Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 16

Mop for Mitt

I

      The frozen blanket of white that for the last three months had held the

landscape of Collingston hostage in one amount or another finally started to

recede. The brown grass was a pleasant sight, confusing to the eyes that had for so

long seen nothing but white. The icicles on tree limbs reduced themselves to wet

bark. Roads were now a dry almost foreign surface welcomed by the tires of

automobiles. The sun stayed with us longer each day. The children were anxious

to reclaim their stomping ground—kick ball and hide and seek sprouted in the

neighborhood evenings.

      I always believed as a young boy that March got its name because the

heroic forces of spring marched against the evil villains of winter. The battle raged

on, each force putting a flag on the days it conquered, trading the blows of cold

and warmth back and forth. It turns out that I wasn’t that far off—you tend to

learn these things when your best friend is a walking encyclopedia—as March was

named for the Roman god of war, Mars. It was the original month of the New

Year in those long ago days, as well as being the month when the Romans started

their war campaigns.

       March more than anything was a beacon of hope, something concrete

enough to put your faith in. No matter how many days the brigades of winter

claimed as their own, you knew the forces of spring would always win out.

It also brought one other thing: the single greatest game ever invented, a

game that for the past hundred years no matter who you were affected you in some

way, a game that is watched more than presidential debates on TV, a game that

dominates the minds of little boys and grown men alike (especially during the days

of fall), a game where a man’s name can be etched on the tablets of history by one

throw, one simple flick of his wrist, a game that fathers and sons share at million-dollar

stadiums but take home to their back yards just by playing catch; the only

game where the defense controls the ball. A game with no time limit, no tying, and

where hope lives until the last strike of the last out of the last inning.

      The fieldhouse we practiced in was a monstrous building. It had a full

Olympic-sized track, four basketball courts, and ceilings over seventy feet high.

Nowhere else in the state could you find a high school that even came close to

having a place like Collingston’s fieldhouse. I also imagine that nowhere else in

the state would you find a facility like this with only one team practicing. Coach

Demera had enough pull and enough respect from the higher-ups that for two hours

every day, the only team allowed in the fieldhouse was baseball.

      On one side you had the sixty-yard dash times going. In the middle, guys

were getting ground balls. Returning starters were hitting in the cage in the middle

of the field house. On the far end were a group of about twenty guys running

nothing but line sprints. That group was there for one reason, to weed themselves

out. Coach Demera would take the twenty guys he thought had no chance in hell

of making the team and run their guts out. One by one they would drop like flies,

gather their shit, and head for the door. After about thirty minutes Coach Demera

would take the five or so that were left and let them run the sixty and take ground

balls, and if they were still standing after that he would let them hit at the end of

practice. I guess he figured that if they were willing to go through all of that

maybe they had enough heart to get better and someday help his program. In my

three years I still had not seen one kid out of that group make the team.

       Johnny the Killer was on one of wooden mounds, and I was a little excited,

scared maybe, because our season depended on how the Killer threw. Johnny

threw his first pitch right down the middle at eighty-three miles per hour. The next

was eighty-five and the next eighty-six. All that Johnny really had to do at this

tryout was show up and throw the ball like he gave a shit. Grouse told him to

throw the breaking pitch and it broke all right, about five feet in front of the plate.

       I did my best to block it but it bounced off the rubbery floor and rolled to the far

end, hitting a cart one of the janitors was pushing. The field house was so long that I didn’t recognize the janitor as Roman until the ball stopped at his feet. His dark

eyes stared at the ball on the floor, eventually picking it up and lookin’ it over like

he was counting the seams. There was something about a ball—it didn’t matter if

you were a grandma or just out of diapers—that begged you to throw it.

        “You’re supposed to throw it, not read it,” Johnny shouted at the top of his

lungs and then laughed.

         Johnny yelled so loud everybody stopped. The coaches, the bats, the

runners—everything just froze. Roman continued to look at the ball, turning it

over and over in his hand. I put my glove up as a cut-off man between me and

Johnny. Roman took a small step and threw a rope over my head right to Johnny’s

mitt. The ball had no arch and when it popped Johnny’s glove he shook his wrist

back and forth because of the sting. I looked at Johnny and then back at Roman

who was already starting to push his cart across the field house again.

Coach Grouse looked at me. “Who is this freakin guy?”

       “Roman Swivel. I knew he had a hell of an arm but the son of a bitch just

won’t come out.”

        “Is he a pitcher?”

        “Yeah,” I said back.

        Coach Grouse motioned for Coach Demera who was watching Sam

Peterman hit in the cage before all this happened. Peterman by the way would

rock that net like an earthquake, the balls jumping off his bat like thunderbolts, his

swing flawless in the cage. There was only one problem: come game time, or

anytime there was live pitching, Sam could not make contact. He led the team in

strikeouts the previous year and was in danger of becoming the all-time strike out

leader in Silver Streak history.

“Alright Johnny, that’s it for today,” Grouse said.

      Coach Demera walked over in an annoyed strut, clipboard in hand and his

coaching bag over his shoulder. “You seen everybody you want to see?” Demera

asked Grouse.

      “I want to see this kid that just threw the ball a hundred and eighty feet on a

straight line with no crow hop or warm ups,” Coach Grouse replied.

       “You mean the fuckin’ janitor?”

       “Yeah, the fuckin’ janitor, I wanna see him throw off the mound.”

       “Whatever, it’s your time.”

        Coach Grouse ran over to Roman before he made it out of the fieldhouse. I

couldn’t hear the conversation but somehow he convinced Roman to take a few

pitches off the mound. Coach Grouse rummaged through his coaching bag and

produced a glove for Roman. Roman thanked him and walked over beside the

mound where Johnny was still standing.

         Johnny slammed the ball into Roman’s open mitt as he shook his head and

smiled. “This isn’t like scrubbing toilets.”

         Roman remained expressionless.

         I stood up and took three tosses from Roman.

       “I’m ready,” Roman said

       “Don’t you want to take a few more?” I suggested back

        “I’m ready.” Roman didn’t wake up that morning expecting to pitch. He

wanted to get it over with and go back to his all-important cleaning.

        I put my mask on and got down in the crouch, not really knowing what to

expect—throwing BP at On Deck was a little different than pitching to a catcher in

front of radar guns and the eyes of coaches.

     Coach Demera’s body language had an ambivalent posture, like he could

give a damn if the janitor threw or not. But he didn’t walk away either.

      “Alright kid, let’s see what you got,” Couch Grouse said.

