Showing posts with label joseph walker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label joseph walker. Show all posts

Monday, July 5, 2021

Give or Take A Quarter Inch, fiction by Joseph Walker

            Ryan Vargas had been home for ten minutes when his phone buzzed with an incoming text.    Tina, no doubt, with an explanation of why she wasn’t there.    When a man gets home after three weeks on the road, he has a right to assume his wife will welcome him.    It’s nice to feel you’ve been missed.    Ryan took a deliberately long swig from the soda he’d opened before picking up the phone to see what her excuse was.

            The message was from Tina’s number, but it wasn’t text.    It was a picture of Ryan’s wife in a chair.    There was a strip of wide silver tape across her mouth and more wound around her arms and legs, holding her firmly in place.    Her hair was unkempt, and her wide eyes had a pleading expression as she stared into the camera.   

            Ryan put his drink down.    He was very aware of the sound of his pulse in his ears.    He brought his hand up to the phone, but new messages began scrolling up the screen before he could begin typing.

            3CY3YOUNG3.    WE’RE WATCHING YOU.

            3CY3YOUNG3” was the password for the security system installed just last year.    With the password and Tina’s cell phone, whoever this was had access to every camera in the house.    Ryan forced himself not to look at the one mounted over the fridge that covered the entire kitchen.

            TWENTY MINUTES.    GLEN OAK PARK.    LOWER DIAMOND.

            COME ALONE.    CALL NOBODY.

            Glen Oak Park was just a few blocks away.    Ryan had donated the funds for its professional-grade baseball fields, where he played host to Little League tournaments played under banners with his name.    He had money, plenty of money.    He could pay a ransom.    But the message didn’t say anything about a ransom, and twenty minutes wasn’t enough time to gather any cash.    He stared at the screen, uncertain, and after a few seconds, a new text appeared.

            YOU’RE NOT MOVING, RYAN.

            He moved.

#

            There were four baseball fields in different parts of the sprawling Glen Oak Park, all, thanks to Ryan, fully equipped with ample bleachers, real dugouts, and banks of lighting for night games.    At the bottom of the long, wooded slope on the park’s north end, the lower diamond was the most remote from the park entrance.    There’d be a game there almost any weekend day and many nights during the week, but now, on a crisp Tuesday morning a month into the new school year, only one other car was in the parking lot.    It was a dark blue Honda sedan, the rear end starting to go to rust.    Ryan got out of his SUV and started toward the field.    As he passed the sedan, he used his phone to snap a picture of the license plate.

            A row of tall pines divided the parking lot from the field.    He followed a paved path through the trees and came out behind the bleachers on the first-base side.    A man sat on the edge of the dugout roof across the field, swinging a bat idly back and forth in front of his legs as though practicing golf swings.    He was wearing track pants and a sleeveless black t-shirt, with a red baseball cap pushed far back on his head and a disheveled beard.    His arms were thick with muscle and densely covered with tattoos, a web of symbols and words Ryan found incomprehensible.    The man watched him coming across the diamond, his expression blank, the bat a metronome in front of him.

            Ryan stopped ten feet away.    “Where’s my wife?”

            She’s safe,” the man said.    Up close he looked a little older than Ryan had thought at first.    Close to his own age.    He held up a cell phone.    “She’s with a buddy of mine.    As long he gets the calls he’s expecting from me, and I say the things he’s expecting me to say, she’ll be fine.”

            I want to talk to her,” Ryan said.

            You know what they say about folks in hell and ice water.    What you want isn’t part of the game right now.”    The man’s voice was deep, with just a trace of some kind of accent.    Something southern, maybe, but barely there.

            Ryan crossed his arms.    Absurdly he wished he had a prop, like the bat the man was swinging.    Something to do with his hands.    “Then let’s talk about what you want.    How much?”

            We’ll get to what I want,” the man said.    He tilted his head back, inviting scrutiny of his face.    “You remember me?”

            Surprised, Ryan looked more closely.    “No.    Should I?”

            I’ll give you a hint.    My name’s Mickey Loch.”

            Ryan’s mouth went dry.    He’d never been through a kidnapping before, but he was dead sure kidnappers didn’t generally go around announcing their identity.    “Why would you tell me that?”

