Out at Home

Out at Home by Chris Panzarella

Rooting for a baseball team as bad as the Edge City BayHawks is like being stuck in an abusive relationship.  Every year they break your heart and embarrass you in public, but come spring you’re right back in the bleachers rooting for them to win.

            This kind of resiliency comes in handy all the time in my line of work.  When you choose to work as a private detective you have to accept the fact that you are going to get the short end of the stick.  A lot.  Clients will refuse to pay, leads will refuse to pan out, and suspects will refuse to tip their hand.  The list goes on.

            However, every once in a great while, if he’s lucky, a private detective will get a chance at a Big Case.  The type where someone rich and famous has been murdered, assaulted, or otherwise brutally victimized in a criminal fashion.  A case where everyone follows the news waiting to see what happens next.  So naturally when a Big Case strolled into my office one humid July afternoon I was immediately suspicious.

***

            My office, Mark Nelson Investigations, sits on West 19th street just a couple of blocks past a wonderful old blue collar neighborhood, recently renovated and now infested with yuppies.  It occupies the second floor of a squat brick building sandwiched between a Chinese take-out joint and a squadron of shabby rowhouses.

            I was sitting at my desk, an old mahogany monstrosity, listening to the BayHawks radio broadcast bounce off the warped walnut paneling that lined the walls when the door opened and a woman calmly walked in.

            She wore a simple yet elegantly tailored navy blue suit and enough jewelry to be considered tasteful but not quite garish.  A slim golden chain glimmered at her throat while a ring set with three sapphires sparkled on her left hand.  Her outfit told me she was rich, rich enough to prefer discretion over attention.  She glanced once around my office with an air of slight bemusement, took a seat on one of the plastic chairs I had picked up at Good Will for a buck, and cleared her throat.

            “Mark Nelson?”

            “Yes ma’am, what can I do for you?”

            “My husband died last night.”

            I blinked.  The woman didn’t.  She kept on talking.  “I believe he was murdered, I want you to find out who killed him.”

            I coughed to buy a moment.  “If this is a homicide case, and it certainly sounds like one, you need to call the police.  Try Detective Lieutenant Portman at-”

            The woman cut me short by shaking her head, slowly but firmly.

            “No.  I considered going to the police, but after they were implicated in the death of that young Hispanic boy I decided they couldn’t be trusted.  Besides, someone called them in already. They’re checking out the crime scene as we speak.”

            I leaned back in my chair and looked at the woman questioningly.  “If the police are already involved, why are you coming to me?  What do you think I can do that they can’t?”

            “Like I said, I don’t trust the police.  I want someone independent looking at the evidence, someone who won’t jump to an easy conclusion to satisfy the press.”

            I sighed, settled back into my chair and pulled out my notepad.

            “Well, it looks like I’m your man then.  Let’s start at the beginning.  What’s your name?”

            “Michelle Peterson.  My husband was a local businessman named Arthur.”

            I paused and looked up.

            “Arthur Peterson.”

            “Yes.”

            “As in Arthur Peterson, owner of the Edge City BayHawks.”

            “That’s correct.”

            “Mrs. Peterson, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the list of people who hated your husband would stretch from my office into the next state.  Do you follow baseball much?”

            “Not particularly, no.”

            “Then you may not know that the BayHawks last put together a winning season three presidents ago.  Players, coaches, managers, and even general managers have come and gone, but Mr. Peterson has presided over all of them.  He is generally regarded as the biggest cause of the BayHawks’ downfall.  Trying to find his murderer will be like looking for a needle in a haystack made of needles.”

            Mrs. Peterson looked me right in the eye.

            “Mr. Nelson, I appreciate your concerns.  Would triple your normal rate be sufficient to allay them?”

            I made a quiet choking sound.  After a moment, I recovered.

            “Okay, okay.  I’ll take the job.”

            “Excellent.”

            “One last question, though.  This case is going to be a huge story.  Why come to a small-timer like me?”

            Mrs. Peterson presented her immaculate white teeth in an icy smile.  “Because, Mister Nelson, I know all about your past.  I know who you used to be.  I imagine you will come into contact with all types of baseball-affiliated people in the course of your investigation.  A man of your background should serve admirably in handling a situation such as this.” 

