Happy birthday from me

Buy me some peanuts . . .

by Gary A. Markette © 2005

I t's the bottom of the fifth and I'm in the middle of a hot dog. Heather's next to me and that's great because it's her first ball game. The day's bright, the sun's warm, the home team's at bat with two men on and one out. The pitcher's into his stretch just as Heather grabs my arm.

"Gavin, we have to leave."

I got a mouthful of hot dog, onion, and mustard so my reply is muffled . . . and incredulous. "Leave?" I burble. "What . . . ?"

She's on her feet and pulling me to mine. "We have to leave now." And suddenly we're standing outside the ballpark. I hear a crack of a bat and a roar from the crowd. Runs are scoring and I'm outside the ballpark with the Angel of Death. And I got no hot dog.

Also, I got no clothes.

"Heather what the . . . whoa!" I notice the no clothes and pull a Venus de Milo. I might have saved the effort. Heather's not looking at me. Instead, she's looking at the bright, blue day.

"Shhhh," she says. "I have to concentrate . . ."

I shhhh and let her because the bright blue day is darkening--darkening fast. I look up and watch what looks like a gigantic cream pie falling toward the ballpark. I close my eyes. Rub them. Open them. Still looks like a gigantic cream pie--only bigger and closer.

"Ummm, Heather, that looks like a gigantic cream . . ."

"Hush, Gavin . . ." this in a voice the size of a galaxy. I turn and a purplish nimbus surrounds her. My mouth drops open as a shaft of light springs from her outstretched arms to the falling pastry. A tearing sound fills the universe and what was a pie as big as Milwaukee becomes thousands of smaller, still falling pies. All of them plunge into the ballpark and a plethora of splats herald a moment of stunned silence. Cries, shouts, and shrieks follow shortly but I'm too busy catching a fainting Angel of Death to care.

*****

I'm in the back of an ambulance next to a mostly conscious Heather. Every paramedic crew in the Seven Counties drove their rides to the ballpark that day and I got Heather into one of the first that arrived.

"So what's your story?" one of them asks me.

"What," sez I, "You never saw a naked Private Eye hiding under an Angel's wing before?"

"No," he replies.

"Just take off junior," I say. "Get us to the hospital."

And they take off, happy to actually have something to do. Aside from a few bruises and scrapes, no other casualties made emergency rooms that day--all because of Heather. I turn to her.

"Lucy," I tease, "You got a lot of 'splainin' to do."

She smiles past the sleepy-juice IV they got in her arm.

"You know I'm gonna ask you a whole bunch of questions, doncha?"

She nods; smile widens.

"O. K., here's the first: how did you do that?"

"Gavin," she replies, "I'm . . ."

"The Angel of Death, yeah, I know," I say, dismissing it. "But you've never done anything that dramatic before. In fact, you've told me pretty often that you couldn't do stuff like that."

"No," she shakes her head, "What I told you was that I can rarely do stuff like that. Remember the first time we talked?"

"I'll never forget it."

"I said that when someone was suffering some painful, lingering illness, or when someone was so evil that they threatened the lives of many others . . ."

" . . . that you could sometimes 'take a hand.'" I finished for her.

"Well, I can also 'take a hand' to prevent untimely deaths," she turns to me. "No one was supposed to die at that ballgame, Gavin. Oh, one or two were possibles for later in the day, but all were to leave that park among the living." She sits upright. "I sensed deaths coming; lots of deaths all at once; thousands, perhaps everyone there. I wasn't sure how those deaths would come, but I was sure when and where. That's why I got you and me out of the park--so I could better see what was coming--and deal with it."

I'm nodding my head. "Drowned in a cream pie," I murmur, "not a pleasant way to go. But why the thousands of cream pies? Why not just zap the big pie away?"

"I couldn't," she says, her eyes starting to droop. "I can't destroy inanimate things. All I can do is change their shape--and not all that much, either."

"O.K.," I say, "I'll accept that. Know anything else about the giant pie?"

