One chance at redemption.
New York Times bestselling author Stephen Frey delivers a mesmerizing new thriller where life and death are played out against the backdrop of America's favorite game.
Sarasota, Florida: Forced to retire from his job as a scout for the New York Yankees, Jack Barrett is just getting by in a small Florida town when his daughter drags him to watch the local minor-league team play. It's a night that will change his life. Jack spots a remarkable player named Mikey Clemant, a kid whose amazing natural skill on the field is overshadowed by his bad attitude and solitary habits. In Clemant, Jack thinks he might have found his ticket back to the big time. But the young man has a secret that will put all of Jack's plans -- and maybe even his life -- in jeopardy.
Queens, New York: Johnny Bondano is the premier hit man for the Lucchesi crime family. Ruthless and cold-blooded but with a strict moral code, Johnny is given instructions to find and kill a man who took the life of a crime boss's only grandson. He suspects the family isn't telling him everything about his latest assignment, but to question his orders is tantamount to suicide.
As these three men's destinies converge, loyalties are tested and dreams collide with violent and unpredictable results. Forced Out is a nonstop, tightly wrought tale of suspense by a true master of page-turning fiction.
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Four years. Four damn years since he'd been to a baseball game, watched one on TV, even snuck a sidelong glance at the standings in a summer sports section. But it seemed more like a lifetime.
Jack Barrett turned off the stadium's main concourse just past a tempting hot dog stand and limped up the narrow tunnel toward Section 121 on his gimpy knees, muttering to himself about this being a bad idea. His daughter and her boyfriend had finally convinced him to come with them tonight after badgering him about it all spring. But now that he was here, he wished he'd kept that blood oath with himself and stayed away forever. Nothing good could come of this.
As he emerged from the tunnel into the half-light of the Florida evening and that familiar panorama rose up before him for the first time in so long, Jack stopped to take it in. Felt that same intense anticipation and excitement building in the center of his chest, like he always had. He'd been to thousands of games over the years in ballparks ten times the size of this one, but this single moment always had the same profound effect on him. Always made him realize that his darkest problems weren't as bad as they seemed. Even now.
His emotion had nothing to do with the stadium. Whether it held sixty thousand or six hundred. Whether this was game seven of the World Series or a meaningless minor-league scrap. Whether there was a giant screen past the fence in center showing multiangle, slow-motion replays or a cow pasture, like there was tonight. His reaction had to do with the field itself.
With the perfect symmetry of the diamond inside the nuances of the outfield and foul territory. With the contrast of sculpted brown dirt against a canvas of lush, carefully manicured green grass. With how lonely the snow-white island of second base seemed. With the sharp right angle formed at home plate and how the lines creating the angle seemed to stretch past the fence and the cow pasture into eternity. How frighteningly close the pitcher's mound was to home plate, but how big the entire field seemed. How only nine men covered the vast expanse before him, but how a batter who failed to reach base six times out of ten was a lock for the Hall of Fame. How each baseball field was a work of art, unique and compelling in its own right. Which made the game so much more intriguing, so unlike all other geometrically constrained sports. And now that Jack had suddenly reconnected with the game, he was forced to admit how empty the past four years had been without it. Forced to admit how much he'd missed this game.
Like you missed the love of your life.
Like he still missed the love of his life.
Even after all these years.
Jack glanced at the burning orange sun sinking toward the glittering aqua waters of the gulf beyond the grazing black-and-white cows. Nostalgia surging back at him from all directions as he inhaled the scents of freshly mown grass, cigar smoke, and those sizzling hot dogs all intertwining on the gentle sea breeze. It seemed like such a simple game a man attempting to hit a pitched ball yet ultimately it was so complicated. He'd been devoted to this game, given all he had to it. In return it had destroyed him.
He shook his head grimly. But here he was, back for more. In the end unable to resist the allure. Sometimes being human was nothing but pure hell.
"Come on, Pop, let's find our seats."
Jack shrugged Bobby Griffin's hand from his shoulder like a horse shaking away a pesky fly. "I'm not your pop," he said with a growl as the young man lumbered past.
"Be nice to this one, Daddy," Cheryl urged as she came up beside him. "I really like him."
Jack eyed an usher. The thin, elderly man was leaning over, his age-spotted forearms resting on a yellow-painted railing. A railing separating seven rows of box seats from the rest of the stands the haves from the have-nots. The usher was wearing a short-sleeve button-down white shirt, black polyester pants, and a red cap with a shiny black visor. He looked more like a bus driver than an usher.
"Look, it's just that "
"What's Bobby done so wrong?"
He was born a male and he's dating you. Isn't it obvious? "First of all, he keeps you out 'til two in the morning," Jack began, proud of himself for showing such restraint. "Which is way past your bedtime."
