphonse glimpsed Jonas just a few miles behind the horse. “Oh, how could this happen? This was supposed to be my narrative, and it’s falling apart! Did Jonas arrange this?”
“Not him,” said the pilot. “Kevin. Gotta be. He’s the mastermind.”
“You’re right.” Alphonse mopped tears with his sleeve. “Um… What’s your name again? ”
The pilot smiled. “Craig.”
“It’s you and me, Craig. You and me to the end.”
Craig smiled and looked at the night-black horizon. “Hey, Boss, you still got Jonas’ finger?” Alphonse nodded. “Can I buy it from you?”
“I’d hoped to display it like a trophy.”
“I was thinking the same,” said Craig. “You’re getting Jonas’ legs anyway, so you hardly need another souvenir. You bought the finger and toothpick for 20,000 bucks, so I’ll buy ’em off you for that much.”
“Hmm… Okay. But the toothpick must have its audio-record wiped by my tech-security.”
Craig laughed. “I am your tech-security, sir. I’d wipe it first thing, I promise.”
“Oh! Right!” Alphonse laughed with him and pulled Jonas’ mutilated finger out of his gaudy military jacket. “Take it for free, Craig! I couldn’t do this without you.”
BEEP. Mile 85 (83): 9:31 / 13:41:24.
“I need another compression-sleeve.” My knee ached like it was oppressed by a glacier. Tears streamed down my cheeks. “This wimpy silk one isn’t cutting it.”
“Keep your mind on something nice, Jonas.” Whitney handed me a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Think about what’s waiting at the finish-line.”
“Ownership of my legs, I hope.”
“Besides that! Win or lose, you’ll have all the pizza you want. We’ll put you in a Jacuzzi and you can pig out, legs or no legs. You’ll never buy another drink in your life—you’ll have the best bar-story on Earth.”
“What would you do with a spare million bucks, Whitney?”
“Cruise-ship vacation,” she said. “What’re you gonna spend your winnings on?”
“Therapy, I think.”
BEEP. Mile 86 (84): 9:25 / 13:50:49.
Naira Nightly and Mike Mann weaved their van around a thousand people crowded around the front gates to the Bronson Estate. Mike rapped on the glass of the security-booth. “Yo! Open up!” said Naira.
The guard in leather opened the glass window. “Get outta here. No cameras.”
“I see two cameras already.” Naria pointed to the security-cameras flanking the front gates. “And someone’s posting photos online.”
“That activity is already under investigation by the Bronson Est—hey!” Naira was mockingly flapping her hand like a blabbing mouth while Mike filmed her. “You can’t film here without permission from the Bronson brand manager!”
“Call them for us, then,” said Mike. “Call them right now.”
“Call who,” asked the man in leather.
“Call whoever can let us film in the estate,” said Naria. “Come on, we haven’t got all night. I have a bath waiting at home.”
“I’d have to call Alphonse himself to get—”
“Then call him.”
“I can’t and I won’t,” said the man in leather. “Alphonse wouldn’t let in you journalist-types with or without cameras, and I wouldn’t contact him over something so stupid even if I could.”
“He can.” Mike and Naira searched for who said this. A middle-aged man pushed through the crowd onto camera. He wore running shorts and a tank-top commemorating a race: the Winter-2018 Biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k. “I saw him call Alphonse earlier, when two folks chucked their bicycles over the gates. He’s got a walkie-talkie.”
“Okay, call Alphonse and let us in,” said Naira.
“Look, like I said, I’m not calling him. Fuck off.”
Mike Mann gripped the steering wheel. “You know, Naira, there are more people here than I expected.”
“You’re right, Mike. I bet there’s enough buzz to borrow a traffic-copter from the studio.”
The man in leather laughed. “Lady, I dare you to come back in a helicopter.”
BEEP. Mile 87 (85): 9:42 / 14:00:31.
“Hold on. I gotta take a dump.” I waddled to the side of the trail and dropped trou. Whitney looked away obligingly.
Books have been written about proper pooping procedures on ultra-runs, but I didn’t care to be discreet on Alphonse’s property. I left my colon’s contents beside a bush.
“Hi!” Two cyclists wheeled up. Their bike’s lights were brighter than our headlamps, and illuminated me pooping beside the trail. “Oh! Sorry!”
Whitney stepped between us while I wiped. “Who’re you, and what do you want?”
“Oh! So hostile!” said the first cyclist. “My name is Debra, and this is my husband Danny. We read Live to Run! We saw this race online, and we live only a few miles from the front gates. We biked all the way here, and jumped the wall! I haven’t crawled over barbed-wire like that since high-school.”