            Thought it might spark something.    I’d be surprised if you did remember, though.    It was nineteen years ago.    1997.    Your second Cy Young year.”

            That’s ancient history.    What does this have to do with my wife?”

            I told you we’ll get to it.”    Loch pointed into the dugout with the bat.    “You want to sit down?”

            No,” Ryan snapped.    “I want you to tell me whatever the hell it is you brought me here to tell me.”

            Man’s in a hurry, I guess,” Loch said.    “Okay, we’ll start the Wayback Machine.    It was about this time of year, a game in Oakland that didn’t mean a damn thing.    You boys had already locked up your division, and Oakland was just trying to avoid losing a hundred games.”    Loch hopped down from his perch, put the bat on his shoulder, and swiveled into a batting stance.    “Maybe you remember me better like this.”

            Ryan frowned.    “I don’t remember a Loch on the A’s.”

            I was only with them for one game,” Loch said.    “That game.    Phil Jacobs was on bereavement leave and Hector Ruiz was nursing a sprained thumb.    They just needed somebody who could stand in left field and look semiprofessional.”

            And I suppose I was pitching.”

            You were.    I don’t know why.    You should have been resting up for the playoffs.”

            I was trying to get to twenty-five wins.    I had a bonus clause.”    He hadn’t made it, but there was a big bonus for the Cy Young, plus playoff pay.    1997 was a good year.    A bought-my-parents-a-house year.

            Loch grunted.    “Shoulda guessed.    Anyway.    I came up to bat three times that day.    Three at bats, three strikeouts, nine pitches total.    My career in the majors.”

            Am I supposed to apologize?”

            Loch kept going as though Ryan hadn’t spoken.    “Next day, I was on my way back to Triple-A.    And the day after that, I was out on a run and landed in a pothole wrong.    Broke my left leg in three places, shredded my ACL.    X-ray looked like a damn jigsaw puzzle.”

            Tough break.    Are we getting to where my wife is anytime soon?”

            Faster than Ryan would have thought possible, Loch darted forward, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and shoved backward, at the same time sweeping his leg sideways to cut Ryan’s feet out from under him.    Ryan’s back slammed into the ground.    Before he could move, Loch was standing over him, holding the fat end of the bat forcefully against his throat.

            I been waiting to tell you this story for nineteen years,” Loch said.    “You mind shutting up for a minute and letting me do it?”

            Unable to catch his breath, Ryan nodded.    Loch stepped back, lifting the bat.    Ryan, wheezing, rolled to his side and managed to sit up.    He didn’t try to stand.

            Team cut me, of course,” Loch said when Ryan was breathing more easily.    “First, though, they sent me to a doc who gave me pain meds.    They were handing that shit out like candy back then.    Cut forward six months and I’m unemployed, still limping, and hooked.    Couldn’t pay my dealer, so he told me I could work it off making some deliveries.”    Loch got into a batting stance again and took a couple of casual half-speed swings, staring out over the field.    “I fell in with disreputable characters, is how my lawyer said it.    Word of advice, Mr. Vargas.    If you ever commit a felony, don’t do it in Arizona.    The guards are mean as snakes, and they don’t believe wasting AC on criminals.”

            I’ll keep that in mind,” Ryan said.    It took him two breaths to say it.

            Now, Oregon, they got some nice jails,” Loch said.    “But I guess I’m digressing.”    He crouched down to look Ryan in the eye.    “Bottom line is, I want my fourth at bat.”

            Ryan looked from Loch to the pitcher’s mound.    “Here?    Now?    You’re kidding.”

            You saw the picture I sent,” Loch said.    “Seem like I’m kidding?”

            You kidnapped my wife so I’d, what?    Lob one over the plate so you can say you went yard against a Hall of Famer?    You’re insane.”

            Maybe.    But I don’t want any damn lob.    I want you to try to get me out.”    Loch straightened and walked toward the dugout.    “Doesn’t mean anything if you’re not trying.”

            It doesn’t mean anything either way,” Ryan said.    “For the love of God, man, I’m forty-five years old.    I haven’t thrown a pitch in ten years.”

