Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2017 All rights reserved.
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Last we saw, Hartwell’s latest escape attempt was foiled and he was chauffeured by the fat man from Boston to the Donut Depot in the heart of Hartsdale. The fat man is now indulging his tryptophane urgings.
The fat man left the office for the front and returned with a parcel of half-pint cartons of chocolate milk. He handed me one with a straw so I could manage it and I thanked him. He lined his up across the desk in front of him and began downing them one by one; looked like a dozen in all. Now, in an apparent magnanimous mood, he changed the channel from All-Harry-All-The-Time to WEEI-AM, which was reporting the agonizing Red Sox loss in a game that took several hours to finish amid multiple rain delays.
“It’s true,” I said. “We are cursed. Never should’ve sold the Babe to the Yankees. Think about Bucky Dent. Buckner. Never mind what happened with Willie.”
The fat man fiddled with the dial. He stopped again at Sirius/XM 838, the All-Harry channel. “Songs in the Key of the Planet Pluto” was on and, as usual, I zoned out.
Nipsy Sullivan leaned into the Hammond B3 and struck a decisive chord that I took for a C because I saw red, the color of the root chakra, at the base of the spine. I’d learned from someone named Marcie in Las Vegas that the colors vibrate inside us as we hear the sounds. All you have to do is quiet down, tune in, and find a state of relaxed alertness. The “F” note, for another example, produces the color green and massages the heart.
When Bobby Montefiore struck the bell with his thick rubber mallet to signal the beginning of the opus’s end, I began to stir, homing in on every last pulse. When the peal faded to nothingness, I resurfaced. I felt refreshed, renewed.
On the other hand, the fat man looked agitated. His head began bobbing erratically, bouncing off his chest; his eyes fluttering open and shut. He twitched and fidgeted, jerked, sat up and faced dead ahead.
“Buckner’s clean, I tell you,” he shouted out. “Clean.”
The images rushed through me now, vivid and sharp and sickening. Bill Buckner crouches unsteadily at first base as a wobbly but routine ground ball comes his way. Somehow, it goes between his bowed legs and into right field. The play costs the Red Sox the World Series in 1986 against the New York Mets.
“It was the umps,” the fat man said. “They did nothing to stop it. The Mets coach…he was harassing Buckner the whole time. When that ball dribbled down to first, that coach, he was distracting Buckner, calling out crossword puzzle clues from that day’s New York Times.”
I cupped my hand to my ear. I made a fist with the other and held my imaginary microphone to my mouth. “OK, Jimmy,” I said. “I’ll ask him.”
I turned my attention back to my companion. “You paid Buckner to blow that grounder?” I said, astonished at the possibility.
The fat man was shaking his shoulders and stretching his neck. He took a long breath.
“That’s one of those, ‘If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you’ things,’” he said.
I let out a laugh. “You’re going to kill me anyway,” I said.
“That series was rigged,” he insisted. “No question. It was the umps. They let it go…the taunting. Never a thing to stop it. I know this for a fact. And that’s the story of the Bill Buckner error.”
“That’s nothing to kill me over,” I said. “Kill the umps.”
The fat man’s fingers were dancing on the lower left pocket of his enormous suit jacket, whose horizontal stripes alternated light and dark gray. That’s where he kept his gun.
If anything could make him mad, aside from references to his dropping out of The College of the Holy Cross even though he had a full, four-year scholarship, it was suggesting that he was still a hit man and that he himself would be carrying out my execution, not Russell. Kill the umps, indeed.
But I got the feeling that the only way I could goad the fat man into reaching into his jacket pocket, pulling out the Glock, pointing it at me, cocking the trigger, squeezing, and plugging me squarely between the eyes was by harping too long and hard on him about how he could not deny being a killer, no matter whether he pulled the trigger or not, and no matter how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys he recited at McSweeney’s request in whatever confessional or holy water storage closet they happened to find themselves in. He clung to his illusion that he was off the hook because Russell carried out the hits.
I put my right index finger to my lips and called for quiet so I could tune Jimmy back in. I cupped my ear, listened, and announced to the fat man that Jimmy was back on the line.