“The horse isn’t so much farther ahead,” said Danny.
I pulled up my shorts and kept running. “Let’s go.”
“Oh my god, your hand!” said Danny.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“Can we do anything for you?” asked Debra.
“You got any running gels?” I asked. “Like, the energy gloop?”
“Cranberry and lime-kiwi,” said Danny.
“Ooh, gimme the cranberry.” I slurped down a silver packet of running glop and drank from Whitney’s hose. “Gimme your pants, too.” After some bickering, Danny gave me his compression-shorts. The extra wrap around my knee was a god-send.
BEEP. Mile 88 (86): 13:11 / 14:13:42.
“There it is.” Beside the mile-90 flag, Kevin waved his arms at the sky.
Between the stars Hermes spotted the blinking lights of a drone, and more blinking lights not far behind it. “Ah, crap, dude! That’s Alphonse’s helicopter! He’s gonna shoot down the drone again!”
“Nah, he wouldn’t repeat that shtick.” Kevin had another camera with him, an old video-camera with a puffy microphone—an antique. “While those photos developed, I picked this up from my apartment. It’s vintage! Let’s see Alphonse hack this.”
True enough, the drone landed without incident and Alphonse’s helicopter landed behind it. Hermes collected the drone’s payload—pizza and a veggie-smoothie—and stowed it in Kevin’s car. Kevin loaded the drone’s empty cargo-hold with disposable cameras. “Yo, A.B.,” he said to Alphonse stepping from the chopper. “You shoulda shot down this drone when you had the chance. I’m sending it back full of photos. Even if you mess with our electronics, we’re getting the word out about this crazy horseshit.”
“By all means.” Alphonse marched to the flag, waiting for Sandra and Champ. “Take all the footage as you like.”
“Really?” Kevin recorded Alphonse from behind while the drone took off. “We don’t need to ask your Brand Manager anymore?”
Alphonse laughed. “I fired my Brand Manager years ago. I am my Brand Manager!”
Sandra and Champ trotted up and she plucked the flag. “Which way, Boss?”
“Surprise me. And Kevin, please, allow me to surprise you! Gentlemen?” Alphonse gestured to the helicopter. Two men in leather jackets carried out a heavy cooler and placed it beside Champ.
“That horse has gotta quit, man,” said Hermes. “Look, it’s missing a whole hoof and a half! They’re just sloughing off!”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Alphonse wagged his finger and opened the cooler. “Behold!” He posed beside several severed horse-feet on ice. “You’re lucky, Kevin. You’re the first person outside my labs to witness the latest in equine medicine.”
Even Sandra didn’t know what was happening as Alphonse took a horse’s severed foot from the ice and held it next to Champ’s sloughed hoof. “Where did you get those, sir?” she asked.
“Why, these spares come from horses who died of old age, or in unfortunate accidents!” Alphonse did something Kevin recorded closely: he used a mysterious metal tool from within the cooler to replace Champ’s injured appendage with the new one. “Good as new!” He tossed Champ’s old hoof into the cooler and grabbed another spare from the ice. Champ seemed too deliriously fatigued to even notice his new foot.
“You’re Frankensteining him?” said Hermes. “That’s fucked, man!”
“It’s gotta be illegal,” said Kevin, “or at least against the rules of the race.”
“Hey! The contract is unbroken!” Alphonse replaced Champ’s other injured hoof and closed the cooler for his men to take back to the helicopter. “Jonas is missing a finger. If he doesn’t have to get his whole body across the finish-line, neither does my horse!”
Sandra tossed the flag left. “May I resume, sir?”
“No. Get off.”
“I’ve decided to take your advice and use the controversy to my advantage. I ordered the front gates open to allow onlookers into the estate. I’ll ride from here so they have a good view of a Bronson on horseback. You can take the helicopter with the security crew.”
“Okay, but—” Sandra’s legs were numb and she had trouble pulling her boots from the stirrups. “Did you dilute my jockey-juice?”
“Of course. From the beginning, I planned to finish the race myself. You don’t need your legs this evening. Get off.”
Sandra gasped as Alphonse’s men in leather pulled her from the saddle. She flailed and fought, and fell to the ground. She snapped her right wrist. “Augh! Alphonse!”
Alphonse swung his feet into the stirrups. “Keep her comfy, men.” Men in leather carried Sandra to the helicopter as she swore. Alphonse prepared to start Champ at a gallop, but noticed Kevin focusing the lens of his old-timey video-camera. “Thank you for your help,” said Alphonse. “I’m using you to boost my public-image, Kevin!”
“This dude is weird,” Kevin said to his camera.
