Sam inhaled the aroma of leather, sweat and dirt. Smiled. All he’d ever wanted was right here in front of him. His for the taking.
He lingered in the late-night quiet of the locker room, basking in the scents he’d loved since he was a kid. He’d worked hard to get to the major leagues, to make it with the Bearcats, and he’d work even harder to stay here.
Slinging his suit bag over his shoulder, he paused at the door to wave to his favorite physical therapist, the only other person in the team locker room. “So long, Doc-ette. See you tomorrow.”
Keara glanced at him and frowned. “What’s with the jeans and sneakers? You’re supposed to wear your suit to and from the park.”
“Trying to blend in,” Sam said easily. At close to midnight, there weren’t too many men in suits hanging around Wrigleyville.
Surrounded by guys in flip-flops and cargo shorts, a suit stood out like a neon light. Everyone looked at him. A handful recognized him, and there was always a drunk trying to pick a fight with a ball player. He didn’t want the hassle. So he carried his suit home.
Keara snorted. “Yeah, the six-foot-six inch golden boy of Wrigleyville just disappears right into a crowd.” She returned her attention to the computer and said, “Just get your ass in here early tomorrow, Marini.” Her hands flew over the keyboard. “Those glutes of yours need work, and I’ve got a full schedule.”
Sam grinned as the dark-haired trainer continued to type. “Don’t worry, Keara. I’ll be here bright and early. My ass is all yours. And I won’t tell your husband that you want your hands on it.”
“Get out of here, Marini,” she said without looking at him. “Try to stay out of trouble on your walk home.”
“It’s four blocks and a bunch of drunks. What can happen?”
Sam slipped through the door, walked up the ramp, through the gate and stepped onto Clark Street. Even at midnight, throngs of people crowded the sidewalks, bunching together and separating, flowing along either side of Clark like a multi-colored river. The muffled rumble of cars creeping along the street blended with the raised voices of the partiers and the too-loud car radios blaring out of open windows.
This was why he always walked home after games. The Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago was full of movement. Action. Fun.
It was alive, in a way few other neighborhoods were, especially in the evening after a home game. People having a good time, hanging out with friends, watching a game in one of the many sports bars in the area.
Walking home let him absorb that real-ness. Brushing shoulders with the crowds made him feel like one of them.
Even though he wasn’t.
The crowds and laughter and noise in the bars beckoned, but he didn’t go into any of them. He’d done that a few times and always regretted it. Too many guys who were sure they could help him straighten out that awkward swing. Guys who knew they had the answers to any problems he’d had at the game that day.
Too many cleat chasers who wanted a player as a notch on their bedpost. They were beautiful, willing women, but being a trophy had gotten old real fast.
No, he didn’t go to the bars near the ballpark. He just liked to walk down the street, drinking in all the energy and excitement on the way to his quiet house on a side street.
As he waited at the crosswalk, jostled by a noisy crowd streaming across Clark, a group spilled out of the bar on the other side of Addison. They all wore softball uniforms — white pants and red shirts emblazoned with ‘Sports Circuit.’ Sam raised his eyebrows. Teams were supposed to gather for drinks at the bar that sponsored them. That’s how it worked. The bar spent their money on you. You spent yours at the bar. These guys were a few blocks out of their territory.
Another softball player stumbled out right behind them — a guy in a green ‘Seventh Inning Stretch’ shirt. Okay. This guy was on the team this bar sponsored in the Chicago Sports and Social League.
The single member of The Seventh Inning Stretch team was jeering at the red-shirted group, raising his finger in the universal ‘we’re number one’ chant. His face reddened as he yelled, “Stay out of our bar, losers!” Even from the other side of the street, Sam could hear the slurred words.
Drunk. Like so many of the other people on the street at this time of night.
Sam frowned. People were still streaming across Addison toward him, leaving the softball players alone on the opposite corner. The odd lull in people moving around created a bubble of solitude in the middle of the crowds.
The red-shirted players turned around to face the green-shirted kid, and suddenly ugly vibes filled the air. Keeping his eye on the softball players, Sam tried to elbow his way through the crowd to get to the other side of the street. No luck. Too many people surging toward him.
The melee developing across the street wasn’t the usual after-the-game, let’s-get-hammered-and-have-fun bunch. For starters, it was one guy against a group. And that guy was a skinny kid who barely looked old enough to shave. His pants were too big and looked as if they’d been cinched tightly with a belt. His brown hair was shaggy, and his green shirt was wet — as if he’d spilled beer on himself. He was pointing at the biggest guy on the other team.
Or maybe the guy he was shouting at had dumped the beer on him. To shut him up.
The light changed and cars streamed past him. Sam looked for an opening to dart across Addison, but the cars were bumper to bumper. As far as he could tell, no one was paying attention to the drama unfolding seventy feet away.
Across the street teeming with cars, the green-shirted guy was alone in a sea of red-shirted softball players. He faced a guy who was at least a head taller than him. The red shirted guy was twice as wide, too. The sleeves of his uniform shirt bulged over his biceps, and his pants clung to thick thighs. Either he did insane workouts or he had a really physical job. Or maybe he used ‘roids.
