Scroll Scroll

CHAPTER ONE

It was a nice day for a ballgame: sunny and mild in the mid-seventies with a slight breeze blowing in from left field. Rico inhaled, appreciating the sweet scent of steaming hot dogs that hung in the air just above the stadium seats.

"Here we go. Into the bottom of the seventh, all tied up one to one. This has turned into a dandy."

Rico opened his eyes. It was a nice day for a ballgame, all right, but he was watching it on TV from his favorite easy chair. There were no hotdogs. He had closed his eyes for a second between innings and had drifted away, only to be ushered back to wakefulness by the practiced cadence of the announcer's voice.

"Oh, well," he said to himself out loud. "Time for a beer." He rose and as he did, his phone rang. It was his land line, a relic he knew, but after so many years, he couldn't bear to part with it. Almost no one called him on it except telemarketers and, of course, his stunningly attractive girlfriend, Jean. Along with the remote, the phone rested on a small side table next to his chair. He glanced at the caller I.D., grabbed the remote, and lowered the volume on the TV. He picked up the phone and eased back down into his chair. "Hit me," he said.

"Still watching the game?" Jean asked, on the other end.

"Yeah."

"Close game?"

"Right again."

"I guess it wouldn't be the best time to ask for a favor then."

"Three out of three," he said.

"What if I asked real nice?" she teased.

"That wouldn't help," Rico said.

Jean frowned and rolled her eyes. "Rico --"

"But I'll come and get you anyway."

"Read my mind again," Jean said.

"It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out you bought more than you and the old guy could carry. Do me a favor. Next time take the car."

"Well, I would have if I'd known. But it's such a beautiful day and --"

"Hold it," Rico interrupted, staring at the TV, and turning the volume up.

In the background the announcer roared, "A swing and a miss! Struck him out!"

"Listen," Rico said. "If you're ready now, I'll come and get you, okay?"

"We'll be ready -- Sherlock."

He started to tell her gently what she could do with the Sherlock comment, but she had already disconnected. He smiled to himself and shook his head in mock exasperation. He glanced at his watch and calculated how long it would take to drive to the supermarket and back. If he was lucky, he figured he could make it back in time to see the end of the game. In the meantime, he could listen on the car radio.

Rico stood and headed for the door. As he reached it and started to turn the knob, he hesitated. He was missing something he almost always carried with him. He turned around and his eyes focused on a straight back chair, an arm's length away from his easy chair. On it hung a powder-blue shoulder holster, inside of which rested a .45 Sig Sauer P226 automatic. He had thought about replacing it with the newer 320, but there was nothing wrong with his trusty 226. When he got rid of his land line, maybe he would think about trading up to the 320. He had heard that the Navy Seals were finally switching from Sig Sauers to Glocks, to bring them in line with the rest of the rest of the Navy and the other branches of the Armed Services. He thought that was a mistake. The Glock and the Sig are both fine, reliable pistols and most shooters would be hard pressed to distinguish between the two where accuracy is concerned. But Rico wasn't most shooters and he could tell the difference.

He lingered another moment, then checked his watch again. It was too nice a day to wear a jacket. Besides, he was just going a few blocks and would only have to get out of the car for a minute or two to help Jean with the groceries. "What the hell," he said out loud. He turned the door knob the rest of the way and walked out.

Minutes later he exited his apartment building, donning his ever-present aviator sunglasses as he walked out into the bright sunlight. He was a big man, athletic and tall, with a long, confident stride. His car was parked on the street about a three-minute walk away. Once inside, he started the car and turned the radio on to the station broadcasting the game.

"...Bottom of the eighth... Still tied one to one..."

As Rico neared the supermarket a few minutes later, he noticed a group of pre-teens playing baseball in a field across the street from the supermarket. They reminded him of the days he used to play the game with a motley crew of kids in his old neighborhood. Even at twelve or thirteen, he was a crack outfielder and could hit the ball a mile. The kid at the plate today looked like a pretty good hitter, too. Rico could tell by his fluid practice swings and the way, holding the bat, he cocked his wrists at his waist and planted his feet deep in the imaginary batter's box.

