DICKIE'S LAST STRIKE

By Tom Swoffer

I was sprawled out on my couch, had just had a couple tokes, and was watching the Cubbies lose another one on TV. Wood had given up a two-out, bases-loaded single to a kid the Dodgers had just called up from Double-A. And it was eating up my insides because I'd struck that same kid out only a month before. Of course, I was into my third season at Double-A, and the Cubs finally pulled the plug on me, telling me I was too old. I'm not even twenty-five yet.

"Dickie." I turned towards the open front door and saw Traci leaning coyly against the doorjamb. Once a real party girl, she looked as though the party had moved on, leaving her frail and strung out. She was wearing a sun dress that looked more like a bath towel on her- leaving 99.9% of her legs showing. Which would've been nice six months ago.

"Traci, come on in."

She walked hesitantly into my apartment, noticing the baseball game on TV. "I'm not bothering you?" she asked, anxiety written all over her still babyish face.

"No, no. Just killing some time."

Her eyes were real skittish, haphazardly surveying my apartment. Then her gaze landed on the coffee table in front of me, with the roach smoldering in the ashtray. She stared hungrily. "Too bad about your being kicked off the team. Did you do something wrong?"

"Just wasn't good enough anymore, I guess," I said. Watching her standing there so helpless and vulnerable almost took my mind off my own sorry life. "Want a toke?"

"I could use one," she said, looking me straight in the eyes for the first time. I lit it for her, gazing regretfully into those baby blues. A year ago, when she first moved into my complex, she'd been so beautiful. Young, full of wild energy and laughter, and much too nave, she'd gotten herself mixed up with some Samoan, or Indian. Whoever he was, he was huge, like one of those one ton wrecking balls you see swinging up against old buildings, slowly knocking them down with each ponderous swing.

That's what he'd done to Traci, too. Only instead of his heavy body he'd torn her down with the meth that was inevitably wasting her away.

"You look worried, Traci."

She tried looking me in the eyes again, but I could see that it was a struggle. Staring blankly towards the TV she asked, "Do you think you could give me a ride somewhere?"

"I guess."

"I'll pay you. I promise." She was hunched in on herself, and I sensed it was more than the drugs that was bothering her.

And I knew what she meant by "payment." Even though I'd slept with her a few times after I first met her, I wasn't sure if I'd want to risk it anymore. Traci's drug dealing friend had been pimping her out for months now to pay for her habit.

"Where we going?" I asked, switching the TV off and going over to the phone stand to get my keys.

"It's a warehouse, out by the river. You know, that new one they just built."

"You ain't going to score, are you?" I didn't want to jeopardize my career; until summer was over there still might still be a chance some team could pick me up.

"No drugs, Dickie. I promise," she said too quickly. A drug addict's promise is worth about as much as a politician's.

I stood by the phone stand with the keys in my hand. "Shouldn't Biggie be taking you?"

I could see panic rise up into those baby blues. "This ain't got nothing to do with him," she rapidly exhaled. "Someone called, offered me a job." Then she meekly looked down at her feet and mumbled, " A movie."

So she was down to doing porno. She couldn't be much more than nineteen. At nineteen I was in rookie ball, full of hopes and dreams. "Sure you want to go?"

She looked at me, a child-like innocence in her eyes, maybe for the last time in her life. "I need the money, Dickie," she whispered.

Traci directed me towards the River Street address. On the way there, she was a ball of nervous energy: cracking silly jokes and playing the stereo loud, quickly switching stations when a song ended, and then leaning her head out the window, the cool night air whipping her long blonde hair while wiping away her nervous tears.

She turned the radio off when we pull into the warehouse complex, one of those new units with two long rows of single story buildings, divided into cubicles. The one we wanted the last on the right. "Stop here," Traci said softly. We were about two-thirds of the way there.

"We gonna walk from here?" I asked.

She looked at me, a forced smile spread across her scared face. "All you wanna do is just see me naked?"

She put her hand on my arm: it felt warm and sweaty. "Course I wanna see you naked," I said. She giggled nervously. Then I looked her in the eyes. Seriously. "I just want to be sure you're safe is all."

Traci stared at the door she was supposed to go to, took a deep breath, and told me, "I'll be all right."

She got out of the car, closed the door, and then looked down at me through the passenger side window. "You'll wait for me, won't you?"

"I'd feel a lot better if I could go with you."

"This ain't a date," she laughed, "and besides, you ain't my dad." Traci straightened up to walk away, then bent down quickly and said, "You're a hell of a lot better than that."

I watched her walk under the harsh glare of the halogen night-lights to the warehouse door. She knocked once, then turned the handle and disappeared inside.