Little Guy lunged toward the red-shirted group, both hands extended as if to shove Big Guy. He wobbled before he reached Big Guy, falling to one knee. Pressing his palms to the sidewalk, Little Guy slowly straightened.
Nothing good was going to happen here.
His heart racing, Sam pulled out his cell and hit 911.
“911. What is your emergency?”
“A fight. At the corner of Clark and Addison. Get the cops here. Now.”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Just get the cops here.”
Sam disconnected the call and started to drop the phone into his pocket. But some instinct made him open the camera app, hit the button and hold it down.
Sam held the phone above the heads of the people clustered around him, waiting for the light to change. Apparently, none of them had noticed what was happening on the opposite corner.
The skinny kid lurched forward again.
The big guy swung around to face his tormenter. Raising his right hand, he pulled his arm back, then let fly with a punch. His hand moved so fast it was a blur.
Little guy’s head snapped back. As if he was moving in slow motion, his arms windmilled. He staggered backward. Crumpled to the ground. His head hit the curb with a hollow sound that Sam heard all the way across the street.
He lay there, unmoving. Blood flowed from his nose. His ears. Red soaked into the green shirt, turning it an ugly brown.
Why the fuck wasn’t anyone else paying attention?
Sam waited for a break in traffic as the group of red-shirted guys across the street went completely silent. Frozen, all of them stared down at the guy lying motionless in the street.
Then they backed away and scattered like cockroaches in a sudden light. Some of them ran down Clark, some took off down Addison. Still holding down the camera button, Sam tried to get a photo of each of them.
The big guy, the one who’d thrown the punch, looked around wildly until he spotted a cab. He stepped into the street, practically in front of it, and the cab screeched to a halt. Just a few feet beyond where the skinny kid lay on the street. The big guy leaped in and slammed the door.
“Hey,” Sam shouted, trying to chase after him. “You can’t take off!”
The cab pulled away with the dick inside, and Sam zeroed in on the cab’s number and license plate. Took a picture. Then, angry and pissed off, he stood and watched the cab head toward the lake. A few blocks later, it made a right turn down a major street and disappeared.
People had begun to notice what had happened. Some of them ran across the street, causing brakes to screech and horns to blare. They jostled Sam in their hurry, and even though he was using his elbows to move through the loud, stumbling crowd, it seemed like an eternity before he made it to the other side of the street.
He stood over the kid, unsure of what to do. How to help him. Blood still flowed out of his nose and ears, and its coppery tang swirled around Sam. The kid looked as if he was barely breathing. Sam had just crouched down beside the kid, trying to protect him from the flashing cameras and the crowd pushing closer, when the rise and fall of sirens suddenly registered in Sam’s consciousness.
Thank God. He stood and spotted a Chicago PD squad car approaching to his right. It pulled to the curb in front of him, and a uniformed cop jumped out. He had a bristly grey crew cut and his vest was snug on a protruding gut.
“You the guy who called in the 911?”
“Yeah.” Sam took a deep breath. “That was me.”
“Driver’s license, please,” the cop said.
“Shouldn’t you be taking care of this kid?” He nodded at the still figure, his green shirt now soaked with blood, whose head rested at an odd angle on the curb. The kid’s feet sprawled in the street, trash fluttering over his legs.
“Ambulance is right there.” The cop jerked his chin down Clark Street, where an ambulance was bleeping its siren to clear the way. “They’ve got him.” The cop studied Sam with cool eyes as he drew him several buildings down the street, away from the kid lying on the ground. “You have that ID?”
Reluctantly, Sam pulled out his wallet, extracted his driver’s license and extended it.
The guy held it between his fingers as he continued to assess Sam. “You try to stop the fight?”
“I couldn’t.” Regret was sharp and bitter on his tongue. “I was on the other side of the street when it happened. Too much traffic, cars going too fast.”
“You know any of the guys involved?”
“Never saw any of them before just now.”
“On your way to a bar?”
“No.” Sam was beginning to get annoyed. Did this cop suspect he was involved? “On my way home.” He glanced at the cop’s name tag. “Officer Dwyer.”
“From work.” Sam spoke through clenched teeth.
The cop tilted his head as his eyes took in Sam’s jeans, the dress shirt he still wore, the suit bag slung over his shoulder. Then he looked down at his driver’s license.
“You live a few blocks from here,” the cop said.
Sam let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The cop didn’t recognize his name, so either he didn’t follow baseball, or he was a Sox fan. Thank God. “Yeah.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Keeping his eyes on the still-unmoving kid on the ground, who now had two paramedics kneeling on either side of him, Sam explained what he’d seen. He pulled out his phone and gave the cop the cab number. Recounted which direction he’d gone, and where he’d turned right. Then he pulled up the photos of the fight and showed the cop the sequence of pictures he’d taken.
A muscle jumped in the cop’s jaw as he studied the pictures. “I’m going to need that phone,” he said. “It has evidence on it.”
Sam put it back in his pocket and let his hand hover over it. “What’s your email address? I’ll send them to you right now. This is my only phone. My manag… boss will be calling me first thing in the morning with my assignments for the day.”
