Team Players

Just a trace bar lost in the north desert near Albuquerque. Summer thunder ozoned the air outside and stormfront wind out of the Sangre De Christos made the rat-ass bikes lined up in front shake on their kickstands and blew the trash around in the beds of pick ups with tribal stickers peeling off rusted chrome bumpers.
Inside, the lightning of puke and heat and real bad whiskey. The kind that comes sweating out of you the next morning and smells like dead folks. Everclear on the juke and mad dog twenty twenty cooking in the blood.
He was on the third stool from the right, staring into his glass like he was watching a television show. I dropped in next to him. He had that long distance look you get when the booze has chopped all your strings away.
“Hey, Skip. What you doin’ this far away from San Antone?”
“Lookin’ for my starting pitcher,” I said. “Guess I found him.”
I motioned the barman. He brought two drinks, sat them down, took my money and walked away without looking at either of us. Two hundred semi-drunk people jammed shoulder to sweaty shoulder and nobody’s seeing a thing. That kind of place.
“C’mon, kid,” I said. “Too noisy in here.”
He pushed back from the bar and followed me outside. We stood watching the rain slam down through the feeble neon of the beer signs in the fogged-over windows. Distant fire flashed in the Sangres and the soft ta-thump reached us a second or so later.
“How’d you find me?”
“I didn’t. Mr. VanZandt had your cell phone tracked.”
He laughed soft. It washed away in the rain noise.
“Leave it to the owner to find somebody don’t want to be found,” he said.
“Somebody’s gotta keep track of the franchise, Tommy.” I said. “Take care of the team.”
“Take care of the money, you mean. That man don’t care a whit for the team. He—”
“That your blue truck over yonder?” I interrupted, showing him the gun.
His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “You too, Skip? He’s got you too?”
“He don’t have anybody,” I said. “This is about the team, kid. Let’s go on over to your truck. Easier to talk that way.”
I kept the old, single-action Colt close on him while he got behind the wheel and I slid in on the passenger side.
“Why don’t we take a little drive into the Christos while we’re talkin’? Might be nice up there. Maybe we’ll get above the storm. Watch the lightnin’ hit the desert.”
He wheezed the beat up old Chevy into life and we bumpty-thumped across the parking dirt and up the two lane blacktop toward the mountains.
“You don’t have to do this, Skipper,” he said kind of sad-like. “It won’t make no difference, money-wise. I got the lifetime no-cut, no-trade contract, remember?”
“Yeah, that’s true, kid. That agent of yours.” I shook my head a little. “Pure pit bull, hell-on-wheels, he was. Said you were the second coming and the end of the world rolled into one. Said you threw hell-fire and damnation. Got you that contract. Saddled the team with a rag-arm pitcher my three-year-old grand-baby could hit outta the park. That money could buy us three brand new rookie arms and a third base and a couple of big bats. That damn contract! It’s gutting us. But with you, ah, gone, we could win. Maybe even get the division. Maybe even the series—”
“No,” he said. “Not what I meant, Skip. You’re the manager you know that even if . . . even if you . . . do this. Peggy will get the money. It’s right there in the contract. Peggy’s my only living relative, my wife. She gets it. All of it.”
We cleared the storm, rising above the cloud cover. Below us the lightning spread across the clouds in billowing streaks of white light. Ahead a yellow sign pointed to a flat, viewpoint pull-off. I pushed the barrel into his side.
“Turn here,” I said. We rolled to a stop. Looking out over the cloud filled valley a couple hundred feet down. The stars were out, bright and hard.
“You weren’t listening to me, Coach.” His fingers were white-knuckled on the steering wheel. “The team still won’t get that cash. You won’t. Peggy will get—”
I pushed the gun a little harder into his ribs.
“Tommy,” I said. “Don’t you think Mr. VanZandt knows that?”
He went sudden still and death quiet. His mouth formed shapes but no words came.
“She’s gone, son.” I sighed. “She never saw it coming. Opened the door smiling. Probably thought I’d found you. I got her a good one on the jaw and she went down and out. Never woke up. Never felt a thing. I used that bolo tie you like to wear in public. The one with the thousand dollar gold nugget for a slide. Slid it tight on her neck. Left it there. They’ll find her and that bolo tie and think you done it and . . . well, you see what I mean.”
I patted him on the back as I pressed the gun to his temple.
“It’ll look like you were a good man who couldn’t live with what he’d done. At least people will remember that about you.”
I pulled the trigger at the same time he floored the old Chevy and we went flying off the cliff together. All I saw was the muzzle flash filling the cab and a few hard stars cartwheeling above the electric black sky below.
So, I’m laying here in the mud and it’s raining hard and cold and I can’t move because my back’s busted and something’s poked a hole through my chest and I’ve coughed out about a gallon of blood and there’s this cold white light circling my vision and it gets brighter and whiter and tighter and I can see the kid, with most of his head gone, hanging half out of the cab of the truck and the lights from the police searching for us and the blinking red light of that damn cell phone he’d punched to nine one one so the sheriff’s emergency operator could hear every thing we’d been talkin’ about and it’s darker and colder now and the white light is fading, pinpointing down to black and it feels like I’m falling into dark water and I think about the team and the game I love and wish I . . ..

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