Chpts. 2 & 3 – “The Custer Conspiracy”

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Chapter 2
San Francisco
Three Days Later

I stepped out of the shower and reached for the towel just as the phone rang. How annoying, I thought. No way I’m going to drip my way back into the bedroom just to answer the damn phone. Just then, the ringing stopped. I smiled into the mirror. See? There is a god. There is a god.

But, unfortunately, it wasn’t god. It was my ex-wife, Maureen. Without warning, the bathroom door flew open. And there she was, scowl on her face and phone in hand.

I jumped a foot. “Geez, Mo, you scared the crap out of me,” I said, quickly wrapping the towel around my waist. An odd reaction, I know. I’d been married to this woman for twelve years. We even had a child together. You’d think her seeing me in the nude wouldn’t embarrass me. But oddly enough, it did.

“You’ve added a few pounds,” she said with a smirk.

“Thanks,” I said. “Nice of you to notice.”

She pushed the phone at me. “It’s for you.” I took it from her, covering the receiver with my hand. A habit born from experience. In case we ended up in a shouting match.

“What the hell you doing here?” I snapped. “And how’d you get in?”

She took a key ring from her pocket and shook it in my face. “I got the keys to your damn house from TJ. Your son, in case you’ve forgotten. From the last time he stayed here.” She took two steps back, probably to give her more room to jab a finger at me. Which she did. “And don’t you dare use that tone of voice on me ever again.”

This conversation was reminiscent of old times. A big fight was coming, I could feel it. I raised my free hand like a stop sign. “Hold on, okay? Let me get rid of this call. Then we can talk.” I put the phone to my ear. “Yes?”

“Is this Tom McGuire?”

A freaking sales call, I thought. I was about to hang up, but something in the voice stopped me. “It is,” I said tentatively.

“San Francisco PD homicide inspector extraordinaire?”

“Some would say,” I answered, now intrigued as to who it might be.

“Ex-coach of the best damn high school football team in Northern Cal a few years back?”

I smiled, all the anger and frustration of the last few minutes melting away. One of my guys. “You got that right,” I said.

“Coach Mac? This is Matt Conroy.”

I felt the smile flood my face. Maureen took notice, too, and scowled. “Matt? Son-of-a-bitch. Hold on for a sec, okay? I’ve got a visitor here. She’s just about to leave.” I pressed the phone to my chest. “Gotta take this,” I said, shrugging my shoulders like there was nothing I could do about it.

She knew she was being dismissed, and wasn’t a happy camper. She retreated a step, clinching and unclenching her fists. “We’re not done yet,” she stammered. “This is about TJ. His future.”

“You’re wrong, Mo. We are done. At least for now. I’ll call you later.”

With a glare that would make hell freeze over, she turned and stomped out of the room.

“Hey,” I yelled after her. “Leave the damn keys to the house on the table on your way out.”

I put the phone to my ear. “Sorry about that, Matt. The ex showed up unexpectedly.”

“Didn’t mean to interrupt, Coach. Want me to call back?” Just then the front door slammed shut. The perfect exclamation point to Mo’s visit.

“Nah, don’t worry about it. She just left,” I said. “God, it’s good to hear your voice, Matt. You in the City?”

“No. Still back east.”

“How long has it been? I’ve lost all track of time.”

“A sign of old age, Coach.” He laughed. “Let’s see. I moved back after the accident.”

Accident. The very word made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. I closed my eyes, the accident playing out in full color on the inside of my eyelids. Matt’s last collegiate football game. Being talked about as a 2nd or 3rd round NFL draft pick. I’m on the sidelines as his special guest. Then the hit from behind. His piercing scream. The ambulance rushing him and his shattered leg to the emergency hospital.

“Must have been early 2001,” he continued. “I know I was in New York on 9/11. So, yeah, it’s been fifteen years already. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch as well as I should have. Been really busy. Teaching and writing.”

“I know. I get your Christmas cards.”

Conroy laughed. “Cindy’s ‘year-in-review’ missive, huh? You’re probably the only person in the world who reads the damn thing. I tell her she writes too much. No one has the time or interest to read her five page epistles.”

