“Whatever you do, whatever I call for, throw him cookies, okay? We want this guy to look good.” The pitcher nodded at Brickman, then gathered up four baseballs in his left hand and loosened up his right shoulder.
Brickman took his place behind the batting cage and nodded at Mark to take a few warm-up swings. “Okay,” he called when Mark stepped up to the plate, “try a couple of fastballs.”
The pitcher, whose uniform bore the number 6 and the name Sternfield, threw a lazy fastball right down the heart of the plate. Mark managed to foul it off to the right.
“That's the boy,” Brickman called encouragement. “Get zoned in on the heater now.”
Two more pitches were fouled off, then McCormick connected solidly with the next pitch and sent it to medium deep left field.
“That's fine. Now try a couple of sliders.” Brickman tilted his cap further back on his head as Mark swung as hard as he could and a liner hit the wall in left center.
Six pitches later and Mark had three more hits, one high off the center field wall. He was sweating and breathing heavily by now.
Brickman glanced around the field, noticing that no one was taking much notice and decided the show was enough for now. “Okay, it's late and the game's in three hours. We'll try some infield drills tomorrow. Go shower up.”
McCormick trudged around to the back of the batting cage to join the manager. “Boy, that's tougher than it looks.”
Brickman looked at him disgustedly. “If it was easy, anybody could do it. You try hitting one of those coming at you at 95 miles an hour instead of 50. Go on in and hit the showers. The clubhouse guy will have a uni for you. Just hang out and do whatever you do. But don't – and I mean this – don't talk to tonight's starting pitcher, McGreevy. He'll tear your head off if you say a word to him.”
On his way into the dugout, the opening day pitcher, Mike Haines, called out, “Hey, McCormick, Harry said to fill you in.” A husky, fair-haired guy, Haines put out a hand, callused in all the right places, and explained. “I'm the player rep.”
The two men shook and Haines went on. “Grady, the clubbie, has a uni for you and your locker's next to mine.” He put an arm around Mark's shoulder and led him into the dugout. Haines checked for anyone near enough to overhear, then said sotto voce, “We have to talk.”
She wore a neat little uniform in the team colors of ocean blue and California sun gold. It should have looked garish, but somehow the blue vest and trousers that matched up with the bright yellow shirt and gloves were worn with such dignity that the colors didn't matter. Her hair was carefully arranged, and she was a little shy but willing to help in any way.
“I really appreciate this, Mrs. Bunning.” Hardcastle leaned back in his straight-backed chair and regarded her with interest. “You've been with the team for more than twenty years, I hear.”
She smiled at him. “Oh, yes. I started as a temporary usherette, way back in the 60s but the Sailors sort of became our family. We're very lucky, you know. So many of the fans have become friends and the players themselves . . . well, I've become very fond of 'my boys'.”
The judge nodded at her, and waved a hand encouragingly. “As much as you can tell me, I need all the background I can get.”
“Well, my husband and I always go down to spring training and we got to know poor Perry very well. And Jennifer, too, of course.” She frowned just a tiny bit. “I'm afraid she was a bit wild. Poor Perry,” she repeated.
Hardcastle nodded again. “You were there this spring? You knew both of them?”
“Oh, yes.” She looked down at her clasped hands briefly. “Perry met her and married her over the winter, you know. I can't think he knew her that well.” A pause, then Mrs. Bunning gathered herself and lifted her chin. “You want the truth, don't you? Well, there was that one night in the hotel. Perry was down at the stadium, working on his swing with the hitting coach, and Jennifer was running up and down the halls – banging on doors – yelling, 'Who wants to party?' Not the kind of behavior you expect,” she said primly. 'The Bible tells us to be charitable, but when it comes to skinny-dipping in the hotel pool – well! I got up one night, you know how it is,” she blushed faintly, “and looked out of my window and there she was! All kinds of drinking going on, and such behavior . . . well, eventually she was going to ruin poor Perry's life carrying on like that! And he's such a nice, polite, sincere young man.”
The judge shrugged. “I guess he knew about it, didn't he? I mean, it wasn't like it was a secret, was it?”
Mrs. Bunning shook her head, sadly. “Oh, he knew. Everyone did. But he thought it was just high spirits, forgave her everything, you know.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I think of these boys as my family. I always get here early for batting and fielding practice. And we do hear things, you know, even in the stands. I always watch BP from the seat right at the end of the dugout and you can hear the boys talking about . . . things.”
“Things like . . .” Hardcastle trailed off raising his eyebrows interrogatively.
