Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2017 All rights reserved.
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Last we looked, intrepid journalist Peter Hartwell had been abducted at the Back Bay railroad station in Boston and brought to the Charles River, where he’s thrown into the back seat of a sleek late-model two-door Infiniti. A corpulent fellow jiggles himself into place behind the wheel, binds Hartwell with duct tape, and tells him to kill a story on pain of his life. You’ll recall the cliffhanger dialogue:
“You do know why I brought you here,” he [the fat man] said again.
“Like I said before, you tell me.”
“You either kill that story or Russell kills you.”
Let’s peek back into that car…
“Since I have no story,” I answered him, “what’s it going to be?”
The fat man resumed punching buttons on the radio, cursing his luck that he couldn’t get a clock to pop up. I think he damn well knew how to find the time of day, but, just like with the Red Sox score, he feigned ignorance in order to annoy me.
“Some foul deed must have beset your dear companion,” I said. “He doesn’t answer the phone. Doesn’t return messages. Way late for this rendezvous. So just kill me now and get it over with. Then you can go off and find him and rescue him. He must be in trouble to be this late. And, oh, by the way, I’ve changed my mind. Holy Cross sucks.”
The fat man’s fingers twitched wildly over the jacket pocket. I rocked up to get a better look. He grabbed the back of my neck and suspended me at the top of my see-saw. There it was, his gun, pressed against my forehead. Goosebumps ran through my body inside and out, straining against my arterial walls.
“How’s that water look to you?” he said, nodding in the direction of the dark, cold, fast-flowing Charles, pockmarked in dazzling fashion by the torrents of rain. “Suitable enough grave site?”
“Depends if I go taped up and alive,” I said, “or already plugged dead and tossed in.”
The fat man’s phone rang. “Russell?” he said.
“No,” replied a voice. “A messenger.”
Through the mist I made out a sandy-haired young man in a stunning tan trench coat, the collar turned up high against the drizzle, the belt cinching in the waist just so. He was talking into his phone. Then he reached the driver’s side window and I was wondering if the Almighty had sent down the angel of death. I rocked myself back and forth to catch a glimpse of this Mercury.
“So what’s the message?” the fat man said.
“The message is this adventure with the rocking horse in the back seat will come to an end,” he said, nodding toward me. “Or so says your Russell.”
A siren approached on Storrow Drive, giving me hope that his backup was arriving. But the sound faded into the distance, leaving only the hiss of tires on the slick wet surface of Storrow Drive. His cell phone flew into the fat man’s lap and the messenger retreated into the mist. The headlights flashed at us again and the car swiveled and left the boathouse lot.
“Russell didn’t send that guy,” the fat man said, “but he had his phone. You’re right. My partner is in trouble. They must have caught the dumb son of a bitch at something and he offered you up as the bargaining chip. You walk; he walks. This dude is here to see if there’s anything to it. That messenger’s coming back with reinforcements. We’ve got to get you dispatched.”
The fat man started the car and turned up the heat. He pulled the car to the edge of the river and lumbered out. He leaned in the open door and turned to face me.
“Just think,” he said. “Pretty soon you won’t have to put up with any more bullshit, your own or other people’s. The noise will cease, forever. Doesn’t that please you? Aren’t you relieved?”
He popped the stick into neutral, shut the door behind him, walked around to the trunk and gave the Infiniti a shove.
It edged toward the water, sinking deeper and deeper into the mud the closer we got to the steep drop at the bank. Then it slushed to a stop, the front wheels stuck over the edge. I writhed like an eel to shake free of the tape, spinning, whirling, twisting, and stretching the tape as much as I could.
Then headlights lit up the scene. I was hoping for the messenger, leading cars full of cops to rescue me. But only a single car came, fishtailing to a stop near us on the soaked grass. It was mine, my Mustang. Out popped Russell. A woman emerged from the passenger side, dressed in a rubbery red raincoat and matching hat, something you might see on a Gloucester fisherman.
“I have arrived to do the deed,” Russell called to the fat man.
The fat man climbed behind the wheel and rocked the Infiniti back and forth. Russell signaled for him to stop. He opened the door on the passenger side and pulled me out. I collapsed onto the wet grass. He produced a serrated switchblade knife and sliced my legs free. He pulled me up and dragged me toward the water.
He handed me a blindfold, which I declined. I asked to be allowed to kneel down facing the river, with him behind me, plugging me in the head without warning. The Charles smelled fecund, as if creation and destruction were in constant motion on and just below the surface. I knelt and clasped my hands atop my head. The moist, muddy, dewy banks soaked through my chinos at the knees. It was a clammy way to die. Dry pants had never seemed so important.
“Bid the fat man a fond adieu for me, if you would,” I told Russell. “Oh, and tell him for me what a coward he is. He ought to be witnessing this execution that he himself ordered. Let him know I’m passing that along to Jimmy.”
“You talk too much,” Russell said.
“Oh,” I added, “and please ask him to think of what might have been with the blessed padre.”
I was smirking. Russell circled around me, his feet slipping on the mud-soaked edge of the river bank. My forehead was touching the ground. He bent down and lifted me up by my chin.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” he demanded.
“You mean the padre?” I said. “Just a memory I’d like him to hold onto. Now it’s time for me to die.”
“You’ll die when I say you’ll die,” Russell said. “You tell me what’s this about my friend and the padre?”
“If you don’t mind,” I said, “shoot me now. The heaven’s will look down on you with favor if you grant this doomed man this, his final wish.”
The fat man shambled over. Russell pulled me up.
“This shit has a last wish or two,” Russell told him. “He wants to be shot right now…and he wants you to think about McSweeney. What’s this about McSweeney?”
“Forget it,” the fat man said. “It’s nothing.”
“It must be something, or it wouldn’t have been brought up,” said Russell. “You said it was over between the two of you.”
“He’s just playing,” said the fat man, gesturing toward me.
“Hey,” I called out, pointing to the top of my head and the seam where the left and right hemispheres meet.
They turned toward me.
“Aim here,” I said, my index finger firmly on the spot. “That’ll give my brain waves a clearer path to Jimmy.”
“See what I mean about playing?” the fat man sad.
Russell shook his head, but his look betrayed the fact that some corner of his psyche clung to the notion that Jimmy would indeed be receiving signals from me even after the hot lead turned my brain to soup. And then, this whole story would make the paper.
“I just heard from Jimmy again,” I said. “Father McSweeney is still anxious to see you.”
Russell spun me around and pointed the gun at my forehead.
“Not so fast,” the fat man called out. He gestured toward the girl. “What about the witness?”
“I’ll whack her, too, while I’m at it,” said Russell.
The fat man ordered Russell to put me in the Mustang. Gun in hand, Russell pulled the driver’s seat forward and shoved me into the back, slamming the door behind him. A click told me I was locked in.
Seconds later, the door opened and the woman tumbled in, as if tossed.
“That bastard,” she said.
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.