Sunday finds me worn out and depressed. Tony had called me back and agreed with Caroline that Mads had a way of fixing things like this. It still didn’t stop me from tapping at the notepad that I’d written down the number of a civil case lawyer on. I was counting down the hours until their office opened tomorrow. Whatever course of action Mads took, I wasn’t letting Kathy away with this. No way. I was swithering between rechecking the forums and just leaving well alone when Mads phoned me.
“Hiya Mandy, you should give those forums a check now, pet.”
“I’m not sure I want to, even if you weighed in, I doubt it’s made much difference to people’s attitudes toward me.”
“I think you’ll be surprised. I had no idea Kathy would go this far or that her lies would spread so rampantly. I’m really disappointed in the community, to be honest.”
“Has anything like this ever happened before?”
“Not to this extent. Yeah, we’ve had rumours spread about someone round the rink – and maybe it’s even come up on-line, but it’s never had the potential to ruin someone’s career or turn them into public enemy number one.”
I sigh down the phone. “I just can’t believe all this is going on just because Tony asked me out.”
“He does seem to attract the … less sane women. No offence – obviously you’re the exception.”
“Thanks for that.” I laugh bitterly. “Kathy contacted the Carlisle Evening Times – I’m going to a lawyer about it. Accusations of plagiarism are taken very seriously in my line of work.”
“The worst part is, she probably never even thought about that. Never considered how her lies might damage the rest of your life.” I hear Mads clicking her tongue against her teeth. “We were close for ages and there was never any hint of this nastiness with her – but then, she never had any reason to rule herself out of the running with my brother.”
“Well she’s not going to get away with it.”
“No, she isn’t. Seriously, check out the forums again. I’m going to head off; I’ve got work this afternoon.”
“Okay, thanks for all your help. If it wasn’t for you, Mads, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Taking a deep breath, I open my browser and bring up the Falcons, Marauders and Hockeymad forums. Every one of them has the same post near the top – a statement from the Falcons Management Team. In the post, it describes the allegations Kathy made against me in full and then categorically states that there is no truth to them at all. It’s heartening, that Mads got the actual official folks to stand up for me. But the thing that actually makes me hold my hand to my mouth in awe are all the replies in support of me. Even though the threads had only been started a few hours before, there were hundreds of replies. Mads was, of course, the rallying force behind it. She had replied to many of the people who had questions, clarifying the motives and pressing the truth. It’s unbelievable, but I got a bit misty eyed and emotional.
I settled down with a cup of tea and started typing up a vague match report based on the texts that Mads and Caroline sent me from the game the night before. What I managed to piece together was actually fairly coherent and I decided to send it off to Danny right away with the promise that I’d have a separate one for tonight’s game. He replied within minutes and was pleased to inform me that Kathy had dropped her allegation of plagiarism. I wondered if I’d still have a case for a lawyer as she’d dropped it, but if Mads and the Falcons hadn’t stepped in, my reputation would still be in tatters.
By the time Caroline came round for our early dinner, a routine we’d simply fell into with the advent of our becoming hockey fans, I was feeling happier. One could even venture that I was chipper. In fact, I was downright excited about going to the rink and thanking all the people who stuck up for me in person. On the drive to the arena, Caroline was full of anecdotes about the previous night’s match. Miro was healing well and would hopefully be back in goal before the Christmas Cup Derby, things were getting very serious between the two of them – and completely by accident. I knew Caroline wasn’t looking for a relationship but she’s definitely found one. But then, I didn’t go looking to get involved with anyone either. I remembered all the little sayings my Mum came out with when I’d broken up with someone or got dumped. ‘What’s for you won’t go past you’ and ‘Never go looking for love because when it’s the right time, love will find you’. At the time they seemed so clichéd, but now I could see the truth in those words.
There were smiles and ‘hellos’ from loads of people as we entered the arena. I couldn’t help but notice a few people still looked at me like I had committed some kind of crime and not been a victim of wicked rumour. Mads caught up with us near the entrance and introduced me to so many people, people who had voiced their opinions on the forums, people who had defended me even though they never really knew me. It was all so overwhelming. Tommy Ironside was one of the loudest voices on line and I was pleased to find him a very friendly, pleasant man in his fifties. Through the crowd of people heading to the seating area, I spotted a couple of the puck bunnies but not Stella or Kathy.
“She won’t show her face in here again. What she tried to do to you came back on her tenfold.”
The game started, the rumours had been squashed. There was peace in the Falcons world once again. I moved the camera with the play and did what I was there to do. The Harbourmen won, barely, and I followed the crowd to the bar to wait for Tony. I hadn’t seen him for days and was missing his company terribly. I hoped, now that this drama had wrapped up, that we could establish some kind of schedule where we got to see each other regularly. We didn’t stay in the bar for long, Miro and Caroline left and we followed not long after. Mads was so caught up in a conversation about the NHL with Brent, she barely noticed us leaving. I was looking forward to curling up next to Tony on my couch and sipping a bottle of beer, relaxing after a hectic week and hoping against all hopes that this was as dramatic as my life would get.
