From a #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a gripping thriller novella about a college football player's investigation into the unsolved disappearance of a local legend who seemingly vanished into thin air.
Forty years ago, Herschel Ruggles, the most legendary player on the Mighty Johns football team at Draven University, disappeared after scoring a record-breaking touchdown.
Instead of tossing the ball to the referee after his near-mythical athletic feat or celebrating with the nearly 25,000 spectators in the stands, Ruggles continued running, ball in hand, into a passageway that led deep underneath the field to the Mighty Johns’ locker room—and was never seen again.
His disappearance has mystified the community for decades . . . until another player—Merlin North, a brilliant physics major—helps break Ruggles’s record for kickoff returns. After that, North turns detective and becomes fixated on discovering what happened to Herschel Ruggles.
Investigating Ruggles’s mysterious disappearance, however, will prove unexpectedly dangerous for North, as evidence of murder—and ghostly visions—reveal the truth to be far more stunning than he ever could have anticipated.
Includes a teaser for A Gambling Man, David Baldacci's second Archer novel—available now!
Release date: July 13, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 128
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The Mighty Johns: A Novella
YOU KNOW,” SAID MERLIN NORTH, “if one really thinks about it, this football field is logically comparable to the cortex surrounding the brain. The cortex, as I’m sure you know, is one-tenth of an inch thick and has vertical columns running from top to bottom that are roughly two-thousandths of an inch in diameter.”
North bent down, plucked a few blades of grass, and showed them to the uniformed young man next to him, whose name was Jimmy Swift. An east wind careened over the unique topography that surrounded the pair, wrapping the two young men in an unpredictable embrace. And it carried the foul smells of the nearby manufacturing plants and mining operations into the lungs of the folks here.
Swift studied this visible air current. It was easy to see that the young man respected the east wind and understood its potential for deceit.
North continued, “Now, those cortical columns could be the blades of grass on this field, Jimmy. Each column contains one hundred and ten neurons. There are six hundred million such columns and thus there are roughly fifty billion neurons in the cortex.” He eyed his friend closely to gauge his interest and understanding for what lay ahead. For Merlin North something inevitably lay ahead of one of his science-charged homilies.
“So what are you trying to say?” said Swift, who had other things on his mind as his gaze caught and held steady on the flagpoles due west of him. “Left to right,” he muttered to himself. He did a silent calculation and marched two steps to his left and next took one long stride back. Just in case.
“Aren’t you listening?” asked North, who then followed his friend’s gaze to the flagpoles. He added in an impatient tone, “The wind’s fine. I calculate about six to eight knots, roughly east to west, not that significant really, though it is swirling, but then it always swirls. And he’s got a strong leg, and you’re very fast. You’re aptly named. So what do you think about my theory?”
Swift glanced at North, and the expression of confusion was more weary than profound. And, at least to Swift, North held forth on the most impossibly useless subjects at the most inappropriate times. Last week, during a particularly rugged practice drill, North had grilled him on Carl Jung’s theories on individuation, synchronicity, and the existence of archetypes when weighed against modern string theory and neuron consciousness, with a dollop of quantum psychology thrown in for no apparent reason other than to befuddle Swift even more.
“I’ll be sure to look into that,” Swift had replied at the time, and just to make North shut up. Now he looked blankly at his friend. Quantum theorizing obviously did not jazz Swift’s motor to any appreciable degree. In his defense he had many other things on his mind, the wind for one. It was swirling, and swirling was not good. It also was gusting, and gusting was even worse than swirling, as far as he was concerned. He was about to be called on to perform a very difficult task, and North was distracting him.
North let the blades of grass drop to the ground. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said North. “Come on, think, Swift!”
If they hadn’t been such close friends, Swift might have decked North. Yet the timing was no good. Right now he really needed his friend and teammate for a very special task.
“Not to me it’s not,” said Jimmy, and he licked his fingers, just as he did every few seconds, to improve the traction there. “Look, I need to clear my mind, okay? Not fill it up with stuff I’m never going to use once in my life.”
