Bob Fiske — the 74-year-old dinosaur who’s taught Honors English and coached varsity football for five decades — is missing.
To his Winners, class favorites Fiske designated over the years for their potential to “Live Big,” it’s heartbreaking. Fiske did more than inspire with soaring oratory; he supported their ambitions into adulthood. Four of his brightest former stars reunite to find him, putting high-octane careers on hold, slipping police barricades, racing into the wilds of Northern Michigan for clues about the fate of their legendary mentor.
Others don’t see a legend. They see an elitist whose time has passed.
When a current student — female — disappears just hours into the Winners’ search amid rumors of inappropriate meetings, the Great Man’s reputation is a shambles.
Feints, betrayal, explosive secrets from their own pasts: as facts emerge, each Winner must decide how far they’ll go for Fiske. Can the truth redeem him? Or has this cult of hyper-achievement spawned a thing so vile none of their lives will survive intact?
Bob Fiske stalked out onto a glass-bottomed observation box of the Sears Tower, appearing to join the sky. His hair, wild and white, whorled with the passing clouds. His strides were at once rickety—owing to seventy-four-year-old joints—and resolute, each footfall seeming to make gravity, to seize its own plane of air.
He planted the portable lectern before his students with a leathered fist. “Poetry is the evidence of life. If your life is burning brightly, poetry is just the ash.”
The entire honors English class, and more than one passing tourist, considered this in reverential silence. The students’ faces glowed with a mishmash of excitements. They were out of school on a field trip! They had to recite a poem by heart; would they remember?
Being here with Fiske—Coach Fiske, Fiske the Great, Fiske the Feared—made them feel the way all high-school seniors should at least once during this final, never-to-be-forgotten year: special. Sure that every important thing in life was happening right here, right now, to them uniquely.
Marna Jacobs (left side, midway back) felt all this too, but more pressing was the weight of dual backpacks on her shoulders. What had Jesse put in this thing, lead? She shifted to resettle the load more comfortably over her five-one frame.
A voice behind her said, “Ooh, Marna, carrying your boyfriend’s bag for him? How old-fashioned. Part of the new vintage motif?”
It was Caitlyn of the perfect cheekbones and 4.5 GPA, a surefire Winner when Fiske’s list came out.
“Jesse’s not my boyfriend.” Marna crossed her ankles, suddenly less psyched about her thrift-store oxfords.
“Didn’t you two go to homecoming together?”
“We, um, broke up.”
“And you’ve accepted the demotion to pack mule?” Caitlyn said with a grin of ice.
Marna and Jesse were outsiders here, AP English being their only honors class. While the others elbowed for brownie points, Marna tried to fly under the radar—a strategy that had worked until last month when Mr. Fiske had praised her Brave New World essay as “refreshing, primitively honest.” Now Caitlyn ridiculed her at every turn.
Still, the question was legit. Marna had been standing around waiting to board one of the tower’s shockingly fast elevators when Jesse nudged her, asking if she’d leave his backpack on the glass bottom for him. Without waiting for an answer, he’d heaved the pack onto her shoulder. When she’d complained it was heavy, he had said all she had to do was leave it on the glass—then he slipped away as every ligament in Marna’s neck and upper back croaked under the burden.
“We’re friends,” Marna said now. “Friends do each other favors.”
Caitlyn sneered around the observation deck. The first student was approaching the podium, stealing a last peek at her crinkled notes. “What’s inside, a bomb? You two always were quiet. Maybe too quiet.”
Marna squirmed underneath the pack. It couldn’t be a bomb. Right? Everyone had gone through security. Jesse’s pack had been X-rayed.
She thought. Was pretty sure.
“Marna brought a bomb?” Todd Bruckmueller said, overhearing.
Caitlyn opened her shoulders to a larger audience. “Maybe.”
“This is really mean, you guys, I—”
Todd, right tackle for the football team, reached for the pack. Marna hunched like a threatened armadillo but couldn’t keep Todd from dislodging one arm. They struggled. Marna dug an elbow into the oaf’s ribs. He lost his grip, and the pack crashed to the glass floor.