Days turn to weeks and weeks to months. Before I know what’s happening, it’s December, people are running around doing their Christmas shopping and Tony and I have settled into a very comfortable and mutually agreeable routine. We’ve seen each other at least three times a week since the troubles with Kathy. I went to see a lawyer, and Tony came with me, but as Kathy had withdrawn her allegation a case against her would make me look spiteful. Things were going well, the Falcons were fifth in the league, my match reports were getting more praise from both the fans and Danny. I was compiling the player stats when my phone chimed to tell me I had been sent an email. It was from Face-Off Magazine, the UK’s biggest hockey publication. As I read through the text on the small screen, I realised they were offering me a job. They were asking me to write match reports and articles for them covering the North of England. I chewed on my lip as I thought about how much work that was – not only did you have the Elite League teams but there were also the English division teams and I also knew that Face-Off covered a lot of the more organised Rec level teams too.
It was a big job, a busy job, a job that would have me travelling across the north of the country several times a week. It was a job that could really get my name out there to some of the bigger newspapers that cover hockey. It was a lot to think about, that’s what it was. I replied to them and thanked them for their interest before letting them know that I’d be giving their offer some serious thought. I’d definitely be talking to Tony about it, I was expected at his flat tonight for dinner, I’d be able to bring it up then. I spend the rest of the day avoiding Danny, for some reason I feel guilty at thinking about another job when he’s the one who catapulted me into things. It felt like I’d be betraying him. My stomach was still tied up in knots when I pressed the buzzer on Tony’s building that evening. I bounced up the stairs, knowing he’d wrap me in his arms as soon as I got to the door. And he did. He was warm and strong and all of the things that made me feel secure in his embrace.
“Dinner’s ready, come on in.”
I follow him through to his living room, whatever he’s cook for us smells amazing. I don’t get much of a chance to speak before he’s setting my roast lamb in front of me and telling me to dig in. It tastes as good as it smells and I savour every mouthful of the delicious meal that Tony must have taken a long time with.
“Mmm … you must have spent all afternoon making this! It’s wonderful.”
“I wanted it to be special.” He smiled. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
My meal sticks in my throat mid-swallow. On one hand, he was smiling as he said it – that indicated that it wasn’t anything bad he wanted to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve heard tales of women taken to fancy restaurants, under the impression that their man is doing it to pop the big question – only to find they’re being dumped instead. I take a gulp of wine and return his smile.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about too.”
“Really?” Tony’s smile falters – he’s now thinking the same thing I was a moment ago. “Well, you go first then.”
“I got offered a job at Face-Off magazine.”
Relief softens his features and he grabs my hand across the small table. “That’s fantastic! When do you start?”
“I don’t know, I mean, I haven’t accepted it. I’d need to cover a lot of territory and be on the road almost constantly … I can do it, but I’m not sure if I want to do it.”
Tony frowns slightly. “But that’s been your goal – bigger and better things. Any other job you got on the same level would require the same things wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, yes it would. If I’d been contacted about something like this in August there wouldn’t even be an issue. But … back in August I didn’t have friends like Mads and Caroline and I didn’t have a guy like you. All of the little routines that I love doing now … I wouldn’t be able to do them anymore. Coffee with Mads on Fridays, early dinners at the weekends with Caroline, all the time we spend together … it would all be up in the air.”
“So, what you’re saying is that hockey has changed your life?”
I laugh at that … because it’s true. It’s the incredible truth that I hadn’t thought about and now it’s slapping me in the face. “I guess it has. So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Tony nods and finishes chewing the mouthful of food he has. “You know those romance books you like reading by that Antionette chick?”
“Yes.” I have no idea where Tony is going with this and wait, thrumming with anticipation as he sips his wine and dabs at the corners of his mouth with his napkin.
“Antionette Hooking. You wanted to know what I write and why I keep it such a big secret … I’m Antionette Hooking.”
“Holy fucking shit.” I push my chair back from the table and stare at him. “Seriously? Well … um … love your work, keep it up!”
Keeping Tony’s secret was hard and easy at the same time. It was hard to keep his sister and Caroline in the dark and I felt awful that I knew something that he wouldn’t even share with Mads. But at the same time it felt special, that he’d told me something that he wouldn’t even tell others who’d been closer to him for longer. I knew it was something he’d never shared with anyone and that made it incredibly important to me. I’m not sure if the fact that I love his writing had a major impact on his decision to tell me but I hoped his feelings for me played a larger part. It was obvious to me that I was falling deeply in love with Tony and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for some symbol of commitment for Christmas. Not an engagement ring or anything – we’re a way off from that kind of thing, but maybe a spare key or something. I know I’d gotten a spare cut for him and I was just waiting on a new electronic fob for the entrance to the building to be sent through.