Roman’s stance looked good, his torso stretched tall and his feet a little less

than shoulder width apart. Roman looked at me and I smacked my mitt with my

throwing hand. His wind up started, nice and fluid, as good as mechanics as I had

seen. At that moment in the field house, despite the wooden mound and the

artificial light overhead, despite that ridiculous gray janitor’s outfit, he was a

pitcher. The ball was there in an instant. WHAP. The ball broke the webbed part

of my mitt, hit me in the chest, and knocked me on my ass. Coach Grouse spit his

gum out onto the floor like someone just gave him the Heimlich maneuver. His

radar gun read 92. Coach Demera took his hat off and scratched the top of his

head. I picked the ball up, threw it to Roman, and got my spare mitt out of my bag

along with a palm pad. I would be feeling the sting in my hand at least until

tomorrow. Somehow though, I never felt a pain as good as that one.

      I made sure my eyes were wide open on the next pitch. Roman wound up

nice and easy and here it came. Still hard to see, but it didn’t matter because I

never had to move my mitt. 93 on the gun.

      “I’ll be damned,” Coach Grouse mumbled.

      “Alright, this is crap, something’s wrong with that gun of yours, coach,”

Demera said. “Let’s try mine.” Coach Demera got his gun out, tuned it, and

pointed it at Roman. “Let’s see what he’s got on a real gun.”

       Roman wound up and delivered. WHAP! Again I never moved the mitt.

94 on the real gun. Coach Grouse started laughing in delight. Coach Demera

reached in his bag but instead of a radar gun this time, he pulled out a black

thermos-like cup and took a hard drink.

        After tryouts Roman insisted on taking my broken mitt home to fix it. I

knew better than to stand in his way.

II

       John Smith stood at his window watching as the nightly eye candy made

their way from daytime sleep to the setting sun and the darkness of the sidewalked

streets. The church bells rang at St. Thomas Cathedral. Even in the cold nights of

March the nightwalkers came out in their fishnet hose and their high heels. Some

wore tacky fake fur coats that weren’t long enough to cover their bellies and

weren’t buttoned enough to cover the tops of the breasts. They were never out

there long enough to get chilled anyway. The constant traffic of factory workers

and doctors on their way home from work made sure of it. They were men that

opted to forgo candlelight evenings and conversations of character, deciding to

have their money catapult them to the finish line. An even trade these days—some

would say—when you factor in the cost of drinks, tips, a movie, and all the painful

seduction and begging.

        John could relate. After his first night in Collingston, he found himself

standing in front of the window, masturbating to the walk of the working girls,

despite the painful stitches. It was like a parade of skin set up for his own

amusement. He could never finish until a brunette came into view. As much as he

wanted Max Sheehan to be dead and gone, some things never die easily.

       But John Smith was winning. Over the course of the last couple of weeks

John had fought off the urges to fantasize about his victims. To relive his hands

wrapped around throats and to see eyes almost popping out of heads. After all, it

was about the eyes, wasn’t it? Death was just a byproduct. It was about those

eyes. Eyes that begged and pleaded for their life—a life that he held in the palms

of his hands. What power he had tapped into—the ability to end life or free it.

That was the past though. Now he was just ordinary wood working John Smith,

who at first started pleasuring himself to the show outside, then invited the show

in, and was now paying for it on a nightly basis.

       It was more than he hoped for. They did things to him, and let him do

things to them, that John only thought possible if one was threatened with death. If

he told her not talk she shut up. If he wanted her naked, she was naked. If he

wanted her ass, her legs wrapped around her head, her nipples bit, objects

inserted—all was granted. It was still power.

        But something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the real deal, just an act put on by

performers who were good at taking your money and making you believe in

Neverland. The minute John became bored he could feel him—Max stirring in the

bowels of his stomach, begging to be let out, whispering ideas into his mind.

       Now in John Smith’s dark apartment is a young brunette, no more than

sixteen, naked and arms handcuffed to the respective columns on the end of John

Smith’s bed. She is breathing heavy. Tears are in her eyes. But those tears aren’t

real. She agreed to play his little game thinking all the while that she had played

much worse. What she doesn’t know is that there is another person in the room

trapped in the body of Mr. Smith.

       John is on her and in her now, pushing to make it hurt. He can hear her

moans and feel her chest as she breathes. He opens his eyes and sees tears in hers.

But they’re not real. She is after all not an actress, but only a hooker. He can feel

Max’s rage in his head, as if the dark soul is pulling his brain apart with his

fingernails. Her moans are even, too even. Her eyes are not afraid. This is only

work to her. Max is too strong. He needs to show her. He needs to do what he

does.

      Max pulls out; ripping the condom off that John Smith agreed to wear. It

flies through the air and sticks to the wall. Max is back in her now and at once she

knows something is terribly wrong. Her fake moans become screams but are

vanquished with the palm of Max’s thick hand. Now she is crying. Her arms are

flailing like a flag in the wind, jolted back every time by the handcuffs. He takes

his hand from her mouth but continues. This time her one scream is cut short by

both of his hands around her neck. Her eyes bulge. Veins are apparent in her

forehead. Her body flutters under him, squirming for life. Her eyes are begging

for freedom. Now he can finish.

     There’s another way for us. John Smith says from a distant place in his

head.

     “There’s no other way,” Max says out loud.

     Can’t you hear it?

     “I don’t hear anything.”

      Listen, in the distance. I know you can hear it.

      It was the church bells of St. Thomas, a beautiful sound that for a moment

made Max feel human. The grip on her neck loosened as the chimes rang. She lay

motionless. Was it too late? Please don’t let it be too late. John jumped off, knelt

by the bed, and put his ear to her heart. It was slow but beating. He tilted her head

back and blew into her mouth. After several times she started to awaken. John

unlocked the cuffs and went to the bathroom for a glass of water. When he

returned she was dazed, but already dressed. She took a sip of the water, and when

her throat wouldn’t swallow, she threw it in his face and ran for the door.

     Max Sheehan tried to grab her.

     John Smith stopped him.

III

     The water felt good. The shower wasn’t the best John had ever been in; but

then again Freddy’s apartment was nowhere near as luxurious as his house in San

Diego. What a beautiful home it had been, except for the basement of course.

How good it had made him feel when he finally restored it. How human he had

felt. Could he feel that way all the time? Could he always have the songs of the

bells at St. Thomas in his ears?

      His new boss’s complex was ahead of schedule and would likely be

completed in the next month. John had never been in charge of so many. They

were good workers for the most part and respected him as their leader. He felt like

one of them, out in the cold air, cutting lumber, measuring beams, having jokes

told to him over sandwich pails at lunch. Carlos had even asked him over for

supper one night, but John declined when he found out of his sixteen-year-old

daughter.

       Was the monster in him finally dying? For the first time since he started

his blood-soaked career, this was the first time he could not finish her off. Was

Jesus calling to him? He’d never been too much of anywhere as a child least of all

to church. He couldn’t recall one instance in which his mother actually took him

somewhere. He rode the bus to school alone. He played in the yard alone. He

read his comics in the bedroom alone. He tucked himself in at night and woke up

the same way.