“You can tell him Buckner’s clean and he can be sure of that,” the fat man said. “He wouldn’t take the money.”
“Jimmy,” I said into the mic, “can you hear me? It’s not true…Buckner refused the bribe.”
The fat man’s head fell to the top of the desk and drool seeped from the side of his mouth.
I felt a chill and looked over at the doorway. Russell was standing there, stuffing his shirt into his trousers. He took one look at his boss and another at me, and made straight for the kitchen. I could hear him brewing fresh coffee. The urn gurgling, he returned to the office and went to the desk. The fat man looked semi-comatose. Russell pulled open the top left-hand drawer of the desk and extracted a key. He flipped it in his hand and headed back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, he was carrying two large coffees and all the fixings into the office, including an array of flavored creamers and packs of sugar and sugar substitutes. He poured three shots of plain cream into one of the coffees, tossed in several sugars, stirred it up and held it under the fat man’s nose. Russell patted the fat man’s face and he began to come around. Groggily, he looked down at the coffee. Russell lifted the cup to the fat man’s lips.
Russell then walked through the office and up the three stairs to the shop. He returned a minute or two later with a corrugated metal case, bigger than a breadbox. With an elaborate gesture, he lifted the lid and revealed a collection of assorted doughnuts, sparkling there, with emphasis on the fat man’s all-time favorites such as raspberry jelly and Bavarian cream, which the Depot spelled “creme.”
“Wake up,” Russell said to the fat man. “Dinner is served.”
The fat man spied the open box and brightened. Russell picked up a napkin and plucked a Bavarian crème from the assortment. He handed it to the fat man who, with a look of great anticipation, chomped down. He licked the custard off his fingers, lifted his coffee cup, took a sip and then a gulp. After a glazed and an apple spice, he started to look almost normal. He took on a contemplative air. Russell procured a paper plate and piled up a pyramid of product and started with it for the car. I appealed to the fat man.
“Russell,” he said, “loosen Hartwell up and get him a doughnut.”
Then the fat man turned to me. “How do you take your coffee?” he said.
Russell put his own assortment down on a corner of the desk. He walked through the office and up behind the counter. I heard the coffee urn drain dry, sighing like an air brake. He returned with a large pot of coffee and poured me a cup, black, just as I’d asked. It was hot, and brewed to the high standards of the establishment. I requested and received a jelly donut, raspberry, which turned out to have been well preserved in the humidor. It was just doughy enough and tasted quite fresh.
The fat man and I sipped our coffees and he pointed out the features of the metal box. He directed my attention to meters and dials that measured the outside temperature and humidity and adjusted them inside the box, automatically. It all depends on weather conditions, he said. He spoke with pride about how the device, his own invention, kept the donuts vibrant for up to 36 hours.
Russell picked out a plain cake from the humidor, took a bite and left it half-eaten on a piece of wax paper on the corner of the desk, next to the pyramid on the paper plate. “I’m not sure exactly just what story he’s come up with, boss,” he said, “but right or wrong, we’ll be fingered somehow in that damn newspaper of his.”
“Consider it done,” I said. “I just got the big ten-four from Jimmy. He’s writing it as we speak.”
Russell looked at the fat man blankly and shook his head. He picked up what was left of the cake doughnut and chewed slowly.
“Something about telepathy,” the fat man said by way of explanation. “Claims he and Jimmy Clancy communicate over a special wavelength where they vibrate a column of air in tune.”
I cupped my right ear with my hand. “Shhh,” I said to my foes. “Something’s coming in.”
At last look, Hartwell was being held by the fat man in the back room of the Donut Depot. The heat is on as to Hartwell’s continued existence on the planet. He asks for quiet and announces that something is coming in from Clancy, referring to Jimmy, the ace reporter.
I covered my eyes with my left hand, as if struggling to hear. “What’s that about Willie?” I said. “Yes.”
“How about now?” Russell said, pointing his gun at me.
Instead of answering him, the fat man turned to me and asked what Jimmy had come up with on the Willie Gee story. I told him I’d lost the signal and he’d have to read about it on Thursday.