            That ain’t exactly true.”    Loch stepped down into the dugout.    He bent over and came up with a duffel bag and tossed it up onto the grass.    “I was at that old-timers’ game in Cooperstown back in July.    You threw two scoreless innings, and you can still break 90 when you put your mind to it.”

            Come on.    That was against a bunch of other relics.”

            Think I look like a spring chicken?”    Loch bent again for a three-gallon bucket filled with baseballs.    “So we’ve both lost a few steps.    Just makes it a fair contest.    I was in Indianapolis a couple of nights ago, too, where you did that appearance at a minor league game.    Watched you working with the pitchers.    I’d say you’ve still got something.”

            I’m a scout,” Ryan said.    “That’s what they pay me to do now.    Just how long have you been following me around?”

            Long enough,” Loch said.    He came up out of the dugout with the bucket.    “On your feet, Vargas.    One at bat.    A real one.    After that, I make a phone call, and this is all over.”

            Ryan pushed himself to his feet.    “I’m not really dressed for this.”

            Loch nudged the duffel bag with his toe.    “Tina picked out a few things from your closet.”

            Ryan felt the anger he’d been holding down surge.    “Don’t say her name.”

            Whatever, chief.”    Loch bent over and unzipped the duffel.    He pulled out a batting helmet and put it on, tossing aside his cap.    “Get yourself ready.    I’ll wait out at the mound.”    He picked up the bucket and carried it out onto the field, along with the bat he’d been holding since Ryan arrived.

            Ryan knelt by the duffel bag.    He recognized it now, a relic from his playing days.    It had been sitting on a shelf in his closet for years, untouched.    Inside he found cleats and a cap, and some of his workout clothes.    His second-best glove was in the bottom of the bag.    His best glove was in a glass case in Cooperstown.    He pushed his left hand into the glove.

            There was a gun inside.

            The tiny .22 Tina bought last year, at the same time the security system was installed, after she saw a strange man lurking around the yard and got nervous about Ryan’s weeks-long scouting trips.    It occurred to Ryan to wonder if the strange man had been Loch.    Had he been planning this for more than a year?

            Ryan felt the cool metal of the small gun with the tips of his fingers, imagining the scene.    Loch getting into the house somehow, forcing Tina with a gun or a knife to get this bag together, telling her it was stuff Ryan would be using.    Tina somehow finding a way to slip the gun in.

            But what could he do with it?    Loch had said his buddy was expecting phone calls at specific times.    If Ryan shot him and he couldn’t call, what would happen to Tina?    Even if he just held Loch at gunpoint while he called, what code word would or wouldn’t be said?

            Let’s go, Vargas,” Loch yelled.    “Sooner this is over, sooner everybody gets to go home.”

            Coming,” Ryan said.    He tipped the glove so that the gun fell into the bottom of the bag.    As quickly as he could, he changed his shoes and traded his jeans and button-down shirt for a loose pair of shorts and a t-shirt.    He shoved the clothes he had been wearing into the bag on top of the gun.    Pulling a cap on, he picked up the bag and walked onto the field.

            Loch was standing just to the third-base side of the mound.    The bucket was between his feet, and the bat rested in the grass.    He was tossing a rosin bag from hand to hand.    As Ryan got close, he lobbed it to him.    Ryan dropped the duffel in the grass and caught it.

            Forty warm-up pitches sound fair?” Loch asked.

            It’s your carnival,” Ryan said.    “You tell me.”

            I want this real,” Loch said.    “No excuses.    I don’t want you thinking later that your arm was stiff, and I don’t want you hanging one over the plate in slo-mo.    I want the best you can give me.”

            Fine,” Ryan said.    “Forty’s fine.”

            Loch nodded.    “Go to it,” he said.    “I’ll feed you.”

            Ryan climbed the mound.    He kicked at the rubber, stretched his arms over his head, and bounced the rosin bag in his hand before dropping it to the back of the mound.    “You bat left or right?”

            Right,” Loch said.

            Ryan nodded.    Loch reached into the bucket and underhanded a ball to him.

            Ryan toed the rubber and fell automatically into the stance he’d learned from his father four decades ago and had refined by the best pitching coaches in the world.    Time slowed down.    He felt as he always did with the ball in his hand, at home.   