Cheryl smiled like it hurt. "I'm thirty-three, Daddy. Don't you hear how silly that sounds?"
"Second of all, he's only twenty-five. He isn't serious about your relationship." Jack hesitated. Talking about this with a woman wasn't easy for a man born into a staunchly conservative household on V-J Day even when the woman was his daughter. Maybe because the woman was his daughter. "He's using you for sex." At least he'd made progress. Ten years ago he wouldn't have been able to say that. Not nearly.
Cheryl's expression tempered into one of sincere amusement, and she ran her fingers playfully through her father's full head of salt-andpepper hair, then lightly down his grizzled cheek. "Maybe it's the other way around, Daddy. Maybe I'm using him for sex."
Jack groaned, grabbed his chest, and staggered forward a few steps. "You sure know how to hurt an old man, don't you?"
"You're not old, Daddy. You're middle-aged."
"People don't live to a hundred and twenty-six, Princess."
"Can I help you?" the usher asked in a voice that sounded like it needed oil. He rose slowly off the railing like his joints could use grease, too.
"We're fine," Jack replied, clasping Cheryl's elbow and guiding her toward Bobby, who was waving at them from up in the stands. "But thanks."
"You should think about doing that," Cheryl suggested, gesturing over her shoulder.
"Being an usher."
"No, really. You'd be out here at the ballpark all the time. For free, too. It'd be perfect. You'd love it."
Jack rolled his eyes as they neared their seats eight rows up from the railing on a direct line behind the third-base dugout. Cheryl meant well she always meant well; she just didn't understand. Being an usher would be even worse than what he was doing now, which was bagging groceries at a local Publix store for ten dollars an hour. Not very long ago he'd been a top man in the New York Yankees' scouting organization. An important cog in the greatest sports franchise in the world at least, in his opinion it was the greatest. He couldn't bear the thought of his baseball career ending as an usher for the Single-A Sarasota Tarpons.
"Maybe I will, Princess," he said softly, "maybe I will."
Bobby Griffin sat at the end of the row he'd bought tickets for the three seats closest to the aisle. He stood up and moved out of the way as Jack and Cheryl approached.
"What are you doing?" Jack wanted to know.
"Letting you in." Bobby motioned for them to go ahead. "Look, I've got to sit at the end of the row, Pop," he pleaded when Jack didn't move. "I'm six four. My legs don't fit in the "
"Well, I'm sixty-three, and I've got arthritis in both knees."
Cheryl grabbed Bobby's hand and pulled him toward the second seat. "Come on, honey."
"But baby, I paid for the tickets. I ought to at least get to "
"Jesus," Bobby grumbled.
Jack sat down slowly, then stretched his legs into the aisle. No way Bobby was going to start an argument now. That might jeopardize his plans for later.
He shook his head, trying to clear away the bad thoughts. It bothered him to think about boys taking advantage of his little girl; it always had. Ever since she'd started dating. Ever since the first boy had shown up at the house with that hungry look in his eyes. Cheryl was one of the nicest, most sincere people on earth, and she always felt so much pressure to give the ones she liked what they wanted. She was pretty slim with long blond hair but she didn't pay much attention to her looks. Never had, really. Most of the time she kept her hair up in an unruly bun, didn't wear much makeup, and dressed plainly. But he didn't know how to tell her she ought to jazz it up. Truth was, he didn't want her to jazz it up. Then there'd just be more boys.
"How many people do you think this place holds, Daddy?" Cheryl asked when they were settled in.
Nostalgia nudged at Jack again. It was the same question she always asked the first time they went to a ballpark together. She'd done it since she was a little girl, since he'd first started taking her to games. The times her brother couldn't go. She had always liked getting a feel for her surroundings. "The capacity is "
"Eight thousand," Bobby cut in confidently.
"Actually, it's sixty-two hundred." Jack moved his legs out of the aisle as a tall couple began climbing the steps. Hopefully they weren't going to plunk themselves down in the open seats in front of him. At this point he had a perfect, unobstructed view of the field, and he didn't want to have to move from side to side to see the action between their heads. "The number was posted on a fire warning downstairs," he explained, relieved when the couple moved past. "From the looks of things I'd say it's about half full."
The crowd mustered a weak cheer when the Tarpons broke from the dugout a few moments later.
As the players jogged toward their positions, Jack sat up and leaned forward, noticing one of them instantly. Before the kid even reached the third-base line on his way out to center field. He had that aura about him all the great ones had. An unmistakable charisma that caught Jack's trained eye right away. A confident, athletic stride that ate up ground effortlessly.
A smoothness in everything he did from handling the right fielder's bad warm-up toss on a short hop to adjusting his red cap with the smiling tarpon on the front after each throw back. An innate awareness of where he was in relation to everything else on the field. The impression he had a couple of gears in reserve he could call on if he needed to, and then you'd really see something special. And he had a gun for an arm, an absolute rifle. Of course, Jack had an advantage as far as recognizing the kid's ability. He'd spent thirty-four years scouting talent for the Yankees. Then the organization had turned its back on him.