      Was he to be human after all, and walk with his brothers as a man? Maybe

someday he would have a wife, and she would give him a son. And he would kiss

him and hug him and take him to the park and play catch and ride bikes with him.

Were such things impossible to dream?

IV

       John Smith’s journey to join the human race started with a visit to St.

Thomas Cathedral. To become a man he had to kill the monster, and the only way

to do that was confront it head on. He wouldn’t do it alone. Jesus would help him,

just as he called to him through the church bells as Max tried to choke the life out

of another victim.

      John didn’t know Jesus. He’d heard of him yes; flipping through the

channels on the tube, there was always a brief stop of curiosity on the Christian

channel, or overhearing saved men and women proclaim their joy in the booth

behind him on Sunday evening dinners at restaurants. Jesus would save him. John

believed this, not out of faith, but out of despair.

      The one time he actually attended church was one Christmas Eve as a

child. Mother already went to bed of course; holidays were no exception to the

rule of early to bed and early to rise. Maybe that’s why he could never sleep—she

slept enough during the hours of her life for both of them. John, out of boredom

more than religion, trucked the harsh journey through winter and snow to the warm

chapel a couple miles down Grape Orchard Road. They sang “Silent Night” and

the candles were lit. Even in the darkness he knew they were staring and pointing.

He could almost hear their thoughts, “that’s that Sheehan boy,” “his mother sure

isn’t very friendly,” “he doesn’t have a father you know”. The feeling of warmth

and acceptance he felt at the beginning of the service were frozen solid by the time

he left.

      Now it was different. He wasn’t a boy anymore with fragile feelings—

feeling was non-existent. It only mattered what Jesus and he thought.

John couldn’t help but admire the fine architecture of the cathedral—the

Stations of the Cross handcrafted on both sides of the interior, the high arching

ceilings, the hand-stained pews, the large alter with the Last Supper engraving. He

paused for a moment in awe—wasn’t this the point he was supposed to make the

sign of his new master?

        He would learn as he went. John entered the confessional. It was time to

remove the darkness from his soul once and for all.

       In the small chamber the air was dry and musty, the confines tight and

uncomfortable. A small square hole covered with crisscrossed balsa wood divided

him from the holy man on the other side, a fixture John remembered seeing on the

bottom of porches or as a divider in a garden. He stood because he knew not what

to do next.

      “Please sit my son,” the voice came from behind the divider. “Beautiful

day for March isn’t it, the sun and the birds.”

       “Yes.” That was the only word that would fly. A long silence—long for

John Smith anyway—followed to the point of painfulness. This is a bad idea. Just

before the point of leaving the voice spoke again.

      “What brings you to our Father’s house today?”

      “I’m sorry, I’m not Catholic.”

      “Nobody’s perfect,” the priest said and laughed.

      “I think I’ve made a mistake.” John stood up.

     “Please don’t go. I did not mean to be trivial, only to make you feel more

comfortable.”

     “I’m not sure how this works, what I’m supposed to do. Am I to pray?”

     “If you would like. This is the house of the Lord and He receives all acts

that are given to His glory. He shed His blood for you on the cross, and wants only

your faith in return.”

     “I’m not sure he made the right choice if he died for me.”

     “None of us are worthy of his grace, all of us have fallen short, all are

sinners. What troubles you?”

     “I think I’ve fallen shorter than most. A part of me is so dark that I don’t

think it can be saved.” John paused, trying to choose the right words. “I’ve

committed so many violent acts toward women that I can’t even count or

remember them all.”

     “And are you sorry for these sins?”

John paused again partly because of the priest’s abrupt response, as if the

confession did not surprise him in the least, and also because he didn’t know the

answer. Was he sorry? Did he really have any remorse for the girls? Was

wanting to stop the same thing as sorry?

     “I am sorry,” John said.

     “Then pray with me son, for the road to heaven is paved with forgiveness.”

John spent an hour in that booth. Not reliving the murders—that was the

past—but finding out how exactly you traveled the road to heaven.

V

      “So anyway, you’re gonna be at tryouts tonight, right?”

      “No,” Roman responded throwing my re-strung catcher’s mitt across the

table.

     “Do you realize you’re the missing link to our state title? You’re the guy

Coach Demera’s been waiting the last ten years for. We need you man.”

     “I haven’t even played baseball since Little League. There’s no way the

balance of your season rests on me. You only saw me throw ten pitches. I’m not

that good.”

     “You hit ninety-four on the gun. Ninety-fucking four. There aren't too

many people that can do that. That’s draft velocity. And who knows, you get your

arm in shape you might throw even harder. We’ll dominate teams with you on the

mound.”

      Roman ate a mouthful of spinach. But instead of that blank stare—the look

I so often got with our conversations at lunch—I could see something in his eyes.

It wasn’t excitement, maybe not even hunger, but no matter what words were

coming out of his mouth, and no matter what look he was trying to give me, I had

him thinking. Maybe even wishing. Maybe that small boy back in Iowa was

telling him how great it was to dream of being a big league ball player, of how it

sounded when the leather popped in the catcher’s mitt sixty feet away, of how

good it felt when you struck the guy out looking.

      “There’s no way I could work and play baseball. It’s just not possible for

me to juggle both schedules.”

      “You’ve got your whole life to work, man.”

      Roman only continued to eat. I wanted to tell him again how fuckin’ stupid

he was for a genius. But I didn’t. My only hope—the Collingston Silver Streak’s

only hope—was a young Iowa farm boy who hadn’t spoken to anyone for years.

The rest of the stragglers made their way to the table. The lunch hour talk

turned to a ration of bitching about the sprints Coach Demera made us run, about

sore legs and butts and arms, about how hard it was to go from your chair to

standing, or walk up stairs, or turn your steering wheel. I smiled at all of it. And

although I was a little sorer than I let on, I took great pleasure in telling them they

should have worked out more in the off-season like I did.

       Sally and Frenchy were regular members of the round table now, putting on

a daily display of affection for one another—it seemed every lunch period Jacques

was reciting some cheesy-ass poem he’d written about her—with the kissing and

staring it was enough to dampen, if not destroy my appetite. The difference

between those two dumb asses compared to Heather and Roman was the

genuineness. If you took away Heather’s looks and Roman’s smarts, I still think

they’d be just as into each other.

     Sally on the other hand was not in love with French boy. She might have

thought she was, but I think it was more the idea of being in love. The idea of a

foreign guy who wrote poetry and obeyed her every command. I’m a realist and

maybe that’s why I can never stay with anyone longer than a couple of months. I

speak the truth and the truth was, Sally, like most women, loved to hear how

wonderful she was. And she was a cool girl; I’ll give her that—a smokin’ hot body

and fun to be around—but Helen of Troy she was not. The armies of the world

were not going to fight over her, much less two guys in a cafeteria. And while

Jacques’s so-called enlightened European mind spat out anti-American jabs from

time to time, I promised myself I’d keep my mouth shut. I promised I wouldn’t go

to war.

