Losers and Winners
Summary: The Championship race is over--Matt and his rival Duke Grieve ran the race of their lives and shared with each other, for a brief moment, the triumph of their fantastic achievement. But the judges awarded the win to Matt by a fraction of a second, and, furious at the way the race had been ruined for him and the Duke, Matt took on a group of reporters and told them where to go. Only afterwards did he and Lieutenant Ryder have to face the reality of what Matt's explosion was going to cost him....
Apprehension forced [Matt] out of his warm bed early the next day. He was relieved to see there was nothing about him on the front page of the Times, but the sports page had gone all out. There were two photographs--an old one from the time of his arrest and one taken yesterday when he was challenging the reporters. The caption in bold print under the two read "STILL RUNNING" and continued into the article with a rerun of the murder, the inability to prosecute, his alleged attempt to flee Los Angeles, and the assault on him, presumably by unknown citizens in the Valley who had taken the law into their own hands.
It was all there--the same innaccuracies and conjectures, the same unanswered questions: How can we believe him? Who else could have done it? The reporter wrapped up his article with a provocative question of his own. "When you watch this boy run, outdistancing the field again and again, how can you help but wonder what drives him so relentlessly or ask yourself--what is he running from?"
Oh lord, Matt thought as he read the article again. For him it was like reading about someone else, but he could picture all those sports fans reaching for their favorite section this morning. In their minds, he and this monster were the same person. He knew that if they could catch him in some dark and lonely place, the way that other crowd had done, a lot of these new readers would be happy to let him know how they would answer those questions.
A small, wormlike fear twisted deep in Matt's belly, leaving behind it a place that smarted and burned. If he had stopped to think that the Times was not L.A.'s only newspaper, that there had been eight men in that group, all of them with different communities to inform, the warning flicker would have become a raging panic in the days that followed. But during the week before Christmas, Ryder was careful to make sure he didn't find out what those other papers--the small dailies and weeklies no less influential in their own neighborhoods than the Times--were doing to him.
Ryder and Tony collected and read everything written about Matt, from the rag that questioned in one-inch headlines "JEKYLL AND HYDE?" to the one that speculated that if the same boy had had black skin, he would have probably been shot down the moment they spotted him in the doorway across the street from the Palace Theater.
Trying to assess the impact of these stories, the two of them spent many hours discussing ways of handling it. The only thing they were sure about was that Matt should not make any more public appearances until all of this had died down.
"I don't like it, Les," Tony said late one afternoon. "With all the nuts running loose out there, what if somebody decides it's up to him to see justice done?"
"Don't say it, Tony," Ryder said sharply. He had already seen it in his dreams--Matt running a race, shot at in mid-stride, dying in a widening pool of blood. He had awakened Sally two nights ago, thrashing wildly and shouting incoherent warnings as he tried to save Matt from a madman hiding in the stands.
"What's this race in January? Can't he skip it?"
"Ask him to quit?" Ryder laughed shortly. "A kid who refused to run away from the hell I was putting him through two years ago because he thought I'd see it as an admission of his guilt if he did? How far do you think I'd get with a request like that?"
"Couldn't you order him not to run?" Tony knew full well that the time when Ryder gave Matt an order and expected it to be obeyed had long since ended. He was grasping at straws.
"He's seventeen, Tony. And he's Matt. He makes his own decisions. If I had something definite, like an anonymous threat sent to the Times, I could tell him and expect his common sense to overrule his emotions. All we have to go on are nightmares and intuition. It's a hell of a situation."
Both men were silent. Of all the people who cared about Matt, they were the only two who had any chance of freeing him from the nightmare--any hope of tracking down his sister's killer and seeing his innocence established. And they were the only two who lived day after day with the frustrating limits on what they could realistically expect to accomplish.
Anything that could be done as homicide detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department, they had already done. Although in all this time it had led nowhere, they still kept at it--reading police telexes, watching for similar MO's, alerting police agencies in other cities to the details of the case--neither one willing to give up.
"How about a press conference?" Tony suggested finally. "Get them all in here and show them copies of the official report? At least they'll have the facts. Too bad we couldn't have had one before all this junk"--he gestured contemptuously at the stack of papers on Ryder's desk--"got into print."
"After the championship there was no holding them back. I've thought of that, too. I've even considered having Matt available a a press conference himself."
"No," Tony said instantly, flat and final. No room for compromise.
"Why not?" Ryder had reasons of his own for abandoning the idea, but he was interested in his partner's reaction.
"Because he has nothing to give them, nothing to give anyone as evidence that he's innocent, except himself. You know he couldn't change their minds by talking to them, Les. They'd put him on trial and tear him to pieces with their insinuations and prejudgments of his guilt, and hothead that he is, he'd probably make things worse by fighting back. No, Les, I won't let you--"
"I didn't say I was going to, Tony. It was a possibility, that's all. I wanted to be sure we felt the same way about it."
They talked it over again and ended by inviting the reporters involved to a press conference the day after Christmas--the two of them fielding questions for nearly an hour. The reporters left with copies of the official report, which contained the known facts and listed the crime as unsolved as well as a statement prepared by Ryder expressing his informed opinion that Matt was innocent.
But it was a futile exercise, as Tony pointed out when it was over. "Everything we said, Les, everything we gave them, still adds up to nothing. Just a lot of people on one side shouting 'He didn't!' and a hell of a lot more on the other shouting 'He did!'"
Ryder was tired and discouraged himself. It had not been a success. "All right, Tony, I know," he said irritably. "The Schuylers are going skiing at Mammoth again, and I'm shipping him off with them tomorrow for the rest of the week. That should be time enough for the results of this, if any, to flow in and out of the papers. When he gets back, we'll see how it's going and decide what to warn him to look out for. We'll survive," he added with a faint smile, echoing Matt.
But both he and Tony knew that two new elements had been introduced into the controversy surrounding Matt--the black/white issue and the fact that it might now appear to anyone deranged enough to take a personal view of the situation that not only had Matt gotten away with murdering a little girl; he was enjoying successes and rewards he had no right to. Either of these attitudes could mean real danger for Matt.