For his own safety, the police led him out. Jeers erupted from the stands.
“Way to go, asshole!”
“You fuckin’ idiot!”
“G’wan! Get the fuck outta here!”
Beer and ice and peanuts and Cracker Jack rained down as he descended the staircase. At the bottom, a camera swung in his direction. The spotlight blinded him. He held his jacket in front of his face. Everything sank.
A drunk took a swing at him. Event security wrapped the man up.
“You stupid fuck!”
A cop leaned in, grinning.
“How’s it feel to be a celebrity?”
Not so good.
Communications stopped. Ajza slept in the van for three nights.
The first night, no word. That meant they had Yuri.
Nothing the second night, either. They had Sergei.
Night three, nothing. They had everyone.
Everyone but her.
She drove the Econoline out at three in the morning. In back, Baby Bear slept. Ajza came to complete stops at intersections, signaled turns and lane changes, took curves at posted speed. By the time the sun went down again, she was in Cincinnati.
Good a place as any.
The self-storage facility took assumed names and cash. Ajza dropped a grand on the counter, enough to cover three years’ fees. She watched the clerk. He never even looked up at her.
She put Baby Bear at the back of the storage unit, covered her in blankets.
Ajza put her identification and cellphone in the glove box and torched the van on the bank of the Ohio River.
The sun came up. She went out looking for a new life.
The years went by.
“There’s somebody I want you to meet.”
Steve set his ham on rye down on its wrapper. Gordon was peering at him over the top of the Tribune. Sylvia from sales walked into the break room clutching her empty Cubs mug and stopped short. Recognizing it would just be her and Gordon and him, she spun around and walked out.
“Meet?” Steve said.
“She’s new,” Gordon said, lifting the paper up again. “Helps out Lannie in HR. Her name’s Andrea. Hot little number. European, I think. Maybe Russian?”
Eyes rolling, Steve grabbed his sandwich and took another bite.
“I asked her about you,” Gordon said.
Sandwich down. “Asked her what about me?”
“Y’know, like what does she think of you?”
Steve’s lips tightened into a frown. “Why would she think anything of me?”
Gordon leafed a page over. “She doesn’t. Doesn’t know a thing about you.”
Steve digested this last comment.
Gordon peeked over top of the Tribune again and smiled.
“Comin’ through! Watch your asses,” Harvey barked. “Pardon me, Miss.”
The woman seated at the end of row eight pulled her knees up without taking her eyes off the field. Harvey and the clan McCoy slid past.
“It was that seat, right fuckin’ there. Aisle four, row eight, seat…” Harvey bent down. “One eleven!” He mussed his son’s hair. “Your gonna be two seats away from the biggest goddamned disgrace this city has ever seen, Ernie. And believe me, it’s seen plenty, heh.”
Cynthia grimaced. She covered young Ernie’s ears. “Harvey, language.”
Harvey’s face twisted up. “Langu—we’re in the fuckin’ grandstands, lighten up! Hey, pal.” Harvey nudged the man sitting in the one of the seats behind them. “Did shithead come up here yet?”
The man shook his head. “Not yet. Somebody said not ‘til the eighth.”
Harvey chuckled and pointed at his son. “Kid’s first trip to the fuckin’ park.”
“Well, he picked a heck of a night.”
Harvey pulled his camera from his pocket. “Alright, hop up there, Ern.”
Ernie straddled over seat 112. The next seat, 113, was covered completely with stickers. Just as he was about to plant his foot on it, a voice boomed out from the end of the aisle.
“Sir! You’re gonna have to keep that seat clear.”
Harvey looked back. It was event security. “Whaddya mean?”
“Just what I said. Keep the kid outta that seat, or we’ll have to toss you outta here.”
Ernie got down immediately. He pulled the bill of his cap down to hide his eyes. Harvey pulled him close and yelled at the guard. “That’s nice, asshole! You wanna get my kid upset?”
Cynthia grabbed Harvey’s arm. “Harvey, please just sit down.”
“Guy’s a fuckin’ asshole.” Harvey lifted Ernie up onto seat 111 and then sat down himself.
Soriano popped one up into shallow right. One down.
“Got a minute, chief?”
“Yeah, Wilson,” the Director groaned as he leaned back in his seat.
Wilson placed a manila folder in front of the Director, who picked it up and thumbed it through. There were some photos of a man and a woman, arm in arm.
“Those faces ring a bell at all?”
The Director frowned and snapped up his reading glasses. He tilted his head back and rotated his chair for better light. “The fella does. I don’t recognize the woman.”
“Remember ’02? The Chechen hostage thing?”
“After that thing goes down all the spooks go nuts running background on all those dead gunmen, seeing if they’re connected to any of our rivals in the sand. This broad comes up. Sister to one of the gunmen.”