       Pick Bryant lay with his head on the table, foregoing lunch for sleep,

adding a welcomed lack of volume to our lunch group. Jack still talked the entire

time, but at least their voices weren’t converging over our lunch table like pots and

pans clanging together. Sam Peterman just finished telling us what a mistake he

made the night before—rubbing down his sore leg muscles with Icy Hot and

accidentally misplacing some of it on his genitals. I felt for him. No matter how

careful you were with the stuff, it always seemed to make its way up your legs, and

the family jewels would inevitably swing themselves into it. It gave knew

meaning to the term “burning sensation.”

      Jacques laughed at this as if he were one of the guys. I felt the thermometer

of fury rise in the back of my head. I’d bet a good portion of my poker winnings

over the years that Jacques very seldom had sore legs and probably never used

anything like Icy Hot.

     “You Americans make me laugh,” he said. “Always torturing your bodies

for the most frivolous reasons. Always obsessed with the way you look and what

people think of you. A product of your society.”

     “I didn’t run fifty sprints last night because I thought it would make me

look better,” Sam responded. “I did it because it’ll make me a better ball player.”

Sam’s words didn’t make it to Jacques’s ears. The exchange student

continued to ramble in that thick-tongued French accent. “Materialistic I think is

the word. Idolaters worshipping athletes and actors, putting your money above all

else.”

     “What does any of that have to do with baseball?” Sam asked.

     “Baseball, what a silly sport. How many hours do you spend preparing?

Two? Three? So you can hit the little white ball farther, and run the bags faster.

At least soccer is graceful, even tennis has an artistic sense, but baseball is bulky

and crude. I guess it fits with your culture.”

     That was it. I couldn’t take it anymore. “And what would you know of it,

Frenchy. I’d like to see you swing a bat or throw a ball.”

     “Anthony, Anthony, I have no wish to play your silly game. In France we

speak of art and love, and are intelligent enough to appreciate true beauty, that

which occurs in nature, and rests in all people.” Jacques picked up Sally’s hand

and kissed it, staring at her with the bedroom eyes.

     “Call me Anthony one more time and I’ll…”

     “And you’ll what? Attack me with violence? Just like your Presidents.

Always wanting to go to war instead of talk peacefully.”

      I found myself standing now, feeling the blood rush in my head with every

heartbeat. My fists were clenched. All I had to do was reach across the table and

strangle the scrawny Frenchman by the neck. Don’t prove his point. Don’t go to

war with him. No matter what, it’ll look like it was over Sally. I sat back down.

     “Ya know Jacques,” I made an extra effort to role the “J”. “I bet your dirty

French grandpas and uncles don’t feel the same way you do.”

     “What do you mean? Why do you call my ancestors dirty?”

      “While they were busy laying down their weapons so Hitler’s boys could

march right in and take over, back here in the good ole US of A we were planning

how to bail your sorry French asses out. And that’s exactly what we did. So you

could appreciate your beauty, and speak your language of love, not take baths for a

week at a time, and bitch and moan about every move this country makes.”

      Jacques flew up from his seat, pointing and yelling at me in French. I’m

sure I could hear the word cocksucker in there somewhere. Sally collected him

and walked him away from the table. Sam, Pick, and boys started clapping of

course.

       “Are you Roman Swivel?” A student worker was standing next to Roman

with a piece of paper in her hand.

       “Yes.”

       “Here you go.”

       Roman opened the call slip.

       Heather leaned over to peek at it. “That’s the athletic office. Coach

Demera’s office.”

       Roman knew exactly where it was but seemed to be in denial. He looked at

me. “What do you think he wants?”

“You know exactly what he wants.”

VI

      An older lady that looked more like a librarian than athletic personnel

greeted Roman as he entered the office. She told him to go in and have a seat, and

that Coach Demera would be right with him.

      While most of the school reeked of prison décor, Demera’s office was quite

different. The office looked small but only because there were so many items

jammed into its space and hung on its walls. A single chair sat in front of the

baseball coach’s desk and Roman sat down.

     Behind the desk, running the entire length of the top of the office wall,

hung the ten plaques from the Silver Streaks’ previous state playoff appearances.

There were several third and fourth place engravings; even a couple of seconds,

but the elusive first was absent. Countless baseballs with player’s signatures were

frozen in time by the glass cases that housed them. They sat on the file cabinets

and smaller desks around the office, reminders of the past and of teams that didn’t

want to be forgotten. The floor was green and looked to be turf instead of carpet.

Old mitts and bats were stacked neatly against the bottom of the walls, and they

gave off the smell of dirt and nostalgia, tricking Roman’s nose into thinking he was

at the ball field.

     Below the state playoff plaques, in a mural that took up most of the wall,

was a painting—no doubt created by a former player or players. It was abstract—

an out of focus blend of silver and black—and in it stood a person holding two

scales, one in each hand. It immediately reminded Roman of Lady Justice in

courtrooms, except the scale holder was dressed in a baseball uniform and cap, and

wore no blindfold. In his left hand he held the lighter scale, which was stacked

with numerous bricks. And on each brick was a word. Roman read them with the

shutter speed of a camera: preparation, intelligence, ability, luck, strength, speed,

size, focus, pride, leadership, experience. In the player’s right hand he held the

other scale. It had a single brick on it, but the player leaned toward its side because

of the weight. The scale was only an inch or so off the ground. On the brick was a

single word: Determination.

     “Glad you like it,” Demera’s voice came from behind Roman. “It’s about

as true a philosophy as I’ve come across. Not only in this game, but all aspects of

life. Too many times I’ve seen teams that should’ve run the table but didn’t—all

because they didn’t have the one brick that’s more important than the rest.”

      Demera walked around the desk, sipping something from his black and

silver mug, and sat down in front of Roman. “I’m not going to waste your time

here so if you don’t mind I’m going to cut right through the bullshit.”

     Roman nodded.

     “You know why you’re here. You’re obviously no dummy. I took a look at

your grades. I’ve never begged a player to come out and I’m not about to start

with you. Don’t even want ya if you don’t have that all-important brick in your

own arsenal. I don’t give a shit about where you’ve been or how many people you

struck out in the past. The only thing I care about is this team, and I know you

could make us better. I don’t expect you to decide right now, but I do want you to

consider something. In my high school coaching career I’ve coached roughly eight

hundred players. Thirty percent of those guys went on to play college ball, ten

percent played some sort of professional ball, and one lonely soul made it to the

big dance. Not one of them came in the first day of practice and hit ninety-four on

the gun. Not a one of ‘em.”

      Demera took out a folder and started working through it. Roman just sat

there, unsure if the meeting was over. When the coach failed to speak more,

Roman got up.