“Well, I do. Tell her that. If it wasn’t for her, I would never have known you won a silver medal in the Special Olympics,” I said. “Congrats.”

“Thanks, Coach. Shot Put. And let me tell you, it’s hard to put the shot with only one leg.” He laughed.

“I can only imagine.”

“But … yeah … after having my leg amputated, I needed something to keep me from feeling sorry for myself. So I started working out again. Hard. I really pushed myself. Just like I would have done if I were still playing ball. Like I would’ve had to do to make the NFL. Anyway, Special Olympics gave me the motivation. Winning that medal was a game changer. Got me noticed by prosthetic manufacturers. They started sending me their latest devices to try out. Talk about being a guinea pig – I tried ’em all. Rated them from best to worst. I’ve been told my ratings helped put the right prosthetic on many of our vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite fulfilling.”

“I’m really proud of you Matt. You’re a tough son-of-a-bitch to bounce back like you have.”

“Thanks, Coach. But, listen, that’s not why I called. I’m coming out West and hoped you could get a few days off and we could visit.”

“Well, hell yeah, Matt. To see you? Are you kidding me? When?”

“Day after tomorrow,” he answered.

“Hmm. Kinda short notice,” I said, mentally clicking through my schedule. “But, yeah. I think I can arrange the time. Let’s see – have a dentist appointment tomorrow morning, but I could cancel. No problem there. Probably talk my supervisor into giving me a few vacation days.”

“Sorry for the short notice, Coach. I didn’t even know until late yesterday that I’d be coming.”

“You’re coming to San Francisco?”

“No. That’s the other thing, Coach. I’m flying to Montana.”

“Montana?”

“Yeah. Let me explain. You may not know it, but I’ve published three historical biographies in the past five years.”

“Thanks to Cindy’s Christmas missives, I knew that,” I said with a laugh. “Even bought the one you wrote on President Grant. Nice job. Impressive.”

“Thanks. But you’re going to be even more impressed with the one I’m working on now.” He stopped, waiting for me to ask.

“Okay. You got me hooked. Tell me.”

“I’m writing a book on General George Custer. One of your favorites, if I remember correctly.

“You do remember correctly,” I said with a chuckle. Conroy took my history class as a senior. In it, I spent a lot of time on Custer and his battle at the Little Bighorn.

“So, Coach, that’s why Montana. I’m coming out to the battlefield to do final research for the book, and thought you might want to join me.”

“Well hell yeah. I’d love to join you,” I said, thinking of different ways to maneuver Lt. Bristow into granting me the time off. “Visiting the Little Bighorn, seeing what Custer saw, why he maneuvered like he did? Damn, Matt, that’s been on my bucket list forever.”

“It gets better, Coach,” he said. “We’ll be there on June twenty-fifth. The anniversary of the battle. Thought that might be an added incentive.”

“Don’t need any additional incentive, pardner. Custer and the Con are the only incentives I need.”

“I’m bringing Cindy with me, by the way. You’ll get a chance to meet each other. She’s heard a lot about you over the years.”

“Oh-oh,” I said. I heard Conroy laugh.

“And one more thing, Coach. The most important thing. In the past few days I’ve corroborated some startling information on Custer and the battle at the Little Bighorn. Seriously, it will knock your jock off.”

“Okay. You’ve managed to prick my curiosity. Whatcha got?”

“Can’t say over the phone. Tell you when I see you. It’s big, Coach. And I mean big. All I can say over the phone is what I have in my possession could possibly rewrite the past hundred and forty years of world history.”

“Whoa. Hold on, my man,” I said. “You sure you’re not hyping whatever it is you found just a wee bit? Maybe to sell a few more books? The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most written about, most studied, battles in all of American history.”

“And Gettysburg,” Conroy said.

“Yeah, and Gettysburg,” I said. “But I have to tell you, I’ve read most every book written on Custer and the Little Bighorn battle. Far as I know, just about everything’s been said.”

“I hear you, Coach. But that’s just it. Not everything has been said. It’s going to be hard for you to believe. But I’ve had it verified.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Conroy and I talked another thirty minutes while I tried to cajole him into telling me his damn secret. No luck. I’d just have to wait.