"Yo, beer man!" Bobby shouted to a scraggly-looking guy carrying a tray of cold ones. "Over here!"
Jack covered his ears with his hands. "Jesus, you sure got a healthy set of pipes on you, don't you, son?" Bobby Griffin was big, blond, and good-looking. A sales rep for a Los Angeles-based sporting goods company, he covered the South Florida market. According to Cheryl, Bobby was doing pretty well for himself which only made Jack feel worse. Successful, handsome twenty-five-year-old men didn't settle down with thirty-three-year-old women. They used them. "I think the right fielder heard you, for Christ's sake."
"Cheryl warned me about you," Bobby shot back cheerfully, handing the beer man a twenty and signaling that he wanted three. "Said you were kinda grumpy. But that's all right, I can deal."
Jack intercepted the first cup, brought it to his lips, and took a long guzzle. It was a hot May evening in Sarasota still eighty-four degrees at seven-thirty and the cold beer tasted damn good.
He glanced back out to center as darkness closed in around the small stadium. Strange, he thought. You didn't see many baseball players with facial hair, especially in the minors and especially the really good ones. But the kid had a full beard and a mustache along with a mop of dark hair tumbling down from beneath his red cap.
When the public-address announcer asked the crowd to rise for the national anthem, Jack did so right away. And he sang along loudly with the music as he always did, trying to make people around him feel comfortable about singing, too, though they rarely did. He'd served in the army before joining the Yankees, and he had a deep sense of loyalty to the country. His only regret with his military service was that he'd never experienced combat. Never had a chance to get to Vietnam to find out how he'd react to real bombs and bullets. He thought he knew, but you could never be sure until the chaos actually erupted around you.
"I hate the Tarpon uniforms," Bobby complained, squeezing back into his seat when the anthem was over. "There's too much red. Their pants, even. It's ridiculous. And that stupid mascot. A smiling fish. The whole thing's too loud."
"I thought 'loud' was your middle name," Jack shot back. "I figured you'd love their uniforms."
It was the first time they'd spent more than a few minutes together, and Jack caught Bobby shaking his head, like the young man wasn't sure he could put up with this for nine innings after all. Well, good. Bobby seemed nice enough, but it was obvious he was going to break Cheryl's heart at some point. The sooner the better.
It was going to be awful to see her hurt again, Jack thought ruefully.
To see the devastated expression, the tears streaming down her cheeks. Hear the soft sobs from her bedroom at night before she fell asleep, and again in the morning as soon as she woke up. It always made Jack feel terrible as he held her in his big arms and tried to comfort her. But the longer this thing with Bobby went on, the worse the pain would be. One of these times it was going to be too much, it was going to push her over the edge. It almost had with the last guy, and he'd been a loser compared to Bobby Griffin.
When Bobby leaned forward to check something on the scoreboard beyond the fence in left, Jack caught a familiar warning look from Cheryl. Thin lips pressed tightly together, one eyebrow raised, head turned slightly to the side, eyes intense like the blue part of a flame. Okay, okay he thought. Maybe this one was different. Doubtful, but maybe. And to his credit, Bobby had paid for tonight. The first one of her boyfriends who'd ever sprung for anything.
Jack tapped Bobby's arm. "Thanks for the beer, son. Tastes good."
"Ticket, too. I really appreciate it." It killed him to say so, but Cheryl was much more important than his stupid pride. "I don't make the money I used to." That one really hurt. "Every little bit I save helps."
Jack raised his cup and nodded. "I'll get the next round."
"Tell you what," Bobby suggested. "Let's bet on pitches for beers."
"What do you mean?"
Bobby pointed toward the scoreboard. "They post the pitch speed up there a few seconds after each one. Either of us gets the number exactly right before they post it, the other guy buys the next round. How about that, Pop?"
Apparently Cheryl hadn't told Bobby what her daddy had done before being exiled to Florida. Jack had asked her not to mention it to the neighbors, but he figured she was telling the guys she dated. "Okay, sounds good." He'd nail a few pitch speeds, then buy the next couple of beers anyway. To show Bobby his crankiness had its limits.
A chill ran up Jack's spine as he watched the home-plate umpire point at the pitcher from over the catcher's back, and heard the man in blue yell those familiar words. And he actually smiled inside a baseball stadium for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. More out of relief than anything else. Relief that tonight wasn't turning out to be so gut-wrenching after all. Relief that the bitterness wasn't crushing the experience. He took another deep breath of those wonderful scents and glanced around, his grin growing wider. This tiny minor-league ballpark was so intimate you could feel the action. Not just see it, like you did in the Bronx, because most of the seats there were so far away from the players. You felt like part of what was happening here, not like just a witness.