      “One more thing, Roman. I may have coached eight hundred players but

I’ve cut three times that. I’ve got the sad job of crushing the dreams of young

men. Guys like Jason Wallace. A kid, strong as an Ox, who hit the ball harder in

the cage than most I’ve had. Cut him though, because he was born with legs that

only formed down to his knees. The poor guy hit off his stumps at about three feet

off the ground. Jason would’ve cut his left nut off and sat it on my desk, if he

could’ve played this game. If he could do what you can do.”

       Coach Demera went back to the papers on his desk.

       Roman stood in the doorway for several minutes, looking into the mural on

the wall.

VII

      Agent Johnson pulled up to the garage door on the side of the broken-down

warehouse. The bricks were actually red, but looked the color of brown

rust. Johnson pushed a button on his dashboard and the door contracted upward.

He pulled the car into the warehouse and parked next to the rest of the vehicles.

Johnson walked to the far side of the warehouse. Two goggle-type

eyepieces protruded out of the wall. Johnson placed his eyes against them and a

red beam scanned over his eyes. Below the eye scan was a metal mold. Johnson’s

hand went into it and a quiet beep sounded from behind the wall. A panel slid

sideways and where a second ago there was just a wall, there was now a doorway.

Johnson walked in.

      “Level two,” Johnson said.

      “Level two,” the elevator responded, descending after the door shut.

      On level two the door opened. Johnson walked the length of the hallway in

front of him passing by countless empty offices. He came to a large metal door.

The door opened automatically. Johnson took off his trench coat and hung it on

the coat rack next to the door.

      The peephole as Johnson and the rest of the agents called it was a small

plain room. There was only space for two or three people maximum in it. Agent

Stenworth stood with his arms folded in front of him, shaking his head back and

forth. On the wall directly in front of Stenworth was a two-way mirror. The

peephole showed what was in the next room.

      There, an Arab man was seated in a steel chair. Thick metal clamps

covered his wrists and ankles, keeping him tight against the seat. The chair was

built into the floor, a permanent fixture in the room. Bright lights hung above the

man from the ceiling. Padded egg-shaped foam draped the wall of the room. The

screams from the man could only be heard over an intercom. The screams were

loud even though the intercom was turned down to its lowest level. The man was

naked, sweating profusely, and coated with dark almost black blood. A puddle of

urine and blood lay on the floor beneath the chair.

Johnson was unmoved by the scene.

      “We got a trooper here huh?” Johnson asked.

      “You don’t know the half of it,” Stenworth replied. “We’ve been going at

him for over twelve hours, ever since I got your email. Nice work by the way.

This son of a bitch is about as tough as they come. Didn’t speak a lick of English

for the first two hours, after that he spoke it quite well. Had the interpreter in here

for nothing. Still won’t give us the location though. I’ll tell ya we’ve gone down

the list with this guy. Injected him with the truth juice. Gave him a good hour of

high voltage. Hit him with the clubs until Sike and Williams couldn’t lift their

arms to swing them anymore. We pulled out everyone of his fingernails and two

of his teeth with a pair of pliers, and still nothing.”

     “What’s the blood from under the chair?” Johnson asked.

     “We were sticking ice picks in his balls and ended up having to castrate the

poor bastard. I had to call the meds to sew up his crotch so he wouldn’t die on us,”

Stenworth replied.

      “Have you tried the tank yet?” Johnson asked.

      “I thought it would take too long,” Stenworth responded.

      “This guy just wants us to put him out of his misery, if he knows he’s

gonna live for awhile, he might be more inclined to give it to us,” Johnson said.

      “What’s this asshole’s name again?” Johnson asked.

       “Mushin Ahcmed,” Stenworth said back.

Johnson held down the button on the intercom. “Take Mr. Ahcmed down

to the tank,” he said.

      Sike and Williams unlocked Mushin from the chair and his body fell in the

blood and urine in front of him. Agent Sike wrapped a thin chain around his neck

and pulled up until Mushin was on his feet.

     In the tank, Mushin’s wrists were placed in steel cuffs hooked to two chains

that hung a good ways from the ceiling. A plastic vitals monitor was placed on one

of his fingers. A clamp was placed around his neck with wiring running out of it

that went up to the ceiling as well. Sike took Mushin’s left arm and placed an I.V.

into one of the veins in his forearm. The plastic tube from the I.V. also rose to the

top of the ceiling along the path of the chains that imprisoned Mushin. Williams

placed a mask over his face, stopping him from using his mouth to bite anything or

anyone. Mushin’s legs were shackled tightly as well, keeping him in a vertical

position.

     The tank was only 20 feet by 20 feet, but had a ceiling as high as forty feet.

The ceiling had two large air ducts implanted in it. The walls were colorless, like

the floor, made out of concrete. Underneath Mushin’s feet was a drain and under

the drain, a metal seal. At the bottom of all four walls were circular holes the size

of softballs. The only light that entered the room was from the solid steel door that

opened to the hallway

      Agent Johnson walked into the tank and stood directly in front of Mushin.

He grabbed Mushin by the hair on top of his head, raising it until Mushin’s eyes

met his.

      “I want to tell you what all this is for, Mr. Ahcmed,” Johnson began. “In

the two minutes after I leave this room, thirty eight degree water will be pouring in

from the holes you see at the bottom of the walls, until it has filled the room up to

your waist. Since the blood from your heart travels into your legs and into the

water, your core body temperature will begin to decrease at a rapid pace, until the

point of hypothermia. But just before that point we’ll drain the water from under

your feet, fill the room with hot air and warm you back up. The wire attached to

your finger there, is fed to our computers in the next room, which monitors your

body temperature, heart rate, and tells us whether you’re awake or not. If you

should happen to fall asleep Mr. Ahcmed the collar around your neck will send

30,000 volts through your body until you wake up. Sleep deprivation in our

experience is far worse than the pangs of hunger and physical bodily harm.”

     “It matters not, Allah will take me within the hour,” Mushin replied.

     “See that’s the kicker, as we say here in the States, Mr. Ahcmed. That

I.V. in your arm has enough good stuff in it to keep you alive for a week or so.

That’s a long time to wait to see Allah. We already know it’s in San Francisco.

We know it’s in the next forty-eight hours. We even know who is planting the

bomb. Kazar and the boys spilled their guts on that one so to speak. All you have

to give us the location they’re staying at beforehand Mr. Ahcmed. I’m sure you’ll

do the sensible thing. In return we will give you your death.”

     Johnson patted him on his bruised shoulder as he left the room. The door

slammed shut cutting off the light from the hallway.

     Two hours passed. Mushin’s body shivered with the frequency of an

earthquake. Every few minutes the shakes would stop and Mushin would drift off

into sleep—only for a second. The voltage brought him back each time, almost

popping his eyes out of their sockets. The desire to fulfill his mission and please

Allah was slowly being replaced by the desire to meet Allah.

