A Friendly Game
by Stephen D. Rogers

.......Jack Perini closed the folders on his desk as soon as he saw the shadow on the pebbled glass. The door opened and Harry poked his head inside. "Have a minute, Jack?"

......."Sure." Harry owned the metal fabrication company that filled ninety-seven percent of Building A, and the management company that ran the industrial park had been more than delighted when Perini Investigations offered to rent the virtually unusable remainder. "What's up?"

.......Harry stopped just inside the door. "I don't know if you know, but the shop has a softball team. There's a game tonight and we're short a player. You interested?"

.......Jack chuckled. "I haven't played ball in years."

......."Not a problem."  Harry grinned.  "It's just a friendly game.  You can hang out in right field and drink beer.  I need a body out there and I'd really appreciate the favor."

......."Sounds like fun."

......."We'll stop in at quitting time with the details."

.......Jack watched the door swing closed behind his new team captain.  Imagine that, he was part of a team again.  As a private investigator, he had no one but himself.  He ate alone and he drank alone and he slept alone.  Even when he attended the occational PI convention, he listened to lectures and watched the demonstrations and tested the gadgets alone.

.......Harry was not only married but worked with his wife. He supervised a dozen employees and apparently spent a good chunk of his time off with them as well. Heck, Harry even had friends.

.......There were no mean streets. Only mean lives  But not any more.  Jack felt his body loosen.

......."Take me out to the ball game," Jack said to no one.

.......He surprised himself with a smile before returning to filing.

.......Ten minutes after five, Harry led Sheila through Jack's door. "We still on for tonight?"

......."You bet."

.......Harry's wife looked everywhere but at Jack. If she was impressed with his efforts to organize the mess, she hid it well.

......."Great." Harry flashed a thumbs-up. "We play over at Lopes Memorial. Need a glove?"

......."I'm all set."  There was a sporting goods store over on Margi where he could buy a softball glove.  Maybe a bat and ball so he could practice hitting between games.

......."The game starts at seven but we practice at six-thirty."

......."Six-thirty it is."

......."See you then."

.......Jack waited for the door to close behind the couple before he locked up his papers and another five minutes before leaving his office.  Maybe he should buy two gloves in case he lost one.

.......The parking lot was empty and Jack whistled as he walked to his car.

.......The day had been good. He'd made some calls, tracked down facts that touched a dozen cases, and caught up on paperwork. Pretty soon he'd be standing out in right field, waiting for the crack that signaled a ball coming his way.

.......Jack fiddled with the radio as he drove, hoping to hear a game, but all he could find was music. That figured. He left the radio on a station playing soft jazz and thought about what else he might need........

.......Harry had mentioned beer but neglected to say whether it was provided or whether Jack should bring his own. Well, picking some up wasn't exactly an impossible task. Bring enough to share, score a few points, make a few friends. No reason this had to be a one-time event.

.......Maybe he should try to arrive early, learn the lay of the land.

.......Did he need cleats?

.......Jack laughed at himself and it felt good.

.......He changed radio stations until he found a song he could hum.

.......By six fifteen he was parked at Lopes Memorial, eating a microwaved mystery meat sandwich and waiting for the others to arrive. In the back seat were three cases of beer: regular, lite, and imported. Covering all the bases.

.......Jack glanced at his dashboard clock again.

.......It was still early.

.......What if he stunk? What if, instead of making the game-winning play, he missed every ball that flew his way and embarrassed himself at the plate? He'd never get invited back. His dad had loved baseball.  America's favorite pasttime was the one thing they had ever had in common, even if his father loved the game for the game, and Jack had loved the game for the chance to be with his dad.

.......Two cars pulled into the lot. By the time the drivers climbed out and high-fived, three more cars had arrived.

.......Jack finished his sandwich and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.

.......No one was carrying beer. No one was wearing cleats. The team uniform appeared to be jeans and a t-shirt. Jack would look odd out in right field wearing long sleeves.

.......The players gathered on the diamond. One stretched and another did jumping jacks while the rest talked.

.......Jack wondered if he should wait for Harry to introduce him? Just how often did Harry bring in replacements? Was this his team or the other guys? He didn't recognize anyone.

.......Then Harry himself pulled into the lot and the players converged on his car.

.......Jack took a deep breath and joined them.

.......The men were carrying mesh bags of equipment from Harry's trunk. Two cases of beer from a local brewery. Jack hadn't thought of that.

.......Harry slapped him on the shoulder. "Glad you could make it."

......."Can't let the team down."

.......Harry laughed before making a series of quick introductions. He paused. "Where are Gomez and Treat?"

......."Here comes Gomez now."

.......The mesh bags were emptied of bats and balls while Harry handed out caps and numbered blue jerseys.

......."I hope you don't mind 12."

.......Jack shrugged. "Fine with me."

......."Don't worry. They're washed between games."

.......Seeing the others shuck their t-shirts before putting on their jerseys, Jack did likewise. The clothes went on the first bleacher along with the beer. Cell phones went on the second one. Jack was glad he hadn't brought his gun.

.......Someone whooped.

......."Looks like Treat decided to show up after all."

......."Sorry, guys."

.......Harry shook his head. "You know the rules."

.......Treat grabbed the plastic bases from one of the bags and ran the infield, dropping them in place. Everyone applauded as he completed the task.

.......Harry winked at Jack. "First home run of the game."

......."Hope it's not the last."

