Striped Fiction: Old Fears Die Slow

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The betrayal was consummated at an I-70 rest stop west of Wheeling, as a bitter wind swept off the flatlands of Eastern Ohio.

The price was far less than the silver pieces of biblical yore—a beef ’n’ cheddar combo at a Pilot Arby’s—and even that was on special for $4.99.

Jay, he was sure to later maintain, was pushed into it.

The coach was willing to concede that he had edged his court jester toward this cliff of unforgivability, taken him for granted, been less forthcoming with the praise he lapped up.

Yes, Jay had been treated badly. No credit for the recent string of triumphs, and this after being kicked in the ribs after every midseason setback.

But treason?

The coach closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool cinder block wall. He imagined the scene in his mind, the moment a front office spy had just confirmed in a terrified squeak.

There’s Jay, bumbling in out of the cold, shoulders pitched forward as always. You can read the barely concealed pride on his face. It’s never far from the surface, this naked desire to please.

It had been this trait that initially softened the coach’s heart, broke through that unforgiving front. It had also been Jay’s downfall, an unmistakable sign of weakness that was a magnet that suctioned up every bit of the blame once the failures came.

In Jay’s hand, a manila folder—gameplans, past and future, observations and schemes, a roadmap for defeating the enemy and vice versa.

Sitting at the table, hiding a smile by taking a sip of his medium Diet Pepsi, sat the Steel King.

“Sit, my friend,” he warmly indicated toward the seat across from him. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Jay didn’t need much prodding. He plopped into the chair, let out a yelp of displeasure when he saw his red tray of greasy lunch, skittered backward away from it. “Curly, curly …” he gulped.

The Steel King soothed him with a touch. “We’ll get that switched out for fries in no … Potato wedges? No problem at all, boss.” It was the mighty monarch’s most valuable skill, this cashmere voice that put all comers at ease. Even established enemies.

Not much of it was needed with his current lunch partner.

“So,” he beamed, triumphantly dunking a fry in some of the Heinz ketchup he pulled from his leather jacket, “tell me what I need to know.”

And Jay, that simple creature, head cocked to one side, Arby’s sauce dripping down his chin, just did what came naturally—he spilled those precious beans.

The coach, who could watch no longer, reined his imagination back in.

The Steel Empire was defeated, yet still a pesky thorn in his side. It couldn’t win the war—that opportunity had long since passed by the once powerful dynasty—but it could still weaken the conquering army’s odds of succeeding elsewhere.

And Jay had just handed them a blueprint for how to go about it.

The coach clapped his hands twice; an assistant popped into the dim room out of thin air.

“When Jay returns, send him to me,” he growled.

“But boss …”

“Send him to me. And he must have no idea that I know of his misdeeds. Jay will shirk from the blow like a misbehaving pup otherwise.”

“Yes sir.”

Deep breathes, in and out, let calm in. Three straight wins on the bounce, no end in sight.

This treachery would not go unpunished.

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