     Stenworth, Sike, and Williams watched the monitors in the room next to

the tank with anticipation. Johnson entered the room holding a cup of coffee. The

silence broke as Stenworth struck a match and lit a cigarette. Stenworth looked at

his watch as he inhaled hard on the smoke.

      Stenworth started for the door. “It’s been two hours, we’ve got to call

Langley.”

      Johnson put his hand on Stenworth’s chest stopping his tract to the door.

     “Give it a little while longer.”

     “We don’t have any longer. Every second counts,” Stenworth said.

     “What are you going to tell them, that we don’t have anything yet? They’re

just going to tell you to keep trying. This is all we’ve got. He’s going to break.

Give it forty minutes and then if we have nothing, you can make the call,” Johnson

replied.

     “Alright, forty minutes,” Stenworth replied, smashing the cigarette under

his shoe.

     Forty minutes was an overshot. It only took half that time. Achmed’s

screams came over the monitor, some of them in English and some in Arabic. Not

only did he give them the apartment they were staying at but the precise time of the

attack. The van they were using. Their names and descriptions. All of it spilled

out like the blood that came before it. The bomb was going to go off while the

terrorists drove across the Golden Gate, and it was all going down in less than six

hours during rush hour.

     “Did you record all that?” Johnson asked Sike.

     “Got it all,” Sike replied.

     “Get Langley on the phone. Have them call my cell when the terrorists and

the bomb are secured,” Johnson said.

     The water drained from the tank and hot air started to pump into the

chamber. Johnson walked in and stood in front of Mushin once again, who was

now mumbling in Arabic.

     “Once we have the bomb and your friends in custody I’ll put you out of

your misery Mr. Ahcmed. Hopefully for your sake we won’t have to fill this tank

up and start all over.” Mushin shook his head from side to side.

     With agents from the FBI and CIA already combing every crevice in San

Francisco the hunt took no more than an hour. The bomb was secured. Two of the

suspects were taken by force; the other was shot down in a gun battle with the field

agents.

     Johnson’s cell phone rang. The conversation was short.

Johnson raised his gun, pointing it between the tired yellow eyes in front of

him.

     “Thanks for your cooperation Mr. Ahcmed,” Johnson said.

A single shot rang out in the tank, piercing Mushin’s forehead, killing him

instantly.

VIII

      The first five minutes of practice, during stretching, I kept looking over at

the double doors hoping Roman would walk in. There were other glances at the

door as well. Coach Demera acted like he didn’t give a shit. His “one player never

makes a team” philosophy was hard at work trying to disguise the anticipation

evident in his fidgety feet drawing circles on the fieldhouse floor and in his

apparently nonchalant glances toward the hallway. Coach Grouse paced around as

much as his short stubby legs would carry him. Halfway through practice I quit

looking at the door, but kept thinking what a waste of talent it was. I helped out

scared freshman (several of whom wouldn’t be back tomorrow) with bunting drills

and such. I hit in the cage. I caught for a couple of last minute desperate guys who

thought they were all of a sudden pitchers. It was just a deflated practice for me,

going through the motions, pissed off because all hope seemed to be lost.

    Coach Demera never mentioned Roman that night. But he was oddly

quiet. His voice wasn’t banking off the fieldhouse walls, telling an infielder to get

his butt down, or a hitter to quit dropping his hands. We also ran more sprints that

night than I remembered in all of the previous years. A couple of players that

might have made the team actually walked out after sprint number fifty

something. Coach Demera would deny it to his deathbed, but I think he was just

taking his frustration out on us.

     A curious thing happened the following morning. Final cuts were posted

outside Coach’s office on a piece paper. It was real simple. If your name was on

the sheet, you made the team. If it wasn’t, don’t get any stupid ideas like Coach

accidentally left you off.

     I must have been the very last one to look at it. Ten minutes before the first

bell. My finger found the Falcone name after scrolling down only a couple of

spaces. It was one of those situations where it came in handy to have a name that

was at the front of alphabet. Some other names on the list: Pick Bryant, Sam

Peterman, Scott Jakowski, and Johnny Killman. The very last name, listed with an

asterisk next to it, was none other than Roman Swivel. In four years I’d never seen

someone make the team by only coming to one day of tryouts, much less the last

five minutes at the end. I guess the asterisk meant he performed well enough to

make the team, but wasn’t present for the entire tryouts. Coach Demera was

keeping hope alive a little while longer it seemed.

     Roman didn’t share our optimism. At lunch our pleading and words of

encouragement fell on deaf ears. Heather even intervened, trying to talk sense into

that Iowa farm boy buried deep in Roman’s soul. She ended up calling him obtuse,

which I imagine is what smart people say to one another when they really mean

“dumb ass”. Roman was flattered; I could see it in his eyes. He appreciated the

guys at the table thinking so much of him, and he was surprised that Coach had

kept his name on the list. But that was as far as it went.

     Roman showed up his usual half-hour before roll call. He organized his

janitor cart, topping off the bottles of cleaning solution, replacing dirty rags with

clean ones, and even wiping the cart down from top to bottom. Boss Chatterling

handed out assignments to all the other janitors and released them into the

hallways.

      The Boss leaned back on her makeshift desk in the dusty boiler room,

removed her glasses, and rubbed the hard-pressed indentions on the sides of her

nose. Roman stood at attention.

      “Ya know Swivel, when you first started here I would of bet a lot of money

that you would never make it. Physically I mean. You’re just a scrawny little guy,

and I never thought your body would ever keep up with the demand. Never judge

a book by its cover I guess. They still say that don’t they?”

     “Yes.”

     “In thirty-seven years I’ve never had a worker as good as you. You take

pride in your work just like I do. Maybe that’s why you and I have always gotten

along so well.”

    “Boss Chatterling, you’re not gonna get mushy on me, are you?” Roman

smiled expecting one in return.

     Helen only put her glasses back on and spoke in a serious tone. “Perish the

thought Swivel. Perish the thought.”

    “Is something wrong?”

    “Quite the opposite Swivel. Something’s very right. That’s what makes it

so hard. I knew I’d lose you in a couple a months. I just never knew it would be

this soon.”

    “I’m not following you.”

     “I’ve got to let you go.”

     “I don’t understand. You just said I was the best...”

     “Let me explain Swivel. I got a call from Coach Demera over the

weekend. I’m firing you for your own good. There’s a group of guys that really

needs you.”

     “I made a commitment to work for you. I don’t want to let you down.

Besides that’s just a game, they’ll do fine without me.”

      “Is that what your father would have said Swivel? That it’s just a game.”

Roman didn’t reply.

      “I didn’t think so. Believe it or not Swivel, this high school was cleaned

meticulously before you got here, and it still will be. Granted I might have to hire

three guys to take your place, but in the end I always find a way to get it done.”