Still admiring the boy's batting stance, Rico pulled into the supermarket parking lot and slowed his car to a crawl so he could watch the first pitch. The boy took a vicious cut and whiffed.

Meanwhile, the game continued on the radio. "... Bases loaded... And the pitch..." But by now the announcer's voice was only background noise for the game across the street, as Rico stopped the car and watched. The batter swung hard at the next pitch and missed badly again. 'Take your time, kid,' he thought.

Exiting the store, Jean spied Rico's car stopped just inside the parking lot. Pushing a shopping cart loaded with groceries, she waved and headed in his direction. Rico saw her and nodded. Then he nosed his car into a nearby parking space facing the game across the street.

The announcer on the radio droned on. "... Top of the ninth ... All knotted up at one to one ..."

Leaving the radio on, Rico turned the ignition off and peered across the street. The same batter was at the plate. He didn't swing at the next pitch. 'Good eye,' Rico said to himself. The boy swung hard at the next one and connected this time, lifting a towering fly ball high over the left fielder's head toward the street in front of the supermarket. Shorter and thinner than the muscular batter, the left fielder was fast on his feet. He gave chase as the ball drifted beyond the field and over the street toward the supermarket. Keeping one eye on the ball and the other on traffic (which was mercifully light), the outfielder continued his pursuit to the edge of the field and then across the street.

Arriving at the parking lot about midway between Rico's car and where Jean was standing twenty yards away, the boy timed his leap perfectly, reached up and speared the ball, which lodged precariously in the top of the webbing of his glove, half in and half out.

And then there was a sickening thud. His momentum had caused him to collide with a skinny young man with greasy dark hair, who was carrying a brown paper grocery bag filled with bottles of liquor of almost every variety -- gin, bourbon, Scotch, rye, and rum -- purchased for a party that night. The man, Larry Cosgrove, had seen the boy an instant before the collision, too late to avoid it but soon enough to brace himself against it. The boy bounced off Cosgrove's hip and tumbled to the ground, but with the resilience of youth, he rolled over once and instantly sprang to his feet, still holding the ball in his glove. Grinning, he thrust the glove high above his head in triumph.

Cosgrove managed to absorb the blow and maintain his balance, but he couldn't save his precious cargo. The bag flew out of his arms and on to the asphalt pavement, smashing all the bottles inside. With his back to the boy, Cosgrove, barely containing his rage, stood staring at the beige rivulets of liquor seeping from the wet paper bag.

The boy had been too preoccupied to notice the bottles crash against the pavement, but when he saw the liquor escaping from what was left of the paper bag, his joy at holding on to the ball rapidly dissipated and turned to dread. His first instinct was to take off back across the street as fast as his legs would carry him. Instead, his home training kicked in and, head down, he slowly approached Cosgrove, stopping a few feet away. "I'm sorry, mister," he said meekly. "I didn't see you."

Cosgrove -- who hadn't had any home training -- turned to face him. "No shit," he sneered and took one menacing step toward the boy, whose initial urge to run returned, but before he could act on it, Cosgrove reached out and, with both hands against the boy's chest, shoved him violently to the ground. "Did you see that?" he taunted.

The boy landed hard on his rear and slid a foot or so on the asphalt. The pavement stung and he wanted to cry, but he held it in. When he answered, though, his voice was a whimper. "I said I was sorry, mister."

Cosgrove moved toward him and stood straddling him as he lay on his back, propped up on his elbows. "Why the fuck didn't you watch where you were goin'?"

The boy said nothing but this time, despite his best efforts, he couldn't completely hold back his tears, and he raised a hand to his face to hide them. Still brooding, Cosgrove stepped to one side but continued to hover nearby, not sure yet of his next move. The boy was petrified, too intimidated to move.

By now a small knot of onlookers had gathered around, including some of the other baseball players who had made their way across the street. Jean saw the collision but not its aftermath, because the growing crowd blocked her view. But Gabriel Koblentz, Jean's elderly neighbor and shopping companion (whom Rico referred to as "the old guy"), saw the whole thing. He had left the store after she did, but free of the shopping cart, he had walked on a little ahead.