“Oh, puh-lease!” said Alphonse. “In your footage I’m a knight in shining armor! I miraculously heal a horse, and I take over for my disabled employee in an authentic display of valor!”
“Dude,” said Hermes, “your horse is effed up because you’re a dickhead, and your employee was just carried away by leather-jacket storm-trooper types.”
“Oh. Ohhhh. I see how it is.” Alphonse rolled his eyes and started Champ at a trot. “Your type always knows how to take things wrong. I shouldn’t have bothered trying to curry your favor in the first place.”
Alphonse and Champ galloped away. Kevin checked his video-camera to make sure no mysterious forces had affected it. Hermes wandered to watch Sandra loaded into the helicopter. “Hey, you,” he called to the pilot in leather, “where are you taking her?”
Two men in leather stood menacingly, but the pilot raised a disarming hand and peeked over his sunglasses. “I’ll take Sandra to a doctor on the estate, but we’ve got time to chat. Hermes, right? You came to the front gates without an ID.”
Hermes bit his beard. “I like to stay off the grid.”
“I can tell, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked. I read Live to Run. I know exactly who you are.”
“That’s some FBI shit, man.”
Before Kevin could enter the conversation, his phone rang. “Hello?”
“Naira Nightly. Is this Kevin?”
“Yeah. Hey, I know you! You do that late-night show on—”
“Are you in the Bronson Estate right now, Kevin?”
“How did you convince Alphonse to let you publish pictures?”
“He didn’t let me. He’s already filed a lawsuit for each photograph on my blog. His lawyers won’t stop emailing me about it.”
“Do you think it’s safe for us to come in with a helicopter?”
“Oh, hell no, it’s—” Kevin locked eyes with the helicopter-pilot. Craig winked. “The floodgates are open, Miss Nightly. Bring all you got.”
BEEP. Mile 89 (87): 9:19 / 14:23:01.
“Just eleven more miles!” said Danny.
“Thirteen,” corrected Whitney. “The GPS-watch says 89, but we went off-course around 75 and added two miles.”
“Gosh,” said Debra, “if you were two miles ahead right now, you’d be barely a mile behind the horse!”
I bit my tongue. It didn’t matter if I lost by a mile or a meter. I’d lose my legs.
“To bet a million bucks like this, you must be loaded,” said Danny. “How much money did you make from Live to Run, Jonas?”
I made eye-contact with Whitney. “Live to Run sold over three million copies,” I said, “but I didn’t see much of the profit. A lot of it went to the publishers. A lot of it went to my ghost-writer—Whitney, here. I ended up with about a million bucks.”
“And you bet it all on this race?” asked Debra.
“Uh.” I swallowed. “…Yeah.”
“You must be pretty confident,” said Danny.
“He’d better be,” said Whitney.
BEEP. Mile 90 (88): 8:56 / 14:31:57.
Mike Mann and Naira Nightly shouted over their helicopter’s din. “Naira, are you sure about this? Alphonse already shot down two drones. Maybe he’d do the same to us.”
“Remember what Kevin said?” Naira surveyed the estate from above by spotlight. “Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot is on our side.”
“I’ve heard of the guy,” said their own helicopter-pilot. “If he weren’t on our side, we’d be shot down already.”
“Mike, do you see that?” Naira pointed at the side of a mountain. “There’s a neon-yellow spot down there.”
Mike focused his camera. “I see it too. It looks like caution-tape, or a safety-vest. But it’s not moving, so that can’t be Jonas or the horse.”
“Terrain looks pretty rocky,” said the pilot.
“Land anyway.” Naira gave Mike her phone to show him an article on Kevin’s blog with eight-thousand likes and ten-thousand shares.
Kevin again. Remember Hermes, the wise old hippie-type in Live to Run? He said he saw something spoOOoky in the Bronson Estate! There’s a neon-yellow visibility vest somewhere, and what’s nearby will shock you! Or it would, if Hermes took any photos.
I’d rather not spread rumors, so let’s leave it there until we’ve got more reputable sources.
“Huh. I guess that’s Kevin’s way of winking at us.” As the helicopter landed, Mike stepped onto the trail. Even with the copter’s bright lights, the path was dark as sin. “Whoa! Careful, this is pretty precarious.”
Naira protected her hair from the copter’s last gusts. “Why am I wearing heels? Fucking flip-flops would’ve been better.” She took off her shoes and tiptoed out with her microphone. “Are we rolling?”
Mike adjusted his camera and checked the lighting. “Rolling.”