            Now it was my turn to stare.

            “Not many people know that I used to play for the BayHawks, especially since I took steps to change my name.”

            She lifted one hand in a gesture of apology.  “In any case, I took the liberty of bringing my late husband’s datebook with me.  Feel free to peruse it at your leisure, but I must insist that you not write in the book and return it to me when finished.”

            She stood up and handed me an embossed business card.

            “Here’s my number; please contact me with any results.  I wish you luck in your search.”

            With that she strode out of my office and shut the door behind her.

            I put some water on for coffee and looked at the late Mr. Peterson’s planner.  It was bound in heavy red leather.  I opened the front cover and started reading.

Arthur Peterson kept busy for a man of his advanced age.  His schedule was crammed with business conferences, personal lunches with old friends, and committee meetings on the BayHawks’ current affairs.  After sifting through the last two months’ worth of appointments I had a list of names but no obvious connections.  I decided to take a break and stretch my legs.  The All-Star game kicked off tomorrow in St. Louis.  What better time to check out a murder scene?

***

            I parked my beat-up old Ford three blocks over from Main Street and enjoyed a rare cool breeze on the afternoon summer air as I walked to my destination.

            The BayHawks had played in Edge City Municipal Stadium since they moved here 45 years ago.  Dubbed ‘The Nest’ by the locals almost immediately, it still brought to mind the grand old ballparks from the sixties, where the last of the Silver Age greats played out their careers.  I flashed my ID card and detective’s license at a side gate and was promptly waved through.  Mrs. Peterson had apparently made sure I wouldn’t have any trouble getting in to take a look around.

            I stepped into the main concourse and took a slow, deep breath.  Sometimes when I go to a game I’ll just buy a beer and wander through the concourse, lost in a human sea of crackerjacks and conversation.  This time, as I passed under the green steel archways, only wails of regret and whispers of ghosts long forgotten rose to meet me.

            One of the park attendants, a pale, thin man with a paler, thinner mustache, unlocked the outfield gates and let me onto the field.  I paused for a moment to crouch down and run my hands across a patch of outfield grass, savoring the texture, then continued on to meet the first challenge of the day.          Several uniformed police officers stood guard over the infield dirt, their burnished shields glinting in the sunlight.   Just past them a couple of crime scene technicians in dark blue windbreakers scurried around like fleas that had just caught the scent of blood.  Unfortunately that scent was literal in this case.  One of the officers held up his hand as I approached.

            “Sir, this place is absolutely off limits to civilians, I’m going to have to ask you to leave immediately.”

            I shook my head and flashed my ID again.  “Sorry, but I can’t do that.  I’m a private detective hired and retained by the Peterson estate.  I need to take a look around.”

            The cop narrowed his eyes.  “Perhaps you didn’t hear me correctly sir.  This scene is off-limits to civilians, and that especially includes a pathetic broken down old man pretending to be a-”

            “Eddie, you’re going to have to let him through.”

            We both looked at the speaker, a thirtyish man in a rumpled suit with brown hair and lines in his face.  A detective’s badge hung from the breast pocket of his suit.

            Eddie sputtered.  “Sir, you can’t seriously be suggesting-” 

            Detective Lieutenant John Portman raised a hand.  “Much as it pains me to admit it, Mr. Nelson appears to have friends in high places.  I just got a call from Captain Reynolds, apparently we are to allow Mr. Nelson an unobstructed look at the scene.”  He stabbed a finger at me with a grimace.  “You have five minutes, make the most of them.  Don’t touch anything or I’ll haul you in on obstruction.”

            I simply nodded at Portman and made my way to home plate, conscious that the rest of the officers were watching my every move.  When I reached my destination I just stood and took in the scene for a long moment.

            Arthur Peterson hadn’t died cleanly.  His body lay face-up at home plate, his arms and legs skewed at angles that gave him the appearance of a drunken scarecrow.  The left side of his face had been bludgeoned into a bloody ruin.  I knelt down in the third base batter’s box to get a closer look at his head.  The left temple had completely caved in, but something seemed to have left a faint impression in the wound.  The impression looked like something familiar.  It looked like a baseball.