Koblentz didn't know what else, if anything, Cosgrove had in mind, but he felt sorry for the boy. It reminded him of how he'd felt sorry for Jean after a low-life attacked her in her own apartment, some time ago. He'd heard her scream and pounded on her door, before rushing back to his own apartment across the hall. He had scared the attacker away as he'd hoped, but precious moments had passed while he waited behind his door, cowering, and listening for the attacker to leave. Only after the intruder had fled did he run back to her apartment where he found her, brutally beaten and as helpless as a baby. She'd been eternally grateful for what he'd done and had never expected him to confront her attacker, but secretly, he'd always wished, despite his age, that he'd had the courage to do so. Now, he stiffened his spine, trotted over to the boy, and extended his hand to him.

Cosgrove, however, hadn't finished venting and didn't appreciate Koblentz's gesture. "You want some of this, old man?"

"I was just --"

Cosgrove interrupted him with a vicious slap to the mouth that drew blood. Koblentz fell to one knee, head bowed, and was silent.

"You bastard!" Jean yelled. She glanced at Rico, who was still in his car in front of her some ten yards away. She wasn't sure how much he'd seen because his expression, as usual, was utterly inscrutable behind his aviators. She sprinted to Koblentz's side and knelt beside him. "Are you okay?"

Cosgrove glared at her, then a cruel smile lifted his mouth. She was a mouth-wateringly gorgeous woman and his mouth watered. Taunting her, he pressed one foot against Koblentz's back and slowly forced him to the ground. Jean's eyes flashed and she straightened up and slapped him hard enough to make his head turn. At once surprised and enraged, he immediately drew his arm back to retaliate. Jean closed her eyes and flinched in anticipation. Cosgrove reached far behind him to increase the momentum of his blow and then he launched his open hand toward her as hard as he could, creating a swoosh of air as his hand traveled forward to meet Jean's face.

But it never reached its target.

Rico had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and, with one hand, had grabbed Cosgrove's wrist from behind, stopping his hand mere inches from Jean's face. Now he stood behind Cosgrove, holding his wrist in a vice-like grip from which there was no hope of escape. Slender and soft, Cosgrove was around five feet ten inches tall and weighed about one hundred and seventy-five pounds. Rico stood six feet two, weighed over two hundred pounds, and was solid muscle.

He was a killer, but not your run-of-the mill killer. He was exceptional at what he did, but he was not only that. He was also a killer with a conscience. He didn't kill kids, he killed women only as a last resort, and he only killed people who "had it coming." Or at least that was what he told himself, because sometimes it was a close call. But at least he tried. And that made him unique, as nobody else in his business gave a hit a second thought.

Cosgrove tried to turn to face him, but with just one hand holding his wrist, Rico prevented him from even budging. After Cosgrove stopped squirming, Rico twisted the man's arm behind his back and wrenched it upward until he yelped in pain. Then he thrust his free forearm under Cosgrove's chin and applied just enough pressure so that Cosgrove, with some effort, could still breathe and talk. Just.

Cosgrove squealed, "What the --"

"Shut up," Rico said, and turned to Jean who was helping Koblentz to his feet. "You all right?"

"Fine." Her worried eyes met Koblentz's. She smiled. "Are you okay?"

Gingerly wiping the blood from his face, he nodded and smiled back.

"Wait in the car," Rico said.

"What are you gonna do with him?" Jean asked, a little apprehensively.

"Wait in the car."

Jean started to press him but by now she knew the drill. She collected her shopping cart and she and Koblentz headed for the car. The boy, still on his back resting on his elbows, scrambled to his feet and stood staring at Rico in awe. Rico said, "Kid, get outta here." Dejected, the boy slowly started to walk away. Raising his voice an octave, Rico said to the other gawkers, "That goes for everybody else, too."

The edge in his voice did the trick. No one objected and no one lingered. Except the boy. He turned around after he'd taken a few steps and, in a voice just above a whisper, said, "Thanks, mister."

The slightest hint of a smile appeared on Rico's face. "Nice catch, kid." That brought a grin to the boy's face. He pounded the ball in his glove and hurried away.