“Naira Nightly, reporting for the first time ever inside Alphonse Bronson’s estate. Alphonse has famously guarded the right to film or even photograph his property, but an unfolding story demands attention. Guerrilla reporting can be incredibly dangerous, so we’ll keep this quick. We found a neon-yellow visibility-vest which a reliable source says is spoOOoky.” Mike shifted the camera’s focus to the vest, which was ten feet off the trail down a steep slope. “Mike, go over there and take a look.”
“Mike, I’m barefoot, and you’ve got the camera. Come on.”
“Hm.” Mike turned away from the vest and bent to his knees, then crawled backwards on his belly. “Uh… Okay… Put the copter’s lights on me, I can’t see a damn thing!”
Naira and the helicopter-pilot moved spotlights as Mike descended. Near the vest, he flopped onto his back and pointed the camera down his body. “I feel something,” he shouted. “There’s a vest tied to this tree, but right before it—right before it, there’s sort of a hole. More light!”
Naira sighed. “Okay,” she said to the pilot, “let’s fly above for a better angle. Stay high enough you don’t blow him away.” As they took off, she spoke into her microphone. “The helicopter is giving Mike plenty of light. Let’s see what’s in the spoOOoky vest-hole.”
The wind buffeted Mike’s comb-over. He tried to resist swearing because he thought the camera’s microphones would hear him, but eventually cussed because he knew the helicopter’s roar would drown it out. He sat up and pointed the camera down the ditch. “Um. Jesus Christ. There’s a skeleton down there.”
BEEP. Mile 91 (89): 9:05 / 14:41:02.
I drank from the hose of Whitney’s water-backpack. “I like that backpack,” said Debra, on her bike. “Want me to carry that for you?”
“No thanks,” said Whitney. “Debra, are you and Danny the only people here?”
“Oh, no,” said Danny, “there were a thousand people at the front gates! Most of them were dressed like you, ready for a footrace.”
“I used to run when my knees were better,” said Debra. “Danny, do you remember that 10k…”
I ignored the conversation. The only person I wanted to talk with was Thog, but I’d be embarrassed to play that game in front of the cyclist-couple. I was already humiliated Alphonse had heard us. I think Whitney sensed my blank expression, because she interrupted. “Debra, Danny, our crew is waiting for us at that flag. Would you please bike ahead and report back on the horse?”
“Can do!” Danny and Debra biked away while Whitney and I approached Kevin’s car.
BEEP. Mile 92 (90): 7:47 / 14:48:49.
“Jonas!” Hermes waved us over. He gave me a pizza-box, and Whitney her veggie-smoothie. “There were some cyclists coming your way, but they just sped ahead. One lost their shorts?”
“Yeah, we know.” I ate two pizza-slices and rolled up Danny’s left pant-leg. “I needed more compression. Now I need ice.”
“Oh, boy.” Hermes covered his beard in shock. My left leg was red and bent out at the knee. “I’ve got you, Jonas.”
While Hermes fetched an ice-pack, Kevin filmed Whitney rubbing my shoulders. “Say hi to the camera, Jonas! You’re famous!”
“I know.” I swallowed pizza-crust. “I was in a best-selling book.”
“That’s peanuts! You’re in the big-league now!” Kevin took my left hand to show the bloody bandages to his camera. “Tell us what happened to your finger, Jonas.”
“Alphonse owns it now.”
“What’s that mean?”
Whitney explained for me. “Alphonse tricked us two miles off-course and then claimed a finger for it, because he’s a shithead.”
“Here, Jonas.” Hermes taped an ice-pack around my knee. It might slow me down, but the chill was worth it. “You’ll never guess where I got this.”
“No, look.” Hermes pointed to Alphonse’s nearby helicopter, where three men in leather jackets talked with Sandra over a cooler. One of the men, in sunglasses, snapped a finger-gun at me. “Apparently Kevin knows Alphonse’s helicopter-guy. His name’s Craig.”
“I know that guy. We played cards sometimes.” I ogled the cooler. “Any beer in there?”
“Uh. No, and don’t ask any more questions about it.”
“Hey!” Sandra waved at me with her left arm. Her right arm was in a sling. “Jonas, right?”
“Uh-huh.” I finished another three slices of pizza and gave the rest to Hermes to save for the finish-line. “Did the horse throw you?”
“Alphonse threw me,” she said. I nodded. “Beat him for me, crutch-kid.”
“Planning on it.”
Kevin crouched to get a low-angle shot of me. “Expect company. Craig is letting in news-copters.”
Whitney massaged my cramping calves. “Wait. Did Craig shoot down the drones?”
“Yep! And they were his drones.” Kevin circled me; when he sped up the footage, it’d be like a matrix-shot. I ruined it by scratching my ass. “Craig says his delivery-drones are a side-gig. He was thrilled to shoot some down on Alphonse’s behalf, for publicity.”