“Are we going to be in it?” the fat man said.
The question struck me as strange. “Why would you be in it?” I asked.
“Don’t say a thing, boss,” Russell interjected.
I said, “Jimmy’s pulled in this plot to kidnap and murder me on that ethereal crystal receiver of his. You two are a big part of that, of course. Willie Gee is a whole other thing.”
“What whole other thing?” the fat man said.
“Can’t say,” I said, “because if I guessed right, you’d kill me for knowing too much.”
The silence lasted a long time. Russell lowered the gun to his side. I searched for something less controversial to talk about on the theory that you don’t kill a guy in the middle of a conversation. The first thing that came to mind was that I’d neglected to thank the fat man for buying me the bacon Swiss mushroom burger from HoJo’s earlier that night. “I meant to say thanks for that tasty meal, the Willie Gee,” I said. “Now I know why it was a regular thing with Willie. Just delicious.”
Instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” the fat man exchanged a glance with Russell.
“What is it this time?” I said wearily. “What are you so sure I know that I don’t?”
“If I told you, then you’d know,” the fat man said.
“But you’re sure I know already.”
“About what?” I said.
Russell interjected again. “Don’t go there, boss,” he said.
The fat man went ahead, anyway. “About whatever the big story is that you’re working on now.”
“Like I told you,” I said. “Jimmy picked up the signal about this kidnapping.”
“So what’s going on with Willie?” the fat man said.
“Willie?” I said. “For all I know, Jimmy was talking about Robert Louis Stevenson, what with the signal breaking up and you two yapping in the background.”
“What about Robert Louis Stevenson was he talking about?” the fat man said, a hint of alarm in his voice. “He wrote ‘Kidnapped.’”
“Voila,” I said. “You cracked the code.”
You could almost hear the gears in the fat man’s brain whir as he pondered his choices. For all he knew, Jimmy was about to pop a story about the fat man and Russell kidnapping me, so if I did turn up dead, it wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch to figure out who did it.
“Just let me go and I’ll get the story killed,” I said. “Not a word of any of this gets out.”
“You know,” the fat man started in, “nobody gives that much of a damn for a run-down weekly newspaper editor in Hartsdale, Mass., when the Hub and the whole of Greater Boston are crumbling around our knees, and the country and the world as well.”
“So even if we run the story, it’ll all blow over and they’ll stop looking for whoever did it, even if I’m dead,” I said.
“Don’t get into it with him, boss,” Russell said.
The fat man declared that he did not care to discuss it anymore because, for all he knew, the telepathy wire was still on and Jimmy was taking everything down. Now I was regretting being so persuasive that the fat man had actually bought into this telepathy business.
Russell was shaking his head as he scooped up his plate of doughnuts and went out the door. The fat man watched him leave and we heard the door of my car open and close. The fat man rose from the swivel chair and traipsed toward the coffee shop. Taped to my chair, I shuffled my bound feet toward the desk, hoping our friend had left his Glock in the pocket of the suit jacket that was draped over the back of the swivel chair. I was hopping in that direction when he called out, “Do you know how to make the coffee?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not all trussed up like this.”
I heard him sigh and he shuffled down the three steps back into the office. He pulled a Swiss army knife from a desk drawer and proceeded to slice me free from my gluey cage. He looked at me. “No funny business,” he said.
Once behind the counter, I fiddled with various valves on the urn as if fine-tuning it to make the perfect cup of coffee. But what I was actually doing was dislodging the massive stainless-steel monstrosity from its moorings on the utility counter. Meanwhile, the fat man was leaning over to inspect an array of day-olds on a metal tray at the bottom shelf of the display case.
I hoisted the urn above my head like a set of barbells.
“Lemon for me, please,” I said, bringing the urn down hard on his neck. He fell to his knees, dazed, and stared up at me with astonishment and fury. The force of the blow left a dent in the can. I kicked it and it click-clacked erratically toward the office doorway and down the three steps. The fat man tried to get up and fell flat.
I left him there and hustled to the desk. I reached into the left hip pocket of the huge gray-on-gray suit jacket draped over the swivel chair. I pulled out both duct tape and the Glock. The keys were on the corner of the desk. I pocketed them.