It arrived just in time – December 23rd, and relief flooded me. I’d been concerned that it wouldn’t be delivered until after Christmas and I’d need to run out at the last minute and buy him something else. After all we knew about each other, I would still have no idea whether to buy him a DVD or a video game or something else entirely. I’d even bought a nice, satin lined box to put it in. On Christmas Eve Caroline, Mads and I hopped with excitement about the Christmas Cup Derby. The cup was a simple construct on top of a tired wooden platform that had grown over the years that the derby took place. It wasn’t really about the cup, like most local derbies, it was just about winning and being the better team. It was tradition that the derby lasted most of the day, all of the fans got together just before noon and had soup and advocaat and warm crusty bread served from a table manned by Falcons and Marauders fans in the foyer of the arena.
We ate and drank together in the stands and followed that up with some Christmas carols before the kids were all invited on to the ice for a bit of a disco. At three o’clock the ice was cleared and the Zamboni came out to resurface the pad before the big game. All of the games before never had this kind of atmosphere to them, but there was one thing missing – Tony. I’d spotted most of the players and said hello to many of them, but Tony was nowhere to be seen.
“Mads, is Tony here?”
She frowned. “He should be, now you mention it I haven’t seen him.”
“I talked to him last night; he didn’t mention feeling sick or anything. When were you last in touch with him?”
“This morning, Mum phoned him up to wish him luck with the game. She said he sounded nervous about it, which is stupid – he’s been playing this derby for years as a Falcon and never gotten nervous before!” Mads eyes widened over my shoulder and I turn to find the coach of the Falcons followed by Miro, Brent and Simon heading straight for us. “I guess he hasn’t got in touch with them either.”
“We don’t know where he is.” I blurt out as soon as they’re close enough to hear. “This is a time to worry isn’t it?”
“We’ve been trying to reach him for two hours; his phone just goes straight to voice mail.” The coach ran his hands through his greying, greasy hair. “I’ll go and check up on him at home.”
“No, I’ll do it – you guys stay here and play the derby.” I offer.
“I’ll come with you.” Mads shrugs her jacket on and Caroline does the same.
“Yeah, me too. Something’s fishy about this.”
We rush out of the arena, attracting the gazes of quite a few people, when a familiar face catches my eye. It’s Stella, with flat hair, no make-up, jeans and a huge jumper on. As soon as I spot her she runs for it and I chase her down. I know that Mads and Caroline and wondering why I’ve taken off in a different direction but when I rugby tackle Stella to the ground they understand. She wrestles with me before giving up.
“I’ll have you for assault, bitch!”
“You know where Tony is, or you wouldn’t have run. I’m willing to bet that Kathy has something to do with why Tony isn’t here today.”
“What can I say?” Stella smirks. “I guess she must have really tired him out, that girls a wildcat in bed according to the other guys.”
I can feel the bile rising in my gut at the thought of Tony touching Kathy. “Where are they?”
Stella shrugs and pushes me off her. “Kathy just said I was to text her when I saw you lot leave.”
“You know she could have really hurt him? This isn’t a game, Stella. She tried to ruin my career and now she’s holding a man against his will – that’s kidnapping, Stella.”
All the bravado whooshed out of her and I saw her eyes well up. “She went to Tony’s place. I don’t know how she knows where he lives – as far as I know he always kept his distance from her. She must have followed him home or something.”
“Have you sent the text yet?” Stella shakes her head. “Don’t. If you have any humanity, don’t send that text.”
I sigh and run back to where Mads and Caroline are waiting and we pile into my car. While I drive, Mads calls the police to relay what we’ve found out. I can tell from the tone of her voice as she explains what’s happened that the call is exasperating the hell out of her. Admittedly, it does sound like quite a tall tale. Things like this don’t happen in Falwaite, they only happen in films and books. The Police tell Mads that they’ll check it out but she’s doubtful that they’ll bother. Tony lives on the other side of Falwaite from the arena and it takes us almost half an hour to get there. I slam the driver’s door closed and rush to the entrance to his block of flats then stop. We’ve got no way of getting into the building.
Mads pushes me aside and crams a key into the lock. “I was keeping these safe for him, you weren’t supposed to see them until after the game.”
“Well, I can’t think of a better reason to get my present early.”
I take the keys from her and we race to the first floor. I fumble, trying to get the key into Tony’s door, and we hear scuffling from inside the flat. There’s a muffled voice that sounds female but it’s hard to tell through the door. My hands are shaking with fear and rage and tears prick at my eyes until I finally manage to get the key in the slot and turn.