I suppose I could've just leaned back and taken a nap. Id parked in the shadow between lights. But my mind started drifting to the week before, when the manager of the Flying Lizards had called me into his office and told me they were releasing me. The Cubs needed to send down one of their star pitchers for a week of rehab, and I was most expendable. I still felt I could pitch; I just needed one more chance.

Who the hell was I kidding? I'd been in baseball since I dropped out of high school. It was time to get on with my life. Besides, here I was, feeling sorry for myself, when Traci was inside that building, reduced to doing who knows what. Poor, dumb kid. Even if she was a junkie, she didn't deserve this.

It took me less than another minute of playing soft toss with my conscience before I finally got out of my car, locked it, and started walking around to the rear of the building, hoping to find a back door I might be able to sneak into.

In the back corner there was an iron ladder that was welded to the building and went up to the roof. I climbed up. In addition to the various vent fans, there was a skylight at the center of the unit. Peering down I could see a man wearing an expensive looking dark suit. Slightly balding, wearing glasses, and definitely looking too old to be doing porno. I figured he must be the director.

I crept around the skylight, my disappointment growing with each step because I couldn't see any signs of a movie set -- no cameras, no bed, no crew or actors. Then I saw Traci.

She was sitting on a chair, and I cringed when I saw that she was tied to it. I wondered if they were doing some kind of S&M thing.

But then it struck me: There wasn't a soul down there except Traci and the old guy. The way he was talking to her, like he was scolding her, told me something wasn't right.

And then I saw the metallic blue BMW, with its trunk wide open, and I realized Traci was in trouble.

The skylight was permanently attached to the roof. I couldn't see any hatches, and I knew I didn't have time to look around for an entrance to the building from up there.

I quickly scrambled back down the ladder. My foot slipped about half way down on one of the iron rails, and I banged my knee hard on the sharp edge of the handrail. I wanted to scream out in pain, but all I could do was grit my teeth and whisper a curse at the idiot who'd welded this ladder so close to the damn building.

I spotted a door twenty feet away, but it didn't have any handle. My only chance to get inside was if the front door was still unlocked. I couldn't believe my dumb luck when I ran around to the front and found out it was.

I cracked it open and stepped carefully into the darkened interior of a small office. There were windows to the main warehouse along one wall. The old guy had his back to me, and Traci's attention was fixed on him, those baby blue eyes filled with a harsh hatred I didn't think such a young kid like her could be capable of.

. I limped over to the door that led into the warehouse, my knee throbbing.

I needed a plan. Then I noticed the gun in the old guy's hand, and I knew I needed the courage to act. Now.

I was about to burst in, charging like the cavalry, when I saw something familiar sitting on the window ledge next to the door. For once in my life, maybe fate had given me a break. I pushed the door open; it was hollow-cored and cracked loudly against the cement wall. The old guy swung around and I aimed the baseball right between his shocked eyes. I threw a perfect strike, snapping his glasses cleanly in two.

While he was off balance and temporarily blinded I rushed over and shouldered him to the floor. The gun remained gripped in his right hand so I stomped as hard as I could with my bad leg. I don't know which of us screamed louder.

"Ahhhh!" he yelled as I quickly ripped the gun out of his slack grip.

"Dickie!" I wasn't sure if Traci was about to cry or laugh hysterically. I walked over and untied her, keeping the gun aimed at the old guy. Soon as I finished she jumped up and held me for all she was worth. And then she let herself cry like a baby. I held her firm against me while staring at the old guy sitting dazed on the floor.

When she finally had let it all out Traci wiped her eyes and looked over at him. They stared daggers at each other. "Who the hell is he?" I asked.

"Don't you recognize our next mayor?" she answered bitterly.

I never watched the news on TV. Closest I got was watching Baseball Tonight on ESPN.

"What's he want with you?"

"Daddy," Traci spat out, "tell the nice young man why you had one of your flunkies lure your darling crank-head slut of a daughter here?"

I looked at both of them and noticed the resemblance. It would have been more obvious if Traci's face hadn't been so sallow and bony. "The guy's your dad?"

"Hard to believe your own father'd be willing to kill his daughter to protect his political career. Course, what do you expect from some sorry son of a bitch who used to sleep with his own daughter."

I took hold of Traci and felt a lifetime of fear and anger vibrating through her body. She began crying again, freely, letting the years of pain and abuse wash away.

I stared at "Daddy." His face was drowning in shame, though I wasn't sure if it was because of what he'd done to Traci, or the fact that his political ambitions had just been washed away.

Fucking politicians, I thought to myself, give me a good baseball game any day.