Driven less by loyalty to Jesse than rage, Marna grabbed one strap. Todd grabbed the other. Security personnel moved dimly in the periphery.
The word boomed forth, sucking all air from the fight. Marna first thought Todd had said it—so loud, his meat-pie face right here—before spotting the pair of Illinois State 6A Championship rings against his neck. The rings belonged to Fiske. The septuagenarian had his 230-pound lineman in a half nelson.
“Poor form, Mr. Bruckmueller.” Fiske unhanded Todd, then turned to Marna with a wink. “I cordially invite you to Wildkit Stadium this afternoon, four o’clock sharp, to witness your tormentor ascending and descending the east stairs in rapid succession. Two hundred flights or heatstroke, whichever comes first.”
Before Marna could respond—was she supposed to respond? could Fiske get busted for laying hands on a student like that?—a metallic clunk sounded nearby. Jesse’s pack began sliding in the direction of the noise.
“Hey, what—what’s happening?” Todd said, scurrying back.
Marna instinctively raised her hands. Three guards were beelining her way, fingers pressed to earpieces. Students and tourists alike scattered. The backpack moved seven inches across the glass floor before locking into place with a small, intense shimmy.
Directly below, on the underside of the glass and suspended 103 stories above Wacker Drive, a hook protruded from a squat black cylinder.
That’s why the backpack was so heavy. There’s a gigantic magnet inside.
The hook was closed, and now a hand—a hand?—emerged from the void to clip what looked like a fat red ribbon onto it. The backpack’s fabric strained about the glass in a circle, the magnet inside perfectly mirroring the magnet below.
Marna squinted to make sure this wasn’t allergies messing with her eyes. Also, the day was overcast; up here, they were literally in the clouds.
“Oh. My. God.”
Suspended upside down, staring at her with that wobbly grin. The diamond-check soles of his shoes visible through the glass, he held on by a short length of the ribbon—which Marna saw was a bungee cord. The rest of the cord dangled far below, lilting now back against the skyscraper, now out over the Chicago River, twisting and kinking, rippling, the greatest part shrouded in fog.
Marna staggered into a row with the security guards. How did he get up there? Are those magnets seriously gonna hold? Will the guards shoot him, or Tase him? Can you Tase through glass?
The guards barked into walkie-talkies. When one stepped toward the pack, Jesse felt for something behind his waist and gave the bungee two sharp tugs.
“No!” Marna screamed. “You stupid jerk, no! Whatever you’re thinking!”
But she recognized the sequence he was rushing through: the harness buckling, the strap cinching, his rawboned fingers jittery but unhesitating. Technical rock climbing was Jesse’s thing—he actually taught yuppies at a downtown bouldering gym. He could do it in his sleep.
Marna flattened her whole body to the glass floor, fingers splayed, nose squished. “Why? What is the point, J? Stop!”
Into the misty chasm, her words were weak and scrabbling and basically nothing.
Jesse glanced past her. As his wild pupils settled on Fiske, his face took on a dreamy, near-euphoric blush.
The venerable teacher stood with arms folded. Impassive. Like Marna, Jesse had been encouraged by Fiske—had won kudos for his “exuberant prose style,” even been assigned an extracurricular joint project with one of Fiske’s pet students. In recent weeks, Jesse had even talked about making Winner.
“Respect your life!” Fiske called down. “Cherish it. Be the keeper of its sanctity.”
He knelt beside Marna and, placing both hands on the glass, glared down. She had a fleeting notion that the Great Man could grab Jesse, that those gnarled fingers were capable of parting glass—or transmuting through, or willing matter around, something—and rescuing him.
The blush heightened in Jesse’s face. His eyes pulsed. The sinews of his neck became taut and grotesque.
He plunged. Leading with his forehead, Adam’s apple slicing the clouds. He was a falling, twisting, shrinking blur.
Smaller, smaller…very small.
Marna had almost lost the dot when an enormous white tarp exploded upward through the fog. A block-print message snapped into view across its expanse:
Excerpt from The Winner Maker by Jeff Bond. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Bond. Reproduced with permission from Jeff Bond. All rights reserved.
Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers association.