“She’s no separatist revolutionary, though. Opposite, actually. Lives in Moscow, kind of a nightclub girl. Half a whore, really.” Wilson reached across the desk and flipped the folder open to a recon close-up of a buzzcut heavy in a turtleneck. “She gets hooked up with this guy—Sergei. Russian mob muscle.”
“I don’t know. I’m not up on all that Russian mob shit. But that photo came out of the Reed/Creedmore file, from around the same time.”
The Director sighed. “Here we go…”
“I know, follow me. So, Ajza’s brother dies with all the other gunmen.”
The Director shook his head with vigor. “You know, Reed and Creedmore spent three years looking for those goddamned things, and never brought me back anything but a goddmaned migraine.”
“I know. But hang on--”
“That’s why those two are gone, you know. Those goddamned things are a goddamned urban legend. If I showed you the goddamned dollar figure--”
“I know, but listen.” Wilson leaned forward, and spoke in a whisper. “This appears to overlap with Operation Knuckleball.”
“Do you…know anything about something called Operation Knuckleball?”
“I’ve never heard of anything called Operation Knuckleball. How is it that you’ve heard of something called Operation Knuckleball and I haven’t?”
“I haven’t heard of anything called Operation Knuckleball, either.”
The Director nodded. “You shouldn’t ask me questions about things that you don’t know to exist, Wilson. And you certainly shouldn’t be asking me questions about things that I don’t know to exist.”
The Director frowned and slapped the folder shut. “Glad one of us does.”
“Dad, what’s a knuckleball?”
Harvey was on the edge of his seat, intently watching as Soto stepped into the box to face Haeger. “It’s a kind of slow pitch. Not many guys throw it.”
“Why do they throw a slow pitch?”
Harvey squinted. “It’s real hard to hit.”
Cynthia smiled, thumbing through another Nicholas Sparks book.
“If it’s so hard to hit, then why doesn’t everybody throw it?”
“It’s also real hard to throw and real hard to catch.”
“Because it doesn’t spin, so the air hits it funny. So it can go right or left or up or down. So a perfect knuckleball can drift out of the strike zone or bounce off the plate and then the catcher flubs it, or it can hang in the air and get knocked right out of the park. Mainly, nobody teaches it anymore.”
“So why would anybody throw it?”
“Because so few guys throw it, not many batters are ready for it.”
“Oh,” Ernie said. He fidgeted with his scorecard, rolling it and unrolling it. “Can I have some of your beer?”
Harvey looked down at his son, and his belly shook with laughter. “Sure, kid. Heh. Drink up.”
“C’mon. Bottom’s up, sweetie.”
Misty pushed the shot glass away. Cuervo spilled on her naked thigh. “I think…I think I’m wasted, Ron.”
The phone rang from Ron’s pants, hanging over the chair in the corner. “Fuck,” he said, putting the bottle and salt shaker on the end table. Misty clawed after him as he jumped out of bed.
“Come back here.”
Ron fished the phone out of his pants pocket. It was Wilson. “Not ‘til you down that shot.”
Misty bared her teeth in mock ferocity and then tossed her shot back.
He answered. “Creedmore here. Hey. Yeah, I’m alone.”
She wrapped herself in the bedsheet and shuffled off to the bathroom. The room tilted and lurched with every step. She caught her balance near the door, taking a moment to familiarize herself with the fire exits in the building. Then with a sudden lunge followed by a fortuitous stagger, she found herself facing her reflection in the toilet water, an image she immediately decimated with an explosion of vomit.
She felt better as she came back into the room, clutching the bed sheet to her mouth. Then she saw Ron seated on the edge of the bed, lighting a cigarette, looking rattled.
“Ever see a bad car wreck happen?” he said, staring straight ahead.
She sat next to him. He didn’t seem to notice. “I saw a semi flip over a median once during the winter.”
“Did you see it coming? Did you see things lining up, and then it happened? Or did it just happen?”
Misty moaned and tipped over backwards onto the bed. “I just puked.”
“I used to be able to make things happen. And see them coming.”
“You’re bumming out, Ron. I think I’m gonna go.”
“Used to be I could get a wiretap in two seconds if I really wanted to. Now I couldn’t get a black n’ white to drive by my house if I had Bin Laden trapped in my goddamned freezer.”
Misty got up and started fishing around the floor for her clothes. “The road was super icy. The wind where I’m from is crazy. Where’s my suitcase? Anyways, I saw the back wheels of the trailer drifting back and forth, and then the car up ahead slammed on the brakes, and then, you know, liftoff.”
“Where are you going?”
She pulled a pink tank top over her head and checked herself in the mirror above the dresser. She sighed. “I used to be able to make things happen, too.”
Ron flipped on the TV. A baseball game was on. “You should drink some water if you’re feeling sick. Must be dehydrated.”
Misty moved in front of the screen. “I don’t care what you used to be able to do, Ron. It’s like, what can you do now, you know?”