"Banana cream . . ." she mutters, easing toward sleep.

"No, no. I mean where did it come from? Who threw it? Why? Who won the game?" But I'm talking to a snoring angel. The sleepy-bye stuff has her out. I turn to a paramedic.

"How long's she gonna sleep?"

"Coupla hours," he shrugs. "She's not hurt, just exhausted. ER doctor wants her to sleep for a while."

"Who won the game?"

"Dunno," he says. "I hate baseball."

Philistine.

*****

It's 3 hours later. Heather's resting comfortably in the hospital and I'm sitting--not so comfortably--in a chair at the Clowns Guild HQ.

"Wasn't us," Fritters says through his painted-on smile. He's head of the Guild this year and takes his job humorously. "Don't know why you'd think so."

"The giant banana cream pie was sort of a clue," I say. "C'mon, Fritters, I wouldn't be here if somebody had tried to off the ballpark with a bomb."

"What can I say, McQue? It wasn't us. Have you tried the Baker's Guild?"

I lean back. "Hey, I'm laughin' here. I'm laughin' so hard I might have to ask my buddies on the force to look into your little birthday party scam." Clowns in the Guild work birthday parties for upscale parents and their rugrats. These gigs are cash only and payment rarely makes it to tax forms. Because some of the parents involved are law enforcement high-ups, winks abound. I might not be able to change that; but I might, and Fritters knows it.

"Cabbages," he says.

"Again?"

"Cabbages," he repeats. "Old school clown; worked for the Circue Polemique until it closed 3 months ago."

"I heard something about that," I say, dredging a memory, "Circus was booked at the ballpark because the owners thought the players were gonna strike. When the strike didn't happen, the circus was out."

He's nodding. "That's right, and that was the death knell for that circus. Never made much money anyway and the cancellation was the last straw. Circus broke up. Everybody lost their jobs."

"So this Cabbages character . . ."

"Took it real personal," Fritters continues. "Blamed baseball. Threatened revenge. Figures it was him that launched the pie. How he made it and tossed it is anybody's guess."

"Ain't gonna guess," I say, standing. "Gonna ask. By the way, who won the game?"

"What game?"

I leave.

*****

Lotsa ways to find someone in the Seven Counties. Best way, though, is the Search Engine. This is a magi-sci establishment on the northeast side of Treegreen's town round. You walk into an office, talk to a receptionist straight out of Chandler, and hand over an obscene amount of money. The money wasn't currently a problem, and I don't mind spending a bit to find out what makes a mass murderer tick. Anyway, once you pays your money, you takes your choice of terminals. Type in the name you want and you get hooked up with your mark. I typed Cabbages and a tall, skinny, white-faced clown materialized. He was working a seltzer bottle.

"Yo, Cabbages," I say.

"You!" he says.

"Me," I say.

"You and that broad! You were at the game! You wrecked my pie!"

"Guilty," I say.

"Die, slime-sucking rube!" he shrieks, turning the seltzer bottle toward me and triggering the spray. Lucky for me he's a hologram.

"You're right," I say. "It was a nice day for a ballgame. By the way, who won?"

"I'll beat ya til ya can't see. They'll need to count your bruises with an abacus," he screams, dropping the seltzer bottle and grabbing a slap-stick. He rushes me with it.

"I was gonna ask you about the pie, but I won't bother," I say. He swings. The slapstick passes through my noggin. "How you threw it isn't as important as why. Why is pretty obvious. You're a fruitcake." Another swing. Another. "Now, can I expect you to continue your fruitcakey behavior?" He drops the slapstick. Curls his fingers. Leaps at me. Passes right through. "Looks like a big yes. That gives me a choice. I can either stop you from doing fruitcake stuff or . . ." I flick the switch on the terminal and the foam-flecked image of Cabbages disappears. I've got a couple of phone calls to make.

*******

It's two weeks later and I'm back in the ballpark with Heather. They've just finished the anthem. I'm looking for the hot dog vendor.