Helen stood up and picked an envelope off the desk. “I figured up eleven weeks

until the end of school. I had payroll cut you a check for that time and then some.

Imagine that, me manipulating the system. Consider it severance pay.”

     “I don’t know what to say.”

      “Don’t go gettin’ all mushy on me Swivel. You don’t have to say

anything. Just go strike the sons of bitches out.”

     Roman smiled. “Thank you, for everything.”

     Boss Chatterling held out her hand and shook with the former janitor.

     Roman still couldn’t get over her grip.

     “The pleasure was all mine, Swivel.”

X

      We’d already spent thirty minutes of practice trying to get through

stretching. Coach Demera was a perfectionist, so when stupid freshmen didn’t

follow the routine, we all had to run. What should have taken ten minutes tops

turned into a circus of confused underclassmen. Coach would always let us seniors

sort out the mess, but after several failed attempts, running was the only surefire

way to get everyone’s attention.

      After finally making it through the stretching, we were allowed to play

catch. Even after continued warnings from us upperclassmen, the stupid-ass

freshmen continually dropped balls. So we ran more laps. Then we got our gloves

and tried it again. Two minutes later we were back running.

      The first week of Coach’s practices were often referred to as hell week.

Demera had two major critics of his coaching methods: parents who thought the

players were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and their sons who

were secretly cursing Coach in the silence of their thoughts. Nobody liked the piss

run out of ’em, least of all me. But I also was smart enough to know that it

worked. Fear was a great motivator, maybe the greatest. And two weeks from

now you’d be hard pressed to see a ball hit the ground during catch, or somebody

talking to their neighbor and out of sync during stretching. Whether you liked or

hated the man, the result was always the same: he made you better.

     After catch, we divided up into infielders and outfielders for drill work.

That meant how to drop step on a ball and crow hop correctly for outfielders, and

wooden gloves for infielders. Wooden gloves were exactly what their name

stated—circular thin slabs just big enough to cover your hand, with an elastic band

on the back for your fingers. Those crude devices turned mere mortals into actual

shortstops and second basemen.

     It was during those monotonous drills that Roman walked in. He still had

his gray janitor outfit on and couldn’t have looked more out of place. The drills

stopped. Everybody including the coaches just stared for a minute. Then there

were a few claps and before long the entire varsity joined in, expressing their

welcome with their hands.

     “That’s enough,” Coach Demera said.

      The clapping stopped.

     “I’ve got good and bad news for you, Swivel. The good news is I’m going

to let you practice in that get up of yours this one time. You can tell from the

ovation your teammates want you with them, and so do I. The bad news is your

teammates have run a hundred eighty-seven forty-yard sprints in the time that

you’ve missed. You’re gonna have to take care of that before you can join them.”

     My stomach tightened at the thought. I was a little nervous that Roman

might rethink playing after such a burden. But he only nodded and went to the

track. Demera sent one of the assistant coaches to count the sprints.

Our drills continued, and then there was a walk-through of our bunt

defenses, and at the end there was base running. Roman was still running after

practice finished. The entire varsity stayed around and watched. It wasn’t that we

liked watching him run, it hurt all of us. It was more of a respect thing. And then

     Coach Demera did the unthinkable. He pulled out his stopwatch as Roman ran,

clicked it at the beginning and at the forty-yard mark. Roman was sucking hard for

air by this time. I don’t care how good of shape you’re in; forty minutes of sprints

will make jello out of the best legs.

      Coach Demera looked down at the watch and shook his head. “What

number are you on Swivel?”

      “One hundred and eighty,” the janitor gasped back.

      “I’ve got bad news again. If you don’t run the sprint in under six seconds it

doesn’t count. And if doesn’t count you have to start over. You just ran that one

in six three.”

     This was the moment I’d feared. It was also the reason we all stayed

around. I knew what Coach was doing. He wanted to make sure Roman was

committed. And in his mind the only affirmation of this was to take Roman to the

point of breaking him mentally and physically. He wanted to know how bad the

janitor wanted it.

     Roman looked at Coach in disbelief, but only briefly. He got back on the

line and waited for the go ahead.

     “Go,” Demera said and clicked the watch.

     I jogged up to Roman at the far end and took the place next to him. His

eyes were squinted from the sweat, and I could hear the air wheezing in his chest.

     “What are you doing?” he said.

     “I’m running these with you. This is a team game remember?”

After two sprints Sam Peterman, Pick Bryant, and Scott Jakowski were

running with us. After four everyone but Johnny was running. And after six, even

the Killer joined in.

     As much of a hard ass as Demera was, he had a soft spot for team

camaraderie. He only made us run ten sprints as a group, citing that nineteen guys

running ten sprints was one ninety, and that was three more than he needed.

     Roman thanked us all afterward.

     We thanked him as well.

     And that’s how it went it for us. In the two weeks that followed, we were

subjected to Coach’s perfection; his never-pleased you-can-do-better philosophy,

and the boot camp practices that went along with it. That meant three hours a night

of cussing and yelling from the drumlike voice of a man who stood no more than

five-ten, and looked as if he should be teaching art appreciation somewhere. It

meant practices outside anytime it wasn’t freezing, even though there’s not much

difference between thirty-three and thirty-two when you’re fighting the winds of

March. It meant going over bunt defenses, cut-off alignments, offensive

procedures like hit and run and bunting. It meant fielding ground balls with

wooden gloves. It meant swinging the bat until the blood blisters on our hands

popped. We did it all a thousand times and then some. And when we messed up,

when somebody dropped the ball so to speak, we ran until we puked. Then we ran

some more. And just when your body thought it couldn’t take any more, when

your legs told your brain there’s no way they could take another step, we started all

over again. For me it meant pitchers like Roman popping my mitt until I couldn’t

feel my fingers anymore and blocking fifty or so balls a practice off the floor from

the pitching machine.

     When running and puking did not get the results Coach Demera was

looking for he would clear practice, throw us out, and tell us not to come back until

we were serious. There were guys like Johnny the Killer cussing Coach, quietly

plotting as we ran to come together and overthrow his evil regime. Maybe if we

stood against Coach and refused his tortures he would change. Johnny the Killer

on several occasions tried to get us all to quit. What would Coach do then?

Maybe we could jump him in the parking lot after practice. It was all bullshit

though, just hot air venting from the mind of a guy who was known in the real

world as the Killer, but in Demera’s practices as Johnny Killman. Truth be told,

Johnny was scared shitless of Coach. Never said a word to the man’s face.

    Johnny, like the rest of us, had been through it for four years. He knew what the

deal was. If we all hated Coach Demera enough it united us. The only way to beat

him was to be perfect. And the only way to be perfect was to come together as a

team, to care about the guys next to you more than yourself.