North tapped the bottom of his cleats clean and said, “Let me spell it out for you then. We could be standing on an intellect perhaps surpassing our own and we’re stomping all over its neurons, Jimmy; the delicate yet critical canopy over its nuclear engine. Do you truly believe that such a profound concept has nothing to do with you?”
“Looks like grass and dirt to me, Merl, but then I’m just a dumb poli-sci major.” Swift looked up into the bright lights and stiffened when he saw what was coming. “Forget the cortex, Merl, time to go to work.” Swift performed a little jig to get the circulation going in his legs and licked his fingers a final time. He cast one last look at the flagpoles, which were barely visible now, what with the low cloud cover and the rapidly failing natural light. Then he set himself to wait as the screams plummeted down upon the two men like August hail, and the ground shook like an earthquake barreling their way.
A smile eased across Swift’s face. This was his time to shine. And like any young man gifted with extraordinary ability, he meant to let it rip.
North looked up, saw what Swift saw, strapped his helmet tight, inserted his mouthpiece, and squatted to lower his center of balance. His heart rate had nearly doubled with the adrenaline spike, and he knew Swift’s had, too. And yet North had a relative calmness about him that came from the most basic of all endeavors: preparation. In fact he was never more ready in his life. And he was about to do something that, if it played out as perfectly as it had in his mind the last week or so, would literally rock the world.
THE FOOTBALL DESCENDED upon them from out of the murkiness of the stadium lights. Overcast skies pregnant with rain had further aged a gloomy Saturday afternoon into an early, melancholy dusk. It would have been difficult to see a plane coming at them from out of the blinding crest created by the banks of thousand-watt stars that ringed the stadium. Yet, as usual, Swift fielded the blob of leathery pigskin that plummeted from the sky with an athletic grace he possessed in enviable quantity.
For his part, the blocky, slower-footed, and yet extremely capable North eased back on his right foot and established a firm center of gravity on the possible cortex of a potentially large intellect lying beneath them. He silently counted to three as he eyed screaming, barbaric young men charging at him and Swift. This fanatical—some would say infantile—group had been transported into the civilized world for four quarters every Saturday in the fall across the length and breadth of America’s college football empire.
The cries from the stands echoed the brutes’ battle hymn as blood-lusting spectators, now mere ghostly outlines in the diminished light—silhouettes of Johnny Rebs or Union Blues hunkered at the fogged tree line moments before the deadly clash—leaned forward and awaited with glee a violent collision of young, strong bodies that was bare seconds from occurring. Not even patrons of the Roman bloodbaths snorting their fix of human pain and cruelty had ever witnessed anything quite so spectacular in its potential for glorious mayhem.
With an explosive burst, North took off running. He said not one word, uttered not a single reciprocal scream, for he was saving every ounce of energy he had in order to transfer it on to others. As Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictated with a majestic certainty, when an object exerts a force on a second object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first. And, at least for now, E did approximate MC squared, though North was working on alternative theories that were holding some promise. Yet, for his purposes right now, all that mattered was angle, speed, and weight displacement, and the use of power against itself to maximize effect beyond all reckoning; for the individual parts were very often not so great as the entire throbbing whole. What was rushing headlong at him and Swift was a living, breathing physics experiment, and North did not intend to screw up such a magnificent display of scientific possibility.
North had studied his opponent’s kickoff techniques all week. Teams usually had players remain in their running lanes so all paths of escape were blocked off, but this unit had the tendency to congregate half a dozen men in the middle of the field where they would use their collective speed to pursue tackle angles to the outside if necessary. Well, North was going to take that technique and ram it right down their throats.
With Swift dancing and juking behind him, awaiting any crevice he could slide through, North counted off his steps, simultaneously calculating axis rotation, curvature of the earth, mass, speed, and, possibly most important for his purposes, angle of impact. When he reached the count of five North hit the compact wall of men at what seemed like the speed of light, or, as North would later say in his inimitable way of pedantic embellishment, at the speed of a subatomic particle tunneling under a quantum barrier, or at approximately four point seven times the speed of light. So fast, in fact, that the particle would exit the tunnel before it even entered it. North had tried explaining that to Swift once, only to see his friend’s eyes glaze over. Then, if you pointed out that at the speed of light time stands perfectly still, like, fittingly enough, the hands of a stalled clock, and that traveling at a rate faster than that of light would actually carry one backward in time, one would see the comprehension of the casual listener approximate that of a cinder block.