“Gotta be honest,” said Craig, “working for Alphonse is a side-gig, too. To me, everything is a side-gig. I’m just lucky my gigs got together.” Craig threw me a peace-sign. “I’ll bring you a beer at the finish-line, J-Man.”
“Hey!” We all turned: some shirtless guy panted down the trail toward us. “Just a mile and a half behind the horse!”
“Who the hell are you?” asked Whitney.
“Um. I’m Rob. I ran here. Alphonse ordered the gates open like an hour ago.” Rob waved for us to follow as he ran back the way he came. “You’re almost there, bro!”
Whitney and I ran after him. “Are more people coming?” I asked.
“Oh, heck yeah!” said Rob. “You’ll have company every step from now on!”
Whitney noticed me wince. “You’ve got this, Jonas.” The buzz of a news-chopper blared above us and put me in the spotlight. “No time for stage-fright.”
“No time for stage-fright,” Alphonse whispered to Champ. “Smile for the cameras.” He nodded politely at a group of runners. Two took out their phones to snap pictures and video. “Excuse me, young lady?”
“Yeah?” She took another picture of the horse. “I’m allowed to take photos, right?”
“Strictly speaking, no, but—” Alphonse shook his head. “I just wanted to ask, are there more runners behind you? I’ve seen at least ten people pass by already, and we’re eight miles from the entrance.”
“Loads. Half the folks at the front-gates were runners. We’re near the front of the pack.”
As soon as the runners continued on their way to Jonas, Alphonse grimaced. He’d expected the crowd to remain along the last mile of the course and spectate, not intrude farther. If the trails clogged, runners could impede the horse. Alphonse took out his phone. “Craig?”
“Yeah, Boss?” asked Craig.
“You’re keeping out the news-helicopters, right?”
“Yep,” lied Craig. “Not one in sight.”
“Send a few motorcycles to keep onlookers out of my way.”
“You got it, Boss.”
On his deathbed, Father Bronson wagged one finger to draw Alphonse near. Alphonse brushed aside doctors and nurses to hear his father’s trembling voice. “Yes, Father?”
“I fear these may be my last words, son.”
Alphonse brushed tears from his eyes. “Father, I’m begging you to reconsider the injection.” He raised a syringe, but Father Bronson shook his head. “You’ll feel like a new man. Rejuvenated. Replenished.”
“I’ve seen how you make that stuff, son. It’s abominable.” Father Bronson coughed. Weak as he was, his coughing was thunder. “You remind me of my father.”
“Grandpa Bronson?” Alphonse covered his heart. “What an honor. Thank you for saying that, Dad.”
Father Bronson shook his head. “Grandpa Bronson was a failure.”
“But he was a war-hero. Without him, his country crumbled. You said so.”
“I was naive then. I believed what my father told me when I was young. I know better now.” Father Bronson coughed and spat phlegm. “Grandpa Bronson was an evil man, and he wasn’t even good at it.”
“What do you mean? What did he do?”
“There’s no way to know, because he failed. Grandpa Bronson’s villainy was so foolhardy that to escape punishment, he destroyed his own homeland. He arranged coups. He razed cities. He had rulers assassinated, all to save his face.”
Alphonse threw up his hands. “He doesn’t sound like a failure! If he was as powerful as you say, he’s worthy of veneration and I’m proud to be like him!”
“He wasn’t powerful, son.” Father Bronson locked eyes with Alphonse. “Grandpa Bronson spent his life running. He failed, and he ran from failure. He failed to run from failure, and he ran from that, too. His wake of destruction was weft of weakness. If the world ever learns of our sordid history, the Bronson name is bunk.”
“But he was rich.”
“He was like a burglar who locked himself in a bank-vault, then set most of the money on fire trying to escape. There’s no telling how tremendous the Bronsons would be if not for his hubris.”
Alphonse pointed at his father’s face. “You’re just jealous of his success. You coasted on his coat-tails.”
“Oh, no. I spent my life fixing his failures. Grandpa Bronson had no sense for society. I salvaged the Bronson name in the public eye by keeping my head down. But you?” Father Bronson pointed back. “You’re just like him. You’re evil in the most pitiful ways. If the public finds out who you really are, you’d better be as legendary a bungler as your grandfather. You’ll have to drag nations down with you to escape.”
Alphonse’s lower lip quivered. “But—”
“But nothing. In the Bronson family, failure skips a generation. My father was a failure and I paid for it. Perhaps someday your children will pay for you.”
When Alphonse finally found words, it was too late. His father had died, grinning like Georgie.