"Gavin are you sure this is such a good idea?" she asks. "Remember what happened the last time we were . . ." But she stops as the home team takes the field. She does a double take.

"Two with mustard, onions, and relish," I say.

"Gavin," Heather starts, "I know I don't know much about baseball, but isn't there only supposed to be one first baseman?"

I take the dogs. Hand her one. "That's right." I say, biting the end off mine.

"Then, who . . ." she says, pointing to the tall, lanky scarecrow behind first base. He takes a peg from the shortstop and flips over backwards from the force of the throw. Lands on his tush. Drops the ball. Shakes his hand and writhes in agony.

"My," she says, nibbling at her hot dog. "He's not very good, is he?"

"Are you kidding?" I laugh. "He's great! Watch this . . ."

Down behind first, the Umpire is trying to shoo the extra first baseman off the field. This starts a dirt-kicking, hat-turning, arm-waving tirade that the Ump mostly ignores.

"I don't understand," Heather says. "That man isn't a first baseman, is he?"

"No," I say, chuckling around another bite of hot dog. "He's a clown; same clown that launched that cream pie you handled. Cabbages, then; of course, he calls himself Roo-barb now."

And, on the field, Roo-barb is striking an outrageous boxing pose in front of the increasingly frustrated Umpire. The clown picks up a chip of wood that "somehow" made it into the first base coaching box; places it on his shoulder . . .

"Gavin, are you telling me that's the man who almost squished all those people at the last game we attended? Why isn't he in jail?" Heather glances again at the field. Roo-barb is now daring the much-bigger Umpire to knock the chip off his shoulder. "Or in the booby hatch?"

"I coulda done that," I nod, as the Ump gently flicks the chip away. Roo-barb immediately collapses in a heap. "But what good would that do? The poor guy was desperate because he'd lost his job. Drove him a little nuts." I look toward first base. The Ump is trying to lift a boneless mass of raggedy clown. "O. K., more than a little nuts. I called the owner of the local team and brokered this gig for him instead. Roo-barb works the home games for hotdogs and beer. Forgoes cream pies and stays out of the hoosegow."

"Gavin," she says, "That's brilliant!"

"Don't know about brilliant," I say, buffing my fingernails, "But it works. Roo-barb, or Cabbages, gets to do what he loves--make people laugh. The home team gets to re-establish a baseball tradition."

"Tradition?"

"Clowns are a big baseball tradition. Arle Latham, Max Patkin, some others. Today it's mostly mascots--guys in foam rubber suits. But I always liked the human clowns better." I point at the field where two umpires, the first baseman, and the pitching coach are carrying Roo-barb's limp body from the field. They'll get him off just in time for the first pitch--just like they always do. I continue. "Roo-barb's bit today was one of Max Patkin's favorites."

"This has been going on a long time?" Heather asks.

"Patkin had a streak of more than 4,000 consecutive games over 50 years--Major and Minor leagues--without missing an appearance. Called him the 'Clown Prince of Baseball.'" I say.

On the field, the entourage deposits Roo-barb in a heap atop the home team's dugout. They turn away. He jumps up and gives them a razzberry to applause and laughter. The first batter steps to the plate.

"This is fun," Heather says, laughing with the crowd. "I think I'm going to like baseball."

"Great," I say, waving for a beer. On the field, the pitcher winds up. Throws. Fast ball. Swing.

"Strike," the Umpire says and the game is on.

"Gavin," Heather says, softly. She beckons me closer. I lean toward her beautiful face.

"He didn't strike the ball. He missed it," she whispers.

It's gonna be a long game.

x x x

As I move into the second half of my fifth decade and officially start old age, I thought Id emulate Bilbo Baggins and give anotherealmers a birthday present. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If so, more adventures of Gavin McQue await you in Presently Tense: The Case Files of Gavin McQue, Volume One --available in July from Whortleberry Press -GM




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