“Sorry, kid. Evidence is evidence. Even if it’s on your phone. That was quick thinking, by the way, taking those pictures. We shouldn’t have any problem nailing the guy who did this.”
“Good. Great.” Sam swallowed. They’d have his pictures. They wouldn’t need him. His name wouldn’t have to come up, bringing negative publicity to the team. “I’m happy to send them to you. But I can’t give you my phone.”
The cop’s mouth hardened. “Not your choice, Mr. …” He glanced at Sam’s license. “Mr. Marini. Hand it over. I’m not going to tell you aga…”
Just then a sharp whistle split the air. The cop looked over at the paramedics, and Sam saw one of them waving frantically at him.
“Stay right here,” the cop ordered. “Don’t leave.” Insuring that he couldn’t, the cop slid Sam’s driver’s license into his pocket. “I need to see what they want. Then I’ll be back.”
Sam watched as the cop jogged across the street. Crouched next to the paramedics. After studying the motionless guy on the ground, he stood up and pulled his radio off his vest. Spoke into it.
Dread crept over Sam. Why did the paramedics need Dwyer? Shouldn’t that kid be waking up? His stomach clenched with foreboding.
Dwyer said a few more words to the paramedic, then jogged back toward Sam.
“Detectives are on the way. You need to stay and talk to them.”
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked, leaning to look past the cop to the paramedics and the still-unmoving kid on the ground. “Is he going to be okay? Why are detectives coming?”
“I’m not a doctor.” The cop motioned him farther down the street. “I need you out of the way so I can block off the scene.”
Still staring at the motionless kid, unease coiling in his stomach, Sam ignored the cop. “Shouldn’t he have moved by now?”
“You need to step down the block, Mr. Marini.” The cop grabbed his arm with an iron grip and tugged him down the sidewalk. Breaking the tight grip with a twist of his wrist, Sam shook off the cop’s grip.
“Go sit in that bar,” Dwyer said, nodding at a brightly lit storefront. “You’ll be out of the way and we’ll know where to find you.”
Right. And have everyone in there staring at him and taking pictures as this cop escorted him to a booth. Because Sam knew he would. Shifting the bag to his other hand, Sam said, “I’ll wait outside.”
The cop shrugged. “Suit yourself. You could be here for a while.”
“Mind if I go back to work and dump this? It’s just down the block.” Sam wiggled the suit bag. The hanger was cutting into his palm. Keara would chew him a new one if he went into the clubhouse tomorrow with a bruise on his hand. “I’ll come right back. You have my driver’s license. I’m not going to leave that behind.”
The cop narrowed his eyes at Sam. “Toss the suit into my squad car if you like, but you’re not going anywhere.”
Sam frowned at the cop as he tried to stare him down. The cop widened his stance and stared right back.
“Look, buddy, I’m the one who called 911.” Sam tightened his fist on the suit hanger. “I’ve answered your questions. Told you where the guy who threw the punch went. I even took pictures of the scene. You have my driver’s license. So why are you acting like this? It will take me five minutes, tops, to get there and back. What’s the problem?” He gestured toward the guy on the ground, who still hadn’t moved. “You just said detectives were coming, and that you’d be here a while.”
The cop edged closer, as if he was trying to intimidate Sam. “Only an idiot would let a witness to a crime walk away. It’s procedure, buddy. Witnesses can’t leave until they’ve been questioned. Especially one who’s got evidence in his pocket. Which, by the way, you haven’t given me.” Dwyer held out his hand.
Ignoring it, Sam said, “And you’ve questioned me.” Sam stared down at the cop. The guy was bulky, but Sam was a head taller. He wasn’t about to let this jerk bully him. “I’ve told you everything I know. I said I’d come back.”
Dwyer grabbed his arm and jerked him backward, so hard that Sam stumbled. The cop shoved him up against a brick wall. “I said, you’re not going anywhere.”
Finally pissed off, Sam clenched his fist. “Take your hands off me.” His voice was low. Quiet. Sam stared at the cop. The cop stared back. “Right. Now.”
“Is this our suspect, Dwyer?” A woman’s voice. Low-pitched. Kind of sexy. Sam didn’t look away from the cop who still hadn’t released him.
Finally, Dwyer let him go. Turned toward the woman’s voice. “No. Just an asshole witness who wants to walk away.”
Sam took a deep breath. Then another. Stepped away from the wall and straightened his shirt. Took one final breath, then turned in the woman’s direction.
Almost dropped his suit bag. She was tall. Slender, with legs that went on for a mile. Dark red hair. He couldn’t see her eyes in the darkness, but he knew they were hazel. And gorgeous.
She wore dark pants and a white button-down shirt with a dark jacket, but she looked as hot as she had seven months ago.
She’d worn a swirly blue dress at his sister’s wedding, one that emphasized all her assets. They’d shared several dances at Cilla’s wedding, enough flirting to get him wound up and ready to rumble, and one smokin’ hot kiss in the leafy privacy of the Garfield Park Conservatory.
Then she’d said goodbye and walked away with swaying hips, leaving him with nothing but her first name and memories he still couldn’t shake.