“Well, things like what wives are cheating on which players, and, of course, which players are cheating on their wives.” She stopped abruptly, then extended a hand and said urgently, “Not that any of my boys are cheating on their wives. I meant, the other teams, you understand.”
Hardcastle shrugged then nodded. “Oh, yeah, sure. That's understood.” He scratched his chin idly, then asked, “Do you knit?”
She looked confused for a split second, then shook her head. “No, but I know why you asked that,” she responded quietly. “That's my section; I take care of all the players' families and I was one of the first to see her. The police told us later that the needle had been sharpened.” She shuddered. “It's such a tragedy – for poor Perry and for the team. On Opening Day!”
“We're just checking in before heading out. The Babe here is tired.” Hardcastle jerked a thumb over his shoulder and grinned at the manager, who was clearly feeling harassed and listening with scant courtesy. “But we'll be back later, after we've talked to Lieutenant Harper.”
“Fine, fine. Look, we've got a game coming up in less than an hour. Do you mind . . .?” He made vague shooing motions and beckoned to the pitching coach hovering outside the door to his office.
The twosome obliged by leaving and started down the concrete hallway, ambling in the direction of the parking lot.
“Hey, listen.” The two passed mobs of people buying tickets and thronging into the ballpark. McCormick dodged a family of four wearing Sailors gear and waving foam fingers. “You think this is easy?”
The judge looked at him askance.
“Well, it isn't. It's a lot harder than you think it is, Judge.” Mark subsided briefly, then said, “The other team's agreed to let me sit on the bench, but not during the game. There's lots more rules and stuff than I thought there'd be. One of the coaches explained some of it and it's more complicated than I imagined it would be.”
Even on the outskirts of the parking lot, the cheer when the opening lineups were announced was loud and sustained.
“I kinda thought they might postpone a game or two,” mused the older man. “No sentiment these days, I guess.”
McCormick shook his head. “It's all done by the league and they said the teams had to play tonight. Maybe if it had been a player that was murdered, they'd have taken a day off. But it's all money-related. You make more off two separate games played than off a double-header to make up a game that was rained out.”
Hardcastle snorted. “You learn anything else out there, besides all the rules and regulations?”
“Just that Jennifer Ames wasn't real popular. I mean,” he corrected himself, “with the other wives. And she was the wrong kind of popular with everybody else, if you get my drift.”
“Hmm. Seems to me that would cause some hard feelings on a ballclub. You hear anything about problems between the players?”
“Not a peep. Everybody likes the guy Ames and feels real bad for him.” As they approached the Coyote, McCormick looked back at the brightly-lit stadium. “Frank better talk fast, 'cause I gotta date after the game.”
“A date?” Hardcastle swung himself into the car. “What kind of date?”
Frank Harper ran a hand over his balding dome. “There were no prints we could find and no record of sale of the knitting needle. No motive except for the rumors about Jennifer Ames being promiscuous. And everyone on the ballclub knew that, even the husband himself apparently.” He heaved a heartfelt sigh. “Usually the husband's the last to know.”
“So the M.E. says the knitting needle pierced the carotid and she bled to death internally.” The judge cocked an eyebrow at the lieutenant across the desk from him. “That's a new one on me.”
“Me, too.” Harper pushed the papers on his desk to one side and settled his elbows there. “The needle was sharpened, probably by a metal file and you can buy knitting gear in any dime store.” He looked over at the two men facing him. “I'm glad you're helping with this one, guys. Thousands of people there and nobody saw anything.” He slapped the desk with a palm. “Routine isn't going to solve this one.”
Hardcastle shrugged. “Don't be assuming we're gonna come up with anything either.” He began thumbing through the manila folder containing the evidence and reports on the case. “We're supposed to talk to the bereaved husband tomorrow. Maybe that'll help, but it says here you've had two interviews with him already. Didn't learn much, according to this.”
Frank nodded, halfway between irritation and disappointment. “Yeah, he was trying his best, but he doesn't understand why anyone would've wanted to kill her. Not that he didn't accept that she was tramping around, but he seems to think that he would have had the best motive and he was out on the field, hitting the home run.” Harper sighed. “He's about as confused as we are.”
“Well, let's see what we can do, from a more 'personal' approach.” The judge jerked his chin toward McCormick, who sat beside, stretching out his aching biceps. “One of his teammates might have more luck with him.”
“Teammate, yeah, right.” McCormick snorted, then stood up, shaking down the legs of his khakis. “Let's go, Judge. I have to drop you off home before my date.”
“Date, huh?” Harper chuckled. “A cheerleader?”
Mark clicked his tongue and looked at the detective with great disappointment. “There aren't any cheerleaders in baseball! I've got a date with a player rep.”