After hanging up, I walked into the kitchen and found the keys Maureen left on the table – along with a scribbled note. TJ told me he’s thinking of majoring in criminal justice. If he does, he’ll turn out to be a cop. Like you. I won’t stand for that. You’ve got to talk him out of it. Call me.

I wasn’t about to call her. Ours had been a rancorous divorce. I was a terrible father. A crappy husband. I spent more time with my damn high school football team than her. Didn’t make enough money to support her in the style to which she aspired. If I’d heard those complaints once, I’d heard ’em a thousand times. I was in no mood to hear them again.

She was probably right about the crappy husband part. I did spend more time with my football team than her. Given the choice, who wouldn’t? They were a hell of a lot more fun. The year TJ turned seven, Maureen forced me, under penalty of divorce, to quit my high school teaching job and get a real job, as she called it. Tore me up. But I did it for her and TJ. To save our marriage. My dad had been a San Francisco police officer, so I had no trouble being accepted into the SFPD.

But it didn’t save the marriage. Even though I was making more money, I had gone from one primarily male environment to another. Lots of swagger. Lots of testosterone. Lots of late nights. Not what she had in mind.

Mo divorced me when TJ was ten years old. Shortly afterward, she moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after that, she remarried. Her new husband was, no surprise, a complete jerk. They both kept me away from TJ as much as they could, making it difficult to keep a good relationship with him.

Eight years later, Maureen returned to the Bay Area. Unmarried. By that time, TJ had graduated from high school and been accepted to UCLA.

Her coming north turned out to be a blessing. Having both his parents in northern California meant I got to see TJ more often. And the more I saw him, the closer we became. He started staying with me during the summers and before long our relationship was back to how it had been prior to the divorce. Even though TJ felt duty bound to root for the Dodgers, we started going to Giants games together. Just like old times. Happier times. He started hanging out with me in the squad room. Unlike when he visited a decade before, there were now women in the department. Full-fledged officers. Being a good-looking kid, the women officers flirted with him unmercifully. He loved it. So it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to become a police officer. I loved life again.

A terrible father? Screw you, Maureen. I picked up the phone.

“Hey, TJ. It’s your old man.”

“Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”

“Couldn’t be better. You?”

“Doin’ okay, Dad. Glad you called. I was going to call you later this afternoon. Guess what?”

“Surprise me,” I said.

“Got a job for the summer. Riverside PD.”

“Whoa. Good for you. How’d you score that?”

“UCLA Criminal Justice Department. One of my profs called last night and said they had an internship for a junior majoring in Criminal Justice. They chose me.”

“That’s a real honor. I’m proud of you.”

“I’m pretty stoked, too. Can’t wait. It’s only going to be for a month. That’s all they have the funds for.”

“Have you told your mom yet?”

“Not yet. You know she is trying to talk me out of this major?”

“I know. She came over today and insisted I talk you out of it. Fat chance. When do you start?”

“Wednesday. They want me right away. Even though it’s just a month internship, I’ll be getting paid for it.”

“Hey, paid or not, makes no difference. It’s all about résumé building. Besides, you don’t need the money when you have a father who’s shelling out the big bucks for tuition and booze.” I laughed. So did he. “Too damn bad, though, you have to start so soon. I’m taking a trip to Montana on Wednesday. Came up suddenly. Like your internship. Goin’ to the Little Bighorn. Calling to see if you wanted to come with me.”

“Dad, you know I’d love to, but … the job and all.”

“Hey, I understand. No need to apologize. We’ll have a chance to do it again. Maybe I can come see you when I get back. You got room for me?”

“Got that ratty pull-out sofa. It’s all yours. I think you’ve been the only person to ever sleep on it. My friends won’t. But Dad, can you do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you keep Mom away from me for a while. I hate to disappoint her, but I really do want to pursue this justice thing.”

“I’ll try, TJ. But you know how headstrong your mom can be at times.”

“Yeah, I know.” He paused, and then said, “Dad, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I know I never told you, but I really missed all the things we had. Thanks for sticking with me.”

An indescribable feeling of warmth came over me. All the hurt over all the years had just been washed away.

 

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