            I stood up and walked back to the mound, taking care to avoid the crime scene techs who were snapping pictures and taking samples.  Toeing the rubber, I took up a set position and stared in at home plate, thinking.  The sounds of police chatter faded into the background as I focused my attention.  From here Peterson was just a pinch hitter making the last appearance of his career.  In my experience, things were always easier to sort out from a pitcher’s mound.  Unfortunately, this mound was behind on its maintenance; a couple of dirt clumps had been gouged out of each side.

            I thought about the situation for a couple of minutes, then nodded to myself.  The list of suspects had just gotten a lot shorter.

            My five minutes were up.  I bid farewell to Portman and his stable of uniforms and made my way back to the outfield gates.

***

            I was walking back through The Nest’s concourse when a large blond man came huffing up.  Sweat glistened in sideburns wrought like golden wire.  The man pulled off his large plastic eyeglasses, mapped his broad forehead with a white handkerchief, then stuck out his hand.

            “Pleased to meet’cha sir.  Miss Peterson said you’d be droppin’ by.  Name’s Charlie Milton; I’m the equipment manager for the home team clubhouse at the stadium.  Anythin’ I can do to lend a hand?”

            I glanced back the way I had come.  “Now that you mention it, a question has occurred to me.  How come the body hasn’t been taken away yet?  Have you talked to the police here at all?”

            Charlie shook his head.  “I don’ really trust cops, not since some fat sergeant from the 3rd precinct ran my brother in on some bullshit fraud charges a couple years back.  As for the body, given how high profile this crime’s gonna be, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts they’re takin’ their sweet time to make sure they don’t miss anything.”

            I sighed.  “I can’t say I’m surprised.”  I looked back at Charlie.  “Come to think of it, there might be something you can do to help.”

            I took out the list of names I had copied from Peterson’s date book and handed it over.

            “Do you know where I can find any of these guys?”

            Charlie slowly perused the list.  After a moment he brightened.  “Yeah, I can help ya out.  The ‘Hawks just got back from a long road trip.  They’ve got the next couple ‘o days off on account of the All-Star game and whatnot, but they start up again in three days.  I know where ya can find a couple of these guys.  Graham is still livin’ with his parents up on 23rd street, and last I heard of ol’ Crowley he was spending most of his days at the Edge City Library over on Cold River Way.  They’re the only two locals on this here list.”

            He handed the paper back to me and I folded it into an outside pocket of my jeans.

            “You seem to know a great deal for a clubhouse manager.”

            Charlie shrugged.  “I sometimes end up running errands for the guys.  Plus, I feel like I can trust ya.  Ya walk like a baseball player.”

            I thanked Charlie and walked back to my car.

***

            I parked on east 23rd street and walked towards the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Graham.  Their son Marty had been drafted out of high school by the BayHawks in the sixth round of the Amateur Draft.  A promising infield prospect, he had risen steadily through the farm system.  Two years ago he cracked the ‘Hawks’ major league roster as the starting third baseman and hadn’t looked back since.  His hitting skills were alternately described as adequate and a work in progress.  Defensively, however, he was already drawing comparisons to the legendary Brooks Robinson, who had manned the hot corner up in Baltimore many years ago.

            I knocked on the front door and Marty himself answered.  A tall, rangy youth with clear green eyes, his posture spoke of an easy, self-confident grace.  He looked me up and down.

            “Sorry, we don’t give out donations.”

            I smiled.  “Thanks, but I’m not collecting.  My name’s Mark Nelson, I’m a private investigator.  Do you have a minute to talk?”

            Marty cocked his head slightly to one side.  “What’s this about?”

            “Something serious has happened.  I think it would be better if we talked about this indoors.”

            Marty narrowed his eyes.  “Is there any particular reason I should trust you?”

            I spread my hands.  “Honestly?  Not really.”

            Marty nodded slowly.  “Sure, come on in, the parents are out to dinner.”

            The Graham household was well worn but comfortably lived in.  Most of the furniture and decorations looked to be at least thirty years old but well cared for.  Marty led me to the dining room table and sat down, motioning to the chair across from him.  “So, what ‘serious’ matter are you investigating?”