.......Nodding, Harry pulled a whistle from his pocket and then blew twice. "Okay, listen up. We have fifteen minutes before the enemy -- I mean the other team -- comes begging for practice time. Let's look smart."

.......Jack jogged out to right field and watched the infielders toss the ball around while the pitcher warmed up. Harry motioned the player on first towards the plate and each man in turn swung at a few pitches.

.......The shortstop hit a long fly ball and Jack snagged it easily, his throw to first overshooting the raised glove. Well, that's what practice was for.

.......Jack stopped a second ball on a bounce and Harry waved him in for his chance at the plate.

.......The bat was heavier than Jack expected. He swung twice as though he knew what he was doing and then stepped into the box.

.......Two strikes were followed by a solid grounder to third.

.......Jack grinned. It was all coming back. The sense of belonging.

.......More cars entered the parking lot and Harry checked his watch. "Two minutes."

......The pace of practice quickened as the focus changed to throwing and catching. Jack felt muscles he'd forgotten slowly awaken and begin to perform as softballs passed from player to player, the effortless motion punctuated by satisfying smacks.

.......Harry blew two short bursts and the team left the field for the bench.

......."Looking good out there. Let's keep it up when it matters. Remember, the losing team staffs the volunteer table at the next blood drive and the winners get to donate." He raised a hand. "More importantly, it's not whether you win or lose, but how badly you crush your opponent."

.......The team cheered and then watched their victims warm up.

.......The guy standing next to Jack -- Treat -- turned to face him. "I don't suppose you're a ringer?"

......."Sorry, he just asked me to fill in. I'm just a friend." It felt good saying it.

......."Cool. It's a good group of guys. We have fun."

.......Jack was glad Treat hadn't asked what he did for a living. He was finally part of a team again and didn't want to lose the feeling. "Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves."

.......Treat nodded. "Just don't make any errors or we take you behind the bleachers and beat the crap out of you."

......."What if I make the game-winning play?"

......."Harry kisses you full on the lips."

.......The two men laughed.

.......Treat glanced at Jack's glove. "You play much softball?"

......."Softball? I thought we were here to golf."

......."Keep it up and we'll vote you team captain."

.......Harry rushed onto the field pointing at his watch and then waving his arms.

......."That was quick." Jack checked the time.

......."Oh it's early. But Harry likes to get the opposing captain worked up. Then he apologizes for his watch running fast, and it's game time."

......."Does he do it every game?"

.......The two captains stood with their faces only inches apart, screaming obscenities.

......."No. Sometimes he fakes a heart attack."

.......Jack laughed so hard he had to fight to catch his breath. "You're joking."

......."Lou Piniella's got nothing on Harry."

.......Jack shook his head. "So what's up with number twelve, the guy I'm replacing? Did he have a heart attack too?"

......."Harry told him to call in sick today, do some fishing." Treat shrugged. "Management works in mysterious ways."

.......The two captains stopped yelling and blew their whistles. Harry flipped a coin, watched for the opposing captain to call it, and then flashed a thumbs-up to his team before jogging over to their bench.

......."We're up first. Gives us a chance to break their spirit with a double-digit lead. Their pitcher couldn't find the strike zone if it was tattooed to his forehead. Let's make them wish they stayed home tonight and waxed the kitchen floor. Batting in position order."

.......Dolby stood and swung his arms as he walked to home plate.

.......Harry motioned Jack towards the bleachers.

......."What's up?"

......."I wanted to thank you for coming tonight."

......."No problem. In fact--"

.......Harry cut him off. "Sheila watches me like a hawk. Sometimes I think hiring her was the worst move I ever made. But that's beside the point. You do security work, right?"

.......Jack's microwaved sandwich felt like a baseball in his stomach. "There isn't much call for it."

......."Good." Harry leaned away to shout at Dolby, "Keep your elbows up!" He rolled his eyes at Jack. "Sorry about that. Look, we don't have much time. I want to hire you to protect me."

......."Has someone threatened you?"

......."Not yet. I have a little something going on the side but Sheila is getting suspicious. Tonight I'll tell her you were hopeless at softball but that we hit if off and we're going to bowl on Sundays. Sheila hates bowling. All you have to do is back me up, call her once or twice to say you're running late. You know. I don't even care what you do on Sundays just so long as Sheila doesn't see you."

......."You just want me to be your alibi."  Jack felt as though Harry had taken a baseball bat to him.  "That's why I'm here."

.......Harry leaned away again. "Go! Go for two, you lazy bum!" Harry shook his head. "Dolby could hit a ball out of the park and be satisfied with a single."

......."Sorry, but it doesn't sound like the type of work I do." Or the type of game I want to play.

......."But I suppose if Sheila hired you, you'd have no problem taking pictures of us screwing, right?" Harry slapped Jack's shoulder. Hard. But then he held up his hands, palms out. "Ah, the hell with it. Don't worry. I understand. Your job is your job. I respect that."

......."I'm more of an investigator."

......."And damn good I'm sure. What the hell. Hey, I tried. One of these other guys will cover for me. I just need to decide who's least likely to blackmail me." He snickered. "If you ever see one of these jokers promoted to Vice President, you'll know I guessed wrong."

......."I should get back."

......."No, stick around. Be a good sport. We still need someone in right field."

.......Jack had meant back to the rest of the team. "Sure."

.......Last week, Sheila asked if Jack would shadow Harry. Perini decided he would. And he'd enjoy it.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Stephen D. Rogers

Over four hundred of Stephen's stories and poems have been selected to appear in more than a hundred publications. His website, www.stephendrogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.

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