He stared through her. “Sorry I’m bumming you out, Misty.”
She started crisscrossing the room, tossing things around. “Where’s my fucking suitcase?”
Ron grabbed her forearm as she walked by.
“That’s enough talk about suitcases.”
“Suitcases…suitcases…suitcases…” Clay was cycling through it again, rocking back and forth in his seat. The sun shone bright into the activity room. Outside, an orderly chased another one of the loonies across the courtyard.
Gordon shook his head and put his shades on. “Always fun to come down and spend time with you, Clay.”
“Exactly,” Gordon smiled. “Got laid off last week. You hear about that?”
“Probably don’t get so many updates in here.”
Gordon rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Got any other places you can recommend me to, Clay? Any other hot prospects? That whole real estate market thing really didn’t work out that great.”
“Duly noted. Don’t worry about it. Probably take some time for myself, anyways. Maybe take a cruise or a safari or something.”
The orderly from the yard walked past. Gordon flagged him down.
“Hey, brother. That T.V. come on during visiting hours?”
He shrugged. “Name’s Dwayne. Sometimes. Why?”
Gordon lowered his voice. “Is it possible to turn on a ballgame? I don’t mean to be all McMurphy or anything.”
Dwayne snorted out half a laugh. He grabbed the remote from under the pile of very evenly shredded napkins that Mrs. Winters was working on. “They can watch baseball, man. Who’s playing?”
“Dodgers at Cubs.”
“Oh, that’s right. That’s tonight?””
“Want to catch that seventh inning stretch. It was in the sixth when I came in here. Should be a hell of a scene.”
Dwayne flipped the TV on and scrolled through the guide. “There it is. Hey, there he is! Hell, I can’t believe they let him in the gate.”
“I used to work with that guy. You believe that?”
“No shit. And he’s gonna sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame,’ right?”
“Yeah, for his birthday. There’s Andrea. I introduced them to each other. Jesus, it’s been years.”
Clay sat up straight in his seat, pointed at the screen. “SUITCASES!”
“Easy, Mr. Reed. Do we need to see the nurse?” Dwayne said. He put a hand on Clay’s shoulder and looked back up at the screen. “They look miserable. Like they’re at a funeral or something.”
“SUITCASES! SUITCASES! SUITCASES!”
Gordon shrugged. “Probably know they’re about to get booed out of the park.”
Ernie watched the man come to the window of the press box overlooking Wrigley. He was holding a microphone in his hand. His father jumped up and started booing the second he came into view. A lot of other people did, too.
A voice echoed through the stadium. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to Wrigley Field, Chicago’s own Steve Bartman.”
The place went nuts. Ernie had to cover his ears. He could feel the floor shake. His dad nearly stepped on him, screaming.
“Get the fuck outta here!”
Ernie’s mom was seated, covering her ears. The man with the microphone was leaning out the window. He was saying something, but it was impossible to hear.
The two seats next to Ernie were still empty. Ernie stepped over so he could stand on the seats without his dad knocking him over.
People were starting to throw things down onto the field. A big plastic beer bottle went flying overhead. Ernie ducked and covered and jumped down off the seat, but he landed funny and found himself stuck to a drying puddle of soda. His dad went on yelling, shaking his fists.
As Ernie started to get up, he noticed something wedged under seat 113, the seat two down from his. The one with the stickers all over it.
He got up and yanked at the hem of his dad’s shirt. Dad didn’t notice.
Ernie tapped his mother on the knee. He tried to tell her, but that noise, jeez.
His mom leaned forward. “What, honey?” she shouted.
Ernie tried again. His mother shook her head again. Ernie crawled up on the seat and got his mouth right up next to her ear.
“I said somebody left a suitcase under that seat.”
Ajza leaned against the wall outside the press box, clutching her cellphone. The song had ended. The booing had not.
It didn’t matter. Baby Bear was in position. A phone call away.
The door to the press box opened. A man led Steve out into the hall. He was pale, sweaty. He took off his glasses and rubbed his nose.
Steve looked up and saw Ajza waiting. “They hate me, Andrea. They still hate me. What do I have to do? I don’t understand.”
Ajza wrapped her arms around his waist. This was not the first time she had heard these questions over the past couple of years. She patted the back of his head with her left hand, kept control of the phone with her right.
“To hell with them, sweetie.”
Steve pulled back and looked into those deep blues eyes and smiled. “Hell with ‘em.”
Ajza pushed pound.
Josh Converse is all over the Web. I found out a lot of useful information at: http://crimespace.ning.com/profile/JoshConverse
Baby Bear, as far as Trucker Slang goes, means Young Cop or Cop in Training. Anywhere you see/hear 'bear' it apparently means 'cop' like how 'Beaver' always means woman, so, yes - a Baby Beaver Bear is a distinct possibility.