            I took out my notepad and watched Graham carefully.  “Someone murdered Arthur Peterson last night.”

            I expected surprise, maybe a little shock.  Instead the young third baseman merely nodded his head.

            “I know, the manager told us this morning.  The team is trying to keep the story out of the press, but they wanted the players to know firsthand.”

            I raised an eyebrow.  “You seem pretty calm talking about death for someone your age.”

            Marty spread his hands with the palms up.  “I’m not going to lie to you, death shouldn’t  be a cause for celebration.  However, I really didn’t care for that crotchety old bastard.”  He paused.  “This conversation is off the record, right?”

            I nodded.  “Of course.  There’s no love lost between me and the Edge City press, don’t worry.  Getting back to Peterson, why didn’t you like him?”

            Marty scowled at the table.  “Four years ago, I was ready for the major leagues.  My manager at Triple-A knew it.  The coaches there knew it.  Even the other players knew it.  Everyone knew it.  Everyone, that is, except for Old Man Peterson.  He saw the talent I had, but he didn’t want to have to pay for it.  So, he buried me.

            “I toiled in the minor leagues for two more years until I finally forced them to put me on the major league roster.  Who knows what those two lost years will do to my career?”

            He took a deep breath and unclenched his hands.  I looked at him, not unsympathetically.  “Did the team officials tell you how Peterson died?”

            Marty shook his head.  “No, they didn’t have any specifics.”

            “He was killed by a baseball to the head.”

            Marty looked up at me.  “And you think I had something to do with it?”

            “I wasn’t going to put it that bluntly, but yes.  While we’re on the subject, can you tell me where you were last night?”

            Marty narrowed his eyes.  “The entire team flew in yesterday evening, except for Mel Hendricks, who’s our representative at the All-Star game this year.  I went out by myself for dinner and a couple of drinks then came home and went to sleep, but I can’t prove any of it.  On that note, I think it’s time you left.”

            I didn’t press the issue with him.  It had been a long day.

***

            As I rounded the corner back onto East 23rd the glow of a streetlamp revealed Portman’s hunched figure sitting on my hood.

            I stopped five feet away and kept my hands in view.  “Good evening Detective Lieutenant, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

            The man glanced up at me.  “Spare me the pleasantries.  You talked to some people today.  People who don’t talk to the police.  What did they tell you?”

            I shrugged.  “Home gardening tips, mostly.”

            Portman scowled.  “Stop fucking around Nelson.  My men are finishing with the crime scene as we speak.  The only things I need now are witnesses.  I know you’re following up on a lead with Graham.  Bring me into the loop and I won’t make you regret it.”

            I shook my head slowly.  “Sorry, I answer to Mrs. Peterson on this, if you can get her approval I’ll tell you everything.  You’re welcome to arrest me if you want, but something tells me you need to move fast on this case and my being behind bars won’t help you.”

            The detective looked at me long and hard, then threw up his hands as he got off my car.  “Take one of my cards, it has my number.  Damn it Nelson, we’re on the same team here.”

            “With all due respect I play by a different definition of the word.  Have a good night, Detective.”

            Portman’s figure cast a long silhouette as I started my engine and drove off into the night.  

            I went home and poured myself a nightcap.  As I sipped the whiskey I listened to a news broadcast covering an ongoing citywide strike by the municipal trash collectors as it crackled through my radio.  According to the latest reports negotiations had picked up between city officials and the various union reps.  Apparently the large buildups of garbage on street corners had sparked a public outcry to have the matter settled.  Meanwhile, my case was still very much up in the air.

***

            The next morning I scrambled two eggs to go with some toast and orange juice and ate quickly.  I wanted to get to the Edge City Library before it opened.

            Without a doubt, stakeouts are one of the most tedious aspects of being a detective.  I parked the Ford across the street from the library’s front doors and settled down to wait.  Since I was stationed up the street I had a good view of people approaching the library from both directions.