Rico scanned the area in a 360-degree arc and, seeing no one besides the steadily retreating onlookers, released the choke hold on Cosgrove's neck but maintained his grip on his wrist. Then he placed his free hand on the back of Cosgrove's neck and, mimicking what Cosgrove had done to Koblentz moments earlier, he slowly guided him to the ground, face down. Rico knelt beside him.

Cosgrove coughed and drew in several sweet breaths of air now that the pressure on his windpipe had been relieved. "Your ass is mine, motherfucker," he hissed under his breath.

"I don't think so," Rico said as he patted Cosgrove down. "I'm pretty attached to it."

The pat-down yielded a Smith and Wesson Model 10 .38 revolver in Cosgrove's belt under his jacket. Searching him had been a basic precaution, yet Rico hadn't expected to find a gun and when he did, he immediately regretted leaving his own in his apartment.

"Shit," he said out loud, but it was in the same tone of voice he might have used if he'd walked down three flights of stairs only to find that he'd left his cell phone upstairs in his apartment. In other words, he was irritated but not alarmed -- yet. After all, this was only one guy with a .38 -- no, one guy who used to have a .38. And so far, there was no evidence that he had company.

But there was no evidence that he was alone, either.

Rico tucked the gun in his own belt next to his belly, and with his free hand he reached down and turned Cosgrove's face toward him. He had a question. He knew he couldn't trust Cosgrove's answer but the inflexion in his voice might give him a clue. "You alone, smart ass?"

Cosgrove said nothing.

Rico increased the upward pressure on Cosgrove's arm which was still pinned behind his back. Cosgrove gritted his teeth. Rico increased the pressure again until Cosgrove could stand it no longer. He yelled, "Help!"

Maybe it was just a primal cry to the heavens, but Rico thought it was directed toward someone. Maybe more than one person. Who knew? He relaxed the pressure on Cosgrove's arm but continued to hold his wrist in a vice-like grip. With his other hand he checked the .38, engaging the cylinder release, snapping the cylinder free, spinning it with his thumb, then snapping it back in place. It was fully loaded. Six rounds. A picture of his Sig Sauer with its twelve-round capacity magazine flashed across his mind. 'This will have to do.'

Rico looked around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man rapidly advancing toward him and leveling a sawed-off shotgun in his direction. '**Must have been waiting in a car in the parking lot.' Then he saw another man coming toward him, and another, both pointing .45's at him. 'Two more -- at least.' As they advanced, they spread out, the two men with handguns flanking him on either side and the man wielding the sawed-off shotgun directly in front of him.

The men were proceeding down a lane approximately twenty feet wide with parked cars to their left and right. The lines of parked cars ended some fifty feet in front of the spot where Rico and Cosgrove were. There were no parked cars to Rico's right or left, only open space, and the street the outfielder had crossed minutes earlier lay some thirty feet behind him. In short, running for cover was not an option. The three men had cover in the form of parked cars to their left and right. Rico had none.

He eyed the man with the shotgun. 'He can do the most damage, but he has to get closer than the other two to hit anything.' Rico decided he would save him for last.

That left the remaining two. 'Which would be first? The tougher shot.'His motto was: all things being equal, tackle the hardest job first. That way, whatever is left will always be easier and, therefore, relatively speaking, something to look forward to. The tougher shot would be the gunman on his left. He planned to wait until the last possible moment to start shooting so that neither of the three would know which of them was his first target until it was too late for either of the remaining two to do much about it. That meant he couldn't turn his body toward the shooter on his left ahead of time. So, with minimal time to aim, he would have to shoot across his body while kneeling beside Cosgrove, almost like a quarterback running to his right and passing to his left. A tough pass and a tougher shot. He waited.

Once Rico fired the first shot, the other two men would react in a split second, two at most. During that time each would have a decision to make. Rico figured they would have at least three choices: immediately return fire from a standing or crouching position; fall to the ground and then start firing; or take cover behind a car and open fire from there. Whatever each man did, he would have to aim first, which would consume at least an additional second tacked on to reaction time. That analysis gave Rico a minimum of two seconds to wheel around, take aim, and nail the shooter to his right -- whether he was standing, crouching, lying down, or racing for cover -- and then quickly take out the man with the shotgun before he inched close enough to hit anything.