Behind the counter, on webbed rubber mats, the fat man lay stock still. I rolled him over face down, pulled his wrists behind his back and wrapped them tightly together with the tape. I pulled him to his feet and waved the gun out in front of him. I ripped another strip of tape from the roll and plastered it across his mouth. My hand squeezed around his left upper arm. I caught him by the collar with the other one. We both nearly fell as his body slid down the office steps.
Through the open steel door, I saw my Mustang gyrating wildly. Russell and Marie must have been making up again. The distraction gave me a chance to drag the fat man over to the Infiniti. The tips of his black wingtip shoes bounced and scraped across the gravel of the back parking area lot. My Mustang stopped gyrating, the springs ceased squeaking. The car was still and I could hear Russell snoring through the half-open windows.
As quietly as I knew how, I opened the passenger side door of the Infiniti. Holding my hand over the fat man’s taped mouth, I pushed the passenger seat as far back as it would go and stuffed him in it. I wrapped the seat belt around him and closed the door gently, which turned out to be all that was needed to seal it shut. I stole around the trunk to the driver’s side and climbed in. The engine started with a sweet harmony.
The dome light flicked on inside my Mustang. Russell was yelling, “Hey!”
I floored it, careening from the lot and flying through the alley onto Route 6A. Lights came up quickly behind us. It was my car, racing by on the left.
Then, two or three miles later, there it was, parked on the right shoulder. The driver’s side door was open and Russell was crouched behind it. My lights caught a glint of his Glock. He was pointing the hardware precisely between my eyes through the front windshield.
I grabbed the fat man’s gun from between my legs. I saw a flash, and a bullet blasted through the windshield, splitting the distance between the fat man and me and lodging in the thick, plush leather of the arm rest upright against the back of the rear seat. The windshield took on the look of a spider web.
Russell scrambled back into the Mustang as I sped away. The fat man was fully awake at this point and alert. Russell raced by us again, and I caught a glimpse of Marie. Her seat back was almost all the way down and the seat looked to have been moved as far back as it would go. All I saw were her eyes peering out the window.
I kept up with Russell, side by side on the two-lane road. I stretched my neck out the window and pointed the fat man’s weapon at the meat of the Mustang’s right front tire. To my amazement, I scored a bull’s eye. The tire popped and hissed and the car listed to the left as the bare rim scraped the pavement, setting sparks flying. I heard metal gouging a stand of scrub pine trees off the shoulder as the car rammed into a tree and stopped. Smoke rose from under the hood. I hurtled on toward the Sagamore Bridge and the relative safety of Route 3 toward Braintree and town. The fat man kept checking his side-view mirror for Russell.
I looked to Harry Hardcore to help calm me down with one of his interplanetary vibrations. When I flicked on the radio, though, I held at the first thing that came on. It was a quiz show where three contestants get a clue and the first to hit the buzzer gets a crack at the answer which, the host reminds us, must be in the form of an answer.
A guy named James started things off because he was the reigning champion.
“So, James, please select a category and an amount,” said the host, whose name was Rob Plotnick. “And remember to give your answer in the form of an answer.”
“I’ll take Middle East for one hundred, please, Rob,” James said.
“Middle East for one hundred…and the answer is, ‘land between two rivers.’ James, you buzzed first.”
“What is Mesopotamia?” he said.
“Mmmm, once more…?” said the host.
James answered in a louder, querulous voice. “What is Mesopotamia?”
“Judges? The judges won’t accept, I’m sorry. Anyone else want to give it a try.”
“Correct,” said the host as the audience applauded.
Host Plotnick related that James was slapping his forehead and mouthing the words, “form of an answer, form of an answer.”
“Mesopotamia,” I heard the fat man gurgle. “I mean, what is Mesopotamia?”
The punch of a button called up marches by John Phillip Sousa.
Bruce Kauffman was a longtime North County Times editor and writer with emphasis on business and sports. He now operates a writing consultancy and authors creative works. This is is from his latest effort, a work in progress, exclusively at The Grapevine. For more visit Oceanside Scribe.