The sun shone brightly, the light breeze filtered through the flags – United States and California – out in center field, the hum of the crowd rose to a roar as the Southern California Sailors took the field. The public address announcer welcomed the fans and ran down the starting line-up, the home plate umpire beckoned to the Portland Traders' lead-off batter, and the pitcher, a hardened veteran at age twenty-nine, looked in for the sign. He nodded, briefly, then went into his wind-up and threw a fast ball that caught the outside of the plate for a called strike one as the crowd screamed frenziedly. The Sailors' 1987 season had officially begun.
Vendors moved up and down the steps and around the concourses. Ushers and usherettes led late-arriving ticket-holders to their seats, fans leapt to their feet and waved their arms frantically as the Sailors pushed two runs across in the second inning. The Traders fought back, though, with single runs in the fourth and seventh innings. A Sailors' rally in the eighth died when the Traders turned a nifty double play, but the Traders got a runner to third with one out in the top of the ninth.
Hank Brickman, the Sailors' manager, walked slowly to the mound and signaled for his closer, Lights Out Larrabie. The crowd sang along with Larrabie's theme tune as he jogged to the mound – “Another One Bites the Dust” – and the catcher patted his reliever's back with confidence. But the first pitch Lights Out threw was in the dirt and the runner scored on a wild pitch. The Traders led 3-2.
In the bottom of the ninth, the faithful crossed their fingers and went wild when their second baseman, Harry Griffin, led off with a ringing double off the left field wall. Promising rookie centerfielder, Perry Ames, walked slowly to the plate, tugging his cap and tightening his batting gloves. A swing and a miss put him in the hole, but two takes on outside curves made the count 2 and 1. Ames asked for time and stepped out, checked the sign from the third base coach and stepped back into the box.
In the stands, Ames' flashily blonde wife had been following the game desultorily to that point. The season ticket holders in front of her, yelling her husband's name distracted her from her exquisitely polished nails, though, and she was interested enough to shout, “Come on, sweetie. You can do it!”
The next pitch was a fast ball, close enough to the middle of the plate that Ames could get good wood on it. There was a split-second of silence, then cheers and screams of hope as the ball sailed toward the right field fence. The crowd stood, arms raised, then erupted in an explosion of sound as the ball cleared the wall and Ames trotted around the bases with the winning run.
The Sailors had won their opener and everybody was jubilant, ecstatic. Except for the people who'd turned to congratulate young Ames' wife. They stood in horror and disbelief as they saw the blood on her neck and noticed the end of the knitting needle jutting out from the tiny wound. Jennifer Ames stared at nothing as the crowd celebrated.
Cal Norton’s office was decorated with signed photos of players in uniform on every wall, autographed baseballs on every surface, even a home plate with the signature of a now-retired but still-respected umpire mounted and displayed prominently.
The Sailor’s irate owner paced in front of his enormous mahogany desk, waving his right hand as he walked. “So I talked to the Police Commissioner.” He looked at his guests, seated to the side of his desk. “He's an idiot, you know that?”
Milt Hardcastle nodded. “Yup. He is. But what did he say?”
“He said you were ‘an interfering nuisance who meddles in police affairs for your own self-aggrandizement.’” Norton paused, lifted his eyebrows, and shrugged. “I didn't think he knew big words like aggrandizement.”
McCormick, sitting at the judge's left hand, snickered quietly.
“Anyway,” Norton resumed pacing, “then I talked to Captain Carlton and got a whole different story from him. And I got a glowing reference from the owner of the Stars. You remember Chuck Foster?” On the judge's nod, he continued. “He raves about you and the way you two went about clearing up their 'little problem'. The police have done what they can, and I believe them when they tell me they're stymied. It's absurd, but no one saw anything! Everyone was watching the ball, and there are no witnesses, and not even a whole lot of clues! And motive?” He shrugged again. “You've talked to them about it, right?”
Hardcastle shifted a little in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Yeah, we heard you were asking about us and Lieutenant Harper --” he broke off and looked a question at the Sailors owner, who shook his head negatively. “Well, anyway, he called me up and said you were trying to find somebody who could look in on this for you. He'd heard you were dead set against private detectives for some reason, so you were checking up on us. That about right?”
Norton fingered the All-Star Game trophy replica on an end table, then dropped heavily into his chair behind the desk. “Yeah,” he said shortly. “Private detectives, no. I don't trust them. Maybe I'm wrong, but there it is. I had a bad experience with an unscrupulous P.I. once and once is enough for me. Don't get me wrong!” he hurried to add. “I'll pay whatever rate you think is fair; I'm not expecting you to do this for free!”
“Nah, nah.” The judge waved him to a stop. “I read about this when it happened and I was interested in it from the get-go. You can give me a coupla season tickets and we'll call it square. You got a real good team this year and if you go all the way, I want to be watching in person during the play-offs. 'Course, we can't guarantee anything. But as civilians, we can do some stuff that the cops can't. Like, maybe add a new player to your roster.”
McCormick sat up straight suddenly. “Hold on a minute there, Batman. Robin's got classes for another two months!”
“Yeah, I know. This is a part-time gig and I'll make it good with your professors if you need it.” Hardcastle looked at Norton. “You see that we get carte blanche with everybody, okay? Team, coaching staff, stadium employees, the whole shebang. And I'll provide –” he aimed a thumb at a disapproving McCormick, “your new back-up first baseman.”