    Coach Demera majored in Psychology in college, and I think only the fear

of jail time prevented him from putting shock collars on us. I imagine he dreamed

at night of those collars, and how abrupt the results would be with their use. The

funny thing was—and Coach had this down to a science—just about the third week

of practice, when everyone was at their breaking point, and hating him more than

any person they ever met or heard about, our games started. We now had a whole

team to focus our frustration on instead of one man.

     Curious things happened that last week right before the first game. The fire

in our legs started to recede. The soreness in our arms was gone. We were

running sprints with ease. The blisters on our hands were now callused over. The

bickering between teammates over mistakes, the talking during stretching, the

goofing around, and the dropped balls during catch—all of them were gone. In

three weeks he’d chiseled us into a ball team. And when the guys started to throw

harder, hit better, run faster, and realize that they were in the best shape of their

lives, instead of hating Coach, they started to love him.

     Roman took to Coach’s system immediately. Demera’s practices were

highly organized—there wasn’t a second of three hours wasted—and Coach

demanded perfection. Those philosophies fit like pieces of a puzzle into the slots

of Roman’s brain. It was inspiring to watch him go from being last in the sprints

to first, to watch Coach Grouse mold him from just a thrower to a pitcher, to watch

him become a silent leader on the team because of his work ethic. Roman even

stayed around after practice every night at Sam Peterman’s request, and threw him

countless balls in the cage. He never complained like the rest of us. I guess when

you’ve lived a life like Roman’s, baseball could hardly be considered work.

XI

Near Washington D.C.

     Agent Johnson sat on his sofa in the dark, holding a glass of wine and

staring at the picture on his end table. The photo had been taken the day they

closed on the house. His wife and son had the same smile—wide gleaming teeth

that seemed to take up the entire width of their faces. They’d never gotten a

chance to spend a night in the house—a man halfway around the world with a

warped idea about how planes should be used on the Twin Towers had seen to

that. Johnson smiled anyway, and ran his long fingers down the sides of their faces

in the photograph.

      The pile of mail sat on his hardwood floor, touched last by the mailman

who sent it through the slot day after day. Johnson couldn’t remember the last

time he had actually been home. His wardrobe was scattered across the country at

Bravo and the other NN bases. It was better that way—to be working all the time.

There was nothing left for him here anyway and the evil in the world wasn’t going

go away by him just sitting at home. Johnson wasn’t naïve enough to think that

finishing off Kazar and his plot was the end of it. But freedom was built on one

dead terrorist at a time. So what was next?

      Johnson flipped open his phone to find no messages waiting. He walked

over to the only other piece of furniture in the room, which was a computer

station. He turned it on and swirled the wine around in his glass and drank it

down, waiting for the computer to access his NN account. There were no emails.

To most this would be a blessing, but Johnson didn’t know how to function

anymore without an assignment in front of him. He had fought, chased, and killed

for so long it was all he knew now.

      He sat there for a second, maybe wishing the computer would chime the

familiar alert letting him know he had an email, maybe hoping there would be new

orders for him, maybe wishing the Voice would call him in and have another

assignment. But he already the next assignment didn’t he? One that he was not

looking forward to. The lack of communication was an eerie way of fate telling

him it was time.

      Looking forward to it or not, there was only one way to go about this work

of his, and that was to get on with it. Johnson brought up the NN’s search

engine—a cruel device that not only searched the Internet and all of its numerous

browsers, but also broke into so-called secure locations of state and local

governments, as well as private companies and schools. Johnson had conquered

the awkwardness of his oversized fingers walking on a keyboard several years

back, and now they danced keys that spelled Roman Swivel into the blank space.

He hit the search button. Only seconds passed.

     “0 surface query hits for ‘Roman Swivel’,” the screen read. “Would you

like to do an exhaustive search with Internet Bots?”

I      nternet Bots were not robots at all, but a billion or so programs that

“crawled” every inch of the unfathomable amount of data in cyberspace. The Bots

search may take days, even weeks, but if the name Roman Swivel floated out in the

electrical universe, they would find it. Johnson clicked yes.

     “Where are you Roman?” he whispered to himself. “Where are you?”

XII

      Gina Hawthorne walked into The Lone Rose. Most of the time when she

wanted flowers one of the employees would be sent, but this was an occasion Gina

wanted to be perfect. There wasn’t time to deal with the errors of the servants.

     The Lone Rose wasn’t your typical flower shop. Upon opening the door,

the usual rush of fragrance hit Gina in the face, but there was something else. The

smell of expensive brewed coffee lingered in the air, and the aroma of cinnamon

made its way through the thick floral scent. Classical music danced over the

flower petals, surrounded the interior of the store, and bounced off the large glass

windows that made up the wall just to the left of the entrance. Lavish flowerprinted

furniture lined the outlying walls, and on those furnishings sat different

people, most of them women Gina’s age. They ate Danishes and sipped their

flavored coffees in petite cups, the handles of which could only be held by two

fingers.

     Freddy spotted Gina immediately and rushed out from behind the counter,

almost knocking over one of his employees. He walked over quickly, trying to

keep a professional demeanor. Their smiles met in the middle of the aisle—a smile

that would not be so happy if Gina knew of her daughter’s circumstances at

Extravaganza and if Freddy knew that the blond beauty that helped ruin his party

was the daughter of the person he now spoke to.

     “Dear Mrs. Hawthorne, to what do we owe a morning filled with such

grace and beauty?” The Flower asked and bent down to kiss her hand.

     “Only your help, Mr. Flowers, only your help,” Gina said and laughed.

“How may I be of service?”

     “I host Bridge club this month, and was wishing to decorate the house for

the occasion.”

     “Your wish is my desire. I can only hope that your purchase will be half as

lovely as the woman in front of me.”

     Gina didn’t blush, only batted her eyes at the shower of compliments. With

her looks and more importantly her money, she had come to expect such

adoration. “I am not going to waste your valuable time Mr. Flowers by picking out

every plant. I trust your keen insight and impeccable reputation in such matters.”

      Freddy walked over to the counter, picked up a pad and pencil, and began

to write. “Will you be doing the entire mansion or just the lower levels?”

     “Just the immediate area. The foyer, sunroom, staircase, and of course the

dining room…speaking of the staircase, you wouldn’t happen to know of a good

carpenter would you? My daughter’s new boyfriend pointed out a couple flaws in

our wood work and it’s been driving me to insanity ever since.”

    “What an auspicious question. I recently hired a carpenter myself, to fix

one of my warehouses some meddling teen-agers decided to try to burn to the

ground. It must be fate that brings you here to today.”

    “Would your man be interested in some side work?”

     “I’m certain he would be. The man is a genius when it comes to carpentry.

I think we are going to go into the furniture business together. Should I send him

over so you could talk?”

     “Mr. Flowers, your word is good enough.”

 

 

           


 

 

 

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