            He lifted his left leg, still able to bring the knee nearly to his chest, and swung it down as his arm came whipping around at three-quarter speed.    The ball split the plate in two but was chin level as it crossed.

            High and slow,” Loch said.    “You can do better than that.”

            Gotta wake the arm up,” Ryan said.    He held up the glove.    “Gimme another.    This would be a lot easier with a catcher.”

            I’ll try to arrange more accomplices next time.”    Loch lobbed the next ball.

            Twelve pitches in, Ryan could feel the blood stirring, the muscles growing loose and warm.    Twenty pitches in, he started to work on location.    For the twenty-fifth, he kicked into gear, unleashing a full-speed fastball that tore right down the pipe and, hitting the chain-link barrier between the plate and the stands, wedged itself into one of the squares and stuck there instead of bouncing back toward the infield.

            Loch whistled.    “That broke 90, sure,” he said.

            Gimme another,” Ryan said.

            Loch tossed it.    “Lemme ask you something, Vargas,” he said.    “You ever watch the Hartman at bat?”

            I’ve seen it a few times,” Ryan said.    It was the first clip they showed at his Hall of Fame ceremony, the clip they would show on SportsCenter when he died.    Game seven, bottom of the ninth, two-out, bases jammed and his team, the Tigers, clinging to a one-run lead.    Sal Rodgers brought Ryan out of the bullpen on two days rest to face Jace Hartman, who’d won the Triple Crown that year.    It was the only relief appearance Ryan made in his entire career.    His shoulder was on fire before he threw the first pitch, and fifty thousand rabid Pirates fans were howling for his blood.    It took eleven pitches, but he struck Hartman out.

            Thinking about it now, he threw the cutter Hartman had missed for strike three and held out his glove for another.

            Loch tossed it.    “That second pitch,” he said.    “The one Hartman fouled straight back.    You remember?”

            Ryan grunted.    He remembered.    The crack cutting right through the crowd noise, the momentary sense of an abyss of despair before he realized where the ball was heading.   

            He stepped off the rubber and stretched his arms, feeling the fine sheen of sweat he’d built up.

            I figure he missed that one by about a quarter inch,” Loch said.    “Bat’s a quarter inch higher, that’s maybe a grand slam.    No parade in Detroit, no third Cy Young.    One-fourth of one inch.    You ever think about that?”

            No,” Ryan lied.    He got back on the mound and threw.    The ball skipped off the dirt two feet in front of the plate.

            Yeah,” Loch said.    “I guess not.”

            Ryan held out his glove.    “Gimme another.    Shouldn’t you be warming up?”

            Spent most of the morning at a batting cage,” Loch said.    He tossed the ball.    “Two more pitches, and it’s go time, chief.”

            Ryan turned his back to the plate and looked out across the field, rubbing the ball between his palms.    The fence seemed a lot further off in the old days.    He turned back toward the plate and uncorked a beauty of a slider.

            One more pitch—a fastball he deliberately put high and inside—and Loch nodded.    “Okay,” he said.    “Batter up.    Just remember, Vargas.    You’re not going to like what happens if I think you’re teeing it up for me.”    He picked up the bat and walked toward the plate.    “And if you’re thinking about beaning me, remember I’m due to make a call soon.”   

            For the first time, watching Loch walk away, Ryan noticed the minuscule catch in his stride, the whisper of a limp favoring his left leg.    The ghost of one bad step, one moment of looking the wrong way.    Off by a quarter inch, maybe.

            He shook his head.    He wasn’t here to feel sorry for the man.

            Loch got to the plate.    He kicked aside the balls that had rebounded into the box, turned his shoulder toward Ryan, and screwed his back foot into the dirt.    His stance was compact.    Coiled.    Ryan felt a distant tickle of memory.    Maybe he did remember Mickey Loch.

            He peered over the top of the glove for a second, picturing Vic Kelly, his longtime catcher, holding out a target.    He dropped his hands to his waist, spun into his delivery, and gave Loch the best fastball he’d thrown in years, sizzling in just over the inside corner. Loch tensed as it came, lifted his left foot a fraction of an inch, but couldn’t pull the trigger.