Hardcastle and McCormick walked along a dark, concrete-walled corridor, following signs that said “Clubhouse”.
“Listen to me, Judge. These are professionals. Whatever ball I played in prison was making mud pies compared to what they do. This isn't going to work.” McCormick gave it all the earnestness he was capable of.
“Ah, come on. It's not like --” Hardcastle paused, examined a sign that said, Manager's Office in small type, then followed the arrow that pointed down a hallway to the left, “it's not like you're gonna be in the starting line-up. You'll be a fill-in. Do some late inning work at first base in a blow-out, pinch-run a coupla times. Even if you don't get into a game at all, that's okay. You just have to get to know what's going on in here, behind the scenes. Get the skinny on these guys. You know the deal.”
“Yeah, yeah. I've heard this before; remember back when you had me in as a cop from Jersey? Get in, get the dope, get out? That worked real well.”
The judge snorted at him and pointed to a door on the left just a few feet up. “We got the bad guys, didn't we? Now, lighten up and try to look like a ballplayer.”
In Brickman's office, they found Sam Roberts, the General Manager of the team as well.
“I've got a call in to the players' union,” said Roberts, “but I don't think this is going to fly. We can put one of our infielders on the D.L. but we can't just add this guy --” he nodded toward McCormick, “to the roster just by snapping our fingers, you know. Cal's a new managing partner, just took over this year when Sol Johnson retired, and he doesn't understand that we need to make room on the 40-man roster and that would mean releasing somebody to add your guy here. Maybe you could just work out with the team, kind of like a try-out?”
Hardcastle frowned at him. “You mean there's some kinda structure here that prevents you from making anybody a member of the team without letting another guy go?”
Roberts nodded his head. “Cal's a nice guy, and he has final say on all the transactions, but he's new. Just took control this year, so he doesn't know all the rules yet. Plus he's just plain sick about the murder on Opening Day. It just about broke his heart, I think. He's been a fan since he was a kid and owning the team is heaven for him.”
“I don't know about this.” Hank Brickman sat behind his desk “Even if we just have – McCormick, is it?”
“McCormick work out with the team, how's he gonna look? Can he play? At all?” Brickman shook his head morosely. “This is a nightmare.”
“Sure.” Hardcastle flapped a pishing hand at him. “We get your one of your coaches to throw him some meatballs in practice so he can park them over the wall, we run him through some infield drills, no problem. I'll teach him everything I know about the game.”
Mark stared at him in dismay. “That's what I'm afraid of! Judge, this is the big leagues, not some beer league with old guys running around dropping fly balls. I can't play at this level.”
“Hmm. Let me think for a minute.” Brickman opened his packet of Red Man, took out a clump of shredded tobacco and shoved it into his cheek. “Maybe we could say he's been playing in Europe, for the Italian team maybe. They're about single-A level, so nobody'd expect too much. We're giving him a look-see as a favor to Norton, who owes the Italian owner for something. If he can hit at all, he could sell it. I think. How fast are you, McCormick?”
“I can outrun most bad guys, but not real athletes. They don't have guns so there's not as much incentive.” Mark slumped back into his straight-backed wooden chair. “Look, I can play a little but not well enough to convince those guys --” he aimed a thumb in the general direction of the field, “that I'm for real.”
The manager gave him a noncommittal look. “Where did you play?”
“Let's just say that rumor had it one of the umpires was buried under the pitcher's mound.”
Brickman started to say something, then clearly decided to just leave it alone. “Okay, I'll get with my coaches and let them in on it. But you really don't want the players to know? Or the trainers or the clubhouse guy?”
“Nope,” said Hardcastle definitely. “I don't even like having your coaches in on this --”
“Or me either, huh?” interrupted the manager.
“Something like that.”
Brickman looked at him steadily. “I didn't do it. And I'll tell you what else. I don't think any of my team was involved. That's just my gut feeling, but I know the cops concentrated on us because of Jennifer's . . . reputation.”
The judge nodded at that. “Yeah. We'd gotten some of that from the cops, but could you fill us in some more? She slept around, huh?”
Both the manager and the G.M. nodded soberly.
“It was a problem in spring training, but we thought it'd be better when camp broke.” Roberts ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Fewer opportunities, if you get my drift.”
Brickman snorted. “That girl made her own opportunities. Most of the team wouldn't touch her, you know, a teammate's wife. But she was all over the broadcasters, the other team, even some of the fans. We would have had to do something about her sooner or later, but I was kind of hoping she'd settle down a little as the season went on.”
Roberts sighed. “Yeah, well, she's sure settled down now. How's Perry taking it?”
“Not good.” Brickman pushed his chair back from his desk. “He won't go on the restricted list, says he wants to stay with the team, but he can't play and it's a distraction. Maybe if somebody could find whoever did it, that would help.”
“Yeah, maybe.” The General Manager stood up and shook down his pants legs, then extended a hand to the judge and then to McCormick. “At this point, we'll take all the help we can get. Harry, set up some B.P. for McCormick, okay?”
The manager grunted. “We'll do what we can to make it look good, but . . .” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Hardcastle waved Roberts out the door, then turned to reassure Brickman. “It'll be fine. Some fat pitches, right down the middle, and McCormick'll put 'em in the parking lot.” He turned to his sidekick and smacked him on the shoulder. “Don't sweat it, kiddo. These guys put their pants on in the morning the same way you do.”
Mark looked at him, eyes squinting. “Don't give me that, 'cause they don't. First, they put on jock straps.”