            During the first three hours I didn’t have any luck.  A pair of young mothers walked in together with their children.  An hour and twenty minutes later, three older gentlemen in military veteran jackets trooped through the entrance, chatting quietly among themselves.  Remarkably, a gaggle of adolescent kids crowded through the doors a short time later.  I blinked at them in surprise; most people my age don’t expect children to visit the library of their own free will these days.  Finally, halfway through hour number five, my patience paid off.

            Like countless BayHawk Fans I had seen Bud Crowley’s face on TV often enough to be able to pick him out of a police lineup.  Even in retirement his fluffy gray hair and thick, ruddy face hadn’t changed much.  It was easy to spot the man ambling down the sidewalk in the exact same gait he had used whenever he needed to walk onto the diamond and confront an umpire or two on a bad call.

            I waited until he passed my car, then got out and crossed the street behind him.  I entered the library four steps on this tail, scanned my library card at the front desk a few seconds after Crowley did, then held back and kept him within eyesight as he made his way to the Classics section.   He went immediately to one high shelf, removed a book, and headed for a corner table.  I gave him a minute to get comfortable, then approached.

            “Bud Crowley?”

            He looked up at me, then squinted after a moment.

            “Do I know you, young man?”

            I quickly shook my head.  “No sir, my name is Mark Nelson.  I’m a private detective investigating a murder.”

            “Is that so?  Whose murder?”

            “Arthur Peterson.”

            The weathered ex-manager studied my face for several long moments.  Then he slowly closed his book.  The man had been reading Paradise Lost.

            “I think perhaps you should start from the beginning, young man.”

            I pulled up a chair and gave Crowley the condensed version of yesterday’s events.  When I was finished he rubbed the bridge of his bony nose with a broad thumb and forefinger.

            “Given the circumstances, I assume you are here to question me?”

            I nodded.  Crowley sighed.  “Young man, I managed the BayHawks for twelve years.  Arthur Peterson was anything but a hands off owner during that time despite whatever he said in his daily press conferences.  I doubt a single week went by without his finding some excuse to question my management of the team.  The day I handed him my resignation was one of the most satisfying of my baseball career.

            “We feuded constantly, I won’t deny that.  However, I do deny having a role in that man’s death; it was far easier just to walk away.  Besides, do you really think I could throw a baseball hard enough to kill at my age?”

            I blinked.  “I take it Marty Graham talked to you then.”

            “Indeed, he called me late last night, just after he spoke to you.”

            “In that case, I have just one other question.  What did you and Marty talk about when the two of you had dinner with Mr. Peterson two weeks ago?”

            This time it was Crowley’s turn to blink.  “How did you hear about that?”

            “I have his datebook, he had a dinner scheduled with you and Marty Graham.  So, what did the three of you talk about?”

            He hesitated, but only for a moment.  “We spoke of the future.  Marty and I had each invested a considerable sum of money in a stock portfolio Arthur had set up.  When the stocks tanked, we both wanted to cash out and cut our losses.  The three of us met over dinner to discuss the particulars.”

            A wistful smile played across his weathered face.  “I also asked about coming to spring training to throw some batting practice.  Peterson turned me down; he had just bought two machines that can pitch to batters at speeds ranging from batting practice to over one hundred miles an hour.”

            I shook my head.  “That’s a bit of a shame.  I always thought baseball was the last place for machinery like that.”

            Crowley nodded.  “Besides that, I heard any time you set one up on a pitcher’s mound it has a tendency to gouge out large chunks of dirt from it.”

            An image from The Nest crashed its way into my mind and a chill ran down my spine.  I jerked out of the chair.  “I have to go.  Now.”

            Crowley smiled.  “Sure.  It was nice seeing you again, Billy.”

            I had already started to walk away, but stopped dead in my tracks at those words.  I turned back to my ex-manager. 

            “I…hoped that you had forgotten about me after so many years.”

            He shook his head.  “Not a chance, but don’t worry.  Your secret is safe with me.  The path you chose to walk is no one’s business but your own.  Godspeed.”

***

            I sprinted to my car and broke every traffic law on the books getting back to The Nest.  Thirty minutes later and thoroughly out of breath I staggered into the concourse.  There wasn’t a game scheduled that day, but I flagged down an attendant to point me towards the office for the home team equipment manager.  I was told to check the indoor batting cages nestled deep within the stadium’s concrete-lined basement levels.