The success of this plan, devised by Rico in less than three seconds, depended on everything going right, but a lot could go wrong, too. To start with, the man on the right might make it to a parked car and take cover behind it before Rico could get a shot off. If he moved quickly enough, he might just have enough time. Rico wasn't worried about the man in the middle, though. Whether he ran to his left or right, he would have to cover too much ground. And Rico was simply too fast for him to make it to either side. Of course, maybe neither man would run for cover, and maybe either or both might have faster reflexes than Rico thought.

There was a lot more that could go wrong. But that was all Rico had time to think about.

As the three gunmen continued their approach toward him, he searched their eyes for a sign. They were all cold and unyielding. Not encouraging, but Rico had something in mind that was worth a try.

"Hold it!" Rico yelled. "You wanna talk about this before somebody gets hurt?"

The men stopped in their tracks, uncertain of their next move.

Rashly, Cosgrove yelled, "Hell no!"

Instantly, the men resumed their march, now at a brisk pace. The man on Rico's left unknowingly cooperated with Rico's plan. He knelt and took aim. Rico fired a shot at him just as he'd planned, but he hadn't fired a .38 in a long time and, of course, he'd never fired this particular one. His shot went wide and grazed the left side of the man's chest. 'One thing that went wrong.' Rico took a second to adjust his aim, but this gave the man time to fire two shots, one of which struck Rico in the thigh. 'Another thing that went wrong.' Rico's second shot was true, though, as he adjusted for the unfamiliar gun, and passed straight through the man's heart.

The man with the shotgun, recognizing that he was out of range, began a slow trot forward. Rico ignored him. He turned to his right to sight his target, but before he could take aim, two bullets from the man's .45 slammed into his body, one piercing his chest and the other his left shoulder. 'Three things that went wrong -- so far.'

Having to fire twice at the first man had cost Rico dearly. The two bullets from the .45 had knocked him out of his kneeling position and onto his back. Meanwhile, the man, kneeling and clutching the .45 with both hands, kept shooting. Rico rolled over and, ignoring the pain and the bullets whizzing past him, propped himself up on his elbows and fired twice. The man stopped shooting. The two bullets from Rico's .38 had entered his heart.

Rico quickly scooted his body leftward and spotted the man with the shotgun, who had just slowed his trot to a walk and was leveling the shotgun toward Rico. By now Rico was thoroughly familiar with the .38 but his eyes were blurry, his arms were heavy, and his chest, thigh, and shoulder burned as though someone was stabbing him with a hot poker. He had to force all of that out of his consciousness, though, because he was out of time. The man with the shotgun closed the distance. He emptied both barrels. 'The last thing that went wrong.' Almost simultaneously Rico squeezed off the last two rounds in the .38. Then he collapsed onto the pavement.

The man with the shotgun did, too. One bullet had entered his forehead and the other had passed through his throat.

Cosgrove, afraid to get caught in the crossfire, had lain frozen still until the shooting stopped. Now he got to his feet and pried his .38 out of Rico's hand. He pointed the gun at Rico's head and pulled the trigger. There was a "click." He pulled the trigger again and there was another "click." He had lost count. The gun was empty. He tucked it in his belt, turned his back on the bodies of his dead comrades and sprinted away.

Jean and Koblentz arrived in time to glimpse Cosgrove's back before it faded into the distance. Jean sat on the pavement and cradled Rico's head in her lap. Unable to banish the thought that somehow this was all his fault, Koblentz called 911 and then looked on helplessly.

After a moment Rico came to. Jean regarded him, a mixture of horror and sadness on her face. "Rico, Rico, please don't die."

"Who won the game?" he asked groggily.

"Oh, Rico, I wasn't listening. Please try not to talk."

"No, not that game. The one in the vacant lot across the street..."

That brought a tearful smile to her face. She glanced down at him and slowly shook her head. He met her glance and passed out.

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