"Ninety-two miles an hour," Bobby sang out as the first pitch popped the catcher's mitt.
"Eighty-seven," Jack countered.
"You don't know what you're talking about, Jack. This guy's a fireballer, the ace of the staff." Bobby gestured toward Cheryl. "We've seen him a couple of times before. His first pitch is always over ninety. It's kind of his trademark." He smiled smugly. "Guess I shoulda said something."
"He's off tonight," Jack observed. "I could tell while he was warming up. He wasn't in his comfort zone." You never lost the lingo, not even when you were away from something as long as he'd been. Four years since he'd been drummed out, but suddenly it was as if he'd never been away. "He isn't just winding up and throwing the ball, he's aiming it. You lose ten to twenty percent of your velocity when you do that."
Bobby gave Jack a suspicious look. "How would you know?"
Jack shrugged as he noticed Cheryl slip her fingers into Bobby's and Bobby pull his away a moment later. Damn it. Why did she fall for them so hard? "I guess I wouldn't."
The scoreboard flashed the pitch speed: eighty-seven.
Bobby hung his head. "Shoot."
"Lucky guess, son," Jack said, glancing out to center. The kid who'd caught his eye was pounding his mitt and flexing his knees, getting ready as the pitcher went into his windup. "Let's go again. Double or nothing."
"Yeah, okay." Bobby leaned forward and concentrated. "Eighty-one," he sang out as the batter flailed at the next pitch. "That was a curve."
Bobby was right. It had been a curve. So slow it looked like it wouldn't have broken wet toilet paper. Seventy-two or seventy-three at most. Jack bit his lip. He was competitive as hell, always had been, but Cheryl wanted him to like the guy so bad. "I'll say eighty-two."
The scoreboard flashed the speed: seventy-two.
"All right!" Bobby shouted, pounding the arm of the seat with his big fist. "I was closer on that one. Guess you really were lucky the first time. Again?"
The third pitch was another curve, but this time it hung and the batter jumped on it, hammering the ball toward the gap in left center like a frozen rope. The kid raced to his right, dark hair streaming out behind him as he sprinted. Diving at the last second, going flat out in midair four feet above the grass just as it seemed the ball would shoot past him to the colorful, ad-covered wall.
But it didn't. It snagged at the edge of his glove, half in and half out of the leather webbing like a snow cone as he tumbled to the ground. The kid was on his knees instantly, holding up his trophy so the second-base umpire who'd loped out from the infield could see he'd made the catch.
"Jesus," Jack whispered as the umpire gave the out signal and the crowd gave the kid a smattering of applause. "That was unbelievable." He could have sworn the kid was off and running before the bat and ball even connected. Of course, the great center fielders had that ability. Mays, Mantle, Blair, Maddox. They seemed to know where the ball was going even before the batter did, before everyone else in the park did. "These people don't get real excited, huh?" It had been a spectacular catch, but the applause had already died down. "What's the deal? They too old to clap or something?"
"It's not the crowd," Bobby answered, swirling his beer. "It's the player. The guy's name is Mikey Clemants, and he's a real prick."
Jack checked the Tarpon infielders to see if the names were stitched on the backs of the uniforms. They weren't, and he hadn't bought a program. They were four bucks, and he didn't have that kind of money to waste.
"Clemants doesn't give autographs, doesn't tip his hat to the crowd, doesn't do anything for the community," Bobby continued. "Skipped a team visit to a children's cancer hospital on an off-day earlier this year. Nobody likes him, not even his teammates."
"I know some major-league owners who'd like him," Jack muttered. "At least, they'd like him on their teams."
Bobby shook his head. "I don't think so, Pop. For every crazy catch like that one, Clemants makes five bonehead plays. Misses the cutoff man, tries a basket catch and drops the ball, doesn't run out a grounder. Plus, he's a head case. Doesn't listen to the coaches at all."
"Well, he looks like he could hit sixty home runs a year easy. That would make up for a ton of errors."
"He's hit three so far this season, Pop, and the Tarpons have played more than twenty games. That's only "
"Yeah, yeah," Jack interrupted. He'd already done the math. "Nowhere near sixty a season."
"And he's only batting like two-fifty." Bobby shook his head. "Two-fifty in Single-A is like one-fifty in the majors. No way he ever makes it up there."
Jack gazed at his seat ticket for a few moments, then smiled wryly and slid it into his shirt pocket as he watched the kid toss the ball back to the infield effortlessly with that rifle arm. Bobby Griffin didn't know a damn thing. Mikey Clemants was the real deal. "I guess you're right, Bobby." Jack glanced past Clemants at the grazing cows, suddenly glad Cheryl and Bobby had dragged him out here tonight. For the first time in a long time there was a real reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen Frey