            I opened the door to the batting cages just in time to see Charlie Milton step onto the mock home plate with a remote control gripped in his hand.  At the other end of the long room a squat machine crouched on the mock pitcher’s mound like some giant prehistoric insect, overhead lights gleaming on its black metallic shell.  The equipment manager smiled at me.

            “Afternoon Mr. Nelson, I wondered if I was gonna see ya again.”

            I held up my hands.  “It’s over Charlie, please don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”

            He smirked ruefully.  “How’d ya figure out it was little ol’ me?”

            “I saw some deep gouge marks in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound while examining Peterson’s body.  I didn’t make the connection until I heard about his pitching machines this morning.  I had been working on the theory that a human threw the baseball that killed Mr. Peterson.”

            Charlie’s gut shook with deep, hearty laughter.  “Every time it’s always the devil inna details that trips ya up.”

            “Where is that baseball anyway, Charlie?”

            “In m’ desk sealed in a plastic bag.  I stuck a writt’n confession in there wit’ the thing.  Three weeks ago Bud Crowley came back to The Nest to throw out the first pitch for one of the home games.  Later that day I overheard him talking with Marty Graham about how Peterson had screwed ‘em both over in some fancy money deal.  That was the last straw for me; I had already heard rumors from the front office about Old Man Peterson plotting to move the ‘Hawks out to Las Vegas.”

            Charlie looked up at me.  Tears glistened in his eyes.  “I put up with his crap for twenny years, I wasn’t gonna stand for it any longer.  I sent an anonymous note telling him I knew everything.  I told him to be at home plate by midnight or my story was going right to them folks in the press.  I set up one of the machines an’ cut the juice to the stadium’s lights.  As soon as he set foot on home plate I hit the switch and fed his sorry ass a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball.”

            I met Charlie’s wide-eyed stare head on.  “Charlie, believe me when I say I know what it’s like to lose your livelihood when you live and breathe baseball.  But you can move on.  I, I know you’re better than this, put the remote down and let’s talk about it.  Please.”

            Charlie’s grinned.  “I only got one thing left to say.”  His grin widened maniacally.  “BATTER UP!!” 

            He pushed the button.  That damned pitching machine screamed.  A white blur took the man full in the face.  The remains of Charlie Milton crumpled to the ground.  I swallowed and made the sign of the cross.

            I made two calls in the following three minutes.  First, I called Mrs. Peterson and extracted a promise from her to keep my name out of the papers.  I told her the whole tale and made an appointment to return the datebook in two hours.  After I hung up with her I dialed the number for Detective Portman.  I told him what had happened and where I was.  He sprinted through the front doors of The Nest twenty minutes later.  He found the murder weapon and confession right where Charlie had left them.  He promised to keep my name out of the story on the condition that I make a statement for the record back at the precinct.  I agreed, and made it to Mrs. Peterson’s house with five minutes to spare.

            The press broke the story the next day; I made it a point to stay home and ignore the rest of the planet.  Later that week I found myself in a bar two blocks from my office sipping a beer.  Everyone was talking about the strike; the City Council had finally given in, and the trash collectors were back at work keeping Edge City relatively clean.  I listened to a 7 o’clock news broadcast on the matter for a few minutes, then asked the barkeep to switch the channel over to sports, where the BayHawks were facing down the Phillies.  During the sixth inning one of the broadcasters took a break from the play-by-play to tell a brief story.  His voice rustled through the bar like fresh sandpaper.

            “The Edge City BayHawks are no strangers to injury.  One major reason they’ve struggled for so long is their star players’ inability to stay healthy.  Of course few examples are more heartbreaking than their star young catcher from the ’94 season, where they came within three games of making the playoffs for the first time in twenty years.  However, after a nasty home plate collision on the last day of the season gave him a broken arm, wrist, elbow, and shoulder, Billy Brown dropped out of sight and never played baseball again.  Perhaps one day we’ll find out what happened to him.  Until then, we’re proud to bring you BayHawks baseball here on Channel 10!”

            I waited for the game to come back on.  When it did, I ordered another beer and thought about tomorrow.

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