            Strike one,” Ryan said.    Loch stepped out of the box, looked like he was going to argue for a second, then nodded.    Ryan got two more balls from the bucket, dropping one just behind the mound.    He felt good.    Loose.    The way he had always felt on the good days.    The ball was itching in his hand, begging to be thrown.

            Ryan had always been a fast worker.    Keeps the batter off balance.    The Vic Kelly in Ryan’s mind shifted slightly to the outside, dropped two fingers between his thighs.    Ryan nodded to nobody, went into his windup, and produced a curveball that broke three laws of physics on its way to the backstop.    This time Loch swung, but he didn’t come within a foot of the ball.    He stepped back from the plate, cursing.

            Ryan didn’t say strike two out loud.    He turned and picked up the third ball, and rubbed it up and got set.    If Loch had said anything about Tina at this moment, it would have taken Ryan a beat to remember what he was talking about.    He was entirely absorbed in the feeling he’d had all those thousands of times, the feeling he’d almost forgotten, the sense that he was ten feet tall and bulletproof.    He was gonna strike his man out.

            The phantom Kelly held down a single finger.    Back to the heat.    Ryan nodded again, dropped his hands, and sent the ball screaming in.

            He didn’t see Loch swing.    He didn’t have to.    The sound was enough, the solid, sharp concussion of wood meeting leather.    Ryan let the momentum of his delivery carry him around to face the outfield, already knowing what he would see: the ball hurtling toward the wall in center-right, a solid line drive, fast and straight.    The apparition outfielders weren’t even trying to catch it, just head it off.    The ball bounced once, hit the wall halfway up, and spun back onto the grass.

            In the silence, he heard Loch’s footsteps clearly.    The man came and stood beside him, and they looked out together at where the ball had landed.

            Double?” Loch said.

            Probably,” Ryan said.    He didn’t look at Loch.    “I don’t know how fast you were before you caught that pothole.”

            Fast enough,” Loch said.    He took off the batting helmet and dropped it and the bat in the grass.    He walked over to where he had tossed his hat,    picked it up, put it back on, and walked back to the mound.    Ryan was still staring out at the wall, his hands on his hips.

            Loch pulled a keycard from his pocket and held it out.    “Residence Inn,” he said.    “Room 327.”

            Ryan finally broke his gaze from the wall.    He looked at Loch and slowly took the card.    “327,” he said.    “What about your buddy waiting with her?”

            Isn’t one,” Loch said.    “Oddly enough, I don’t actually know anybody willing to commit a felony, so I could get my lifetime average to .250.”

            But she’s all right?”

            I imagine she’s pissed,” Loch said.    “Scared.    But yeah, otherwise fine.”    He crossed his arms.    “For what it’s worth, Vargas, I didn’t say anything to her about the woman in Indianapolis.    The one who shared your taste in bourbon.”

            Ryan clenched his jaw.    “You want me to thank you?    Or, what, not call the cops?”

            Loch shrugged.    “Doesn’t matter.    I’m already wanted in five states.    Car I came in was stolen this morning.    An hour from now, I’ll be in a different one and across a state line.”

            So that’s it,” Ryan said.    “This really is all you wanted.”

            It’s all I’ve wanted for nineteen years,” Loch said.    “Guess I’ll find something different to want now.”    He turned to face Ryan fully.    “I don’t suppose you’d shake my hand.”

            No.”

            All right.    Goodbye, Vargas.”    He turned away.    Instead of heading straight for the parking lot, he trudged out to center field, where he picked up the ball he had hit and stuck it in his pocket.    Ryan watched him every step of the way.    He might have been imagining it, but Loch’s limp seemed a little more pronounced as he turned toward the right-field line and eventually disappeared through the pines.


Joseph S. Walker teaches college literature in Indiana.  His short fiction has appeared in AlfredHitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly,  and a number of other magazines andanthologies.  He has been nominated forthe Edgar Award and the Derringer Award, and has won the Bill Crider Prize forShort Fiction and the Al Blanchard Award. Follow him on Twitter @JSWalkerAuthor and visit his website athttps://jsw47408.wixsite.com/website.