Well, not today. Today it was going to knock the socks off the crowd of screaming Mighty Johns fans, because North took out the wall of screaming men with his masterfully placed flying body block that dropped his opponents like dominoes in exact accordance with the formula of mass displacement at a precise angle of collision. He had worked it all out the previous week in between his science labs.
True to form, Jimmy Swift exploited this enormous gash in the kickoff team’s heart, flashing by as North lay in the grass, his face mask bent, his mouthpiece knocked out, and a spot of blood on his cheek. All around North sprawled a sextuplet of young men in orange-and-black uniforms stunned by the impact of a quantum tunneler who had exited before he had entered.
Not one opposing player had a good shot at Swift until he was at the opponent’s forty-yard line. A very fast cornerback named Brady—who had given Swift fits for three years—had selected a decent angle of attack as he raced after his streaking opponent. However, this time, Brady had underestimated Swift’s speed and determination. Right as the cornerback went in for the kill, his target kicked it into a higher gear, and Brady ended up eating a mouthful of grass, or billions of neurons, if you believed North.
Swift sped untouched into the end zone to complete his 103-yard trek, and then respectfully tossed the ball to the waiting official and jogged to the bench, where he was mobbed by his frantically delighted teammates.
North rose among the bodies of the fallen and trotted off the football field at Draven University. The school sat in a drab, manufactured valley of perpetually darkened hues among the squat, hollowed, and stripped coal hills of western Pennsylvania, and was home to the Mighty Johns football team. As North gazed at the berserk crowd, the metal-and-concrete stands shaking under their collective mass times energy, he knew these emotionally charged plebeians hadn’t a clue as to what really had just taken place on the field.
North had only displaced the almost century-old blocking stratagems of X’s and O’s by using the principles of modern quantum theory that most people would never be able to comprehend to any measurable degree. Still, North had to smile at the mad party going on over at his team’s bench. What could be better than an extravaganza of science coupled with the exuberance of raw, young men in all their beastly pomp and pageantry that coexisted for at least sixty violent minutes on Saturday afternoons in the fall at the universities housing the best and brightest all across the land? Where else could you watch smart, educated people physically wreck one another for a nominal cost that included food, drink, and even a place to sit?
He jogged to the bench and slapped hands with Swift. His teammate also whacked him on the helmet. “One for the old cortex,” Swift said, and the two friends sat down next to each other. Then it was dramatically announced over the PA that Jimmy Swift’s run was actually one yard longer than originally thought. The rollicking, delirious crowd grew still and quiet at this momentous and stunning proclamation, for the truly unthinkable had just occurred.
Jimmy Swift had just broken the forty-year-old record for kickoff returns held by the immortal Draven alumnus Herschel Ruggles.
Swift, at the prompting of his coaches and teammates, was persuaded to run out onto the field to acknowledge the crowd’s applause, which cascaded down like towering waves of blue as men, women, and children, many of them weeping uncontrollably—the sight of men with large beer bellies heaving was particularly memorable—and flicking their Mighty Johns aquamarine towels back and forth to show their undying gratification at being a part of this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. At least a half-dozen God-fearing and married women in the stands would gladly have sacrificed themselves by engaging in a monstrous orgy with Jimmy Swift right there on the playing field, with the complete blessing of their tearfully joyous husbands.
Here, college football was not just beloved by these folks; it was their faith.
Swift took North with him to acknowledge the crowd’s appreciation, despite his shy friend’s protest. “Like you didn’t get it for me,” replied Swift as he pulled the far larger North out with him. They both took awkward bows at the fifty-yard line while a stretcher crew carried off the six young men who had had the misfortune to wander into Merlin North’s laboratory at the Mighty Johns’ twelve-yard line.
North and Swift retu. . .
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